Thursday, 30 September 2010

Elizabeth in Queensland

BRISBANE. The queen is following me. When I arrived in Hobart, Tasmania, straight from the Kanak rebellion in New Caledonia, the first thing I saw in The Mercury was that Liz Douce and Philip were arriving from Perth. I flew to Melbourne.
There, The Age headlined her appearance to open “First Impressions: The British Discover Australia,” a luminous exhib of the European naturalist mastering his amazement at the flora and fauna down under. Then I came to Brisbane for the Expo’s opening—to discover that the Royals were initiating that as well.
And now I read in the Sunday Mail here in the Big Brisbee (Aussies can’t resist ending anything without a diminutive suffix) that her next stop, Canberra, for the opening of the Mitchell / Giurgola federal center, is also mine. Come on, Queen. Lay off.
I’m taking the overnight bus to Sydney tonight (on my 15-day Koala Pass!), so I’ll get there before she and Phil do on the yacht Britannia. I assume that the British Secret Service is on to the bogus petition I circulated in Pittsburgh last March when Prince Charles so impressed me at the Remaking Cities conference that I urged Liz Douce to retire early so P.C. could take over. I was only kidding, fellas. Well, not really.
Now Thatcher’s Number Two, a lout named Norman Tibbett, is alleging that P.C. is a closet socialist, talking rot about inner city rot because he’s never had a real job in his life. Such drivel. P.C. has been trying to get the Brit private sector to renew the grim old towns that don’t give their underclasses any sense of hope.
Anyway, anti-monarchist that I am, I got a good lesson in the uses of British royalty yesterday at the opening of the Expo. The most fascinating exhibit is called “UNIvations,” playful Aussie-ese for university innovations, a pitch to Queensland voters that the profs are earning their salaries at the three U’s (Q, Griffiths and James Cook) as well as at Brisbane’s now-forming Bond U, (named for the philanthropist eponym whose other benefaction to the community is the production of XXXX lager, allegedly so named because Aussies are too dim to spell “beer”).
I saw samples of mariculture, supersonic shock tube tests for aircraft at 21,000 kph, rehabilitation of mining land, koala stress research (the sweet beast was snoozing when retired journalist Ken Branch took me through) and many other impressive enterprises of the local profs.
But the real treat was schmoozing in their green room with Sir Theodore Bray, the 83-year-old retired editor of the Courier Mail, the first journalist to be knighted in Australia (I told him most American journalists are considered benighted by our pols, and he giggled genially).
Teasing him about how an American prole should address a knight: “Should I call you Sir Bray or Mr. Theodore?” He needled back by saying, “You can call me Ted,” a bit of reverse politesse that stunned the assembled professors in his entourage.
That knight wiped me out. He founded, named and was the first chancellor of Q’s number 2 U, Griffiths, named after Samuel G., the man who brought “free compulsory education” to Q-land, and went on, after an early political career when he was known as “oily Sam” for his slippery tactics, to become one of the most distinguished jurists in Aussie history, chief justice of their Supreme Court.
Sam had obviously been a role model for Ted, who beguiled me with his stories about the Journalist of the Year award, Aussie’s Pulitzer, which he supervises. The night before, Sir Theodore Bray had been among the 200 guests to mingle with Q. and P. aboard the Britannia, berthed up the river at Newstead. It was direct evidence about how the Commonwealth meritocracy functions.
Boy, if all the knights had the balls and brilliance of Bray, I’d be a donkey to complain. Honors are as honorees do. Sir Ted, I’m humbled.
Reprinted from Welcomat: After Dark, Hazard-at-Large, May 18, 1988

Wednesday, 29 September 2010

Oz lingo and uni tutes

CANBERRA. Caramba! I came to the capital of Australia two days ahead of the queen’s formal opening to avoid the royal rush, and what do I find? 30,000 Christian activists holding a candlelight parade to bless Aust (they abbrev. everything here) for the next 200 years.
The Parliament House complex had itself gone into a security phase so deep that not even the project manager, Hal Guida, could get a pass for his wife and kids to sneak a peek this weekend. I was successful in making arrangements to come back after I’d finished my epic bus trip around the far west and central parts of Oz (the affectionate diminutive the Aussies give their land)—as in Canberra / Adelaide / Perth / Broome / Darwin / Alice Springs. This butt-breaking odyssey will even off the last seven days of my 15-day Deluxe Coach Koala Pass.
So what to do in my four-star hotel, with an excess of Christians and an impending queen fritzing my visit? I start guzzling off the ten different beers I bought in Tasmania (“Tassie’s Treasures” was the come-on) and work my way through the fat Saturday editions of the Melbourne Age and the Weekend Australian (Rupert Murdoch’s very much appreciated national daily that lost a potful before his Aussie nationalism paid off).
Bingo! I’d been told that a certain Max Harris would be my best informant on the jeu d’esprit I am composing on the way English is spoke hereabouts. And, mirabile dictu, his column this week is on the Australian National Dictionary (AND), due next month from Oxford University Press, $75 for 10,000 Oz-ese words crammed into 960 OED-type pages. The AND is edited by one Dr. W.S. Ramson of ANU.
(Ozzies get off on shortening and initialing everything in sight: At the Victoria Art Gallery café in Melbourne last week, a leisurely schmooze with a “sheila” (Hibernian influence, Dr. Ramson thinks) was cut short with, “Thanks for the New York leads, but I’ve got to get to the Uni for a tute.”
“You’ve got to what?” I queried in a state of stun. “I’ve got to go to my tutorial at the university,” she explained calmly, as if everyone in the world spoke Antipodese.
Well, ANU (the Australian National University) is in Canberra. So I got Ransom’s number and gave him a buzz. In spite of the fact that he and his family were headed for Newfoundland on the morrow (to savour Newfie lingo as a post-partum treat for having gotten the AND birthed), he palavered easily and at length on the issue of Oz-ese.
Trained as a traditional philologist in Old English and Middle English (or should we say, as he did, OE and ME?), after 20 years in the trenches he has earned the sinecure of heading a dictionary center where, depending on financing, he’ll edit a short version of the AND, or work up a new one on regional diversity in Oz-ese, or possibly even a dictionary of place names—a very difficult job, he interpolated, because of the 190 Abo languages, most of which have left no traces.
One of the joys of touring Oz is to see road signs like the one in Sydney next to AG / NSW (the Art Gallery of New South Wales) which juxtaposed “Potts Point” with “Wooloomooloo.” Ramson believes that Oz-ese is mainly Anglo-Celtic in origins—German, Italian and Cornish immigration in the 19th Century having had little linguistic impact.
Even the Celtic input (“Sheila” for girl, and terms like “larrikin”) is minimal, although we speculated that the spritzy antinomianism of Oz-ese might derive mainly from working-class Irish bumptiousness: Almost 50% of the women transported to Botany Bay’s penal colony were working class Irish, with the men having an even higher percentage.
Ramson received my hypothesis about the endemic “ie” diminutive (a way of psychologically dealing with the immensity of Oz) with interest. It’s so pervasive a feature he’d never thought about it—it’s part of the linguistic weather.
He tried to pin the plethora of initials on American bureaucratic acronymics. I no-way-jose’d him on that because Oz is light years ahead of U.S. on the proliferation of initials—the stranger needs a dictionary of initials to survive the maze of ANZ, VAC, PAM, ABC, and on and on.
There’s also a playful aggressiveness in Oz-ese. “Bloody Pom bastard” is often a covertly affectionate way of alluding to the former British overlords. I was given the fake etymology of “Prisoner of Mother England” in one conversation.
And here’s Max Harris: “. . . did you know that the word ‘Abos’ originated as a term for whities, rather than for the indigenous black population? The first recorded usage in 1904 applied to the dedicated readers of the ‘Aboriginalities’ column of the Bulletin.
“’Abos’ were a white reading clan. The usage of ‘Abos’ as an abbreviation for the native population came at least a decade later. As an abbreviation. That it was not denigratory nor pejorative is proven by the fact that the convenient abbreviation of Aborigine was normally followed by a full stop. (Alas, that meticulous punctuation is a lost skill.)”
It’s in AND!
Reprinted from Welcomat: After Dark, Hazard-at-Large, May 25, 1988

Tuesday, 28 September 2010

Walter Goldschmidt, R.I.P.

Walter Goldschmidt was the brain behind CBC's "Ways of Mankind" the first that I used in East Lansing and that Moe Asch took for Folkways and now lie in the Library of Congress. (See my piece on 10 worst Library destructions.)

Monday, 27 September 2010

Biloxi, Home Of Jeff Davis And The Seafood Museum

What a difference four decades make! That’s how long it had been—43 years—since I had been an 18-year-old sailor boy, away from his home in Detroit for the first time, taking his liberties on the Gulf Coast in Biloxi.
About the only thing that hadn’t changed was the brisk breeze blowing in off the Gulf. And some things were definitely missing—such as the Edgewater Gulf Hotel, that four-star hostelry done in by Hurricane Camille and Interstate motels.
We used to cruise it on weekends, chasing nubile maidens from Sophie Newcomb, the women’s college of Tulane University. Ah, me. It’s a shopping mall now, anchored by Sears. It’s also the transfer point for the 75-cent-a-trip public bus that works the shore in two sectors between Gulfport and Biloxi. Both towns have about 50,000 population. But Biloxi has definitely jumped ahead of its sister city in the tourism department.
There are two world-class museums at opposite ends of bus route #7—which also conveniently passes by the Biloxi Greyhound station. Begin with the older one. It’s the summer home of the first and only president of the Confederacy, Jefferson Davis.
Since the revered statesman of the Old South died in 1889, the centennial of his passing made this stately mansion facing the Gulf of Mexico on the land side of Route 99 the national focus of memorializing. It would be worth a visit any year.
I carried about the usual Northern liberal’s prejudices about Davis until I chanced upon Robert Penn Warren’s biography of him. From the galleys of that book I learned that Davis was a tragic humanist, a classical scholar who read Latin and Greek daily until his death—not the scumbag of popular Unionist rhetoric.
Like Robert E. Lee, he was destroyed along with the South he felt duty-bound to defend. There’s all of this and more at Beauvoir. After his death it became an old soldiers’ home for Confederate veterans and a gathering place for documentation and memorabilia on the statesman’s life and career as leader of the ill-fated secessionists.
After taking a careful look at this National Shrine, walk across the highway and wait for the bus to take you within a few blocks’ walk of the spanking new Seafood Industry Museum. Since shrimping and crabbing and oystering were at the center of the region’s economy, you end up with a good glimpse into the two-century history of European settlement there.
Make that “non-indigenous Indian settlement.” The name Biloxi (make sure to rhyme it with “luck see”) is actually the mispronunciation of the local Indian tribe’s name by another tribe coming from an entirely different language group.
It’s that kind of savory trivia that makes SIM—the museum’s acronym—so much more than a seafood industry museum. But it’s still that—in spades, and all the other weird and fascinating instruments locals devised to dig, scrape, drag and net the sea-engendered protein into their boats.
And they’re hard at work finishing the first Biloxi-type schooner to float for decades. And they were so confident they would get it and others like it together that their totebag—designed by a local artist of great talent, Walt Macdonald—advertised the impending “annual” race.
By the way, the gift store in this new museum sets an astonishing high aesthetic standard. I consider myself the King of Kitsch Killing, seeking well-designed objects and mocking cheap souvenirs. I walked out of SIM with a T-shirt, a tote, a coffee cup and several of the marvelous post cards they’ve made out of the fish cannery labels of yore.
Yes, Virginia, they also tell you the whole history of how canning got started. Folks coming there for the summer breezes developed a year-long hunger for the sea food, and Biloxi obliged. There’s also a marvelous cache of Lewis Hines photos, from the 1911-13 trip he made there to gather data for Congress in its efforts to outlaw child labor.
One other treat. Across the highway there’s a really outstanding marine research facility, with a big tankful of their subjects. It’s the kind of hands-on museum that will mesmerize your children if you go in the family way. Hop back on the bus and save some time for eating seafood.
I had a shrimp omelet at McElroy’s right on the waterfront, having the good fortune to schmooze with my table partner, a young attorney who was defending the scoundrel making the embezzlement headlines of the morning paper.
Across the street from McElroy’s is the motel I’ll stay at next time. It has pamphlets for all the local attractions. And “Your Hindu host” knows how to be friendly to casual visitors. Moreover, I’ve vowed to picket Best Westerns for a bit, because the one on the waterfront at Gulfport where I spent the night served me oysters and catfish in plastic walkaway containers with plastic cutlery. Yuck.
Even the good California white and Cable News Network and HBO couldn’t take the curse of that crummy room service away from my stop there.
Reprinted from Welcomat: After Dark, Hazard-at-Large, May 23, 1990

Sunday, 26 September 2010

The Decline of "The Humanities" in America

Anxiety deepens in English Departments all over America, and to a lesser degree with their academic cousins in Art, History, Philosophy and Music. Overproduced Ph.D.’s toil sullenly as peonized adjuncts. Their Su-peers, lucky enough to get tenure before 197ß, draw megasalaries, subsidized by the unlucky ABD’s.

Students avoid their classes in droves. Part of this due to the hyperutilitarianism of an American ideology that touts a good job rather than a Good Life. Part was brought on inadvertently when “humanists”, threatened by the brilliant progress of their scientific intellectual foes, wasted a generation in pseudo-philosophizing, a real turnoff for many professors and most students.

All of this made very confusing by the corporatizing of the University as a normative social institution, especially by the “for profit” electronic U’s that cynically corrupted federal aid to the aspiring poor. This mess deepens when you realize that the higher stumbles of the professors stems from the progressive self-destruction of pre-secondary instruction accelerating by the endemic distractions of an infantilizing mass media distraction complex. What to do with my income replaces what to make of my life.

The more I read and think about the recent tsunami of essays in the Chronicle of Higher Education and the Op Ed media from daily newspaper to monthly magazines the more I’ve concluded our original sin is misdefining the humanities. They are not the antithesis of science: Humanistic Study without Science is a myopic farce. As a Jesuit philosophy major with a crosscultural Ph.D. my own grasp of science has been, I’ve discovered, deceptively distractive.

I have surprised myself in my retirement to discover a hunger for better comprehension of the sciences to refine my redefinition of “The Humanities”. Newly humanized man millennia ago devised explanations of life and behavior with what we now call theology. Medieval western universities were almost wholly the saving and serving such God-given texts. Slowly, accelerating with the Renaissance, empirical sciences devised strategies for confirming what life and society really amounted to. The medieval domination only gradually was consistently confronted and mainly replaced.

I find myself more and more feeling the exaltation I first discovered in philosophy and literature in the sciences. When I read about Penn’s Patrick McGovern’s discovery with new instruments of genomics what they drank at the burial of King Midas, my spirit levitated. When he shows how mouldy figs point to the discovery of alcohol, my spirit lifts!

Other paleontologists I’ve discovered speculate that “cooked” food gave our ancestors more impetus to brain expansion and gradually the protruding jaw that had done the heavy lifting before cooked food eased the jaw back so that speech became possible. If you thrill at “Moby Dick”, the brilliance of human reason at work “reading” fossils gives me the same mental stimulation. Heck, the first things I search out as I awake from sleep today to read the Times on the Internet is the daily portions of “Science” and “Technology”. Those categories have edged out “Books” and “Obituaries”, for decade my first picks.

And “English” and especially the “American” version thereof is too filiopietistic! Sidney Smyth’s 1820 sneer in “The Edinburg Review” “Who reads an American book, who goes to an American play” still haunts our curriculum. My plea for an International English curriculum (with Ph.D’s required to know a second modern language well enough to translate any extant global work to add to IE’s treasures) is for a future world-oriented contemporary slant. Show students what’s in the minds of six billion others, and their aroused curiosity will lead them to “Our Great Writers”.

The same with media, art and architecture. (I still stand by my 1962 essay, “Public Art and Private Sensibility” in Lewis Leary’s landmark “Contemporary Literary Scholarship”.) Guess how many physics classes would oversubscribe if they only talked about Sir Isaac Newton?

“The Humanities” must begin to include essays on the natural and social sciences. It’s as important to read David Riesman’s “The Lonely Crowd” as Saul Bellow’s “The Adventures of Augie Marsh”.

We need to read Stephan Hawking as well as Dom De Lilo. The main thing is to arouse a mature interest in all the worlds of learning. For the last generation it has been an either/or curriculum tangle. We don’t need so many isolated professors or too job oriented students.The more angles, the richer the consciousness. You say we can’t get old style humanists to share ideas with up to date scientists. Why not try it. C.P. Snow is old hat. The future belongs to the curious.

Saturday, 25 September 2010

Secular Saint

Nicholas D. Kristof remains the greatest of Secular Saints I have canonized in my catholic campaign to bring heaven down to earth. Who's on your List?

La Brea: It’s the Pits

For decades now, I have been whizzing by the La Brea Tar Pits on Wilshire Boulevard to suck up to something interesting at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art a couple of blocks up the street.
To judge from a fascinating exhibition at our Academy of Natural Sciences (through May 14), I shoulda slowed down. “Treasures of the Tar Pits” is the finest bit of science explaining I have attended to in a mighty long time.
Rancho La Brea (to give the pits their full and proper name) is a geological depravity between the Santa Monica Mountains on the West and the Baldwin Hills on the East. Because of a peculiar fault, natural asphalt used to seep up to the surface here. And when it got hot and sticky in the summer, carnivores got their comeuppance, sticking in the muck until they died.
A fascinating bit of trivia about this greatest fossil find of the late ice age is that there are no nocturnal animals trapped (some poet ought to be able to make something neat out of that donnee), because at night—as during the winter—the sticky stuff hardened up.
And there are seven times as many carnivores trapped as herbivores—grasses were sparse there between 10,000 and 40,000 years ago. We have nothing older than that because the tar pits were under water until 50,000 years ago.
This natural trap did not generate fossils for future scientists at a very rapid clip. It is estimated that ten animals were trapped every decade for 30,000 years to yield the cache.
We’re not talking lemmings in droves. We are watching, with a kind of glacially slow time-lapse photography, an unlucky critter here and there piling up a heap of bones over 30 millennia. And some animals were unluckier than others—much unluckier. A thousand gold eagles’ feathers hit this sticky fan.
One display, in a kind of unintentional minimalist sculpture, deploys 500 tarsometatarsi (that’s the long heel bone from which the toes depend, for all you scientific ignoramuses who flunked anatomy—like me.)
Another, if you like, is a real Die-O-Rama—an American lion chasing a bison calf—each stuck unto death; a dead wild horse being scavenged by a passel of saber-toothed cats, stuck up for good; and a pack of “dire wolves” (how that soubriquet has its own howl built into it) attracted by the commotion, flat on their asses through no asphalt of their own.
It was a remorseless pit, this. And smaller scavengers such as cara-cara and carrion beetles add to the 3-D of this deadly dining out.
Forty percent of the La Brea fossils represent species now extinct, done in by something or other 8,000 to 10,000 years ago. There have been 500 species of flora and fauna identified, 151 of them plants. Ingenious archeologists study teeth crevices of herbivores to reconstruct plants. And defecation: What goes in must come out.
There are no dinosaurs stuck in the muck because their era (the Mesozoic, from 240 million years ago to a mere 63 millions) is many many coons’ ages away from the tiny blip of time during which the pits did their sticking. Sorry, Fred Flintstone—the probability of your having stoned those noble creatures is zilch.
I see by a recent Washington Post that accredited scientists are opening up a Truth Squad warfare against the toymakers who are gunging very ho on the Dino-Boom. Laser warfare against the DinDins.
It is shows like this—clear, intelligently placarded, with bones attractively cased—that make jihad now against bones of commercialized contentiousness. Take your kids to see the real things. And if you’re entering your second childhood, like me, you rue the day that your scientific education was so inadequate.
A fine traveling show, this one, from the Los Angeles Museum of Natural History: “Trapped in Time: Treasurers of the Tar Pits.” I’m promising myself a proper Pit stop this time on my way to the Los Angeles County Museum. It’s about time—trapped as I am in humanist ignorance—I started comprehending science.
Reprinted from Welcomat: After Dark, Hazard-at-Large, May 10, 1989

Friday, 24 September 2010

Early Gehry, Quirky

Dennis Sharp’s “The Illustrated Encyclopedia of Architects and Architects” (Whitney Library of Design, 1991) is the ideal primer for a retiree who wants belatedly to specialize in one of his five Ph.D. prelims(American Art and Architecture). Consider, for example, my least favorite architect, Frank O. Gehry (b. 1929):”One of the ‘punk style’ architects, whose curious, irreverent buildings have been described as “functional sculpture” and Deconstructivist architecture.” (p.62.)

Long fascinated by painting and sculpture, his first notoriety derived in 1972 from his “chunky corrugated cardboard furniture”. “His distinctive exploded-then-reconstructed late architectural style began to emerge in the late 1970’s, when the design for his home in Santa Monica used corrugated metal, an exposed wooden frame and shields of chain link fencing.”

He whined that if Jasper Johns and Donald Judd “can make beauty with junk material, then why can’t that transfer into architecture?” The short answer is that two wrongs don’t necessarily make a right. The public function of a building is what establishes the perimeters of a structure, not the fantasies of an aspiring abstract inexpressivist sculptor. And as Aristotle argued centuries ago, to my complete agreement, the user of the building is the ultimate judge of its value, not any old Pritzker seeker.

Gehry continued his quirkiness with his Mid-Atlantic Toyota Distributorship offices in Santa Monica—a maze of odd-shaped offices painted in different colors. Then Loyola Law School L.A. with an aluminum portico and Romanesque-style chapel made from plywood and glass. Sharp concludes this ritual esthetic genuflection with ultimate praise for the Vitra Design Museum in Weil-am-Rhein, Germany, described as a “jumble of plain white geometric shapes” resembling a Russian Constructivist sculpture. “Inside is a calm top-lit space with galleries linked by bold curving ramps”.

Ah yes, the site of my first Gehric anti-epiphany! Vitra’s exposition history has made it my favorite design museum. But on my first visit I found climbing to that top had exhausted me, ramps or not. I sat down to catch my breath and speculate why I no longer buy the Bilbao principle! (Build a Titanium Rorschach puzzle and front with a Jeff Koons bubble and the cowed shall come.)

I got it. I was exhausted because FOG had designed it outside in. That Johnny Came Lately jumble of plain white shapes was the (literally) breath-taking climb of the ramps! Just as the last FOG I saw MART museum in Herford, Germany deploys tacky plywood as an offbeat entrance to the main gallery.I mean not first class plywood. Tacky tactics. “Get me a Gehry!” is the other-directed refrain of many mindless art museum functionaries to whom the off-beat is ipso facto the innovative superlative!

But a new architectural style may be raising its timid but brave head—“humanitarian design,” exemplified by San Francisco based idealist, Cameron Sinclair, founder of Architects for Humanity. Bilbao exemplifies what I call the Alice Rawsthorn Principle: 90 percent of our designers serve 10 percent of the population. The bottom 10% needs more help. Much more.

This all began in earnest in 1932 when the rich Harvard grad Philip C. Johnson defined style not human service as the main ingredient of Modern Architecture in his defining exhibition at MOMA. Almost a century later, under the more civilized (and humane) MOMA director Barry Bergdoll, human service reenters the global discussion of architecture. See Christopher Hawthorne, “Humanitarian design rises in MOMA’s upcoming ‘Small Scale, Big Change’,” L.A. Times (9/14/10). We need to stop praising the Quirk peddlers and think more about the 90% who are mostly ignored by our designers. I think we’re ready to come to architectural terms with our global neighbors.

Thursday, 23 September 2010

I Like the Wind

I like the Wrigley feeling this gives my eye.

Wednesday, 22 September 2010

Tenure in Hired Education

I speculate about the contradictions of American Hired Education from the third floor of a villa in Weimar, Germany. Motivated by Christopher Shea’s excellent essay, "The End of Tenure,” New York Times, 9/5/10.) For the past decade (I’m 83.) I’ve savoured my creeping senility at Seifengasse 10. (Goethe lived at Seifengasse 1 two centuries ago: the place encourages perspective.)

My academic career of 30 years was atypical. It began in 1952 as I finished my Ph.D. in American Studies by teaching at East Lansing High School. (The most motivated students I ever had: professors’ and GM executives’ children, with a few blue collars to do the dirtier work!) My first “publication” was “Everyman in Saddle Shoes”in Scholastic Teacher, a plea to high school English teachers to assign their tenth grade students so that the new TV playwrights like Paddy Chayefsky and Rod Serling would be encouraged by a maturing audience.

It won me a Ford Foundation grant in New York City in 1955-6 to follow up these ideas in the then TV Center of America. I was also asked to become the radio TV editor of Scholastic Teacher to expand my ideas’ influence. I served for six years, until an appointment in 1961 as director of the new Institute for American Studies at the East West Center of the University of Hawaii made timely delivery of weekly “Variety” impractical. A serendipitous encounter at a UN Conference on Education in D.C. with Ralph Bunche and Roy Larson, publisher of Time, led to the offer of an office at Time,Inc. to facilitate my maneuvers. That led to an interview with NBC chairman Pat Weaver. His elegant motto to make every American a media Athenian (“Enlightenment Through Exposure”) could have been my program in a nutshell.

Add a new friendship with Marshall McLuhan, visiting professor at TC, Columbia, and I was off to the races. Marshall had been my unofficial mentor at the Jesuit University of Detroit where I had become a “Commonweal Catholic”. McLuhan’s book,”Mechanical Bride:The Folklore of Industrial Man”(1951), which had appeared as essays in “Commonweal” became my bible.

At a national conference in 1956, my speech on “Liberace and the Future of Cultural Criticism” beguiled three English professors from Trenton State into offering me a job. In 1957 I finished my Ph.D. and was awarded a Carnegie Postdoctoral grant to create a new course on The Mass Society at Penn. In 1958 Walter Annenberg gave Penn $2 million to start a graduate school of communication, where faut de mieux, I became the U’s gofer to the J Schools and media businesses.

I wangled Gilbert Seldes the dean’s job, poetic justice since his book, "The Seven Lively Arts” (1924) had turned me on in graduate school from a Jesuit philosophy major to mass culture critic. And I gofered for him. David Riesman promoted me for the Hawaii job based on my critique of his book on education. It, after gofering for Gilbert, was the best academic job I ever had, except I discovered that my #2 had been in the CIA for ten years. His secret job was to police US and the Asian students politically.

No thanks. We had left a new Louie Kahn house in Philly, and based on my monthly English Journal column, Carnegie Mellon’s Erwin Steinberg recommended me for English chairman at Beaver College. A heady rise. Assistant Professor, Ivy 1959. Associate Professor, Director, State U, 1961. Chairman,Full Professor, Small College, 1962. Tenure, 1964. A cynical buddy teased me: "You have just turned Horatio Alger on his head: From Ivy to Nowhere in three years!!" I recapitulate, not to brag, but to emphasize I never fretted about tenure. I was too busy trying out new ideas. I quit in 1982, after my mother died, to be a freelance critic.

But this was also a prolegomenon to what I observed in those thirty years that formed what I think about American Hired Education. First of all, the crisis in our educational system is at the bottom not the top. You can’t build a strong top on a wobbly bottom. The egalitarian scandal of million dollar U presidents and mega thousand tenured professors living off the sweat of their peonized adjuncts replicates the rottenness of how we differentially serve our lower orders. Money for suburban schools, peonage for the city’s poor. Starting long ago, but accelerating crudely and cruelly since the 1970’s, Higher Ed became more and more Hired.

Ph.D. mills proliferated. Willy, nilly. Beaver College (now magically renamed Arcadia U) now offers doctorates! While I was there, they had to strain to give decent B.A.’s. Education inflation is the worst kind of Bubble. It corrupts the entire purpose of education. Which is not escalating salaries but enlightening human beings. It is not burgeoning one’s sports complexes (for graduate loyalty and donations) but building one’s library and expanding aid for poorer students.

I watched in horror at Annenberg how faculty cowed itself before the billionaire donor whose office desk had the sign. I WILL SO LIVE MY LIFE AS TO HONOR THE MEMORY OF MY FATHER. But his father Moe was a thug who ended up in federal prison for income tax evasion. When I publicly tangled with Walter over the Inquirer’s censoring the Black Clergy’s TasteeKake boycott, Penn's President and tenured professors quivered in their boots.

My neighbor at Greenbelt Knoll, the Rev. Leon Sullivan--the leader of the Boycott--had mocked me for Annenberg’s donating millions for raising media standards yet censoring his boycott. Annenberg students, with the ink on their M.A.s still fresh, asked me why Walter had such a bad rep as an employer. He was the worst publisher the Inky ever had in my fifty years in Philly. Academics are the biggest cowards I’ve ever encountered! They don’t deserve tenure which is supposed to give them courage in their search for truth. Give me an I.F.Stone (who dropped out of Penn!) or Nat Hentoff any day.

Or give me Dan Rottenberg or Derek Davis, my editors for ten years at the “Welcomat”, where I wrote about weekly what I saw in “Hazard-At-Large” even if it upset the gays or the Jews if I revealed some details they’d rather ignore than deal with. Tenured professors are for the most part pussies. There are too many of them to begin with. Our media shed essential investigative reporters at a debilitating rate, and the tenured poke around “harmlessly”, especially in the humanities and social sciences (always excluding rare exceptions like Daniel Bell, Herbert Gans, Eric Foner and Paul Lauter).

But those few brave ones don’t hide, shivering behind tenure laws, anyway. The first thing we can do to improve Hired Education is to reduce the useless crowds on top and deal with equably at the bottom where we have abandoned the poor masses. Hired Education is, alas, a farce, debilitating US, perhaps terminally. In Casino Capitalism, where the greedy zillionaires make almost 500 times what their workers do, you can depend on Hired Education remaining the pretentious shambles it has become. Anyway, that’s what it looks like from Weimar, where executives don’t make more and more and their workers less and less. Their unions won’t allow it.

Tuesday, 21 September 2010

Fat Cat Professoriat

The university scandals of million dollar presidents and megathousand professors are dwarfed only by the crime of peonized adjuncts.

I walked away from a tenured professorship after twenty years, disgusted by this trahison de clercs. I preferred the pittance of alternate weeklies to academic boodle!

Monday, 20 September 2010

Paducah: A Cross-Section Of Southern Culture

Every city, even a small one like Paducah in western Kentucky (30,000), has its charms. But the euphonious name itself has always made me want to see the real thing. It’s an unfocused curiosity that the fiction of Bobbie Ann Mason made finally irresistible.
You can get there by car (Interstate 24) or steamboat—Me Me Wiley at the Chamber of Commerce told me proudly that the Delta Queen makes 15 half-days stops a year there. Charles Manchester of the Market House Museum assured me that all the cultural attractions open wide for such festive landings. I took the overnight bus from Memphis because every hotel room in that city was booked for the Church of God in Christ convention.
I started prowling Paducah’s streets before daybreak, there being more historical plaques per capita than any other place I can remember. I fortified myself for this early morning meander with a refueling stop in the Downtown Diner on Broadway, the main drag.
I had a most tasty breakfast—sausage patties riding grandly on a sea of grits—while I read yesterday’s Paducah Sun, which perversely rises in the afternoon. The Sun is about to rise in the a.m. again so its farmer subscribers can have same-day delivery and advertisers can flog day-of-issue sales.
The Paxton family, which has a lock on the local media, is going to do this even though they know it will disrupt the lives of their news people. I wander on about the paper’s logistics because only in a small town would they hesitate so humanely out of deference to their workers’ life styles.
There is something about pretending to read a paper in a small Southern town at dawn (while really all-ears for the sounds and sentiments of the local speakers) that I find almost as much pleasure as reading a Bobbie Ann Mason story.
So I was in a breezy mood when I set out to take a look at the Ohio River, a few hundred yards to the north up Broadway. The first plaque that got me to take out my notebook was the one devoted to one Dr. Reuben Saunders (1808-1891), who halted a cholera epidemic in Paducah in 1873 with hypodermic injections of morphine-atropine. He became a world-famous medical celebrity when he telegraphed the good news to other American cities suffering from that malady that summer.
He obviously was riding a high-IQ gene pool, because his grandson was the other “most famous” Paducan, the humorist Irwin S. Cobb. A sort of bush-league Mark Twain, his memory lingers on in the former grandest hotel in town (1929), a quirkily half-timbered high-rise, now a retirement home.
But the Gallery 600 (as on Broadway) is far from retiring. Beguiled by the window full of childlike false naïve art, I circled back to schmooze with the ex-art teacher Nancy Flowers, who had gathered pieces from far and wide on the theme of “Art for Children.”
My heart (and Visa card) succumbed to Bloomington, Indiana sculptor Brent H. Skidmore’s kinetic black vinyl beast on wheels, “Dino-Spot,” a carnivore with a silver chain around its gawky neck and bright colored bony triangles adorning its sleek black back.
Along the waterfront there was a plethora of plaques. The saddest plaque explained the worst thing ever to hit the town, the Great Flood of 1937, which made a million people in the Valley from Pittsburgh to Cairo (say it kay-ro) homeless. It crested at a terrifying 60.8 feet on February 2nd, 1937. The Corp of Engineers got busy to see that it never happened again by building a flood wall 12 miles long and 63.8 feet high.
There’s an Iron Horse Memorial at the foot of Broadway—a Mikado-type steam engine (#1518), a green Illinois Central Post Office wagon (#58) and a fiery red caboose (#404). It was placed there in 1985 by the Western Kentucky AFL-CIO in memory of the fact that the Paducah railway shops were the biggest in the region until they closed in 1960.
But the most interesting venue in town in the old Market House (1827-1905), saved from the wrecking ball by local preservationists. Fronting Broadway is the Paducah Art Guild Gallery, where director Dan Carver showed me around a really impressive five-state (Kentucky, Indiana, Illinois, Missouri and Tennessee) regional show he puts on every other year, alternating it with a national fabric show (appropriate to Paducah, the quilt capital of the world).
I found especially tasty senior Bunny Vaughan’s quilt-top stools. She paints traditional motifs on the top of utilitarian Shaker-looking short stools. Her stuff is in the Guild’s shop, which offers a wide range of locally made crafts. In the regional I also found Southern Illinois University student David Gosselin’s false naïf oil-on-board, “Lapcat,” a good buy at $1,500.
Behind the Art Gallery is the museum run by Charles Manchester on a shoestring. Especially interesting to me were the folk sculptures by Cherokee James Crawford (1896-1977). Ask Manchester to point out two especially enigmatic pieces, one a black slave with white face emerging from the top of his head, and another which I dubbed “Jail Birds.” I told Manchester to tell Robert Bishop of the Museum of American Folk Art about Crawford—at least some of his pieces deserve national attention.
Inside the Post Office is a mural called “Paducah Pictorial” which tries, not entirely successfully, to deal with the 19th-Century tug between Unionist loyalty and Confederate “sentiment.” Grant took over the town on September 6th, 1861, he said, “to defend you against Confederate attack.”
“Yeah, right,” you can almost hear the local Confeds grumbling.
It’s definitely a nice place to visit, and you might even want to live there. As cracker-barrel philosopher Irvin Cobb put it, he’d “rather be an orphan on the streets of Paducah than rich twins anywhere else.”
Reprinted from Welcomat: After Dark, Hazard-at-Large, September 26, 1990

Sunday, 19 September 2010

Meanstream Media

Ah yes, our polymath editor. Please add "Tactical Methodism in his media madness" to his register. And don't get surly about last names, Boss.

While there may always be something rotten in the BSR, there are greater hazards impending.

In my judgment, we need another rhetorical revolution to deal with our newly meanstream media.

Beginning with sports and movie star adulation in the 1920's, we have infantilized our moronic masses into "thinking" that Rush, Glenn and Laura really think when they flatter their listeners with silly rants. We have demeaned our republic into a mob of childish feelers out of touch with a thin veneer of Nobel laureates.

Schizoid, we slip zillions to our politicians and wonder why our public agendas stall.

Until we leave our sand boxes, we will continue to stumble and fall intellectually. (If we don't go broke, flailing, first.)

Saturday, 18 September 2010

How Swede They Were

It’s New Sweden time, all of you affiliated ethnics out there in Diversity Land. Their part of our pluribus is being hailed in all the Swedish hot pockets across America, but no more resolutely than in Minneapolis and Newark, Delaware.
Newark? Yes, stereotype breath, Newark is the academic seat of the University of Delaware, and in Christina, Delaware, 350 years ago, 88 hardy Svenskas (a redundancy?) established the first permanent Swedish settlement in North America. Christiana didn’t last long, and Wilmington (the capital of the State of DuPont) absorbed what Swedish energies and enterprises endured.
But those hardy Vikings found the polar perils in Minnesota more to their likings, and now 7,000 of the 4.2 million Americans with Swedish genes keep living an ethnic society known as the American Swedish Institute, at 2600 Park Ave., Minneapolis 55407 (612-871-4907). That means a half-hour hike from downtown Greyhound in non-winter seasons.
HQ is a funky 33-room mansion (1904) done up in what they charitably describe as “turn of the century stately Romanesque chateau architecture.” No matter, Swan J. Turnblad had every reason to flaunt his status and wealth. Born in Tubbemala, Smaland, in 1860, he arrived in America at age eight.
At 27, he became manager of the weekly Svenska Amerikanska Posten. Ten years later, he was its sole owner, having turned an insolvent rag of 1,500 circulation into a 55,000-subscriber phenomenon. In 1929, he gave his sweet folly to the American Institute of Swedish Arts, Literature and Science (now more Americanishly knows as the ASI, with a lively monthly newsletter called the ASI Posten).
In it I learned about the current exhibition, “The Go Betweens: The Lives of Immigrant Children,” a traveling show organized by the University Art Museum, that concentrates on Swedish and Italian children. A canny bit of revisionist history, it explores the cruel but often epiphanous crossfire first generation children were caught in—hugged at home, but tugged into the mainstream.
They were thus better adjusted to the new values but ipso facto maladjusted at home. It reminded me of how our current parents are as ignorant of the rock culture in which their children live—with the tensions somewhat redolent of that Ur-shock of immigrant acculturation.
I also learned in Posten about the Great North American History Theater, a history rep group based in St. Paul which wanders the state raising its citizens’ historical consciousness—such as its ASI production of You Can’t Get to Heaven Through the U.S.A., a dramatization of Swedish and Italian immigrant experiences in Minnesota.
If you are a loyal American Swede, this is the time (March 3-6) of the New Sweden conference at the University of Delaware. You can get all the particulars about the Winterthur / U.D. / Swedish Council of America symposium by contacting the Swedish Consulate General in New York (212-751-5900), asking for New Sweden 88. If you’re a non-academic type, maybe you’ll want to mark your calendar now for the visit to Philly on April 13th of Their Royal Swedish Majesties King Carl XVI and Queen Silvia.
Don’t let me dissuade you from flying to the Twins to savor the Turnblad mansion, the ASI HQ. It’s full of Svenskiana at every level of taste. Its polar baroque interior is reminiscent of what one nauseated architecture critic characterized as Early William Randolph Hearst, a snide allusion to that disgusting piece of robber baron pillage pile called San Simeon.
But the coffered ceilings and too-fancy settees and such only make you cherish the folk arts in which it abounds. And I could but cheer when I came across two glass gems of Sigurd Persson, my favorite Swede of all, my Helsingborg hero, who designs mass-produced goods to that the royalties therefrom can finance his sculpture.
Don’t laugh: Two of the greatest works of art are the wash basins in the cloak room and the second floor john. They’re Art Nouveau necessaries of elegant white porcelain that would almost move a slob like me to become a compulsive washer of hands.
And on a more decorative note, cast an envious eye on the fancy masonry tile fireplaces that garnish each of the main living rooms. Their Svenska name is “kakelugn,” and are they plainly fancy. I saw my first such in Peter the Great’s Winter Palace, where they were needed to keep the Royal Buns warm.
But what the hell, frostbite is transnational. Indeed, you can even buy these space heaters in South Minneapolis, according to an ASI Posten ad. Turnblad imported his from the Old Permafrost, as a kind of memento moraine.
There are two gift shops. The one on the main floor has some great Christmas candles and candelabras as well as those marvelously braided fibre decorations the Swedes do so well. In the basement, I went in search of lovely note paper with color images of each of the regional flowers of Sweden. Great souvenir: a dozen for $8.
There was also a handsome black T-shirt with the curious logo OFFENDER on it in Gothicized script. No one knew what it meant. Swedish-English dictionaries were scrutinized to no avail. The next morning I called Janice M. McElfish, ASI’s PR lady, to unknot my mind.
Ha. It’s a rock group led by one 23-year-old Lon Rooney, who doubles as an ASI custodian. Into their second year, and with one EP out and a new demo making the rounds of record publishers, Offender’s title memorializes the fact that the group is drink-free and drug-free and plays clean, offended as it is by the mainstream muck. That’s the kind of wholesome surprise awaiting you at ASI.
Reprinted from Welcomat: After Dark, Hazard-at-Large

Friday, 17 September 2010

Will the Book Survive Generation Text?

Can you now deny Carlin Romano's now the best literary critic in the Anglophone world? Note he's moved from Annenberg/Penn to Ursinus, making it an elite U in one fell stroke!

Thursday, 16 September 2010

A Miracle of Merchants

You wanna talk miracles in Philadelphia? Well, how about this miracle: a scholarly book by a security analyst for Paine Webber with a Ph.D. in history from Harvard, about “merchants and economic development in revolutionary Philadelphia.”
That’s the subtitle for Thomas M. Doerflinger’s A Vigorous Spirit of Enterprise (University of North Carolina Press, $32). Trade cycles can be fun to read about? I’m afraid that’s my verdict—and I’ve always agreed that, give or take a few John Kenneth Galbraiths, economics is the most dismal of sciences.
How does Doerflinger do it? For a start, he’s got a fine eye (not to forget ear) for liveliness culled out of old manuscripts. You’ve all heard endlessly, maybe even ad nauseum, about Stephen Girard. But have you ever watched him put down a fellow merchant with whom he was feuding?
Once, when he squabbled with Jacob Ridgway over a piece of property, Jacob huffed: “I could buy and sell you,” to which Stephen tartly riposted: “I could buy you, Mr. Ridgeway, but I do not think that I could sell you again.” Ha, marvelous. We’ve slud a long slide down the slippery slope of Bore in our fulminations. Oh, to be young and witty in Rev. Philly.
But banker one-liners do not a good solid book on our collective past make. They do up the tastiness of the subject, nevertheless, Chapter six, on the Federalist reaction to the economic shocks of the Revolutionary War, is the most germane for the Big Miracle of the Constitution.
The war, we learn from Doerflinger, so disrupted the economic and political framework of Pennsylvania that the formerly politically apathetic merchant community transformed itself into an articulate interest group. At the state level, they battled the radical Presbyterian faction, which had seized power in 1776 and nationally tried to expand the powers of the national government, especially its power to tax.
Radical Presbyterians? Yes, folks, the formally reigning Anglican / Quaker alliance had been either shakily neutral or outright Tory. (Remember the old arithmetic—one third patriots, one third loyalists, one third straddling the fence?)
“The merchants’ opposition to British encroachments on American liberties, Doerflinger explains, “though sincere enough, was tempered by compelling countervailing considerations, including their transatlantic connections and attachment to the empire, their deep suspicion of Presbyterian influence in the Revolutionary movement, and the benefits they deriving form the general economic prosperity of the prewar period. For all these reasons, the merchants had ultimately been more obstructionist than supportive of the Revolution; they were too pragmatic, materialistic and elitist to lead the drive toward independence.”
But these very traits made them ideal agents for transforming a Revolutionary idea into a functioning state. The Scotch-Irish Presbyterians from the Western counties were the core of the Constitutionalist Party. Underrepresented before 1776, the trans-Susquehanna folks had disproportionate leverage in the new unicameral legislature that gave each county an equal number of seats, until 1779.
They even hyped their eastern power by enacting test acts—you had to pledge loyalty to the State of Pennsylvania before you could vote, effectively disenfranchising Quakers and German Pietists.
Perhaps the most visible evidence of religious / economic strife was the transformation of the Anglican / Quaker dominated College of Philadelphia to the University of Pennsylvania in 1779—with a whole new board of Presbyterian trustees. They claimed the former college had discriminated against Presbyterians and had never foresworn allegiance to the King of England.
The push and shove of political, economic and religious factions really gives life to Doerflinger’s exegesis of the evolving commercial life. For a fresh start on a high-IQ celebration of the Constitution, I recommend it without reservation to editorial writers, local politicians, national statesmen—veritable and self-described.
Reprinted from Welcomat: After Dark, Hazard-at-Large, December 30, 1987

Wednesday, 15 September 2010

Lowie And Behold—Two Terrific Exhibits

BERKELEY, Cal.—On the tippy-top of my list of my favorite museums in the world, the Lowie Museum of Anthropology at UC/Berkeley is always bobbling Number One and Two with the Cooper-Hewitt in New York. Two blows from the Lowie: a dazzling gloss on "House of Miracles: Votive Sculptures from Northeastern Brazil” (through May 13) at the Lowie proper, and a Lowie-derived show across the street at the University Art Museum called "From Palace and Province: Ancient Egyptian Art” (through May 6).
The Egyptian show is the lesser, but nonetheless suggestive. Beguiling indeed is the photo of Phoebe Hearst astride a horse in front of the Cheops pyramid. That enlightened patron of California’s cultural life gave Cal’s Dr. George Reisner a substantial grant to finance his digs along the Nile, a few fruits of which are on display here.
The Lowie likes to tout itself as the largest anthropology museum west of Chicago, and it was inventive, persistent diggers like Reisner in the 1890s that gave the then-fledgling U its first purchase on a world-class reputation.
Guest curator Cathleen Keller, assistant professor in UC/B’s Department of Near Eastern studies, has wisely limited her survey to a crucial 500-year period covering the Old Kingdom (2775-2134 B.C.) and the First Intermediate Period (c. 2134 and 2040 B.C.)—i.e., from the centralizing Age of the pyramids to an interregnum during which power was widely diffused across the river nation.
Memphis, just southwest of modern Cairo, was the capital of the Old Kingdom, and its power was symbolized by the huge pyramids and their adjacent mausoleums.
During the Intermediate period, the pharaohs lost their hegemony, and the local rulers were buried in their home provinces—one of the most important cemeteries being Naga ed-Deir, on the outskirts of the newly powerful city of Abydos in Middle Egypt, from which most of the First Intermediate Period material is derived.
To quote Professor Keller, “If the Giza monuments, in their uniformity and balance, reflect the patronage and values of the unified Old Kingdom, the diverse objects recovered from Naga ed-Deir mirror the First Intermediate Period’s social mobility and lack of concentrated power and wealth.”
This interregnum ended under the unifying leadership of Nebhepetre Mentuhoptep II, founder of the Egyptian Middle Kingdom (c. 2040-1640 B.C.). The first art produced for him reflects the provincial styles that dominated the period of political disintegration, but later work re-established contact with the “palace” art of Memphis. It’s a “small” (five and a half centuries!) slice of ancient Egyptian culture, but all the more illuminating for its focus.
The synoptic view of the entire sweep of Egyptian art organized last year by the Institute of the Arab World in Paris was a perfect complement. There’s much more to that culture’s art than the Pharaohs and their workers ever dreamt of—Greek, Roman, Coptic, modern. But it’s nutritious to study one chip of the grand mosaic under Keller’s microscope.
The Brazilian show at the Lowie was of more than unusual interest to me, since I viewed it a week before I flew to Brazil for the first time, having been doing an English major’s prep for the past six months, including a rather unsuccessful tape tutoring in Portuguese!
Ex-votos are a minor art form with major religious significance that the Portuguese brought to Brazil in their knapsack of traditions. “Hand-carved wooden figures and simple ceramic sculptures are left for saints by the Catholic faithful in many Latin American and European countries in gratitude for healing.”
Over 100 such artifacts from Northeastern Brazil are the heart of the Lowie exhibition. But there are translations of the faithful’s audio testimonials and much graphic ephemera that give a richness to the phenomenon (not excluding Lourdes-like abandoned crutches).
Since I’m going to Brazil to see the architecture of Jose Zanine Caldos, I can’t resist supplementing the show’s commentary with a little gloss of my own. Zanine’s father was a dirt-poor boy from Bahia who worked his way through medical textbooks for the rich boys who were playing too hard to study.
Zanine’s father took up his medical practice in a poor district of Sao Paolo where, to this day, Zanine told me proudly, pregnant women go to his grave two decades after his death to light candles and bring flowers—for good gynecological luck.
Zanine’s father is clearly one of the non-canonical saints whom the peasant faithful canonized on their own hook without the advice and consent of the Curia. This practice evidently contains Amerind and African elements, as well as standard Portuguese ones.
And while the votive sculptures aren’t uniformly great aesthetically, occasionally one (like the broken-neck thank-you note) soars into the Empyrean. There’s a lovely catalog produced by the Americas Society / Art Gallery, 680 Park Avenue, New York 10021. The show moves on to L.A., at Loyola Marymount University (June 13-Aug. 26), if you can’t get a move on fast enough to catch it in Berkeley.
Reprinted from Welcomat: After Dark, Hazard-at-Large, April 25, 1990

Tuesday, 14 September 2010

Obituary for a House

Have you ever read an obit for a house? Brace yourself! 8 Longford, Greenbelt Knoll, Holmesburg was my official home, until September 1, 2010. It was a sad day when my son Michael (58) e-mailed me. I was $108G’s richer. But infinitely poorer, even though it only cost US 23G’s in 1959. I say US because in 1970 we became THEM when my wife Mary divorced me.

She had complained of becoming stir-crazy in Levittown where we settled when I got my first teaching job at Trenton State. That same magical year, 1957, I went IVY with a Carnegie postdoctoral grant to create a new Mass Society course in American Studies at Penn. She got the short end of my shtick with three kids, Michael (5), Cathy (3) and Tim (1) to raise.

For us ultra-liberals, it was a big plus that Greenbelt Knoll was Morris Milgram’s experiment as the first integrated community in Philly. (It was ironic that we got a shot at 8 Longford because the wife of the first owner felt uncomfortable with “colored”! And we got the thrilling ambiance of 100 foot trees in a gently hilly park because this slice of Pennypack Park was the “wrong” side of the railroad tracks feeding the shopping mall at Welsh and Roosevelt Boulevard. The architects that year got an AIA Award for siting, and Morris became internationally famous. Contentiously discussed in faraway Johannesburg, South Africa.

The 19 houses were modern, not Modernoid. (More of the architecture later.) It was the neighbors who made it vibrant. Robert N.C. Nix, the Philly’s first black congressman, invited me to sleep over in his D.C apartment, the better to understand Congress. Alas, his chairmanship of the Post Office Committee would later on vibrate painfully on my Post Office son Tim who didn’t get along with the black supervisors!

Later Charles Fuller, the Pulitzer Prize playwright, was a great neighbor until his wife passed and he moved downtown with his new girl. There were professors, cops and great artists like the furniture designer James Camp and industrial designer Art Friedmann. Roosevelt Barlow was my favorite pal, as he briefed me on the ambiguities of being the first black fire chief in Philly.

But the Reverend Leon Sullivan, the so-dubbed Lion from Zion (Baptist Church), was my biggest intellectual challenge. One Saturday by the pool, he chided me for belonging to Penn’s new Annenberg School because their patron Walter as publisher of the Inquirer was suppressing the news of the Black Pastors Tastykake boycott. (You don’t hire blacks, we won't let them eat KAKES!) Always ready for an academic fight I was at the Inky bright and early Monday morning to chide Walter. I was frisked (my mouth has always been my only weapon!) for the first and last time in my tame academic life.

As I entered his 13th floor eyrie, I was stunned to see a sign on his desk, I WILL SO LIVE MY LIFE AS TO HONOR THE LIFE OF MY FATHER: His father Moe had gone to the Federal Pokey for income tax evasion! When I passed on Leon’s complaint, Walter called in his executive editor., E.Z.Dimitman, who observed that they had hired a colored copyboy last summer, but he “hadn’t cut the mustard.” I began to understand the complexities of billionaire donors! It was the end of my Annenberg “Career”. We had to rent #8 as I went off to Honolulu to head their new Institute of American Studies, domiciling in a tiny little house of an unmarried professor on sabbatical.

The place seemed even smaller when I discovered my No. 2 had been in the CIA for the ten years since his Ph.D. He was there to keep radical students from Asia and the U.S. under scrutiny. It was a great relief to get back to #8 as English Chairman at Beaver College. One year, and several summers, they sent us to London to run their overseas program.

In 1970, Mary declared she hated the runaround and sent me to Tijuana to get an uncontested divorce. (In Pennsylvania, only adultery would qualify, which was hardly pertinent since she went off to Newark with man next door!) Tim went with her for a while. Michael and Cathy were off at college. So it was me and Barnaby when I got home from San Francisco and London after a triumphal tour of my global girlfriends. When Barnaby cashed in, I settled for Toby the cat, and her successor, Twoby.

The house was now cleared for ceremonies. Studs Terkel, speaking at the Annenberg School, came out to a signing party for the paperback edition of “Working” which I had assigned to my Am Lit students. He fell into conversation with a lesbian student which led to a fascinating essay on the subject of how the college treated her. But my favotite “do” was the Sunday jury duty of voices like Peter Binzen, George Gerbner, and MOMA William Sloan.

They were to decide which undergraduate would get the IZZIE award, for the best work in the style of I.F. Stone, a national competition sponsored by the Free Library of Philadelphia. Arizona State got the first prize for their monthly critique of Arizona media dubbed “Pretentious Idea." That was the sneering reply of the editor of the Arizona Republic when he was asked to support the venture. Izzy, in nearby Haddonfield, was thrilled by the winning entry as well as by the teacher in Atlantic City whose J-class uncovered fiscal hanky-panky in their AV department! When the Del Vall reporters asked Izzie how he felt about getting an honorary B.A. (he dropped out in 1928), he replied with a smile, “Got out of Phys Ed.”

In 1986, when current and old time Knollers met to celebrate our Golden Anniversary, there was an astonishing revelation. Philadelphia’s greatest twentieth century architect, Louis Kahn, had designed the houses! Kahn had a soft heart, and always needed cash to keep juggling his secret affairs. He financed his busy life by working under the table. You can hear this story in a Precious Places documentary.

Now I live in a 1873 villa on the third floor at Seifengasse 10. (Goethe lived at Seifengasse 1.) The views are great, the sounds are pastoral (except during the annual World Football Series.) But classy as it is, it doesn’t have the warmth and charm of Greenbelt Knoll. Thank you, Morris Milgram. And good luck, Ms. Alvarado.

Monday, 13 September 2010

Alaska: How To Live Once You Get There

(Editor’s note: This is the second and final installment of Hazard’s guide to Alaska on the Cheap.)
Gimme Shelter
A place to stay in Alaska will also throw your budget off. If it weren’t for the Youth Hostel in Anchorage ($10 a night, six nights maximum in low season, three in high summer), I’d be a pauper after two weeks. Sitka also has a fine AYH outlet ($7 a night). The Sitka and Ketchikan hostels are summer only and require sleeping bags.
I spent my first night in Fairbanks at the Polaris—billed as the highest building in the burg—for $78. It was the most amenities-poor hostelry I’ve ever booked.
I went there to snoop on the Elderhostel week-long seminar on Alaskan literature, politics and indigenous art. Their whole package was $320 F.O.B. Fairbanks. The lectures and trips were nutritious and genuinely appreciated by the 50 or so seniors taking the course.
Several Elderhostel summer courses are also given at Sheldon Jackson College in Sitka—a marvelous venue with a library and world-class museum of its chosen subject, Alaskana. (It even had the two textbooks I edited in the 1960s—a thrill somewhat reduced by the fact that nobody had checked them out since the 1970s.) No doubt about it: Elderhostel is the only sure way I found to beat the high cost of Alaska.
The second night I “passed” in the Alaska Motor Inn, with a defective TV, a lumpy bed and no telephone for $45, serenaded into the wee hours by a distraught lover singing a sad, tipsy song from his four-by-four to his girlfriend bedded down upstairs with somebody else.
The third night I spent at a bed-and-breakfast near the University for $38—$40 if I used my Visa. B-and-B boomers meet you at the train station. The bed was marvelous, the TV plugged in to CNN, and I shall relish the memory of the breakfast for months—omelettes, fresh fruit, two kinds of nut cake, and so on.
Somehow, this young woman rises at 5 a.m., makes Lucullan repasts for her dozen overnight guests, then commutes to the University, where she’s a secretary. Maybe the miracle derives from the fact that her spouse is a graduate student in divinity.
B and B is the way to go if you’re not old or serious enough to Elderhostel. In Homer, I paid $57.50 for a lovely room at the Driftwood Lodge (free pickup and return to the airport), but the breakfast part was free coffee—with an honor system cash box for whatever Danish or doughnuts you consumed. Whooee. Professional skinflint that I am, I trekked down to the Trailside Inn, three blocks away, for the morning paper and my own cache of doughnuts.
If you go to Sitka, by all means stay at the Karras B and B, for $43.40. Pete is an ex-Navy man who settled there in 1947, married a Tlingkit and has a constant stream of interesting locals drifting in and out of the gill net of his parlor. He’ll also pick up and deliver at the airport.
Eats, Indigenous and Otherwise:
Eating, with a few savory exceptions, was my biggest disappointment in Alaska. Perhaps I was wrecked for good by the generosity of the train agent in Churchill, Manitoba, in 1988 who, when I asked him where in town I could eat caribou, said, “Nowhere,” then went to the train station fridge and slapped a caribou steak on the ticket window sill gratis. On the way back to Winnipeg, the dining car chef cooked it for me.
No such luck in Alaska. Although I overheard many tall tales about recent kills and astonishing catches, the closest I got to local food was reindeer sausage at a Westmark Hotel / Anchorage breakfast. The biggest letdown was the gorge-‘til-you-die salmonbake ($14.95 less a $3 coupon from the daily paper) at Fairbanks’ Alaskaland. Bad ribs, so-so halibut chips and merely OK salmon slabs.
Alaskaland, if I may give my opinion, is the most dismal theme park I’ve ever set foot in—machinery from the mining era rusting sadly before explanatory signs in an even sadder state of disrepair. I learned more about local history from the fisherman who volunteered to drive me from the airport than from the exhibits themselves.
The Fiddlehead in Juneau has a great rep, but the seafood jambalaya was 90% jam and 10% the seafood I hungered for. Ditto the Luna in Juneau, highly recommended by Neil, the cabbie who drove me in from the airport.
I did have two fine seafood gumbo soups—one at the Clarion Hotel outdoor restaurant on Lake Spenard, where its tastiness was compounded by the ambient  thrills of seaplanes (overloaded for forays into the bush) that lumbered slowly into the sky, buzzing our heads.
And Cyrano’s Book Store and Café in Anchorage is one of the sweetest venues in all Alaska for the polite palavers I dote on. Phyllis’s Café across the street touts itself loudly as a fresh scone source. The dinky soda biscuit lightly lathered with unfresh raspberries they served me was the nadir of my search for food to remember. The cook obviously needs a quick trip to Dorset to taste (even look at) the real article.
There’s food for thought and feeling that the penny-pinching tourist should look for. The premiere poet of Alaska, John Haines, was signing his latest collection at Cyrano’s when I passed through. The last thing my poetry-video-making son had said as I boarded my 757 in Minneapolis was, “Look for John Haines.” Haines and I had a marvelous schmooze while locals came to buy his autographed books and pay homage.
All year long you can watch great free flicks at the Public Land Information Bureaus: I caught the ones in Anchorage, Fairbanks and Juneau. The static high-tech exhibits on local natural history, flora and fauna are not only great ways to get in out of the ubiquitous rain but are intrinsically instructive and interesting—even on the rare sunny day.
And read the local papers for leads: I snooped on a bush pilots’ convention, an international symposium on polar regions and an international meeting on reducing the horrendous loss of boats and life in the Arctic fisheries (287 boats and 87 lives last year in the U.S., mostly Alaska). In a news-media-poor environment, the 40 reporters of Alaska Public Radio gather an exceedingly revealing listen.
There’s wit out there in the boonies. Sitka’s NPR affiliate dubs itself Raven Radio and calls itself KCAW. And I happened through Anchorage the night the local PBS affiliate gave a champagne reception at the new Performing Arts Center.
There’s a lot popping in the state, if you keep an eye and an ear peeled. And—maybe to compensate for your high initial costs—museum charges are modest compared to the Outside.
Reprinted from Welcomat: After Dark, Hazard-at-Large, July 31, 1991

Sunday, 12 September 2010

Alaska On The Cheap (It Can Be Done)

Budget Alaska travel sounds vaguely oxymoronic. Even (especially?) Alaskans admit the cost of living is outrageous. I still have sticker shock from the $3.25 I paid out for a quart of Tropicana orange juice my first day in Anchorage. Don’t even talk to me about the $3.50 local beers.
I first decided to spend a month there (after Labor Day, when there are bargains—if not galore, enough if you know where to look for them) when I was mulling over the three Northwest $80 senior citizen coupons I had left. Two would take me from Philadelphia to Anchorage—with a convenient two-hour layover at the Twin Cities airport for some hometown schmoozing with granddaughter Sonia.
The third coupon would take me from Bellingham, Washington, through Sea-Tac Airport back to Philly. That way, I fantasized, I could meander on and off the so-called Alaskan Marine Highway System (we call them ferries in the Lower 48) from Skagway to Bellingham with stops in Juneau, Sitka and Ketchikan. Or so I dreamed.
Transportation Realities:
Once you’re in Anchorage, the size and cost of travel (even for short distances) begins to sink in. True, the Alaskan Railway offered a tempting two-week pass for $199, with unlimited use of their system and a slick brochure luring you to Seward (and an expensive boat ride to the glaciers—I feel about glaciers the way Ronald Reagan is alleged to have felt about giant sequoias: seen one, seen them all), to Denali Park (where the object of ahhhs! is 83 miles from the train stop), and to Fairbanks (which I coveted to visit ever since Dody Goodman sang “April in Fairbanks” on the old Jack Paar Show).
The railroad touts other trips as well: to Nenana, where Warren G. Harding memorialized the completion of the railroad in 1923 by pounding in a golden spike; to Wasilla in the land of gargantuan veggies (but the growing, the groaning, season was already over and the winners were being airlifted to the David Letterman Show); to Talkeetna; and to Hurricane Gulch (something of a scam, since it involves trekking for hours to an admittedly grand bridge over an admittedly grandiose gulch).
But the 12-hour train ride between Anchorage and Fairbanks is posterior purgatory, even at the peak of the alder, aspen and birch golden unleaving season. The average of 35 miles per hour is simple prudence—the roadbed was washing away, and the “shoulder” between the rails and the Nenana river miles below would give a Milanese fashion designer the shudders.
The day I entrained to Denali, we had to school-bus back to Fairbanks because a freight train had derailed. Should I add that the bus made better time even though its heating system was on the fritz? I shouldn’t complain about the backache the seats gave me—walking the aisles to relieve my backbone, I discovered that the spartan cars came out of the Budd factory in Philadelphia.
Don’t let me discourage you from taking the trip from Anchorage to Fairbanks—once. The people in the dome car are interesting to palaver with, especially the Alaskans and students from the tourism class at Fairbanks High who provide the help, give or take a few adult conductors.
And my seafood sauté dinner on the train was the only decent fish dinner I had in Alaska—the good stuff is airlifted frozen to Michelin-level restaurants around the world.
Mark Air, the People’s Express-like airline of Alaska, provided the sane solution to my badly abused bottom: You can fly back to Anchorage in an hour for $49. The next time I go North I’m also going to avail myself of Mark’s two-day / one-night excursions to exotic polar places like Nome, Kotzebue, Barrow and Prudhoe Bay.
There’s one other air bargain I’m going to pick up on my air trip. Air North has a three-week pass ($499) that allows you to fly from Fairbanks to Old Crow (above the Artic Circle), Dawson City, Whitehorse, Watson Creek (which will be big in 1992 when they’re celebrating the golden jubilee of the Alcan Highway) and Juneau.
There’s a bus that takes you from Anchorage to Homer round-trip for $37.50—but it takes six hours each way! The 100 miles my ERA Dash 800 made in half an hour turns into 225 miles by a very sinuous road in and around the Kenai peninsula.
You can rent a National compact car weekends at the Homer airport for $35 a day—unlimited miles. But the artist who sold me Terri Lyon’s beguiling puzzle sculpture, “Pink Salmon on Rye,” was worried about running into moose even on her drive home to nearby Soldotna. No wonder so many people fly their own planes. (Although the day I trained by Healy, two light planes terminated each other because the pilots’ eyes were on the moose below instead of the clouds above.)
But it’s not these bargains that set me back over $1,000 in air fares in two weeks. Blame most of that spending on Anchorage to Juneau ($205), Juneau to Sitka ($75), Sitka to Seattle ($295), with 10% off for good senile behavior. I took a pricey flight back to Seattle because bad weather was closing in on the Sitka airport (the skinniest jet strip on earth). And I was going blind trying to read the Alaskan Marine Highway schedules to see how I could include Skagway, Sitka, Petersburg, Wrangell and Price Rupert and still get back to Philly before Christmas.
The mass trans systems in Anchorage (80 cents a ride, 25 cents for seniors, with a People Mover schedule available for $1) and Fairbanks (no schedule needed, since there are only two lines which radiate from the Transit Depot downtown) are worth noting if you want to visit places like the local branches of the University of Alaska. Anchorage is so spread out for a city of 250,000 that I’d book a car on my next visit. (To be continued.)
Reprinted from Welcomat: After Dark, Hazard-at-Large

Saturday, 11 September 2010

Friday, 10 September 2010

A Fresh and Contentious Look at American Lit

Back in the early ‘50’s when I broke into the teaching game, I leaned, intellectually, on my mental mentors by reading them: Gilbert Seldes, I.F. Stone, Marshall McLuhan, David Riesman, and Richard Dorson. As well as an unknown named Paul Lauter. He showed me you could profess lefty politics energetically and still remain faithful to the mandates of scholarship as I wrote for “The English Journal” and “College English.”

But what a difference sixty years make. “A Companion to American Literature and Culture” (Wiley-Blackwell, 2010, edited by Paul Lauter) 42 scholars (all but one wholly unknown to me!) begin by widening and deepening this essential field. Elizabeth Renker’s “Academicizing ‘American Literature’” shows how the topography changed, an essential intro for all future students. (Renker teaches at Ohio State.)

The one exception to my ignorance of the contributors is one Betsy Erkkila, now the Henry Sanborn Noyes Professor at Northwestern, then one of the most interesting humanists I mingled with at the Walt Whitman Center across the Delaware in Camden, NJ. She uses the serendipity that Melville and Whitman were both born in 1891 to explore their changing views of ensuring equality by doing away with slavery.

From their diverse perspectives: Melville from a fallen aristocratic family, Whitman from a contentiously poor one. It adds to your zeal for Walt to learn he lost his editorship of “The Brooklyn Daily Eagle” over his anti-slavery stance. And she establishes the irony that both writers started their careers as pop writers, Whitman with a temperance novel and Melville with what amounted in those days to soft porn with his South Sea romances, “Typee” and “Omoo”. It deepens your respect for “Moby Dick” to observe him grappling with his British publisher over the next step towards Ahab in “White Jacket” and “Redburn”.

Even more interesting is successful efforts to push “Am Lit” way back to include the prayer(1541) of a Mayan against his Spanish conqueror.

They Came from the East
They came from the East when they arrived.
Then Christianity then began.
The fulfillment of its prophecy is ascribed to the east. . .
Then with the true God, the true Dios,
Came the beginning of our misery,
it was the beginning of tribute,
the beginning of church dues,
the beginning of strife and purse snatching,
the beginning of strife with blow guns;
the beginning of strife with trampling on people,
the beginning of robbery with violence,
the beginning of forced debts,
the beginning of debts enforced by false testimony,
the beginning of individual strife,
a beginning of vexation. ( P.12.)

This catholic literary ecumenism leads easily to account for environmentalism, queer lit, feminist politics, and every other new manifestation, recently discovered or newly interpreted. What a new century of American literature instruction commences with this indispensable “companion”.

The next step is to relate an enlarged sense of the subject to emerging global Anglophone literatures as the global village aspires to an urbanity only true humanism can husband.

Thursday, 9 September 2010

Irreplaceable I. F. Stone

The death of Isadore Feinstein Stone at 81 on Father’s Day triggered fond recollections of my brief contacts with him, phoning to set up the I. F. Stone Award for the Free Library’s Art Festival in 1975.

That award-dubbed the Izzie—sought to honor undergraduate journalism in his investigative tradition. A blue ribbon panel of local journalists (including Taylor Grant, Peter Binzen and Robert Lewis Shayon) picked for first prize the University of Arizona student media magazine, Pretentious Idea (the self-parodying name was the unwitting gift of the stuffy editor of an Arizona daily, who thought it was a “pretentious idea” for undergraduates to presume to judge their betters in the Arizona media). Izzie and Esther were clearly thrilled by the title’s winning winsomeness.

But with characteristic generosity when I told him we had made a special award to an Atlantic County journalism teacher who’d gotten into hot water when her class exposed fiscal hanky-panky in the audio-visual department, he turned to his wife to say “How blessed we were” to be party to the praise of such a courageous journalism teacher.

Runner-up Izzies that year went to a University of Pittsburgh student who researched a precedent-setting study of nursing home abuses in Allegheny County. It gave the pioneer a lift to see that his tradition of responsible iconoclasm was being woven into the fabric of higher education.

I has always assumed that Stone had dropped out of Penn in 1927 (since that was my birth date, I quietly adopted him as my intellectual father) because the curriculum was so boring. But when I phoned him for permission to use the term “Izzie” for our award, he was delighted by the Free Library connection because it had been such a resource for him as a young man. He then went on to discuss his Penn philosophy professor with such enthusiasm, you’d think the guy had just finished the course that year—not almost fifty years before.

It’s salutary to remember that Izzie’s prose and his nose for unraveling complexity did not derive from journalism courses, but from very rigorous traditional study. He had dropped out not from boredom, then, but from enthusiasm for the job he was already doing for local papers like the Public Ledger and the Camden Courier Post.

Penn finally caught up with its undegreed genius, awarding him an honorary bachelor’s degree that same spring, once the Vietnam controversy had simmered down sufficiently. When some witless KYW reporter asked him how he felt about finally receiving his degree, Stone gave him the zinger his question deserved: “I got out of phys ed.”

That wry sense of humor may well have been the most attractive trait of this idiosyncratic lefty. The American left has too often smothered itself in its lugubriousness. Izzie leavened his high seriousness with a delightful playfulness.

I needed that when my only other Izzie episode came a cropper in 1984. I was writing cultural commentary for the San Francisco Business Journal, and since it was the fiftieth anniversary of the general strike on the waterfront, I decided to look into that event firsthand. There was a daylong seminar on the subject at the National Maritime Union hall, and there I got a chance to talk to Harry Bridges. And I tracked down Vincent Hallinan, the holy terror of the San Francisco left, who was as expansive as he was feisty in his octogenarian retirement.

As I was putting Harry and Vincent together in my mind and typewriter, Izzie’s speaking date for the public library series was announced. “How would you like to get together with I. F. Stone?” I asked these left-leaning pillars of the San Francisco radical establishment. “Great,” they cheered. Stone was willing as well “as long as we can eat good dim sum somewhere together.”

The best dim sum I had consumed recently was trying to add up the dim sums veep candidate George Bush had been laying on the Chinatown Republicans at the Palace Restaurant. So I made plans to sit at a very different table with that most un-Republican trio.

Alas, Izzie’s schedule didn’t have a chink in it at that point. So I would never know what kind of chemistry Izzie, Vince, and Harry would have generated at the projected retirement party for three very unretiring types—three American originals.

As Studs Terkel testified truly during the “All Things Considered” obit for Izzie, “The old cliché ‘irreplaceable’ is actually true in this case.” Izzie, I think, would have found that a “pretentious idea” itself. His whole genius was in assuming that all people in a democracy were capable of governing themselves well if they put their minds to the task. The only irreplaceable thing is the example he set.

Izzie lives in the “Izzie.” And it was certainly our blessing that he and Esther put out the Weekly for seventeen illuminating years. Thanks to arguably the best independent journalist Philly has nurtured. Ever.

Wednesday, 8 September 2010

Is the "American Century" Coming to a Close?

I can’t forget the coincidence: the day I got my Ph.D. in American Culture in 1957, adman honcho Fairfax Cone made the headlines: Don’t worry about this recession, “America is still the All-Time Hit on Humanity’s Hit Parade!” Ugh.

This AMERICAN EXCEPTIONALISM began with Puritan governor John Winthrop’s metaphor of the not yet established country’s being “a City on a Hill” , setting an urbane example for the rest of mankind. Centuries later, Time-Life founder, Henry B. Luce wrote an essay for “Life” magazine on “the American Century”, early in 1941, before the Japanese threatened to end it at Pearl Harbor. Like Cone’s cri de coeur, there was not a little of wishful hoping in this run-up to our participation in World War II.

But fresh from my doctoral studies, I couldn’t forget Herman Melville’s ominous aphorism—“Nature’s Fairest Hope, marred by History’s Foulest Crime.” I had formulated my own rationale. Me thinks we protest too much! Indian genocide plus Negro slavery manifests our destiny? It was clearly a feeble rationalization of our conflicting behavior. The best I could do was to entice my fellow- citizens into the fullest possible fulfillment of our good side as I urged them, like our classic writers, to expunge our evil.

Well, “the American Century” is winding down, 1945-2045. Leaves us 33 years to close the exceptionalism gap. How’re we doing? Not very well, to judge from David S. Mason’s “The End of the American Century” (Rowman & Littlefield, 2009).

Mason allows that his book was not easy to write: “It is difficult chronicling the many deficiencies of something you love, and I can’t escape the fact that I do love my country, even though it often frustrates, angers and disappoints me.” p.xi. Ditto! But a social scientist lives by his numbers, as a humanist does by his judgments. And the moral and metaphysical wreck which is FoxAmerica, with Rush and Glenn pretending to be Jefferson and Adams is the real disaster.

We have always been living on exceptionally borrowed time. But the really possible point of No Return was 1980, when the unbelievably sainted Ronald Reagan, the smiley B actor who TV-shilled for General Electric with the deeply philosophical motto that “Progress is our most important product”, sent American executives who despised unions because they stood for worker’s rights to Acapulco so they could arrange for offshoring. Thereby he destroyed the middle class that FDR and Walter Reuther had weaned, turning the New America in one generation into a shabby debtors prison. Where only the unregulated zillionaire mattered.

Mason’s numbers prove the destruction. I lived that generation, getting a Ph.D. through the GI Bill and working summers in Detroit’s auto factories. “Tear down that wall” he glibly told the Russians, as his destruction of economic regulations deindustrialized America back to an Ancien Regime of a New Plutocracy and indentured credit card holders. George W. Bush consummated the self destruction.

Always living above the law, Gentleman “C” Yalie, unpunished DUI, AWOL Champagne Squadron jet fighter, serial oil bankrupt who with impunity inside traded his investors to a Texas Ranger millionaire status, and stole the 2000 election with his brother Jeb’s shenanigans. Thoughtless, he picked up on the NeoCon shtick of “spreading democracy” where it was most needed (to protect Israel!), this oaf defied the UN’s demand for consensus, and shouted “kick some ass” to start the war against the WMD.

Three months later, he added another lie to his Crawford CV by donning his AWOL flight gear on the carrier Abraham Lincoln “Mission Accomplished”! That Blackwatered War that no one has yet won, and never will in my judgment started the decline into lethal indebtedness. That and his tax relief to the zillionaires who are ruining what is left of the country with egregious bonuses and larcenous stock market innovations.

But my ire distracts me. Stick to the data Mason has assembled. There are 27 figures and three tables:
Figure 1.1 Deals with Federal Debt as a Percentage of GDP 1970=38% 2010=69% (est.)
Figure 2.3 CEO Pay as a Multiple of Average Worker Pay.2004. USA:520. France: 20. Germany: 10.
Figure 3.1 Infant Mortality Rates in Wealthy Countries,2003. USA:6.9 Sweden:3.1
Figure 3.2 Health Spending per Capita in Wealthy Countries,2003. USA $5800. UK:$2200.
Figure 3.3 Youth (ages 10-29)Homicide Rates in Industrialized Countries, late 1990s (per 100,000)Canada:1.8 USA 11.

One American exception the rest of the world resents is the U.S. refusal to sign international treaties. Bush felt he was above the law personally, so why would we expect the last and worst abstainer to sign Kyoto or the Land Mine Treaty or the International Criminal Court. Mason lists 13 such international laws we refuse to sign (p.112.) Except US, seems to be our arrogant motto. If you want our country to have an international acceptance, see what Mason says about out fatuous assumption we are above the rest of humanity!

Tuesday, 7 September 2010

Sykes? Yikes!

My media diet is severely restrained here in Weimar. BBC Worldwide Service nights, New York Times via internet before breakfast, and Herald Trib, Guardian, TLS, and NYRB nine to eleven a.m. in Student Center of Anna Amalia Library, in home in time for “Larry King Live”, today blessed by a rollicking intro to the 46 year old black lesbian Wanda Sykes, a D.C. area gal and marketing major who became a National Security Agency procurement officer. She found this ultimately so boring, she started cracking wiser and wiser.

Such as her stint last year at the White House Correspondents Dinner where she dragged Rush Limbaugh over the coals for his meretricious politics: for example, hoping Obama would fail. That qualified in her judgment as Al Queada type stuff. She fantasied that he was the 22nd World Trade Center terrorist who missed his flight from an overdose of his favorite drug. Bushies booed! “You think wanting Obama to fail is not terrorism?”

Now it just happened that by a fluke, as I sought out my nightly BBC source, Rush’s signal broke through the Keneally-Heaviside electronic cloud. The AFN sponsored daily pickup had Rush referring incessantly to Imam Obama, twizzling Birther nonsense, and extemping intemperately on Obama’s “contention” he was a Christian. Reinhold Niebuhr would have freaked out at his lack of logic. Imagine the intellectual energy our Armed Forces would get listening to this daily drivel. Rush as Theologian! All of it slyly slamming the Reverend Wright.

Sykes is equally attractive as a lesbian spokesman. She explained how much harder it was to explain her sexual proclivity to her Army Colonel dad and mom than her color! No black “coming out”. You’re just there. And her French friend is a knockout. She had twins, and Sykes went into a fake tizzy over the possibility that Mel Gibson might be the inseminant! “Will you have more kids?” asked Larry. “Only if she has them before I turn fifty. No more diapers then.” Her easygoing style does more to disarm Prop 8er than polysyllabic discourse.

And her Laura Schlessinger putdown was equally civilized. In all her media years she’s never ran across a black that volunteered to discuss a recent program! She speculates that Dr. L was so surprised to have a black listener that she blew it. And she mocked the credentials of Dr. L. No psychiatrist there. Not even a psychologist! “A physiologist, for God’s sake. Might as well take counsel from a masseuse!”

The remarkable difference between Rush and Sykes is the latter’s freedom from hatred and putdowns. Rush stokes the fires of America’s under-lettered and bewildered. Wanda smiles her teasing ways to a collective giggle. Rush’s cheap shots are laying down a landscape of permanent distrust. Limbaugh and Fox want to win the next election. Sykes’ desire is a society in which damn foolishness is mocked away, give or take the next election. I hopes she gets the imminent HBO Emmy!

Another version of this piece appears in Broad Street Review.

Monday, 6 September 2010

Go, Cam!

I like the way Paglia's art school teaching has kept her from the High IQ bloviating most of their peers have wasted their careers on. She's a quirky bitch who really THINKS! Go, Cam!

Sunday, 5 September 2010

Texas Mind and Manners

I may be the only person in North America who knows J.R. Ewing only through his B.V.D.’s. I’ve been trying to maintain my TV Dallas virginity as a feeble gesture of protest against all its ubiquitous hype. That way I avoided all the speculation about Bobby’s resuscitation; I never even knew that he had allegedly gone on to the great Nielsen Pollster in the Sky.
Another reason is that I love the real Dallas. Not that I expected to. JFK hagiographile that I once was. Let me begin at the end, describing my last visit to Dallas, which began inauspiciously when Greyhound crudely dropped me off in front of its “station” at McKinley, TX (a darkened Texaco gas station) at 5:30 a.m. Oh me, oh my—the first thing I had to do, after an all-night bus ride from Tulsa, was pee. Make that PEE.
A nearby convenience store was well lit but had no conveniences for a skuzzy-looking literary pilgrim like me. The clerk pointed to an all-night diner that looked far enough away to be back in Oklahoma. I entered it gingerly, my bladder floating my eyeteeth, and saw that I was the only person without a ten-gallon hat.
Dispatching what seemed to me ten gallons of liquid (though urinalysis may be better than mine), I started flipping through their Yellow (ahem!) Pages for a bus, a cab, a chopper, any vehicle to close the 35-mile gap to Denton, TX, and the Sesquicentennial Conference on the Literary Arts in Texas.
If I took the next bus to Dallas, 30 miles south, I wouldn’t be back to Denton until the conference was all but over. A scruffy man, a dead ringer for Abe Lincoln, drawled up to me and said, “If you doan mine ridin’ in a beat up ole car (pause) and can afford $35, ah’ll tek ya.”
Now since I majored in Yellow at college, with a minor in trepidation, I swallowed my rancher’s steak hard, sloshed a biscuit around in the grits, averted my gaze with a pusillanimous, “Thanks, but I’m looking through the Yellow Pages.” And how. Riffle, riffle.
What’s the worst he could do? Dump me, traveler-checkless, onto a cotton patch? Man, you’re in Texas, show some balls, I chided myself. Five minutes later, I eyeballed him and whispered, “Yes.” It was one of the most interesting 45 minutes I have ever spent.
Bill was 61 this November. His house burned down on the Fourth of July, his wife is fighting cancer (third remission) and he’s jobless, trying to raise some of the $9,600 he’s been paying off on her account. The car was a mess—a Pontiac Catalina old enough to deserve a historical preservation rehab grant.
He was living in it. A white leatherette Bible graced the battered dashboard. About half way there he apologized for the exhaust that was slowly giving us both migraines. “Ah nevah druv it this far before,” he explained. When I queried rhetorically how tough it must be to get welfare in Texas, he sharply rejoined that he wouldn’t know because he’d never tried to get it. “Ah’m nut thet hard up, yit.”
Bill was a sharecropper’s son, on the southern tip of Ohio near Chillicothe where it peters out into West Virginia’s hollers. He had dropped out of high school and joined the Navy when they still trained enlisted pilots and had flown Corsairs off carriers. (We agreed, as ex-swabbies, that the 4FU inverted gullwing fighter was the prettiest war plane ever.) He hadn’t gone into civilian aviation after the war because his 6’5” frame disqualified him—and besides, the multi-engine Army guys were already qualified for DC-6’s and Lockheed Electras.
What a guy. He had been in the Navy 12 years, counting recall during Korea. Anybody who can take off from a carrier, let alone land there, is de facto a hero of mine.
Bill was down on his luck but not on his life. He had four kids who had done creditably in semi-professional jobs. There wasn’t a whine or whimper in his bones. If what Ronald Reagan stands for were idiosyncrats like Bill (instead of the billionaire boodlers who made him a millionaire in California). I’d even vote for Reaganomics. Right, Ron!? (to distort a discredited battle cry of the ‘60’s).
So even getting to Dallas, while difficult at times, was a luminous experience. I went up to the Big D after Denton. First off, I wanted to see the newest skyscrapers. Interfirst Plaza is more than OK, but Allied States is simply stupendous, and not just because of Harry Cobb’s thin-skinned cerulean green reflecting surface but because, especially, of Dan Kiley’s water garden, as stunning a mix of water, trees and stone as seen since Versailles geometrized its walks.
The precincts are arbified with a conifer that sheds in the winter, thus giving the denizens of its upper floors a continuously changing phantasmagoria of green, yellow and spiky black to play off against the computer-driven jets of water. Oh me, oh my eye—I could hardly break away to the Dallas Museum of Art (it dropped the “Fine” in its name to bring its ethnographic Meso-American and African holdings to aesthetic parity with its more western paintings and sculptures).
That’s small “w,” meaning the Western Civilization. In Dallas, capital “W” is reserved for home-on-and-off-the-range paintings, such as the remarkable recent show synchronized with University of Texas / Austin Americanist William Goetzmann’s PBS series The West of the Imagination, which, ironically, began with Philly’s Charles Willson Peale who inveigled sluggard arts patrons into his culture-trap museum with Mastodon bones and paintings of their exhumation at the front door.
The Goetzmann effort’s final episode, “Enduring Dreams,” explores the ambiguous and ambivalent ways the Taos groups (first painters, then Mabel Dodge Luhan’s coterie) use “the West” for their own intellectual and emotional purposes.
Especially interesting are the sections which deal with the dust bowl and with the emergence of Amerinds giftedly recycling our Modernism for their own purposes of pan-Indian solidarity. The series is unusually canny in the way it juxtaposes documentary images and “created” images in painting and sculpture as a way of getting at the spirit of an artist or group.
These tapes should be replayed through our secondary schools post haste; they are exemplary. I haven’t seen the book by Goetzmann yet, except to riffle through its color plates at the DMA, but I can’t imagine it is any less intelligent—probably more so since academics are generally better with paragraphs than with film footage.
I’m a little edgy about Goetzmann’s too complacent answer to James Whitmore in the wrap-up—that our Western myth is flourishing because the cowboy and Mickey Mouse are America’s most beloved ambassadors abroad. He didn’t amplify the Mouse allusion, but we know from the wire services that China just Mickied out and Peking’s ducks have been correspondingly beDonalded.
How that helps America (as opposed to the imagineers at Walt Disney Enterprises) is beyond me, unless “What’s good for Disney is good for the country,” a perturbation devoutly to be unwished. Still, I’m grateful to Goetzmann for tying so many diverse strands of our westerning experience together with such visual richness. To err is human, to demur is the critic’s function.
Frankly, I’ve had more than enough Charles Russell and Frederic Remington for a couple of lifetimes, but the Dallas show was fascinatingly rich in minor, unseen westernists, such as Dean Cornwell’s “The Dude’s Last Con,” a tableau of a terrified city slicker getting his grotty comeuppance in a jail cell, with a narrative style that makes you understand where Norman Rockwell was coming from (Cornwell was his teacher).
And there was a luminous Georgia O’Keeffe, “Dead Tree, Bear Lake, Taos, New Mexico” (1930) which makes you regret she spent so much canvas on flowers and skulls. I also relish Raymond Johnson’s desert Southwest / precisionism as in “Trimmed Trees” (1925). And Marsden Hartley’s crypto-abstract number on “American Indian Symbols” (1914) is a visual romp of the first order.
But save time for Fair Park, a $5 cab ride to the east, which gained National Historic Site status for highlighting of the Texas Sesqui State Fair. Dallas clout got the State Fair in 1936—properly, it belongs in the state capitol of Austin—as a depression WPA caper to celebrate the state’s centennial.
The Friends of Fair Park have perked it up with a combination of big gifts, small donations (you can buy a tile for the ceremonial walkway that runs through the grounds) and savvy lobbying for public funds.
I liked it in 1980 when I saw it for the first time while doing a story on the Dallas Museum of Fine Art, before it moved downtown in 1984, I loved it in its rehabbed glory, all that Texize glitz burnished in the fall sun. What was the DMFA is now the Science Place, an ambitious new venture to give Dallas a world-class science museum.
Right now (through December 15) there’s the much-travelled—I saw it open in Toronto in 1982—but nonetheless beguiling megashow on Chinese science. It was good enough in Toronto, but its even better here, because the Dallasites who back up the tongue-tied Chinese crafts people are so outgoing and easy to palaver with you spend more time looking and felling than you did in Toronto. Texans are warm suckers—when they’re not impossibly aloof.
Reprinted from Welcomat: After Dark, Hazard-at-Large, December 10, 1986