Tuesday, 30 November 2010

The American Critic

Mencken was prophetic: the Fox ranters are proof positive that a malingering booboisie is haunting American life.

Palin as Veep? How low can you go? Obama a Muslim, born outside the US of A? The Zillionaires who are financing the TeePee WeeWee Parties will go down in our Hysteria as the dumbest Nuts who ever corrupted a democracy. The current Der Spiegel's Halloween issue is truly scarey: The Americans have given up on their Dream.

I used to tell my Am Lit students that AL was the greatest unread lit in the history of mankind, and that a people who didn't read their great writers eventually lost their minds. Alas, it came quicker than I feared.

We "Exceptionally Blessed" Ams turn out to be exceptionally schitzy, veering too facilely between too much idealism (the Peace Corps) and a flabby materialism (making Iraq safe for demagoguery). Maybe if they had taken Mencken more seriously.

Oh well, it was frustrating while it lasted--to Amerinds, black and white slaves, not to forget unemployed workers whose bosses make 300 times what they used to make, after Reagan began his reign of error by breaking one union and advising the brass to break the rest by outsourcing.

Monday, 29 November 2010

Jack Levine

A youthful hero
! Alongside Ben Shahn. Amazed he was still alive.

Sunday, 28 November 2010

Dealing with the Kids’ Divorce

Try this on for size of coincidence. Evelyn Hess, the managing editor of this paper, reached into the window of my rented Budget to hand me my application for a Police Pass and a “book about grandparents and divorce.” I dropped them on the floor of the Nova and I-95ed home.

A few hours later, an old Annenberg buddy from WCAU, now the censor for CBS in New York, called to schmooze about old times. Sliding into his antiquarian mood, I asked him how our mutual friend, Inez Gottlieb, a retired CAU exec, was doing.

“Fine,” George Dessart replied. “She’s just written a book on how grandparents deal with divorce.”

“What what???” I responded, on the brink of vertigo. “Excuse me, George, while I look at the debris in my rented Nova.” Sure enough. It was Inez’s first book.

It’s tri-authored with two others whom I will ignore in my effort to give this Annenberg student 25 years ago a big fat “A” for her newest term paper. She never knew it, but I was not a little fascinated by her back when I was a greenhorn assistant professor of communications, and she was a live TV exec old enough to be my mother (a nice Jewish mother at that). Well, ain’t it a kick when a student turns out so well.

What to Do When Your Son or Daughter Divorces (Bantam, $7.95) is germane even if you’re not a grandparent witnessing the sturm und drang of the two million divorces the great American Whirligig spins off each year. The collaborators know whereof they speak: “We three . . . have ourselves survived twelve divorces. Two of us have weathered six divorces among our collective five children, and one of us has seen two brothers each divorce twice and marry three times. One of us has made her own divorce history.”

It’s a common sense approach to the pain and grief of loss: Divorce is a kind of dying. If you don’t grieve openly, you sow the seeds of a bitter harvest of repression.

There are ten happily colloquial non-threatening chapters in this grimmest of monkey businesses: “We Were a Happy Family.” “Why Are Taking It So Hard?” “The Family Mobile” (loss of members upsets the balance), “The First Months are the Worst,” “Whose Side Are you On?” (it better be your kids’, the author warns), “Do We Really Mean Come Home?” (only with ground rules, and limits and a departure date in the not too distant future), “Money, Money, Money” (at the root of most if not all divorces is a hassle over economic power and powerlessness), “There’s No Such Thing As an Ex-Grandparent” (in which the astonishing need is revealed for GP rights groups, to ensure that they can visit their grandchildren—what kind of schmucks interpose their malic between GPs and kids?), “Disturbing Disclosures” (some mates are permanently damaged good with drug, alcohol and permanent immaturity problems) and “Mom, Dad, I’d Like You to Meet . . . ,” in which our children try (and try) again.

The evidence for their sound counsels comes more from lively anecdotes (with names changed to protect the already enough confused).

Finally, the book is a batch of Band-Aids rather than deep theory about why married (and unmarried) Americans treat each other so shittily.

But when you’re bleeding, you need a Band-Aid, not a seminar on the American family. The authors have done their succoring well, worthy of a Johnson & Johnson, if not a Masters and Johnson.

Saturday, 27 November 2010

Oh, By The Way: Macao And Canton

(This is the second and final installment in Patrick’s saga of the goodies of Hong Kong and environs.)
Ridiculous as it sounds, with so much to do in Hong Kong, there are two “side” trips you mustn’t miss—Macao and Canton. Especially Macao, only 55 minutes away by hydrofoil. (But don’t take the hydrophobicfoil to Canton—it takes three hours and is so claustrophobic I almost did a Hart Crane half way up the Pearl River Delta. Take the train there and a plane back. The scenery from upstairs is gorgeous—as in gorges—with those peculiar skinny mountains you see in China.)
Macao is a delectable day or two trip. We stayed at the Bela Vista Hotel, a slightly rundown Tennessee Williams-type venue with tall ceilings and low prices (although I’ve heard it’s renewed itself and upped the prices.) It sports noble verandas that open up onto the water in a delectable way: Every timbre of light makes its own zing there. And marvel of marvel, it abuts on an Art Deco district of homes erected just before World War II.
I voice only one gripe about Macao early in the morning: It’s damned hard to find a cup of coffee for an early-morning prowler like me. Three hours of slogging led me to my sole salvation—a gaming hotel where they keep the pot boiling at all hours to keep their losers awake.
I was so pooped from this prowl that I did something I’ve never possessed the First World gall to do before—hire a rickshaw. The driver was 20 years my senior, and I felt perfectly awful relaxing at his expense—until he one-upped me: When we got to the bottom of the steep road leading up to the Bela Vista, he dumped me down. Ha! Third World judo.
There’s a fine history museum which hadn’t quite finished its renewal when I arrived, but I sweet-talked the curator into an advanced peek. It deals at a sophisticated level of museology with the curious mix of Portuguese, British and Chinese cultures you find here.
If you don’t want to miss a thing, I suggest you hit the Macao info office in the Kowloon side of the Star ferry. Macao is definitely a should-see, even if you aren’t a gambler. (I lost $2 as an 18-year-old sailor in Pensacola betting on a greyhound which was too blind to see the mechanical rabbit. Never again.)
Canton is another kettle of cuttlefish. For a start, you’ve got to go to the government tourist office on Nathan Road (the main drag of Kowloon) and get a visa and a hotel reservation. They put me up at a marginal Soviet-era (1950s) friendship hotel—but cheap and near the main train station, which is a visual gape—folks from every part of China hanging out there.
My first morning I got up before dawn to practice my Mandarin (you’d be surprised how friendly a mere “knee how”—“hello!”—will make your median shopkeeper setting up his place) while hiking all the way to Pearl River.
The People’s Hotel is a great Deco-era hostelry, rundown but full of memories. The friendly waiters on the rooftop restaurant let me roam around taking pictures.
But the most interesting thing for me to see was the old Foreign Embassy Quarter, up t he road from the People’s Hotel. Needless to say, those European outsiders had the inside on the best turf in the old imperialistic days: river breezes and uppity isolation yet still close to the other action over the bridge. Sort of like Society Hill.
I happen to like trade fairs, so I snooped around at a few. And I like to eat Chinese. Even though I’ve forgotten the names of Canton’s restaurants, the tastes of their cuisine remains firmly fixed in my palate’s memory.
One thing I found out in China: Street food can be fresher and more fun than the allegedly fancier stuff at four-star hotels, because the latter don’t yet attract the volume of customers to keep their across-the-board menus fresh.
Which reminds me of my greatest thrill in Canton: the open air markets. I mean, they sell every living thing. Noah could fill his ark just by backing up to one of them. And Canton’s zoo is neat, come to think of it. And the gardens. And the crowds. Watching them drive their bicycles in droves to work in the morning is to understand why China is the world’s leading bikeocracy. Also, you can get traditional Chinese art of high quality much cheaper in Canton than in Hong Kong—like my turtle wall hanging.
Free enterprise was just getting a fast start when I was there, but my funkiest recollection concerns the intrepid young (say, eight) entrepreneur who conned me into hiring him to shine my raggedy, unshinable shoes. I suspect that amazingly persistent kid has made his first million by now.
So here’s my advice to you. Keep your eye on the fateful 1997 countdown and visit before it may be too late. Treat yourself to a triple play in the Far East: Hong Kong to Macao to Canton.
My airfare to Hong Kong was free because United was breaking into the region and tagged on Tokyo-to-Hong Kong as a come-on. That semi-freebie is long gone, but try the smaller airlines—China Airlines and Korean Airlines—through bucket shops. My last visit there was on an around-the-world fare: That Air India-plus-Northwest Orient bargain fare let me backtrack to Manila and Taiwan at no extra cost, with a stop in Anchorage on the way back to Philly.
Hong Kong is getting very hip at staging special events to keep the tourists interested. So call their New York office for up-to-date brochures. But once you get there, keep your eyes on the local press, because many of the events you’ll enjoy are too fast-breaking to enter the brochure circuit.
Leave plenty of time for just cruising. The Toonerville-Trolley streetcars are a kick. Try the subways. And walk and walk and walk. And talk and talk and talk. It’s amazing how easygoing the Chinese are about trying out their “English” on you. Unlike the Japanese, who are so afraid of making a mistake that they clutch up just at the thought of speaking English.
Reprinted from Welcomat: After Dark, Hazard-at-Large, February 3, 1993

Friday, 26 November 2010

How The Brits Got Hong Kong

What a charmed reading life I lead. Two days after I finished writing a two-part travel piece on Hong Kong, Macao and Canton, my local branch brandishes a hefty tome called "An Insular Possession" by one Timothy Mo.
That Mo was news to me derives from his youth: Born in Hong Kong in 1950 of an English mother and a Cantonese father, he’s just now creating a reputation based on The Monkey King (1979) and Sweet and Sour (1982), both of which won important U.K. literary awards.
But An Insular Possession—which the author signs off with “Canton, February 1980-London, July 1985” as the dates of composition—is that rare literary phenomenon, a historical novel which is as readable as it is complex, wise as well as witty.
It’s the story of how and why the Brits set themselves up in Hong Kong as an unanticipated outcome of the Opium War in 1841. There are four principal characters: an idealistic young Bostonian who lives to his 90s as a distinguished Sinologist; his not-very-much-older mentor, a Richmond, Virginia, boy with no expectations except those he can wrest from factoring tea and silks; a County Mayo oddball artist who has left Calcutta under a fiscal cloud; and a Portuguese Jesuit based in Macao who arranges for the Bostonian to learn Chinese.
Mo’s description of the factories in Canton (not manu-factories, but warehouses cum offices where goods are factored for import and export) and the encircling hostility of the Cantonese natives is most vividly reported. So is his explanation of how the British found themselves more and more mired in the opium trade (from their colony India) because they weren’t breaking even on tea and silk exports.
Our two American idealists decide to put their money where their mouths have been drifting by setting up a biweekly newspaper to wage a press war against the establishment’s kept weekly. The spirited discussion over what name they’ll give their fledgling medium is a hilarious (but nonetheless profound) gloss on the purposes and problems of 19th-Century journalism.
This stylistic device permits Mo to comment on anything and everything going on—or not going on—in the Canton-Macao-Hong Kong triangle.
Another device Mo uses with great liveliness and charm is the old epistolary tactic. The Virginian falls in love with the niece and ward of his English boss at the factory. The slow efflorescence of their love and the brutal suppression of it by the snooty Brit—outraged that an American with no prospects and no received status should be messing around with his charge—is a marvelous side story on the differences between American and British class attitudes.
Indeed, it’s the Virginian’s comeuppance that prods him into venturing into journalism with his Boston buddy. And the personal correspondence between the innocent Bostonian and the more worldly Virginian is a delectable sub-plot of male bonding.
The war itself is depicted with a harrowing force. The portrait of the sepoys getting out of hand, pillaging and raping, gives you a real sense of how complicated it was for the British Empire to maintain its ideals when commanding colonial troops who lived in far different worlds.
And the problem worked both ways, because the emperor in far-off Peking was hobbled in his efforts to stamp out the opium trade that was crippling his people because Cantonese officials were too easily on the take. The war was a standoff at first because the deep-draught British men-of-war couldn’t sail far enough up the Pearl River Delta to protect the factories.
What turns the tide for them is the low-draught, iron-clad, aptly named Nemesis. And the higher-tech rockets and guns wreak havoc on the lower-tech Chinese combatants, although there’s an episode when the local citizens, outraged at sepoy rapine, give the musket / bayonet cadres a taste of what guerilla warfare is like in the inscrutable East.
The fortunes of war also drive the harried British fleet eastwards until they stumble on the superb natural harbors of the Hong Kong region. The inadvertence of that crown colony’s discovery is not a little ironic in the light of 1997.
There are marvelous set pieces as well: a duck hunting party in the tricky, untracked (to them) wastes of the Delta, a Fourth of July party in Macao, and pathetic efforts to reproduce the home environment with scull racing and cricket.
But by far the most interesting sidebar derives from the fact that our Virginian editor becomes a fanatic partisan of the new Daguerreotype process. Mo pits the Virginian’s enthusiasm and evolving aesthetic chatter against his friend the painter. Not only do they jaw delectably about the varied assets of the two media of expression, but they also compete in recording the vagaries of war and the landscapes of the three-part colony. I can’t remember when art-theory speculations and arguments have been so congenially interwoven with a fascinating narrative.
Savor, finally, the elegant recollection of the Bostonian nonagenarian, thinking back at the end of the book on his experiences in the Insular Possession some 60-odd years before.
“It is not the spectre of absolute evil which is so shocking as the intimate commingling of good and bad in human beings, the occurrence of the wicked in a familiar and quotidian aspect. The purveyors of opium…could not be described as malevolent in their everyday social intercourse. To the contrary, they were many of them large-minded, hospitable and kindly men who might have risked their lives to save mine.”
The book is full of such unique voices.
Reprinted from Welcomat: After Dark, Hazard-at-Large, February 17, 1993

Thursday, 25 November 2010

It’s A-OK in Oklahoma

The Culture of Oklahoma, edited by Howard F. Stein and Robert F. Hill (U. of Okla Press, $14.95) set me thinking. What it comes down to is that Okies have a humongous inferiority complex apparently generated more by John Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath" than by the Dust Bowl effects he described.
Strangely, a repeated refrain throughout Oklahoma’s 11 essays is that the novelist was praising, not dissing, the Joads for their great hearts and character. So a variety of specialists try to pin down what Oklahomanness (ugly neologism) really is.
A fool’s errand. What could, say, Will Rogers, Oral Roberts, Bud Wilkinson, David L. Payne and E.W. Marland possibly have in common, other than paying the same income tax? And who the hell, you’re most likely thinking, are Payne and Marland?
Well, Payne is a kind of Okie folk hero, Mr. Boomer, who tried to manifest his destiny by leading land-hungry out-staters into the then-Indian territory—to be repulsed by the U.S. Cav. He burned out at 48, alas, before Sooner Time, that epochal land grab which commenced on April 22, 1889, when some 50,000 Okies-to-be got on their marks at Arkansas City, Kansas, to race towards the plots of their dreams in Guthrie, a last stop on the Santa Fe R.R.
There were several more land grabs into Indian territories before Oklahoma (Choctaw for “people” plus “red”) settled down into the funk these ideologues are trying to wish it out of. (Whistle tunes from “Oklahoma” when you really get blue.)
As for E.W. Marland, he’s one of my greatest unknown American heroes. He studied engineering in Ann Arbor, then started working for coal leasers until he got wind of Okie Paradise. There his gold turned really black, as he hit some gushers. He parlayed it into an outfit where he dared to compete, well by well, with Standard Oil. And for a while he did it.
What appealed to me was his vision for his home town, Ponca City. He despised the new zillionaires who messed up their money-making backyards, then tracked down to Palm Beach to cavort with other continental mess makers. He started turning Ponca City into the utopian company town—cultural centers, sporting complexes, health facilities, the works. Alas, he spent so much time and money on his ameliorative schemes that he lost his business to the bankers—and CONOCO.
I like to think that Marland’s mystical populism was pure Okie at its best, except that he was from Pittsburgh and educated in Ann Arbor.
I felt I was getting closer to the Okie muse in the chapter on football. I love the mot of U. of O. prexy George Lynn Cross before the legislature: He wanted more money to make a university the football team could be proud of. (The members broke up at his joke—but didn’t loosen their purse strings.) It is plausibly argued that the Pigskin Belt’s sports obsessions are lower common denominations, a sort of secular religion that gives meaning to folks who resent being put down as rubes.
The single most interesting chapter is Arn Henderson’s “Low Style / High Style: Architectural Origins and Image Distortion.” It’s more Joad bashing: the damning image of Okie architecture as sod houses followed by tacky clapboard farm houses. That’s regional Great Plains vernacular, which was soon superseded, he says.
Henderson explicates several Guthrie structures designed by a Belgian immigrant named Joseph Foucart. Those eclectic designs are indeed savory to this day, the kind of sudden skyline apparitions that justify the Golgotha of long Greyhound rides. Common materials (bricks from local red clay and similarly-hued sandstones are a palette H.H. Richardson taught us to love) topped by stamped metal sheets out of mail order catalog.
Mark Twain used to sneer amiably that the trouble with American architecture was that it had Queen Anne fronts and Mary Ann behinds. Foucart could be said to trade in Oral Roberts tops and Will Rogers bottoms.
But wait, wait. Beat not thy Okie breast. “Our recent architectural history is also rich. Some of our finest buildings were designed by internationally prominent architects. There are three structures in Oklahoma by Frank Lloyd Wright. There are numerous buildings, especially in Tulsa, Norman, and Bartlesville, designed by Bruce Goff; several of them are among his finest works. Two Oklahoma buildings have received the coveted Twenty-Five Year Award of the American Institute of Architects; the Price Tower in Bartlesville by Wright and the Bavinger House in Norman by Goff. Few other states in America can claim this distinction.”
Heh, I can’t think of many (any?) statesmen who would go so filiopietistic in public. (Next door, Arkansas glows over its indigenous genius, E. Faye Jones, but I can’t imagine them bragging about him like this.)
I’ll tell you what such an aesthetic inferiority complex leads to—the supermodern, international competition-derived Oklahoma Repertory Theatre across from the bus station in Oklahoma City.
When these local boosters stop worrying about what the U.S. thinks of them and simply lay out their own quirky and fascinating history, the collection soars and scores. Take the short and unevenly happy history of Sulfur, the Bromide Salts Capital of the Universe, before germ theory and “the Doctrine of Specific Etiology” undermined the credibility of sucking up sulfur water and paddling around in mud packs irrigated by the same muck. The city fathers didn’t sit around and mope about their now disused springs. They damned a few creeks and made their turf into Paradise Lake.
Meanwhile, my memories of Oklahoma remain special: the Wewoka lass with whom I spent some marvelously confusing months in the woods of Northern California; that early morning epiphany when the guy I chatted up in the lobby of Tulsa’s premiere Art Deco skyscraper (erected, like me, in 1927) turned out to be its architect (since that was his first commission and since he had just retired, you can imagine what a non-stop tutorial that accident led to); my first—and last—Tulsa rodeo, at which my hanging Minolta led to my being impressed to shoot Miss Tulsa (except that, while I was being led through acres of rumbling horse rumps, I shot off my last exposures accidentally, I made a simulated click with my teeth for Miss Tulsa and cleared out of there.)
So my advice to you Okie-knockers: Lighten up. You’re as A. Okie as you really are. No more. No less. But that’s the same state of awareness in all the other 49 as well. Don’t make your life more miserable than it need be by obscuring your blue skies with social scientific piffle.
But do listen to your historian sage, Howard R. Lamar. His wise essay on fine-tuning your part in the revisionism going on in Western history is worth the price of the paperback. Be sweetly cynical like the great Will Rogers. And ignore the inane Oral. Then it won’t matter what other states think of you.
If you have reason to think well of yourself, what others wonder won’t matter a bit. O.K., Okies?
Reprinted from Welcomat: After Dark, Hazard-at-Large, August 25, 1993

Wednesday, 24 November 2010

De-gentrifying Humanism

What began in my mind as a panic over the sudden decline in English majors has morphed into dissatisfaction with what we think and do under the rubric “Humanism”. As I began graduate studies in 1949, C.P. Snow was waging his one man rebellion known as The Two Cultures controversy. As a radar tech in the Navy I had earned a new respect for industrial technology that my Catholic upbringing ignored completely. So though eager to become a professional humanist, I became increasingly skeptical over the evident narrow-mindedness of many of my humanist professors, except for Mortimer Kadish’s lectures on logical positivism which erased completely in one semester my Thomist training.

Indeed, my interdisciplinary Ph.D. in American Culture demanded a broader definition of the humanities. I learned that this “new specialty” derived from Harvard’s celebration of its tercentenary in 1936. American Lit was a many faceted reality: Theology in the seventeenth century, Politics in the eighteenth, and not Belles Lettres until the mid-nineteenth. So my five “fields” were Am Lit, beginnings to the Civil War, Civil War to the present, American philosophy and its European antecedents, American economic history, and American art and architecture. When I asked to write my dissertation on Marshall McLuhan, they balked. Who, he? They puzzled. So I wrote on John Fiske, the popularizer of Charles Darwin. I was beginning to take the Science side in the C.P.Snow debate.

As a teacher, I added Afro-American first, then Appalachian lit, and after two revealing experiences (in 1964, the first African Arts Festival in Dakar, where I met Langston Hughes and Wole Soyinka, and in 1968 at the Commonwealth Education Conference, I lobbied for each Commonwealth country to do a film on their own lit like “Nigeria: Culture in Transition” mc-ed by Soyinka. In 1970 I tried out the concept of “International English” on Rex Nettleford in Jamaica. He dug it. As did Seamus Heaney and Michael Harper in 1978 at a seminar in Philly.

Everyone except the editor of Canadian Commonwealth Lit journal, who smelled the CIA! What a laugh! Flogging IE in London the summer of 1978, I founded the Centre for Internationalizing English with the 150G’s my father left me in 1977. Its mock heroic goal was to undermine the CIA with IE poetry! It engaged in feats like renewing Walt Whitman's falling apart mausoleum in Camden and celebrating Emily Dickinson’s 150th birthday in 1980 with a glorious arts festival, during which we faithfully read all 1775 of her poems, night and day! My filmmaking son Michael took over the floundering foundation when I abandoned teaching in 1982 for freelancing worldwide, always alert to IE works and pomps.

Which brings me to my latest discovery, Ethiopian journalist Dinaw Mengestu's glorious first novel, ”The Beautiful Things That Heaven Bears” (the title quotes Dante emerging from Hell) Riverhead, 2007. He wrote it the lee of researching a piece for “Rolling Stone” on Darfur. Its hero Sepha Stephanus, fled from Ethiopia after his father was abused by the Reds taking over his country. Mengestu actually left that beleaguered country with his mother and sister aged two in 1980. Went to Georgetown, took an MFA in fiction, and started freelancing abroad.

“Beautiful” centers around a trio (an engineer, a waiter, and the hero) who have left different African countries) who deal with their loneliness and isolation by meeting at the hero’s grocery store in a black rundown section in D.C. They play a parlor game they have invented to dull their pains of isolation, in which one cites an obscure African dictator and his pals must name the country and the date of his takeover. Judith, an American political history professor separated from her African husband, and her biracial teen Naomi, moves in next door, and an off and on relationship never matures, try as they awfully awkwardly do.

Meanwhile, white gentry start remodeling the rundown neighborhood houses, to which the poor American blacks mount a terrorist campaign to run the new rich out. We have a new IE subgenre: Africans interacting with white and black Americans. As it is, there is no dearth of Asian fiction in America and abroad. Think of Amy Tan. Nor no shortage of white and black Africans commenting on lives in Africa. Think Nadine Gordimer and Chinua Achebe. So Mengestu alerts us to a new slot in IE. He has just made the New Yorker 20 under 40 category in 2010. And the way he weaves writers as diverse as Emily Dickinson and DeToqueville into the narratives of isolation and conflict is astonishing.

Alas, Mengestu, tapped out psychically by his Darfur assignment, has moved to Paris with his wife and son. Where I am sure we’ll eventually learn how he relates to Europeans, a talent we Americans could cultivate. Which brings me to my conviction: our humanism must be future-oriented. We must think of humanism as a vade mecum for globalization. When Thomas Friedman writes today in the New York Times about telephone start ups in India that allow the poor to send money home or to bank it, we are talking humanism. Whatever makes people more ethical and independent is humanistic. So a university cancels a French department? Or English Ph.D.’s.

The issue is not majors. The issue is what facilitates our understanding the complexities of the future we’re all facing. Much of that needed knowledge is science based. Humanists must vow like Louie Kahn did in his library for the Salk Center for Biological Sciences in California: He made it so humanists and scientists must mingle! When I finally got out to see the Salk, I stopped the first white jacketed lab coat to see if Kahn’s dream prevailed. “Until Bronowsky died” was the swift reply. The Jew who ran BBC’s documentary division genially harassed JB telling him it was his mitzvah to learn how to narrate documentaries. He did. Because he was the ideal humanistic scientist.

The future IE curriculum will be as much science as art. No humanism without the two, fused! Past-oriented humanistic study is gentrified humanism. It gives the “well-educated” a sense of superiority to the underclasses. But I argue the only legitimate humanism is not about glorying over the past. It’s about making the future genuinely humane for everyone. The rest is mere snobbery.

Mengestu saw that so clearly in his describing how the superficially humanistic went about dealing with gentrifying the Logan Circle neighbourhood in D.C. I want the next generation of English majors thrilling, as I’ve just learned to do, at Penn’s Patrick McGowan’s discerning what they drank at King Midas’s Funeral. Whatever honors man’s greatest gift, his reason, disciplined, is Humanism. Otherwise, mere gentrification.

This piece also appears in Broad Street Review.

Tuesday, 23 November 2010

Motor City

Detroit is so sad. I keep wondering if 10360 Greensboro is that blighted.

Monday, 22 November 2010

Travels Through The Hungarian Hinterlands

(This is the second of two installments about Patrick’s travels in Hungary.)
There are several excellent museums in Budapest and a monthly free magazine called Program / Programme, which lists what’s showing there and at the newly-proliferating private galleries. Admission fees are nominal, and catalogs and color post cards of high quality are laughably cheap.
Outside of Budapest, the attractions are lively but less programmed. The southern city of Pecs (80,000) attracted me because it was the northernmost point of the Turkish rule by the Ottoman Empire. And there are two lovely mosques left to prove it.
One, after a history as a hospital and a cultural center, has been returned to its original Islamic vocation. The other, a lovely green patinaed dome smack in the middle of downtown, has been turned into a Catholic Church, with a neat Art Deco nave snuggling up to the original dome.
I stayed in a delicious Art Nouveau hotel, the Palatinus ($42), recently rehabbed to pristine condition. Riding into the center of the city, I noticed Domus, a new home-furnishings department store with roof tiles that were a brilliant exaggeration of the medieval cathedral roofs in Central Europe. Aha, I said to myself, there’s an architect loose in this city.
Later, exploring the commercial district, I stumbled upon a suite of 18th-Century houses that had been sweetly recycled into a complex of shops. I asked a young man running a tiny photo station if he knew who was the architect. He gave me his name and told me the man taught at the Technical Institute.
The hotel concierge phoned the architect, who was hesitant about coming over that night to schmooze because he couldn’t speak English. But he brought along his 17-year-old son (and architecture heir, apparently), who was Common Market fluent. We had a marvelous two-hour jaw in the hotel’s beer garden. There’s a fine Victor Vasarely museum in town, and there was a graphic design show at the City Gallery that shows how up-to-date Hungarian publicity and signage is.
I also took a trip to Lake Balaton, which the Hungarians boast is the largest fresh water lake in Europe. It has a great little museum which replays the trouble the locals have had since the time of the Romans to control the level of the lake. Until they did, it could not become the tourist attraction it now is.
There are four-stars at the south end of the Strand and no-stars at the north. I stayed north in a neat and tidy room (TV-less, but with a short-wave radio tuned to Radio Moscow). The reading lounge featured Pravda and Neues Deutschland. A busload of Polish vacationers arrived just as I did. So I got some heavy thinking in before I went to bed.
But when I went in search of a good fish dinner, I violated the first rule of off-season cuisine—the best restaurants are recycling. My first soup at the allegedly best place in town was lousy. But walking back to the train station, I saw a German go into some stand-up fish diner and I followed his example. Fresh and tasty, right out of Lake Balaton. Hazard’s Law: When the high season is over, eat in the street.
My best meal was at the thermal hotel on Magarethe Island in the Danube, between Buda and Pest. Fried goose livers. Washed down with a cold Czech beer. The luncheon was worth every forint of the 30 bucks it racked up on my Visa.
I wish I could say all my gustatory adventures were so satisfying. They weren’t. But I’ve never slurped a goulash soup I didn’t like. So toward the end of my stay, I two-tiered my diet—a string of soups followed by a big blast in an expensive restaurant.
Summing up, don’t go to Hungary hungry unless you’ve got a fat Visa credit line. And wander outside of Budapest, but not on a Eurail pass. Stay with a family by all means, but make sure they speak languages you do. Heh, my mute widow wasn’t all that bad. She saw that my blue blazer was losing a button and popping a seam. One morning I noticed she had quietly repaired the damages the night before.
And even when you get locked behind a language barrier, you can find other visitors to Hungary who speak English and can share their discoveries over a friendly beer or cup of coffee. Take it from this Eurail junkie, Hungary is not an open oyster, but with a little bit of prying, it’s a tasty divergence from the mainline European countries.
Flash! French Rail (1-800-848-7245) has just announced the East Pass (for Austria, Hungary, Poland and Czechoslovakia), starting January 1, 1991. Stay tuned!
Reprinted from Welcomat: After Dark, Hazard-at-Large, December 19, 1990

Saturday, 20 November 2010

Baltimore: Proper Pots And Papish Pomp

The holiday rush prompted Greyhound to lay on an express section to Baltimore, getting me there before the Walters Art Gallery was open. (My seatmates were two delightfully glasnosted Russkies in their 20s taking their first whirl in the First Evil Empire—viz., U.S. More later about the ways we perestroked one another.)
So I was in the beautiful B with two pre-“Vatican Splendor” hours on my hand. I picked up the city’s Welcomat—The Baltimore City Paper, ad-fat and full of good prose, including the information that there was a new Muse in town, the National Museum of Ceramic Art. When the Baltimore Sun ran a crit of their current exhibition, “American Studio Sculpture: 1920-1950,” an American Federation of Art traveling show, I knew I had an epiphanizing way to blow two hours. It’s $1 admission is a steal.
The exhibition explores the rise of studio-generated fine ceramics after the collapse of art pottery factory production during World War I. The catalog is full of color and solid information about this important aesthetic movement: The Syracuse Museum of Art (now the Everson) gave a boost to the artists with its Ceramics International annuals in 1930.
This new museum is worth a trip to Baltimore by itself. And the shop has a swatch of ceramic artifacts of a very high standard. Look especially for the figurine dolls (ceramic heads, cotton bodies by Ellen Sheer of Madison, Wis.—marvelous bibelots at $24.) I bought a Paul Chaeleff raku pot T-shirt for $10.
I walked over to Charles Street, looking for the 25-cent culture trolley. It was late and I was cold, so I popped onto the regular Charles Street bus, only to find I had a $5 bill. A matronly post office clerk popped for my $1 fare! So I was in a euphoric mood when I decamped at the Walters.
Alas, the so-called “Splendors of the Vatican” were many-splintered indeed. From the Sancta Sanctorum of the Lateran Palace, these two dozen 16th- and 17th-Century “masterpieces” tell us more about the aggrandizing power of the secular side of the Papistry than of high artistic achievement.
With one exception—the absolutely luminous Cross of Pope Pashcal I (817-24). It presents a cloisonne narrative of several episodes of Christ’s infancy and youth, deployed about the wide intersection arms of the Cross. I would go back to Baltimore just to savour its elegant beauty.
However, most of the rest of the stuff would give Thorstein Veblen toxic shock for its conspicuous consumption—gold-threaded chasubles and chalice covers of overweening arrogance.
These objects were brought here with the clout that accrued to the Baltimore diocese as the founding one of the Roman Catholic Church in the U.S. (1789). It made me think dark thoughts, especially because I had just read Penny Lernoux’s brilliant People of God (Viking, $19.95), about the current struggle between an often cynical Curia and the Liberation Theologians.
Much more impressive than these so-called “Splendors” is Benjamin Henry Latrobe’s cathedral a few blocks away, across from the Enoch Pratt Free Library (where the street-side display cases, always interesting, are now brilliant with Lego treatments of Christmas scenes and themes).
And there’s a better reason to go to the Walters (by January 23): for the Japanese collection of cloisonne enamel ceramics collected by an area high school principal and his wife. The Fishers’ cache is both luminous per se and pedagogically brilliant, showing the sequence of stages in the cloisonneization of a tiny pot. I had never really understood the process.
There’s a section on the visit of William Walters to the Philly Bicentennial—to winnow out a hundred objects from the 50 railroad car caravan the Japanese brought from California to Philadelphia for the expo. Oh what collectors, those Walters, father and son! So get crocked in Baltimore.
Reprinted from Welcomat: After Dark, Hazard-at-Large, January 17, 1990

Friday, 19 November 2010

The Pick of Paris

Paris is always a movable feast of museums, but this Christmas season it has really outdone itself—revving up as it is for the bicentennial of the French Revolution in 1989.
I recently spent several days there previewing the exhibitions for travelers who expect to wish each other Joyeux Noel in the City of Light over the holiday season. Here’s the pick of Paris, with Metro stop directions.
(He who rents a car to drive inside Paris when it has such excellent public transportation is a certified masochist. For 30 French francs you get a “carnet” of ten tickets good on any subway or bus within the city. That’s 50 cents a pop—a world-class travel bargain.)
To get into a properly snowy mood, start with “The Eskimo” at the Museum of Man (Metro: Iena / Line 9). Fifty years ago, a French anthropologist spent a winter in Eastern Greenland, and this exhibition celebrates his discoveries. It is full of tasty exotica such as the fact that “Eskimo” is an Algonquin word for someone who uses a strange language.
The “Eskimos” called themselves “Inuit,” which means “human being.” Ha. Ethnocentrism from the outside and the inside. The works of art which garnish the displays are exhilarating.
Incidentally, one of the best views in all Paris is from its restaurant, the Totem. You’ll see the Eiffel Tower like you’ve never seen it before.
In the same Palais de Chaillot, there is the Maritime Museum and an often-ignored cache of replicas of architecture and sculpture from all over France called the Museum of Monuments. I use the latter to plot my moves into the hinterland, getting advanced glimpses of the greatest art in medieval France. This show doesn’t change—but the Virgin of Autun cathedral is timeless, after all.
And there are no new shows in the Maritime Museum either, but if you don’t get a charge out of the long showboat Napoleon had made to strut his stuff in marine parades, then nothing nautical will turn you on.
My first time at the City of Science and Industry at the Parc Villette (Metro: Corentin Carious / 7) won’t be my last. An engrossing exhibit on wine and winemaking, complete with Saturday afternoon tastings, mixes science and friskiness in an intellectually intoxicating way.
There is even a video game in which you are given so much protective spray and must chase the bugs and such through the vines before time runs out. I was so bad at it that the enemies vine and wine won hands down.
It was also my first visit to the Jardin des Plantes, where the Museum of Natural History is located. I went to see the highly-touted show on bears. And it’s a honey.
It seems that the bears in the Pyranees are on the brink of distinction. And a voluntary group that wants to restore them is behind this absorbing tale of bears from the beginnings of time down to the teddy bear boom.
You’ll learn about bear-baiting and dancing bears, as well as the scientific study of the critters. And because it’s French, there’s bear art as well—mostly sculpture, but other genres as well. This is an ideal family viewing.
As is another show in another building with the puzzling title “Stone and Man.” Well, I declare. Those French museum types are clever. Human history from the stone’s perspective—everything from gravel to gems. You will be astonished how inventive human cultures have been in turning stones to their diverse uses.
For science-oriented types, there’s also a nearby show on growing crystals, as artful in its dazzle as it is instructive. I can see a family spending a whole day at this subway stop—especially since they have a zoo on the Seine side of the garden.
Every time I visit, I take one close look at one thing, have lunch (I’ve never felt so elegant flashing my Visa) and leave to come another day for another fix.
This time it was a fascinating exploration of how children in 19th-Century France were appealed to with visual arts, from learning how to draw to reading the new illustrated books and magazines. A great prehistory for our TV age, where (did you notice?) they’ve even got televisions in the subway.
And, of course, Gae Aulenti’s marvelous recycling of this stately train station as a museum is one of the wonders of the 1980s. Save some energy to ooh and aah at the museum itself. It’s a glory.
Now as you walk back toward the Pont Neuf, look sharp for the Ecole des Beaux Arts, where there is a splendid tribute to the Finnish architect Alvar Aalto. Personally, I think the Finn was the most humanistic of the modern architectural pioneers.
See if you don’t agree when you read the texts on the humanness of wood as a material, the need to deal with psychological factors when you talk about functionalism, and his theory that small countries like his are ideal laboratories for architectural innovation.
And bless them, you can actually test the chairs as you gaze raptly at the Beaux Arts ceilings. I’m suspicious of any chair I can’t sit in. A posteriori reasoning applies.
My next destination for you is the Musee Des Arts Decoratifs on the Rue Rivoli—but there’s a major surprise on the way. I mean the new entrance to the Louvre, the pyramid of glass designed by I.M. Pei. I thought it was a dumb idea when I read about it, but they let me take a sneak preview, and it’s a splendor.
You won’t be able to use it as a portal to the most comprehensive museum in the world until February, but you can schmooze about in the Cour Napoleon, where I guarantee you will consider it one of the greatest sculptures you’ve every encountered.
Then take the Passage Richelieu (isn’t French history exciting?) to the Rue Rivoli and the Museum of Decorative Arts where 30 years of the work of the Union of Modern Artists is on display. There are mainly the architects who pioneered the modern styles, and their painter and sculptor friends.
If you want to understand how modern architecture has been as good and as bad as it has, this is a must. There’s even a swatch of posters by Cassandre—touting the liner Normandie and other neat choices from the period 1927-57. If you go to this museum direct, use the Palais Royal stop on Line 7.
There’s one small museum I always hit when I come to Paris—the Museum of Publicity on the Rue Paradis (Poissoniere / 7). This Christmas they are hanging UNICEF posters. But the building itself is a visual glory, a showroom for Art Nouveau tiles for building contractors that has been renovated into this cache of 30,000 posters. It has a fine shop as well if you’re looking for great historical posters and related visual materials.
Let me conclude with a suggestion that you get into a permanently Parisian mood by savoring the photography of Henri Cartier-Bresson—the highlight at the museum of photography at the Palais de Tokyo (Trocadero / 9). It’s next door to the Museum of Modern Art of the City of Paris, where there’s a Sigmar Polke retrospective.
If that neo-expressionist doesn’t appeal to you, stop long enough to see its regular collections. I always “discover” another 20th-Century artist I’d never heard of when I visit. And there’s Raoul Dufy’s 1937 paean to electricity, and Matisse’s dancers, and more. A great souvenir shop (totes, scarves, books, etc.) and a very good and inexpensive luncheon room.
There are other more specialized exhibitions—Symbolism at the Petit Palais, 17th-Century Italian paintings at the Grand Palais, and on and on! When you arrive at your train station, pick up the monthly guide to art exhibits (it’s free and handy—fits in your pocket) and inquire about the museum passes that give you terrific bargains for varied lengths of time.
They’ll also give you a map of the Metro. Sit down and have a café noir and croissant and plot your moves. Don’t get depressed when you’re about to leave Paris, not having seen all you wanted to. It’s inevitable.
And try to get a ten-franc piece (for a luggage cart) and a five-franc coin (for a locker to store your gear while you prowl Paris by Metro).
Reprinted from Welcomat: After Dark, Hazard-at-Large

Thursday, 18 November 2010

A Renaissance in Washington

Witold's right about Cardinal's Indian Museum being "out of place."

Wednesday, 17 November 2010

Princeton and The Queen Of Arts

Princeton is the kind of village where, when you come to see a nationally-touted exhibition on Greek terra cotta figurines at the Princeton Art Museum, you hike past the Princeton Historical Society’s Bainbridge House and discover a splendid exhibition far finer than the admittedly excellent one you came to see.
I’m speaking of the “Small Town, Distinguished Architects” show that walks you through a visual essay of 33 architects who have made the university town a must stop for world students of architecture. Then, having psyched you up to a frenzy of enthusiasm, they quietly slip you an eight-fold map brochure of almost a score of examples you can see by foot.
What a lineup: Benjamin Latrobe (Stanhope Hall), John McComb (Alexander Hall), John Haviland (Charles Hodge House), Thomas U. Walter (First Presbyterian Church), John Notman (Prospect), Richard Morris Hunt (Lenox House), John Russell Pope (52 Bayard Lane), McKim, Mead, & White (Cottage Club), Ralph Adams Cram (Graduate College), Carrere & Hastings (Princeton Battle Monument), Frank Lloyd Wright (Brad Mills House), Marcel Breuer (Institute for Advanced Studies housing), Charles Moore (Gund House), Harrison & Abramovitz (Institute Library), Minoru Yamasaki (Woodrow Wilson School), Peter Eisenman (Barenholtz House), Charles Gwathmey (Renovation of Whig Hall), I.M. Pei (Spelman Halls), Robert Venturi (Gorden Wu Hall) and last—and, in my opinion, least by a mile—Michael Graves (Graves Residence, a high-tech, low-muse fiddling with a former warehouse). Is that a big-league, all-star-game lineup, or what?
There are even serendipitous discoveries for an architectural groupie like me. William A. Potter, for example, is new to me, but his Chancellor Green Library (1871-73) is in gorgeous High Victorian funk. I must see more Potter. And soon.
Then there’s A. Page Brown, known to me as the architect of San Francisco’s iconic Ferry Building (1895). In Princeton he left a sweet residence at 56 Bayard Lane (1887-89) in the Queen Anne / Shingle Style.
From Princeton History, put out by the Princeton Historical Society, we learn that Brown prepped with McKim, Mead and White, and that his principal patron was Cyrus McCormick (of reaper fame), as well as James McCosh, the president of the College of New Jersey (renamed Princeton in 1896), who guided it through the turbulent years after the Civil War, replacing the former Southern clientele with the new barons of Northern industrialism.
This also marked a shift from using Philly architects toward New York, though there were a few notable exceptions. For example, when Princeton decided to follow the College Gothic trail blazed by Yale and Harvard, they commissioned the architects of the University of Pennsylvania dormitories, Cope & Stewardson, to build Constitution Hall (1896). But for the most part the center of architectural gravitas shifted from Philly to New York.
That is, until the new Institute of Advanced Studies broke the stranglehold of College Gothic, with Bauhausish Marcel Breuer’s Institute Housing (1957). Minoru Yamasaki’s Woodrow Wilson School (1965) is bottom-of-the-barrel Yama. It has none of the flair of Lambert Airport, St. Louis, nor the elegant charm of the McGregor Conference Center at Wayne State.
The scale is wrong; there’s too much fenestration which has to be curtained off to reduce sun glare; and the plaza and the pool are the visual pits.
If Modernism has its peccadilloes, Post-Modernism in my judgment has wholly fallen from grace. And you’d never know from the obsequious filiopietism of the exhibit that Princeton is the principal source of this infection.
Contradictions and contrarieties began to exfoliate in Venturi’s Princeton mind when he attended Donald Egbert’s course on architecture all four years. Then the contagion spread to the West Coast, where Moore was definitely Less. Then it Petered out in the Midwest at Eisenman’s Wexner Center for the Visual Arts (1989), the most egregious imposition of goofy ideas for an educational institution I’ve ever had the misfortune to experience first-hand.
Heh, I could be wrong. The nice thing about the “Small Town, Distinguished Architects” show is that they give you a free map to check out the details on your own. There are two Venturis on the trail (Fisher Hall, 1990, the Gordon Wu Hall, 1980) and one Gwathmey-Siegel (the Whig Hall Reconstruction, 1974). I sort of like their Whig Hall reconstruction, mainly because they left the lovely Greek Revival intact.
But you can’t knock the black outline of the self-directed tour brochure: “Today, the town of Princeton has developed into a virtual textbook of the history of building, and has become an important place for those who wish to see not only what’s old, but also what’s new in American architecture.”
This free exhibition has proved so popular that it has been extended through March 3. Unfortunately, Bainbridge House (158 Nassau Street, 609-921-6748) will be open only Saturdays and Sundays, 12-4, or by appointment for a group by calling Curator of Education Philip A. Hayden. The Princeton History magazines cost $5 each.
The museum is a brisk ten-minute walk from the Amtrak Station in Princeton. By car, drive north on I-95 to N.J. 202.
Reprinted from Welcomat: After Dark, Hazard-at-Large, February 27, 1991

Monday, 15 November 2010

Sunday, 14 November 2010

The Trouble with the Humanities in America

Make that “troubles”, plural. But I begin with the grossest betrayal: the simultaneous emergence of the $100,000 super-research professor and the parallel peonization of the teaching A.B.D. Folk opinion has it that the English professor is by definition a Hyperliberal, a judgment I not only agree with but exemplify. But sweet talk is not philosophy nor ethics.

Our betrayal of the underclasses began after World War I, when the NCTE abandoned the IVY-dominated MLA to take over the training of public school teachers. Two Americas emerged: the elite institutions where allegedly best and brightest hungered to succeed in, and the increasingly bedraggled public schools, underfinanced and underprotected. Jefferson’s perceptive remark that a democracy could be no better than its common schools was ignored, to our current dismay.

That trahison des clercs is a major reason I junked a full professorship with tenure after only 30 years of teaching, from high school through research university. I’d rather write for an alternative weekly than participate in the farce that our educational system had declined to: cultivator of a few Nobel laureates rather than nurturer of the least of our democratic charges.

Such inequities are but a short step down to iniquities. That intellectual treason led quickly and surely to a pseudo-democracy presided over by barbarians like Rush Limbaugh who prates mindlessly about “Excellence in Broadcasting” and (dis)simulates a conservative think tank while repeatedly alluding on air to Imam Obama all the while expressing his fatuous hope that he will fail.

And this malarkey is funded by the richest and most powerful agents trained in this duplicity at our Ivy Towers. From “Every boy can grow up to be President” to Ronald Reagan’s despicable campaign to make it possible in America once more to be rich. I find $100,000 professors a greater ethical disgrace than hyperbonus bankers. We’re supposed to be leading the ethical way.

But leading inevitably to this collapse has been our defective definition of “the Humanities”. By the Arnoldian criterion drilled into us in graduate school, we must see that our charges are exposed to the best that was thought and said in the past. Not until I by chance read the maverick British professor Raymond Williams did I learn the essential conclusion of that Arnoldian aphorism so that fresh ideas can be brought to bear on our new industrial problems! What a failure of judgment in most of our Professoriate: reducing Matthew Arnold to a flack for upper middle class Culture with a capital C, when it was our small c culture that they were corrupting by their negligence. Inequities are iniquities indeed.

Where did they get off the track? Their first responsibility as guardians of the Humanities is to know what they are: not a booklist for silly exams, but an earnest evaluation of what makes us human, i.e. a sophisticated explanation of what makes us human, viz., our reason and our free will. A valid Humanities curriculum would begin with valid paleographical speculations about how and when mankind achieved the breakthrough first of toolmaking and then the wonder of speech. Solid speculation contends that agriculture nurtured us physically so much better than the wander and hunt society that our brain grew into speech and conscious culture.

That’s where our students must begin, examining critically the many myths and beliefs that led over millennia to our technological present. With constant focus on what we find ethical at every stage of human development, the better to use our two greatest gifts, reason and free will. When we hear that art speculators have just paid $54 millions for a Matisse when billions of fellow humans are dying from poor nutrition or easily controlled diseases, we must learn that this is a moral outrage. As is, we deploy books as mazes to be threaded for a meaningless degree. That’s inhumanities behavior.

For millennia we didn’t know the extent of fellow humans’ sufferings and frustrations. Now we do, and school must teach us how to use our reason and free will to save our newly discovered fellows.

Saturday, 13 November 2010

The Trouble(s) with Modern Architecture

Apologia pour vita mea: I’m often asked how a retired professor of American Literature presumes to pontificate on the subject of Modern Architecture. A good question, but a false premise.I don’t profess a specialist’s preparation. (Indeed, the closest I got to such special savvy was the “D” I got in mechanical drawing when as an nineteen year old ex-Navy aviation radar specialist I signed up for a degree in electrical engineering at the University of Detroit in my hometown!) What a shock for a student used to All A’s report cards. I decided on the spot that my profession must be one where sloppiness was an asset: I became an English Professor.

No, I bring the everyday experience of using architecture to my task. If I were gifted enough I’d aspire to be the Ralph Nader of American architectural criticism. Indeed, I believe our American architecture is a median mess because almost no one attempts to help the common man (I think of our public schools) learn how to judge their man made environment. I can offer one sterling exception to this dismal cultural failure: Louie Kahn’s protégé Reggie Wurman and his architectural partner Alan Levy in the 1960’s devised just such a curriculum for my second hometown, Philadelphia. It was an aspect of the enlightened era Cranbrook Art Academy educated urban planner Edmund Bacon brought to our city.

But my interest in architecture derives equally from the depressing architectural privation of my youth. I was “homeless” in Depression Detroit from 1930 to 1944, from age three to seventeen. My father absconded with his secretary to start a second life in Nevada, ending up as a highly successful real estate agent in partnership with the mayor who had made Las Vegas into a boom town. His death gift of $100,000 financed post-post doctoral traipses on unknown continents to see architecture by the likes of Corbu, Behrens, Aalto, Piano, Foster, Niemeyer et al in situ.

My mother was forced to teach in a middle school in Hamtramck, then the Polish “suburb” of Detroit. Her survival tactic was to double up on a rental with another beleaguered teacher, in this instance a nun who just kicked her habit. They would rent until summer vacation started, then switch to a cheaper summer cottage, and in the fall find another apartment! Ad infinitum, until the New Deal kicked in, making it possible for my mother and a different teacher to buy a new house in the last undeveloped sector, the Northeast. Meanwhile, I was parked a hundred miles to the North at Holy Rosary Academy in Bay City, along with my only other sibling, Mike, seven years older than I.

The “kindergarten” teacher (I was her only student!) Sister Mary Felicia really taught first and second grade when she wasn’t my virtual mother, turning me over to the nuns in the kitchen! I was a rebel from the start: when my Mother prepared to return solo to Detroit for the first time, she tried to ease my pain by giving me a $5 bill, not peanuts in those depression years! I tore it in two and threw it in her face.

And I date my interest in architecture to those weeks before I was parked in Bay City. The ex-nun Justine Fitzpatrick had her father boarding with us. Uncle Dan I called. He was in charge of deliveries at Crowley-Milner's, the number three department store in downtown Detroit. When I first saw Albert Kahn’s glorious Beaux Deco Fisher Building (1928)with its golden illuminated crown, my Hibernian “uncle” called it the GillyHoo Bird’s Nest. And most weekday evenings, as he settled in to read the Detroit Times, he’d ask me suddenly,”Did you hear that whoosh of wings, Pat? It must be the GillyHoo Bird!”

And sure enough, as I hopped outside on the front porch, there’d be a Mars Bar or a Baby Ruth! Later I would learn about the remarkable career of Albert Kahn, that first child of a German rabbi’s six, who emigrated at 11 to Detroit in 1880. He had to work so he didn’t even finish high school, let alone architectural school. He was so gifted a designer his proud bosses sent him to Europe for a polishing! I remember with pleasure that my first job as an autoworker was spot welding the Lincoln and Mercury mainframes in one of his factories.

When I went to Weimar in 1999 to write a book on Walter Gropius’s architectural idealism, I was motivated by reading Nicholas Pevsner’s pioneer book on architectural modernism which taught me that Pius founded the Bauhaus to bring good design to the working classes!

And I was stunned that the filiopietistic Germans were abysmally ignorant of Kahn’s greatness! Dieter Marcello’s superb film, “Albert Kahn: Architekt der Moderne” was unknown. I gave my copy to the Bauhaus Uni library and invited Marcello to Lecture in Weimar. Partly it was because Kahn was contemptuous of what he sneeringly called the Glasshouse Boys. He convened a Tagung at the University of Michigan in 1941 on Defense Factories. He invited the Saarinens, Eliel and Eero, Gropius and Mies. He chided them for not designing factories by first studying the production process and then enclosing the production lines. The Bauhaus was still the prisoner of the Glass Palace (1851) Showoff Syndrome: It’s evident in Gropius/Meyer’s Fagus shoelast factory (1910) and Mies’ Barcelona Pavilion (1928) as well as his ripoff Neue National Galerie (1968) which was designed to show off Bacardi rum in Havana until Castro said Nyet! In Havana it was concrete. In Berlin it was steel. Its first floor is good only for goofy shows of Harley-Davidson motorcycles. Or for Pritzker Prize receptions. (I attended Lord Foster’s canonization there in 1999!)

Finally, my own architectural decisions. Our first house in Dewitt in 1954 (next to Michigan State) was a prefab redwood sheathed Cape Cod with three bedrooms, $400, $40 a month!(Teacher’s salary $3600!) In a former corn field! Designed by the most neglected architect in American history, Charles Goodman! OK so I had to put the tile onto the living room. At the same time that Gropius and Konrad Wachsmann were failing at the General Panel Corporation. With a money bleeding office on Park Avenue in New York. And a production plant in an abandoned Los Angeles airplane factory. (Goodman worked out of National Homes, Lafayette, IN-- dead in the middle of the country--and understood banking mortgage traditions.)

Our second(1956-1959) was a rental in Levittown, PA, after I got a Carnegie Postdoctoral fellowship at Penn to create a new course on the mass society (communication and production.) The Ivy eggheads mocked the three Levittowns (in NY, PA,and NJ), but Arthur Levitt was generations ahead of their facile cynicism.

Our third was the best ever (1959-2010), a three bedroom,two story modern house it turns out it was secretly designed by the great Louie Kahn, in Greenbelt Knoll, the first successful experiment in integrated housing in Philadelphia. So it is clear I don’t reject modern architecture. I want it to shed its bad habits. Those tics derive from the intellectual flabbiness of Modernism, which happily seems to be fast coming to an inglorious end. Before I crit the trouble(s) with modern architecture.

Friday, 12 November 2010

Authoritarian Religions and Peeping Thomism

On Making Muslim Democracies:

As a philosophy major at the Jesuit University of Detroit (1946-49, I was astonished to see a side of Maritain than none of my Jesuit professors alluded to in the least. Their Thomism was distinctly totalitarian!

Indeed when my essay, "Needed: More Red-blooded American Catholics" ,(i.e.who acted more like Communists on social issues such as racism and anti-Semitism), I was sneered at by my professors(except for sociologist John Coogan,S.J.), even though it won the Midwest Jesuit Province contest in 1949. At graduate school in Cleveland, the Chancery badgered the Newman Club chaplain, Paul Hallinan, for the crypto-Marxist editorials I wrote for the Newman weekly.

When confronted by the ecclesiatical brass, especially ultraconservative John Krol who soon became the backward looking Cardinal Archbishop of Philadelphia, my hometown when I joined the Penn faculty in American Studies in 1957. Hallinan told the skittery brass: "It's a university, gentleman: we're seeking the truth!"

(He was like me, working on his Ph.D.,with a dissertation on the first liberal bishop of Cleveland.) Paul became the first Northern bishop of Charleston, S.C. since the Civil War, and finally the first Archbishop of Atlanta and an intimate of Martin Luther King, Jr.

This hooferay was complicated by my maternal uncle's being Aloysius M.Fitzpatrick, editor of the diocesan weekly. No socialist fighter he!

Thursday, 11 November 2010

Herbert J. Gans: America in 2033?

One of the unexpected pleasures of octogenarianship is discovering the final triumphs of one you knew at the beginning of his career. Herbert J. Gans was born in 1927, in Germany. Like me, in Battle Creek. And we both landed at Penn the year our academic lives took off:1957. I as a Carnegie Post Doctoral Fellow in American Studies, to create a pioneer humanities course on “The Mass Society”, and Herb as the mentee of that great urbanist, Martin Meyerson (1922-2007) to whom Herb dedicates his latest book (his 12th!),”Imagining America in 2033:How the Country Put Itself Together After Bush” (U of Michigan, 2008).

Not only did our new academic agendas on mass culture overlap, he as a sociologist, me as an Americanist, but he lived in Levittown, N.J. and I in Levittown, Pa. His main man was Meyerson, whom he praised in his dedication as one “who first encouraged me to think creatively about the future.” Just so, was Gilbert Seldes my mindbending inspiration, and whom I nominated then as the first Dean of the Annenberg School. Gilbert inspired me to help create the humanistic study of Mass Culture. Herb kept clarifying throughout his career at Columbia, America’s hidden class system as it affected city planning, information media, and mass education.

“As the title suggests, this book is an imagined history of the first third of the twenty-first century. It describes an extraordinary period in America in which the country put itself back together after the political and economic disasters to which it had been subjected at the start of the century.” (p.ix.) The book begins, in a novel way, as a utopian fiction in the tradition of Edward Bellamy’s “Looking Backward: 2000-1887” and ends as a series of clearly stated position papers on the issues that made the stolen Bush Presidency such a tragic American aberration.

Gans confesses he was moved by Bellamy in high school (he fled Nazism at age 14). In graduate school he began to think about writing a “realistic utopia”, “in which credible people, grappling with standard economic and political obstacles, were creating a better future.” (p.xii.) He was “encouraged in this project by my two primary mentors, Martin Meyerson and David Riesman, both of whom were active in the post-World War II revival of interest in utopian planning.” Gans’ first two books, “The Urban Villagers” and ”The Levittowners”, took the position that these working class milieux were not the stereotyped parodies that snooty Upper Westside New York eggheads made them out to be.

I very well remember(will I ever forget?) how this Modernist scorn worked out at the Daedalus Conference on Mass Culture in which I was given the unprized assignment(Gilbert was too busy!) of defending the Gannish contention that these new institutions were not plain and simple moral and esthetic bankruptcies, but human, thus corrigible, institutions in transition. The conference literally ended with the poet Randall Jarrell waggling his prophetic beard at me, and intoning:” Mr. Hazard, you’re the man of the future, and I’m glad I’m not going to be there.” This, alas, was the majority vote! Sadly, Jarrell committed suicide some months later. I loved teaching his poems, however dementedly stereotyped his sociological conclusions.

Incidentally, my commitment as a humanist to a canon of past texts was anathema to the sociologist in Herb. He talked rather of “taste cultures”, plural, dealing with particularities of a sociological subset. In Black Talk: Different Strokes for Different Folks. I had been drifting to this pluralism as I cross-examined my own teaching both in high school, college and research university. It’s why I finally devised “International English”, an open-ended humanism that was future-oriented. If the Old Regime prized the best that had been thought and said, IE scans the horizon for future literary options, in the works of ,say, Irish poet Seamus Heaney, Nigerian playwright Wole Soyinka, and South African novelist Nadine Gordimer. My future-centred humanism became solidly based on Herb’s multifaceted singularities.

Herb’s fictional gimmick was four imagined presidencies: James Caruso (2012-20); Frank O’Hara (2020-24);Susan Gordon (2024-32); and Stephen Hernandez (1933-). Middle class American teacher, Jewish feminist—the Goldberg family name was anglicized when they moved South, Republican interim, Latino ending his first year of melioristic politicking. The action begins the night before Hernandez was to be inaugurated with Caruso and Gordon advising him (GOP O’Hara sent his regrets!)and a female Secret Service driver delivering them to the new President for a palaver in a safe house in Georgetown. He had begun “this story” during the Nixon darkness and took it up in earnest “about the time the Supreme Court elected George W. Bush president in 2000.”

The real action begins in his historical fantasy when “the seculars” take over.”The once powerful religious-business alliance is ancient history now, Protestant, Catholic, Jews, and even Muslim conservatives having become so disgusted with professional politicians that they have returned to their churches, synagogues, and mosques.” (p.4.) Gans describes a new economy where there were fewer very rich and very poor.

When retail and services begin to dominate the economy, almost everyone finds more government intervention congenial because necessary. For example, outsourcing makes company health insurance unaffordable so the government takes over. Nurses become “near M.D.’s”-- to relieve hospital jams. On the other hand, the U.S. was no longer the most powerful nation on earth. And the now unaffordable full blown wars on terror were to be replaced by less expensive intelligence services. The key to his multivalent future was thoughtful adjustments to inevitable change.

His idealists sought better political representation. Jerrymandering is outlawed. Two senators per state, no matter the population. Big cities get senators as they became states like Hamburg, Berlin, and Bremen in Germany. Our so-called Sacred Documents got a respectful once over. Reason replaces ranting in our political life. The Electoral college is abolished. Election financing goes public.

Education is revised to conform to changing job availabilities. In short, all of our institutions get eagle-eyed, to see if they can work more effectively. Gans’ fiction, as these issues are addressed and sometimes solved, is gradually and graciously replaced by out and out position papers. The book thus ends as a thoughtful critique of our old institutions in the lights of a new century. If you’ve read his first eleven books, this is a replay leavened by his imagined hypothetical presidencies.

If you’ve never read a book of his before, where have you been in the preceding century? Don’t fret! All Herb has learned in his six decades of research and policy proposals is here for you to help make our next third more satisfying and productive. Never dull. (His paragraphs on the necessity for good English in scholarship will relax the tight-assed English teacher who has “grown up” regarding Sociology as a major intellectual mistake.) Never desperate: he keeps his cool even when outraged, as in America’s contemptible treatment of the poor.

And I’ve got great good news for Herb: The Museum of Modern Art has just abandoned its eighty misleading years of following Philip Johnson’s meretricious fixation that Architecture is mainly about Art for the Critic rather than Function for the Client. What gives? Columbia University’s star architectural historian, Barry Bergdoll, has just taken over as MOMA’s new boss! A New Humanitarianism is taking over! (See Nicolai Ouroussoff,”Real-Life Design: Erecting Solutions to Social Problems,” New York Times, October 14, 2010.) Barry must have been listening to his Columbia colleague Gans!

Read another version at Broad Street Review

Tuesday, 9 November 2010

He Said, ‘Have Some Madeira, My Dear’

A week on the island of Madeira doesn’t make you an expert, but it does give you enough time to fall madly in love. With its people. Its arts. Its food. Its spirits (both the intoxicating and the friendly kinds). And especially its heroic highway engineers and the cold-blooded bus drivers who drive on the hairiest hairpin turns in the world.
So I’ve fallen in love with all these Madeiran things, but not necessarily in that order. I’m still in a state of lovely shock at my encounter with this island of 250,000 a thousand kilometers southwest of Lisbon off the coast of Africa.
Half of these sweet Madeiran souls live in Funchal. (It’s entirely characteristic of this horticultural paradise that the capital is named after the funnel plant which grew in abundance when the Portuguese “discovered” it in 1419: It’s a standing joke that it was already well known since the Eighth Century by the Moors, but Imperial regimes must necessarily begin with their own special “discoveries.”)
The cultural vitality and indigenous style of this island staggers the imagination when you realize that they’ve achieved all their elegant simplicity with a population roughly half of Staten Island’s and perhaps 400 square miles of mostly steep volcanic cliffs.

The informative and visually delicious bus sorties I took as part of my Grand Circle Tours (a well-organized, cheap travel service for pre-senile citizens run out of Boston—800-221-2610) were full of the scariest twists and turns in the history of road building—as they get you up and over the main mountains in the center of the island, not to mention the fjord-like indentations along the northern coast.
Mind you, they have had to make an attractive silk purse of tourism out of the sow’s ear of their “cliffy” (Madeiran English!) domain, since it’s their main industry, followed by wine (which I despise, the only flaw in their Eden), wicker work and embroidery.
When the Portuguese first came, it was to cash in on the sugar boom, for which plantations they imported black Moors from Africa as slaves. Those blackamoors gave the physiognomy of the indigenes a handsome idiosyncratic mien, that mixing of bloods.
I stayed at the Hotel Girassol. The hotel’s only flaw was that you couldn’t get a cup of coffee before 7:30 a.m. But I found a better way—walk down to the center of the city.
Downtown in the early morning all the workers are priming themselves with a shot of the hot (sometimes liquor!) at the little bars; I found an especially nice one called “Eden” right next to the main garden where the black swans preen at night under the spotlights—do these guys know how to make things interesting for us gawkers or not?
And, to work on my Portuguese, I’d buy the Diario de Noticias and the Jornal de Madeira from a street hawker. But the very best place to stroll and look is at the Mercado, the big Art Deco market where they sell fish and vegetables and everything else under the sun.
I bought a loaf of sweet bread shaped like an alligator (with red cherries for eyes!). It has happily joined the Hazoo, my collection of animal sculpture. I also bought a machete that’s so sharp I’m still afraid to use it. The old lady who sold it to me nicked the top of my hand when she handed it to me, causing a flurry of bandaidery among the Florence Nightingales on the same bus tour.
There are three don’t-miss museums in Funchal: the Museum of Sacred Art right near City Hall, where the sugar trade spun off great collections of Flemish religious painting and sculpture (and where a glorious poster sells for a ridiculously cheap 80 escudos—about 60 cents); the Museu de Quintas (the name of a big estate where, the director told me, Zarco first lived after “discovering” Madeira), where the Madeiran penchant for wood (the island’s name means “timber”) is evident in a fine historical array of furniture and other applied arts set in a jewel of a horticultural garden—every sea captain or merchant from the farthest corners of the earth apparently brought home seeds of exotic plants and trees; and, finally, the Christopher Columbus museum, which includes glorious maps, early views of the place and ephemera of all sorts to beguile an antiquarian like me.
This museum and its sibling on the offshore island of Porto Santo (where Columbus tried to get rich quick at a sugar factor by marrying the governor’s daughter!) are naturals for Columbus Quincentenary buffs.
One reason the art scene (several galleries, many concerts and other cultural attractions) is so hip is the tourist agency called DRAC (Direccao Regional dos Assuntos Culturals). They’re all practicing artists—mostly grads of the elite art school which admits only ten students a year into the five-year course. No Bohemian barbarians in Madeira, please.
Manuela Aranha is the 50ish matronly lady who runs the show—a delightfully enigmatic, untitled canvas of her own hangs over her desk, where she rarely sits—rushing about egging on her staff. Teresa Brazao is her chief aide and a fine muralist—her five paintings are among the first things you see at Santa Catarina International Airport.
They showed me the growing collection of contemporary art by Madeirans they’re amassing. They’re also looking for some Maecenas to give them the $750,000 they figure it will take to recycle an old building for a Museau Arte Contemporanea. Their offices are a splendidly recycled embroidery factory.
The escrow stuff was delicious, especially an elongated wooden sculpture by Guilhermina da Luz, an émigré art teacher from Angola—if Giacometti had worked in wood, you’d get the idea. Boy, is here ever a place for some philanthropic Getty to plunk down a few megabucks.
Reprinted from Welcomat: After Dark, Hazard-at-Large, March 20, 1991

Monday, 8 November 2010

The Prairie Away-From-Home Companions

Nashville: Garrison Keillor returning to Nashville? It sounded like a natural. Young Anoka, MN unknown gets his first New Yorker boost for a piece on the Grand Ol’ Opry. Returns fifteen years later as the conquering hero of Public Radio—perhaps its only fiscal heavyweight, the leading draw during PR’s endemic fund-raisers, and by report (of local public radio station managers) a veritable 800 direct-dial cottage industry through its Powdermilk-producing “Wireless” mail order catalog. A Prairie Nostalgic’s Dream Come True.
My hunch was right—a luminous occasion, two sold-out shows (3,000 seats in the dazzling new Andrew Jackson Hall of the Tennessee Performing Arts Center), 200 local T-shirts memorializing the APHC first Southern invasion snapped up at $8 a pop before intermission on Friday night’s “rehearsal.” And one of the best monologues this Keillor buff has ever heard—but not about Anoka, rather about the ambiguities of celebrityhood—seen through the falsely naïve eyes of a star-struck fan of Loretta Lynn. It was delivered in those husky, slightly hyped tones Keillor assumes when he wants you, perhaps too hard, to like what he’s doing.

He told how he and his pal Don McNeil (“It was 1970 or 71, August”) drove non-stop from Minnesota to Nashville one Friday night, noT knowing that tickets had to be bought way in advance. (He also played around, Playboyishly, with the fact that Ryman Auditorium abuts a red-light, honky-tonky district, which stunned our strict Christian visitor—and got a giggle from the locals who almost to a person were upper-middle-class types who themselves have only read about red light districts—more about the audience demographics later.)
Keillor (dropping his PHC mask) remembered breathlessly how they had joined the parked pickups from Alabama and Mississippi, all their car radios tuned to a single glorious frequency, WSM (“We Save Millions”), creating a sort of low fidelity quadraphonic experience. One cracker family kept running their young son Curtis over to Ms. Lynn’s bus, to see whether her holy highnotes had yet emerged to ascend the Ryman stage. Cliffhanger. Finally, she started walking regally up the alley next to Tootsie’s Orchid Lounge, through an honor guard of her fanatical admirers flaking each side of the alley which led to the stage door, all of them but her slowly getting soaked in one of those dark night drizzles that make Nashville’s August habitable.

In her long white gown, with jet black hair cascading down in back, she was protected from the elements by an umbrella toting aid in a powder blue suit. “She looked like the Queen of England,” Keillor hyperbolized, “right then she was the Queen to us.” And he garnished her singing “Coal Miner’s Daughter” with a bit about how hard it was to see the Ryman stage through the breath-of-fresh-air opened windows. (There was only what might be called a slit of opportunity between the stone wall that cut off the bottom and the window frame that cut off the top—tall performers were cropped mercilessly by this primitive form of summer night gate crashing.)
By the way, the framing device for this lovely paean of praise was his philosophical aside on how shy people, even adult shy people, don’t have to worry. He had relished this entire occasion without uttering a word.
There was one slightly light blue tale about ice fishing and male bonding in the dark and cold of Lake Woebegon. They treasured these chilblaine days together because they could hawk and spit with impunity. (Shades of Huck Finn and the Widow Douglas.) Then when nature called, they all get rid of their many beers outside the fishing shack, and by discreetly scrutinizing the other urinators, determined “that at least when it was very cold” all men were created equal. That was one thing a shy boy could stop worrying about in the dark and cold. Strangely, he disavowed this fishing shack humor with the old have-it-both ways “I can’t believe I really said that.”

Keillor also gave a rousing performance of “Family Radio,” that narrative ballad in which the sign of a junked radio on a garbage dump triggers recollections of how family nurturing the old Zenith had been, and how they listened to Grand Ole Opry on it as well. He got a laugh with an obscure (to me) aside that he was defying a convention of public radio that the mother had to die in the last verse. His mother (and father for that matter) was alive and well, and presumably listening. A delightful further bit of Keillor’s familyizing was the appearance of his 14-year-old son Jason (“I want to keep an eye on him”) playing completely credible guitar as backup to his father’s singing.
There was a hilarious bit of television as well in which Garrison plays out a front porch game of letting a cat’s erratically switching tail be the metronomic baton for an audience sing-a-long of “America the Beautiful.” He was not so successful with an improvised interchange with the audience, during which fans tried to establish their credentials by asking ever more esoteric questions about Lake Woebegon exotica.
Then there’s the rest of the music. Keillor was glowing in his coup of having Chet Atkins open the set (whence he had to catch a plane was never explained). The lowdown whoops and yelps from this unreconstructed audience of upper-middle-class professionals was pure Civil War. Indeed, at one point, perhaps a nervously shy man flattered his audience to warm it up, apologized for taking so long to make a Southern tour, going on later to add that there were things (unspecified) that you could only find in the South (more yelps).
Keillor was even more fulsome in praise of Emmylou Harris, an off-key, pitch-switching whiner if I ever heard one. Which brings up the whole issue of Keillor fans who hate country and / or folk music. My dentist is such a man, and he told me between amalgams the other day that another hayseed-hating patient of his tapes the Keillor monologues as a painful bit of aural surgery so he can listen to Garrison plain on the way to his drills. I know what he means.
The Butch Thompson Trio (it was an Uno this trip, with pickup local drummer and bassist to save travel expenses) is not your Downbeat winning jazz aggregation either. Sort of honky tonk piano bar. And “The Masters Five,” a gospel singing quintet of stars from other groups, I found kitschily distasteful, sort of the Barbershop Quartet you might find at a Hard Shell Baptist picnic (to engage in the kind of mock theological diversions G.K. specializes in lately.)

The program notes reveal that J.D. Sumner, the world’s “lowest bass singer,” and a gospel artist for 37 years sang backup for Elvis for seven years. He’s the Southern variant of Kay Kyser’s Ishkabibble of “Boop Boop Dittum Datum Whattum Choo” fame. Keillor lapped him up. My ear says he’s an aural abomination. White gospel music is to black Baptist singing what Elvis was to Duke Ellington, a sellable caricature of black folk culture. As those impious thoughts were swirling through my cerebellum, I eurekaed on something strange about the audience. There wasn’t a single, solitary black in the three thousand! Take it back. There were two ushers and the manager of the theatre.
When I brought this odd demographic fact up with the Vanderbilt Yuppie lawyer sitting next to me, he allowed as how it was passing strange. And then went on explaining how black Fisk University had been on the fiscal ropes for years, but that some of his friends in the business community were finally trying to see that it could survive. I allowed as how as we were in Nashville, I’d prefer listening to the Fisk University Jubilee Singers than to these hokey turkeys, the Masters V (as in Latin).
But then I guess the folk faction is happy I’m not G.K.’s booking agent. “More jazz, less zither” is not a good APHC bumper sticker. Still it makes one wonder about the sociological animus behind the Lake Woebegon nostalgia machine. In the good old days, before the cities messed up the U.S. Still, strangely (I mean it almost sounded like protesting too much, so undermotivated was the declaration) G.K. affirmed his loyal Democratic politics on the stage of Andrew Jackson Hall in Nashville.
Behind that affable, sleepy-eyed persona lurks a very unshy power-broker. Like Hemingway who later on parodied his own hairy chest macho, Keillor may be at the point where shy is becoming shyster. When St. Paul’s RiverFest offered him $40,000 for the World Theatre ceiling, he demanded $70,000 and passed the roof-healing operation by. He even threatened to move APHC out of St. Paul if the legislature didn’t pay for part of the $300,000 receiling job. That’s Anoka hardball, folks.
Indeed, the recent ukase from American Public Radio that all 280 affiliates carrying Companion had to broadcast it by 6 p.m. local time, has sent local program managers fuming to their peg boards trying to rejuggle their schedules to accommodate the numero uno from St. Paul. Are we witnessing the first slight Primadonnafication of Garrison Edward Keillor? APHC is the biggest audience builder, best fund raiser on the network, but does that justify APR’s forcing stations to carry all their offerings to earn the right to air Prairie? One east coast manager told me the local stations wouldn’t be so mad if APHC had announced a national tune-in advertising campaign when they laid down the no after 6 p.m. curfew.
And there’s just a trace of creeping Studs Terkelism in the new Garrison. Last month he went down to Milwaukee to act as a judge for their annual Young Writers Contest at the Journal. A feisty “Lifestyle” piece noted that Garrison asked to be shown the blue collar redoubts of the city—he wanted to go to no bar where they used the word, “disjunction.” Come on, old English major Gary, guys who have big vocabularies needn’t be shy about those kinds of words. It’s what made the New Yorker great, and you love to bask in the impressive glow of your publications there.
Shy is shy. Sly is something else. Meanwhile my dentist, as usual, has found the way to handle a sensitive issue: tape him off, and play him back, solo, unembellished with folk fakery, or fake folkery. Alas, judging from the absence of the Fisk Jubilee Singers from his Nashville gig, he really prefers the cutesy Masters V to the real number. Let’s call him a great comedian with a bad ear, who fell in love with Grand Ole Opry at too impressionable an age. And besides his book comes out, soundlessly, in September!

Sunday, 7 November 2010

Doonesbury is 40!

As a certified English Major snob, I regarded comics in general as made for poor slobs! Al Capp and Charles Schulz, Lil Abner and Peanuts. Locked in by two Canons (Catholic and Curricular),alas I had to catch “Doonesbury” at age 83! (Ed Pilkington, “Doonesbury at 40”, Guardian, 10/26/10, G2.) What a belated kick.

It all began with the boredom of a third year Yalie, named Garry Trudeau. The first installment of the future Kartoon King Mike Doonesbury and his football player roommate, BD, puzzled all. “Doone” alludes to boarding school jargon—a duffus or klutz, the “bury” to his pal Charlie Pillsbury.“ Garry had been riffing with a sports cartoon called “Bull Tales” based on the current Yale quarterback, one Brian Dowling.

The strip was to end with football season. But a local book editor thought he saw a future in it, and coaxed the 21 year old on 26 October 1970 to turn the strip into a syndicated newspaper feature. Trudeau recalls, from his keep in Upper Eastside Manhattan, that he had a vague ambition of becoming a graphic designer. So he was willing to sign a one year contract. The syndicators laughed hilariously at his innocence of their world’s 20 year long dotted lines. Little did these worthies know that day they were creating a milestone in the genre!

“You could say that was the first Doonesbury joke, and readers have been howling with laughter ever since. And not just laughing. they’ve been frowning, shouting, crying, blushing—the full gamut of emotions—as a result of a strip that broke the mould of the comic page and shattered countless conventions. Over the last four decades Doonesbury has established itself as so much more than a traditional cartoon. It is a soap opera, a tragedy, a comedy, an investigative agency, a liberal political commentary, a scourge of pomposity and corruption, a humanitarian exercise, all rolled into one.”(p.4.)

And a semantic club that drives gasbags up the wall. He bumped Trump who replied dumbly that GT was a “jerk” and “a loser”. (Anyone who nails that stuffed jacket is a permanent idol of mine.) Gonzo God, Hunter S. Thompson was another matter. When Garry did a sketch on him, he hollered copyright infringement. And mailed him an envelope with sheets of used toilet paper, the Nude Journalism. “And followed this not so noble gesture with these mortal words: “If I ever catch that little bastard, I’ll tear his lungs out.” Gauche?.

The most memorable fracas derived from Saint Ronald Reagan’s aphorism writer’s desk.

Three prose swatches backed by the same broken down White House sketch:
“His love of country, his generosity for those less fortunate, his distinctive art.
... and his winning and compassionate persona made him one of our most remarkable and distinguished Americans.

…and one who truly did it his way”. Ronald Reagan, May 23, 1985.

Final shot: Seven smiling Mafiosa friends! Very Garry funny.

Frank made the mistake soon thereafter of trying to trump Trudeau during a Carnegie Hall concert. The audience responded their way, and boo-ed him offstage!

Editors sweated where to put this new kind of visual trouble-maker! Finally they mostly moved him to the OpEd page. Where he belongs! Mort Sahl, Lennie Bruce, et al. How we could use them to stomp on the Tea Party Twerps. Sic ‘em Garry. We love you Trudeau.

Here's a good read: Andrew McMeel, 40: A Documentary Retrospective, 2010, $100. Much cheaper used copies on Amazon.

Saturday, 6 November 2010

Friday, 5 November 2010

World Hum, Sweet Hum

Life just gets ithicker and ithicker. An odd I see!

Thursday, 4 November 2010

How Wall Street Hid Its Mortgage Mess

Hmmmm! US has the world's highest incarceration rate but apparently no time for justice for wealthy liars.

You must be poor to get incarcerated in America. Take our former U.S.Supreme appointed President:: no punishment for DUI, no punishment for being AWOL from the Champagne Squadron (Itself an upper class dodge to avoid Vietnam service), serial bankruptcies, the last of which involved unpunished insider trading.

Hmm! It pays to be upperclass in America. Bush took those funds stolen from his unwary investors to the Texas Rangers, where he became,pronto,a brush collecting millionaire on a West Texas ranch. Nice example for our hyper-incarcerated poor youth. And we're teaching democracy to Iraq and Afghanistan?

Please. Blackwater has no valid teaching credentials. Nor Cheney's former employer.

Wednesday, 3 November 2010

His Summer Home

In these dire times, Timothy Egan makes us grateful for Gifford Pinchot, TR--and Woody Guthrie.

Tuesday, 2 November 2010

The Zaller Proviso

The Zaller proviso--that "governments" are denied the right of free speech--is idiotic purism. It turns our overcrowded global theatre of ideology over to its most demented voices. I despise the demented Petraeus template of an unwinnable war, but praise him for trying to protect his troops from the Taliban's untimely use of IED's. Only a professor in the safehouse of a university can believe in such absolutist silence.

Ditto, Hilary Clinton's diplomatic words, in the context of several generations of American cultural imperialism. As the vicious myth of American Exceptionalism (our common delusion since our greedily wresting "our land" from the Indians) finally reveals its selfish motives, our government needs all the more to apologize to the world, as Obama has started to do.

Perhaps too little, too late. The World's Last Best Hype.

Monday, 1 November 2010

Hail, Columbus!

When pennypinching Buckeyes plunk down $95 millions to celebrate the 500th anniversary of their eponym Columbus discovering America, what they come up with had damn better be good. And is it ever! AMERIFLORA ’92 wouldn’t have interested than canny Genoan, so benignly obsessed with finding another way to the Orient’s riches since the newly regnant Moors were blocking the traditional Mideastern route. But every American will be (and many foreigners, to judge by the crowd I observed the last day in April, ten days after the official opening by President Bush).

The only nit I would pick were the outrageously long lunch lines in “The Taste of the Nations,” a gustatory United Nations under one roof. In fact, I ended up licking a superb Borden ice cream bar dipped in two piles of hot chocolate to better hold the cashew chips in lieu of lunch. That hungry quibble aside, I say the only official American celebration of the Quincentenary is a howling success.
To justify such expenditures in these fiscally austere times, the city fathers devised a strategy of using legacy buildings in 100-year-old Franklin Park, two miles from downtown Columbus on Broad Street. The 10E bus will take you there, for 50 cents if you’re a senior! So don’t get bogged down in traffic and parking problems, go mass transpo. The single most interesting legacy to my architectural eye was the updating and expansion of the 1895 Palm House and Conservatory. It is a NeoDeco lark of a building, many leveled, multi-splendored, much ado about some things floral. There was a boffo Bonsai tournament going on the day I visited.

And a super Boehm porcelain bird officially sponsored by a local firm called the Pewter Goose. And, especially, “Just Naturally Splendid,” a show-off expo of the Ohio Designer and Craft Guild. You could spend a whole day just in that grand building by the “Mad Dutchman,” chuck full of visual delights and surprises—this permanent collection of flora from every nook and cranny of God’s Green Globe being its permanent enchancement of Columbus.
The financing of the 6 month extravaganza is a shrewd triple mix of public funding, corporate selling, and expenditures for entrance and souvenirs by the visiting public. There are occasions when this flogging of landscaping services, fertilizer, and such can become visually onerous, but by and large commercial sponsors large and small are discreet and non-pushy. There are kitschy edges to many of the international souvenir shops, but what the hell: if it teaches Americans to be more global, a little bit of kitsch won’t hurt over the long haul.

I had a good schmooze at the Indian pavilion where a friendly Rao named Paul, once of Bombay but now a successful chemical engineer of twenty years residence, explained how the Asian Indian Committee of America took this project in hand, and directed the Indian League of Ohio (800 members in Columbus, 900 in Cleveland) in its volunteer construction of the India pavilion. It was like a nineteenth century communal barn-raising. Can’t get more American than that. Or more Midwest.
Incidentally, Genoa, the sister city of Columbus (the school children of that Italian city decades ago pitched in their lira to finance the huge Columbus statue in front of City Hall) has a major presence on site; and off site the University of Genoa is collaborating with OSU to field major scholarly symposia over the six month run of AMERIFLORA. It’s pretty impressive stuff. As a Midwesterner from up the Interstate in Detroit, I share the cultural inferiority complex we Middies felt when we mingle with Ivy League Easties. No more, thank you. The flowering of Columbus as an urbane city (pun intended) is miracle enough to stagger sextillion of infidels.
There is also an impressive public entertainment program. The day I visited for example, The Shanghai Rod Puppet Theatre was appearing. I had a great time, Mr. George Wang of Claremont, California interpreting, telling the troupe about my marginal success as a student of Mandarin at the Shanghai Foreign Language Institute in 1982. Wendy’s, the Columbus-based fast-foodster, has the corporate lock on that logo. Bridgestone, the Japanese tiremaker from nearby Akron, has the tram concession. And so on.
When I first visited Columbus (in 1955) for the National Association of Educational Broadcasters Convention it was Dishwater City, dull, dull, dull. We use to beer up at the (long gone) Deshler Hilton, emulating the frat boys out at OSU in our fatuities. It’s a different kitchen sink, these days. Begin with the 40,000 circulation “Columbus Alive!,” an alternative paper that touts Columbus’s new cultural features whilst keeping its leaders more or less honest with hard-hitting political analysis. Begin your stay at Ameriflora ’92 by scanning its skeds—it appears, free, every Thursday.
And Columbus Culture (Goodbye, Philip Roth!) is easy to get to. Start out by taking the 10W bus back down Broad Street until you hit the Columbus Museum of Art. Right now it’s showing the Impressionist and Modernist Collections of a local couple—“She’s a Lazarus,” the elegant colored gentleman at the front desk explained. The department store fortune has always been deployed with Jewish mitzvah generosity. “And he’s a surgeon from Cleveland,” the same informant advised—hinting that such was a defeat. (As a Ph.D. in American Culture from Cleveland’s Western Reserve (1957) I considered that teasing sneer a bit mean spirited.)
Wherever their fortunes are coming from, that collecting couple, the Siraks, have perfect eyes. I have never seen, anywhere, anytime, as cogent a gloss on the twin trends of impressionism and modernism. And the treat of their careful culling was complemented with a ravishing swatch of new additions to the Photography Collection. Holy Toledo, I thought to myself, as I contentedly walked down Broad to my next destination: COSI (pronounced Co-sigh), the science and industry museum which was gussied up as a Beaux Arts Veterans Memorial.

They were just closing a marvelous traveling show on Antarctica—in a modernoid tent designed by a Hungarian architect (there’s a video explaining its success at hanging in there despite its odd shapes). But its Scoop de Jour is an Ameriflora special on Science in Sport.
A spunky young Buckeye bright OSU classics / teacher ed major (1986) named Katherine Margard kindly met my USAir flight from Philadelphia at Port Columbus. When I got over the kick of hearing her enthusiasm for Latin and public education, I asked her why she was Ameriflorating instead of teaching Latin. Well, it seems she was a honcho in the Prez’s Office at OSU, so she became five years ago a key player in the advance team of 300 or so who nurtured Ameriflora from a seedling.

I said I wanted a hotel which was either convenient to the airport or funky and interesting. She touted the Great Southern Hotel, a recently rehabbed relic of the 1890’s. I thought the title suggested a railroad collection, but the kindly man who runs the basement store is something of an amateur local historian. His free pamphlets explained that Ralph Lazarus was worried that the folks on the North End of Columbus were stealing a march on his South End by building a fancy new hotel.

He got a group together to do the North one better: they threw in an opera house for visitors kicks! It’s a groovy place to stay, with an art show featuring promising young Columbus artists, a James Thurber memorabilia room, a grand lobby, a comfortable bar. Heh, hang out there if you can afford it. It’s a five minute walk up High Street to Broad where you can board the 10E bus for Ameriflora. Ameriflora flies. Salute it by your presence. You’ve got until Discovery Day, October 12.