Saturday, 29 June 2013

A World Without Flowers?!

Cruising my internet yesterday, I had a serendipitous encounter with “The American Scholar” (Phi Beta Kappa’s magazine). The title “How Flowers Changed the World” caught my eye. The author, Priscilla Long, explained that the title of her essay was taken, in homage, from Penn professor Loren Eiseley’s classic, ”The Immense Journey” (1957).

That’s the year my Carnegie Postdoctoral Grant began at Penn, and faster than you can say “Wow!” I was in a weekly seminar in which Loren was the dazzling muse! Indeed he was an initimable male Margaret Mead whose brilliant PMLA essay in 1947 almost moved me to change my major.

Indeed the next year I persuaded the brass at the yet to be opened Annenberg School of Communication to appoint my first mass media mentor the Philadelphian Gilbert Seldes (1895-1970) its first Dean—and I became his “gofer”, as in go for this, and go for that, all across these United States, boasting about the brilliant new graduate school we were fixing to begin in 1959! Talk about coincidences. And Gilbert found most of the Penn professors too Ivy for his pop cult taste! (even though he had graduated from Harvard after finishing Boys High in Philly.) So many evenings Loren, Gilbert and I blathered long into the night, fretting over the humanities.

So it was Old Timer Time as I deflowered his essay. It’s Pure Eiseley and highest attention Seldes. Flowers didn’t always dazzle us! Not a single one of the more than 250,000 (gulp) named species. Indeed flowering plants evolved out of non-flowering plants 150 million years ago. No wonder it took us so long to devise proms for justifying flowers for our dates.  And it was 475 millions year ago before the first land plants appeared. And all these land plants have only one ancestor. Green algae!

First came nonvascular plants like mosses, which can’t stand up  nor move water around their systems. Seedless vascular plants, such as ferns, can conduct water but don’t have seeds. They reproduce with spores, a single cell that can grow into an adult .But the adult plant that stems from a spore looks nothing like a fern! If you’ll permit a little lexical razzmatazz, it’s a “bisexual gametophyte” that produces a sperm and an egg. (Those damn Creators are a canny bunch.” The sperm is mobile so the egg stays attached. The fertilized zygote grows into a “diploid sporophyte”—the fern we know! Whew!

Let’s carefully take the next step. “Petals” the small leaves growing in a circle under the flower must connect with the male part “stamen.” They stick up within the flower, with tiny stems each holding one rice-shaped „anther“ which keeps the pollen. The center part of the flower, the narrow-lipped vase that swells at the bottom, is the female part the “carpel”.

The top part of the carpel is the “stigma” receives pollen stores the pollen

What really astounds me is how flowers have evolved their colors to seduce the pollinators that have evolved with them. Red flowers? Hummingbird! Yellow or bright purple? Honeybees! Flower scents also move pollinators! The carrion flower stinks of rotting flesh. The carrion fly, dizzy with the stink, lays its eggs in the wrong place (the flower) and pollinates it!

So the next time you have to buy your date a floral decoration, think how manic our flowery friends are as they go about their stimulating simulations.  If your vacation ploys exhaust you, please think of how hard our abundant self-decorators work to turn us on do diversely. Happy Summer!

Tuesday, 25 June 2013

Losing a Country—Inch by Inch

Faced with more and more high falluting Essays on the Climate Crisis, it’s a relief to read about how Louisiana is simply losing its soil inch by inch! Climate Change and Oil Extraction account for the daily loss of 33 football fields! Listen to the testimony of one Louisiana speckled trout fisherman named James Wilson from Lafitte. "The one little area that I fished today will be gone next week because of the wave action. There’s no barrier anymore.” 

Beau Weber, Jr adds: "An island that was 100 feet long two days ago is tiny little.” Climate change is not a debating here on the Louisiana shoes! Two basic businesses, fishing and oil extraction, are at loggerheads. The state’s wetland are being swallowed by the Gulf of Mexico at such a pace that they could lease another 500,000 acres in the next fifty years! 

It’s the result of a combination of factors—sea levels have risen about six inches in the last 100 years. And the land has been subsiding, partly from its own weight but also because of oil and gas being sucked up from below.And then there are the levees along the Mississippi—which help cities like New Orleans from flooding,but they also stop millions of tonnes of sediment from replenishing the land.

Louisiana’s Coastal Protection and Restoration Authority has just proposed dozens of projects to “heal” this abused land. Part of the financing will accrue from the 2010 BP oil spill. The $50 billion project will try to divert rivers so as to channel to build up barriers. Alas one solution can lead to another loss: fishermen have already sued for the destruction of their oyster beds! Indeed, controversy complicates the climate change arguments! The oil industry built levees and canals in the 1950’s to facilitate their extractions.

Alas, Democrats and Republicans alike avoid taking on the oil industry which supplies electoral cash for both sides! Barry Keim, the state’s climatologist has the last word: "In another 50 or 100 years, the mental map that we have of Louisiana will have to be redrawn because what is now land will soon be open water.” (Anna Fifield, Financial Times, 6/19/13, p.6.)

Meanwhile in Oklahoma, there’s climate change speculations about tornadoes and what to do with them. Global “Time” readers had suggestions: Athanasias Hatzilakos, from Athens”Early warning,advanced weather watching technologies, or more safe rooms might have helped the people of Moore, Okla. But would have done little for their properties.For us Europeans who use concrete and bricks in construction, we find images of whole neighborhood destroyed by the passing of a tornado completely unreal and even surreal. With such arbitrary loss of human life and the cost of damages in the billions, maybe it’s time for a change in the use of building materials.” (June 24,2013, p.4.)

And Norb Schicker, of Crans, Switzerland (ibid.) adds his two bits worth: "Once again, readers around the world are shocked at the loss of life as a result of tornados in the U.S., especially in Tornado Alley, where disaster is expected to hit again. At the same time, there is great disbelief that there are no laws requiring every housae in such exposed areas to have storm cellars that could be cheap, mass produced reinforced concrete cells, either in the basement or above, securely anchored.”

Heh, there’s only one globe with many divergent parts, all needing our loving attention. And as for those congress persons who won’t legislate humanely, off to one of those disintegrating islands in the Gulf of Mexico. Until they start thinking instead of slinking. Think globally!

Monday, 24 June 2013

Danny’s Kindergarten: Its Twentieth Anniversary

Yesterday my six year old son Danny made his dramatic debut before several hundred adults celebrating the 20th anniversary of the Johann Falk (1768-1826) Kindergarten. He and his chum Gerda Grimm played homeless children that Falk mercifully housed. (That finally explained my puzzlement at another kindergartner sitting next to Danny with a grand top hat and formal suit: he finally played Falk saving the homeless kids!)

Falk was born the second of seven children in Danzig, now in Poland. His father was a poor-law guardian and a wigmaker by trade. Falk could afford only three years of elementary school—he had to help his father in the wig workshop. At age 17 he returned to what we call a high school and graduated at age 22.

In 1791 he studied theology at the University of Halle/Saale (my German wife’s hometown). The city of Danzig paid his tuition. He became interested in classical antiquity, literature, and politics. As famous a German writer as Cristoph Martin Weiland (he tutored Goethe’s son) was impressed by his satire (“The Princess and the Pig Snout”) and journalism. He quit his graduate studies and became a freelance writer.

In 1797 he married Caroline Rosenfeld and moved to Weimar.There he became a respected but controversial figure in the court and in the city because of his ironic and satiric style. In 1806 he became a translator and advisor for Napoleon’s French troops. 

(Goethe’s girl friend and future wife boldly confronted their attempt to enter their house. Goethe was so impressed he married her immediately after courting her for two decades! Geniuses move slowly!)

In 1813 Falk decided to become the “father of orphans” after four of his own children had died in short succession. He and the court preacher Karl Friedrich Horn founded the “Society of Friends in need” (an agency for homeless and delinquent children.)He wrote the words in 1816 for the famous German Christmas carol “O, Du Fröliche” (Oh, You Merry Volk”). In 1821 he bought the “Luther House” (the famous Protestant Reformer had been an Augustinian monk in Weimar)before he moved to Wittenberg.

He lived in downtown Weimar, where he would ultimately (2001) get the city’s town highest honor, a suite named after him (Room 128) in the grand Elephant Hotel (1697.) When he died in 1824, his wife and a former student, George Rettner carried on his social work. In 1827, it was turned over to the city after which it became the model for social-educational establishments like Martinsstift in Erfurt and Rauhes-Haus in Hamburg.

The day-long celebration encouraged parents, grandparents, and friends to participate in creative hobbies. (Whenever they weren’t successfully attacking tables replete with eats and drinks.) Whatever evils the DDR inflicted on the East German population at large, its kindergartens give the next generation a powerful push! 

Another version of this essay is published by BSR

Major Media Mess

Regarding Verlyn Klinkenborg on The Decline and Fall of the English Major:

At the Daedalus Conference in 1960 the exTrotskyites turned neocons mocked my plea that high schools teach Paddy Chayefsky et al to hasten the maturing of the new medium of TV. Just as the Ivies abandoned the public schools in the 2000s so a new trahison des clercs debilitated the new mass culture.

Saturday, 22 June 2013

The Humanist

Regarding David Brooks: The humanist must know the Golden Oldies, but only to lead to conversations (and converts) to wrestle with the contradictions of an emerging global technological civilization. The Humanities too often stay in the past, too shy (or sly) to grapple with our everyday contradictions.

Tuesday, 18 June 2013

Alice Rawsthorn & the Bauhaus

My favorite design critic has scored again in her amusing putdown of the mindless hassle over who owns  the word "Bauhaus". But I wish she would address a most neglected theme, the abandonment of Gropius idealism for what I call BauHustling--more museums for middle class tourists than more cheap housing for poor people.

As a homeless kid in Depression Detroit (1930-45), I was astonished to discover in graduate school that Gropius invented an art school that would "bring good design to the working classes." When Weimar became the Cultural Capital of Europe in 1999, I decided to check out whatever had happened to his blue collar idealism. Alas that is the sad theme of my forthcoming book, "Gropius Betrayed: How the Bauhustlers Took Over!"

In the thirteen years I have been exploring this subject, I have found only one German essay that has explored this sad theme, Dankwart Guratzsch's "Was wir geerbt haben," Die Welt, January 8, 2013.

He mocks the Bauhaus, opening his essay by contending that modern German architecture "ended" in 1918--the year before the Bauhaus was founded! What I have sneered at as Modernoid architecture, which abused the new materials of "The Crystal Palace Syndrome" of glass, iron, and cement by wasting energy that pre-Modernoid traditions saved with solid old materials and  gables instead of flat roofs.

Guratzsch is a Dresden Ph.D. in his 70's who also has won awards for journalism saving great old buildings. I'm further encouraged that common sense is finally rejecting post-Nazi hagiography by the German Architecture Museum's just opening its annual show with a symposium entitled "THINK GLOBAL; BUILD SOCIAL! Architectures for a Better World." Cameron Sinclair's Architecture for Humanity intellectual coop is finally catching on!

The Bauhaus elite have been so busy suppressing their guilt over the Nazi Episode they have totally corrupted the real history of that institution. The sole exception has been Omar Akbar, the Afghani engineer who was cashiered as director of the Dessau Bauhaus.

Ironically, at the same time the German idealists were trying to humanize architecture, two German immigrant autodidact architects, Albert Kahn in Detroit and Timothy Pfleuger in San Francisco actually did transform their local architecture. They are hardly known in Germany. And the Cranbrook Academy, with Eliel Saarinen and his son Eero, plus the Eames duo, did what the Gropers only dreamed of doing.

The greatest architect to come out of the Bauhaus, the Chicagoan Bertrand Goldberg, became my mentor at an accidental meeting in 1970 with the publisher Charles Benton. He was Mies last Azubi, following him to Berlin when the Bauhaus closed--telling me how Mies tried to convince Alfred Rosenberg that he was no longer the leftie whose Denkmal for Karl Liebknecht and Rosa Luxembourg (1926) was his first notoriety. Goldberg told me sadly how Mies became a Nice Nazi until Gropius got him one commission in Yellowstone in 1938.

 The key to this evasively corrupt historiography was Philip C. Johnson who became Gropius' student in 1938(at the same time writing nasty letters about Gropius's obsession with worker housing.) In 1926 Johnson had phoned the future MOMA director in Berlin that he must come to Dessau to see the greatest modern building. (He should have listened to the Bauhaus professors and students who sweated in the summer and froze in the winter because of its excessive "Crystal Palace" glass.)

Johnson had other troubles with his gayness, dropping in and out of Harvard several times. Thanks to his Germany nanny, he was fluent as he zoomed into gay Berlin, returning to America a not so nice Nazi, politically involved with Father Charles Coughlin, the Radio Priest from Royal Oak, Michigan who called FDR's politics the "Jew Deal".

The official Bauhaus history is so far from the tacky truth, I often wondered if Germany really was the great pioneer in modern scholarship it was touted to be. Guratzsch's sane essay is certainly a mind-changing statement! God knows today's Germans have no idea of what really went on in the Bauhaus, and later.

Wednesday, 12 June 2013

Uncle Tom’s Cabin

Re Dan Rottenberg’s review of EgoPo’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin

Dan’s muse strikes again. His curious young eye in a small Indiana library spies a letter decades later describing the midnight flight of slaves gung ho for the freedom of the North. It resurrects Harriet Beecher Stowe with a verve no scholarly discipline can transmit.
EgoPo’s clever reversal of skin color in the cast of Stowe’s is equally affective. We have a Library of Congress replete with Ph.D.’s in history, yet the median populace remains amnesiac.

What a renaissance we’d savor if our theater cadre were so canny.

Tuesday, 11 June 2013

A Nigerian Woman and Pakistani Man Psych Out America's Contradictions

I guess I first internationalized my study of English Lit when I discussed the CBC’s daily humorist Joe Gentile with my college chum Hank Maloney, in class breaks at the University of Detroit, 1946-49. In fact I think I had become more Canadian than American in spirit.(Imagine my dismay when the editor of the Cannuck scholarly journal, "Commonwealth Literature,” accused me of being a CIA agent!) 

It wasn’t until I started teaching for Beaver College in London in the 1960’s that I got more serious when I Pan Am-ed to Dakar, Senegal in 1964 with my 12 year old son Michael. (He was helping me shoot film about the first World Negro Arts Festival. Our first astonishment was to leave our hotel and almost stumble on a Muslim praying on his knees.) 

Two years later I talked Howard Springer, Secretary of the Commonwealth Cultural Association, into letting me show an hour long film on Nigerian Literature at the American Embassy in Lagos. My purpose was to motivate the other Commonwealth writers at their annual convention to make films about their writers for world instruction.

There was more to it than showing a film! A local newspaper film critic offered to let me join him on his motorcycle, gunning me back to the Federal Palace Hotel. Never had a native Detroiter had a more scarey trip! Lagos traffic was the worst in the world, especially from the back “seat” of a Harley. 

More worries awaited me. Three local police detectives stopped me as I picked up my key –they wanted to “investigate” my room. Their chief began my turning on my tape recorder. “Why do you have a recording of the chief of the festival?” I replied innocently that it was the opening oration! They treated me as a spy. They informed me that I must go with them to the police station. They took my tape recorder, my 16mm camera and ten films I had already shot. The civil war with its dissident Biafrans meant all the highway lights were off! 

Suddenly I recalled how a local filmmaker had tried to buy my filming equipment the day before! They were trying to steal my gear. Never was I so relieved to enter a police station. I was interviewed by the chief of police. I explained I was teaching literature in London. He called up the Commonwealth Secretary and confirmed my official permission to attend the conference as a guest. It wasn’t until two days later that the Canadian ambassador shamed the police in returning my gear—as I was about to taxi to the airport for a trip back to London.. (I didn’t get the developed film back for several weeks!)

Where did they get the idea that I was a CIA agent? There was a free fllght North to Kano, an Islamic state. Springer said I could take a seat if there was one free. It turned out the head of the Ghana delegation came a few minutes too late. I had taken “his” seat. He was outraged. Thus the CIA lie! 
These memories came back to me as I read Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s new novel, “Americanah”(London: Fourth Estate, 2013.) It’s the most complicated (and longest!) love story I have ever read, as high school sweethearts, Ifemelu and Obinze, go their separate ways, she to America, he to London. (He couldn’t get a visa to New York after 9/11!)The title of the novel names the new kind of Nigerian who spends thirteen years in America and how that isolation changed her and other Nigerians in many different ways—including how they responded to the global giant America. 

Her novel begins with her leaving Princeton where she is finishing an important fellowship to go to Trenton where she can find an African hair shop to get her physically ready for a return to Obinze. A fascinating angle is her creation of a blog that evaluates the complicated ways Nigerians and other African nationals adjust (or not) to the complexities of American racism.

Ifemelu spends her first years in Drexel’s Powelton neighborhood while studying communications and political science. (Drexel appears cryptically as Wellson!) As I was preparing to write this essay, she appeared on WHYY’s “Radio Times” in which Marty really got Ms. Adichie’s muse clicking! (She was appearing at the Free Library that evening!) She also performed for TED. Both appearance are worth tracking down on NPR, after you’ve read this idiosyncratic fiction.

Moses Hamid’s”The Reluctant Fundamentalist” (Penguin,2008) is much shorter and more interesting. It’s a love story between a rich American, Erica and a brilliant Pakistani, Changez, whose family was once rich and is counting on his Princeton fellowship to restore the family’s fortunes. 

The Twin Towers disaster intervenes, and Changez reverts to fundamentalist politics instead of thriving as an “American” business consultant. The conversion begins in Chile where a Chile leftie leads the Pakistani to Pablo Neruda’s home in Valparaiso. And Juan Baptista reminds Changez of Islamic history when they first revolted against the Christians. 

He is re-converted: He rejects a small coterie’s concept of American interests in the guise of their fight against terrorism, which was defined to refer only to the organized and politically motivated killing of civilians not wearing the uniforms of soldiers. I recognized that if this was to be the single most important priority of our species then the lives of those of us who lived in lands in which such killers also lived had no meaning except as collateral damage. 

This, I reasoned, was why America felt justified in bringing so many deaths to Afghanistan and Iraq, and why America felt justified in risking so many more deaths by tacitly using India to pressure Pakistan.” Hamid, pp.202-3. Changez had learned how to psych out the American enemy. So had his Nigerian coeval. 

Global conflicts disguised as love stories. More evidence that International English literature liberates the world from facile self-delusions!

Another version of this essay is published by Broad Street Review.

Friday, 7 June 2013

Andrew Greeley, R.I.P.

Dear Editor of The Economist, As a very satisfied subscriber, I always start my weekend reading your weekly obit.

Imagine my joy when you gave Andrew Greeley as intelligent a goodbye as his idiosyncratic life.

My father abandoned us when I was three. So to free my mother to teach in Hamtramck, I was shipped off for ten years to Holy Rosary Academy in Bay City (1930-40) run by German Dominican nuns whose Catholicism was as tight as Greeley's was loose.

I was kicked out of Detroit's minor seminary in 1943 because of my arrogant retort to the rector's query,"What are you two doing in the Gothic tower after midnight?""Jim and I are learning how to smoke? Any suggestions?" His answer was curt: "Don't return after Easter Vacation!"

Our local high school was Edwin Denby, whose rep was the whorehouse of Detroit. After Naval service I majored in philosophy at the Jesuit University of Detroit. I won the Midwest Province essay contest in 1949 with the cheeky title: "Needed: More Redblooded American Catholics" by which I meant proBlack and anti-Father Coughlin's anti-semitism.

My Greeley spirit was blooming. And my other Catholic mentor was Marshall McLuhan. Two weirdos who were blessedly true. A Ford grant in New York and a Carnegie PostDoctoral Grant at Penn to create a course on "Mass Culture" followed. Annenberg gave Penn two million and I became Dean Gilbert Seldes's gofer in founding the Annenberg School of Communication.

I was losing my faith but emulating Greeley with pleasure. I was appointed the first director of American Studies at the East West Center in Honolulu. I quit after the first year when I found my number 2 had been in the CIA for the past ten years. I quit teaching after thirty years for global alternative journalism.

Emulating Greeley's free spirit. Very satisfying. Would there were a Greeley Fan Club!

Wednesday, 5 June 2013

German Culture

Re “German culture, up close and personal”—
Kile Smith’s charming stück about his encounters with German choristers in Warrington reverses my recent experiences where I’ve been living in Weimar speaking Bild Deutsch. My German wife and our bilingual Danny (age six) both tease me daily about my bad accent.

Just yesterday I gave Hildegard a semantic explanation of dandelion. She has long been a librarian at the local music college. And I pass a J.S. Bach statue on my daily visit to the Anna Amalia Library to read the international newspapers.

I protect my American jazz heritage every evening via Internet radio.
Patrick D. Hazard
Weimar, Germany
May 29, 2013

Tuesday, 4 June 2013

Venus In Fur

Re Dan Rottenberg’s review of Philadelphia Theatre Company’s Venus In Fur
Ah, yes. Now my old boss checks in as a brilliant drama critic, with such omniscience to have remembered our multi-faceted President Obama prefiguring the theme as a young comer. If only our Congress could become equally civilized.
Patrick D. Hazard
Weimar, Germany
May 31, 2013