Monday, December 27, 2010

New Yorker Fiction 2010

This year the New Yorker published 54 pieces of fiction. I read 27 of them. Here were my top ten favorites, in chronological order:

Safari, by Jennifer Egan (1/11/10)—a psychologically astute portrait of a group of people on safari in Africa (excerpted from A Visit from the Goon Squad) (post)

Trailhead, by E. O. Wilson (1/25/10)—the Queen of an ant colony dies; the colony reacts (excerpted from Anthill) (see also)

Ask Me If I Care, by Jennifer Egan (3/8/10)—adolescent punk rockers and their passions (also excerpted from A Visit from the Goon Squad)

Ash, by Roddy Doyle (5/24/10)—disorienting eruptions in a marriage

Agreeable, by Jonathan Franzen (5/31/10)—a searing episode in the life of an adolescent girl (excerpted from Freedom) (posts)

The Landlord, by Wells Tower (9/13/10)—a man's investments go sour

Birdsong, by Chimamanda Ngozie Adichie (9/20/10)—a woman in Lagos has an affair with a married man

Corrie, by Alice Munro (10/11/10)—subtle surprises in a long-standing extramarital affair

Boys Town, by Jim Shepard (11/8/10)—a socially disconnected and increasingly dangerous unemployed veteran

Escape from Spiderhead, by George Saunders (12/20 & 12/27/10)—disturbing experiments and moral choice (post)

Honorable Mentions to Fjord of Killary, by Kevin Barry (2/1/10); Blue Roses, by Frances Hwang (11/1/10); and Costello, by Jim Gavin (12/6/10)

If you're curious, here are links to my top ten lists from 2008 and 2009.

Thursday, December 23, 2010

St. Louis Public Schools (2)

About a year and a half ago, I wrote a blog post in which I tried to take stock of the challenges facing the St. Louis Public School system, as I understood them.

That blog post was influenced by some of my introductory experiences with SLPS as a parent, as well as by Daniel J. Monti’s book A Semblance of Justice, which takes a somewhat cynical view of the school desegregation efforts that have occurred in the St. Louis area.

I had found Monti’s book after reading Common Ground, J. Anthony Lukas’s celebrated account of school desegregation in Boston. I was looking for something that would explain and analyze St. Louis’s school desegregation with similar perceptiveness and rigor. But in comparison to Lukas’s gripping and incredibly informative narrative, Monti’s book felt abstruse and opaque—and it took for granted that its readers already understood the basic facts of the situation.

I was born in 1976 and grew up in Lindbergh school district, though I attended Catholic schools. Although the desegregation case was being negotiated and settled in my formative years, I had only a vague notion of its origins and a general understanding of its purpose and meaning.

Through an old article in the Riverfront Times I discovered another book on St. Louis school desegregation, Stepping Over the Color Line: African American Students in White Suburban Schools, by Amy Stuart Wells and Robert L. Crain. This book, published by Yale University Press in 1997, finally gave me what I was looking for: deep background on the roots of school desegregation in St. Louis; a clear description of the voluntary interdistrict transfer program; an analysis of its execution and consequences; a sense of how St. Louisans, black, white, urban, and suburban, felt about the program; and an understanding of the political realities involved with the program.

After reading this book, I took another look at my previous post about SLPS. I’m surprised and gratified to find that much of it still seems true. But Wells and Crain’s book has given me a much deeper context for understanding the issues I was struggling with.

Most significantly, I have a more nuanced response to Daniel J. Monti’s central thesis, as I understood it: that the desegregation program was mostly a symbolic gesture that purported to address deep-seated issues of inequality while in actuality not doing much to deliver justice.

On the one hand, I can see Monti’s point. I was startled to read, near the end of Stepping Over the Color Line, that in a representative year of the deseg program (1993), it consumed only 3 percent of the state’s total budget, compared to the separate 25 percent of the state budget that went to education. Though politicians may have used the program demagogically as a symbol of government waste and handouts to the undeserving black poor, in the end the amount of the budget devoted to the desgregation program was relatively small. And many black students, victims of Missouri’s long and ongoing pattern of unequal housing, educational, and employment opportunity, did not benefit at all from the program.

On the other hand, many of those who did participate in the program did benefit significantly. I’ve met several of them since I wrote my original post, actually. Wells and Crain, in addition to documenting convincingly that black city students benefit from attending suburban schools, also show the falseness of the alternative that opponents of the program often proposed: to use the deseg money to fix up the city schools instead. Politically, that was never an option. The deseg money was there because the courts forced the state to provide it.

Or, more accurately, the suburban and city school districts that agreed on the out-of-court settlement, in combination with the courts, forced the state of Missouri (which refused to participate in the settlement talks) to provide the money.

These St. Louis-area school districts agreed to the settlement not because they acknowledged that they had helped to create a racially unjust system and wanted to atone for their sins. Instead they agreed to the settlement because (1) they didn’t want to risk losing local control of their district, and (2) they realized that the settlement would mean lots of money for them. (And thus the settlement proved a fact of politics that I’ve come to understand: For the poor to get anything, the middle-class and wealthy have to get something too.)

In my original post, I explored the idea that the St. Louis Public Schools were the biggest losers in the desegregation settlement. My reasoning was that they had lost some of their best students and most committed parents, while also having to open up some of their most coveted spots to white county students. But, having read Wells and Crain, I now see that in fact SLPS saw significant gains from the settlement: for each student who left the district for one in the county, SLPS still received 50 percent of the funds they would normally have spent on that student. In addition, SLPS got additional funding for curriculum development, personnel, and capital improvements; and for the creation and maintenance of the magnet school program.

The biggest losers, I now realize, were the county districts—like Wellston, Jennings, Normandy, and others—that were “on the wrong side” of the lawsuit, according to one of the SLPS lawyers involved in the case. They were on the wrong side because they were already predominantly black and therefore received none of the money that flowed to the city and the rest of the county during the desegregation project. They were basically in the same plight as the all-black schools and neighborhoods in the city, yet they received no help from the state in the desegregation agreement.

SLPS, Wells and Crain helped me see, were both victims and perpetrators of segregation and attempts to remedy it. They created a separate and unequal system before Brown v. Board of Education and were slow and ineffective in dismantling it after that 1954 decision. At the same time, they were also in a bind because of the racial politics of the time, with rapid white flight (often spurred by racial fear) from the city and intense racially motivated demands from the white families who remained. They were stuck with the challenge of educating a largely racially segregated and impoverished population—stuck with this challenge by the suburban districts who thrived on the tax base that St. Louis County sucked out of the city. Yet the city schools often did a mediocre job, at best, of actually using their resources to help that population. This mediocrity is not surprising when one considers not only the daunting nature of the task, but also that in the late 1980s and early 1990s the school board included a powerful contingent of anti-desegregation members with ties to a local white supremacist group.

For that reason, in addition to the suburban districts that were largely African American, the black students left behind in neighborhood schools also got the rawest deal in the desegregation agreement. It’s understandable, from that perspective, that a group of black city dwellers would turn against the program. Their views were shared by Freeman Bosley, Jr., who found an anti-desegregation stance a useful political strategy for capturing both black and white votes and becoming the first African American mayor of the city.

As Wells and Crain acknowledge, there were political casualties of the desegregation agreement, and significant monetary benefits went to the very suburban districts who had helped to create the problem in the first place. (Though many suburbanites were ignorant of this basic fact.) Yet the book convinces me that the St. Louis city-county voluntary transfer program was something extraordinary. It was a real if small step in the direction of justice, one that gave black students a real chance, in fact, to achieve success in the way that conservatives always prescribe—to pull themselves up by their own bootstraps.

After all, don’t the images of black students standing on deserted corners by despair-filled housing projects waiting at 5:30 a.m. for buses to take them on the long ride to school call to mind other famous bootstrap examples of black Americans who endured discomfort and hardship in order to grasp the rare chance at an education?

Think of Frederick Douglass learning to read with the cast-off books of his master’s son. Or Booker T. Washington sleeping under a sidewalk while on a walking journey to a school that would be open to him. Or Ralph Ellison hopping a freight car in order to make his way to Tuskegee Institute because he couldn’t afford to get there any other way.

For the most part, however, white suburban St. Louisans didn’t see it that way. They just saw those students’ long journeys as a waste of money. Or they focused on the taxi cabs that took home the ones who had to stay late for some athletic contest or disciplinary consequence. Or they felt pity for the transfer student, a pity born of an aesthetic distaste for such a seemingly nonsensical arrangement—without understanding the much more disturbing nonsense of the historical and present color line in St. Louis.

With the desegregation plan set to end in 2014, what is next? Do all of the resources that went to provide at least a semblance of justice to black students simply melt back into the general budget for the state, or get returned to the taxpayers?

It’s clear that ignoring the educational problems caused by segregation does not work. In recent years, a number of the virtually all-black suburban districts passed over by the desegregation settlement have lost their accreditation, and the Supreme Court has ruled that parents in those districts have a right to send their kids to schools elsewhere. It’s the same issue that led to the desegregation settlement that will end in three years. The underlying racial, economic, and political realities have not really changed. It’s just that now the conflict is even more pronounced within St. Louis County.

Looking at a district like Wellston or Riverview Gardens, one realizes that, were it not for all the desegregation money pouring in from the state, SLPS would be in much, much worse shape than it is today. If middle-class whites (like my family) are to some degree moving in to the city, surely it has something to do with the fact that there’s still some hope left for the district. Would that be the case if not for the desegregation arrangement?

Reading Wells and Crain, however, I also come to understand more deeply how even well-meaning whites get caught inexorably in a system that perpetuates racial inequality. As the city scrambles for students, competing with private schools and charter schools and the ever-present alternative of exodus to the suburbs, and the racial balance requirements for the magnet schools fade, the best schools in the city system become whiter. This happens because white parents, who tend to have more connections, more time to make pestering phone calls, and more personal and cultural resources, will naturally do all they can to give their children the best chance at a worthwhile education.

From one perspective, there’s nothing wrong with that—just as there’s nothing wrong with a family moving to a suburban neighborhood that’s safer and has better schools. Yet, from another perspective, it’s exactly what perpetuates racial inequality, and exactly what led to the lawsuit that eventuated in the desegregation agreement.

Apart from straight-up racism, much of St. Louis whites’ distaste for the desegregation plan comes from the loss of local control (which feels to many like a basic American tenet) and a sense that the government is unfairly giving something to someone who hasn’t earned it. What this perspective misses, though, is how long the government unfairly took away something—opportunity in education, housing, and employment—from African Americans, how recently it stopped doing so, how long the legacy of that injustice will take to remedy, and what type of steps will need to be taken in order to do so.

For St. Louisans, these perspectives are a determinative part of “the cultural framework through which they view the world,” to use a phrase from Wells and Crain. In our segregated city, it’s all too easy for whites and blacks to develop quite different frameworks and thus to respond to the world in very different ways. The voluntary transfer program forced white St. Louisans to think about their frameworks. Some, Wells and Crain show, responded by becoming resistors, actively criticizing the program and hoping it would go away. Others became sympathizers, feeling a sense of charity toward the transfer students but no real strong enthusiasm for the notion of desegregation. A smaller group, mostly teachers, became visionaries, embracing the new perspectives offered by desegregation and changing their own behaviors in ways that ended up making life better for everyone involved, not only the transfer students.

As I finish reading Stepping Over the Color Line, I ask myself what my own response has been. On the one hand, I’ve largely been on the sidelines: educated in parochial, Catholic schools, I now teach in a prestigious and very predominantly white private Catholic school. In that school’s library, a reading room is named in honor of Daniel Schlafly, an alumnus who sent his own kids to Catholic schools but spent decades on the St. Louis school board, playing an important but ultimately ambiguous role.

There are many things I love about the school where I teach (of which I am also an alumnus), yet I also recognize how it is implicated in the racial injustice of the St. Louis area. I love the city magnet school my daughters attend, but I understand the privilege my white family has secured by obtaining coveted spots in this school while other city students are mired in failing, segregated schools.

What might “being a visionary” mean for me?

This past semester, for the first time, I taught an African American literature class. I learned a lot, not only from the large amount of reading I did to prepare for the course, but also from talking about race every day with a group of high school seniors that was 25 percent black (much higher than the overall percentage of black students in the school). For me, teaching that course is part of being a visionary, but it can’t be the end. After reading Stepping Over the Color Line, I realize that I need to do more. I need to get involved with the student group at my school that works to promote intercultural understanding. I need to get on the diversity committee at my daughters’ school, to help ensure that this great school doesn’t become a haven only for white students.

And I need to keep reading.

Wednesday, December 22, 2010

Hope in the Christmas Season

From a series of reflections (including my own) on hope in the Christmas season, a powerful passage from my colleague Jim Linhares:

The experiences we desire most deeply in life—love, joy, meaning and fulfillment—don’t come automatically for us or those around us. Fundamental things about life get in the way: the experiences of loss, loneliness, violence, vulnerability to forces we can’t control, the inevitability of death. Eventually, as mature adults, we come to see that these things will never go away. Under these very difficult physical, psychological and spiritual circumstances we have to figure out whether or how we can keep pursuing those deep desires. The term “God”—and many other terms in other languages and traditions—has served as a placeholder for the deeply felt experience that we keep going not only by our own efforts or by solving the problem of existence with our own minds, but by somehow being OPEN to a gift that is larger than ourselves. “God” is the name we’ve given to the source for that gift, that hope. I’d say we are in a period of human history in which the term “God” feels small and irrelevant to more and more people who have mistaken it either for something we human beings made up to solve our problems or for something completely beyond us that might as well be appealed to through something like magic.

Tuesday, December 21, 2010

Plutocracy in America

This interesting essay by Francis Fukuyama about whether America is a plutocracy, and if so, why, includes this important point:

Scandalous as it may sound to the ears of Republicans schooled in Reaganomics, one critical measure of the health of a modern democracy is its ability to legitimately extract taxes from its own elites. The most dysfunctional societies in the developing world are those whose elites succeed either in legally exempting themselves from taxation, or in taking advantage of lax enforcement to evade them, thereby shifting the burden of public expenditure onto the rest of society.

Watching People

Catching up on New Yorker fiction this Christmas break, I went back and read two pieces by Jennifer Egan, inspired by a couple of year-end posts at The Millions that praised Egan's new novel as one of the year's best.

It turns out that both pieces, "Ask Me If I Care" and "Safari," are excerpts from that novel. Both are excellent and have left me eager to read the novel in its entirety.

At the end of "Safari," an eleven-year-old boy dances with his sister in an African discotheque full of tourists like themselves. A couple of old women, his sister notices, are watching them dance. These two women have been on safari with the group during the story, mostly peripheral characters who are never without their bird-watching binoculars.

"Maybe when there are no birds they watch people," the boy says.

His sister grabs his hands and they keep dancing, and then he has a further realization:

"I don’t think those ladies were ever watching birds," he says.

Egan herself, one is tempted to imagine, is much like the old women who may have found their companions more interesting to observe than the birds. The great pleasure of these two excerpts is Egan's intense perceptions of her characters, of the interplay between them, both overt and subtle. She's a people watcher reminiscent of Alice Munro, and she shares Munro's intricate sense of the complexity and ambiguity of human emotions and relationships.

Sunday, December 19, 2010

Escape from Spiderhead

**Spoiler Alert**

George Saunders's story "Escape from Spiderhead," in the current New Yorker, has echoes of Daniel Keyes's "Flowers For Algernon," as well as some previous Saunders stories: the clinical horror of "93990" and the clinical entrapment of "Jon"; along with an ending that's quite similar to the ending of "CommComm." At times it veers on the edge of the thought-experiment quality that made "In Persuasion Nation" and The Brief and Frightening Reign of Phil less successful as fully realized fictional worlds. But, on the whole, it's a gripping story, a "wild ride," to use Saunders's own term from this fascinating and illuminating interview with Deborah Treisman—and it lingers in one's mind.

In the interview, Saunders asserts that "if the writer is doing his job the story will have an understory that steadily becomes more apparent." In Saunders's own best work, the "understories" are multifaceted and echo off each other in interesting ways. Thus "Jon" can be a re-working of Plato's cave allegory, a satire of our modern advertising-soaked brains, an intiation story, as well as a human drama "about having to rise to the occasion of love," as Saunders puts it.

One of the understories in "Escape from Spiderhead," I think, is the suicide of David Foster Wallace, who was not only a friend of George Saunders but also very much akin to him as an artist.

Though another of Wallace's friends, Jonathan Franzen, dismisses the notion that DFW's suicide can be explained as being the result of a chemical imbalance, most accounts of Wallace's final months make it clear that he had gone off his normal meds because he disliked the side effects, but that the change in medication left him adrift, feeling the kind of terrifying depression that a character in Infinite Jest memorably compares to being in a top floor of a burning building, weighing the fear of immolation against the fear of jumping out the window to one's death. It seems to me that, in fact, recognizing the chemical aspect to Wallace's suicide is actually part of a humane and sympathetic response.

"Escape from Spiderhead" forces us to think about chemicals, about how much of what we think of as our identities depends upon the chemicals that our bodies produce. The prisoner test subjects in the story are all equipped with "MobiPaks" by which researchers intravenously pump drugs into them. These drugs can make them obedient, articulate, or sexually erect. Indeed, they can make them fall in love. Or they can make them suicidally depressed.

In the climax of the story, the main character chooses to dose himself with Darkenfloxx, which has already driven one test subject to destroy herself, in order to avoid being a party to the death of yet another. Here's the result:

Then came the horror: worse than I’d ever imagined.... Then I was staggering around the Spiderhead, looking for something, anything. In the end, here’s how bad it got: I used a corner of the desk.

It's a horrifyingly succinct description of suicide—and the first thing I thought of as I read it was David Foster Wallace, and how his death could be summed up just as briefly and horrifyingly: belt, patio rafter. Also, how Wallace's death, judging by his own descriptions of suicidal depression, was probably precipitated by just this type of unbearable psychic pain.

Saunders's story, perhaps at some level inspired by its author's response to his friend's suicide, moves beyond Franzen's snarkily dismissive statement about chemical imbalances and confronts us instead with profound mysteries: What if our personalities, our actions, our happiness or sadness are, in large part, determined by the chemicals in our bodies, our brains? How do we understand ourselves and each other? How does that affect our notion of morality? How should that influence the organization of our societies? What does it mean to be human? To be humane?

Saturday, December 18, 2010

A Year in Reading

I started this year’s reading by alternating between a big Russian novel, The Brothers Karamazov, and a big collection of stories, the Library of America’s edition of Raymond Carver’s stories. The Carver volume I found intensely enjoyable and thought-provoking; Dostoevsky, on the other hand, though intermittently gripping, left me agreeing with Nabokov’s judgment that Tolstoy is a much greater writer. For that reason, I’m planning on reading War and Peace this coming year with a group of my colleagues.

After that, I dedicated most of my reading to preparation for a class on African American literature that I taught this fall. I read Arnold Rampersad’s recent biography of Ralph Ellison, which I found quite enjoyable and informative for teaching Ellison’s novel Invisible Man in the spring in my Alienated Hero class.

I read three coming-of-age memoirs by African American males, Jerald Walker’s Street Shadows, James McBride’s The Color of Water, and Barack Obama’s Dreams from My Father. I taught Obama’s book in my fall class and was astounded again by its intelligence and the complex understanding of the world that it communicates—astounded and grateful once again that Obama is our president. David Remnick’s The Bridge was a compelling and useful companion to Obama’s story.

I did take a couple detours into Faulkner during the year, re-reading As I Lay Dying early in the year and reading The Unvanquished in the summer. As I Lay Dying came alive for me this time in a way that it did not the first time I read it. The Unvanquished was a quick, enjoyable read, though also troubling in what it seemed to reveal of Faulkner’s understanding of the South’s past, especially in comparison with the vision presented by the stories and novels of Charles W. Chesnutt, which I also immersed myself in over the summer.

I re-read a couple African American classics by women, Toni Morrison’s Beloved (which I taught) and Zora Neale Hurston’s Their Eyes Were Watching God; along with a couple more recent mysteries by African American men: Walter Mosley’s Devil in a Blue Dress and Colson Whitehead’s The Intuitionist.

One of the great pleasures of the year for me was my participation in an NEH Summer Institute at Washington University on the New Negro Renaissance in America, 1919-1941. The voluminous reading for those three weeks was great preparation for my class as well.

I read some great books analyzing race in America—Cornel West’s Race Matters, Derrick Bell’s fascinating And We Are Not Saved, and the delightful Best African American Essays collections of 2009 and 2010—along with some works of African American history—David Levering Lewis’s When Harlem Was in Vogue (rather tedious), Taylor Branch’s Parting the Waters (fantastic) and Pillar of Fire (unexpectedly not fantastic), and Isabel Wilkerson’s highly and justifiably praised The Warmth of Other Suns, about the Great Migration.

In addition to works of African American history, I also read some works that one might label primary sources: the anthology Ain’t But a Place, an illuminating compendium of African American writings about St. Louis, from slavery times to the recent past; Richard Wright’s 12 Million Black Voices, a remarkable first-person plural account of the African American experience; essays by James Baldwin; and the most famous works by two towering African American figures: Booker T. Washington’s Up From Slavery and W. E. B. Du Bois’s The Souls of Black Folk, both of which I’ll probably teach excerpts from in next year’s incarnation of the class.

Today’s the first day of Christmas break, and having finished The Warmth of Other Suns yesterday, I’m looking ahead to my vacation reading. For one, I’m planning on catching up on some New Yorker fiction. In addition, I’m looking forward to reading a book called Stepping Over the Color Line: African American Students in White Suburban Schools, which I read about in this article, and which seems like it will provide something I’ve been searching for for some time: a close analysis of school desegregation in St. Louis.

Sunday, December 5, 2010


In the midst of this post, Andrew Sullivan offers a nice tally of what Barack Obama has accomplished in the first half of his first term:

prevented a second great depression, rescued Detroit, bailed out the banks, pitlessly isolated Tehran's regime, exposed Netanyahu, decimated al Qaeda's mid-level leadership in Pakistan and Afghanistan, withdrawn troops fron Iraq on schedule, gotten two Justices on the Supreme Court, cut a point or two off the unemployment rate with the stimulus, seen real wages for those employed grow, presided over a stock market boom and record corporate profits, and maneuvered a GOP still intoxicated with failed ideology to become more and more wedded to white, old evangelicals led by Sarah Palin. And did I mention universal health insurance - the holy grail for Democrats for decades?

Monday, November 29, 2010


My thought on personal immortality is easily explained. I do not know. I do not see how any one could know. Our whole basis of knowledge is so relative and contingent that when we get to argue concerning ultimate reality and the real essence of life and the past and the future, we seem to be talking without real data and getting nowhere. I have every respect for people who believe in the future life, but I cannot accept their belief or their wish as knowledge. Equally, I am not impressed by those who deny the possibility of future life. I have no knowledge of the possibilities of this universe and I know of no one who has.

W. E. B. Du Bois, 1929

Thursday, November 25, 2010

Foosball as Muse

We celebrated Thanksgiving at my aunt and uncle's house in Holly Hills this afternoon. After the meal, I ended up downstairs engaging in a friendly competition on the foosball table they've had down there as long as I can remember. I've played foosball on that table since I was seven or eight years old, probably. In fact, one year I was even inspired to write a poem about foosball. I thought I'd share it here.

The Foosball Men's Sonnet

Brothers skewered arm to arm,
Our chubby cherub faces’ charm’s
infectious, as we flip and strike,
coordinated, lockstep. Like
Rockettes deprived of their free will,
we kick a solid, plastic ball
toward gaping goal and hear it fall
and roll beneath. We rest until
it pops out through a sideline hole.
We spin for yet another goal—
jerked this way, that—or try to block
a shot. Our game’s not ruled by clock:
we play to ten, or till you tire.
To nothing more do we aspire.

Happy Thanksgiving everybody!

Tuesday, November 23, 2010

Red Dragon is a Hard Novel

From an interesting little Newsweek piece about the DFW archive:

His class materials take up a couple of boxes in the Ransom archive, providing readers with the opportunity to see which essays and stories Wallace assigned, and then read the professor’s own marked copies of the works. You can see the lines of Lorrie Moore’s short story “People Like That Are the Only People Here” that Wallace thought were either funny or “bad”—as well as how Wallace saw that Stephen King made the potentially stock character of Carrie into a fuller portrait. (When Wallace assigned genre fiction to his students, he warned them against slacking off. “Red Dragon is a hard novel, at least the way we’ll be reading it,” he wrote in one handout.)

Of course, some of us already knew the closeness with which Wallace read (and even, some might say, plagiarized) Thomas Harris's novel.

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

To Take a Place in the World

I like this little bit from Richard Brody:

The first challenge that young people must face—whether they state it this way or not—is to exist, to take a place in the world: to do fulfilling things, to make a living, to look for love, to go beyond the assumptions of home and family and discover their own identities and abilities.

Saturday, November 13, 2010

The Plaza After Rain

Washing our cars outside on this gray day, I thought of this painting, Paul Cornoyer's The Plaza After Rain, and this piece I wrote about it eleven years ago, when I was in graduate school:

It feels like a day in late November, or early December, Christmas in the back of the mind but nowhere to be seen in this wetness, this cold. The patina of water on the dull street mirrors back at the mother and two children the black trees and gray buildings and gray, unassuming sky. Water tiptoes into the grated drain in the crotch of the curb. Water sprawls out, exhausted, on the beaten muddy strip that divides the street in two. The children step behind their mother, warm in coats that extend to mid-thigh, hats that casually cover their ears. Their mother carries umbrellas for each of them. They may remember this day fifteen years from now but forget the errand that brought them outside into the mostly empty streets. They may remember a feeling of emptiness—the sunless sky, the street made more lonesome by the one mail carrier trudging behind them, the double-decked bus and the horse and carriage waiting at the curbs down the block, waiting and empty, waiting. They may remember the emptiness, the cold and wet, and yet they may also remember a feeling of shelter, not just in their generous coats and hats but in the embrace of the buildings that line the avenue that leads them away from the plaza. They may remember looking back to the plaza and seeing the faint pink light that only one building seems to have grasped, and grasped only fleetingly. They may remember seeing, out of their darkening avenue, the equestrian statue, no doubt brilliant and gleaming in the sun but muted now except for a golden flourish on the horse’s rump. The day holds no promise of spring, only of a few more weeks of falling away, a few more weeks till the few yellow leaves—fluttering now on the uppermost branches that finger up into the sky like reverse roots—fall and join the general dormant brown.

So much depends upon the date of this day, for if it’s January and not December or November then the small signposts of color in this drab scene—the mother’s blue scarf in her brown collar, the mailman’s red shirt under his dull green coat, the wan pink lingering on the building that borders the plaza, the doomed yellow of the leaves, the stalwart evergreen bushes—point nowhere. Spring is unimaginable. But with the memory of Thanksgiving and the anticipation of Christmas (anticipation that is really just the memory of all the Christmases that came before) sheltering the pedestrians like the honeycombed, cubbyholed buildings on either side of the street—only with these internal and external monuments is this day bearable.


I’m looking at this painting on October 28. This painting is the future, as fall falls further and winter, the bland giant, lumbers impassively in the distance. But the painting is also the past. Indeed, the painting enacts the creation of the past, of memory. The children, the mother, the mail carrier, the bus, all the busy humans and vehicles in the painting are moving ever forward, down dark avenues that lead away from the softly glowing, indistinct plaza. The feeling of the day is palpable, as thick as the wet air, but no one in the painting can hold it now, for it slips away into the past and they must keep walking and driving, eyes on the concrete and the mud and the black trees ahead. The loveliness of the plaza, the subtle blues of the sky, perhaps not so featureless after all, the airiness of the buildings beyond the plaza—these can be seen, by the children, the mother, the mailman, only in the warped mirror of the glazed street. The present cannot be savored like a painting. Only the past can. Only in memory will the children be able to love the plaza after rain, to look back behind them as I look back behind them at the elusive beauty of an ugly day. And their memory, like the painting itself, will be impressionistic, indistinct, blurred by rain or nostalgic tears.

Thursday, November 11, 2010

Authentic Frontier Gibberish

I disagree with most of what this essay says about Cormac McCarthy's Blood Meridian, but I found this passage pretty funny nonetheless:

It’s not difficult to see why Blood Meridian is such a hit with high falutin’ critics like Bloom. Consider enigmatic passages like this: “For this will to deceive that is in things luminous may manifest itself likewise in retrospect and so by slight of some fixed part of a journey already accomplished may also post men to fraudulent destinies.”

Looks as if somebody’s been readin’
The Portable Nietzsche by the camp fire. As the character says in Blazing Saddles, “This is authentic frontier gibberish.”

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

Cognitive Dissonance

Frightened by joblessness, “the American people” rewarded the party that not only opposed the stimulus but also blocked the extension of unemployment benefits. Alarmed by a ballooning national debt, they rewarded the party that not only transformed budget surpluses into budget deficits but also proposes to inflate the debt by hundreds of billions with a permanent tax cut for the least needy two per cent. Frustrated by what they see as inaction, they rewarded the party that not only fought every effort to mitigate the crisis but also forced the watering down of whatever it couldn’t block.

Monday, November 1, 2010

Adventures at QT (6)

In case you hadn't heard, I'm off the sauce: no more 32-oz. fountain Dr Peppers from QT. I went cold turkey over the summer when I started getting stomach aches and finally traced them to the large quantities of carbonated syrup I was imbibing daily.

Nevertheless, I sometimes still need the psychological treat of stopping at the QT fountain. The other day I went in and Tiffany, one of our buddies who works there, said, "What, are you coming to get a cup of water?" (My wife had told her I'd given up soda.)

No, I said. A lemonade. She made a face as if to say, "Oh, come on, now, you're better than that."

"It's kind of like my Nicorette patch," I said on my way back to the counter.

She looked at me sadly. "No, I don't think it's even remotely like that."

Anyway, yesterday we were coming back from Mira's soccer game down at St. Mary Magdalen's fields off S. Kingshighway, and I decided to stop in for a post-game lemonade. As we pulled in, my wife and I had a little negotiation with the girls about whether they would get their traditional piece of ten-cent candy, given that Halloween was that night.

Eventually we gave in and said they could each have a Laffy Taffy. Lisa went in to get the drinks and candy, and I sat in the van with the girls.

On the sidewalk in front of us, a grizzled man wearing a ragged camouflage jacket, sweatpants, and battered tennis shoes staggered by holding a cup of coffee and a long john. Judging by his unkempt beard and weather-darkened skin, he appeared to be homeless. He walked slowly, taking irregular shuffling steps, and as he passed directly in front of us he awkwardly lifted his hand to take a bite of the long john.

From the back of the van, Mira called out, "No fair—that guy gets a donut!"

Wednesday, October 27, 2010

Say Something in Communist

In his fascinating analysis of the ideological roots of the Tea Party, Sean Wilentz downplays the racial aspect of the Party's attacks on President Obama, arguing that "'socialist' is not a racial slur." As Taylor Branch demonstrates in Parting the Waters, however, white segregationists often labelled civil rights protesters communists. (Branch relates an amusing anecdote of a young white girl in Pike County, Miss., who asked the jailed SNCC activist Charles McDew to "say something in Communist" and thrilled to hear him speak to her in Yiddish.) Perhaps the Tea Party's penchant for calling Obama a socialist is the contemporary form of this crude attempt to describe African Americans who challenge the status quo.

Tuesday, October 26, 2010

Assumptions for Organizers

According to Taylor Branch's Parting the Waters, during Bayard Rustin's orchestration of the 1963 March on Washington he kept saying, "If you want to organize anything, assume that everybody is absolutely stupid."

Pretty good advice for teaching, too.

As is Rustin's follow-up: "And assume yourself that you're stupid."

Monday, October 18, 2010

Used Books

I found this piece at Slate unexpectedly fascinating. It's written by a guy who makes a living selling used books online. He spends 80 hours a week scavenging books, using a PDA scanner that alerts him to the value of the books he's looking at. Perhaps I found it particularly interesting because I realized that I'm the flip side of this guy: I buy most of my books used online now, helping to create a market for people like this man, whom many in society judge as abhorrent, as depicted in this passage from his essay:

If it's possible to make a decent living selling books online, then why does it feel so shameful to do this work? I'm not the only one who feels this way; I see it in the mien of my fellow scanners as they whip out their PDAs next to the politely browsing normal customers. The sense that this is a dishonorable profession is confirmed by library book sales that tag their advertisements with "No electronic devices allowed," though making this rule probably isn't in the libraries' financial interest. People scanning books sometimes get kicked out of thrift stores and retail shops as well, though this hasn't happened to me yet.

I've had just one confrontation while doing my job, with an elderly man in a suburb. We were in the library's book-sale room when I overheard him telling his friend that the two of them were surrounded by a-------—that is, the people scanning. "It's a business," I said, but I felt all locked up and couldn't bear to turn and say it to his face. "This is a library!" he spat. "You don't work here—you don't work at the library!" He told me that he had 10,000 books in his house, and that he'd read them all. A dozen other people kept scanning silently. Later on, in the parking lot, I got some empathy from my comrades, but they quickly started to speak about their work with the same hunching defensiveness I had put on with my challenger.

Friday, October 15, 2010

Gopnik on the Nobel

From the great Adam Gopnik's recent piece on the Nobel Prize in Literature, in which he explains his theory that the prize (and the list of those who've won it) would make more sense if it were named after Victor Hugo:

When this year’s prize was announced, last Thursday, it went to a writer who, if not a North American (again), is at least familiar to North Americans: the Peruvian novelist and man of letters Mario Vargas Llosa. So all hail Vargas Llosa, whom even his noisier left-wing critics have to regard as exactly the kind of writer the prize ought to go to: one with a host of well-regarded novels (“The Time of the Hero,” “Conversation in the Cathedral,” the screen-adapted “Aunt Julia and the Scriptwriter,” “The Feast of the Goat”) and a sense of social responsibility (he ran seriously for, and lost badly, the Presidency of Peru), not to mention a lively personal life that includes once punching out another future laureate with an equally impressive triple-barrelled moniker, Gabriel García Márquez, reportedly over something to do with Mrs. Vargas Llosa. The Nobel thus not only crowns a career but provides the basis for a fine future Javier Bardem/Antonio Banderas movie. (“The only thing they cared for more than Latin American epic fiction was . . . the honor of a woman.”)

Monday, October 11, 2010

Faulkner's Appendix

Twice in her new collection of nonfiction In Rough Country, Joyce Carol Oates makes passing references to what she says is Faulkner's description, in the Appendix to The Sound and the Fury, of the black housekeeper Dilsey: "They endured."

In an essay on her writerly influences, Oates characterizes this description as a "terse encomium." In her essay on Cormac McCarthy, Oates mentions the reference again, this time addressing the apparent contradiction of the encomium's plural subject by suggesting that it is "as if the singular Dilsey were in fact multiple, emblematic."

Oates is trying too hard here, and not making much sense.

In fact, the final line of the Appendix, "They endured," applies to all four of the black people listed—TP, Frony, Luster, and Dilsey. Dilsey alone among the characters discussed in the Appendix (some quite brutally) is granted the dignity of not being summed up at all—as if this solid, powerful woman cannot be captured in words.

Oates' confusion arises from the formatting of the Appendix. The line "They endured" comes directly below Dilsey's name, and she is the last black character listed. But every other character's description begins directly after their name, on the same line. So it may appear that "They endured" is a description of Dilsey, but upon comparison with the other characters it is clear that Dilsey's name is simply left to stand for itself, and that "They endured" is a description of all of the black characters who survive alongside the self-destructing Compsons.

Saturday, October 9, 2010

MLK's Pick-Up Lines

A funny moment from the first conversation between Martin Luther King, Jr., and Coretta Scott, narrated in Taylor Branch's Parting the Waters: America in the King Years, 1954-1963:

Early in 1952, he called a woman blindly on the recommendation of a friend. After passing along a few of the friend's compliments as reasons why he had obtained the phone number, King threw out his opening line. "You know every Napoleon has his Waterloo," he said. "I'm like Napoleon. I'm at my Waterloo, and I'm on my knees."

"That's absurd," Coretta Scott replied. "You don't even know me."

Thursday, October 7, 2010

Blood Meridian & The Border Trilogy

From Joyce Carol Oates's essay on the work of Cormac McCarthy, in her collection In Rough Country:

Blood Meridian
and the Border Trilogy are counterpoised: the one a furious debunking of the legendary West, the other a subdued, humane, and subtle exploration of the tangled roots of such legends of the West as they abide in the human heart. Where Blood Meridian scorns any idealism except the jeremiad—"War is god"—the interlinked novels of the Border Trilogy testify to the quixotic idealism that celebrates friendship, brotherhood, loyalty, the integrity of the cowboy-worker as one whose life is bound up with animals in a harsh, exhausting, and dangerous environment: "I love this life," says Billy Parham of Cities of the Plain. After the phantasmagoria of Blood Meridian, the domestic realism of much of the Border Trilogy comes as a natural corrective.

Tuesday, October 5, 2010

Down on The Wire

At the Boston Globe, Ishmael Reed raises some objections about The Wire that are similar to those I explored here. The biggest difference: I love The Wire; Reed doesn't.

Monday, October 4, 2010

Mapping St. Louis

In 2008 I published an essay about racial segregation in St. Louis. The piece was partly a review of Colin Gordon's book Mapping Decline: St. Louis and the Fate of the American City.

Gordon has now put together an interactive series of maps that show the progression of white flight, redlining, and more in twentieth-century St. Louis. They're pretty fascinating.

Sunday, September 26, 2010

Mastering One's Work

I've been reading parts of Booker T. Washington's Up From Slavery this weekend and enjoying the experience quite a bit. I liked this passage, in which Washington talks about how he manages his Herculean workload. It reminds me of a colleague of mine (those who know her will know whom I mean immediately):

I make it a rule to clear my desk every day, before leaving my office, of all correspondence and memoranda, so that on the morrow I can begin a new day of work. I make it a rule never to let my work drive me, but to so master it, and keep it in such complete control, and to keep so far ahead of it, that I will be the master instead of the servant. There is a physical and mental and spiritual enjoyment that comes from a consciousness of being the absolute master of one's work, in all its details, that is very satisfactory and inspiring. My experience teaches me that, if one learns to follow this pln, he gets a freshness of body and vigour of mind out of work that goes a long way toward keeping him strong and healthy. I believe that when one can grow to the point where he loves his work, this gives him a kind of strength that is most valuable.

Saturday, September 25, 2010

Dionysian Energy and Moral Engagement

Last night I saw the Avett Brothers play at the Pageant. It was an incredible show, full of humor, energy, and heart. As my friend Rich put it in an e-mail written after the show, "You get a strong impression of unusual rectitude in these strenuously upright human beings. Their combination of Dionysian energy with moral engagement is certainly an unusual and, for me, a wonderful conjunction."

Here's a fun clip of the band in a Jackson Hole gondola doing "St. Joseph's," a great song that they didn't get to last night.

Tuesday, September 21, 2010

Jumping to Conclusions

I just read a couple great Comments from recent New Yorkers, both of which reminded me why I love this magazine so much.

This is the conclusion to Lawrence Wright's piece on Islam in America:

The most worrisome development in the evolution of Al Qaeda’s influence since 9/11 is the growth of pockets of Islamist radicalism in Western populations. Until recently, America had been largely immune to the extremism that has placed some European nations in peril. America’s Muslim community is more ethnically diverse than that of any other major religion in the country. Its members hold more college and graduate degrees than the national average. They also have a higher employment rate and more jobs in the professional sector. (Compare that with England and France, where education and employment rates among Muslims fall below the national averages.) These factors have allowed American Muslims and non-Muslims to live together with a degree of harmony that any other Western nation would envy.

The best ally in the struggle against violent Islamism is moderate Islam. The unfounded attacks on the backers of Park51 and others, along with such sideshows as a pastor calling for the burning of Korans, give substance to the Al Qaeda argument that the U.S. is waging a war against Islam, rather than against the terrorists’ misshapen effigy of that religion. Those stirring the pot in this debate are casting a spell that is far more dangerous than they may imagine.

And here's the conclusion of Nicholas Lemann's
piece on the so-called crisis in American education:

The story line on education, at this ill-tempered moment in American life, expresses what might be called the Noah’s Ark view of life: a vast territory looks so impossibly corrupted that it must be washed away, so that we can begin its activities anew, on finer, higher, firmer principles. One should treat any perception that something so large is so completely awry with suspicion, and consider that it might not be true—especially before acting on it.

We have a lot of recent experience with breaking apart large, old, unlovely systems in the confidence of gaining great benefits at low cost. We deregulated the banking system. We tried to remake Iraq. In education, we would do well to appreciate what our country has built, and to try to fix what is undeniably wrong without declaring the entire system to be broken. We have a moral obligation to be precise about what the problems in American education are—like subpar schools for poor and minority children—and to resist heroic ideas about what would solve them, if those ideas don’t demonstrably do that.

Saturday, September 18, 2010

Zora Neale Hurston's Facebook

In the introduction to his essay collection Tuxedo Junction, Gerald Early quotes from Zora Neale Hurston's autobiography Dust Tracks on a Road. This passage, about Hurston's experiences working as a teenager in a white theater company, seems to be about a kind of proto-Facebook:

I got a scrapbook, and everybody gave me a picture to put in it. I pasted each one on a separate page and wrote comments under each picture. This created a great deal of interest, because some of the comments were quite pert. They egged me on to elaborate.

It soon becomes a kind of blog:

Then I got another idea. I would comment on daily doings and post the sheets on the call-board. This took on right away. The results stayed strictly mine less than a week because members of the cast began to call aside and tell me things to put in about others. It got to be so general that everybody was writing it. It was just my handwriting, mostly.

Naturally, her account ends up getting hacked:

Then it got beyond that. Most of the cast ceased to wait for me. They would take a pencil to the board and set down their own item. Answers to the wisecracks would appear promptly and often cause uproarious laughter. They always started off with either "Zora says" or "The observant reporter of the Call-board asserts"—Lord, Zora said more things! I was continually astonished, but always amused.

Saturday, September 11, 2010

Young Boy Tryin' to Know Something

I love this moment in Gerald Early's essay about Count Basie's autobiography, included in Early's 1989 collection Tuxedo Junction. I like to imagine it as a formative moment for him in his career as cultural critic:

There was a d.j. in Philadelphia back in the 1960s named Sonny Hopson who called himself the Mighty Burner. After having heard the original version of "One O'Clock Jump" when I was a boy, when I went through my period of fascination with the Basie band when I was thirteen, I concluded there was really only one mighty burner and it was not that d.j. In fact, it was not even the Basie band but little old Bill Basie himself. I remember standing around in the barbershop one afternoon listening to the old heads talking about jazz while some others were getting their heads cut. (One never gets a haircut in a black barbershop. One is always getting one's head cut. In the black beauty parlor the womn are getting their heads done, not their hair.) And I, quite timidly, interjected a little note about Basie:

"He's a mighty burner," I said.

And one of the older men laughed loud and raucous, saying:

"Why, lookahere, the young boy tryin' to snap out. The young boy tryin' to know something. Why, one day, he might even know who Bill Basie is. But he learning."