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."

Friday, September 3, 2010

The Love Song's Embrace

My friend and colleague Chuck put on my desk a copy of this lecture about love songs that Nick Cave gave in Vienna. I particularly liked this passage:

In his brilliant lecture entitled "The Theory and Function of Duende" Federico Garcia Lorca attempts to shed some light on the eerie and inexplicable sadness that lives in the heart of certain works of art. "All that has dark sound has duende," he says, "that mysterious power that everyone feels but no philosopher can explain." In contemporary rock music, the area in which I operate, music seems less inclined to have in its soul, restless and quivering, the sadness that Lorca talks about. Excitement, often; anger, sometimes: but true sadness, rarely. Bob Dylan has always had it. Leonard Cohen deals specifically in it. It pursues Van Morrison like a black dog and though he tries to, he cannot escape it. Tom Waits and Neil Young can summon it.... but all in all it would appear that duende is too fragile to survive the brutality of technology and the ever increasing acceleration of the music industry. Perhaps there is just no money in sadness, no dollars in duende. Sadness or duende needs space to breathe. Melancholy hates haste and floats in silence. It must be handled with care.

All love songs must contain
duende. For the love song is never truly happy. It must first embrace the potential for pain.

Wednesday, September 1, 2010

Back to School

Packer on Iraq Speech

George Packer's response to the President's speech last night offers a nuanced check-in for those of us who, like most Americans, have lost track of what's going on in Iraq. Early in the piece, Packer wryly notes that "August 31, 2010, will go down in history as the day Americans could start not thinking about the war without feeling guilty."

Among Packer's numerous insights, I found this one particularly noteworthy:

Vietnam and Korea were far more changed by American wars than Iraq. Only a small number of Iraqis had any encounters with Americans lasting more than a few minutes (the ruthlessness of the insurgency, as well as the heavy-handedness of American soldiers trying to act like policemen, made sure of it). American English didn’t become a vital part of street talk. Few Americans learned Arabic, and you rarely heard soldiers say they wanted to come back as civilians and bring their children ten or twenty years from now. Americans, with a few exceptions, didn’t fall in love with Iraq. On the other hand, many Iraqis were half in love with America by the time the first troops arrived in Baghdad; over the following months and years, they lost their illusions.