Tuesday, August 17, 2010

Letters to Alton: Eat the Rich

Thomas WolfeImage by cliff1066™ via Flickr

Alton, which formal address gives tone, and one thing we still have is *tone*. I will be teaching feature writing this fall – if my handful of students (just six) don’t slip away before classes start next week. It’s a class in which half of the students will get A’s because I will push them toward playing with the moment, selecting the details that set the frame (their frame) of the event, listening for the bits of high conversation, perhaps even putting their own POV in their directly – though never ever an “I.” In short, I encourage them to be "literary" and so generously reward the attempt that if you do the work, you get a good grade. This makes the class more fun, of course, and I am no longer interested in making them suffer in the name of rigor. The world rewards a lot of things, and good work is only one of them, and punishes a lot of things, and good work is *certainly* one of them. How jealous some are of excellence.

So I look forward to feature writing. The first exercise the first day of class will be sending them out to campus to (singly) pick a campus elevator and ride up and down for half an hour and bring back “the story.” Some of them will simply be an eye. Some of them will bring back a personal tail of how they were challenged or engaged by elevator riders wondering why they just keeping going UP and going DOWN. So, yes: fun.

Now you walked me through your politics, which journey I much enjoyed. My basic approach is kind of cynical but very personal. I actually wish the Democrats really were engaged in some serious class warfare! I just love seeing prosperous folk taxed because they live so rich and then they howl so loud when you claw some of it back. This comes, I guess, from my blue collar background. When I was in therapy back in the 90s – I had locked up on my progress toward tenure so I auditioned three psychologists and picked the mean one, the bitch. After some months said, with what seemed genuine surprise, “You really are serious about this class resentment.” Now, if she had added: “But I also think that you personally have the attitude that Churchill ascribed to the Hun -- ‘He’s either at your feet or at your throat,’” I couldn’t have denied it. I’ve always been too deferential to people with power simply because they have it. Now folk who make $250,000 plus a year – which we have done a time or two but only late in life – may work hard or they may be lucky or they may have inherited it or they may have stolen it, but in any case I am comfortable taking some of it (or giving some of it up) just *on principle*, which is that even Adam Smith would have puked at the sight of some of the self indulgence we now see among the mega rich. I think a lot of middle class people work pretty hard and deserve a decent share of things. *This is, among other things, a “moral” position, which means individual and arbitrary.*

How does this approach work out empirically? Are the wise stifled and the mob engorged, tick-like, with the blood of their betters?*

It’s case by case, isn’t it? It’s a question of how much waste you can tolerate to get a little good done? Every politician has a little bit of a con going on, some little self serving thing, going on, so let the horse trading begin. What this resolves into is all kinds of problems and resentments at the Democrats, those sanctimonious, self-serving bastards, and utter loathing for the Republicans who really are Know Nothings (in the modern misunderstanding of the term). I mean, denying global warming and defending BP and trying to deny Muslims the right to build a mosque on a spot they bought with good hard Yankee dollars.

And so my rant is richly vague, not a political philosophy but certainly an attitude. The average politician is a nasty piece of sausage - bug bits, rat hair, flecks of excrement. Eydie was working for Oakland when Jerry Brown was mayor, and every time she encountered him filled her with greater disdain. But I’ll still take him over the eBay lady intent on buying the election who is too scared of the press to talk to any. Oh yes I’ll take a Democrat over a Republican seven days a week. And, of course, in the long run we are all dead, and political enthusiasm is so much middle class self inflation. Yet I still think that some political decisions do make things better.

After recess, we will discuss this elusive “better.”

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Tuesday, August 10, 2010

15 Most Overrated American Writers?

Image representing Huffington Post as depicted...Image via CrunchBase

Showed up on Huffington Post. Boy Koppy, of the LA Koppys, started a conversation.

From Michael, a journalism professor in San Francisco:
(Yeah, yet ANOTHER "Michael" -- every fuckin' Johnny-come-lately Tom, Dick and Harry is named Michael, dammit....)
That was fun to read because of the apparently well-informed animus of the critic, well-informed in the sense that he makes big claims based on vast knowledge of books and theories and *I* don’t know enough to challenge him. As for the list, I’ve never read a single word by most of them, which is rather embarrassing. But I read all those other older books in grad school, the contents of which I promptly forgot, so I have no illusions about having missed much. I have read a little bit of Billy Collins and a little bit of Mary Oliver and rather like them. Criticism of poets asserting that most of their work is crap is not a legit criticism from my point of view. I don’t see a book of poems as a linear accomplishment to be judged intact. If you do a few poems that stand up, that’s enough. (You may say this is the lazy man’s approach to literature – the ‘anthology’ approach, which means you only have to read the stamped and approved – and I won’t argue.) But I’ve read some Collins and Oliver that gave me pleasure. And if the earth did not move in those instances of pleasure, somehow I no longer expect it to.

John Ashbery: Read again and again that he’s great and tried some poems in the New Yorker. Left me cold. Helen Vendler: I thought she was poet and critic?? Doesn’t matter; haven’t read her either. Amy Tan? Confident I didn’t need to read her. Michuko Kakutani? The fact I have not gone to the trouble to spell her name right says it all. I do recall I have never been impressed by her reviews, though I never paused to figure out why. I knew the names of some of the rest of the list. But some of them I heard of for the first time.

What I was most impressed by was the effort on the part of the critic to grab some spotlight for himself. Perhaps, he will manage to start a few conversations. I now feel “prodded” to make an effort to read some of these folk again, or for the first time. Such over-the-top condemnation clears the field as it were, dynamites the dam, leaves some space for me to have a few modest opinions. Maybe I’ll come back and read the comments.

And Anis Shivani : my eyes are on *you*. I will talk about you at cocktail parties.

From Bob, a comedy writer and author in Berkeley:
I've heard of Amy Tan, of course, and read a short fiction by Foer in the New Yorker which I thought was okay, and The Something Life of Somebody by Diaz, which wasn't bad, but frankly I've never heard of any of these other writers. I get the impression that they mostly write for one another. I suspect I would enjoy almost anything by Bill Bryson or Carl Hiaasen more than I would these writers, but it's a near certainty that I'll never find out.
From Jerry, a travel writer also in Berkeley:
I'm finding in my own writing that 'themes' I immerse myself in help me to at least get something down, esp w/all the travelling all over my peripatetic other half still wants to do. Like this, from my 6-word 'nevel' series: "If only now, then always now." Ersatz Buddhist or song-lyric in future, who knows, but it helps keep the creativity flowing. And as for poetry (which I was never a big reader of), I have recently discovered Mary Oliver. Fantastic! Inspirational, without all the pretense. Check her out!
From Alexandra, a French reporter in Johannesburg:
As always, the point of this is that just because (in this case all these 15 writers) win the accolades or have these books in print isn't guarantee of quality of writing. The critic is probably as much jealous as correct with his thinking. I don't know any of those American writers, but it doesn't matter. Awards, academic jobs, good reviews, money are not the result of talent except of sales talent. As you always say yourself, Michael, ultimately success is only selling. This is sad cold facts. Today more than in history but it has always been this. The unknown beautiful tree falling in the forest is most often decayed to unrecognizable when the remains are finally found and gathered for only firewood. But a known tree (a tree with a publicist) doesn't have to be beautiful.
Thanks to all who contributed.
I should start a fuckin' blog on these questions....
But there's still three ice-cold Buds in the fridge. THREE of 'em!
And it IS a hot day....

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Saturday, August 07, 2010

A Cat-Naming Contretemps as Captured on Twitter

"The Names" by Don DeLillo.Image via Wikipedia


Just Googled 'Leonardo da Kitty" and got no hits. Look like our new cat has a name. 31 minutes ago via TweetDeck

Oh noes. Pater da former student hit the Google and found multiple Leonardo da Kitty refs. Let's keep it a secret from our kitty, guys.
7 minutes ago via TweetDeck

Okay trouble. E. does not want new kitty to have name intended to be unique that isn't. Common name that we know is common is all right. 2 minutes ago via TweetDeck

Stay tuned. 1 minute ago via me
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These are a Few of My Favorite Things: Two of Our Dead Kitties, Pat's Dog Rose

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Tuesday, August 03, 2010

I Don't Want the Future to Look Like Me, Just Think Like Me

By which I mean simply that ideas matter more than melanin, a thought prompted by this "duh" quote from the fabulous Josh Marshall.

But more important it brings up the question upon which all of this madness, birtherism and the like turns. Will America forever be a white country? For any demographer, this question has answered itself for many years. But the very existence of Barack Obama has startled a significant part of the population into realizing what the rest of the world has known for some time--that the day fast approaches when America will no longer be majority white--not just in population, but in governance and culture. It is only through this prism that the the new political hysterics can be understood.
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Sunday, August 01, 2010

Never Waste a Good Letter: Hello, North Carolina

Cover of "The Tipping Point: How Little T...Cover via Amazon

God you read a lot in what seems to be a pretty active retirement. I *skim* a lot, wandering the net as I look for examples for journalism class -- examples of good writing, good reporting, good organizing, good gatekeeping and, of course, bad examples of all that and more. I save all sorts of things on the computer and use so few of them because teaching journalism is all about the basics, collecting some facts that may be "facts," understanding that having collected enough information to make a good judgment about including/emphasizing only some of that information is a clear and present manifestation of the inevitable imperfection of human knowing and human sharing .... But, hey, if you wade too deep in these waters, suddenly you seem to be teaching *against* the aims of a basic reporting course. You are suggesting it's too flawed an enterprise to attempt. Well, we don't believe that. We get out of bed in the morning and do our best. So should everyone else, including all the poor young journalists. There are limits on knowing but we should still try to know, right?
That's a long excuse for not reading much anymore in the long forms, either fiction or non-fiction or poetry or essays. I read news and news about news and some thoughtful analysis of news by scholars, though less of that than I probably should. God, I hate jargon but maybe only because I'm not very good at it. I don't play well with others when it comes to pitching scholarly ideas. I once had an article rejected by a reader because, as he wrote, Dr. Robertson "seemed to be under the misapprehension he should be entertaining." Ah. Enough of that.
We are still pretty much yellow dog Democrats. As I like to say, the Dems are in the pocket of big business but the Repubs are an organ inside its body. The Republicans really are more vigorous in their "know nothing-ess" when it comes to science -- global warming and so on. We were talking about this after going to Biltmore with you. You really can sink into comfortable despair about modern politics and curse both parties and all parties. It really is an intellectually defensible position, particularly if you are older, with maybe ten years of decent life left, and money in the bank. But by temperament, I choose to think it's worth hoping that -- if the world is not going to move forward (in terms of my definition of such) -- perhaps we can slow things down as the world slides back into the abyss. So: an inch of difference between the D and the R, but I live in that inch! So: We give some money to the Ds and try to be ready to engage in rational poltitical discussion when given the chance in the hope that Malcolm Gladwell is right and there is a tipping point and I will be the one who says the thing to the right person at the right time and thus the world will be saved.
Well, there you go.


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