Jul 8 2018

A Sociology of Texas, 1978-2018

Western book stack

A Sociology of Texas, 1978-2018

I’m very excited to have my review of Lawrence Wright’s God Save Texas: a Journey into the Soul of the Lone Star State (2018) published in the Berlin Review of Books!

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National Austrian Library


Apr 24 2018

Hosting the Italians: Part II of III

Western book stack

Hosting the Italians: Part II of II

(Read Part I here.)

Onto the plains [of west Texas] you issue as onto a lighted stage, and with that sudden sense of isolation and exposure. The farther behind you leave [central Texas] the now-familiar prairie, the fewer people you see, the stronger grows the sensation of being watched. The silence sharpens the ear, the emptiness the eye. An ambiguous, double sensation comes over you: you feel at once taller, a very tall man, and smaller, a very small creature….

––William Humphrey (1924–1997)

I had to work the next few days and couldn’t journey into our state’s own Big Sky Country with the gang as they headed into west Texas. But I’ve been to many (though not all) the places they went. Most of what follows was told to me upon their return. And where any gaps in the narrative happen to appear, my muse has instructed me to turn to my books about Texas and conjecture the story accordingly.

The next day, after the late supper Cosimo and Chiara had prepared for us Tuesday night, our guests drove to Houston to meet an old friend. They returned to Austin on Wednesday evening and said they had eaten some great barbecue somewhere in that city. Later that night they visited our friend fbom and worked on music.

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(Cosimo working on music at fbom’s studio)

Because Wednesday was the official start of the music portion of the South by Southwest (SXSW) festival, after work I went to my neighborhood bar [K]nomad and saw two performances. The first was a local gal named Kat Allison, who sang solo and played an acoustic guitar; her style reminded me a lot of Jewel. She looked pretty but her music was plain.

The second act was a two-man band called Domico. They came all the way from Tokyo. I learned later that this was their first time to play in the States. They were very young, a little nervous, but didn’t seem necessarily anxious. Before they went on, one member approached the bar to order a soda. It appeared the bar had given the band a fixed number of drink tickets (not uncommon at some venues for SXSW shows), but––because the guy only wanted a soda (he looked under eighteen) and bars make their money selling alcohol, not soda––the bartender was nice enough tell him to keep his ticket and gave the guy a complementary coke. That may sound like a pretty mundane moment in the history of SXSW, but as soon as the Japanese patron learned that his soda was free, his eyes bugged out of his head in such an unexpected burst of excitement and gratitude that it was as if I were watching a hand-drawn anime from his homeland.

(Domico at Knomad, Austin, TX)

Domico’s style was very loud, rough, a lot in the vein of alternative rock from the 1990’s, but with more complexity—and that made it refreshing. After their set, I ended up purchasing one of their CDs as well as a t-shirt. Another member of the audience was at the merchandise table, and he also happened to be Japanese, though he wasn’t connected with the band. I was trying to convey to the band members what I thought about their music, but their English was very limited, so this other Japanese guy translated to them for me that I thought their music was “technically precise, but at the same time, emotionally wild”—and that this was a good combination.

The changeable winds [of west Texas] pass and repass over the dry grass with a sound like shifting sands, and running before the wind, the grass turns its nap, first this way then that way, like velvet pile when a hand is run idly back and forth over it. Flat as a marble floor, the land stretches away empty and endless as the bar boundless sky above. The eye strains ahead for a landmark, a rooftop, a spire, a tree, anything vertical, anything that thrusts above the brown level monotony….

––William Humphrey (1924–1997)

Thursday morning Cosimo, Chiara, and Scott, along with David and Dyhana all set out for Big Bend National Park, over 300 miles from Austin as the crow flies. They stopped for lunch in the old German town of Fredericksburg, at a Bavarian restaurant called Auslanders, which means “foreigners” or “outsiders” in German.

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(The gang at Auslanders, Fredericksburg, Texas)

After a shared appetizer of various meats, cheeses, and crackers, they ate Jagerschnitzel (breaded pork loin), bratwurst sausage and Rinderbraten sandwiches consisting of: “tender pot roast, piled high on a sweet sourdough bun with beef gravy, onion strings & roasted garlic mayo.” With their meal, they drank Altstadt beer. The name means “Old City,” and it’s made in the Altstadt brewery there in Fredericksburg.

Looked at long enough—and once embarked upon it, you look for a long, long time—the land [in west Texas] will seem to exhibit that phenomenon called seiche,[1] to rock slowly from side to side like the wallowing of a lake. That, and the absence of objects to relate yourself to, bring on land-sickness. Even the sun gives no direction, but hangs straight overhead all day, as if uncertain of the way. Under moonlight the plain whitens like an arctic snowfield….

––William Humphrey (1924–1997)

That evening they drove to Alpine, which over 300 miles directly west of Fredericksburg, and checked into some motel rooms. After unloading their bags, the gang drove to Marfa, only 25 miles farther west, to see the Marfa lights. I saw them once as a child, and all my adult friends said they saw them that night. As I remember them, the lights were not eerie like an alleged extraterrestrial encounter might be described. No, there is something so apparent about those lights that they lack mystery. In other words, they seem naturally perplexing, not artificially ambiguous. Yes, deep in the heart of Texas, the stars at night may be big and bright—but out in rural Presidio County, the Marfa lights might be better described as “blinking and benign.”

After seeing the lights, the crew headed back to their rooms at the Value Lodge in Alpine. Along the way they saw many jackrabbits in the night but no chupacabras. The next morning, Friday, March 16, they had breakfast at Penny’s Diner in Alpine, then, drove about 80 miles southward to Big Bend. Just before they got to the park, they stopped at the ghost town of Terlingua and explored its grounds.

When you do see a man you first see him at such a distance that he is like a fly crawling on a tabletop. There is no horizon [in west Texas]. Rather, there is horizon everywhere. The horizon is created whenever something or somebody stands up somewhere in the landscape. Then where a rooftop rises, the barren eye eagerly draws all lines towards it. You see clouds underneath the belly of a cow, see the sky winking between the legs of a walking man. It is a place without perspective, and things thrust themselves up isolated, unsurrounded by any of the close familiar objects by which one judges distances and size; and so the eye, as if out of focus, cannot judge, cannot relate it: is that a child nearby or a man far off, a haystack or a hummock, an insect or a bird—or nothing at all, a mirage? ….

––William Humphrey (1924–1997)

At Big Bend they saw its splendid scenery, the Rio Grande (and Old Mexico on the other side), as well as several coyotes (the canine kind, not traffickers of human beings). It was almost dark as they were leaving the park.

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(Cosimo and Chiara at Big Bend National Park, Texas)

On the long journey home, they stopped at a Sonic in Fort Stockton. It was almost midnight, but they managed to get some food before the place closed for the evening. Then they got back on the road, aiming for Austin. But both the desert and the darkness were starting to drag on everyone, so they got some motel rooms in Ozona (about 100 miles east of Fort Stockton) around 2:00 a.m. There they rested for a while.

And because you haven’t any landmark or person for so long in view, nor ever lose it, or him, under a hill or behind a bend, you seem to take forever getting there, and time hangs suspended and unreal. And yet when you finally reach the place no time has elapsed, for across that unarched plain of a sky the sun inches along and it is noon all day. Across the plain west from Fort Worth the road runs straight as a line left when a woman pulls out a thread to cut a piece of cloth along….

––William Humphrey (1924–1997) [2]

The next morning they continued on their journey back, driving through the wine country, and stopping in Fredericksburg again for lunch as well as for some peach cobbler for dessert. With the Wild West at their backs, they had only the hill country of central Texas before them now:

The vastness of the southwestern landscape is emphasized by the gradualness of its transitions. As you pass from east to west across Texas, the masses of moss hanging from gigantic oaks gradually become scarce. Gradually the trees scatter, and the growing gaps between them add a sense of expansion to the sight of land and sky. Fields of maize and grain around frail-looking but primly painted lumber homes suggest happy living. Their appearance is so gradual that no traveler can find the exact point of their beginning. The land, though absolutely flat along the coast, son begins imperceptibly to roll. At first the slopes are so gentle that valleys are apparent only in the recurrence of huge, moss-hung oaks with wild grapevines draped over their foliage. Instead of blocking visibility, the low hills only lengthen it. To catch the breeze above them, windmills are built on higher towers than along the coast, yet they seem hardly larger than toothpicks in the distance. Cattle graze on miles of green forage. Though scattered as the patches of shrubbery, they can be seen by the hundreds at a glance.

Before the earth’s undulations are high enough to be called hills, you can see them cutting waves in the horizon, far enough away to share a thin, transparent slice of the sky’s blue. Giant oaks, looking like tiny spots of dark blue, dot this slightly curved horizon. Farmhouses, appearing as beadlike blocks of white, freckle the blue. Roads wind like threads of gray between them. Yet all this is on a generally level expanse of land.

––Frank Goodwyn (1911–2011)[3]

They got back to Austin early Saturday afternoon.

(Read Part III here.)

NOTES

wood

[1] seiche: “(Swiss French) a short-lived standing oscillation of a lake or other body of water (as a bay or basin of the sea), somewhat resembling a tide, which may be caused by abrupt changes in atmospheric conditions or by small earth tremors.” (Oxford English Dictionary)

[2] William Humphrey, The Ordways, (New York: Knopf, 1965) 286–87.

[3] Frank Goodwyn, Lone Star Land: Twentieth-Century Texas in Perspective, (New York: Knopf, 1955) 82–83.


Apr 13 2018

Hosting the Italians: Part I of III

Mortadella in Bologna, Italia

Hosting the Italians: Part I of III

It’s been two years since Scott and I traveled to Italy to meet Cosimo and Chiara, and now, they were coming to meet us in Austin. We expected them to arrive sometime Saturday, March 10, 2018. So that afternoon I went over to Scott’s house in Pflugerville. We were a little anxious and a lot excited: anxious because we’d been so well-hosted in Bologna and Rome that we felt obligated to return the generosity; excited because we were enjoying good springtime weather and we’d taken off from work for the next several days. In other words, this would be a vacation for both of us, but one with responsibilities.

Cosimo and Chiara flew directly from Rome to Los Angeles. They said it took about fifteen hours. For a couple of days they toured L.A. and Vegas, then began working their way east from the Grand Canyon through New Mexico and eventually to Amarillo. There they saw the Cadillac Ranch (I think) and ate slabs of steak from the world-famous Big Texan Steak Ranch restaurant.

They texted us once they left Amarillo on their journey to Austin. But by that time the weariness of road travel had become burdensome. For not only did Cosimo and Chiara have (quite expected) jetlag from Italy to California, but as they began their trek across the Great American West, they had forgotten to account for the time zone changes occurring across the continent. In addition, they were unaware that that particular Saturday night was the Day Light Savings change-over. Talk about a triple-whammy.

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As Saturday afternoon turned into evening, Scott and I decided to watch The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly (1966), which is an Italian-made film starring American actors and shot in rural Spain. Before we knew it, we were approaching the end of this three-hour flick but were still awaiting the arrival of our guests. I told Scott that I expected “time had caught up with them,” and just before I left to go home for the evening, we received a text message saying they had driven from Amarillo to Brownwood but were going to stay there for the night. Having traveled half-way across the continent, followed by driving half-way across Texas––and all in the last 48 hours––we were not surprised.

 

So the next day we met them at Baby Acapulco’s in Pflugerville for a Tex-Mex lunch, one that lasted a few hours as we all conversed and caught up together. Scott’s friend Ciera also came and met everyone. Then we all went to Scott’s and helped them unpack and unwind.

That evening Scott said something to our guests like: “There’s lots of good food and restaurants here I want to show you, but there’s also good fast food,” so we went and picked up fried chicken from Raising Cain’s.

Later that night we went downtown to the intersection of Fifth St. and Congress Ave. where at the Ethics Lounge was an electronic music show, an event that was part of kicking off the South by Southwest 2018 music festival. Here we saw DJ-producers 6Blocc of Los Angeles and Von D of France, both of whom Scott and Cosimo were familiar with. Other than the elevator at the club not working, it was a great night.

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(Cosimo, Scott, Von D, and our friend Adam B)

Bologna is considered the food capital of Italy, and when we were their guests, Cosimo and Chiara treated Scott and me to some of the best food to be found in both Bologna and Rome. We therefore wanted them to try some of the best in Texas cuisine. Part of that meant taking them, along with Ciera, and my extended family David and Dyhana Landrum, to Storm’s Drive-in Restaurant in Lampasas, my hometown. A place with food so good that, back in the 1950’s, Elvis used to frequent it when he was an army draftee stationed at nearby Fort Hood. Today it remains just as much a culinary pilgrimage as it was back then for the King.

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(Dyhana, Chiara, Scott, David, Cosimo at Storm’s)

After lunch we went to the Landrum family farm, now called Finca de la Luna, where under sunny skies we inspected the vineyard, played with the dogs, drank some wine and Topo Chico mineral water, and listened to guineas meep and beep in the farmyard. At one point some homemade wine was brought out. It was negroamaro, a couple of years old. Cosimo was quite impressed. For though he is not a heavy wine drinker, he really enjoyed his glass, said it reminded him of Salento, his hometown in southern Italy—in the region where negroamaro originates. It was as if our two hometowns were united with this wine, for recalling this memory and writing about it now reminds me of a passage by the Southern writer Harry Crews (1935–2012):

I come from people who believe the home place is as vital and necessary as the beating of your own heart. It is that single house where you were born, where you lived out your childhood, where you grew into young manhood. It is your anchor in the world, that place, along with the memory of your kinsmen at the long supper table every night and the knowledge that it would always exist, if nowhere but in memory.
(A Childhood: the Biography of a Place, (New York: Harper & Row, 1978) 13–14.)

At some point later in the evening we were discussing burlesque dancing while Cosimo played piano. Despite everyone keeping their clothes on, it was still a fun night.

(At Finca de la Luna)

On the way back to Austin, Cosimo played a CD my father had given him of his punk rock band, Skull Shaker. The album had just been released during the South by Southwest music festival. Scott said they listened to it several times, so I assume they enjoyed it (we were in separate cars).

The next day I had to return to work, so what follows was told to me, though I did not experience it: that is, on Tuesday, March 13 Scott took Cosimo and Chiara to Lockhart. Scott’s mother Corally as well as David and Dyhana, also came along. After driving for about an hour south of Austin they arrived at the house of Scott’s grandmother. Scott’s grandmother, a.k.a. “Mom-maw” Ridge, proceeded to give everyone a short lesson on the history of Texas. Afterwards everyone ate lunch at Smitty’s Market, considered one of the best barbeque joints in Texas (and the world for that matter). They ate brisket, sausage, and pork chops, with Big Red soda to wash it down.

That afternoon they went to visit Scott’s uncle, who has a nearby ranch. There they explored the land on ATVs. Upon returning to Austin, they stopped by Whole Foods and grabbed a bunch of things to prepare a meal at home. After five hours of preparation and cooking, everyone was treated to some authentic Bolognese style pasta with sauce, a soufflé, and cauliflower cheese casserole. It was a terrific meal, but one that could not eaten and enjoyed until about 1:30 in the morning.

(Read Part II here.)

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(Big Red at Smitty’s Market, Lockhart, Texas)


Dec 2 2017

When Late-19th Century Daughters Remember The Fiddles of their Fathers

pencil shavings

When Late-19th Century Daughters Remember The Fiddles of their Fathers

The other day I was doing some background research on my grand-grandfather by reading Emma Guest Bourne’s (1882-1959A Pioneer Farmer’s Daughter of Red River ValleyNortheast Texas (1950) and came across this poignant passage:

Father used to play a piece on his violin known as Blossom Prairie. I caught a few words as I would hear him singing the song, but have never heard the song since I was a child, and only know a few words. Yet the melody is still with me. In my imagination, I can see father as he sat before the fireplace in his little straight chair with his violin and bow as he played this beautiful song. At intervals he would let the bow rest as it was poised over the violin, and he would thump the melody of the chorus with his left fingers as he held the violin under his chin. In the chorus, Mount Vernon, Mount Vernon, were the opening words, and then these words would follow; [sic] “Oh, the green grass grows all over Blossom…” How I have wished for these words, but no one has even been able to give them to me. Mount Vernon was the county seat for several years of Lamar County before the seat was established at Paris, five miles north of Mt. Vernon. [1]

Bourne was born in 1882, and her longing for a ghost-song of her father initially reminded me of the early days of file-sharing on the internet–when one may have heard a song only once in one’s life, and never knowing the name, was somehow able to find it on Napster or by similar means.

But upon reflection, what Bourne’s passage reminded me of was a similar scene told by Laura Ingalls Wilder’s (1867-1957) daughter Rose Wilder Lane (1886-1968) of her last visit to her grandparents “Ma and Pa Ingalls”:

We were ready to start early next day, before sun-up, and that evening we went to Grandma’s to say good-by….

Aunt Carrie and I sat in the doorway. Papa got up to give Grandma his chair and Mama stood a minute in the doorway to the dark sitting room. They had blown out the lamp, and there was just a faint start-shine that seemed to be more in the summer air than in the sky. Then, Mama said, “Pa, would you play the fiddle just one more time?”

“Why yes, if you want I should,” Grandpa said. And then he said, “Run get me my fiddle-box, Laura,” and somehow I knew that he had said those words in just that way, many times, and his voice sounded as if he were speaking to a little girl, not Mama at all. She brought it out to him, the fiddle-box, and he took the fiddle out of it and twanged the strings with his thumb, tightening them up. In the dark there by the house wall you could see only a glimmer in his eyes and the long beard on his shirtfront, and his arm lifting the bow. And then out of the shadows came the sound. It was—I can’t tell you. It was gay and strong and reaching, wanting, trying to get to something beyond, and ti just lifted up the heart and filled it so full of happiness and pain and longing that it broke your heart open like a bud.

Nobody said anything. We just sat there in the dimness and stillness, and Grandpa tightened up a string and said, “Well, what shall I play? You first, Mary.” And from the sitting room where she sat in her rocker just inside the doorway, Aunt Mary said, “ ‘Ye banks and braes of Bonnie Doon,’ please Pa.”

So Grandpa played. He went on playing his fiddle there in the warm July evening, and we listened. In all my life I never heard anything like it. You hardly ever heard anymore the tunes that Grandpa played…. [2]

NOTES

wood

[1] Emma Guest Bourne, A Pioneer Farmer’s Daughter of Red River Valley, Northeast Texas, (Dallas, TX: The Story Book Press, 1950), 262.

[2] Rose Wilder Lane, “Grandpa’s Fiddle,”A Little House Sampler, by Laura Ingalls Wilder and Rose Wilder Lane, ed. William Anderson, (Lincoln, NE, 1988; New York, NY: Harper Collins, 1995), 66-67.


Nov 27 2017

My Article from the “Fortnightly Review”

London - Georgian Apartments

My Article from the Fortnighly Review

It took a while, but after many years I’m quite happy to call myself an “international writer,” after having a piece published by the Fortnightly Review of England-France. In my essay, “Between History and Myth in Austin, Texas,” I explore the differences between history and myth with regard to the Confederate statue removal on the campus of the University of Texas at Austin.

Looking back, I don’t feel I lived through an important moment in the history of the United States but rather an important moment in mythmaking for the state of Texas….


Nov 9 2017

The Greatness of Russia and the Greatness of Texas

la casa

The Greatness of Russia and the Greatness of Texas

Russians call World War II, “The Great Patriotic War,” and Dr. Victor Davis Hanson, whom I almost never agree with, has a decent article out today acknowledging Russian greatness/sovereignty (derzhavonst/державонст), writing:

This Veterans Day, we should also remember those heroic Russian soldiers. In bitter cold, and after losing hundreds of thousands of lives, they finally did the unbelievable: They halted the march of Nazi Germany. [1]

What do I mean by Russian greatness? I mean things like:

Putin’s favorite quote these days is, “We do not need great upheavals. We need a great Russia.”[2]

As Nina Kruscheva, daughter of Nikita Khrushchev, has recognized:

Putin maintains that Russia’s problem today is not that we, the Russians, lack a vision for the future but that we have stopped being proud of our past, our Russian-ness, our difference from the West. ‘When we were proud all was great, he said at the Valdai International Discussion Club meeting last September. While he may bemoan the death of the Soviet state, Putin’s search for greatness extends even further back in history, to Byzantine statehood…. Why is Putin’s idea of going back to the future attractive for Russians? …. But our [Russia’s] problem is that our idea of greatness doesn’t involve such small stuff. It is extreme, everything or nothing.[3]

I find Russian greatness comparable to Texas and its culture of greatness:

If one southerner can whip twelve Yankees, how many Yankees can six southerners whip? Although the premise of this problem seems to have been somewhat unstable, it evidences a spirit of confidence that for a long time seemed lost to the New South. It may be, however, that the aggressiveness and boastfulness so characteristic of the Old South instead of dying out after the war simply followed the trail of cotton and migrated to Texas. From the time they annexed the United States in 1845 until their recent singlehanded and unaided [“not so fast,” said the Russian veteran!] conquest of Germany and Japan, Texans have been noted for their aversion to understatement. But it is possible that when Texans talk “big” they are speaking not as Texans but as southerners. Certainly, that Texan was speaking the language of the Old South when he rose at a banquet and gave this toast to his state: “Here’s to Texas. Bounded on the north by the Aurora Borealis, bounded on the east by the rising sun, bounded on the south by the precession of the equinoxes, and on the west by the Day of Judgment.” [4]

And:

“That’s why I like Texans so much … They took a great failure [the Alamo] and turned it into inspiration… as well a tourist destination that makes them millions.”[5]

NOTES

wood

[1] Victor Davis Hanson, “Remembering Stalingrad 75 Years Later,” National Review, November 9, 2017.

[2] Fiona Hill and Clifford Gaddy, “Putin and the Uses of History,” The National Interest, 117 (January–February 2012) 21–31 at 23.

[3] Nina L. Krushcheva, “Inside Vladimir Putin’s Mind: Looking Back in Anger,” World Affairs, 177 (July–August 2014): 17–24 at 19, 20.

[4] Robert S. Cotterill, “The Old South to the New,” Journal of Southern History, 15 (February 1949): 3–8 at 8.

[5] Robert T. Kiyosaki Rich Dad Poor Dad: What the Rich Teach their Kids About Money that the Poor and Middle Class Do Not, (Scottsdale, AZ: Plata Publishing, 2011) 132.


Sep 29 2017

Recently in Russia: four links

la casa

Recently in Russia: four links

I guess (readingwise) we’re going to Russia this weekend. Here are four interesting reads today:

 


Jun 13 2017

Rereading About Race: Returning to Tah-Nehisi Coates (III of III)

Rereading About Race: Returning to Tah-Nehisi Coates (III of III)

III. CONVEX

So the literal thesis of the book is Coates (who is six years older than me) warning his 15-year-old son to cherish his physical body. But who else does Coates address in his book besides his son and self-conscious? As a child of the 1990s I don’t feel he was addressing someone like me who:

  • Recalls in 1991 riding in the van with my family past Luby’s in Killeen the day of the massacre heading to the nearby mall to buy my brother a birthday present;
  • grew up in central Texas and one Saturday afternoon in 1993 turned on the TV to learn about the first shots fired in what became known as the Waco disaster at Mount Carmel;
  • heard and saw in 1995 the horror of the Oklahoma City bombing as a response to Waco;
  • amid all of these were things heard and read various school-shootings from the 90s, particularly the 1998 Westside Middle School shooting at Craighead County, Arkansas and the 1998 Thurston High School shooting at Springfield, Oregon so that:
  • when, by the time I was 15 and one day heard on television in its “media language” [1] about the Columbine shooting in Littleton, Colorado in 1999, such language and the incidents they described had become routine, jejune, unremarkable.

All of these episodes of violence were committed by Americans who were not labeled black by our country’s media, and I mention this only to show that someone from a very different background than Mr. Coates can grow up well-aware of irrational white violence. Coates also mentions an episode where, as a kid he had a pistol pointed at him by another kid, while I had a rifle pointed at me by a peer when I was college-age––an experience that still stings when recalled.

As a reader I cannot blame a writer older or younger than me for not being a part of my own generation, so when I point out that Coates mentions shootings of the innocent by police to his son,[2] but nothing of school shootings, I cannot fault him for the omission. But out of my own curiosity, I seek to understand his silence, for teaching occurs only in silence.[3] I am curious because this particular silence seems a little strange when in the twenty-first century U.S., a classmate can destroy her peer’s body just as quickly as a cop.

But perhaps I’m being too specific. Perhaps I need to zoom out and inspect the broader picture. Here I find Coates’ overall critique is against systems, bureaucracies, and institutions, not individuals, such as the person who threatened him with a firearm.[4] In this sense he reminds me of Václav Havel.[5] Yet a school shooting is a specific kind of shooting, and all shootings (whether by cops or by classmates) damage human flesh, which is the criterion Coates abides by to warn his son. So maybe it doesn’t matter much that he doesn’t mention school shootings.

And Coates does (quite rightly) ridicule grade schools for their institutionalizing.[6] This is where my reading and dreaming have led me to compare him to Thoreau:

It is never too late to give up our prejudices. No way of thinking or doing, however ancient, can be trusted without proof. What everybody echoes or in silence passes by as true to-day may turn out to be falsehood to-morrow, mere smoke of opinion, which some had trusted for a cloud that would sprinkle fertilizing rain on their fields. What old people say you cannot do, you try and find that you can. Old deeds for old people, and new deeds for new. Old people did not know enough once, perchance, to fetch fresh fuel to keep the fire a-going; new people put a little dry wood under a pot, and are whirled round the globe with the speed of birds, in a way to kill old people, as the phrase is. Age is no better, hardly so well, qualified for an instructor as youth, for it has not profited so much as it has lost. One may almost doubt if the wisest man has learned anything of absolute value by living. Practically, the old have no very important advice to give the young, their own experience has been so partial, and their lives have been such miserable failures, for private reasons, as they must believe; and it may be that they have some faith left which belies that experience, and they are only less young than they were. I have lived some thirty years on this planet, and I have yet to hear the first syllable of valuable or even earnest advice from my seniors. They have told me nothing, and probably cannot tell me anything to the purpose. Here is life, an experiment to a great extent untried by me; but it does not avail me that they have tried it. If I have any experience which I think valuable, I am sure to reflect that this my Mentors said nothing about.[7]

(go back to PART II of III)

(go back to PART I of III)

NOTES

[1] Coates: “We live in a “goal-oriented” era. Our media vocabulary is full of hot takes, big ideas, and grand theories of everything,” (Between the World and Me 12).

[2] Coates, Between the World and Me 9.

[3] Quoting Gershom Scholem: “Teaching is transmitted in silence—not by silence…. Where teaching breaks silence, its relation to life becomes dialectical. The outward history of teaching is based upon this fact.” (Weidner, Daniel. “Reading Gershom Scholem.” The Jewish Quarterly Review. Vol. 96. No. 2. (Spring 2006) at 208–09.)

[4] Coates, Between the World and Me 18, 78.

[5] As Havel puts it: “Individuals need not believe all these mystifications, but they must behave as though they did, or they must at least tolerate them in silence, or get along well with those who work with them.” (“Moc bezmocných.” (“The Power of the Powerless”) October 1978. Translated by Paul Wilson. § IV.)

Compare also some passages from Don Delillo’s novel Libra. NY: Viking. 1988:

I’ll tell you what it means, these orbiting sensors that can hear us in our beds. It means the end of loyalty. The more complex the systems [in a novel], the less conviction in people [who read it]. Conviction will be drained out of us. Devices will drain us, make us vague and pliant…. (p. 77) The Agency is always willing to consider a man in a new light. This is the nature of the business. There are shadows, there are new lights. The deeper the ambiguity, the more we believe, the more we trust, the more we band together. (p. 259)

[6] Coates, Between the World and Me 34.

[7] Thoreau, Walden, “I. On Economy.”


May 27 2017

A Meditation on Tree Trimmings

A Meditation on Tree Trimmings

The other day I was driving to a friend’s home, and, while I was in line at a stop sign I saw a flat-bed trailer and two teenage girls and an older man, probably their father, dragging cut limbs of brush and tree trimmings and tossing them onto the trailer.

Such a mundane scene would not have stayed in my memory except that I noticed the girls were not wearing any gloves, which I prefer to wear when I do that kind of work, but perhaps the things cut down contained no thorns, perhaps the bark and the rest of the biomatter was smooth and could be handled in a carefree way.

Amid getting carried away in these carefree thoughts on tree trimmings, the ghost of Jonathan Swift (who has been haunting me since my return from Ireland, and, in particular my strolling through Swift’s old stomping grounds in Trim, County Meath) urged me to meditate on the brush piled on the trailer in Austin, Texas–and I tried to do what the ghost told me, but I felt inept.

But then I remembered that the best way to think about something is to try and forget about it. So I tried that, and after a while I began to realize: what are my bookshelves at home but a collection of trees dismembered and re-glued together into a Frankenstein-forest?–one that furnishes me with knowledge and escape, wisdom and entertainment, answers as well as questions?

No words to describe this perfect place #Ireland #travel #meath #castle

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NOTES

The eighteenth century #books #Gulliver #london

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Surely some this was inspired by the ghost of Swift, particularly his idea in The Battle of the Books (1697) that all libraries are cemeteries, and the ingenuity of his A Meditation upon a Broom-Stick (1701).


May 26 2017

Michael Morton: a Falsely-Accused Prisoner, Turned-Reader, Turned-Writer

Michael Morton: a Falsely-Accused Prisoner, Turned-Reader, Turned-Writer

I’ve been wanting to read Michael Morton’s memoir of being falsely-accused of the murder of his wife, how the legal system works in Williamson County, Texas, and how he found the ability to forgive his accusers.

There will be plenty to ponder, compare, and write about concerning this terrific book. But for now I will only note that a great surprise was discovering that Micheal Morton is a great writer; and even more surprisingly, an enthusiastic reader:

We devoured everything from the classics to Stephen King, and we passed each ripped and dog-eared copy from cellblock to cellblock, bunk to bunk. As quickly as I read one, I would be handed another. We would wave each other on to or off of a planned selection. We critiqued each author’s work with the clarity and strength of opinion that could come only from never having written a book ourselves.

Reading was the only means of escape available to us. With a book, we could climb over the walls, walk on the beach, meet new friends, and mourn the loss of someone we felt we had gotten to know. We got books from the library, ordered them through friends or family, and eagerly anticipated mail deliveries with book-shaped boxes. We were intellectually starving, and each new read was a feast….[1]

Stacked in my cell, there were always books and authors, characters and adventures—real or imagined—waiting to sustain me intellectually and emotionally, to give me a place to play out my anger, nurture my hope, and indulge my ache for escape. As soon as one book ended, another began. Sometimes, I read two at a time, jumping back and forth from one universe to another. It was the only freedom I had….[2]

Books like The Odyssey and authors like Cormac McCarthy and Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn reminded me that even the longest journey has a finish line, that someday I would close the book on this chapter of my life. Reading reminded me that finding justice in the end was possible…. [3]

Inside, I’d been reading so much I felt like I was doing time with Mark Twain, sharing a cell with John Steinbeck, and sitting in the dayroom with Kurt Vonnegut and John Irving. Occasionally Tom Robbins would pop in. Stephen King was always lurking around a dark corner, motioning for me to join him someplace terrifying. They had all become my friends—men I could count on to keep me distracted at night and entertained in the lonely hours when I couldn’t find anyone to talk with who knew how to read. [4]

NOTES

[1] Morton, Michael. Getting Life: an Innocent Man’s 25-Year Journey from Prison to Peace. NY: Simon & Schuster. 2014.  pp. 127–28.

[2] Morton, Getting Life 171.

[3] Morton, Getting Life 172.

[4] Morton, Getting Life 131.