Saturday, September 26, 2009

Assembly-Line Fiction

The news that Dan Brown's latest book-shaped object (BSO) sold more than a million copies its first day in the stores made me want to write about what I've come to think of as assembly-line fiction.

And then, at the barbershop this morning, I came across this by Benjamin Alsup in the June 11 issue of Esquire. It says it far better than I could.

Here's how Alsup begins: "I've never read a novel by Nicholas Sparks for the same reason I've never seen a movie starring Ashton Kutcher: because I'm stupid, yeah, but I'm not that stupid."

Alsup didn't read Dan Brown's The Lost Symbol, but he did read three BSOs--excuse me, books--by Dean Koontz, Harlan Coben, and David Baldacci. His devastating conclusion:

"It seems it's widely considered bad form to call stupid things stupid. But that's mostly what these books are. They'll cost you $25 a pop, waste a half day of your life, and leave you neither smarter nor happier, just kind of bored and a little depressed. That's no way to spend a summer. Screw these books. Take a walk."

Or read a real book.

This Writing Life

A while back, I wrote about waiting for agents to tell me whether they were interested in The House of Eli, my novel about black men, fatherhood, and violence. (That's the shorthand description I came up for author bios.)

The agent who's had the book since March has been impossible to reach. But the second agent called recently to say she liked the book, wanted to work with me to get it published, and thought it would have a better chance if I made some revisions.

We spent nearly an hour on the telephone.

Of course, no writer likes to hear his book's too long, but she made some great suggestions. And I knew she understood what I was trying to do when she started to give an example of a scene that could be cut and I finished the sentence for her and she said, "Yes, that one. It's great, well-written, and everything. But does it really belong in this book?"

So that was about two weeks ago, and after a cold that had me off my feet for several days (when you have an 8-year-old, you catch everything that's going around the classroom), I'm back at work.

With any luck, I'll have the book done by . . .

No, no predictions. like auto and home repair, writing always takes longer than you think.

Friday, September 11, 2009

Black, White, Other. . .

Last year, a few weeks before the election, I was complaining to a friend about the way various Republican hit-men (and -women) were attempting to tar then-presidential candidate Barack Obama.

"I know," he said. "It's not even like they're calling him black or African-American. They're calling him"--he paused, trying to find the right word--"Negro."

I've thought about that conversation for a while (I told you this blog doesn't run on Internet time), and I've decided he was wrong, even when he explained he'd meant it was impossible right-wing Republicans could think of Obama "in even as remotely a civilized term as 'Black,' let alone in a racially neutral way."

The right wasn't attempting to define Obama as African-American, black, Negro, colored, or even nigger because all--even (especially?) nigger--have been peculiarly American archetypes throughout our history. To have so defined Obama as any would have been to admit Obama was an American.

Instead, they called him a terrorist, accused him of palling around with terrorists, stressed his middle name (Hussein) in an attempt to define him as Other. They're still trying to. What else is the so-called birther movement, which seeks to prove Obama was born in Kenya?

My friend's mistake, I think, was to think of the word Negro as inherently derogatory. It isn't necessarily, instead referring to black men and women of a certain era and a certain class and to an inherently and inalienably American culture. Because he's white, he shied away from using the word nigger. I was grateful. Like colored or Negro, it's a useful word, but one I'm uncomfortable hearing from whites, even as part of a discussion of Huckleberry Finn.

I'm borrowing here, of course, from Ralph Ellison, who in turn borrowed from Constance Rourke, whose American Humor: A Study of the National Character, posits several American comic archetypes, including the Yankee peddler, the frontiersman, and the minstrel singer.

Thus for Rush Limbaugh or Sarah Palin to have called Obama a Negro (or even a nigger) would have been to admit familarity and even kinship. Think about The Jazz Singer, where the son of a Jewish immigrant becomes American by rejecting his father's wish that he become a cantor and then, in an archetypal immigrant rite of passage, anointing himself with blackface. Think of the way white Southerners used to call their white caretakers Mammy (mother), or the way they called black women Aunt and black men Uncle.

All connote familial relationships the right wanted nothing to do with.

We've had many chances throughout our history to solve the conundrum of race. Obama's election was our latest. We're blessed, as the friend who sparked these thoughts observed in an e-mail discussion a few weeks ago, to have him as president. In many ways, his election has brought us together. But it's also overturned the rocks and shown us some of the vile things dwell outide the light.

Friday, September 4, 2009

When We Were All Americans

We were talking about politics and the environment via e-mail recently when a friend's use of the phrase "anti-Americanism" brought me up short. Short of applying it to the 9/11 terrorists, I'm not sure what the words mean. All one has to do look at today's partisan bickering--viz the hysteria about President Obama's address to schoolchildren--to understand one man's anti-Americanism is another man's patriotism.

The other day, checking my e-mail and surfing the Internet while my wife and son were away touring the Gettysburg battlefield, I turned on the television and found a 1942 movie, Seven Miles from Alcatraz, on Turner Classic Movies. The picture's about two convicts who escape to a lighthouse where a Nazi sympathizer plans to take several German spies to a submarine waiting off-shore.

At one point early in the picture, one of the cons declares himself a man without a country with no stake in the war, making his point so emphatically I knew--though I wasn't able to watch the whole thing--he'd have changed his mind by the time the movie was over.

Of course, the movie represents a different, more innocent era. When one one of the cons leers at Anne, the daughter of the lighthouse keeper, observing that five years is a long time to be without a woman, we know it's just talk.

I'm not the only one who's been thinking about World War II and what it is to be an American.

In a recent Sightings column, Terry Teachout of the Wall Street Journal concludes that "the success of [Quenten Tarantino's movie] 'Inglourious Basterds' suggests that most Americans, no matter how they feel about waterboarding, gay marriage or health-care reform, pine in their secret hearts for a lost world in which everyone can agree on at least one thing: Nazis are no damn good."

I think Teachout's right, in the sense that World War II was the last time the vast majority of Americans agreed about the nation's mission. Still, I prefer homefront pictures like The Best Years of Our Lives and Since You Went Away, believing that they more accurately depict that lost world and the awareness that the fact we were all in it together made it necessary to transcend our differences to ensure our survival.

Fall, Again

Mornings have been distinctly fall-like when I go out to walk the dog, even though the odds are mid-day will bring such oppressive heat and humidity it's possible to believe summer might never end.

I feel as if I ought to be returning to school, thoughts of fresh starts and new beginnings, like a sheet of blank paper or a pencil sharpened for the first time, called by the passing of the seasons

But I haven't been a schoolboy for a while, and, in fact, 60's in the rear-view mirror and gaining, no matter how hard I jam the accelerator. More and more, even if I stay up past midnight, I find myself awake before dawn, brooding about things done and undone, roads taken and roads abandoned.

At six in the morning, having slept through my dark night of the soul, the dreams it inspired forgotten, I lie wondering if there really are no second acts--or even second chances--in American lives.

Sunday, August 23, 2009

More About the Movies

So, last week I took my 8-year-old to see Shorts, the new movie by Robert Rodriguez. (He also directed Spy Kids, and its two sequels, which we watched on three consecutive Family Movie nights. Ah, the sacrifices we make for our children!)

Half-way through the picture, it struck me as it often does when I take my boy to the movies, and I asked myself, "Where are the black people?" Oh, late in the picture there were a few in a crowd scene, but they didn't have speaking parts and were gone as quickly as they'd come.

This paucity of speaking roles for black actors reminded me of Stormy Weather, James Gavins' flawed new biography of the great Lena Horne. Roles for black actors were limited when Horne became the first black to sign a long-term movie contract in the 1940s. At best, they were allowed to play maids and Pullman porters. At worst they were the kinds of clowns and buffoons typified by Stepin Fetchit or Mantan Moreland.

Understand that I'm not calling for a return to those not-so-good old days, but as bad as those stereotypes were, at least there were black characters in the movies. Now, alas, blacks seem to have virtually disappeared from pictures. And when they do appear (as in Shorts), they've been silenced, which I suppose could be considered an improvement over that time when black actors were forced to speak dialect that bore no relation to reality because it was how white screen writers thought black people should speak.

So, coming home from Shorts, I talked to my boy about some of my concerns, and together we came up with the Black Star Movie Rating System. Here it is:

Zero Stars: No black characters in the picture. None. Nada. Zilch.

One-Half Star: Black characters in the background, but no speaking roles.

One Star: Black characters with minor speaking roles.

Two Stars: Black characters in supporting roles such as sidekick.

Three Stars: Black characters in major roles playing a pivotal part in the action of the picture.

Four Stars: Several major black characters, with one or more playing a pviotal part in the action.

Sunday, August 16, 2009

One More Thing I Hate About the Suburbs. . .

5. Play Dates

When I was a kid, you walked out of your house after school if you didn't feel like watching television or reading, and you played with whoever was outside. If no one was--but there usually was--you might walk up a friend's front steps, knock on the door, and ask if he could come out.

Now, living in the suburbs, I have to call or e-mail the parents of my son's friends to set up times when they can get together. I understand why it's that way--kids make friends in school, and their friends don't always live nearby.

Whenever I go to pick up the telephone, though, I start to feel the butterflies I did, oh so many years ago when I was single and calling to ask
someone out on a date. I'm doing it for someone else now, but it still doesn't make it any easier.

Which makes me glad my kid's learning how to use the phone.

Saturday, August 15, 2009

Waiting is the Hardest Part

After finishing my novel, I sent out query letters to agents a few weeks ago and got back lots of "Thanks, but no thanks letters," including--the unkindest cut!--one photocopied slip on pink paper.

But two agents were interested in the book (it's called The House of Eli, and it's about black men, fatherhood, and violence). So now I'm waiting and, in some ways, it's just as hard as writing the book was.

Meanwhile, I've had some good news. My story, "A Few Good Men," published last year in this anthology, has been selected to appear in an antholology of best fiction from black writers. It's supposed to come out next spring.

I'd feel better though, if I weren't having a
recurrence of the hand and wrist trouble that's plagued me off and on for the last few years. Especially since I had to give up blogging--well, typing, really--a few weeks ago after slashing open my palm trying to replace the handle on a ceramic compost container.

A Few Things I Hate About the Suburbs

We moved to the suburbs nearly two years ago because we wanted a better school for our 8-year-old. We found what we wanted, but I also found things to regret about leaving the city. Here, in no particular order, are some things I've come to hate about the suburbs:

1. SUVs

Seems like every time I get stuck in traffic, it's behind someone driving the kinds of vehicle you need a step-ladder to climb into. With four rows of seats, these gas-guzzling Gargantuas and Sasquatches are what you'd expect to see that reality-TV family with eight kids driving. Most of the time, though, the ones I pass are carrying no one but Mom.

Who are these people and why do they think they need such large vehicles?

I confess to a certain schadenfreude and smug superiority last year when gas prices edged up to $4 a gallon.

2. The fetishization of the American flag

Many of the SUVs and cars I see are bedecked with American flag stickers. Lots of folks in our neighborhood fly the flag year 'round, day or night, rain or shine.

We fly ours, too, but only on national holidays, and we bring it in when it starts to rain and at night, because it's not illuminated by a light. (I'm a Cub Scout den leader, and the boys had to pass a requirement on how to treat the flag.)

About 40 years ago, when my old college roommate was going to drive across the country--something of a rite of passage in those days when we all read On the Road--his father gave him a flag decal to put on his Nash Rambler. Sometimes I wonder if we're not returning to those Vietnam-era divisions so that, once again, it's become necessary to display the flag to prove you love your country

3. The idea that military service is the only way to honor America

The other thing I see on people's cars--I spend a lot of time ferrying my child between various summer camps and after-school activities--are stickers proclaiming allegiance to the Army, the Marines, or some other branch of the service or one of the service academies.

I'm still waiting to see a sticker for the Peace Corps or Teach for America, either of which is at least as honorable a way to serve the country.

4. Too much emphasis on sports

I thought, briefly, about signing our kid up for baseball when we moved, but my wife said it was too late, and she was probably right. He was 7 then, and most kids had been playing some kind of organized ball for a couple of years.

Most afternoons after school (and on the weekends) the fields in our little town are filled with kids playing sports. I suppose it's a good thing and, as one father told me, "It keeps them out of trouble." And if I had a child who was athletically gifted, perhaps I'd feel differently, but I've got a boy who'd just as soon read a book as kick a ball.

Sometimes, when we're out, and moms or dads see him reading, they'll come up and say, "Oh, that's great! I wish I could get my son to read." And I think--but never say--"Well, maybe he would, if you'd just take that ball out of his hand and give him a book!"

Thursday, July 2, 2009

Maybe I Should Get a Tattoo, Too

I wish I'd seen Times Square before they cleaned it up, but when I went to New York in my misspent youth, I always went to Harlem or the Village. Now--except for the theaters on the side streets--Times Square's become a generic tourist attraction, with Toys R Us, a Hershey store, Hard Rock Cafe, etc., etc., etc.

I'm not so much nostalgic for the X-rated sleaze that used to infest the area as confessing a certain sadness when any distinctive place becomes just like everywhere else. Pretty soon, all of America will look the same, and you'll have to ask the locals to know where you are.

One measure of how little I get out these days is how surprised I was at the number of people I saw with tattoos. I don't just mean boys and girls with nose or eybrow rings and magenta hair, or the bouncer-like types guarding the Hard Rock Cafe. I saw more than a few women with tattoos pushing baby carriages, including one with what looked like green vines running up her left arm, under her sleeve, over her chest, and up her neck.

The last time we went to New York, I agonized over whether to wear a suit to the theater. I knew better this time, but I was still surprised to see an older man wearing a polo shirt, bright red shorts, and running shoes without socks take a seat a few rows in front of us.

At least he wasn't passing a bucket of fried chicken to his seatmates.

It made me nostalgic for a time I know only through movies and stories by F. Scott Fitzgerald, a time when men and women dressed up to go to the theater. Why, back then men even wore suits to baseball games!

Nowadays, of course, it's gotten harder and harder to tell who the grownups are, because most of us who aren't anymore still want to pretend we're young.

Walking towards the train at Union Station in Washington, I saw two women who appeared to be in their seventies, both dressed in the kind of multi-colored bell-bottomed clothes some hippie chick might have worn to the Fillmore 40 years ago.

It reminded me of the couple with gray-streaked ponytails,
sandals, blue jeans, and tie-dyed t-shirts that I saw in the supermarket years ago. They were in the vitamin aisle, and the man had a bottle close to his nose, wire-rimmed glasses on his forehead, so he could read the fine print.

Later, out in the parking lot, I watched them get into a PT Cruiser with hot-rod flames on the sides. It had handicapped plates.

On Broadway

My wife and I just got back from New York, where we stayed in a nice little hotel--the Mela--and saw two plays, the revival of Noel Coward's Blithe Spirit, starring Rupert Everett and Angela Lansbury, and God of Carnage, which won Tony Awards for Best Play and Best Actress (Marcia Gay Harden.)

I'm not going to write reviews here (I did too much of that working for The Washington Post's Book World). But it's enough to say I liked both enormously.

I'd wanted to see them because of their casts--Lansbury, of course, but also Harden, Jeff Daniels, James Gandolfini, and Hope Davis in God Of Carnage. I wasn't disappointed. The acting in each play is excellent and I felt the way I imagine my son does when I read one of his favorite stories, enchanted and enthralled, willingly suspending my disbelief.

Both plays are laugh-out-loud comedies, though you laugh for different reasons at each one.

Blithe Spirit, a seance goes haywire, and successful novelist Charles (Everett) finds himself haunted by the ghost of his first wife, Elvira (Christine Ebersole). As good as Everett, Ebersole, and Jayne Atkinson are (Atkinson plays Charles' second, put-upon wife, Ruth), it's Lansbury as the wacky, bicycle-riding medium, Madam Arcati, who steals the show.

Lansbury's 83, but she cavorts around the stage with the energy and enthusiasm of a far younger woman.

A far darker comedy, God of Carnage tells of a couple Alan and Annette (Daniels and Davis) whose son has assaulted the son of Michael and Veronica (Gandolfini and Harden) on the playground, knocking out two of his teeth. What starts as an amicable meeting to discuss the incident quickly turns ugly as the couples trade insults, drink more than they should, and tear the masks off each other and themselves.

It was all great fun. New York Times reviewer Ben Brantley put it best: "Never underestimate the pleasure of watching really good actors behaving badly."

Friday, June 26, 2009

We Wear the Mask

The death of Michael Jackson gives me occasion to remember Stanley Crouch's essay "Man in the Mirror," which appeared in the collection Notes of a Hanging Judge.

Responding to those who (simplistically) thought Jackson's plastic surgery a sign of his self-hatred and the singer's desire "to eradicate his Negroid features," Crouch launched a long riff on masks and how we Americans improvise our identities; on practices of ritual mutilation and scarification in Africa; and on minstrel shows and gender bending.

It was Crouch's conclusion that got me, though, when I reviewed the book when it came out in 1997.

"When a man's power is found in an adolescent form, time impinges upon his vitality," he wrote. "If sufficiently spooked, he might be moved to invent a world for himself in which all evidence that he was ever born a particular person at a particular time is removed. That removal might itself become the strongest comment upon the inevitable gloom that comes not of having been given too much too soon but of having been convinced that one is important only so long as he or she is not too old."

The Coming Apocalypse

Two of the scariest books I've ever read are Colman McCarthy's The Road and Thomas L. Friedman's Hot, Flat, and Crowded.

The Road, which has been made into a movie starring Viggo Mortensen and forthcoming in October, is the story of a man and his son wandering in post-apocalyptic America.

Just what's happened--nuclear war? environmental disaster?--isn't clear. But all of society's institutions have collapsed and the unnamed protagonist and his son roam through a bleak, unforgiving landscape where nothing grows and people eat other people to survive.

Hot, Flat, and Crowded shows us how this terrible future could come to pass.

It's a big book--438 pages--and Friedman would have been better s
erved by an editor who made him cut 100 pages or so. Midway through, there's a a long, italicized section about how technology could help us use less energy without significantly altering the way we live that seemed more authorial self-indulgent than absolutely necessary to me.

But, quibbles aside, this is an important--and very scary--book that lays out in exhaustive detail how we got to the point where global warming threatens all life on Earth and what we can do about it.

Yes, Friedman says, there is a solution. The problem is, we needed to have started yesterday.

Friday, June 12, 2009

Celebrating Loving Day

Today, June 12, is Loving Day, a time to remember Richard and Mildred Loving, the couple--he was white; she was of mixed black, white, and Indian ancestry--whose suit resulted in the U.S. Supreme Court overturning laws against interracial marriage in at least 16 states.

You can read more about the Lovings at the link above or at

For two years, my wife and I hosted Loving Day celebrations at our home in Washington, D.C. (One appears in the picture above.)

We're unable to host a celebration this year, which is unfortunate, because Loving Day has particular meaning for us now that we live in Virginia. Forty-two years ago we, too, could have been arrested for violating state law.

But even though we can't host a celebration, we'll still take a moment to remember the Lovings and honor their courage and their desire to live in full possession of all their rights.

Sunday, May 31, 2009

At the Movies. . .

Twenty-five years ago, I started a magazine called Black Film Review because the movies I was seeing--and I went to the pictures a lot back then--either had no black characters or else featured thinly disguised stereotypes of the kind present in American culture since the beginning.

When I go to the movies these days, mostly I go with my 8-year-old son. Confounded by how little has changed, I'm beginning to wonder if it might not be time to resurrect BFR.

Take the new Night at the Museum: Battle of the Smithsonian.

The first in the series, Night at the Museum, featured the great Bill Cobbs in a fairly large supporting role, but--unless I'm forgetting someone--no black characters among the historical figures who magically come alive once the museum closes.

The sequel remedies that, featuring a group of Tuskeegee Airmen in two or three scenes, though none of them is really important to the picture.

Is the paucity of black figures in the two movies the result of the filmmakers' ignorance? Or are the pictures a fantasy that blacks weren't really part of American history?

I'd be a lot more depressed about this if I hadn't seen the new Star Trek, which features lots of steamy looks between Capt. Kirk (Chris Pine) and Lt. Uhura (Zoe Saldana), and more than a few steamy kisses between Uhura and Spock (Zachary Quinto). Of course, as real fans know, in 1968 Nichelle Nichols' Uhura and William Shatner's Kirk shared what might have been the first televised interracial kiss.

Sadly, in 2009 "post-racial" America, there's less of those kinds of interracial relationships in the movies than there are in real life.

Last week, the New York Times ran a story about Phylicia Rashad's role at the mother in August: Osage County. It's an inspired piece of what's sometimes called "non-traditional casting," as Rashad's family in the play--husband, daughter, sister, and others--are all white.

Too bad Hollywood can't be as colorblind.

Thursday, May 21, 2009

It Made it Hard to Type. . .

About two weeks ago, I was trying to force a metal handle onto a ceramic container we keep (actually, make that kept) in the kitchen to collect foood waste for composting.

The container shattered, leaving a cut on my left palm that required a trip to an urgent care center and four stitches,

The downside to all this was not being able to use the computer. The upside was discovering it was possible to live without e-mail.

The stitches came out earlier this week. We now have a metal container on the kitchen counter.

Monday, May 4, 2009

Music Mashups

This is one of the coolest videos I've seen on-line, which actually isn't saying much because I don't spent much time watching TV on the Internet.

Anyway, as The New York Times' Virginia Heffernan explains, a musician who goes by the name Kutiman created an album of songs--and here's the really neat part--made up from fragments of clips posted on YouTube.

You can watch the rest of the songs here.

Tuesday, April 7, 2009

Tell Me This Isn't True. . .

In a front-page story from this morning's Washington Post, Frito-Lay flack Aurora Gonzalez has this to say about why the company's revamped its packaging so that the Lays bags, for example, shows a heap of potatoes:

"It's anecdotal, but we've had people tell us that they didn't know there were potatoes in potato chips," Gonzalez said.

Must be the same people who voted for Sarah Palin.

Saturday, March 21, 2009

What I've Been Reading. . .

Inside Drood, the mammoth new, 784-page novel by Dan Simmons, is a skinny book trying to get out.

Reading it, I felt the way I used to feel, years ago, when I still read books by Stephen King: I knew I was going to hate myself in the morning, but I kept reading anyway. Afterwards, I was tempted to send the author a bill for all the time I was never going to get back.

It's impossible to adequately summarize a book of that length in the space I'm going to give myself here, but the conceit of the book--narrated by the Victorian novelist Wilkie Collins--is that Charles Dickens may be in thrall to a mysterious half-Egyptian named Drood, who's leading Dickens to perform all manner of hellacious acts, including murder.

I read, and liked, Simmons' The Terror, the story of an English expedition lost in the Arctic that also uses historical figures and is based on real events.

Drood, however, seems contrived, and the best I can say for it is that Simmons paints a nuanced, complex portrait of Victorian London, a city of gentlemen in fine clothes, women forced by hunger to prostitute themselves, and heaps of horse manure by the Thames. Obviously, he's done his research.

Which might explain why the book is so long--after researching so much, he hated leaving anything out. Drood did send me, briefly, back to the Dickens biographies I own, and to the library for a biography of Collins, where I found that, instead of inventing, Simmons has simply repeated what others found about both men's lives.

Much shorter, and of more consequence, is
In Defense of Food: An Eater's Manifesto, Michael Pollan's follow-up to The Omnivore's Dilemma. The argument here is what Pollan calls the American Paradox: "The more we worry about nutrition, the less healthy we seem to become."

Instead of worrying so much about what we eat, Pollan calls for us to go back to the eating habits of our grandparents and great-grandparents and to eat less meat, more fruits and vegetables, and to get our food from the perimeter of the supermarket, instead of the aisles, which feature processed, laboratory-created food.

One of the most telling anecdotes in the book has to do with the soup experiment. Seems people in other countries rely on how full they feel to know when to stop eating, whereas Americans rely on external cues, like whether the plate or the bag's empty.

One academic--a professor of marketing and nutritional science--did an experiment where he set up bowls of soup to fill from the bottom as people ate.

"Those given the bottomless bowl," Pollan reports, "ate 73 percent more soup than the subjects eating from an ordinary bowl; several ate as much as a quart. When one of these hearty eaters was asked his opinion of the soup, he said, 'It's pretty good, and it's pretty filling.' "

Dan Simmon's Drood is the literary equivalent of that bottomless bowl.

Sunday, March 15, 2009

Jimi Hendrix on TV, 1965

A friend sent me the link to this YouTube video, which purports to show Jimi Hendrix's first filmed appearance, from a 1965 TV show.

"Astral Weeks" P.S.

I haven't changed my mind about "Astral Weeks Live" after listening to it again. But I was struck by how some of the music is more rooted in the blues than in the studio album.

Many of the lyrics--for all the Celtic mysticism qualities--were AAB blues, like this verse from "Slim Slow Slider":

Saw you early this morning, with your brand new boy and your Cadillac,
Saw you early this morning, with your brand new boy and your Cadillac,
You're gone for something and I know you won't be back.

Wednesday, March 4, 2009

"Astral Weeks" Redux

For years, Van Morrison was one of the few recording artists whose new album I'd buy without hearing it first. After a while, though, disappointed too many times, I stopped because I'd listen to his new albums once or twice and then never again.

But when I heard a few months ago that he was going to do Astral Weeks live at the Hollywood Bowl, I was intrigued. It's a classic Morrison album--perhaps the classic album--one that defines his career.

For that reason, I wish I could write that this new live version is better than--or at least as good as--the original.

It's not.

I've only listened to it once, so it's just possible it may grow on me, but my initial impression was that it wasn't especially well-recorded, with too many of the instruments almost buried in the mix. Worse, Morrison's singing really came alive until "Sweet Thing," the third track on the album.

Even then, I felt he was holding back, and I found myself wondering if it was his legendary shyness or whether, like Bob Dylan, there's a part of him that just doesn't care what the audience thinks.

Another problem, are the absences of Modern Jazz Quartet drummer Connie Kay (who died in 1994) and Richard Davis, the bassist who's played with everyone from Eric Dolphy to Janis Ian. Their replacements try, but Bobby Ruggiero plods where Kay danced, and while David Hayes does a fair job of channeling Davis, he lacks Davis's gravitas and authority.

Is the reason I don't like Astral Weeks Live at the Hollywood Bowl more because I'm comparing it to the original instead of judging it on its own merits?


But I like both versions of Love's Forever Changes, the original that came out in 1967 and the 2003 live version with a band that was actually Baby Lemonade. I've listened to the live and studio albums one after the other, enjoying how guitarists Rusty Squeezebox and Mike Randle embellish original guitarist Johnny Echols' parts, and marvelling at how Arthur Lee compensates for not being able to hit the notes he could have nailed 35 years before.

The same's true of Smile, Brian Wilson's 2004 release of what's been called "the Great Lost Beach Boy's Album." Van Dyke Parks's new arrangements tie together threads that were left loose earlier, different, but not better or worse, than the earlier album. And, while Wilson's voice is far more ravaged than Lee's, you understand listening to him that (like Lee) he's lived what he once only wrote about.

Tuesday, March 3, 2009

He Worked For the Post Office Too

Just finished Victoria Glendinning's Anthony Trollope and now trying to decide whether I'm up to the six volumes of his Palliser novels. I finished the first some years ago, but chickened out at the prospect of reading five more.

As a writer who agonizes over every word, I'm in awe of the amount Trollope produced--scores of novels, stories, essays, travel books. He set himself a goal of so many hundred words a day, rising early to write before going to work as an administrator at the British Post Office.

(Some people credit him with inventing the letter box, but Glendinning says he only supported the real inventor in getting it adopted by the PO and placed on city streets.)

One of the small pleasures of Glendinning's biography are the books she quotes from, books with titles like "Reminiscences of a Literary Life," "Things I Have Seen and People I Have Known," "Collections and Recollections by One Who Has Kept a Diary" and, my favorite, "Memoirs of an American Prima Donna."

Saturday, February 28, 2009

Is This Goodbye, Gus?

This just in: The Minnesota Vikings have waived quarterback Gus Frerotte.

I'm waiting with bated breath to see if another team picks him up so I can find out where I'm going to transfer my allegiance next season.

Why Black History Month?

If I were the Benevolent Dictator, black history--like women's history or the history of the Irish in America--would simply be taught as part of American History, and we wouldn't have Black History Month.

A friend I told this to disagreed. "You love your wife 365 days of the year," he said via e-mail. "But you still celebrate Valentine's Day."

Well, maybe, but having a separate month almost seems to say black history is separate from American history. The truth, however, is that it's almost impossible to imagine America without black people.

The thing is, there weren't any Americans--except Native Americans--when the first Africans and Europeans encountered each other here. The moment that encounter began, however, Africans and Europeans began to make each other into Americans.

That idea seems pretty simple--and pretty obvious--to me, but you'd be surprised at the people who have trouble with it.

Some of them, white and liberal mostly, want to
get history books to call slaves "enslaved persons" instead of slaves.

I understand why, but the root of the word slave is Slav, because at one time in history, Slavs were other people's property. The word enslaved removes us one step from the realization.

Then, too, there's this: White people told my ancestors they were slaves. Now, centuries later, other whites are telling me my ancestors were enslaved persons.

I don't see the difference. Either way, it's white people telling me what my ancestors should be called.

Wednesday, February 25, 2009

Wish I'd Written This. . .

Stephen L. Carter has a good piece in this morning's New York Times about how subtlety gets lost in the media--mainstream and otherwise.

His starting point is the recent speech by U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder, a speech most remembered--because it was the one thing reported--for Holder calling us "a nation of cowards" because of our reluctance to talk about race in America.

Now, here's the thing: I was a journalist for nearly 20 years, and one of the things I loved about the profession was the chance it gave me to do things I was (sometimes) afraid to; go places I might not have; and talk to people I'd never, ever have met otherwise.

More and more, though, I've come to see journalism as the equivalent of the high school kid who goes around telling people the bad things someone else has said because he wants to play "let's you and him fight." And it's gotten worse with the coarsening effect of the Internet and the escalating influence of people like Matt Drudge.

In his piece today, Carter makes the point that we don't just talk about race "in simplistic categories." It's anything important: "Whether we argue over war or the economy, marriage or religion, abortion or guns, we reduce our ideas to just the right size for the adolescent tantrum of the bumper sticker."

And he quotes from Ray Bradbury's "Farenheit 451"--the title comes from the temperature at which paper burns--where the fire chief in charge of burning books explains why:

"Books, says the fire chief, make ideas too difficult. The reader winds up lost, he says, 'in a great welter of nouns and verbs and adjectives.' " And so people demanded they be burned because the ideas they contained were too complicated.

Sunday, February 22, 2009

What Offense?

This cartoon, accompanying Gene Weingarten's "Beyond the Beltway" column in today's Washington Post magazine, prompted a pre-emptive apology from The Post.

The paper wants to be sensitive about last week's incident in which a chimpanzee attacked and severely injured a woman in Connecticut. And, of course, there's the mini-controversy over a recent New York Post cartoon showing two cops standing over a dead chimpanzee.

"They'll have to find someone else to write the next stimulus bill," one cop says to the other.

The Rev. Al Sharpton saw that as an attack on President Barack Obama, given the fact that the stimulus bill was Obama's first legislative accomplishment and--as Sharpton put it--"the historic racist attacks of African-Americans as being synonymous with monkeys."

(Actually, I think he means "attacks on", and someone should have told him the word "being" was superfluous.)

Grammar aside, if you try hard enough, I suppose you might see the point the Rev. Al's trying to make. Still, couldn't it be the cartoonist just thought the stimulus bill so bad it could have been written by a monkey? And maybe it's just that I'm a former book reviewer, with a tendency to over-think symbol and metaphor, but I wonder whether he had in mind that old adage about a million monkeys on a million typewriters coming up with Hamlet, given enough time.

But I just don't get the fuss about the cartoon accompanying Weingarten's column. In fact, I'd skimmed it Sunday morning and decided not to read more because it featured his "friend Gina Barreca, the feminist scholar." I don't find her particularly funny.

Before concluding that "[w]e regret the lapse," The Post's Editor's Note says "[i]n addition, the image and text inadvertently may conjure racial stereotypes that [the paper] does not countenance."

What racial stereotypes? I see a monkey--excuse me, an ape--carrying away a woman who appears to be blissfully happy. Perhaps the editors should have been more concerned about the position of the (wilting?) flowers in Weingarten's hand.

Friday, February 20, 2009

What I've Been Reading. . .

Finished Lee's Virginia Woolf. Years ago, when I was single and childless, I would have spread out the reading as I turned to The Waves, To the Lighthouse, and other novels and essays as Lee discussed them. (It was how, years ago, I read a biography of F. Scott Fitzgerald, and why I own a copy of The Apprentice Fiction of F. Scott Fitzgerald.)

I may, or may not explore Woolf's body of work--so many books; so little time!--but I'd heartily recommend her A Writer's Diary. Cobbled together by her husband after her death (Victoria Glendinning has an interesting discussion of the process in her Leonard Woolf), it's like Maxwell Perkins' Editor to Author--essential reading for anyone writing fiction.

I don't mean either will tell you how to write a novel or short story. What you can learn, though, is that next to talent sheer perseverance is what it's really all about for any writer.

I'm getting over a cold (when you have an 8-year-old, sooner or later you get everything that blows through his classroom), so I've been reading more than usual. Finished Scott Smith's The Ruins--which, come to think of it--may have been what made me sick. (Stephen King is a great guy, but I should know by now not to read anything he recommends.) Still, it won't prevent me from looking for Smith's A Simple Plan, when I go to the library today.

Also read Updike's The Widows of Eastwick, though I never read its predecessor. I should probably look for it, but I'm not sure I liked The Widows... enough. Updike, of course, died last month and, while I hadn't read much by him till I picked up The Widows..., from time to time I'd ask myself why.

Scott Timberg says it better than I could in this piece from the LA Times.

Before The Widows..., the last Updike I'd read was the collection of essays and reviews, Hugging the Shore. Before that, I'd ventured into the omnibus edition of the Rabbit novels that's been on my shelves for years. I never got further then the first few pages, mostly because I found myself focusing on how they were written instead of what was written.

Then too, I was writing--as I usually am--and Updike's style was powerful, if not entirely to my taste, and the last thing I wanted to do was re-read my work a few weeks later and realize I was going to have to throw out pages of a not-very-good imitation of Updike.

Also read The Magnificent Ambersons, which is probably most remembered now not as the novel by Booth Tarkington, but as a failed Orson Welles film. I'm disappointed to find the movie not available on DVD from Netflix.

I mostly remember Tarkington as author of a series of novels about a boy named Penrod, who was a kind of American William. Penrod, though, had a black friend named Sam, and I cringe to think how Sam was depicted. The blacks in Ambersons, all peripheral figures, are similarly referred to as darkies, speak in dialect, and in one instance, go around singing about women and gin.

Ambersons was published in 1918, so it's a reflection of its time in other ways too.
Tarkington piles description on description, and his characters go on and on and on, long after you've gotten the point. In that sense, it's of that time before radio, movies, and television when reading was far more central to our culture.

'Nuff Said (3)

"Go down to Nether Wallop to lecture to the Air Force about the German character. I do not feel that the young men really like it. They are all fascists at heart and rather like the Germans."

Harold Nicolson
Dec. 20, 1940

Great Sports Story!

Seems there was this kid who tried out for Chantilly, Va., High School basketball team four years running, but was cut each time. But he's been team manager the past two years, and dedicated enough to help with off-season workouts.

A while back, the coach put it to the team: Given senior Rafik Shoorbajee's commitment, what if Shoorbajee were allowed to suit up and play as first man off the bench Senior Night?

The team said yes, and senior Shoorbajee played in his first--and last--high school game a week ago.

If I read The Post's account correctly, he had four points and one rebound.

And a great story to tell his kids and grandkids.

This is what sports should be, and all too often isn't. The stories are different, but it reminded me of the one about the girls softball team whose members chose to help an opponent around the bases when she injured herself after hitting a home run--even though they knew it meant they'd lose the game.

Saturday, February 14, 2009

Matters of Usage

I can't stand people who spell definitely "definately" or write it's (it is) when they mean its (the possessive). The first is just carelessness--or the inability to use a spell-checker. The second happens because some people think the possessive is always formed by adding apostrophe s.

What's irking me now is having the receptionist at the doctor's office ask, "Do you have your driver's license and health insurance card?"

I'm always tempted to respond, "Yes" without reaching for my wallet, and waiting to see how long it takes her to ask again. For a while, I actually did respond, "I drove here--I'd better have my license."

What they really mean, of course, is "May I see your driver's license and insurance card?"

So why don't they just say that?

I guess there's a manual, or a course, called Office Manners for the Medical Profession that advises that the roundabout locution is more polite, because I've heard it three or four times in the last couple of weeks.

Wednesday, February 11, 2009

Letters of Intent

Skimming stories about top D.C.-area high school athletes and the colleges they've chosen, I looked in vain for their grade-point averages and SAT scores. I suppose they must all have made Cs and scored 1010 on the SATs (or had B+ averages and 400 SAT scores) according to the NCAA's sliding scale.

I confess to being something of a sports fan. For two or three seasons, my wife and I shared season tickets to the Washington Nationals with a group of her co-workers and friends. I watch boxing. And channel surfing the other night, when I stopped at "Inside the NFL's" coverage of the Super Bowl and then, later, watched most of NFL Network's replay it wasn't because I hoped the Cardinals might win this time.

More and more though, I find myself thinking about the people in the uniforms when I watch sports.

It's easier not to with football players--the helmets make them somehow less human, until a particularly vicious hit reveals just how fragile they really are. But every time I watch basketball, I wonder if the players (NBA, college, high school; it doesn't matter) can read or write or if they've been passed along from grade to grade because of their skills on the court.

And I can't help thinking about how young black kids grow up thinking basketball or football is all that's open to them because reading or studying is "acting white."

A kid I knew, about to graduate from high school, once told me that if he really, really wanted to, he could play in the NBA. This though he'd gone to a small school with about 40 students in his senior class, and played only when the team was so far ahead (or so far behind) it didn't matter.

But it's not just the kids. The coach of one of the Washington area's high school basketball powerhouses once told how he'd called a student's mom to tell her he was cutting her son from the JV squad. "Fine," she said, "but tell me: What does this do to his chances of playing professionally?"

Back in 2002, when Redskins Hall-of-Fame cornerback Darrell Green announced his retirement, some sportswriter asked if he wished he could play just one more season. Green said no. He'd had a great career, done everything he wanted. And then Green turned the tables and asked the reporter, "I mean, hey, wouldn't you want to be me?"

I suspect most sportswriters would. Me, I'd like to have asked Green (B.S. General Studies, St. Paul's College, 1998) to list the last 10 books he'd read before I made up my mind.

'Nuff Said (2)

"The Greek idea that an educated and cultured life is a good thing in itself because it implies some degree of active desire to discover the truth, to appreciate and to achieve beauty, as well as to attain to morally worth conduct in human relations, did not appeal to many of the down-to-earth Romans."
Everyday Life in Ancient Rome.
F.R. Cowell

Monday, February 9, 2009

What I've Been Reading. . .

Nation, by Terry Pratchett, Victoria Glendinning's Leonard Woolf, Somewhere Towards the End, by Diana Athill, Virginia Woolf, by Hermione Lee.

I came to Leonard Woolf via Alison Light's Virginia Woolf and Her Servants, which is just what the title says--a look at the women (and men) who cooked and cleaned for Woolf and her family, emptied their chamberpots, mopped their floors, and cultivated their gardens.

Athill's book is sad but moving. Nearly 92, she's writes about what it looks like knowing you're close to the end of your life. I'm looking forward to reading her "Stet," a memoir of her life in publishing. (She was V.S. Naipaul's editor in Britain.)

Nation is billed as one of Terry Pratchett's young adult novels, but I'd recommend it to anyone. If you haven't checked out his Discworld series, get thee to a library or bookstore. There are 36 in the library, with a 37th due in October. I can hardly wait.

Wasilla, Your Village Idiot's Missing

Driving round my Northern Virginia neighborhood the past few days, I've seen a few bumperstickers reading "Sarah Yes!"

Given the women behind the wheel--middle-aged, suburban--I've got to assume the Sarah they're so enthusiastic about isn't Sarah Silverman. I haven't managed to get close enough to confirm it--my eyes, alas, aren't what they used to be--but I suspect they mean Sarah Palin, the governor of Alaska and quondam vice-presidential candidate.

But here's what I don't understand: What's so attractive about an unintelligent bigot? And why would anyone want to see one leading our country?

Oh, well, to paraphrase H.L. Mencken, "Nobody ever failed to win election underestimating the intelligence of the American public."

Thursday, February 5, 2009

In Defense of Poetry

Here's my idea of gun control: No one should be allowed to own a firearm if they're younger than I am and scored lower on the SAT. This would go for cops as well as criminals.

A little while ago, I saw four or five young khaki-clad sheriff's deputies waiting for a train in a Metro station downtown, each holding his hands on his thick leather belt in a way that called attention to his pistol. They were clean-cut, with close-cropped hair, their faces as untainted by wisdom as a cabbage.

They reminded me a lot of the police recruits I spent a few months following through their academy classes, years ago when I was a police reporter in Dayton, Ohio. The first few times I asked why they wanted to be cops, they said what they'd probably been told to: They wanted to help people. They wanted to protect the weak. They wanted to arrest bad guys.

After a while, once they'd gotten used to my being there, most admitted they thought it would be a kick to carry a gun and drive really fast without getting a ticket.

So, watching the deputies in the Metro station, I was tempted to go up and ask what books they'd read lately.

I chickened out.

Instead, walking away with my son in tow, I thought, "You know, I'd trust you guys with the power to deprive people of their liberty--and sometimes their lives--if I knew that just once you'd struggled for an hour or two with a couple of really difficult poems, say something by Pound or Eliot or Melvin Tolson."

Robert Frost must have felt the same way (though probably about all of us, not just cops). A while later, I came across this quote from his "Education by Poetry" in the New York Times: "Unless you are educated in metaphor, you are not safe to be let loose in the world."

Friday, January 30, 2009

My Son, the Reader

At 6, my son had already read the first two Harry Potter books. He wanted to start on the third but we thought it was too scary.

After we moved to Northern Virginia, he found a friend at his new school who'd read the third and fourth books in the series and he convinced us he could try them without having nightmares. So now he's finished all the books and re-read each (and/or listened to the audiobook) more times than I can count.

I grew up in Jamaica at a time when there were one or two radio stations, but no television stations to discourage reading. I've tried to interest my son in the books I loved then. He dipped into the William books by RIchmal Crompton, but balked at E. Nesbit and Edward Eager because, I suppose, they just weren't exciting enough.

So the other day, when we went to the library (we go at least once a week), I got him books by Neil Gaiman and Daniel Pinkwater. He devoured both immediately. And this morning, when I told him there was more by Daniel Pinkwater--a lot more!--his eyes widened and he grinned with the anticipation of spending more time with that master storyteller.

He's a little too young, but in a few years I'm going to have to introduce him to Howard Waldrop. My boy loves Greek mythology. I think he's going to like Waldrop's "A Dozen Tough Jobs."

Thursday, January 29, 2009

An Era Ends

This morning's Washington Post brings news of the end of Book World as a stand-alone section. Book reviews and news about books will continue in the Style and Outlook sections.

The section never really paid for itself--I know because I was a writer and editor there for about a dozen years--often running no advertising at all beyond the classifieds in the back. But for years, even though Book World lost money, the people who ran The Post supported it, believing one of the marks of a great newspaper was a stand-alone book section.

Times change. Now the failing health of the industry means newspapers can't afford grand gestures that cost money. It's too bad, and one more sign of the decline of the importance of reading in our culture.

Working at Book World was--for a while at least--a dream job. I got paid to read books and to write about them. All the same, f
or all that I enjoyed it, I'm not sure that in the end it was nearly as satisfying as writing fiction. (Which isn't as satisfying as writing it and seeing it published.)

When I dropped out of college in the late Sixties to go work in a record store near Washington's Dupont Circle, the manager was fond of asking how it felt to be in show business.

Sometimes, working at The Post, I used to think being an editor in Book World was like playing piano in a brothel. We made a lot of noise, but the real action was going on upstairs.

Wednesday, January 28, 2009

What Was he Thinking??

I didn't catch it (though I read the transcript), but a couple of nights ago on Bill O'Reilly's Fox show, Juan Williams said Michelle Obama had "this Stokely Carmichael-in-a-designer-dress thing going," and claimed "her instinct is to start with this 'blame America,' you know, 'I’m the victim.' ”

All this, Williams said, could pose problems for the president because "
people will go bananas and she’ll go from being the new Jackie O to being something of an albatross."

Now, I've known Juan for more than 30 years. We were students at Haverford College (he was several years behind me) and colleagues at The Washington Post. When Juan started as an intern at the paper in the mid-'70s (I was a copy-boy on the Metro Desk), he stayed at my apartment while he looked for a place to live. Over the years, we've wound up in the same neighborhoods--first Washington's Bloomingdale-Le Droit Park and then Takoma, D.C, where we'd see each other walking our dogs or hanging out with our kids.

So I've known Juan for a while. But apart from the need to be provocative so he can continue as Fox News' HNIC (Google the term if you've never heard it), what the hell was he thinking?

Over the years, too, I've had occasion to defend Juan to some (of our mutual) black friends. He's an intelligent man and an indefatigable reporter, though perhaps not an especially elegant writer. Like Shelby Steele (or Stanley Crouch) he's an iconoclast whose ideas go against the grain but are often worth listening to.

But for reasons I can't quite understand, Barack Obama seems to have stuck in his craw. During the primary and the election, he couldn't let go of the Rev. Jeremiah Wright, even when most of the media moved on. And when, with a few exceptions, most folks were praising Obama's speech on race, Williams was dismissive, calling it ordinary and saying it didn't go far enough.

I'm not trying to say that either of the Obamas should be above criticism. "Dreams From My Father" was a little too PC for me, and I wound up selling my first edition on eBay days after Barack Obama's breakthrough speech at the 2004 Democratic National Convention. (I made a ton of money, but I wound up giving it to the campaign last year.) And Michelle, well, there've been times listening on television where I've been thankful I never had to work for her.

But "
Stokely Carmichael-in-a-designer-dress"? Or blaming America and casting herself as a victim?

It's been years since I talked to him, so I'm not the one. But somebody needs to sit down and talk to Juan to try to get him to quit putting his foot in his mouth.

The Value of Service

For a while now, I've been wondering if the all-volunteer military is a good thing. I turned 18 during the Vietnam War, but my draft number was 303 and, because the lottery didn't go that high, I didn't have to decide choose between serving, applying to be a conscientious objector, or going to Canada.

At the time, I thought the draft unfair. Forty years later, I'm not so sure.

There's value in service, which is why when Barack Obama finishes dealing with the economic mess, I hope he follows through on his campaign promise to push for a bill requiring some form of national service for everybody.

Everyone ought to perform some kind of service to the country,
working in a hospital or teaching in an inner-city or rural school, particularly now when we face so many problems. But I've come to think it especially important we share the burden of defending America. When I read an editorial or op-ed in The Wall Street Journal supporting the war in Afghanistan or Iran, I always wonder how many people on the editorial board have a child in the military, or even know someone who does.

(I think the same thing when I read The New York Times or The Washington Post.)

There's this too: I wonder what it means long-term for our military--and our country--when so many recruits fail to meet basic educational standards. Time magazine has a story about how only 71 percent of recruits had high school diplomas in 2007, as compared with more than 85 percent just two years before.

Worse, it seems to me, is that the percentage of so-called high-quality recruits--those with a high school diploma and scoring in the 50th percentile of the Armed Forces Qualification Test--dropped from 56.2 percent in 2005 to 44.6 percent in 2007.

The Department of Defense wants 90 percent of its recruits to have a high school diploma or better. Those who do are more likely to finish their first term of enlistment. About half of those who don't drop out before finishing their first enlistment.

Some numbers I came across from The National Priorities Project
supported something I've suspected for a long time. Most recruits come from families with incomes of $30,000-54,999. Few come from families with incomes of more than $60,000 a year.

No one in the Department of Defense would put it like this, but don't all these numbers seem to say we're getting a dumber, poorer service?

New York, New York

Just back from four days in New York, where my wife and I celebrated our 10th wedding anniversary

We stayed in a small boutique hotel called The Library Hotel, where each floor--and each room--is dedicated to a particular category of book using the Dewey Decimal System.

We were on the fourth floor (400 is Languages in the DDS), in a room with translations from Greek and Roman and books about Egyptian hieroglyphics.

Saturday night, we went to see David Mamet's "Speed-the-Plow." I'd wanted to see it when Jeremy Piven played the lead, but he'd been replaced by William H. Macy. The play was three acts with no intermission. I could have taken another half-hour of Mamet's trade-mark dialog.

Sunday, we saw Will Ferrell's one-man show, "You’re Welcome America: A Final Night with George W. Bush."It struck me as a "Saturday Night Live" skit on steroids and, while I'm no admirer of George Bush, I felt a little uncomfortable at Ferrell's portrayal, being old fashioned enough to think we should respect the office, if not the man. I laughed, but a little while later at dinner, I couldn't quite remember why.

But I was so taken with this line from Mamet's play--"It's just words, unless they're true"--I wrote it down as we were leaving the theater.

Wednesday, January 21, 2009

A President For a Mulatto Nation

We decided weeks ago we weren't going to the inaugural. Of course, we'd like to have been there for the historic moment, but getting there and the crowds would have been too much for our 8-year-old, so we wound up watching the swearing-in ceremony on television.

Of course, I was moved, but watching Barack Obama take the oath of office seemed almost anti-climactic compared with the drama of the primary. The suspense was unbearable. I checked the polls on-line several times a day, went again and again to the news sites I'd bookmarked, stayed up late watching Keith Olberman and, yes, sometimes Fox News.

Then, too, I'd canvassed for Obama--not much, but I did--and had a couple of telling moments. At one house, I told an elderly Pakistani couple they should consider voting early to avoid long lines. "Oh no," the woman replied. "We just got our citizenship. This is our first election, and we want to do it in person."

A week or so later, another man (also Pakistani, I think) refused to tell me who he'd vote for till he saw my Obama button. Then his face lit up and he said he'd be voting for "the right person." Something about the way he said it made me think he'd come from a place where it could be dangerous to say you'd vote for the wrong person.

Both were moments where I understood how precious it is to be an American.

I had some of the same feelings watching the "We Are One" concert at the Lincoln Memorial the day before the inauguration. We are a deeply flawed nation with--as the filmmaker Charles Burnett once put it to me--"a difficult history."

And yet, as the then-pending inauguration reminded me, there are times when we get it right. Many of the Founding Fathers were guilty of the grievous sin of slavery, but they also created the institutions that would, in the end, admit black Americans to full participation in the American Experiment.

It wasn't just the speeches recalling the words of Washington or Lincoln or the example of heroes of the Civil Rights Movement like Rosa Parks; it was also Garth Brooks doing the Isley Brothers' "Shout," Jon Bon Jovi channeling Sam Cooke in his duet with Betty Lavette on "A Change is Gonna Come," Shakira's gospel-tinged wails on Stevie Wonder's "Higher Ground."

In the beginning, the only Americans were Native Americans, but once Africans and Europeans encountered each other here, each began the process of making the other American.

We are, as Ralph Ellison and others have observed, a mulatto nation. And now we have a president who truly embodies it.

How's That Again?

Sarah Palin, Alaska governor and (Yes, there is a God!) unsuccessful candidate for the vice-presidency, has a piece in today's Wall Street Journal, part of a "symposium" headlined "Hopes for the Obama Presidency." (Other contributors include the ever-dyspeptic Shelby Steele, Newt Gingrich, George McGovern, and Al Sharpton.)

I was all set to write a snarky post asking who'd written Palin's entry. After watching her on the campaign trail, I'd come to believe her constitutionally allergic to coherent sentences.

Then I read the piece again. Here's the first sentence: "Especially evident in these trying economic times is America's need for affordable, abundant and secure energy."

Yup. She wrote it.

Read the entire piece here (if you dare).

Monday, January 19, 2009

Let it Snow. . .

In her Loving Family, Loving Language blog, Rachel writes about the cold and how "in Minnesota, life doesn't stop because it's cold." Rachel's blog

I spent six years in Wisconsin, Ohio, and Iowa and though it's a pleasant 31.5 degrees in Northern Virginia this morning (there were snow flurries too), Rachel's post made me remember my first winter in Milwaukee.

I was a rookie staffer for the Associated Press and I'd just bought an old VW Beetle from Lizzie, my friend Roger's wife. (I'd known Roger in high school, but how we both wound up in Milwaukee's a story for another post.) After one lesson from Roger on how to work the clutch, I taught myself the rest on the way home.

Good thing I got it down before the first snowfall.

I grew up in Jamaica and in Washington, D.C., so I'd never seen as much snow as I did in Milwaukee. It snowed and it snowed and it snowed, and then it snowed some more. In the morning, you could see a small dark blue square--part of the roof of the Beetle. The rest was completely covered. All the same, when I finally dug it out, I found a ticket from Milwaukee's finest.

Over the course of that winter, I learned why people in Milwaukee have so much fun in summertime--they have to; they have so much stored up from winter. And I learned you can get used to almost anything. The morning the temperature finally rose above freezing--it had been 10 or 12 degrees for several weeks--I went outside in shirtsleeves because it felt so warm.

A few years later, living in Iowa City, I was prepared. But I do remember one day when the windchill factor made the temperature seem like -30 degrees.

My boss, a guy named named Pat Lackey (not the sportswriter) was on the telephone when I finally made it into the Office of University relations. We were the only two people in the office. It felt like somebody had forgotten to turn on the heat.

"How cold was it?" he was saying to someone on the telephone. "I'll tell you how cold it was. When I got to the office at 9 a.m., it was so cold I had to jump start my electric typewriter."

Sunday, January 18, 2009

My Kindle for Kindling

My worst news from the recently ended Christmas season?

According to a Dec. 23 report from the New York Times, sales of electronic books are up. Though less than 1 percent of all book sales, they increased three or four times in 2008 compared to 2007. Some observers think it won't be long before ebook sales are 10 percent of all book sales. NYT on ebooks

Call me old-fashioned. Call me a grouch. Call me a troglodyte. But I see this as one more sign of the coming apocalypse.

Would someone please explain to me the advantages of reading a book on a computer, laptop, cell-phone, PDA, or dedicated reader, apart from the number of books each of these devices can contain?

The book, as others have noted, is a just-about-perfect information storage and retrieval device. It's hand-operated, requires no external power, etc., etc. Properly put together, with suitable attention to paper, type, and binding, it can be a pleasing aesthetic object.

As much as I covet tech objects--I'd be ashamed to tell you how many MP3 players I own--I can't say the same of the Kindle, Sony's Reader, or any of the other ebook devices available or soon to come.

You wouldn't want to subject them to sand and salt water at the beach. You can't take them backpacking and tear out pages to light fires, at once lightening your load and recycling the paper. Once the batteries go dead, they're useless till you can find an AC outlet and, while I haven't tried one, I suspect the screens are too dim to be much use in bright sunlight.

Then, too, there's this: We're on the verge of becoming an aliterate society, which gives lip service to the value of reading while discouraging the kind of deep reading--and thinking--only possible with real books. On the other hand, ebook readers are perfect for the kind of plastic, written-to-order literature that dominates best-seller lists.

I suppose some people may develop lasting affection for their ebook readers, though I doubt most will. Technology works against it, encouraging us to buy new and improved models every year or so, and plastic just doesn't wear very well.

Of course, you have to take care of your books, too. I own first editions of Wallace Thurman's Infants of the Spring and Jessie Fauset's There is Confusion. Neither is in the kind of condition that would make it a keeper for a real collector. I treasure them anyway, wondering ever so often whether they might once have been read by some luminary of the Harlem Renaissance.

Then there are books that have certain associations, like my copy of Literature in New England, by Van Wyck Brooks. It belonged to my mother, a gift from Sterling Brown when she graduated from Howard University. I never met Brown, but I like seeing my mother's name with his on the flyleaf.

I could never feel that way about an ebook. Which means they'll take away my bound volumes when they pry them from my cold, dead hand.

'Nuff Said

My 8-year-old son and I spent Saturday night on the battleship New Jersey in Camden with his Cub Scout troop.

On a tour of the ship, I saw this beside a drawing of the Grim Reaper on a wall of a gun turret:

"Those who oppose will meet me.

"Democracy at any cost."

Wednesday, January 14, 2009

Didn't the Athletes Do It. . .

When "The Express"--a movie about Ernie Davis, the first black college football player to win the Heisman--came out last year, I started to wonder why so many movies about black athletes as agents of integration, and so few about the heroes of the Civil Rights Movement. It was the third movie in three years to present the fight for equality as a struggle by black athletes to be accepted on the playing field.

It was as if Hollywood had taken literally legendary Alabama football coach Bear Bryant's response after a black player--the University of Southern California's Sam Cunningham--ran for 221 yards and scored three touchdowns to help defeat Alabama 42-21 in 1970.

"Cunningham," Bryant said, perhaps apocryphally, "did more for integration in Alabama in 60 minutes than Martin Luther King did in 20 years."

Bryant turned out to be right, at least in the movies.

Problem is there hasn't been the cinematic equivalent of Richard Attenborough's "Ghandi" about Martin Luther King--or full-length pictures about Thurgood Marshall, Fannie Lou Hamer, Violet Liuzzo, James Chaney, Andrew Goodman, and Michael Schwerner (if you don't know who these people were, go Google their names)

The thing is though Davis' is an inspiring story, the movie about him never strays
from the conventions of the sports biopic. And, like "Remember the Titans," it's not really about the black character, who's pretty much the same throughout the movie. It's about the white character--the coach in "The Express"; an assistant coach in "Titans"--who moves from racism to acceptance.

Maybe I shouldn't be so surprised the movies prefer to look at race through sports' rose-colored lens. We're a sports-obsessed nation. Dads want their sons to grow up to become Alex Rodriguez instead of Bill Gates and boxing, football, and baseball provide metaphors for everything from business to presidential debates.

Then, too, sports offers the kinds of clear-cut distinctions we seldom get in real life. Games are refereed by impartial observers. Everyone plays on the same field. The best team and the best players usually win.

Go check out the stories of some of the people I mention earlier. Many died so that others might be free, but while there is much that is affirming in their lives, any honest depiction of the racism and brutality they felt would leave audiences with nothing to feel good about.

Bear Bryant may have been right that sports did more to integrate America than Martin Luther King did. All the same, I can't help thinking of something a friend once told me about his father-in-law, something that shows the limits of believing what happens on the playing field will somehow change America at large.

The father-in-law, a white Southerner who so opposed his daughter marriage to a black man he's never seen his grandchildren, sat down one Saturday afternoon to watch his beloved University of North Carolina football team on television.

"Now we're gonna see," he said, "if our niggers can beat theirs."

Tuesday, January 13, 2009

Will You Please Be Quiet Please?

The Victorians had what they call "muscular Christianity". For the last few years in America, we've had what I'm tempted to call stupid Christianity, which regards faith and the intellect as incompatible.

(But we also have stupid muscular Christianity, as this New York Times magazine profile of Seattle evangelist Mark Driscoll proves. Read it Here)

I've been thinking about this because Samuel Wurzelbacher (AKA Joe the Plumber, except he really wasn't) is off to Israel to report on that country's invasion of the Gaza for a right-wing religious web site.

In a saner, more civilized world, he'd be the punchline to a bad joke, as would his female counterpart, Sarah Palin, who's been complaining to a conservative filmmaker making an anti-Obama propaganda piece that Caroline Kennedy's been getting a free ride from the media while she was pilloried from pillar to post.

Of course, Palin's ignoring the fact that Kennedy can actually put together coherent sentences and has shown some intellectual gravitas by graduating from Harvard and Columbia University Law School and writing a book or two.

When I think of Sarah Palin (and Sam Wurzelbacher), I want to paraphrase something Mary McCarthy once said of Lillian Hellman: "Every word that comes out of their mouths is a lie, including and and the." Geoffrey Dunn on "Sarah Palin's Big Obama Lie."