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."

In Praise of Gus Frerotte

Call me a dreamer, but for a while there I was hoping Gus Frerotte might lead the Minnesota Vikings to the Super Bowl.

I've been a fan of Frerotte's since he beat out Heath Shuler as the Washington Redskins' quarterback in 1995. Shuler was a first-round draft pick--number three overall. Frerotte was drafted in the seventh round, the 197th player picked.

I'm not going to pretend Frerotte is one of the greatest quarterbacks ever, though he's one of only two players drafted in the seventh round (in 1994) to play in the Pro Bowl. That was in 1996, and I don't think he's been back since. In 15 years in the league, he's played with seven teams.

He's got a 74.2 quarterback rating and, unfortunately, he's probably going to be best remembered for butting his head into a wall during a game against the New York Giants. He was feeling good because the Skins had scored. He sprained his neck.

But this season, in his second stint with the Minnesota Vikings, he took over for Tavaris Jackson--Minnesota's second-round pick. Frerotte went 8-3 and threw a 99-yard touchdown pass in November to tie the NFL record. The Vikings finished 10-6 to go to the playoffs. Jackson was 2-3. He took over when Frerotte broke two bones in his back, and the Vikings lost in the playoffs.

The thing is that while superstars like Tom Brady or Terrell Owens get all the attention, our own achievements are more akin to Frerotte's or those of Redskin James Thrash, an undrafted free agent who's been in the league since 1997. To my mind, what makes Frerotte (and Thrash) so special, is that they go out and do their jobs, without whining, without complaining like too many of the superstars

The Post's Mike Wise put it this way in a column about Daniel Eugene Ruettiger, the Rudy of the movie "Rudy": "[W]e get so consumed by the destination sometimes that we forget it's really about the journey--that it's not always where you end up in life; sometimes it's about the heart and courage you show in between."

Then there's this: A few years back, in his first stint with the Vikings, Frerotte had an incredible game with an unbelievable quarterback rating. Afterwards, in the locker room, he was asked what he could do next week to top it.

"Never play again?" he said.

Saturday, January 10, 2009

Not on Internet Time

I'm a long-time computer buff (we've got six at our house, equally divided between Macs and PCs, and at one time I'd put together all our PCs). But I've got a love-hate relationship with technology, something I'll probably rant about from time to time here.

I confess part of my opposition to the notion of Internet Time comes from having heard too many snotty editors half my age say, "Gee, this is really well written, but we're on Internet Time. Nobody cares any more."

And, of course, IT's the logical result of our American fascination with speed and efficiency. The problem, of course, is that it leaves no time for digestion or reflection.

A friend once told me she'd never imagined how hard she'd have to work to keep her blog known. I'm not willing to work that hard. So these postings will wind up as Leah Hager Cohen described hers on her blog: "[L]ittle paper boats [that} float off, beyond my control, perhaps to capsize or disintegrate."

Or the way it was when I dj'd on the AM carrier-current station in college. You could only hear it in the dorms and, since nearly everyone had a stereo, I never knew whether there was anyone listening or if I was just talking to myself.