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."