Category Archives: Links

Small town living’s fine, except for the white people

I don’t mean to sound racist, but I’ve got a problem with white people.

Lately I’ve realized that, living in my rural area, the people who drive too slow in front of me, the construction workers who (as I write this) blast country music toward my house, and the voters who made this guy my county’s sheriff are, almost without exception, white people. Also, the drunks, the racists, and the racist bullies out here are mainly white. (What’s uniquely stupid about rural racism is that it’s based almost entirely in the abstraction of difference, rather than in actual experience with people of various races, because these experiences simply don’t happen often in rural towns.)

I usually say this as a joke to my friends and family members, most of whom are also white, but I think the reason that this seems to be a joke is because so many of us rurals think of whiteness as being the default, so much so that we often aren’t even aware of our whiteness (our skin color, but also our cultural choices, not to mention our privileges). I suspect this is why some of my white conservative acquaintances sneer about “political correctness” — white people out here are so used to only talking to other whites that they don’t often think how their words and statements would feel to people of other races. My grandma didn’t think calling my wife a “dago” would offend her, but by pointing out my suburban-born wife’s difference from my family’s ruralness, my wife did feel hurt.

This is partly why I found this recent video, which points out the weirdness of what so many white people think is acceptable, so amusing and enlightening:

I particularly enjoy “You must listen to that rural music, right?” and “You don’t sound like a dumb hick at all!” (which, of course, a lot of my fellow rurals can’t carry off).

My serious point here is this: All too often, national discussions of poverty seem to fall into the pattern of a white guy like Wisconsin Representative Paul Ryan diagnosing poverty as being a problem of nonwhite people who live in cities. As Ryan said this spring:

“We have got this tailspin of culture, in our inner cities in particular, of men not working and just generations of men not even thinking about working or learning the value and the culture of work, and so there is a real culture problem here that has to be dealt with,” he said.

Of course, as rural areas in general lack racial diversity but do not lack for poverty, the rural poor ignored in Paul Ryan’s quote are mainly white. In fact, if Ryan wanted to address the largest racial group of people in poverty, he’d be talking to white people. This U.S. Census report from 2012 (located at a link from this site) shows the raw numbers of our population in poverty:

Source: U.S. Census Bureau

More than 19 million whites were considered to be in poverty in 2010 and 2011, millions more than the poor of any other race. And while people of nonwhite groups can show how they’ve been harmed economically by a history of discrimination (as pointed out here), white people can’t offer a similarly systemic cause for their poverty. So, what’s the reason for white poverty, white people? Is there also a culture of poverty among poor whites? And can we include country music in this “tailspin of culture”?

‘Boyhood’ and Nonfiction Across Time

My notebooks: 20-plus years of texts writing in the present

My notebooks: 20-plus years of texts written in the present

Last night on “The Daily Show,” Jon Stewart interviewed Richard Linklater about his new movie “Boyhood,” which was shot over a period of 12 years. Thus, the three-hour film contains footage of all the actors at yearly intervals.

In the interview, this passage caught my attention:

Jon Stewart: “Philosophically, did the act of being observed, for the younger actors, change their behavior? Were they conscious …”

Richard Linklater: “I don’t think so …[but] I guess it [the film] was pretty mind-blowing to them [the younger actors] when they finally saw it.”

JS: “What did they, what was their reaction?”

RL: “I gave a DVD to [actor] Ellar and I said, I suggest you watch this alone. Um, you know, build up some kind of relation with this crazy thing. And I didn’t hear from him for a while , so I was worried, but, ah, yeah, I think they’re still processing.”

JS: “Right. It’s an awful lot to take in.”

RL: “Yeah, yeah.”

JS: “What’s very interesting is, it’s hard not to watch it and process your own life within it, which is how art works that way.”

RL: “Yeah, you have to.”

Some of the movie’s reviewers have also responded to the images-through-time/time compression aspects of this movie. This article at Time concludes with:

We now know that cinema can depict the passage of time convincingly in a way we never thought possible before. Here time is real. We watch it accumulate on the actors’ faces and understand the toll it takes on adults and on mothers specifically.

Of course, this movie is not trying to prove that time is real; what this writer intends, I think, is that watching this movie prompts viewers to think about their own relationships to time.

I have yet to see “Boyhood,” but the method of filming a movie across so much time highlights some aspects of artistic creation that are otherwise easy to overlook. For example, Anthony Lane makes a point about how a plot-driven work can obscure character, which is revealed in

those episodes which seem dim and dull at the time, and only later shine in memory’s cave. A haircut, in short, matters more than a Quidditch match. We happen upon ourselves when nothing much happens to us, and we are transformed in the process

Lane generalizes from the movie’s structure to claim that the meanings we find in our own lives — the stories we tell about what has mattered to us, what has shaped us — depend on “memory’s cave.” Lane also writes, “that twin sense of continuity and interruption—of life itself as tracking shot and jump cut—applies to everyone,” which editing metaphor also implies that our memories may themselves be artistic products.

An individual’s memories, along with most of our culture’s stories (both fictional and non-), are structured as events from the past that are recounted in the (storyteller’s) present. We can’t tell a story — in fact, we may not even have a complete, satisfying story — if we don’t know how it turns out. Even if a writer starts off telling a story that she doesn’t know how to end, it will end before she finishes the book, and she would be able, before publishing the book, to go back and revise the early parts of the story to better fit the ending, once she knows the ending. (Stephen King writes — if my memory is accurate here —  in “On Writing” that it’s after the later drafts of his novels that he plays up the symbols that appear almost unintentionally in the first draft.)

But, of course, Linklater could not have gone back after Year 12 of shooting to film something from Year 2. He could re-edit what he had, yes, but he could not have gone back with the same actors. Even if, say, Linklater could have fabricated — because it IS fiction, and there are options such as stand-ins and CGI — a new Year 2 scene in Year 12, Linklater would himself be a different artist than he was earlier. As a review in The A.V. Club states it,

Because of how it was filmed, in piecemeal from 2002 until 2013, Boyhood exists in a constant present tense, providing a snapshot of recent history as it unfolds. Conversations about Obama and Bush were written and delivered without the hindsight the audience now possesses, as was an unexpectedly funny moment of Mason and his father discussing the possibility of more Star Wars sequels. (Ah, the innocence of 2008.) The movie also functions as a chronicle of its creator’s artistic evolution: The filmmaking becomes more confident and relaxed as Mason gets older, Linklater increasingly letting go of his plot aspirations in favor of a loose, conversational hang-out vibe. He, too, seems to blossom before our eyes, gestating incrementally into the director he is today.

What intrigues me about “Boyhood” is that its “constant present tense” describes how most of my nonfiction writing is done. Rather than telling memoir-type stories about my long-ago experiences, I mostly write journals about previous-day events and present-day impressions, and I write down my real-life observations and my thoughts within moments of having them in mind.

I don’t often tell stories about my past, but I do tell some, and I’ve become skeptical of telling these stories because the versions of these stories that exists in my memory doesn’t always match the versions that I wrote on paper soon after the event. For a few years, I warned my high school senior students not to drink when they go to college because I remembered seeing a person have his stomach pumped outside my dorm on the first Friday night of my freshman year of college. Not too long ago, I found the journal entry where I’d written about this, and it happened on the fourth, not the first, weekend of that year. This new setting doesn’t invalidate the story as an anti-example, but it bothered me that I’d remembered it wrong (and in a way that heightened the student’s foolishness, and thus, the anti-example lesson). It made me less confident in trusting my memory, particularly when I have these texts written more closely in time to the actual experiences.

In fact, I’ve also noticed that some of the things I remember from college didn’t get written down in my journals, and that what’s in the journals, I don’t always remember having lived through. It’s actually sorta disturbing to feel this disconnect between what I wrote (which reflected who I was) in the past, and how I now remember these things (as the person I am now). Maybe this disconnect is part of what Stewart and Linklater were referring to when they said that watching “Boyhood” required the actors to process their experience.

I value having my writings going back 20-plus years now, and I’m not so interested in present-day telling of stories of my past. I mean, sure, I can go back now and re-interpret my remembered experiences of years past, and this can be a diverting pastime, but it doesn’t draw my attention to the current moment, and how to live in the current moment, which seems to me to be the most interesting part of my writing.

I don’t want to overly define myself and my writing, but it’s valuable for me to understand who I am and what I do, and I think that what motivates most of my writing is a drive to understand — to form concepts of who I am, what I should do, how I should act toward others, why others do what they do, how I should think about my job, my writing, etc. These concepts, of course, I am willing to revise over time, which thinking and revising feel like the most interesting, even necessary (in the way that I get out-of-sorts when I don’t have enough time to write) processes of my being alive. Others may have a need to run marathons (maybe they do — it’s hard to understand others except by analogizing their needs to my own) while I feel I need to write, and specifically, to write about myself and my experiences.

So I’ve got these 20 years of texts, mostly journals and notes, and I used to wonder how I’d make these interesting to other readers. I felt that I needed to do that, if I were ever to become a Famous Author, and yet, I didn’t find myself naturally writing things that would appeal to others. What I had were my journal writings, and I thought for a long time about how these writings could be made interesting to others. I still don’t have a final answer, and now I don’t expect to find one, but I have come to think that there’s value in the texts written as they were at the times they were written.

Like Linklater’s movie, these texts present the problem of time: when I wrote about my college years, I was in college. I could write now about about my college times, but that’s 18 years after the events. So at the time of the journal-writing, I had lots of particulars but no distant perspective; now I have perspective, but that it’s the perspective of a 40-year-old.

And this is kind of a basic problem with writing (and it’s the basic problems that interest me the most): Everything one writes must be written from a perspective; writing is a product of a consciousness, and every consciousness is always already situated in time. I’m a better writer now than I was at age 20, but I’m no longer the person I was at age 20. I can see the changes when I read “between the lines,” as it were, in my texts written when I was different ages. I’m a different person. Yet, I’m not an entirely different person, which may be the point Lane was making in his quote above.

So if I want to be honest to the perspective I have now, I could write only about now, with the knowledge that whatever I say now will be superseded by what I write later. Or, maybe not — maybe one’s later nonfiction writings don’t supersede one’s past writings; maybe they’re just completely different and shouldn’t be compared?

That Linklater’s film was filmed over 12 years interests the commenters above because it uses real actors. If the film were made of, say, animated characters rather than human actors, the movie could’ve been made over 12 years without the characters’ appearances changing, as “The Simpsons” characters haven’t changed much over 25 years of TV episodes. (Although the characters were drawn differently in their first appearances on “The Tracy Ullman Show“.) Of course, what Linklater did is maybe not all that different from looking at how the actors of M*A*S*H change over 11 years of the show (which was weird, too, as the show was set during a war that took only 3 years).

And I suppose I could put together a document that contained my writings across the years, like an overview anthology of any author’s work, but then the main impact of such a document might be to show the change in the author’s voice over the years (which might overshadow any thematic concerns of the particular works anthologized). Linklater’s film may show the cinematic equivalent of that, but it also coheres as a single story. I’m still not sure how this would work with nonfiction.

But perhaps this problem requires a format of writing and/or of publishing that’s broader than any one book or other single-themed work.

P.S.: See related thoughts on writing in/through time here.

NIMBY bunnies: Chicago dumps rabbits on rurals

A Chicago Tribune article last Sunday about the 10th anniversary of Millennium Park contained this tidbit:

Unexpected invaders: The park’s 5-acre Lurie Garden has had some unwelcome visitors: rabbits who ate bark on some of the garden’s trees, killing them. [Edward Uhlir, executive director of the Millennium Park Foundation, the nonprofit organization that helps manage the 24.5-acre public space] thinks the rabbits crossed into the park on the snaking, Gehry-designed BP Bridge.

Last year, Uhlir said, trappers hired by the park caught 60 rabbits in the garden and later let them go at a “certified release site” about 100 miles west of Chicago. Then a fox appeared in the garden. This year, only three rabbits have been removed from the garden. “We think the fox was having dinner,” Uhlir said.

Hey, I live about 100 miles west of Chicago! Is it city officials’ fault that my green beans have just been denuded!?

Link: Weird Al’s ‘Word Crimes’

The parodist panders to English teachers (successfully, in my case):

P.S.: Another take on “Blurred Lines” here.

A book-publishing contract is not a ‘halo': Publishing as a business deal

Laura Miller, in an article at Salon, uses the context of the Amazon-Hachette disagreement to make an important point to would-be authors about what it means to get one’s book published:

It helps to understand what’s happening here if we all stop thinking about a traditional book publishing contract as a halo of literary worthiness bestowed upon an author by entities invested with a sacred, ineffable authority. Actually, it’s a business deal. It signifies that a disinterested party (i.e., not your mom or spouse) believes enough in the book’s potential appeal that it is willing to put its own money into the project. Publishers don’t just supply professional services (editing, design, distribution, marketing); they are investors. Doesn’t mean they’re always right; publishers often aren’t. But publishing a book is always a gamble of sorts, and a traditional publisher has ponied up.

I’ll admit that, at times, I’ve thought that selling a book would be a kind of validation of my talent, my ideas, my worth as a human being on this planet. (Though I should know better, considering that back when I was a journalist, I had a lot of things published and/or broadcast, and doing so didn’t feel all that special. Well, sure, the first time was special, but after that, not so much.) But it helps me to remember that companies publish books to make money. What gets published is what somebody thinks will sell, and a lot of respected texts didn’t sell very well, including Thoreau’s Walden.

Still, I’ll also admit to, at times, entertaining the fantasy that someone would contact me with an offer to publish my brilliant texts. Why not? But I also don’t really try that hard to seek publication because, well, I find the act of writing far more rewarding that the act of seeing my name in print.

Links on education: Gates Foundation, tenure lawsuit, Ravitch on Common Core

1. The powerful influence of Gates Foundation on education policy.

2. One school shooting a week: a list.

3. Laptops in classrooms can interfere with learning.

4. In Vergara v. California lawsuit, a ruling that tenure may be discriminatory against students in the worst schools. More here. The judge’s decision may be based on a guesswork statistic. Such a move may not improve education, at least not as much as reducing segregation would.

5. Cheating as a form of learning.

6. A thorough criticism of Common Core by Diane Ravitch. Some highlights:

I was not aware of this: that the union of which I am a member took money from Gates Foundation (see #1 above) to promote Common Core:

Both the NEA and the AFT accepted millions of dollars from the Gates Foundation to promote Common Core, and both have been steadfast supporters. The leaders began to complain about poor implementation only after they heard large numbers of complaints from their members about lack of resources, lack of professional development, lack of curriculum, etc.

“Value-Added Measurement” of teachers is not legitimate:

the American Statistical Association issued a report a few weeks ago warning that “value-added-measurement” (that is, judging teachers by the scores of their students) is fraught with error, inaccurate, and unstable.

Ravitch summarizes that “there is no evidence that national standards produces higher achievement, nor that they reduce achievement gaps. They certainly do not overcome the burdens of homelessness, hunger, lack of medical care, or overcrowded classrooms,” and she writes that she advised policymakers to test out the Common Core standards before issuing them nationally.

[I]t is far too soon to judge Common Core’s efficacy. But that is the fault of those who wrote it. In 2009, when I met at the Aspen Institute with the authors of the Common Core, I urged them to field test it so they would find out how it works in real classrooms. They didn’t. In 2010, I was invited to the White House to meet with Melody Barnes, the director of domestic policy; Rahm Emanual, the White House chief of staff; and Ricardo Rodriguez, the President’s education advisor, and they asked me what I thought of Common Core. I urged them to field test it. I suggested that they invite 3-5 states to give it a trial of three-five years. See how it works. See if it narrows the achievement gap or widens the achievement gap. They quickly dismissed the idea. They were in a hurry. They wanted Common Core to be rolled out as quickly as possible, without checking out how it works in real classrooms with real teachers and real children.

National standards maybe aren’t all that important internationally, at least not as much as poverty lowers U.S. scores:

Are our kids left behind by China, South Korea and Germany? Not really. Maybe not at all. It is true that we get mediocre scores on international tests, but we have been getting mediocre scores on international tests since the first such test was offered in 1964. We were never a world leader on the international tests. Most years, our scores were at the median or even in the bottom quartile. Yet in the intervening fifty years, we have far surpassed all those nations–economically, technologically, and on every other dimension– whose students got higher test scores. Basically, the test scores don’t predict anything about the future of the economy. Should we worry that Estonia might surpass us? The fact is that our international scores reflect the very high proportion of kids who live in poverty, whose scores are lowest. We are #1 among the rich nations of the world in child poverty; nearly one-quarter of our children live in poverty. Our kids who live in affluent communities do very well indeed on the international tests. If we reduced the proportion of children living in poverty, our international test scores would go up. But in the end, as I said, the international scores don’t predict anything other than an emphasis on test-taking in the schools or the general socio-economic well-being of the society. We would be far better off investing more money in providing direct services to children–small classes for struggling students, experienced teachers, social workers, counselors, psychologists, and a full curriculum–rather than investing in more test preparation.

I really enjoyed where Ravitch advocates teachers bringing their passions to the classroom and students experiencing joy in learning:

I see no advantage in “having a teacher in Alaska teach more or less the same thing as a teacher in Alabama.” What’s the point of that? If the teacher in Alabama is passionate about the work of Flannery O’Connor, let him or her teach it with passion. If the teacher in Alaska is fascinated with the arctic tundra, teach it. … A study by Tom Loveless of Brookings … point[s] out that the Common Core standards were likely to make little or no difference in achievement. After all, states with high standards have wide variations in achievement, as do states with low standards.

I see no value in the arbitrary division between literature and informational text prescribed in the Common Core. I know where the numbers come from. They were instructions to assessment developers of the National Assessment of Educational Progress (I served on its governing board for seven years). The ratios were not intended as instructions to teachers. This is balderdash. English teachers should teach what they know and love. If they love fiction, teach it. If they love nonfiction, teach it. Why should a committee with no classroom teachers on it in 2009 tell reading teachers how to apportion their reading time? I doubt that teachers of math and science will spend any time on fiction anyway.

[A] belief in using test scores to hold teachers accountable has no research to support it, nor is there any real-world evidence. Many districts have tried this for four or five years and there is no evidence–none–that it produces better teachers or better education. The ratings, as noted above, are arbitrary, and say more about classroom composition than about teacher quality. Nor is there any evidence that education gets better if teachers everywhere are using a common script. Doing well in school depends on family support, student motivation, community support, adequate resources, class sizes appropriate to the needs of the children, experienced teachers, wise leadership, and students who arrive in school healthy and well-fed.

Frankly, I don’t understand why [people would] oppose “joy” in the classroom. Why should school be so “hard” that it makes children cry? It is true that some assignments are hard; some books are hard to read; some math problems are hard to solve. We learn from doing things that are not necessarily joyful, but that engage us in work that stimulates us to think harder, try harder, persist. When we are done with hard work, yes, it is a joyful feeling. Maybe it is because I am a grandmother, but I want my grandchildren to approach their school work with earnestness and to sense the joy of accomplishment, the joy of learning. I want my grandchildren to love learning. I want them to read books even when they are not assigned. I want them to go to the Internet to find things out because they are curious.

Links: New poet laureate, poems for the masses, etc.

1. New U.S. poet laureate: Charles Wright.

2. “The best poetry is not always accessible, and the most accessible poetry is usually not good.”

3. Flash fiction as prose poems?

4. The case for typos in the age of spellcheck

5. Where old English was clearer: the two “th” sounds, thorn and eth. Also, here’s a list of other letters that were once used in English, but not so much these days.

6. Linguistic trivia: German speakers have difficulty with “squirrel,” and Canadians having difficulty with the German equivalent

7. Hannah Arendt on irony, as against David Foster Wallace’s definition of irony.

8. Profile of poet Geoffrey Hill.

9. Recent articles on poet Patricia Lockwood, here, here, here, and here.

UPDATE:

10. William Logan: “Poetry: Who Needs It?”

Questlove on hip-hop culture

New York magazine has an essay series by Questlove that I’ve really enjoyed reading:

1.When the People Cheer:How Hip-Hop Failed Black America

2. Mo’ Money, Mo’ Problems: How Hip-Hop Failed Black America, Part II

3. Questlove’s How Hip-Hop Failed Black America, Part III: What Happens When Black Loses Its Cool? I’m interested in the idea of cool as related to creativity rather than passivity.

4. Questlove: Disco and the Return of the Repressed — How Hip-Hop Failed Black America Part IV

5. Questlove Answers Reader Questions About His ‘How Hip-Hop Failed Black America’ Series

6. Questlove: Does Black Culture Need to Care About What Happens to Hip-Hop?

Links: ‘Start-start God achieve-make sky-earth’ and others

1. John McWhorter argues against the idea that what we have words for limits what we experience:

There are many languages in New Guinea and Australia in which there is one word that means eat, drink, and smoke. Are we to designate these people as less attuned to gustatory pleasures than us? They give little evidence of it, and note how distasteful it feels to even suggest it. Or, Swedish and Danish have no single word for what we call wiping. You can rub, erase, and such, and the word they spontaneously give as a translation means drybut there is no word that means, specifically, what we mean by to wipe. Yet we shall neither tell Scandinavians that they do not wipe nor even imply that the act is less vividly important to them than to the rest of us.

We can signal our awareness of human equality in other ways. All languages are complex. Nary a one of the several thousand known languages does not allow precise and nuanced conversation. Languages vary in just which squiggles of existence they choose to mark with words and endings, but we must resist the notion that this variation creates different “worldviews,” not only to avoid intellectual incoherence, but also to avoid an unintended continuation of the cultural condescension we all seek to leave behind.

Also, this:

For an English speaker, to a large extent, learning Mandarin is a matter of learning how much is unnecessary to still communicate effectively. No articles. No way to express the past tense. It’s quite common not to mark things as plural. The first words of the Bible can be rendered as “Start-start God achieve-make sky-earth.”

 

2. Difficulties of translating Finnegan’s Wake.

3. A compilation of Vonnegut writings for various situations.

4. On memorizing poems.

5. Pennsylvania dialects.

6. About creativity as associative brain activity.

Links: KISS, fiction writing

1. An amusing piece by Chuck Klosterman about KISS includes this passage:

When the critical world looks at Kiss, they see adults pretending to be characters they are not, projecting unsophisticated music about fantasy emotions, presented as a means of earning revenue. What they do not see is that this is how almost all rock music would appear to an alien. It is inside the genre’s very DNA, all the way back to Elvis. So Kiss are not a cheaper, exploitive translation of rock; Kiss are the living definition of rock’s electrifying unreality, presented with absolute transparency.

2. This article describes the Association of Writers and Writing Programs annual conference, but it describes things — the difficulty of getting published, the lack of money once one does get published, and the few teaching opportunities in creative writing — that make me wonder why so many people want to become fiction writers, at least, as fiction writing seems to be institutionally practiced now. I understand that some people feel called to write fiction, and I don’t mean to criticize that impulse, that desire; what I find odd is why so many people seem willing to suffer the indignities of a market and a public that doesn’t want them. I’m a writer, too, but the idea that one would need to get paid for such an interest seems a harsh principle to live by.

3. An Atlantic article with the title: “Why Music Sounds Better When You Know the Artist Is Eccentric: Our brains associate eccentricity and creativity in musicians, painters, writers, and other artists—as long as weirdness doesn’t feel like a gimmick.”

4. Fiction and the passage of time.