Reading at the Crossroads

Reading at the Crossroads is an archive for columns and letters which appeared in the Terre Haute Tribune Star. I also blog here when my patience is exhausted by what I feel is irritating, irrational and/or ironic in life. --gary daily

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Location: Terre Haute, Indiana, United States

The material I post on this blog represents my views and mine alone. The material you post on this blog represents your views and yours alone.

Monday, January 23, 2006

Two Ruths to Remember

[gary daily col. 46 December 22, 2002]

Ten Cents A Dance
That's what they pay me

Gosh how they weigh me down.

-- from the Ruth Etting album "Ten Cents a Dance," Living Era, 1926

It would be easy to fill this column with “Ruths.”

I could linger on the likes of Ruth Benedict the path-breaking anthropologist, Dr. Ruth the diminutive Smasher of Sex Shams and Shames, the incomparable Ruth Etting quoted at the head of this piece, and Ruth Gordon, the great actress who once profoundly asked: “Why should ruts be so comfortable and so popular?” (Why, indeed?)

But the Ruths I sing about, or at least mumble in praise of today, are Ruth Stone (on the left) and Ruth Lilly (on the right).

These Ruths have had a recent splash of ink in the papers and 30 second news spots on the tube. Their lives and contributions, however, are tied to something deeper and more meaningful than the media’s attempt to freeze a moment of the passing parade. They have lived long lives touched, guided, dominated, suffused, given over to, and enriched by a love for the consuming and creation of poetry.

Ruth Stone is a poet. She is this year’s winner of the National Book Award for poetry, but she is not, as one account reported, “a sweet old lady.” As Dinita Smith notes it in her New York Times profile, “There are words in Ms. Stone's poems that cannot be printed in this newspaper, even for art's sake. The words are not written for effect, they are there because of a brutal honesty.”

Maybe not “sweet” then, but there’s no reason to avoid “old” in descriptions of Ruth Stone. She’s 87. And certainly the “brutal honesty” stands. Here are a few lines from the National Book Award-winning volume, In the Next Galaxy (Copper Canyon Press):

"Tied a silk cord around his meat neck
and hung his meat body, loved though it was,
in order to insure absolute quiet,
on the back of a rented door in SoHo."

Tough stuff, no? Tougher yet when you know that this poem, "The Electric Fan and the Dead Man (or the widow as a useful object toward the end of the century)," is about her husband who committed suicide in 1959. Stone calls her husband "Serial-killer of my days," in another poem, "March 15, 1998."

Unsentimental, unflinching. These hard memories are one source for her art, a gash of memory never to heal, underlining the constancy of a great poet to her art. Sharon Olds, a friend and renowned poet says, "It's as if she hasn't heard that you're supposed to sugar it up."

It seems safe to say that one “R. Lyly” was thrilled to see four of her poems published by the New York Times in 1939. One of those poems included the lines:

“Secure in plush upholstery
I wink a torpid eye
and note above the plaudits
the needle of your sigh.”

Read those lines again. If you tasted sugar in the first reading, you’re certain to find bitterness in a second sampling.

This poem, with its hint of Emily Dickinson, has been attributed to Ruth Lilly, the billionaire Indianapolis philanthropist. Last month this Ruth bestowed a gift of $100 million on Poetry.

Poetry is the oldest and the most prestigious poetry magazine in the country. It has published poets of international importance continuously since its founding in 1912. Journals and magazines of poetry come and go, foundering after running against financial rocks that are very real, not symbols. Even a journal with the reputation and history of Poetry continues to exist through the kindness of friends and the hard work of volunteers.

Many a wag has used the line over the years that only one letter spells the difference between “poetry’ and “poverty.” Poetry has scrambled to survive for decades. It operates out of two small, donated offices in the basement of the Newberry Library in Chicago. The magazine pays the poets it publishes only slightly more than the “Ten Cents a Dance” Ruth Etting plaintively croons about in her signature (poem) song. The going rate at Poetry? Should a contemporary Will Shakespeare show up with a fourteen-line sonnet today, he could walk away with 28 bucks in his breeches.

Now, with intelligence and generosity unheard of since the Medici, Ruth Lilly of Indianapolis, a poet four times rejected for publication by Poetry, has demonstrated to all a love for a form of expression that dates back at least 3000 years. Are corporate and government leaders paying attention? The arts starve in this country. While Americans' minds grow obese with trivia, the arts, the spirit sources of curiosity and imagination, shrink from the anorexia of neglect.

Finally, did I mention that Ruth Lilly, like Ruth Stone, is also eighty-seven years of age? Or that Ruth Stone also grew up, albeit in very different circumstances, in Indianapolis, Indiana?

It’s wonderful to imagine these two Ruth’s, sitting together somewhere, talking of their life paths--lives so very different in details yet so alike in their passion for poetry. I like to think of them discussing and laughing about the opening lines of Ruth Stone’s poem, “1941":

I wore a large brim hat
like the women in the ads.
How thin I was: such skin.
Yes. It was Indianapolis;
a taste of sin.

“Make Them Think”

[gary daily col. 45 December 15, 2002]

“No bubble is so iridescent or floats longer than that blown by the successful teacher.”
--William Osler

John G. Sperling was the greatest teacher I ever had, and I’ve had many. He was an Assistant Professor of History at Northern Illinois University, in DeKalb, Illinois. I was lucky enough to have him for two courses as an undergraduate. I took these courses as a history major and came out a history major. This is not a “he changed the course of my life” story. But then again, perhaps it is.

Undergrads then, and I suspect continue to be, more impressed by style than by substance when it comes to remembering and ranking their teachers. (I shudder when I think this is the case in these days of specious “accountability” evaluations.) This guy had style that wouldn’t stop. He could prance, he could dance, he could really do the blackboard boogaloo. When the class started it was show time--but with a difference.

That difference was that he knew his stuff, front and back, in and out. The surface style that was so captivating at first was soon replaced by awe for what he knew and then, of far greater importance, for what we, his students, started to know and question. Classes did not end with his last word. They did not end when the group I hung with left the cafeteria after one or two hours of discussing what was said in class that day. For me, they have not ended to this very day.

On any given day in class, this teacher might, in organized detail, expound on the revolutions in Europe that took place in 1830 and 1848. Along the way, he pointed out the differences between the two and their relation to the ideas of the French revolution. Arresting personal and ideological portraits of key figures was part of the magic. Concluding remarks and discussion included how all of this did or (just as importantly) didn't relate to our personal lives and the temperature of the Cold War society and culture in which we were living. He did this through the traditional teaching style of lecture interspersed with questions to and from the class.

This “lecture,” however, was closer to what I imagine Shirley Maclaine’s channeling might be. It all seemed to come from a well deep in the man’s being. As he paced, and spoke, and questioned, stopping only to write in a sweeping scrawl a philosopher-revolutionary’s name, an obscure place name, or the author and title of some book on the blackboard, the scene resembled observing a medium in a trance. We all were entranced.

I remember Professor Sperling once being asked the awkward question we all wanted to ask: “How do you know so much?” His answer was modestly matter of fact, while at Cambridge University he read the equivalent of a book a day. He recommended this practice to all of us.

When I was about to graduate, I met Professor Sperling in the hall one day. He bestowed a wonderful compliment on me by asking me my plans and encouraging me to go on to graduate studies in history. When I told him my plan was to teach at the high school level all he said to me was, “Good luck” and “For God’s sake Daily, make them think!”

This wonderfully inspiring teacher, John Sperling, recently published his autobiography. When I picked it up I eagerly looked for the section on his time at Northern Illinois University. His comments on those bright shining times at NIU take up all of two paragraphs and are best wrapped up in this sentence: “Columbus had been depressing, but to me DeKalb, Illinois, was the dregs.” That’s OK with me. His classes did not reflect any of these feelings for the place in which he found himself.

Professor Sperling’s book has the ungainly and self-promoting title, Rebel With A Cause: The Entrepreneur Who Created the University of Phoenix and the For-Profit Revolution in Higher Education. It tells the story of a man born in poverty in the Missouri Ozarks (a long, long way from Cambridge University) who goes on to establish the Apollo Group, America’s largest internet higher education company, boasting 125,000 students and, in 1999, having revenues of $500 million. It continues to grow and is much copied.

Today, Professor Sperling has turned his searching mind and considerable personal financial resources to such projects as Seaphire International, “an effort to expand the world’s food supply by developing salt water agriculture suitable for third-world countries” and what he calls “demilitarizing” America’s “War on Drugs.”

Living up to the spirit of his title and the nature of the teacher I remember, Sperling notes early in his book that, “I have learned far more about how to conduct my business affairs from such novels as: Tom Jones, Emma, Notes From the Underground, The Red and the Black, Death Comes to the Archbishop, and The Great Gatsby than I ever have from reading a business book.”

If there are lessons in his life story, Sperling suggests we “find” and “choose from among them.” In this he’s still saying: “For God’s sake . . . make them think.”

Saturday, January 21, 2006

Try getting AIBO to do this trick

[gary daily col. 44 December 8, 2002]"We would sell you everything you need, but we would prefer you to need what we have to sell."
-from The Cave by José Saramago, recipient of 1998 Nobel Prize for Literature

Rolling at anchor in the California waters off the Port of Oakland this past month was a flotilla of ships bearing riches from the sweatshops of Asia. Merchants employing these ships are the Wise Men of global commerce. This yuletide season, due to a labor dispute and the lockout of the International Longshoreman and Warehouse Union workers, there was concern about these sea-going Santa Sleighs making it to America’s shores.

What flows from the east onto the welcoming beaches of the Enchanted Land of the Consumer is nothing at all like your standard gold, frankincense and myrrh. These globetrotting Magi of Merchandising have never seen a camel unless it was made out of plastic and battery operated. They bear machine knitted treasures bound for The Gap, “hot” games for Toys R Us, Barbie in her “New,” "Active" incarnation and practically anything else one might want to purchase with the coin of the realm, that is tapped out credit cards and discount coupons.

Without this booty our Christmas and the nation’s consumption driven economy might begin to resemble the times of the ballyhooed “Greatest Generation.” Try to imagine Xmas stockings filled with popcorn balls and non-designer label mittens. You can't, can you? This kind of stuff was all very well and good for the “Greatest” of the past, but today’s hyper-acquisitive mentality and hyper-sensitive economy requires more, much more. We’re “Great,” too, only different.

But, yes Virginia, there is a Santa Claus, a retail disaster was averted. Christmas container ships have floated into harbor. The standard goodies will be available to fuel the Festival of Consumption. And seeing as the surface sheen of Christmas is about the children, let’s run down a few items the kids might find under the tree this year.

*A Mini Humvee, complete with hydraulic brakes, three gears, and a top speed of 18 miles per hour. This is a good choice. Cuts down on all that tiresome pedaling. Available from FAO Schwarz at $23,000 per. Ads do not indicate if a tank full of the unleaded diesel fuel it runs on is included.

*Playhouses are magic places for children. I remember with delight scavenging large cardboard boxes from behind stores in the Chicago of my youth and fashioning them into semi-secret clubhouses. cuts out all of that scrounging around and construction stuff kids can waste their time on. For little Johnny homesteader, try the Tumble Outpost. It includes Plexiglas windows, screens, heat, running water and is environmentally friendly, coming fully insulated--and all for a paltry $87,510. OK, you have to change the screens and wash the windows yourself. It’s rough out there in the old Tumble Outpost, but facing just such adversity is what made America great. Right?

*Your darling daughter or son shouldn’t be alone in the Tumble Outpost so why not surprise them with an AIBO, the pet robot dog from Sony. "It's as close to an organic pet as you can get," says AIBO spokesperson John Piazza. This doggy device is programmed to recognize up to five faces and identify voices. It even does digital doggy tricks like download email. (Mr. Piazza doesn’t specify which end of your AIBO puppy does this downloading.) At $1,299, this mutt is a must.

The rich and the in-debt rich should all do their duty to their kids and their country’s flagging economy. You can be certain that the bonus bloated, pension busting, stock manipulating officials of some major corporations will be checking junior’s list twice. They will nonchalantly peel a thin layer off of their thick cash stash to make certain that Tumble Outpost is set up out back and tied with a nice big red ribbon. For the rest of us, the 90% not slated for another Bush tax cut or bloated bonus, we can dream. You know, “visions of sugar plums” dancing in our ever diminishing paycheck bowls and bank accounts.

In the meantime, I would suggest giving books as presents. And not just for the kids, but books all around and up and down among those you gift each year. Books are affordable, readily available, entertaining, educational, non-fattening, portable, and a nice fashion accessory and conversation piece at the local coffee house. Gift books compliment both the giver and the receiver, they can be loaned, they can be decorative, they are potential collectibles and they are easy to wrap.

Most importantly, when actually held between two hands at a distance of 12 to 18 inches from your eyes and carefully read, good books release a mysterious power that has been much studied but is still little understood. What seems to happen is reading sends a kind of magic electricity through the fingers and up the arms. It crosses the shoulders and then spirals up the neck. From there it leaps into the realm of the senses. You start to hear, smell and taste things never before encountered. After pausing at the lips (involuntary sounds may be emitted at this juncture), this mysterious force field ends its trip by taking a swan dive into the brain’s cortex, sending nutrient rich waves to the often dry beaches of one’s imagination.

Anything can happen after that.

Try getting that AIBO junk to do this trick.

Friday, January 20, 2006

It's Not About Real E$tate

[gary daily col. 43 December 1, 2002]

"There are too many books I haven’t read, too many places I haven’t seen . . . "
-Irwin Shaw

In the Saguaro National Park west of Tucson, Arizona, there is a circle drive that meanders up and down the foothills of the Tucson Mountains. You can stop and take short hikes through the forests of stately saguaro. Many of these cactuses are giants, standing twenty-five to fifty feet high and weighing up to eight tons. Some existed a century before Arizona became a state. Their arm-like branches salute the sun that creeps above the eastern mountains each morning. And each night they wave a sweeping farewell as that orange star slips in glory behind a wall of mountains far to the west. This is a beautiful place, a beautifully quiet place-yet a place of excitement.

Those saguaros are set solidly in the world of Barbara Kingsolver’s High Tide in Tucson. Kingsolver lives nearby and writes often of the desert and its life forms. She also writes of the place in which she lives. In one of her remarkable essays, she describes a trip to the post office. While traveling only twelve miles she passes through and describes six distinct neighborhoods. The first is inhabited by “jack rabbits and saguaros, who imperiously tolerate my home.” The others distinguish themselves by architecture, language and what Kingsolver calls “their creation myths.”

When she returns from this short trip through this layered place on the edge of the desert, Kingsolver writes: “From here I begin my story. . . .”

And this brings to mind remarks of Kent Haruf during his recent appearance at the Vigo County Public Library. Mere real estate may be about “location, location, location,” but literature can sanctify place.

Haruf is the author of Plainsong. He's a writer of highly tuned sensibilities in regard to place. He sets his work on the plains of northeastern Colorado. Part of his artistry is in his understanding of the alchemy of how place works in people. When asked about this setting and settings for his future work, Haruf said it probably would remain in and around the small community of Holt, Colorado. He knows this place and the people who inhabit it. As he humorously put it, Holt is a place where you can personally know the town’s mayor, the town drunk, the town bully and the town idiot and they may all be the same person.

Modest about his powers as a writer, Haruf says he is “still becoming a writer.” One of the writers he admires is William Faulkner. Faulkner never had to leave his deeply imagined Yoknapatawpha County in order to survey human life in its dizzying array of forms and fruition. Holt, Colorado, a creation of imagination, craft, and plain hard work seems to be the place Haruf will reside as he works toward creating life on the pages of his future novels.

And then there is the island of San Pedro, marvelously described and meticulously placed in an envelope of time by David Guterson in his disturbing yet affirming novel, Snow Falling on Cedars. During the many discussions I’ve led on this book thoughts and questions about island life invariably arise. No one is ever ready to see geography as destiny, but most close readers feel that Guterson’s San Pedro Island, caught tensely between the sea and the mainland, fishing and farming, the past and the present, and most importantly, “White” and Japanese-American populations, was a place very different from our “island” on the Wabash River, yet somehow very recognizable.

Many of you have visited “place” in one or all of these three books. They were the “If All of Vigo County Read the Same Book” selections for 2002. I hope you availed yourself of the opportunity to read and vote for one of the three and joined in the discussions of these important books. If you did, I feel safe in saying you have had quite a journey. The “If All” committee thanks you for your participation. And you should thank and praise yourselves for having the curiosity to search out the places of life found in the pages of these works.

In 2003, “If All of Vigo County Read the Same Book” will return. Watch for the official announcement in January. Some things will be changed. However, the excitement of enlarging our lives through reading and sharing our thoughts on what we have read will remain the same. Through the inspiration and craft of a great writer, we hope to be led to significant places on the maps of our minds and spirit.

The Big Payoff Question

[gary daily col. 42 November 24, 2002]

Here’s a scene most of us can recognize.

Thanksgiving, that most American of holidays, rolls around and someone always decides that, sure, “It’s all about family.” So the decision is made to reel them all in, the near and the far--empty the nursing homes, put pressure on nearly forgotten cousins, phone the in-laws and e-mail the outlaws--get the whole shebang on the road to Terre Haute, or wherever.

After the awkward hugs, and around the time when the facial muscles start to twitch from smile fatigue (sincere and otherwise), the gathering gets down to business. That business has to do with everyone else’s business. Health histories and concerns are laid out, in excrutiatingly complete physiological and pharmacological detail. Next, the purchase of new adult toys--SUVs to “Home Entertainment Centers” are announced. This is followed by the airing of marital prospects and advice. (Advice always aimed at the young single women, never the men.) The fertile topics of pregnancies, possible and impossible, are delved into. Recent and predicted divorces of those not present are assayed with relish but in subdued tones.

With the important stuff, the good stuff, exhausted, it’s time to grill any college students on the premises, forcing them to deliver a “University Education Report” (UER).

Occasionally a young scholar will not be available to handle the probing questions on the state of education in America. He will absent himself from the gathering (missing the chance to hear about Uncle Joseph’s new table saw or cousin Caddy’s goiter) with the solemn excuse that he must work on a research paper assigned just before the holiday break began. All present get a picture of a frowning prof standing stiff and cold near the parking lot exit. She hands “little Frankie” (in looks, a clone of the singer Meatloaf) a research assignment just as he’s about to head home to the warmth of hearth and home.

Little Frankie, as they say in Rhetoric 101, is “outta here” even before “The Pack” scores its first TD on the TV “Turkey Bowl” football extravaganza.

When the primary suspect is not available for cross-examination, the proud parents are required to deliver a perfunctory UER. This most often takes the form of a survey of the cost of tuition, the cost of dormitory housing, the cost of books, and the cost of those costs in adult toys and trips to Vegas that are now well out of the reach of what's left on their credit card balances.

But on those occasions when the student is available to issue a report, the questioning, and certainly the answers, have little to do with the financing of a fine education. Here’s a brief survey of some of the questions a “Little Frankie” who chooses to face his inquisitors might hear this coming Thanksgiving.

* So, plenty of “cheer leaders” (nudge, nudge) up at that college, right Frankie? (Cousin Phil has been asking this question since Little Frankie was in Junior High School. And always with that knowing, hopeful smirk in his voice.)

* How’s the team look this season? (The perfect UER question for all seasons.)

* I heard the parking is really a problem at that school. Where do you park?

* I heard the food is really bad at that school. What do you eat?

* Did you see any of those guys making porn movies in your dorm? (Cousin Phil, again.)

Like that. Until someone asks the dreaded Big Payoff question.

*What are you studying at that school? Can you get a job studying that stuff?

Daniel J. Boorstin, a historian surveying the development of the public college in the 19th century found that this question was being asked more than one hundred years ago. “Of what good is it,” the suspicious accountant then asked, “when a man can say ‘I am hungry’ in six or seven languages, but cannot earn his own bread and butter?”

This Big Payoff question is the stopper for liberal arts, non-preference, and any student who has not carefully read his or her department’s promotional literature. I personally was able to fend off this question by claiming for a number of years that, yes, I was going to be a civil engineer. I had no idea what a civil engineer did in life, but neither did anyone in my family. My “Cousin Phil” just wanted to know if many “girls” were into that civil engineering stuff.

But there is a valid UER type question to ask the Little Frankies at Thanksgiving this year. It’s this:

*Tell me Frank, what would you say was the book you’ve read this semester that was most interesting or important to you?

If silence follows, suggest to the young scholar that he consider that job Cousin Phil offered him last summer.

Thursday, January 19, 2006

Great writers blind us with sight

[gary daily col. 41 November 17, 2002]

“It’s coming, Ike said. His head was next to the rail. I hear it. . . . The train came on from a distance, whistling sudden and long at a mile crossing. They waited. The coins and her bracelet were out on the track. . . .”
-from Kent Haruf’s Plainsong

Prize winning author Kent Haruf (rhymes with sheriff) will be in Terre Haute tomorrow. He will be talking about his writing and reading from his works.

Haruf is well known among those of you who participated in the “If All of Vigo County Read the Same Book” program this year. His quietly powerful novel, Plainsong, was one of the three books discussed and voted on by readers in the community. Plainsong has also been chosen by others as a book deserving special attention and discussion. It was the “One Book” choice in Kansas City and, just recently, Plainsong was chosen to be the book the entire state of Arizona will read and discuss together.

Here’s a capsule biography from Kent Haruf’s publisher. It contains material interesting enough for an entire shelf of books--fiction and non-fiction.

“Kent Haruf grew up on the high plains of northeastern Colorado. He was Educated at Nebraska Wesleyan University (B.A. 1965) and The University of Iowa (MFA 1973). He served in the Peace Corps in Turkey, teaching English as a second language to middle school kids in a village on the Anatolian Plateau. Besides that, over the years, he's worked at a variety of other places: a chicken ranch in Colorado, the Royal Gorge in the Rocky Mountains, a construction site in Wyoming, the railroad tracks in southeastern Montana, a pest control company in Kansas, a rehabilitation hospital in Denver, an orphanage in Montana, a surgery wing in a hospital in Phoenix, a presidential library in Iowa, an alternative high school in Wisconsin, a country school in Colorado, and a college in Nebraska. Since 1991 he's been at Southern Illinois University at Carbondale where he teaches fiction writing and forms of fiction classes to graduates and undergraduates.” [Haruf no longer teaches at SIUC.]

But finally, the fact that the novelist Kent Haruf spent time working on a chicken ranch or blasting segmented creepy crawlers into oblivion or any of these wondrous facts of his life past provides nothing of real importance about this artist. Of greatest importance is what is in his books and in the reader of those books.

What follows is some of what I wrote earlier this year about Haruf, about his writing practices and his gifts as a novelist and about the gift writers of his quality bestow on their readers.


Kent Haruf wrote a short piece last year on where and how he writes. It provides a nice guide to what he calls his “totemics.” While writing Plainsong his workspace was a converted coal bin in the basement of a southern Illinois bungalow. A survey of his desk top would turn up, among other things: a bird’s nest, blue bandana, red sand in a plastic bag from the stage of the new Globe theater in London and some dirt from Rowan Oaks, William Faulkner’s Oxford, Mississippi home. And the key tools of the trade turn out to be a wide-carriage manual Royal typewriter and a sheaf of office salvaged paper, yellow in color and “pulpy” in texture.

But Kent Haruf is not ready to report for work until he adds one last touch. When he sits down at the center of this stage to write a first draft, he proceeds to pull on a stocking cap. He pulls it way on--it covers his eyes. Can’t see a thing and that’s the way he wants it. “I write,” Haruf says, “ first drafts blindly. . . . It’s the old notion of blinding yourself so you can see.” The pedigree supporting this approach ranges from Tiresias in ancient Greece to Bruce Springsteen--seers, saints and artists have all been blinded by the light.

In a sense, when we read a wonderful novel such as Haruf’s Plainsong, we are also struck “blind.” Entering into Haruf’s imagined world of Holt County, Colorado, we see with a depth and acuity often missing in the scramble of our own half-perceived and half-experienced lives. It’s not so much the author lifting scales from eyes as it is readers fully opening their mind’s eye to nuanced meanings and feelings great writers create. So deep and absorbed is this gaze that we speak of becoming “lost” in the pages of a book--in a commercial free blink, one or more hours dissolve.

And that’s only one of the reasons we praise artists of the written word like Kent Haruf. And why we are so curious about his “totemics.” Great writers blind us with sight and we yearn to know how they did it.

It’s exciting to have a literary artist of Kent Haruf’s power with us. You shouldn't miss the opportunity to hear and speak with this fine writer. But most of all--read the man's books.

Wednesday, January 18, 2006

The Farmer and the Cowman Should Be Friends

[gary daily col. 40 November 10, 2002]

farmer and the cowman should be friends,
Oh, the farmer and the cowman should be friends.
One man likes to push a plow, the otherlikes to chase a cow,
But that's no reason why they cain't be friends.”
-from the Rodgers and Hammerstein musical, Oklahoma

Out on the high plateaus of the educational ranges of America, university trustees and administrators have found an affinity for the “cowman” in this famous musical Oklahoma ditty. Cowman-administrators saddle up and spend long hours chasing cows. In their case it’s cash cows of various shapes and sizes. And, sitting tall in silver-studded saddles, silhouetted against the skyline of campus quads, they are increasingly heard to croon an off-key song with “where’s the beef” and “execs gotta do what execs gotta do” refrains.

In sharp contrast, many farmer-teachers working in the valley of education want nothing more than to “push a plow” on the small plots that are their classrooms. They give little thought to the need of rounding up those obstreperous dollar doggies. (Unless, of course, the round up results in fertilizer grants for a specialized research crop they are particularly interested in.) Trouble brews when the cowman-administrator's chase of the cash cow starts to trample trails into the work and crops of the farmer-teacher. Interested more in the sowing and nurturing side of their work than in the chimera of any final harvest, the farmer-teacher can be heard humming an old song between tightened lips. Two lines go: “The farmer is the man who feeds us all,/ But it’s the middleman who gets it all.”

“Territory folks should stick together,
Territory folks should all be pals.”

The farmer and the cowman do live and work in the same educational territory. They “should stick together,” but if they can or “cain’t” be “pals” remains a problem to be solved. It’s a complex, many-sided problem we all might think about.

University administrators--particularly administrators at under-funded, slimly endowed, state institutions--are expected to work with, inform and, more problematically, cater to their many publics’ expectations. Caving to real and imagined expectations, Presidents and their ever-growing corps of agents spread across the land droning a song of education they assume to be pleasing and familiar to their important publics. This song has become a monotonous dirge, almost a TV jingle complete with smiley face. It goes like this: “Education is a product and we’ve got the store where you should shop. So come on down."

In this ballad of the bottom-line, learning is equated only with earning. Students are transformed into “customers.” Course credits are only steps toward jobs. And degrees are only glorified “union cards.” Naturally student customers come to expect this, parents of student customers demand it, and state legislatures, tuned only to their voter-customers’ immediate desires and complaints, sing this Johnny one-note song into the dark night.

Meanwhile, teachers work within the space of four walls. You may see them as being either sadly out-of-touch or brilliantly resistant. Whichever, they continue to approach education as something other and more than rational egoism in service to homo economicus, economic man. From a dizzying range of disciplines and perspectives, most teachers work to impart in their students habits of mind and an opening of the imagination to ideas, values and information. Education for them is not a product and students are neither patronised nor defrauded by being treated like customers.

Administrators increasingly apply the club of efficiency to the tissue of education. They are trained and acclimated to the joys of the bloodless work flow chart, the daily/weekly/monthly/ yearly “progress” report--post-medieval instruments of assessment and evaluation, and other assorted tools of information collection, analysis, and potential retribution. This is not easy work for them. Long hours at many meetings are required to achieve this. “Efficiency,” however, in the service of “product” and the “customer’s satisfaction," to say nothing of potential savings in “work cost items” on the ol’ balance sheet, are well worth these herculean bureaucratic efforts.

Teachers, need I say it, are generally uncomfortable, or at least ambivalent, with these efforts. They are often divided against themselves on some aspects of the continuing tectonic shift of undergraduate education away from the intellectual and toward the vocational. But they remain convinced that their business, teaching, is best understood by teachers. And, in terms of progress (sic) reports, they are generally in agreement in seeing education as something that is initiated in the present but can only be achieved and known, if at all, in some unspecified future.

Cowman-administrators and farmer-teachers, maybe they are “Territory folks who should stick together,”-- but “cain’t.”

Perhaps hard-pressed administrators and solidly principled teachers live, work and think in two very distinct worlds. It’s easy to see that pay, perks and, perhaps most importantly, the frames of time governing the rituals and practices of their work lives differ dramatically. The layered world of administrators can become imperious, enamored of its power and status in what it simplistically calls “the real world”; the teacher's world can drift-- insulated, isolated and filled with anger and remorse because ideals and intellectual integrity are increasingly being diminished or ignored.

“But,” as in the song, “that's no reason why they cain't be friends.”

Or is it?

The Cynical and the Sentimental-No Shows at the Polls

[gary daily col. 39 November 3, 2002]

Why won’t more Americans be voting in two days? As usual, we will keep up our pitiful record of refusing to reaffirm the democratic process by staying away from the polls in great numbers. With a 200 plus year history of representative democracy, the turnout may barely exceed that of the election held in Bahrain a few weeks ago-52% of the electorate cast ballots in that election.

The two-headed coin of cynicism and sentimentalism is my explanation for why many will shirk citizenship’s prime responsibility. You probably have your own ideas on the subject.

I’ve read surveys and think pieces that extol Americans as being as far from cynicism as one can get. We’re purported to be an optimistic, hopeful, open and trusting people. Some of this may have slipped away in the last half of the 20th century, but most commentators remain convinced that the bedrock of our character as a people contains only thin veins of cynicism.

Perhaps we are a nation of big hearts and sincere smiley faces. It’s nice to think so. But the title of Paul Loeb’s highly touted work, Soul of the Citizen: Living With Conviction in Cynical Times, implies a less sanguine view of how Americans approach the realities of life today. He is saying “Cynical Times” engulf us.

Early reports following 9/11 noting the death of irony, cynicism’s advanced scout, were clearly premature. And think about it, how many times a week does someone lay that limp bromide, “Be positive!” on you? If even half of this unasked for advice is warranted, there must be a whole lot of nasty negativism, latent cynicism out there.

Jacques Barzun is the 95-year-old historian and author of thirty-eight books and the translator of ten others. His most recent work, published two years ago, is the deep and brilliant, From Dawn to Decadence: Five Hundred Years of Western Cultural Life. A short Barzun essay titled “On Sentimentality” provided me with a new slant on this split-level reading of the American character. In Barzun's terms, it’s not a tug of war between optimism and cynicism that defines so many people. It’s the notion that the coin of their character is two-sided. Flip over the cynicism side and you’ll find the face of sentimentality, the mawkish stepchild of mindless optimism.

Barzun's insight sets one to thinking. Sentimentality, and here I quote Barzun, revels in “imitation feeling.” This hits home because while we often shun the cynical we embrace the sentimental. And that quality, sentimentality, friends and neighbors of the Crossroads of America, is not in short supply in this country. The link and the clincher for me is his view that both cynicism and sentimentality “is feeling that shuts out action, real or potential. It is self-centered and a species of make-believe.”

We watch some insider report on corporate malfeasance, poverty, nursing home atrocities, environmental degradation, or some other social crime of the week on 20/20 and then turn off the tube, feeling disturbed but somehow cleansed and superior to it all. Few feel the need to act on the emotions they’ve been manipulated into feeling. Barzun’s example is from William James who comments on the woman weeping from her private box in the theater over the plight of the heroine on stage while her coachman stands in the cold rain awaiting the last curtain.

Sentimentality fills books, movies, popular music and television. Imitation and surface feelings rule--from required happy endings of TV programming (including the “news” shows) to the vague promises of economic and political programs. We buy it all; we embrace it all. We sit back and question nothing, do nothing.

When the insipid and shallow dreams of TV’s “The Bachelor” or the 10 to110 steps to wealth, wellness and well-being formulated in book after book fail to materialize, some of us flip over the sentimental side of the coin and turn cynical. Tough-guy realist men point to the fairy tale flaws in the weepies some women love to read and watch again and again and again; insightful women, with let’s-see-this-for-what-it-really-is clarity, puncture the commercially deadened, grossly inflated, drama and significance of the sports world fairy tales so many men OD on each and every week.

Sentimental or cynical, it’s about us, it’s about make-believe, and most of all it’s about permission to not act, to not even think about acting.

We run away from the complexities of our public responsibilities. Much of the world and our country’s place in that world appears out of the reach of the quick and easy understandings we crave and receive from the surfaces of sentimentalism, the armor of cyncism.

Afghanistan? Is that still around? Iraq? What’s to know? Hitler equals Sadaam, so let’s go. Bali? Bali! I’ll ask my travel agent about this one.

Vote on Tuesday? A near majority will stay away from the polls. Many will take the cynical “they’re all crooks” line. Many more will stick their heads in the sand and weep salty, sentimental, and inconsequential tears for the pain in our world.

Tuesday, January 17, 2006

On Ben Franklin's 300th a column rerun

[gary daily col. 21 June 16, 2002]

Ben's Advice: "Kill no more pigeons than you can eat."

When asked, What man is most deserving of pity? Benjamin Franklin answered, “A lonesome man on a rainy day who does not know how to read.”

Benjamin Franklin will soon be coming at us from all directions-- biographies of his life, anthologies of his writings, and most particularly the sayings from his “Poor Richard’s Almanac.” This essential American was a printer, inventor, scientist, diplomat, and, we should never forget, a very successful businessman. Successful enough in the demanding world of colonial commerce to retire at forty and spend the next one-half of his life engaged in scientific and public pursuits.

He was born in 1706. Do the math. In just three years we will be on the cusp of Franklin’s tri-centennial and there is nothing like 100-year chunks of time to oil the curiosity of biographers and grease the gears of the publishing commerce machine. Added to the torrents of print washing over us, there will be memorabilia ranging from tea towels to T-shirts. Cable television docu-dramas will reveal his French dalliances and PBS is certain to mount four to ten hours of film well-laced with learned commentary. And, need I say it?--there will be web pages.

It will all be wonderful because Franklin was so wonderful. I know this because in fourth grade I read Ben and Me, the story of Benjamin Franklin from the perspective of a mouse that lived in his tricorne hat.

But, as they say on the street, Franklin’s “The Man.” That’s not on Wall Street in the east or Rodeo Street (OK, Drive) in the west, but on Main Street. And how could he not be. Anyone can pick up Franklin’s 18th century maxims and find what needs to be said about life, society, and making a living. Try applying Franklin’s sharp and memorable words to the recent history of the U. S. of A. and you’ll see what I mean.

Take the yuppies of the late ‘70's. Ben has them to rights with his: "It is hard for an empty bag to stand upright." Or, if you’re in a more charitable mood (meaning you came of age in the 1970s) the following might better fit and assuage your soul for the sins of disco: "At twenty years of age, the will reigns; at thirty, the wit; and at forty, the judgment."

And you can pin down the rationalizing of the “Gordon Gecko” “Greed is good!” crowd of the ‘80s with: "God helps them that help themselves." It is more than likely that Franklin, always the practical moralist, would have counseled the fictitious Gecko along with the very real Boskey, Millken and the boys in the back room to: "Kill no more pigeons than you can eat." Nah! They wouldn’t listen. They still don’t.

With the boom and bust of the 1990's the choices from Franklin’s “Poor Richard” are without end. For example there’s, "Experience keeps a dear school, but fools will learn in no other." And for the hoopla surrounding the hollow dot-com companies and the ill-fated investors who had the temerity to invest in shares of something actually (and how Franklin would have enjoyed this) called “story stocks,” we have: "Well done is better than well said."

We are just into the first decade of the 21st century, but with Enron, Arthur Anderson, Tyco and who knows who’s next, it’s not too early to peg at least part of this fresh century on his observation that: "They that will not be counseled, cannot be helped. If you do not hear reason she will rap you on the knuckles." We can at least hope for “reason” and some “knuckle rapping,” can’t we? But don’t hope for too long, because as “Poor Richard” puts it: "He that lives upon hope will die fasting." And of course Ben “The Man” couldn’t be “The Man” without taking a swipe at the scapegoat profession of the ages: "A countryman between two lawyers is like a fish between two cats."

Personally, I will always go with Franklin’s, "Dost thou love life? Then do not squander time, for that's the stuff life is made of." I say this not because I have taken these words to heart, filled soul and sinew with their imperative, and turned living into that lobotomizing “24/7" materialistic limbo so much in vogue today. My fondness for this bit of wisdom is tied to a favorite seventh grade teacher who found an occasion to peal forth with “do not squander time, for that's the stuff life is made of” at least once a week. The other thing she thought “life is made of” was diagramming sentences. Demonstrating again that Franklin’s wisdom can be put to as many uses as there are Franklin readers.
For an amazingly perceptive and knowing essay on Franklin and the American character, see Stacy Schiff's op ed piece in today's (Jan. 17, 2006) New York Times.

Monday, January 16, 2006

CROSSROADS COMMENT--Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. : What do we want? When do we want it?

“Cowardice asks the question, 'Is it safe?' Expediency asks the question, 'Is it politic?' But conscience asks the question, 'Is it right?' And there comes a time when one must take a position that is neither safe, nor politic, nor popular but because conscience tells one it is right.” --Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

Compromise as a concept and action is alluring, available, and sometimes even works. But it would be wise not to reach too quickly or thoughtlessly for what appears easy and available. Some human problems are open to compromise, some human rights are not.

Many of us just celebrated the life of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and re-dedicated ourselves to the principles that guided his work. Fewer remember the rancor and the bitter arguments his life and principles precipitated, when the truths he and his many courageous followers put forward seemed new, different, somehow unreasonable.

Read the record, view the newsreel film of civil rights demonstrators marching through hostile and abusive crowds. Listen to the marchers simple yet profound chants, the call and response of individuals pursuing goals far larger than themselves:

“What do we want?


"When do we want it?


Simple and direct, grounded in large truths and unassailably just.

Now remember the responses of men in suits, men wearing narrow ties and thinking and reacting in narrow and self-interested ways. Remember the editorial reactions in newspapers, and not just the papers of the segregated Down South, but the Up North publications as well.

They rejected the magnificent direct simplicity of calls for Freedom on a The Time is Now schedule. With shallow studiousness they dismissed a profound turning in this nation’s life as being “precipitous,” “unrealistic,” “Radical.”

As a bulwark against obviously needed change, these self-anointed and supposedly broad-minded individuals retreated into the shadowlands of safe avoidance. They told themselves and the many who were only too glad to listen that “compromise” would better serve all sides in this messy conflict, that a middle ground and accommodation on all sides was needed.

I don’t think so.

What were Dr. King and the brave men and women marching and dying being asked?

Should they have agreed to slicing up Freedom and being served a portion that made the powers that be comfortable?

Should they have said outright for all to hear, OK, forget about Now, we’ll take our rights on an installment plan, send us a dab next month and dribble the rest out on a five year plan?

That’s not the kind of leader Dr. King was and he wasn’t that kind of leader because of the people who followed him.

Happy birthday Dr. King. Many heroes and heroines predated you, many followed you along a dangerous and necessary path, and many more carry on your legacy in the present. Your life and the history you helped to make teaches all of us that there are some things that can’t and should not be compromised.

--gary daily

Sunday, January 15, 2006

Eugene Debs - Terre Haute’s Own

[gary daily col. 38 Oct. 20, 2002]

“While there is a lower class, I am in it; while there is a criminal element , I am of it; and while there is a soul in prison, I am not free.” - Eugene Debs

There are some women and men in American history whose stories can never be told too often. Their contributions to our society remain fresh in meaning, inexhaustible in significance, and unfailing in their capacity to inspire. One such person is Eugene Victor Debs (1855-1926).

Debs grew up and lived in Terre Haute throughout his eventful life. He was a labor organizer, a spellbinding orator in support of workers, and the Socialist Party presidential candidate in five elections. His last campaign was in 1920. It was conducted from the confines of the Atlanta Federal Penitentiary where he was incarcerated for his opposition to World War I. The Debs campaign button that year simply proclaimed: “For President - Convict 9653.” Nearly one million citizens voted for Gene Debs. They knew he was a man devoted to their interests and dreams.

Gene Debs’ life and work were larger than the times in which he lived. He still speaks to those who will listen on the issues of politics, inequality and justice. Here are some thoughts he might express today if he could step out on the porch of his home at 451 N. 8th Street and answer reporters’ questions. I emphasize, “might express.” Debs is not with us and so we are deprived of the intelligent passion that he alone could bring to the problems we face today. [All quotes are from Debs’ writings and speeches. For committed scholarship and more of Debs’ words of commitment, read Gentle Rebel: Letters of Eugene Debs edited by J. Robert Constantine.]

Q. Mr. Debs, how would you assess the political climate in this country today?

Debs. “Beware of capitalism’s politicians and preachers! They are the lineal descendants of the hypocrites of old who all down the ages have guarded the flock in the name of patriotism and religion and [then] turn[ed] the sheep over to the ravages of the wolves.”

Q. Do you feel the Democratic Party, as represented by people such as the current Democratic Senator from Indiana, Evan Bayh, deserve the support of the American worker?

Debs. “The ‘middle-of-the-road’ element will be sorely disappointed when the votes are counted, and they will probably never figure in another national campaign.”

Q. Today the voters and the media put great emphasis on the image and “charisma” of candidates for high office. Many historians describe you as a charismatic figure. Do you have any thoughts on this?

Debs. I can only say what I said in 1910: "Too long have the workers of the world waited for some Moses to lead them out of bondage. He has not come, he never will come. I would not lead you out if I could; for if you could be led out, you could be led back again.”

Q. Republicans, along with most Democrats, emphasize the forces of the market economy and competition as the solution to society’s ills. Any comment?

Debs. “I am opposing a social order in which it is possible for one man who does absolutely nothing that is useful, to amass a fortune of hundreds of millions of dollars, while millions of men and women who work all the days of their lives secure barely enough for a wretched existence.”

Q. When these kinds of ideas are raised today, President Bush and some Democrats cry out, “class warfare” and hold up “rags to riches” stories of workers in America. Your response?

Debs. “It is true that one in ten thousand may escape from his class and become a millionaire; he is the rare exception that proves the rule. The wage workers . . . produce and perish, and their exploited bones mingle with the dust.”

Q. Crime and the prison system are on American minds today. Having been in prison, what are your thoughts on the justice system in America?

Debs. “There is something wrong in this country; the judicial nets are so adjusted as to catch the minnows and let the whales slip through . . .”

Q. Today 1 percent of the population own 40 percent of the nation’s wealth. That figure will rise with the recently enacted Bush tax cut which favors the rich. What are your views on these apparent inequalities?

Debs. I see such obscene inequalities of wealth as, "The savings of many in the hands of one."

Q. Finally, what words do you have for those in the country today who feel they have no program to implement, no prospects for change?

Debs. "If it had not been for the discontent of a few fellows who had not been satisfied with their conditions, you would still be living in caves. Intelligent discontent is the mainspring of civilization. Progress is born of agitation. It is agitation or stagnation."

In 1962, the Eugene V. Debs home was saved and the Debs Foundation created. Next weekend women and men from all walks of life and from every corner of this country and from abroad will be in Terre Haute to attend the annual Debs Award Banquet. Julian Bond, the current Chairperson of the NAACP and an individual with a distinguished career as an activist, public servant and teacher, will receive the coveted Debs Award.

On this fortieth anniversary of the saving of the Debs home, all of Terre Haute owes hearty congratulations to the founding members of the Debs Foundation. In 1962 they recognized with Gene Debs that, “Progress is born of agitation.”

Friday, January 13, 2006

Written Any Good Books Lately?

[gary daily col. 37 October 13, 2002]

“A book calls for pen, ink, and a writing desk; today the rule is that pen, ink and writing desk call for a book.” -Nietzsche

So what’s it going to be-a novel, a nonfiction work, a self-help book, a cookbook?

Survey results of people wanting to write a book found that the subject matter chosen by hopeful authors-to-be was just about evenly divided among these four categories. Another report indicates that Americans to the tune of 81% are convinced that “they have a book in them-and that they should write it.”

Let’s give this a local, albeit hypothetical, dimension.

Picture this: 20,000 fans fill Memorial Stadium (I said I was being hypothetical, didn’t I?) for an ISU football game. Tiered in row after row above the pseudo-sod of the field are 16,000! wanna-be authors.

I have this vision of these sisters and brothers of the pen mystically sorting themselves out into affinity groups.

Novelists who take the omniscient point of view sit high up in the stands; self-helpers edge as close to the inspirational coaches and the cheerleader support groups as possible; the mavens of the menu mill around the refreshment stand to check out the taste, color and texture of the mustard being served; and the nonfiction hopefuls fill the seats on the fifty-yard line, taking in all points of view and filling cards with copious notes.

Imagine the 16,000 (and the 4,000 sadly/happily bereft of literary ambition) trudging out of Memorial Stadium as the public address system drones: “Thank you for supporting the Sycamores! Drive safely! Get thee to your word processors!”

Why is all of this so depressing and so exhilarating?

The facts and quotes in the surveys mentioned above come from a Joseph Epstein article that raised some hackles among readers of the New York Times a few weeks back. He provocatively called his essay, “Think You Have a Book in You? Think Again.”

Epstein, who has published fourteen books, drops another interesting figure into his piece-80,000. This is roughly the number of books published in the United States each year. He summarily judges many of these third-rate. In his view, these brute numbers have the lamentable effect of encouraging more of the same. It’s the “I can do at least as well as that,” response. His parting advice hits would-be authors where it hurts most, in their egos and their dreams: “Misjudging one’s ability to knock out a book can only be a serious and time consuming mistake. . . . Keep it [your book] inside of you where it belongs.”

That’s cold. It’s not kind to slap highly vulnerable people in the face with quantity versus quality realities.

Sure, 80,000 books may be 50,ooo, 60,000 or, in a bad year, 79,900 too many. And, returning to the hopeful authors at our hypothetical Sycamore football game, it’s just possible none of the 16,000 will ever produce a real page-turning novel, a truly helpful self-help book, a definitive something-or-other nonfiction work, or a darn good cookbook to be thumbed through by greasy thumbs for years to come.

But perhaps, and this is the exhilarating part, one of those would-be authors will defy the bounds of inspiration, work and luck. It is possible that one dedicated writer will pry that book inside of themselves loose, shape it and groom it to perfection, and miraculously find a publisher and an audience to read and appreciate their blood and bone efforts. Let’s admit the chances of this happening match the possibility of kicking a 63-yard game winning field goal into strong and swirling winds. But talent and hard work, even in the arts, sometimes reap just rewards.

After the Epstein piece appeared, letters flowed in. Many took an “all we are asking is give (MY) book a chance” line. Equal numbers indignantly sounded a “Who are you, Mr. Fourteen Published Books, to tell me I should ignore the bright flame of creativity burning within” note. These views are heartfelt, understandable.

But my favorite letter was from an unpublished mystery writer. She took Epstein to heart, admitting that she motivates herself by reading the over-hyped pap that infects this genre. "Wow! I'm doing much better than that!" she would tell herself.

But here’s how she concludes: “Mr. Epstein reminded me that . . . perhaps it would be a smart idea to read a good book for a change. So I dug out my copy of Raymond Chandler's The Long Goodbye. Oh-oh.”

In the ripe days of the late 1960s, manifestos and banners announced with joy and much determination: “Everyone an Artist.” The authors of this slogan probably read some Marx and picked up on his utopian dream of workers finding joy in their day jobs followed by evenings of creative and intellectual fulfillment at home.

What I don’t remember seeing or hearing was a proclamation claiming, “Everyone Is an Artist.” I do seem to hear more and more of that today.


Monday, January 09, 2006

What We Needed Was a Little Herman Kahn In Our Policy Lives

[gary daily col. 36 October 6, 2002]“Going to war with Iraq would mean shouldering all the responsibilities of an occupying power the moment victory was achieved. . . . Are we ready for this long-term relationship?”
- James Fallows

The two wise men and one wise guy were having dinner together last week. Between us we’ve accumulated one hundred plus years of reading, teaching, researching and writing history. The Bush II War-possible, probable, preventable-was topic “A” of conversation. Being historians, naturally we sorted through our knowledge of past wars for insights.

We had a long list to work with. We couldn’t come up with a clear-cut example of the United States going to war (or, as it’s euphemistically called today, creating a “regime change”) on the basis of “pre-emptive” action on our part. Commander in Chief Ronald Reagan’s diverting and costly (given the diminutive size and meager armaments of the foe) foray into Grenada comes closest.

“Pre-emptive strike” became part of the jargon of military strategic planners back in the good old bad days of Evil Empire I. The Soviets, or “Russkies” as we fondly called them in films and in TV dramas, had The Bomb. And we had The Bomb. Everyone else in the gym class during those Cold War days was expected to join one team or the other, become part of pacts and blocs.

These fringe players were given little to say in regard to when or why the red button of destruction might be mashed into action. The ICBMs squirreled away in hardened sites in the U.S. and the U.S.S.R. left little for others to do except pray that the big guys didn’t act accidentally or out of irrational pique. Doubtless many people in nations without red buttons remember those days with mixed feelings.

Thinking about all of this, I decided to take a look at books on these topics in ISU’s library. Looking for the origins and history of pre-emptive strikes, I found shelf after shelf of a long aisle was filled with works on nuclear strategy “games.” Theorizing these nuclear doomsday concerns in terms of “games” is telling. As with so many of the words of war, we like to hide and celebrate aggression and anxiety in the vocabulary of sports. It seems to raise the comfort level of our toleration for war. Watch for more of this when the Bush II War starts.

One title, Herman Kahn’s Thinking About the Unthinkable, jumped out at me. It brought to memory debates and emotions of the past. Open this thick book and you will be subjected to a bi-polar nuclear politics sleigh ride across dangerous glaciers laced with crevices. The individual driving the sleigh is cool and logical. No place or time for feelings here.

What I understood of Thinking About the Unthinkable never impressed me. It angered me. When this work was published in 1962, I much preferred to worry about the problems of over-population and the integration of Ole Miss in Oxford, Mississippi. But now, in light of the way we are staggering in darkness toward the Bush II War, my impressions of the man’s work have been elevated considerably.

Thinking About the Unthinkable is an “if this . . . then this” work, a well-researched and tidy spelling out of possible scenarios that might be “played out” should missile-bearing H-bombs start to scream toward targets. What passed for an up beat ending in Kahn’s sleigh ride scenarios is that not everyone falls off the sleigh into oblivion. Kahn was ready with a variety of statistical details on the number of hearty souls who would survive to carry on life and what’s left of civilization after a nuclear holocaust. Military leaders and strategists need only carefully pick and choose among the options available. Deterrence, stalemate and survival (through a long nuclear winter) are all possible outcomes of these “games.”

Herman Kahn must be angrily twitching in his grave at what passes for thinking about the unthinkable today. Frankly, listening to Rumsfeld justify a course of war is like listening to a fourth grade teacher who hates his job. Rummy's manner is imperious and he insists on patronizing his “pupils,” the public, with his vague, “connect the dots,” non-explanation for going to war.

Given this, you have to appreciate the challenge of Kahn’s title and the reasoned method he brought to his work. In Kahn’s equations for security, patriotism is best served by marshaling clear evidence and submitting that evidence to unemotional thought processes. On the eve of the Bush II War, there’s much heated rhetoric trumpeting patriotic purpose coming from the president and his handlers. What is not easy to find in all of this is fact-supported evidence and hard thinking about the unthinkable.

It appears we know how to begin a war, but do we have a clue as to what happens when that war comes and or when it ends?

Getting On-Line Is Getting Out of Line

[gary daily col. 35 September 29, 2002]

“For every reader who dies today, a viewer is born.”
-- Edward A. Morrow, past president of Association of American Publishers, 1995

In his review of the recently released movie, “fear dot com,” Stephen Holden, a New York Times film critic forewarns moviegoers, “a Web site on the Internet has acquired a malevolent intelligence that beams demonic energy into those who visit it and stimulates their worst nightmares.”
Now take a leap, ask: Is the malevolent and the demonic in the form of computer technology invading the libraries of America?

It’s not that every click of a computer mouse sends a pulse of dread and loss into the heart of my reading soul. But when I observe the growing banks of computers filling elementary, high school, university, and public libraries I do envision a future of thought and imagination simplified, cramped and straightened rather than liberated.

Are you convinced that time at a computer can substitute for time with books? Can you weigh and sort out the opportunity costs (the sacrifice made in selecting one product or service over another) entailed in passively sitting before a gray screen and clicking it into virtual life versus sitting down with a book and being actively immersed in live pages of print?

Easy answers to such questions may elude us. But we can step back and examine the allocation of assets--financial, human, and promotional--being expended on the systems and products of information retrieval, intellectual stimulation, and community programming provided by libraries. Libraries have served their various publics with this mix of services since early in the twentieth century.

Weighting the elements in this mix has never been an easy, straightforward kind of decision. For example, in Vigo County, Indiana, the old Emeline Fairbanks Library building (f. 1906), with its Greco-Roman classical lines and stained-glass ceiling dome, spoke to the public in hushed and reverent tones. The Corinthian columns and stained-glass icons said to all, enter this building and you enter a depository of the wisdom and history of humankind. A promotional library poster of the 1930s proclaimed: “The Wit and Wisdom of the Ages await you here.”

But before becoming too hushed and humbled, give your attention to Ethel Hughes. Once the Emeline Fairbanks head librarian, she writes in her “Rules and Regulations” in 1922: “In the case of popular fiction the librarian has found it impossible to buy enough copies to supply the temporary demand.” Her “practical and popular” solution: purchase extra rental copies of these ephemeral materials. (See Irene McDonough, History of the Public Library in Vigo County: 1816-1975.)

From this it's fair to surmise that many patrons might ascend grand marble steps and pass through granite columns in awe, gaze up at the ceiling icons with reverence, but they often skipped out the doors and whistled down the steps carrying copies of current best sellers, not the works of statesmen and philosophers tested by time. The role of the library in a community is as complex as the diversity and needs of its patron base. One size does not fit all.

Nor can one box.

However a computer might be configured, it cannot stand in for books. Libraries have lurched wildly toward computer technology in an uncritical response to the glow of sales brochures and gauzy theories spinning tales of universal access. The “just punch a button” fictions of computer databases as presented in movies and TV dramas reinforce these unrealistic and unrealizable visions.

Rushing toward turning libraries into computer centers, with books and reading increasingly becoming an afterthought, is not only expensive, it is a wave of novelty that ignores centuries of library traditions and strengths. Library schools may crown themselves with the self-congratulatory title “Information Science,” but the establishment of a library as a cultural and intellectual institution is not a science. The foundations on which libraries rest are humanistic in character.

When libraries overemphasize computer technology while allowing book collections and support for reading and readers to languish, they risk evolving into “wired” anemic shells. Information is flat; it fits well on a screen. The riches of context and meaning reside between the covers of the technology called books.

Lovers of books and libraries need to ask: Why have e-books failed so miserably as a commercial venture? What have we learned from the Microsoft and web designer studies on reading on screen which conclude that computer reading must be designed for short attention spans? Did anyone who bought an iMac back in 1999 ever really learn, as Apple Corporations’ ungrammatical advertising campaign promised, to “think different”? Have I ever read an entire book on a computer screen? Do I plan to do so soon? Ever? And most importantly: Is computer technology in libraries a tool or a goal?

The deeper “malevolent intelligence” and deflating “demonic energy” of the contemporary “fear dot com” library is to be found in how its focus is shifting away from books and reading. Computers can be “hacked,” but they just don’t hack it when it comes to what books and reading bring to individuals and the community.

On Shedding the “sediments of society”

[gary daily col. 34 September 15, 2002]

From the forests and wilderness come the tonics and barks which brace mankind.
-Henry David Thoreau

When traveling I always extend the trip by reading relevant books before packing my bags. For a trip to the parks in the west, I recently read John Muir’s essay on Yellowstone National Park. As expected, Muir is marvelous in his descriptions of the glories of our first National Park.

Muir is the saint and the publicist of the late 19th-early 20th century conservation movement. He went camping with Theodore Roosevelt and was a recognized influence on T.R.’s wilderness policies. His writings and political activism in the service of the wild places in this large land are considered by most to be absolute keystones in the wide arch of that movement.

Born in Scotland, raised on a homestead farm on the Wisconsin frontier, Muir has a significant Indiana connection--he came a hair’s breadth short of being blinded in an accident while working in an Indianapolis carriage factory in 1867. He spent a month in bed, his world dark, his thoughts considering the “what ifs” of life perhaps equally as dark. Happily for Muir, and gratefully for all Americans and the world, his physical vision returned and the wilderness vision that was to be his life and work took flight.

Muir would write of this time in his life, “God has to nearly kill us sometimes, to teach us lessons.” The lesson he took away from this threatening experience was to heed his previously pent up call to wander the country, to see the natural wilds of this nation deeply and personally. Like the fictional Huck Finn he escaped the city and “lit off for the territories.”

When Muirs’ first extensive sojourn into the wilds of the United States was complete, he had hiked over a thousand miles, from Indiana to the shores of the Gulf of Mexico. In the ecstatic prose that never failed him in writing about the wild places he sought and lived in, he poured forth with words such as “divine beauty,” “harmony,” and “spiritual power.”

These descriptive praise songs carried a prescription as well. Roderick Nash in his Wilderness in the American Mind, feels Muir was confident in his beliefs to the point of apostlehood. Civilized man, not an unqualified compliment by Muir’s lights, could become a “new creature” and shed the “sediments of society” if he would find his way into wilderness.

It is rare today to hear environmentalists state their case in these tones and terms. As a person who takes great pride in our national park system, and it is the envy of much of the world, I am more likely to hear and concern myself with issues and questions such as: What, you’re allowing snowmobiles, jet skis, ATVs, tourist-copters, fixed wing fly-overs and RVs the size of eighteen-wheeler semis into our parks? You’re going to allow drilling for oil where!?! Another parking lot next to the waterfall? Are we loving our parks to death?

We increasingly place, as a character in John Sayles uncommon film, “The Sunshine State,” says, “Nature on a leash.” He’s describing the carefully managed tangle of mangroves and the well-placed palms fringing a golf course. This is most definitely not what Muir had in mind. Or that other unreconstructed and more contemporary lover of the wild, Edward Abbey. In his classic book, Desert Solitaire, Abbey tells of being so disturbed at seeing surveyor’s road building stakes snaking through the natural wonders of Arches National Park that he would spend nights under the stars of the Utah skies merrily (or was it in disgust?) pulling up the carefully measured markers and heaving them into the brush and rocks. He would probably call this holy litter. Abbey eventually graduated into more serious guerilla tactics in service to protecting the natural order of wildness in the world. Read his The Monkey Wrench Gang for a manual that speaks more out of despair than hope.

I doubt that my tramping through the back country of our nation’s wonderful parks peels the “sediments of society” from my being. Perhaps I only manage to add a kind of wilderness patina to the calcified layers built up from decades of urban fallout. I am certain, however, that Muir is on to something when he concludes his essay on Yellowstone National Park in this way:

“Then, with fresh heart, go down to your work, and whatever your fate, under whatever ignorance or knowledge you may afterward chance to suffer, you will remember these fine, wild views, and look back with joy to your wanderings in the blessed old Yellowstone Wonderland.”

Saturday, January 07, 2006

Max Ehrmann--He's more than ashtrays and cocktail napkins

[gary daily col. 33 September 8, 2002]

“What place is lovelier than Terre Haute: /The foliage of her many trees”
--Max Ehrmann

Terre Haute will be celebrating “Max Ehrmann Day” on Sunday, September 15, 2002. This will be a tribute recognizing the 75th anniversary of this local writer’s most famous work, the inspiring prose-poem, “Desiderata.”

Max Ehrmann (1872-1945) made his home in Terre Haute for most of his life. Here he worked at making a living and making his art. Richard Dowell notes in his informative and insightful essay, “Max Ehrmann: A Centennial Tribute” (1972), how Ehrmann refused to turn his considerable writing talent to the production of hack novels or compromise his literary ideals. Today his “Desiderata” is known around the world.

And part of the world comes to Terre Haute each year because this was Ehrmann’s home. Inquiries, in the form of letters, messages over the internet, as well as visits by researchers studying Ehrmann’s life and work, are a common occurrence at the Vigo County Public Library Special Collections Department and Community Archives.

This all has a nice symmetry to it. Max Ehrmann wrote about Terre Haute in one of his poems: “Here may ambition all its talents use/ Here is the world in miniature.” That Terre Haute was once, and perhaps is today, “the world in miniature” should give us all pause for thought.

Do yourself the favor of reading Max Ehrmann’s work. Also, make it a point to get out and enjoy the events scheduled by the Friends of Max Ehrmann for next Saturday, September 14 and Sunday, September 15.

“If All of Vigo County Read the Same Book” is taking a new step. The Snow Falling on Cedars novel by David Guterson, the first If All book, has been so well received that we’re going to do it all again-with a few changes.

As you remember, Snow Falling on Cedars was chosen by the readers of Vigo County. Along with Guterson, books by Kent Haruf and Barbara Kingsolver were nominated by a selection committee. Special discussions of the three books were held, brochures about the nominated works were made available to the public, and the local media, particularly this newspaper and WTWO-TV, gave the initiative much support. The Vigo County Public Library served as the launching pad and the cornerstone for the program. Votes were cast by the readers in the community and the If All book was selected. It was a process that did much to get people involved and interested in this communal reading experience.

In 2003, the “If All of Vigo County Read the Same Book” will be selected in a different fashion. The Vigo County Public Library is taking book nominations today, tomorrow and through September 15. Individuals can nominate a book for consideration by calling Chris Schellenberg’s office at 232-1113, ext. 281 or 282, submitting a nomination at the main library, or through the library website.

What kinds of books can be nominated? They can be fiction or non-fiction works. Nominated books should be available in paperback. (Library staff will check this out for you.) Nominate a book you have read that you think would stimulate discussion. The book should be a “good read” and significant in terms of its themes, ideas and meanings. First ask yourself: Is this a book readers will read? Then ask: Can I talk someone who is not generally a reader of books into reading this book? Finally ask: If I get these dedicated readers and these dedicated non-readers to read the book, does the book raise questions or present a point of view that can lead to an interesting discussion?

After the public at large has submitted their nominations, a list of titles will be sent out to local book clubs. These clubs will sort through and discuss the nominations and then submit five titles to the If All selection committee. This committee will use these lists to make the decision on which book will be the “If All of Vigo County Read the Same Book” for 2003. The choice is scheduled to be announced on November 18, 2002.

It goes without saying that many, many books could serve admirably as the If All 2003 book. Make certain the book you would like to see everyone reading and discussing is nominated. Nominate a book today.

Thursday, January 05, 2006

CROSSROADS COMMENT--Democrats and the Debs Dinner

“If basic economic issues are removed from the table, . . . only social issues remain to distinguish the parties. And in such a climate, Democratic appeals to people of ordinary means can be easily neutralized.”
-Thomas Franks, What’s the Matter with Kansas

How many leaders from the nation's and Indiana’s Democratic Party marked October 29, 2005
on their calendars? That was the date of the Eugene V. Debs Foundation Annual Awards Banquet. More importantly, how many of these leaders attended this conscience and program energizing rally?

This annual event celebrates, supports and recognizes the ideals and the progressive spirit of Terre Haute’s most historically significant native son--Eugene V. Debs. His political and philosophical legacy fills history books. Debs is honored enthusiastically around the world. You can visit his Terre Haute home, now a beautifully appointed museum on North Eighth Street. If you haven’t been there at least once, you probably read too little history and watch too much TV.

While on the subject of TV, you really have to wonder if the Democratic leadership doesn't spend far too much time watching “Lost” or “Survivor” or the weekly weaseling about on Donald Trump’s “The Apprentice.” These Democrats seem confused and lost; they allow themselves to be pushed around and compromised, thinking they are practicing a strategy of survival; and, in general, they comport themselves like apprentice Republicans.

Reality TV projects a scary world into our homes each night, but the real real world we live in, the world of economic hardship and social inequality, is far scarier. That real world was the one Debs confronted in a lifetime of struggle and agitation. It’s a world still very much with us, but the Democrats in charge work hard to avoid it and the issues such a world raises.

For example, in Indiana, we have Evan Bayh leading the charge to the right-center of the political spectrum. He and other Democrats appear to be intent on burning the bridges connecting them to the great liberal tradition of Roosevelt, Truman, Kennedy and Johnson. They assiduously court corporate campaign dollars while incomes in Indiana and across the country plummet, jobs are exported, unions are busted, health care becomes a luxury most cannot afford, and workers are robbed of their pensions. Straddling fences and interests doesn’t make them a “New and Improved” version of the Democratic party of the past. It makes them a timid and tired version of the Republicans.

Democrats are in dire need of a reality check and the Debs Dinner would have provided one. If in attendance, they heard conversation, music and speeches that were not slippery smooth and modulated like what they regularly hear in paneled boardrooms and at Chamber of Commerce festivals of glad-handing and deal making. Specifically, they might have reconnected with a politics they may faintly recall but has been banished from the so-so polite Democratic Party. Conversations that included words like LIBERAL, WORKING CLASS and UNION. Terms falsely despised, illogically dreaded, ignorantly diminished and unfairly defiled today.

It’s certain that many of these leaders have memories of what it means to be WORKING CLASS. A few may even have experienced the benefits (a living wage, safety measures, security, pride) of a couple of years of UNION membership at some point in their working lives. And, amazing but true, one or two of them might once have actually stated they were LIBERALS! And in public! Not anymore. Those memories and those commitments faded long ago.

At the Debs Dinner working people talk real issues and interests. And, lo and behold, they actually speak those words--LIBERAL, WORKING CLASS and UNION-- out loud. And the sky doesn’t crash through the ceiling. LIBERAL, WORKING CLASS, UNION are words spoken with pride and purpose. You remember, the way your parents and grandparents used these powerful words when times were tough and elected officials were expected to look for solutions. This was back when a responsive government made a difference in working people’s lives. Today, responsive government is about the size of the tax cut the super-rich will be handed.

Hard working Americans want nothing more than a living wage for a week of hard work. The homeless need affordable housing. The uninsured yearn for a national health care system that delivers their families from fear. And the economically left behind crave schools that nurture curiosity and prepare their kids for opportunities not endless tests that tie teachers and students into meaningless knots.

If the Democratic establishment supported programs that delivered these reasonable necessities, really supported them through education, organization and legislation, workers would head for the polls and vote with a smile on their faces and a “Solidarity Forever” song in their hearts.

Democratic leaders and candidates should quit moaning and whining about how the country has turned to the right, how (to take my home example) Indiana is a “Red” state, Indiana is just too conservative, Indiana is Bush’s garden, etc.. How do we know what Indiana (or the nation) is politically and ideologically when there was only a 58% turnout in the 2004 presidential election? Or, again going local, when the Democratic leadership of Vigo County in Indiana, a supposedly Democratic county stronghold, ignores the Kerry candidacy, turns out only 51% of the vote and, to their everlasting shame, hands a majority to the arrogant and incompetent Bush and his cronies?

If these leaders of retreat ever want to become serious about changing themselves back into democratic Democrats, they need to read the brilliant journalist Thomas Frank’s best selling book: What’s the Matter with Kansas: How Conservatives Won the Heart of America.

Frank was this year’s Debs’ Award recipient. Everyone should read this book and truthfully examine whether or not the argument Frank makes for Kansas applies to their home state . The Republican wing of the Democratic Party that runs the show on the banks of the Wabash and across the state all the way to Washington might clearly recognize itself. Democrats need to do some soul searching and ask, What’s the Matter with Indiana [fill in name of any state]? How the Working Class Lost their Voice in America…