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, July 31, 2006

CROSSROADS COMMENT -- Nearly Translucent

As Sal Paradise says: "life is holy and every moment is precious," which explains why Dean "seemed to be doing everything at the same time." –Jack Kerouac, On the Road, first published in 1957

In what ways do novels read fifty years ago remain important to us?

Lacking the file cabinet memory of a Jacques Barzun or a Harold Bloom, plot lines and meanings of major works can turn into a tangle of knots and loose threads–lumpy highlights, the flash of a name, a few hazy scenes vaguely recalled.

We’ve all experienced this graying of a past color burst reading experience. The cold eye of the present inserts itself between the warm ache for yesterday’s enchantment. Our reading of reading memories becomes an exercise in mental acrobatics. What we devoured with a straightforward hunger yesterday is forced to jump through hoops today. Enlightenment gained wobbles precariously, swaying against the stolid reasoning of the now. Power is lost. Light dimmed.

So what is left to trust when we open our mind’s eye to an important reading memory?

This question occurred to me as I read Jenna Russell’s story in the The Boston Globe on the unfurling of the scroll of paper Jack Kerouac used when writing his now classic Beat Generation novel, On the Road. The story leads with this: “It's literary legend, how Jack Kerouac wrote his breakthrough novel On the Road in a three-week frenzy of creativity in spring 1951, typing the story without paragraphs or page breaks onto a 119-foot scroll of nearly translucent paper.”

That “nearly translucent” buzzed me through the doors of my memory bank and provided all I really need to remember about Kerouac’s unlikely, timely masterpiece.

Nearly fifty years ago I was sitting in a blazingly bright all night restaurant on the southwest side of Chicago. It was either the The Beacon or The Wheel, two favorite haunts. My copy of On the Road sat next to a piece of apple pie and ice cream. I somehow remember today these staples of American life were Kerouac's favorite forms of secular communion. The pie was dished up by a tired waitress with a frilly handkerchief in her breast pocket. She called me “hon.” She asked me what I was reading. I stammered my answer then and I stammer it now.

But what remains clear is that for a long moment during those Nighthawk nights at the equally well-named Beacon or The Wheel  life understood through this book seemed to turn “nearly translucent.”

Then the military draft got me and the moment was lost for two years and a lot more after that.

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Monday, July 24, 2006

CROSSROADS COMMENT -- Democrats and Ideas that Are Not New

"I been down so long, seem like up to me,
Gal of mine got a heart like a rock in the sea."

--Furry Lewis

Today, scrambling about in the briar patch that passes for political debate, we often hear that the Republican Party is now the party of ideas. This is vastly overstating their case. However, seeing the Dems wandering about clueless, unwilling or unable to pull themselves out of an immobilizing centrist slough of despair, does tend to give the "Republicans have the ideas" canard the appearance of merit. Sad, but perhaps history is turning to the side of Democrats who are progressives. Though one should never bet on history–it plays tricks undreamed of. Note the tragic practical joke of George W. Bush ambling onto the stage.

First, on Republicans with ideas. I suppose the mossback millionaire conservatives of the late 19th century also thought they were the ones with ideas. On close inspection, however, these ideas were about holding on to what they had, growing it to obscene proportions and forgetting about those who were being thrown brutally to the side of the track as their private Pullman cars raced on into the night. And this is just as true today. Trade in those luxuriously appointed Pullmans for upholstered private jets. Indiana and the people below are parts of flyover landscapes to CEO’s heading ever faster into storms uncharted. That gal does have a heart like a rock in the sea.

Progressive Democrats today are in the position they’ve periodically found themselves in for over a century. They face the challenge of fixing the mess into which conservatives of various stripes have twisted our economy and society. This was true in the days of the first Progressives who, around 1900, found the power of untethered capitalism, the sins and crimes of the Gilded Age, to be crushing the democratic life out of the American Republic. Looking around today, we find ourselves living in a similar milieu of over-reach and corruption.

T. Roosevelt, H. Taft (yes, even Big Howie from Ohio was a progressive) and W. Wilson all carried the banner of progressivism into the political fray. They won votes, they won elections and they enacted reforms ranging from conservation to an income tax, from pure food and drug laws to worker safety legislation. Many state governments joined in this charge toward change. Wisconsin had its Bob La Follette and California had Hiram Johnson–both opposed the octopus monopolistic power of corporations. Indiana, the nation and the world had Eugene V. Debs. All progressives of the day held that “The problems of democracy can be solved by more democracy.” By more democracy they meant more government, government being the tool the people could use to rein in the money power interests diminishing their lives.

And progressive political leaders (usually, but not always Democrats) have repeated this pattern for a century now. The business administrations of Harding, Coolidge and Hoover were partially straightened out by the New Deal and Fair Deal of F.D. R. and H. S. T.. Ike’s gray, do nothing, ride the wave years, and JFK’s “where’s the middle of the road” administration were overturned by L. B. J.'s Great Society initiatives. In the sweat of power, even Nixon occasionally used government for ends that served human interests other than those residing in the top quintile of wealth accumulation. It took the Hollywood actor, Ronnie, to mesmerize us with the image of the people’s government somehow climbing up onto their own backs. Talk about Hollywood’s use of special effects!

Domestic progressivism, however, foundered again and again on the rocks of foreign policy adventurism. We have been dragging through Cold Wars and hot wars, shadow wars and preemptive wars, for a long generation now. The strain on the home front is staggering. Hopefully the time has come for progressive Democrats to sweep aside the centrists in the party, the Clinton stronghold, the Democratic Leadership Council which harbors the Bayhs and Bidens and the embarrassing Lieberman. Centrists are truly the “no ideas” segment of the party–domestic and foreign.

Progressive Democrats, the historical soul of the party, should read the tea leaves of the past, note that once again the people’s government is in the grip of reactionary, narrow and unbelievably greedy corporate business interests. Progressive Democrats should ignore and dismiss (but not forget) gay bashing Republicans, anti-choice-- MY God not yours-- warriors, flag burning fear mongers, the Ten Commandments on every state house lawn crowd–issues that will be settled in the courts not through legislation. They should focus their ideas on, and responses to, economic crimes committed and disasters looming. For starters: fairness in taxation, intelligent spending (read arms cuts, cuts reaching to the bone of war profiteers) of the people’s money, medical care for all, protection of pensions and social security, minimum wage increase, full financing and full independence of public radio and TV. In general terms, progressive Democrats should follow the leads of Thomas Frank’s What’s the Matter with Kansas and Robert H. Frank and Philip J. Cook’s The Winner Take-All Society.

Foreign policy? Easy. Borrow from the fountainhead of Republican conservatism, Edmund Burke. He knew that the world and nations are complex. Burke recognized what the United States lost sight of during the long, mind-numbing Cold War, the operative truth that foreign cultures/governments shouldn’t be trifled with, let alone “preempted” or feebly “democratized.” These are human entities created out of long and incredibly twisting and maze-like historical developments. Burke and common sense not clouded by arrogance, recognizes that the world and life doesn’t work according to plans cooked up by deep thinkers, let alone by an undistinguished frat boy and a couple of his daddy’s last hurrah friends.

In the world today, we have to play to our strengths not to cockeyed optimist dreams. Those strengths have been misused and weakened. We need to pull back around the world and become that City on the Hill so many conservatives speak of but do not understand. That City is a beacon and an example; a light, to be nurtured and touted. It’s not an armored shaft of mayhem and destruction to be thrown will-nilly out into the world in the wild hope that it will hit some temporarily desirable target.

Wednesday, July 19, 2006

CROSSROADS COMMENT -- Stones in Stonewalling Stances Crumble

Conservatives are always touting the wonders of the free market and capitalism’s creativity and innovative genius. While there is evidence to support qualified claims for this feel good bluster, much of the wonder and genius comes to the world blemished with high social costs. Now some free marketeers want to divvy out paltry sums of the federal budget to let big bad government deal with global warming. Their late, late discovery and admission of the reality of this potential catastrophe makes one want to say, “I told you so, damn it!” But those words stick in the throat. Clogged there after WMD truths, Katrina truths, No Child Left Behind truths, and on and on.

When conservatives retreat from lies and disasters, the retreat is always tactical. When the stones in their stonewalling stances crumble, they give us head feints toward other problems, hold out a bag of beans and remind us of Jack and his long range beanstalk success. There’s nary a word on the many problems initiated and/or exacerbated on their watch. And, in fact, many of the gaping wounds in this country and the world, not the least being global warming, can be traced in part to the greed and rapaciousness of free enterprise competitive practices, the bean bag boys all purpose panacea.

Now here comes my favorite conservative blogger, Bill Lama. Lama is a long time denier of the existence of global warming. But Bill has been sweating lately and has picked up the towel, daubed himself off, and thrown it in. (A combination of scientific facts and ice floes bearing down on his southern California estate?) He challenges lefties to solve the problems of the nation and the world with a $25 billion largesse (a 1% increase in the national budget) which is to be used to solve global warming and nine other very large problems. How would you divide it up the 25B he asks?

There’s divide and rule and there’s lump and rule. Anything to avoid zeroing in on real problems carefully studied, their roots and the true cost of a fix. I guess this is what passes for a clever stratagem in some conservative circles.

You can place ten non-swimmers on an ice flow and throw them one life preserver. Will they fight over it or will they all cling to it and go under? And if you’re standing on the warm dry shore, and if you own a large supply of life preservers stacked up in stock options and real estate, what do you care about the 1 % you send skittering out to the unlucky, the unannointed, the unworthy. They need to learn how to swim in the cold waters of competition. Either that or they should arrange their lives so that they inherit a rich daddy’s cache of life preservers.

Let’s all admit that $25 billion is really chickenfeed when the problems we face come in flocks. The skies are dark with buzzards. But here’s one take on global warming from a source that would normally be given first class treatment at the Hudson Institute. It’s Swiss Re, a major international insurer, not exactly your bleeding heart liberal institution, stating the dollar scope of the global warming problem. Please note the date of this warning and estimate.

March 3, 2004 by Reuters

Insurer Warns of Global Warming Catastrophe
by Thomas Atkins

“GENEVA - The world's second-largest reinsurer, Swiss Re, warned on Wednesday that the costs of natural disasters, aggravated by global warming, threatened to spiral out of control, forcing the human race into a catastrophe of its own making.

“In a report revealing how climate change is rising on the corporate agenda, Swiss Re said the economic costs of such disasters threatened to double to $150 billion (82 billion pounds) a year in 10 years, hitting insurers with $30-40 billion in claims, or the equivalent of one World Trade Center attack annually.”

So Bill, forget the 1% games. Rip those tired old bumper stickers off of that fleet of cars you own, the sticker that won so many simple-minded votes in the past and helped to politically and socially bury us so deeply in the present: “Tax! Tax! Spend! Spend!” This mindless slur that has been thrown at liberals at least since FDR should be replaced with, “Tax Fairly! Spend Wisely!”

Thoughtful liberals have always supported both of these propositions; conservatives, up until the Bush debacle, have at least given lip service to the "Spend Wisely!" part.

And spending wisely can mean not spending at all. I suggest we start with the Defense Department and those weapons systems that don’t work, won’t be used, and even the Generals don’t want. These easily add up to more than the chintzy 1 % you’re doling out. And don’t forget the money that could be saved by pulling out of Iraq–NOW. For an eye opener on this, go to the National Priorities site.

This site will give you a good idea of our misplaced priorities today and what they are costing the nation.

Tuesday, July 18, 2006

CROSSROADS COMMENT -- Isn't the "War Against Boys" a Civil War?

This was posted by Bill Lama at palosverdeblog:

Dennis Prager talked about the
The War Against Boys, a recent book by Christina Hoff Sommers. He believes, and I believe, that manliness is being squished out of little boys in schools and in society. Sommers is appalled at the educational establishment's efforts to moderate boys' aggressiveness and other elements of their masculine nature. Dennis tells of his little boy tackling his friends when they came into the Prager house. Hi Jimmy, tumble, rumble…. gotcha ….give up? My John did the same thing, it’s what boys do. But grammar school teachers will have none of it. No dodge-ball either. . . .

Manly men in their assertiveness raise issues, bring them to the fore, and make them public and political, they prefer times of war, conflict, and risk, and bring change or restores order at crucial moments.
Manly men are needed in times of danger and at times of business. Let’s be careful not to stomp out manliness.

What do these hard wired boys Prager comments on do after they tire of tumbling and rolling about? (Hmmm! Isn’t that how my daughter behaved at that age? And can’t I hear her dower Aunt Mary telling her, “Now that’s no way for a young lady to act.”) But I digress. Back to the “boys will be boys and it’s written in concrete” scenario.

After practicing being Manly Men on the floor with each other (Be careful there boys, not too intimate with those bear hugs and scissors grips. The heteros-rule police are always watching.) these scions of maleness are likely to go looking for danger and ways to assert their budding MANLINESS. Right. It’s off to the TV for sports spectating with the mature male role models in the household. This, rather than the actual playing of a sport that isn’t totally controlled by adults, a pick-up game of touch football, basketball or, heaven forbid, a piggy-move-up baseball game with only five to seven players and no fancy uniforms. But let's slam those darn school marms for cutting off the life-line of dodge-ball in the schools.

And let’s stop a second at this crucial “no dodge-ball” point. Conservatives would want us to believe that boys are being shoved down some kind of pink hole in schools because of serious cuts in physical education programs. But wait! Don’t these programs cost money? You know, money from tax dollars. Tax dollars that social overhead tightwads are always complaining about.

And, even more importantly, PE programs require time in the school curriculum. Where is this time out of the school day to come from? Crushing the life and flexibility out of the schools today is something soothingly, but erroneously, called “No Child Left Behind.” Tests and more tests along with unending souless drills in preparation for tests are considered to be the answer to every problem on the educational horizon. Leaving aside how this testing regimen stifles the intellectual imagination and curiosity of teachers and their students alike, let me say that we can be certain “Left Behind” leaves many children with obese behinds.

But it’s not all sports on TV for these so deprived, so ignored, stifled proto-manly men. And as Bill puts it, “Manly men are needed in times of danger and at times of business.” So isn’t it a good thing when the tumbling boys move away from the great gray eye and pick up their pricey X-Box or whatever and pop in their real training manual, “Grand Theft Auto”?

Happily for all of us many young women in our society have more to interest them then watching behemoths endlessly giving and taking “hits” on the football field and pituitary cases talking trash with their limited vocabularies on hardwood courts. Studies indicate girls choose not to choke themselves within the deadening routines of video games. Their choice, not hard wired, just a smart choice given support rather than criticism, is to curl up with a good, mind-expanding, empathy producing, brain and soul enriching book. Should we wonder if this helps girls in school?

Bill, Dennis Prager and Christina Hoff Sommers are concerned with something they call “The War Against Boys”? Give me a break. Boys are put at war against themselves and each other and adults are regularly supplying them with the arms (gender stereotypes) to continue this self-destructive war.

Sunday, July 16, 2006

CROSSROADS COMMENT -- If Marquez and Mamet Used Cell Phones

I’ve avoided writing about cellphones in my life because I don’t have a cellphone in my life. It was easy not to buy, rent, lease or inherit one; it’s more difficult not to observe the behavior of those in that vast wireless, often witless, army who have “cells” crazy glued to the sides of their faces. The more I watch people using a shell from hell the more these instruments morph into hideous facial birth marks, splat-like suppurating succubi that any self-respecting Puritan of the 17th century would immediately identify at forty rods as the mark of the devil. On this I’ve joined the ranks of the divines.

Another reason for not writing about the cell-flu phone virus that thickly blankets the nation are the (as of July 16, 2006, 9:53 a.m.) 1,646,506 blogs that came up when I hit "Google Blogs" “cellphone.” I’m certain each and every one of these blogs is more interesting than 90% of the conversations taking place this very minute on the zillions of cells at loose in our divided highway society.

You know this is true. You’ve stood on line at coffee shops, super markets, and confessional booth lines in Catholic churches. You’ve involuntarily had to listen to many urgent, must-find-listener, zombiefied calls. These calls range from the reading of shopping lists (prices and colors), the reading of lists of sins (venial and mortal), and the reading of lists of general and specific, oh, so specific, complaints (carrier service and very personal servicing). So I refuse to repeat what 1,646,506 others have already said and you know by experience.

But for the 55,678 people without a cell phone, most of whom live in sod houses on the South Dakota plains or, more specifically, the 11,439 who feel bad, left out, naked without what is apparently a fully authorized evolutionary appendage, I offer this ruse. The equipment needed for this gambit is cheap, sleek, mobile and certain to achieve puzzled, admiring, or, best yet, envious stares.

The ruse: Authoritatively and self-importantly, yet oh so casually (insouciance is what we’re after here), draw from your pocket--your pocket comb. Place this bit of tangible magic realism firmly against your cheek bone and your ear lobe and say loudly and clearly, “Damn, you’re breaking up.” Scowl deeply as you return this shape shifting device to your pocket.

I regularly use this ploy when I find myself surrounded, say at a luncheon for four, by three earnest cell users. While perusing the menu and ignoring nearby human company, they all frown and smile into space as they say, almost in unison, things like, “Yeah, I’m having lunch now.” I have no doubt that this important information is finding its way to someone, somewhere across the city, or across the room. The eager recipients of these flashed vocal epiphanies doubtlessly are equals at frowning and smiling into space.

Finally, while using your Ace Comb ("It's Unbreakable!") as cell substitute, if someone should notice that you have been stifled in your attempt to make an important call on what appears to be a cell with plastic teeth and festooned with a flake or two of dandruff, and is rude enough to confront you with, “Hey, that’s not a phone.” I suggest you Mamet him with: “Yeah, I know, I guess I desire what I fear.”

Saturday, July 08, 2006


Why is it when evaluating Bush, supporters, to a much greater degree than Bush bashers, are superficially personal? Bush is a fine Christian man. Bush has a sense of humor(!?!). Bush is a role model for my son. Bush has a square jaw. Bush looks good on a mountain bike. And on and on.

I would venture that most Bush supporters know the record shows that their leader’s policies are shot through with miscalculations in planning and missteps in execution--foreign and domestic. But to remain supporters, to cover their own guilt and misreading of the man they had such high hopes for, the man they personally invested into with big money and deep emotions, they have nowhere to go but to hide behind what they see as the human qualities of the man. They fool themselves into thinking this is representative of some kind of exalted “loyalty” and steadfast “patriotism.”

The lack of substance in these “defenses” of the man drives many moderates and left leaning Democrats over the edge into mindless (though often very amusing) bashing. But there is plenty of room left on blogs and in print to carefully examine the evidence from Bush’s six years in office. Now the old Reagan question can fairly be asked about the work of Bush and his gang: Are you and the country better off now than you were six years ago?

Answer that one candidly, recognizing that the party in power deserves more than half the blame for the bleak picture that confronts this nation, and you are on your way to an important close inspection of how we got where we are and who is responsible.

Bush’s human qualities are not worth debating or bashing at this point in his presidency. His record and what this has meant for the country is where the debate should go.

Finally, here is the distinguished political scientist Alan Wolfe on W’s damage to the honorable and necessary political philosophy of conservatism. Clearly some conservatives are willing to look beyond the caterwauling cosmetics of this administration.

“. . . on the right as vehemently as on the left, the verdict has been rolling in: This administration, if not the worst in American history, will soon find itself in the final four. Even those who appeal to history's ultimate judgment halfheartedly acknowledge as much. One seeks tomorrow's vindication only in the context of today's dismal performance. . . .

“Eager to salvage conservatism from the wreckage of conservative rule, right-wing pundits are furiously blaming right-wing politicians for failing to adhere to right-wing convictions. Libertarians such as Bruce Bartlett fret that under Republican control, government has not shrunk, as conservatives prescribe, but has grown. Insiders like Peggy Noonan complain that Republicans have become--well, insiders; they are too focused on retaining power and too disconnected from the base whose anger pushed them into power. Idealistic younger conservatives bewail the care and feeding of the K Street beast. Paleocons Pat Buchanan and Robert Novak blame neocons William Kristol and Charles Krauthammer for the debacle that is Iraq. Through all these laments there pulsates a sense of desperation: A conservative president and an even more conservative Congress must be repudiated to enable genuine conservatism to survive.”

This is all starting to sound like the Democrats scratching at each other in 1972.

Let’s face it, W looks good on a road bike, but his intellectual, administrative and diplomatic short comings have run this country into a ditch--a deep one, one that to all of our sad regrets this particular 60 year old is not going to be able to climb out of.

Tuesday, July 04, 2006

CROSSROADS COMMENT -- Teachers Are Still the Answer

Milton Friedman says:

"The schooling system was in much better shape 50 years ago than it is now."

Ah, the golden age. Way back when. We can all remember those days as if they were yesterday. At least we can remember what we want from those good ol’ days. What we remember, of course, is what best serves as a positive foil to our reading of the bad ol’ present, the world going to hell in a hand basket, etc., etc.. For a moment, please stop being such nostalgic old grumps and/or such conservative ideolgues with an axe to grind.

What was good about public education 50, 60 years ago was the high percentage of exceptional teachers in the primary grades (the deciding years on the education ladder for most students). And it is not beside the point that these exceptional and exceptionally dedicated teachers were 90% women. Professions fully open to women at this time were limited–aside from teaching you could take your pick of professions, as long as that pick was nursing, stewardess, public librarian or secretarial work. Need I tell you these women were the cream of the crop--an underused, untapped human resource.

At this time women had to overcome and/or juggle the obstacles of sex discrimination and the pull of tradition (marriage and family) in order to pursue careers in education. Deciding on a bachelors degree in education and a career as a teacher was a major step across an abyss and through a sexist jungle.

The women who took these steps were amazing–and public schools in general, and Milton Friedman in particular, were rewarded for their courage and perseverance.

Times have changed and after a hard struggle (not yet finished) so have the opportunities for women. Do we still attract and hold the very best women (and men as well) to the teaching profession? Particularly at the primary grade level? If you were one of the best and the brightest starting out in college, what field would be the object of your ambitions? If you chose education, would you envision a career of thirty, forty, fifty years teaching reading in the first and second grades? What would be needed to make this your passionate life career goal? When it was time to add a graduate degree to your bachelors, would you focus on a subject matter degree--math, science, history, literature? Or would the siren call of an “easier” (usually, not always) Masters or EdD in “Educational Administration” be the way to go? And remember, you’re the top student type and one of the best teachers at your school.

Rewards and recognition are as out of whack in the field of education as they are in major corporations. Educational administrative czars don’t come near to matching the out of the ball park and into the yachts salaries CEOs pull down, but the gulf between the big corner office with plenty of support staff, the one that gets redecorated every couple of years, and the dingy classroom in need of basic teaching tools is wide and galling.

More importantly, this all demonstrates again the public’s failure to put their money where it really counts. Note how every public discussion of teacher’s salaries inevitably includes comments about teaching being a “calling,” a profession not to be sullied by a discussion of filthy lucre. “Our teachers are above all of that.” Try that “calling” business on a lawyer, engineer, or MBA and see what kind of reaction you get if you’re trying to hire one of these important professionals–men, and now women, who study hard, and work hard. Men and women just like teachers, except they don’t have the responsibility of educating your children and grandchildren.

I have no assurance or evidence that vouchers or charter schools or faith based initiatives would change any of this. I absolutely know the “magic” of the marketplace and the voodoo fake accountability of “No Child Left Behind” testing of kids into the ground are not the answer.

Every day you can read about this or that business failure, ethical scandal, defrauding of shareholders, or just plain dumb decisions (think American auto manufacturing) that are the doings of high placed pooh-bahs in the private sector. Every day evidence piles up about the failings and flaws of the mind deadening drills that go along with incessant testing–the latest quick cheap fix that will not work, that makes things harder for creative teachers to excel and are a godsend to those teachers who are only timeservers.

Friedman's private sector solutions (sic), the miracle market and the testing establishment stakeholders, may be able to absorb, or even thrive on, these failures. For our children and our country this is not an option.

The problems of education today are complex. But the answer starts with questioning the failures at the top of the administrative pyramid and a lack of support at the base. Smart legislation is needed to deal with the top rungs and the smart use of money, big dollars, is needed at the base–you know, where teachers and students come together every day of the week.

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