Race, Ferguson, “exculpatory” and competing world views

While all the media attention has been directed at Ferguson, Missouri, and the shooting of unarmed teenager Michael Brown, there was a second shooting four miles away. The second shooting, of 25-year old Kajieme Powell, was captured on video camera by a passer-by. Powell, walked into a nearby convenience store and shoplifted some energy drinks, which he took outside and carefully laid on the sidewalk.  He was walking around in circles, muttering to himself, and was holding a steak knife. On the footage, a police car showed up, two officers got out, and Powell took a step or two towards them.  Twenty three seconds after the squad car showed up, Powell was shot, at least nine times, killed, and then, bizarrely, handcuffed.

What’s interesting to me was the explanation offered by the St. Louis police department. Originally, they said that Powell moved towards the officers in a threatening manner, holding a knife, that he got within 2 or 3 feet of them, that he was armed and dangerous, that the shooting was justified, and that they released the video, at least in part, because it was, in their view, “exculpatory.”  In other words, they released the video because it supported the official police narrative of the event.

It doesn’t. Powell was never 3 feet from the nearest officer; more like 8 feet, and at least 15 from the second officer. And the officers were equipped with tasers. Nor does Powell seem particularly threatening. He appears, to be honest, a bit deranged.

“Exculpatory?”  I have never served as a police officer, nor in the armed services. I do not own a gun, and can’t imagine ever wanting to. I’ll grant, freely and absolutely, that I am uninformed. I don’t know what it’s like to be a policeman. Maybe I’d shoot too. I don’t know.

What I do know is that, to me, the video is not even remotely exculpatory.  If I served on a grand jury, and I was shown that video, I would absolutely vote to indict both officers for manslaughter. If I were on a jury trying them, and I saw that video, I would vote to convict them, perhaps not of murder, but certainly of the lesser charge of manslaughter. Chatting about it on the internet yesterday, though, a lot of people I don’t know disagreed with me. Some thought this was easily and obviously a justifiable homicide. The officers were threatened by a guy with a knife. They stopped him from hurting anyone, including themselves.

So I look at that video, and it seem obvious–this is an unjustified shooting, a criminal act. Police officers, apparently, look at the video and it’s just as obvious–justifiable homicide.  Our world views shape how we see evidence, and shape therefore the narratives we create around that evidence. I see the incidents in Ferguson from the point of view of a middle-aged white liberal. I tend to impute racism to other white people, partly because I’m acutely aware of my own occasional racism.  We’re all shaped by our life experiences, we all have ideological biases. We just don’t all see the world the same way. I cannot fathom anyone looking at that video and calling it “exculpatory” of the officers. Obviously, lots of people, and most especially people who work in law enforcement, completely disagree. We don’t all see the same video. And we tend to label those who disagree with us ‘nuts.’ We think they’re crazy. They just can’t see straight, we think.

Great Britain, France, Germany, Norway, Sweden, Denmark, Belgium, Canada, Australia, New Zealand, Spain–most of the countries of Europe, most First World nations have police forces, crazy people, and steak knives.  They have way way way fewer incidents where police shoot civilians.  In Iceland, in December, for the first time in their nation’s modern history, a police officer shot and killed an armed civilian. The victim was armed with a shotgun, which he used to shoot two other officers; the killing was completely justified.  But the whole nation’s practically in mourning over it.  In Iceland, police officers don’t carry guns. Neither do most European cops.  And they keep civil order just fine.  (Of course, they also have civilian populations that don’t have a lot of guns either.)

So my perspective on guns is urban, middle-class, and liberal. I don’t own a gun, and can’t imagine wanting to own one. If I did own one, it wouldn’t make me feel safer, it would make me feel less safe. I see policemen as essentially benign. To me, they are benign. My few interactions with cops come when I get a ticket for something, which doesn’t happen very often, and which, honestly, I pretty much always deserve, when I do get one.

But in Ferguson, a smallish town without a lot of crime, the Municipal Court issued three warrants and tried 1.5 cases per household. That’s a mind-blowing statistic. Guilty verdicts in Ferguson bring in an average fine of $280 dollars. Which means, if you’re a resident of Ferguson, you’re used to being hassled by cops. You factor fines and court appearances into your family budget and your family schedule. And those fines and arrests and court appearances disproportionately hit black families.  Why does Ferguson do this, have so many arrests? They have to. Those fines made up a quarter of the city’s budget. Unemployment is high in the city, and the tax base is small. A lot of businesses have closed. The city has to pay its bills somehow. So they arrest a lot of people, charge ‘em with crimes–loitering, jaywalking, moving traffic violations–and try ‘em. And pay the bills.

So the black population in Ferguson feels put upon, disrespected, unfairly stigmatized and criminalized. And the Michael Brown shooting was the match that lit the powder keg.

I just finished reading Michael Waldman’s terrific new book, The Second Amendment: a Biography.  Anyone interested in a smart, thoughtful, readable one volume examination of the issues surrounding the Second Amendment should check out Waldman’s book.  As he makes abundantly clear, the Framers absolutely did not intend to codify an individual right to own firearms. Their concern was entirely with state and local militias, institutions that no longer exist in anything like their 18th century forms. The idea that later generations would find in the 2nd Amendment a right for private individuals to own, for self-protection, a semi-automatic rifle, is an argument that the Framers would have found both incomprehensible and ludicrous. They didn’t like ‘standing armies’ and they did like ‘militias.’ And those sentiments were wide-spread enough to get James Madison to stick a poorly worded sop to militia fans into the Bill of Rights. Scalia’s pro-gun decision in District of Columbia v. Heller cannot, by the furthest stretch of the imagination, be called an ‘originalist’ decision. Originalism itself is just silly.

It also doesn’t matter. Justice Scalia ruled as he did because he’s a conservative who likes guns. But enough Americans agree with him (passionately!) that now, yeah, the Second Amendment gives individuals the right to own guns. That’s what our day believes. And there’s not a lot we anti-gun types can do about it, except try to persuade people that they’re wrong. And that’s not going to be easy; probably it won’t even be possible. We’re stuck with guns. Probably around 300 million of them, circulating.

There are members of my family who are really pro-gun. I don’t understand that. It seems nuts to me. But I hold beliefs that they disagree with too. I’m not sure how, in a civil society, we can find a way to disagree respectfully and calmly.

But we have to try.  We have to make some effort to maintain civil discourse, to respect each other’s differences, to always re-think and re-examine our own issues, in light of our biases.  It’s hard.  But it’s essential to our democratic experiment. We have to try.


Poetry slam in Provo

Every Thursday night, at Enliten Bakery in Provo, there’s a poetry slam.  Called Speak Your Mind, it’s an open mic opportunity to read, recite or free-style poetry.  Last night, Speak Your Mind’s head gurupoet-in-chief, grand doyenne, Marianne Hales Harding (a good friend of many years’ standing) invited me to be the featured writer.  I figured, anything to help make Provo cooler.  I had a ball.

I don’t know how many people eventually showed up–maybe 50.  Of those who did come, maybe 15 or so actually read/performed.  Many were younger folks, but there were a few people closer to my age, including some very accomplished poets.  A young woman showed up for the first time, and I thought her poems (she read, I think, two) were splendid.  A young girl wrote with aching honesty about relationships and failures and how hard it can be just to break through all the barriers we humans put up.  A young guy wrote with ferocity and courage and passion about dualities and dualisms now and in the past. Marianne recited a terrific poem about tampons. And we snapped our fingers (and clapped some too), and the whole thing was great fun.

Enliten Bakery makes the best grilled cheese sandwiches on the planet.  And it’s management is super-cool, as good as their food.  They’ve agreed to a ‘no censorship’ policy, and I think that’s one of the things that made the night work so well.  If a poet’s muse requires the occasional dropping of an F-bomb or two, so be it–writers have to feel able to express any thought, any emotion, any sentiment, and that means using any language suited to the work.  And especially when you’re freestyling.  Especially then.

I was the ‘featured writer,’ which meant I got to go first, a scary prospect.  And I am most emphatically not a poet.  I am a playwright first, an essayist/blogger second, a critic third, and other kinds of writing are way down the list.  I’ve written a novel, I’ve written short stories, I’ve written some pretty terrible poetry, but mostly, I’m a character/setting/conflict guy.

So I imagined a short scene, a date, in which the guy has asked the girl, for their second date, to read a book before-hand, to give the date some focus.  Which she has agreed to, for reasons known only to herself.  The book he gives her is one that, he says, is the most important book in the world to him, the book that defines him as nothing else on earth defines him, and it’s not that she has to like it, he’s fine if she doesn’t like it, but she does need to engage with it.  Please?  And the book is Ayn Rand’s The Fountainhead. Which she totally hates.  She’s a feminist; it’s a rape-y book, it’s contemptible.  It’s the worst book ever written.  Mein Kampf, he counters?  It’s the second worst book ever written, she replies.

So driving over to the event, I thought about that situation, and these two people, and I thought I’d freestyle a dialogue, me playing both characters, just to see what happened.  An approximation of my own writing method, maybe.  Anyway, I did it.  Driving in, the sun was low enough that I needed my sunglasses, and I figured, hey, poetry slam, so I kept ‘em on.  And my wife is out of town, so I haven’t shaved since Monday.  All part of the look.

It went okay.  I thought the scene had a strong opening, a pretty solid closing, lagged a bit in the middle.  I think I’m going to actually write it, see if it fits into something else I’m working on.  And then I figured, what the heck, it’s a poetry slam, so I freestyled a second piece, a poem this time.  A few weeks ago, I bought a new chair, a recliner, the single most comfortable piece of furniture I have ever owned.  So I called the poem “Recliner porn,” and it went okay, got some laughs, though it sort of fizzled at the end. So I sat down to enjoy everyone else’s poetry.

And half-way through, I realized I had another poem I needed to write and recite that night.  I’ve been angry for days, and anger is important, always write when angry, do not lose that energy.  So I grabbed a pen and a napkin, and wrote it, and Marianne slotted me in again at the end.  Here it is.  I call it: Detritus.



What are we doing?

What are we doing?

I see them, red faced white women faces like harpies and gorgons and Scylla and Charybdis, nightmare faces dredged from the depths of a shared mythos, screaming, like voices from the past (screaming ‘nigger nigger nigger’ at 9 girls in Little Rock the year after I was born), now, today, screaming ‘go away.’  ‘Return to sender.’ ‘We do not want your diseases’ (ebola smallpox dengue fever none of them found in Honduras) at a yellow bus filled with brown-skinned children.

I saw.

60 kids wrapped in a quilt and tied to the roof of a train at a Texican border saying help us help us help us please.

We need Pampers


diaper rash creme

fleeing murder and raped moms and sisters families blown apart.  Rubble and garbage and gnawing empty bellies

Because cities implode under the weight of violence

Because America’s hedgefund managers + dentists + CPAs + corporate attorneys + insurance adjusters + assistant managers + executive vice-presidents + used car dealers + realtors + computer programmers + ad execs + personal trainers



candy with which to stuff their aquiline noses

and demand creates supply

and illegality restricts supply

and corporations we call ‘cartels’

and small businesses we call ‘gangs’

and salesman we call ‘dealers’

feed that need feed that need feed that need

and the kids wrapped in quilts are collateral damage we’d just as soon sweep into dustbins


What are we doing?

I can take four

We have a guest room in the basement

We can take four

I know, preachy, plus political poetry has a shelf life of four and half minutes.  Given time, I could re-work it, maybe.  But I still have the napkin–I just transcribed it above.  Writing is re-writing, but sometimes the muse speaks a little, and those moments are maybe worth memorializing too.

And when it was done, the poets, kids and old guys and 30 something women, all just writers, all just trying to say something that matters, to us and each other, awkwardly fist-bumped and high fived and handshakes.  Every poem earned its fingersnaps; every poet deserves to be remembered.

Thursday nights, Enliten Bakery.  I’m going back.

Jeeves and the Wedding Bells: Book Review

Do you know who Jeeves is?  What about Bertie Wooster?  Have you read any of the P. G. Wodehouse novels featuring those two characters?  Did you see any of the BBC television series, starring Stephen Fry as Jeeves and Hugh Laurie as Bertie?  Do the names Gussie Fink-Nottle or Catsmeat Potter-Pirbright or Roderick Spode resonate with you?  Have you visited the country estates of either of the Aunts, Agatha (shudder) or Dahlia (cheers)?

Either you know what I’m talking about, or you have no idea. To elucidate: Jeeves and Wooster are the main characters in a series of comic novels and short stories by P. G. Wodehouse, set in the world of a rather doltish British upper class in the ’20s and ’30s.  Bertie Wooster is a wealthy young man-about-town, a boulevardier and bon vivant, and a young man of negligible intelligence but endless good cheer and loyalty.  Jeeves is his gentleman’s personal gentleman; his valet.  The joke is that Jeeves is much more intelligent, better read and resourceful than Bertie, and the plots of all the novels involve Jeeves extricating his master from some scrape, difficulty, or unwanted romantic entanglement.

But it’s the writing style that makes the novels so delightful.  They’re all written from Bertie’s p.o.v., first person, and he’s a most agreeable narrator.  He writes in a combination of British upper-crust private school slang, with the odd (mangled) famous quotation from classic literature.  He makes for an agreeable literary companion.  I know I’m not alone when I say I love these books passionately.  I have read them all repeatedly, and seen every episode of the BBC series.  I’m a Jeeves fan.

And that’s why I am delighted to say, with words of trembling excitement, that a new Jeeves novel has appeared.  And it’s wonderful.

P. G. Wodehouse died in 1975.  And, no, there hasn’t been a lost manuscript discovered or anything like that.  But an author named Sebastian Faulks has written a novel in the Wodehouse style, which I just finished reading. Jeeves and the Wedding Bells.  2013, St. Martin’s Press.  And I was prepared to be a severe and censorious critic.  I don’t know this Faulks person, and have no reason to trust him (though he’s a fine novelist, with a dozen published books).  But on the book jacket, I read high praise for it from Jeeves himself; that is to say, Stephen Fry.  And equally high praise from Bertie Wooster–Hugh Laurie, in other words.  And so opened the book, and I read.

I was woken in the middle of the night by what sounded like a dozen metal dustbins being chucked down a flight of stone stairs.  After a moment of floundering in the darkness, I put my hand on the source of the infernal noise; the twin copper bells on top of a large alarm clock.  There followed a brief no-holds-barred wrestling match before I was able to shove the wretched thing underneath the mattress.

It was a panting and lightly perspiring B. Wooster who then consulted his wristwatch to find that it was, in fact, six o’clock–the appointed hour at which I was to throw off the bonds of slumber and rise to tackle my new duties.

This was a dashed sight harder than it sounds.  Whoever had designed the pallaise on which I had lain these last seven hours had clearly been of the opinion that nature’s sweet restorer, as I have heard Jeeves call it, can get the job done in five-minute bursts.

And I was hooked.  He got, this Faulks cove, he captured the voice.  This opening isn’t the best stretch of prose in the novel, but it’ll do, and what follows is borderline inspired. Nothing in the book rings false.  It’s a Jeeves and Wooster novel, the same characters, the same hi-jinks, the same difficulties encountered and overcome.

And yet, also not.  Because the central plot of the Wodehouse novels pretty much always involved Bertie becoming inadvertently (and misguidedly) engaged to be married.  Often, he becomes involved with women of forceful personality and strong opinions, who insist that something can be made of Bertie, if only he’d apply himself. Honoria Glossop comes to mind; an attractive and intelligent woman who, frankly, rather terrifies poor Bertie, who really doesn’t want to be improved at all.  Or, he becomes betrothed to women who seem likely get Bertie in all kinds of trouble–party girls with a knack for getting their menfolk to take the fall for mischief they’ve concocted; Bobbie Wickham, for example.  Or, finally, he falls for the whimsical and poetic charms of a Madeline Bassett, who thinks the stars are God’s personal daisy chain; a ghastly thought, for Bertie.  Bertie frequently becomes engaged, but never quite gets married, because Jeeves pulls him back from the brink every time.

But what if there were a girl who was right for Bertie, a girl who he genuinely could be happy with?  What would Jeeves do?  Would Jeeves use his intellect and imagination to push it along, to find ways to get Bertie and the Right Girl together?  And so, in this novel, we see Bertie the suitor, Bertie really genuinely in love.  And the girl, in this case, is perfect for him.

She’s perfect for him because she notices something about Bertie that’s absolutely central to the book, but that other women have failed, in the previous novels, to notice; Bertie’s kindness.  It permeates the Wodehouse novels, but quietly, unremarked upon.  Bertie is, to be sure, a dim bulb in many respects.  He’s a man of simple pleasures, and intellectual stimulation is not among those pleasures.  But he’s loyal to a fault, and the best friend in the world.  He’s genuinely, remarkably, consistently kind.

Jeeves knows it.  Jeeves loves Bertie too.  And Jeeves has a love interest as well in this novel.

I laughed a lot when reading this novel.  But at the end, I also cried.  It’s a wonderful read, and the ending is splendid, just right.  Sebastian Faulks has done something I would not have believed possible.  He has written a delightful novel, one that fits perfectly into the Jeeves/Wooster corpus.  But it’s also a valedictory novel, a lovely coda to the series.  Bertie Wooster deserves, finally, to be happy.  In this novel, he gets to be.  Buy it.  Read it.  it’s great.

Jesus: A Pilgrimage, book review

Every day, just after breakfast, for the past few weeks, I’ve enjoyed a morning devotional with this lovely book, Jesus: A Pilgrimage.  It’s by a Jesuit priest named James Martin, who also works as a ‘spiritual director.’  I’d never heard of that particular calling before, but essentially, a spiritual director is someone who works with people to help them understand the specific ways God may be working in their lives.  In any event, I can see how his work informs this book.

A few years back, Father Martin went on a pilgrimage to the Holy Land. In each of this book’s twenty-five chapters, he talks about a place in the Holy Land that he visited, his experiences there, the insights he gained, contemporary Bible scholarship about those places or the events that took place in them, and a quiet meditation on the larger themes suggested by the New Testament.  He writes with such good cheer, humor and optimism that he’s a delightful companion for this kind of spiritual journey.  But the emphasis is always on the scripture itself, on his own prayer-life, and on both the historical Jesus, and his own personal encounter with Jesus-the-divine.

What I found was that this wasn’t a book that’s meant to be read straight through, like most books.  It’s rather a book meant to be savored, a chapter at a time, quietly meditating and praying each morning. As I read it, I found myself remembering my own visit to Israel, back in the late 90′s. I remember visiting the Garden Tomb, and the Garden of Gethsemane. I remember the Old City of Jerusalem, and the Palestinian vendors, and their good cheer and kindness, and how fun it was to bargain with them.  It came rushing back, all of it.

And I love Father Martin’s insights.

Consider his words “Blessed are the poor.” Not every poor person is grateful or generous.  And grinding poverty is an evil. But Jesus of Nazareth, who grew up in a poor village, knew that we can often learn from the poor.  Jesus comments about poverty are frequent in the gospels, so it’s always surprising when professed Christians set them aside.  But Jesus is saying that more than helping the poor and more than combating the systems that keeps them poor, we must become like them, in their simplicity, generosity and dependence on God.  We are to become poor ourselves, to strip away everything that keeps us from God.

Naive?  Possibly.  But in an America where so much rhetoric is focused on the poor as ‘takers,’ it’s refreshing to see this modern King Benjamin, focusing on the way we all of us must rely on the bounty of God.  And this is an earned insight; Father Martin spent years working with the super-poor in Kenya.

Anyway, I can’t recommend this book highly enough.  At the time I was reading it, I realized that I was, unaccountably, angry.  A lot. I don’t have a lot to be angry about, honestly.  I’m comfortably enough off financially.  I have a wonderful family, and a wife who loves me and who I adore. But years of chronic illness had begun to drain my patience. I was tired of constant pain, tired of being unable to walk more than fifty yards at a time, tired of feeling exhausted and without energy.  And so even the most minor slights began to feel like major insults.  And I woke every day, and went to bed every night, tensed with anger and resentment.

But as a Christian, as a Mormon, as someone who genuinely would like to live by the Sermon on the Mount, I needed to find some perspective.  I needed to cultivate gratitude, as the Beatitudes urge us to.  I needed to say “I believe; help thou my unbelief.”  I needed to embrace the richness and joy of life, and let minor tribulations go. I needed to continue to see my illness as a great blessing, and not as a limitation.  I needed to pray again. I needed to worship.

And then this book fell into my hands.  And I read it, one chapter a day, for a little shy of a month.  And it led me back to works I consider scripture.  And it led me back to a deeper relationship with my Father and my God, who I so often neglect, but who will never cease to love me.

And as I was reading it, my parents came to visit, and to be honest, my relationship with them hasn’t always been as good as it should be.  But this was a good visit, a joyful visit.  I found myself seeing them differently too.

Sometimes the right book comes to you, as a special gift.  This has been that, for me.  And so I humbly recommend it to you.  And it’s for everyone, I think, for believers and non-believers, for Bible scholars and for neophytes, for Mormons and Christians, and probably also for my wonderful, kind, gentle atheist friends too, because we can all learn to love our brothers and sisters more completely.  Or maybe it’s just the right book for me, and one that doesn’t mean anything to you.  If that happens, then that’s fine too.  We all find our own ways towards forgiveness, charity, compassion.  We all find our own path toward love.





My daughter and I had a great time Saturday night at Plan B Theatre’s celebration of the First Amendment, And The Banned Played On.  Various local politicians and Salt Lake celebrities read excerpts from favorite children’s books that have been banned somewhere or another.  Dangerous, subversive, pornographic works, intended to destroy the morals of America’s Youth.  Like Charlotte’s Web.  And Winnie the Pooh.  And The Giving Tree.  And Green Eggs and Ham.  And Where the Wild Things Are.  And The Wizard of Oz.  You know.  Books by commies.

It made for a deliciously entertaining evening, and I couldn’t possibly do a better job of reviewing it than this lovely piece by my friend Les Roka.  But my daughter and I had a wonderful conversation about it in the car on the way home, and it led to this thought.

Isn’t censorship the single most foolish human endeavor ever?  I mean, for some reason people keep doing it.  It’s culturally universal.  All the books listed above were banned somewhere in the United States, and we’ve got a First Amendment.  Most civilizations have practiced some form of it historically.  But isn’t the failure rate essentially 100 percent?  Isn’t the inevitable result of censorship this: that later generations look back at those doing the censoring as complete and total idiots?

Now, of course there are times censorship works fine, if the goal is to destroy books and the knowledge and wisdom found in them.  If, when you burn down the library of Alexandria, you destroy priceless copies of books now lost to mankind, you have to say the book burners won. Just in terms of my field,  dramatic literature, the losses are devastating: Sophocles wrote 123 plays–7 have survived.  Aeschylus wrote 90; again, we have 7 today.  For Euripides, the count is 18 of 92.  Saddest of all is Menander, who wrote over 100 plays, of which only the Dyskolos remains.

But when we think of burned manuscripts, destructive fires in the libraries that collected them, our reaction is sadness and anger.  ‘What a shame,’ we think.  ‘What dolts,’ we think, ‘to have destroyed or neglected so much of our historical legacy.’  Basically nobody thinks ‘boy, those generations of censors did good work.’

As my daughter and I drove home on Saturday, we talked about some of the celebrated censorship cases in American history; over Lady Chatterley’s Lover, over The Tropic of Cancer, over Howl.  Do you know the name David Kirk?  He was a literature professor at SFSU who testified that Allen Ginsburg’s Howl was a work utterly lacking in literary merit.

I saw the best minds of my generation destroyed by madness, starving, hysterical, naked, dragging themselves through the negro streets at dawn looking for an angry fix, angel-headed hipsters burning for the ancient heavenly connection to the starry dynamo in the machinery of night. . . .

I did that from memory.  I can cite a lot of it from memory.  In the 2010 movie about the Howl trial, Jeff Daniels plays Kirk in a performance that’s a comedic masterpiece.  That’s how we think of David Kirk nowadays.  A joke.

Probably best to define our terms.  Obviously no library can purchase every book, and library boards have the difficult task of deciding where to spend limited resources.  That’s why a literary canon is helpful, and also why it’s ever expanding. I’m playwright in residence at a local theatre company; they have to make tough decisions every year about which plays to produce.  If they look at 20 plays and decide to produce 5 of them, they haven’t censored 15 plays.  That’s not censorship.

I know another local theatre company, an exceptionally good one, that basically only produces small musicals and small-cast comedies.  That’s their niche.  And they do great work.  That doesn’t mean they’re ‘censoring’ larger cast musicals, or large cast dramas.  They know their audience, and they produce plays that audience wants to see.  Publishers can’t publish everything, theatres can’t produce everything, libraries have limited shelf space.

No, censorship, as I’m using the term, involves bowing to pressure.  It’s when a library or school or bookstore is pressured to not carry a book, or, having carried it, to remove it from their shelves.  It’s when a theatre company decides to cut that word or that speech or that gesture from a play they’ve agreed to present, or when the author of some book is threatened because of something he or she has written.  If a professor publishes a controversial book, s/he has to be able to rely on the university where s/he teaches to have her/his back.  That’s why tenure and academic freedom are so essential, and why any university that doesn’t have real tenure or doesn’t strongly support academic freedom shouldn’t be accredited.

As a private citizen, if another citizen says something I disagree strenuously with, and I state my disagreement strongly, that’s not censorship.  I’m uncomfortable with campaigns to fire someone, or to boycott a product based on something someone said.  I like robust debate in a democracy.  And I think that censorship is by no means limited to conservatives.  The punishment of politically incorrect speech is as distasteful to me as any other kind of censorship.

I have been censored, and, sad to admit, I have acted as a censor.  Back when I was a college professor, I was very occasionally called upon to see a student-directed theatre production, to see if there was anything in it that might offend our audience’s sensibilities.  I found it a profoundly distasteful task, but I did it, mostly because I know most of my colleagues hated doing it as much as I did, and it seemed selfish to me to refuse to do a disagreeable job that might otherwise have to be done by a friend.

What I hated about it was this: when you act as a censor, when you’re there to censor a play production, you watch it differently than you ordinarily do.  You can’t just enjoy it.  You’re there to look for things to be offended by.  You’re watching it from the perspective of someone who gets offended by stuff, whatever, language or subject matter or something.  And that’s a horrible way to watch a play.

Censor-watching isn’t the same thing as criticism. On this blog, I do a lot of criticism, of plays and movies and books.  Criticism is a healthy thing, and a positive thing.  When you criticize a work of art, you’re trying to look beneath the surface, trying to figure out what’s really going on, or at least what appears to be going on.  When I see a play written or directed by a friend, I want to do that friend the respect of taking their work seriously, to really interrogate it, to really break it down.

But censorship is inherently shallow.  Censorship is when you count the number of swear words.  Censors look to be offended; they’re trying to be offended.  A critic offers the artist the compliment of suspending disbelief.  The censor can’t be bothered to work that hard.  The censor doesn’t want to share in experiencing the central act of art; to bear testimony, to lose ourselves in a story and a world, to feel compassion for another damaged and lost soul.  The censor instead wants to bask in the warm glow of self-righteousness.

Censorship judges.  Censors don’t get Matthew 7:1-5.  Censors can’t get past the mote in the brother’s eye.  Censors are blinded by the beam.



Robert Caro: The Passage of Power, a Book Review

I just finished Robert Caro’s The Passage of Power, The Years of Lyndon Johnson, volume four of his magisterial series of books about President Johnson and his times.  I loved the first three volumes of this series; this book is the best of the lot.  Above all, I love Caro’s sense of judgment and proportion.  LBJ has to be one of the most fascinating figures in American history, and one of the most tragic.  I remember reading a review of one of the earlier volumes in this series, in which the reviewer wondered why Caro would spend so much of his life writing about a man he clearly despised.  But this is nonsense; Caro doesn’t despise LBJ. But only by acknowledging Johnson’s many flaws can we take his full measure, including, of course, his considerable positive achievements.

This is the book about the Kennedy assassination, and the extraordinary seven weeks following the assassination when Johnson had to calm a nation, assume power, and begin the almost superhuman task of cementing his predecessor’s legacy.  As part of that, Caro addresses this (frankly rather silly) issue; was LBJ in any sense complicit in Kennedy’s death?  Was there a conspiracy to assassinate the President, and if there was, did Johnson participate in that conspiracy.  Here’s Caro’s conclusion:

“Nothing I have found in my research leads me to believe that, whatever the full story of the assassination may be, Lyndon Johnson had anything to do with it.”

That’s the short version; in another passage, Caro describes just how intensive his research has been.  Quite literally, Caro has studied every document relating to the career of Lyndon Johnson he has been able to get his hands on.

In a 2004 Gallup poll, 18% of the American people said they believed that Kennedy was killed as the result of a conspiracy involving Lyndon Johnson.  Caro took that issue seriously.  He researched it with his usual thoroughness.  He’s found nothing to support that conclusion.  But if had discovered something, anything, that would suggest Johnson’s involvement, he would publish it.  Caro doesn’t shy away from even the most unsavory suggestions about the subject of his books.

Lyndon Johnson’s finances, for example, were always a matter for scrutiny during his life.  He was on the public payroll most of his adult life, and he died a multi-millionaire.  Caro describes the deeply rooted corruption in Texas and national politics that allowed Johnson to become wealthy.  Johnson was rumored to have had numerous extra-marital affairs; Caro tells you with whom, and under what circumstances.  Johnson was a bully, a vulgarian, a profane and crude man.  Caro provides every detail.  This is no hagiography; Caro wants to paint the clearest picture he can.  And does, in prose as exact and precise as I’ve ever encountered.

But, my goodness, those seven weeks, the seven weeks from Kennedy’s assassination to Johnson’s State of the Union in ’64, what Johnson accomplished in those seven weeks deserves recognition, deserves the amazing attention Caro gives them.  And until I read this book, I had no idea.

When Johnson took office, the Kennedy legislative program was in very serious jeopardy.  Johnson was unaware of just how much trouble it was in, because Johnson was not in the loop.  Kennedy always treated Johnson courteously, but Johnson was almost never able to meet with the President, and decisions took place in meetings to which he was not welcome.  And the Kennedy staff treated LBJ with barely concealed contempt.  He was Rufus T. Cornpone, a joke, a figure of fun.  I have read other sources that have suggested that Kennedy fully intended LBJ to stay on the 1964 ticket; Caro doesn’t think so, and makes his case convincingly.  Worst of all, of course, was the relationship between Johnson and Jack Kennedy’s closest advisor, best friend, and brother.  Bobby Kennedy loathed Lyndon Johnson, and Johnson returned the compliment.  It was the greatest political rivalry of the ’60s, and it had a nasty edge.

When JFK was killed, Johnson had to reassure the nation, and he had to do it immediately.  And one way to accomplish it was to keep the Kennedy team intact.  The American people needed to believe that Kennedy’s death did not mean the end of the Kennedy vision for the future of the country.  So LBJ worked quickly, to keep staffers (who days before had been mocking him in private) from leaving, to keep the cabinet intact, including that cabinet’s Attorney General.  And then to work with Congress and get some bills passed.  And first, to get a bill defeated.

For one thing, the Kennedy administration had presented a budget, and that budget needed to be passed.  And it was locked up in committee, held hostage by the courtly Virginian, Harry Byrd, chairman of the Senate Finance committee.  There was also a tax cut bill, likewise locked up by Byrd’s committee.  There was, of course, Kennedy’s Civil Rights Bill, which had almost no chance of passage in a House and Senate where the key committees were all chaired by Southerners.

But before any of that could be addressed, there was another bill to be considered, first up in the program.  To ease tensions with the Soviet Union, Kennedy had offered to alleviate the chronic Russian difficulties feeding their populace by selling them wheat from American farmers.  It was a good idea; a little more money in the pockets of American farmers, food for Russian children, a way to relax Cold War apprehensions.  But hard-liners on Congress didn’t want to approve it, and one of them, a Republican Senator from South Dakota named Karl Mundt had proposed an amendment that would have blocked funding for the measure, effectively killing it.

The Mundt amendment was scheduled for a vote on Tuesday, November 26, just four days after the Kennedy assassination.  One of the new President’s first phone calls was to Senator George Smathers of Florida, who Johnson had worked with when he was Majority Leader, and who he respected as an expert vote counter.  Smathers told him that the Mundt amendment was going to pass easily; that defeating it was hopeless.  1964 was an election year, and no Senator wanted a vote on his record that could spun as ‘soft on Communism.’

This was not a particularly important bill, in the larger scheme of things.  But this is the point of the story: Lyndon Johnson was really good at passing legislation.  And at defeating it.  And so, with a murdered President lying in state, LBJ hit the phones.  The greatest legislative salesman in US history began threatening and massaging and complimenting and cajoling and wooing US senators. “This was Jack Kennedy’s greatest foreign policy achievement,” he’d say. “Do you really want to repudiate President Kennedy?  Now?”  The day before the Senate vote, an astonished George Smathers called the new President and told him that his count now showed the bill going down to defeat–the vote would be close, but it would lose.  Not good enough, Johnson told him.  He didn’t just want that bill defeated. He wanted it destroyed.  He wanted Mundt humiliated.  He wanted, he told Smathers, that bill to be ‘murdered.’  He wanted to send a message. There’s a new man in the White House.  There’s a new sheriff in town.  And you do not challenge him.

And so, piece by piece, it all fell into place.  Johnson got a budget passed. He got the tax bill passed.  And then it was time for civil rights, and the passage of the Civil Rights Bill of 1964, one of the greatest legislative achievements in US history.

Those were all Kennedy bills, and Kennedy is often, quite properly, given credit for them.  But I don’t think Kennedy could have gotten them passed. Jack Kennedy was, in most respects, an estimable man and a fine President.  But he wasn’t particularly good at working with Congress.  He had a Vice-President who was exceptionally good at working with Congress, and he kept him on the sideline.  Not many Presidents have been all that good at working with Congress, honestly.  The US Constitution is built on the foundation of separation of powers, checks and balances, which means it’s much easier for Congress to defeat bills than it is to pass them, and which means that really important progressive legislation tends to fail, and usually requires some major national emergency before it can pass.  The New Deal passed when the economy collapsed in the Great Depression; the Great Society passed in the wake of a Presidential assassination, and Obamacare only passed after the financial crisis that diminished the world’s money supply by 40%.  When Kennedy proposed a Civil Rights bill, the South could treat it as ‘business as usual,’ and use their usual tactics to defeat it.  But when Kennedy was killed, the game changed dramatically.  And one politician was savvy enough to use that opportunity to transform America.

And then it all fell apart, and the Johnson Presidency, which started so promisingly, was destroyed by the grinding, hopeless ferocity of Vietnam.  And a man who might otherwise be regarded as one of our greatest Presidents left office reviled as few other Presidents ever have been.  And now his legacy is almost entirely tragic.  I will read Caro’s next book, of course.  But I dread it.  That period in our history was just too painful, the failures of Johnson just too awful to contemplate.

Volume four, this volume, this is the sunny one, comparatively.  (Though I had to put the book down for two days when he got to mid-November of ’63, because I knew what was coming and couldn’t bear to read it.)  It’s worth remembering that time, that brief period, before Vietnam escalation, when the struggles of Selma and Birmingham suddenly seemed justified, when our country’s sad legacy of racial discrimination appeared to be headed for the dustbin of history.  And there are two historians of that period who must be read, first and foremost.  Taylor Branch.  And Robert Caro.  Read them both.  Take the time.


Bad songs

My wife got me a Kindle Fire for Christmas, and for my birthday, a Kindle gift card.  So I went on a search for authors I like who might have reasonably priced books available on Kindle. I’ve made all sorts of fun finds (lots of P.G. Wodehouse hilarity, for example, often for less than a dollar each).  I also found some Dave Barry.  He has a new book, a collection of longer essays than we’re used to from him, but also an old fave; Dave Barry’s Book of Bad Songs.  And I’ve been reading it aloud to my wife and my daughter.

Back in the 90s, when Barry was still writing his nationally syndicated humor column, he did a piece about popular songs one hears on the radio quite a bit, which suck. In other words, yes, they’re popular, yes they’re on the radio quite a bit, and usually the tune is quite catchy–often REALLY catchy–but the songs themselves are really terrible, in the sense that he, Dave Barry, hated them, and so, it turned out, did a lot of other people.  And so he wrote a column about it, and tons of people responded with their least favorite songs, and that led to a second column, and a survey, and finally, a book.  Which I just read aloud to my wife, and which we both thought was hilarious.  As he points out, when Neil Diamond sings:

I am, I said

To no one there,

And no one heard at all

Not even the chair.

I mean, why should the chair be listening?  It’s a chair.  Or when Richard Harris wrote (and Donna Summer covered):

Someone left the cake out in the rain

I don’t think that I can take it

Because it took so long to bake it

And I’ll never have that recipe again

Oh Noooooooooo!

We can either contemplate the profundity of that metaphor, and the anguish we’ve all felt when we left a favorite cake out in the rain, or . . . . we can laugh.  In fact, MacArthur Park was selected the worst song in the history of pop music in Barry’s (completely unscientific survey).  And yes, it’s a dumb song. I personally, would have voted for Honey, by Bobby Goldsboro.  I’m not sure if anything can match Honey’s amazing mix of rank sexism and crass sentimentality.  But MacArthur Park is plenty bad too.

But Dave Barry did his survey in 1992.  There have been a whole lot of songs on the radio since then.  So I thought I’d weigh in.  What are some recent very popular songs that (and I mean this scientifically), really suck?  What really awful terrible songs have become popular recently?  Because bad taste is a constant, is it not?  And bubble gum lasts forever?

I’m going to jump right in here: I think Robin Thicke’s Blurred Lines is the worst song I’ve heard in the last ten years, a song that makes Baby, It’s Cold Outside or Only the Good Die Young (both of which it rather resembles) seem enlightened.  Just a few sample lyrics:

Okay now he was close

Tried to domesticate ya

But you’re an animal

Baby it’s in your nature

Just let me liberate ya

You don’t need no takers

That man is not your maker

That’s why I’mma take a good girl

I know you want it

Can’t let it get past me

You’re far from plastic

Talk about getting blasted

I hate these blurred lines

I know you want it.

He’s doing her a favor, see. What a good guy.

And those are all from early in the song.  Later in the song, he’s much more explicit:

Nothing like that last guy, he too square for you

He don’t smack that ass and pull your hair like that.

What a charmer.

Now, my link above is not to the seriously R-rated video, which I have not seen, but which, I’ve heard, takes the essentially rapey Neaderthal sexism of the song and Playboy-izes it to a considerable degree.  The lyrics do suggest that the girl to which he’s directing his smarmy attentions either isn’t aware of them, or, more likely, has just decided to ignore the dirtbag. Still, this song is not just the moral but also the tactical equivalent of construction workers wolf-whistling passing female executives on nearby sidewalks; you’re just being annoying, guys.

Really, seriously, why was this repugnant song a hit?  I really, genuinely don’t get it. This song has nothing going for it. At all. Nothing.

So Blurred Lines is sort of uniquely bad. But there are other songs out there nearly as bad.  Which brings us to the Beebs.

I shouldn’t pick on Justin Bieber. Cute little massively marketed/modestly talented boys with high pitched singing voices have been fluttering the hearts of fourteen year old girls ever since David Cassidy, and indeed much much earlier.  I’m going to argue for Bieber’s Boyfriend for my bad song list, not because there’s anything remarkable about it, but because it’s so generic.  Insipid lyrics, a nice dance groove, a video showing JB being (preposterously) good at bowling, and a completely unnecessary and intrusive rap verse (by Ludacris, in this case), make this a standard variety 20-tween pop hit, undistinguished by melodic or lyrical interest of any kind. Also, it’s annoying.  And ubiquitous.  So it makes my list.

Turning my attention from modestly talented/massively marketed cute boys to MT/MM cute girls brings us straight to Miss Taylor Swift, and so I’m putting We Are Never Ever Ever Getting Back Together Forever on the list.  Anymore, it’s difficult to distinguish between songs and the videos for songs, and Taylor’s video for this song combines cuteness with incomprehensibility.  It’s Taylor, in a ‘sexy librarian wearing pajamas’ outfit, joined by large numbers of her friends, who, for some reason, have chosen to dress up like animals, as though they were already in the What Does the Fox Say video shoot and decided to drift over to the Taylor Swift shoot next door. I don’t know what to make of this song.  Is it a ‘breakup anthem,’ Taylor Swift channeling her inner Alanis?  But the extra two ‘evers’ in the title suggests that she’s not so entirely sure about this break-up thing; that she’s protesting over-much.  So is it a ‘you’re bad for me, but you’re also super cute’ kind of ‘break-up wuss-out’ song?  I think the end of the video sort of suggests that, yes.  But the musical mood is strident.  So it’s a strident wuss-out song?  Boy, do we need more of those. Blarg.

I really don’t want to pick on Carly Rae Jepson, or on Call Me Maybe.  If men can objectify women based entirely on physical appearance, why shouldn’t women do the same, or write songs about how fun objectification can be, when the shoe’s on the other foot? (Or when the attractively ripped jeans are on the other set of legs).  If you take my meaning. And the tune is so maddeningly catchy, we’re pretty well all of us stuck with it for the rest of our lives.  That’s what you’ll hear every day if, fifty years from now, you find a job in a nursing home.  Room after room playing Call Me Maybe.

Hard and fast rule; do not, in your song, reference people more talented than you. I’m serious; it just invites unflattering comparisons. I’m looking at you, Maroon Five.  Adam Levine; Moves like Jagger? No. Right Said Fred was not too sexy for his shirt, and you do not move like Mick Jagger.  You probably sing a little better than he did.  Mick Jagger never could sing.  It didn’t matter.  He was (and is) the greatest front man for any rock band ever, and the band he fronted one of the three best in the history of popular music.  And all you front is Maroon Five.  And lyrics like these:

Take me by the tongue

And I’ll know you

Kiss me ’til you’re drunk

And I’ll show you

don’t help.

Maybe one more?  But who?  I loathe Wrecking Ball, but have I already picked on too many female songstresses?  And isn’t Miley Cyrus an easy target? I know some people are going to vote for Pharrell (Skinny Smokey the Bear) Williams and Happy, but I actually sort of like Happy.  One Direction has Best Song Ever, in which the video is, quite possibly, more annoying than the Baba O’Reilly rip-off of a song, but once you pick on the Beebs, it seems redundant to pick on One Direction.  Then I found this: Alison Gold’s Chinese Food. For one thing, Alison Gold looks maybe thirteen.  And the entire song is . . . about how much she likes Chinese Food?  Seriously, that’s the song.  So, yeah, we have a winner. Even though I darkly suspect the song was done by the same people who gave us Friday and Rebecca Black.

I asked my daughter what she thought, and she responded “anything by Kendrick Lamar.”  But I wasn’t about to listen to a whole bunch of Kendrick Lamar songs to figure out which one was the worst.  (Poetic Justice?) So I asked her boyfriend, and he said “anything by Kendrick Lamar or Ke$ha.”  I sort of like Ke$ha, though I find the mid-name dollar sign affectation unnecessary.  But, then, she’s built her career on affectation. She was a straight A student, aced her SAT’s, and is a math nerd par excellence.  But she’s from a dirt-poor family, and by playing the musical role of ‘hard-drinking party girl’ has become a millionaire. Power to her, I guess.  So here’s TiK ToK; enjoy.

So what are your choices?  I don’t mean to suggest that any songs today are quite as idiotic as MacArthur Park. ‘Someone left the cake out in the rain’ sets a standard it will be hard to beat.  But there’s still a great deal of drivel being written, and recorded.  So what songs drive you bananas?



The Art of Fielding: Book Review

In 1973, Steve Blass, the ace pitcher for the World Series winning Pittsburgh Pirates, found himself suddenly and inexplicably unable to throw a baseball accurately. He was in perfect health, and his arm was uninjured. His difficulties were not physical, but psychological. It wasn’t a matter of courage, or cowardice. He was simply completely unable to do something that he had previously been as good at as anyone in the world. The best article about Blass and his baffling condition appeared in the New Yorker in 1975, written by the great Roger Angell; it was subsequently anthologized in at least two of Angell’s published compilations.  Although previously unknown in baseball history, in the forty years since Blass retired, his odd affliction, ‘Steve Blass’ disease,’ subsequently afflicted another pitcher, Rich Ankiel, two second basemen, Steve Sax and Chuck Knoblauch, and catcher Mackey Sasser.  Sax and Knoblauch found themselves incapable of making routine throws to the first baseman; Sasser became unable to toss the ball back to the pitcher between pitches.

And now Henry Skrimshander.  Chad Harbach’s first novel, The Art of Fielding, is about a preternaturally talented young shortstop, suddenly afflicted with Blass’ weird syndrome.  But it’s not just a novel about baseball, or even primarily a novel about baseball.  Henry suddenly can’t make routine throws to first, not because he’s been physically disabled, but because he overthinks it, over-analyses the problem, which leads to a crisis of confidence.  And where else would you set a novel about crises of confidence and paralysis-through-over-analysis but in a modern college?

Harbach introduces us to the world of Westish College, a small midwestern 4-year liberal arts school, with high-ish academic standards, somewhat decaying infrastructure, and a really bad baseball team.  And in this world lives Mike Schwartz, literate, well-read, tough, inspirational, a man’s man, who essentially wills the Westish Harpooners (the entire school worships Melville) to improve athletically.  Schwartz is, above all, Henry Skrimshander’s best friend, his mentor, his personal trainer, his coach and conscience and motivator and his captain-my-captain.  And Schwartz has given so much of himself to build up Henry he has begun to wonder who he is, and what he will do with the rest of his life.

The novel also focuses on three other extraordinary characters.   First is Owen, Henry’s roommate; brilliant, gay, kind, utterly sure about himself and who he is, a man who, when a coach yells at him, is neither offended nor motivated by it, but sort of delighted–’look, I get to study apoplectic rage!’  How very interesting!’  He’s also an athlete; a pretty doggone good hitter, though one who, between at bats, reads in the dugout. Harbach could write an entire novel about just Owen, and I’d read it.  Equally compelling is Guert Affenlight, the Westish college president, a once-fashionable young literary scholar, now slowly decaying as an administrator; no longer a teacher or published scholar, but a generous and charismatic soul.  And finally his daughter, Pella, a bright and beautiful and deeply unsure of herself young woman, who has moved home to escape a terrible marriage, and who has found personal fulfillment working as a dishwasher in a college cafeteria.

Affenlight is infatuated with Owen, and they finally do have an odd but convincing romance.  Pella and Schwartz also hook up, and although they’re good for each other, they also fight, mostly over Henry.  And Henry himself is . . . a sage, a mystic, a ninja turned ronin, a priest without vocation.  A lost and despairing artist who has lost his muse.

I’m making the novel sound morose or gloomy.  It’s anything but.  Pella’s marriage is terrible, but we do meet her husband, and he’s a richly comedic creation.  The writing throughout is . . .  alive.  The characters are funny and smart and rich and foolish and capable and incapable and eloquent and tongue-tied.  They’re people.

But it’s also smart.  Even profound.  There’s this, for example:

’1973,’ thought Affenlight.  In the public imagination, it was as fraught a year as you could name: Watergate, Roe v. Wade, withdrawal from Vietnam.  Gravity’s Rainbow.  Was it also the year that Prufrockian paralysis went mainstream–the year it entered baseball?  It made sense that a psychic condition sensed by the artists of one generation–the Modernists of the First World War–would take awhile to reveal itself throughout the population.  And if that psychic condition happened to be a profound failure of confidence in the significance of individual human action, then the condition became an epidemic when it entered the real of utmost confidence in same–the world of professional sport.  In fact, that might make for a workable definition of the postmodernist era: an era where even the athletes were anguished Modernists.  In which case, the American postmodern period began in spring 1973, when a pitcher named Steve Blass lost his aim.

Do I dare, and do I dare?

Affenlight found this hypothesis exciting, if dubiously constructed.

Thesis, followed by a cheeky antithesis.  The rest of the novel is the synthesis; it is both about a radical loss of self-confidence, and the devastation wrought by it, as well as rebirth and redemption.

Or this: pardon the ellipses.

The thing to do, really was to wash the dishes. In fact, she was feeling a strong desire to wash the dishes. . . . the ones near the bottom were disgusting, the plates covered with water-softened crusts of food, the glasses scummed with white bacterial froth, but this only increased her desire to become the conqueror of so much filth. . . an objection crossed her mind.  What would Mike think?  It was a nice gesture, to do someone’s dishes, but it could also be construed as an admonishment . . . even if she and Mike had been dating for months, unprovoked dishwashing might be considered strange.  But the dishes weren’t hers and she and Mike weren’t dating.  They hadn’t even kissed.  Therefore, the doing of dishes could only be weird, neurotic, invasive.  And Mike would shrug and never call her again.  She looked down at the white bubbles.  Steam rose off the water. . .  she really really really wanted to do those dishes.

And so maybe I picked the most pretentious literary paragraph in the novel, and followed it by the weirdest internal monologue paragraph. Plus it’s about baseball.  Meh.  You’re thinking that, possibly.  Meh.

Darn it. I’ve blown it already.  And yet, it’s so so good.

One more, then:

By the time they finished,  Owen had said ‘There, finally’ to two pairs of jeans, two shirts and two sweaters.  A modest stack, but Henry added up the price tags in his mind, and it was more than he had in the bank.  “Do I really need two?” he said?  “One’s a good start.”

“Two,” said Jason.

“Um.”  Henry frowned at the clothes.  “Mmmm. .”

“Oh!” Owen slapped himself on the forehead.  “Did I forget to mention?  I have a gift card at this establishment.  And I have to use it right away.  Lest it expire.”  He reached for the clothes in Henry’s hand.  “Here.”

“But it’s yours,” Henry protested.  “You should spend it on yourself.”

“Certainly not,” Owen said.  “I would never shop here.”


So: this:  This is a novel in which every plot turn and incident is surprising, and yet inevitable.  That is to say, everything that happens flows convincingly from the things that happened earlier, but they also catch us unawares.  It’s also a novel in which the dialogue is literate but persuasive; where the characters talk like the really smart people they are, except for the stupider ones.

I want badly for you to pick up this novel, buy it on Kindle or walk into Barnes and Noble or check it out at your local library; read it! in other words.  So I won’t spoil the plot for you.  But as you read it, you will very much want things to work out well for characters you’ve grown to love, and they do, and the last two chapters are splendid and right and fulfilling.  But it’s a twisty road getting there.  So persevere.

And what if you don’t like baseball?  I wondered about this.  I’m fully aware that this novel did not exactly present me with acceptance-and-enjoyment challenges. I love the game of baseball, though I never played it well, (certainly not as well as Henry does), and I admire the way this author gets every baseball detail exactly and exquisitely right, and boy does that contribute to my engagement with this text.  And maybe, possibly, some of you don’t like baseball as much as I do.  Or (shudder) at all.

Then let me recommend it to you all the more.  Because it’s a terrific read, a marvelous first novel from a guy who I sort of desperately hope writes more of them.  It’s funny and smart and real and profound.

I just really liked it a lot.  I read it until late last night, and work early and finished it this morning, and couldn’t wait to tell someone, everyone, that it’s really good and that you should read it.  So.  It’s really good and you should read it.  That’s The Art of Fielding.  By Chad Harbach.  Click this link to buy your own copy.  It’s about baseball, and it’s about life, and it’s sad and joyful and funny and sad.  But enough.  No more overselling.  You’ll get it, or you won’t.  Just, if you don’t, you’re missing out big time.

Noah: A Review

Let’s start here: Darren Aronofsky, as a filmmaker, is not just a gorgeous visual stylist, he is the one major director I know of who is genuinely immersed in the power of myth and in the power of tragedy.  Lots of directors today appropriate myth as material for otherwise conventional Hollywood melodramatic narratives: The 300, Clash of the Titans, Thor, the upcoming Hercules.  But the mythical trappings of these films are essentially just production design, and we leave them essentially unmoved. We think ‘that was awesome’, without ever having experienced awe.  Aronofsky explores myth creatively, even uses contemporary subjects matter to reimagine myth.  In Black Swan, he uses backstage ballet company squabbling to retell the myth of Odette and Odile; in The Wrestler, the wreckage of a life spent professionally wrestling is given the weight and depth of tragedy; Mickie Rourke’s Randy the Ram becomes a Hector, an Achilles, an Agamemnon.  The seeds of Aronofsky’s new Noah film are found in his 2006 film The Fountain, an extraordinary, complex multi-layered meditation on the Tree of Life, and (possibly), the redemptive power of love.  Ignore critics who scoff about the ‘Biblical accuracy’ of this Noah; this is not a Sunday School lesson, it’s a Darren Aronofsky film, and a great one.

There were giants in the earth in those days. . . . (Genesis 6: 4)

The operative OT word is Nephilim; ‘giants’ is a common translation.  Aronofsky calls them ‘Watchers’, and imagines them as fallen angels, sent to earth to help mankind, but cursed with bodies of stone. They’re ponderous creatures, and move as though every step is agony.  But they’re huge and powerful, and now, having helped mankind accomplish the ruination of the planet, they help Noah build (and they later defend) the Ark. When they die (and they can die, humans can kill them), they again become creatures of light, and are released, gloriously, to heaven.

And Zillah, she also bare Tubal-cain, an instructor of every artificer in brass and iron. . . (Genesis 4: 22)

Tubal-cain is a central character in the film, superbly played by Ray Winstone.  After the slaughter of Abel, Cain’s offspring multiplied.  There are essentially two branches of humanity; the children of Cain and the children of Seth.  The Cainites have destroyed the planet; Sethites have been reduced to one family, Noah’s.  After a vision, Noah takes his family on a journey to find his grandfather, Methusaleh, and we see a ruined world; sludge ponds, tree stump deserts, abandoned mines and factories.  Having instilled in humankind an insensate greed for tools, Tubal-cain is king of what’s left.

Russell Crowe creates an essentially kind and loving Noah.  He knows The Creator (the word ‘God’ is never used) intends to drown the world, and that he’s to build an ark so that ‘the innocent’ (by which he means animals) can survive it, and initially, he believes that The Creator also intends his family to be spared, and his family to mark a new beginning for humanity. The difficulty is that he has three sons, and only one daughter-in-law.  And she, Ila (the magnificent Emma Watson) is barren; married to Seth, but unable to conceive.  His wife, Naameh (the equally magnificent Jennifer Connelly), is also past the years of child-bearing.  So how can mankind survive?

And God saw that the wickedness of man was great in the earth, and that every imagination of the thoughts of his heart was only evil continually.

The earth also was corrupt before God, and the earth was filled with violence.  And God said unto Noah, The end of all flesh is come before me, for the earth is filled with violence. . . . (Genesis 6: 11-13).

Noah goes to Tubal-cain’s encampment to look for wives for his sons.  And what he sees is a nightmare world, a world of brutality and sexual violence, a world of cruelty to animals, a world of murder, and above all, a world of rape.  We hear it more than see it; hear the cries of women subjected to violence, echoing everywhere in the camp.  And Noah feels, in his heart, his own capacity for violence.  He has killed in the past, defending his family.  He is a gentle man, and a kind hearted man, but he is a man, and he is shaken by the camp, but not just by its reality.  He’s also devastated by self-knowledge; by his own capacity to become that evil. He is, perhaps, titillated by it.  And that realization drives him mad.

And he kills, again he kills, not by design or intent, but by neglect and cowardice, he kills.  He kills a young woman that his son Ham has saved, a woman who is, in Ham’s words, ‘innocent.’  And Ham (Logan Lerman, also magnificent) cannot forgive it.

I will cause it to rain upon the earth . . . and every living substance that I have made will I destroy from off the face of the earth. (Genesis 7: 4)

And we see it. And again, more than what we can see, we can also hear, and we see Noah’s family, in agony as they hear human beings, clinging to their Ark, drowning in despair, beating on the wood with their hands, shrieking in desperation.  And it goes on and on.  And they are devastated.

And, so, on the Ark, Noah gathers his family, and he tells them the story, of Adam and Eve and Creation.  Innocence and joy, purity and the love of the Creator.  And the serpent, and Cain’s violence to his brother.  And he tells his family that humankind must end with them.  They will save the animals, they will make possible re-Creation.  And then, one at a time, they will die.  And the youngest son, Japheth, will bury the last of his brothers, and then he too will die.  That is the vision the Creator has shown him.

Here’s what Aronofsky has done with the myth of Noah; he has imagined for us a prophet who is wrong.  He has created a titanic figure in Noah, but also a madman, a good man driven insane by visions of violence and death.  And the heart of the movie is there, on the ark, as a three-way debate takes shape and defines the intellectual contours of the movie.

In fairness, let me urge you to stop reading now if you haven’t seen the movie and want to.  Spoilers to follow; and I think they can’t be avoided.  Because this film is also a moral argument, and an argument that is worth describing fully and honestly.

What Noah does not know is that Ila, his daughter-in-law, is no longer barren. Naameh, in compassion and love, has taken her to Methusalah for a blessing, and she is now with child.  Shem is to be a father, and Noah, a grandfather.  And when Noah finds out, his madness intensifies, and he declares that if the child is female (and if, therefore, she represents a possible future for humanity), he will kill her.  And Naameh pleads with him, and their children avoid him.  He has gone insane.

Or has he?  Because the film is now defined by an argument, and one side of that argument is that mankind does not deserve to live.  I’m reminded of Matthew McConnaughey’s character in True Detective, arguing that human consciousness was an evolutionary error, and that at some point, nature will simply fix the mistake.  Eradicate us.  And we’ve seen a world defined by violence.  We see in Tubal-cain’s camp; we see it today, in the Congo, or North Korea, or Darfur.

What Noah does not know is that his Ark has a stowaway; that Tubal-cain was able to climb aboard. And Ham knows it too, and is angry enough at his father to keep Tubal-cain’s secret.  And the king is a tough old bird, but he’s not stupid and he has something else going for him; he loves mankind.  He thinks we’re supposed to rule, we’re supposed to exercise dominion over the earth. Maybe at times we exercise dominion foolishly, but we can fix that too; we’re smart enough to shape our environment, to use tools to manipulate our world, and incidentally benefit ourselves.  Violence is our heritage and our legacy.  We were meant for power.

But there’s a third point of view.  And it does not come from divine revelation, as both Noah and Tubal-cain (both of whom pray, and to the same Creator), think their philosophies come from.  It comes from the human heart, from what we Mormons would call the ‘light of Christ within.’  It’s Naameh’s opinion, and it’s based on love.  She believes in, and forcefully articulates, the power of human love. She believes that we can choose good over evil, that we can choose to serve something greater than ourselves, because she’s done it; she’s given her life for her family.

So: obvious.  Except it isn’t.  As Noah points out to her; she’d kill for her family.  Her love has an undercurrent of violence, or at least the capacity for violence, the possibility of it.  We love, and perhaps that does ennoble us, but we’re tribal beings, and we can and will kill for those we most care for. And maybe love is a powerful force, but those words, ‘power’ and ‘force’ are rooted in a capacity for violence, are they not?  And yes, Tubal-cain is disgusting as he kills for food, and when he tells Noah that he intends to take from him his women.  But don’t human beings share with other creatures an innate instinct for survival?  And isn’t the world of ‘innocence’, the world of nature, a violent one?

And when Tubal-cain is finally defeated (by Ham, the son whose filial devotion is most equivocal, the boy who has cause to hate his father), Ila goes into labor, and is delivered of twins. Twin girls.  And Noah, as promised, takes up his knife to kill.  And Ila begs of him one last favor.  The babies are crying.  Can’t she, at least, calm them, quiet them, allow them to die while peaceful?  And he allows it.  And when he realizes that he can’t do it, he can’t obey his Creator to that final extremity, he cannot, finally, kill again, that realization does not heal his madness.

And Noah . . . planted a vineyard:

And he drank of the wine, and was drunken; and he was uncovered within his tent. (Genesis 9: 2o-21).

And he drinks, and it’s not comic; it feels like a punch in the guts, because we see it as more madness, as PTSD made manifest on the earth.  It’s only when Ham ‘uncovers his father’s nakedness’ (in the film, it’s translated as ‘leaves on a self-imposed exile, rather than cope with his father’s insanity’), that Noah begins to heal.  And the family begins to heal, and his marriage begins to heal, and we see, in the heavens, an image of hope.

I do set my bow in the cloud, and it shall be for a token of a covenant between me and the earth.

 And it shall come to pass, when I bring a cloud over the earth, that the bow shall be seen in the cloud. (Genesis 9: 13, 14).

I am a believing, practicing Mormon, which means a believing and practicing Christian.  A Bible reader and a Bible lover.  And this painful and tragic and wonderful film does the Bible the courtesy of taking it seriously.  It honors the text by creatively re-imagining it, by giving myth a personal gloss. It’s not a slavishly literal retelling of the story, and it does not provide comforting platitudes.  It honors the horror of the Flood, or of all floods, it honors the painful reality of God’s plan; that we’ve been sent here to a world of volcanoes and hurricanes and earthquakes and tsunamis.  And war.  And murder.  And with an innate human capacity for violence.  I left the theater edified, discomfited, uplifted, disturbed. Shaken.  Moved.  It’s a great film.


Boxes of books

My daughter has been on a ‘clean up this dump’ kick lately, and tonight, she got going on our basement.  And she found three big cardboard boxes full of books.  She brought them upstairs, and my wife and I went through them, deciding which ones, after all these years, we still want to keep, and which ones we can get rid of.

Books are friends. Our house is filled to overthrowing with books.  The room where I work has four big IKEA bookshelves, each one filled close to full.  And a great book has to be treasured, preserved, loved.  I home-teach an elderly woman, disabled to the point that she’s effectively bed-ridden, but I love visiting her.  Her room is full of bookshelves and books, and she’s a thoughtful, interesting and intelligent woman; when we visit, we talk books.  And conversations can last long beyond the appointed time for home teaching.  She reminds me of my mother-in-law, another bibliophile of the first order.

So as my wife and daughter and I went through the books we had so carefully stored, and so carelessly forgotten, I was reminded of times I had completely forgotten.

One of the first books out was The Fate of the Persecutors of the Prophet Joseph Smith. Pitch.

I remember finding it in a used book store on 7th East in Provo (now long defunct), and taking it home and reading it, jaw dropping.  It was a wacky book, full of gruesome details about how everyone who was involved in the martyrdom of Joseph Smith had awful lives thereafter, and died in excruciating agony, of horrible diseases.  All of this, the diseases and the agonies these guys suffered, was recounted in voluptuous detail, with then a citation from whoever had told the authors the story.  The book was bonkers, and it turns out, BS.  But I was a college freshman, and I took it home and devoured it. I liked it so much, I took it to my grandmother (a former professor of library science, and the kind of dedicated bibliophile that puts the rest of us to shame), and she snorted in disgust.  She turned to an early page, and she pointed to the book.  “He cites this woman, you see?  Well, I knew her well; crazy as a loon.”  And she said, “this is just folklore, Eric, and a pretty nutty example of it.  I’m surprised at you for being taken in by it.”  And that exchange made me like the book even more!  I’ve loved Mormon folklore ever since. Still, I’ve outgrown it.

The collected poetry of Philip Larkin.  Keep.

I don’t remember when I first read Philip Larkin.  I am the most random, idiosyncratic and unsystematic of poetry readers–I love cowboy poetry no less than Lance Larsen, tend to dislike poets we’re all supposed to like.  I won’t read anything for six months and then go on a spree.  But Larkin amazes me; so grim, so honest, so completely unsentimental. Among other things, I didn’t know you could put the ‘f-word’ in a poem.  He did; not often, but when it was required. I kept the book, and I know I’ll be going on a Larkin binge pretty soon.

Nibley on the Timely and Timeless.  Kept.

Hugh Nibley is, I think it’s fair to say, the godfather of Mormon apologetics.  He was a man of extraordinary erudition, and he wrote book after book arguing for the historicity of the Book of Mormon.  It made him beloved.  But while a lot of his research has been effectively discredited, his occasional essays on Mormon culture still hold up.  He was a theatre guy too, loved good plays in good productions.  He wasn’t a literary critic, particularly, but he was certainly a cultural critic, in his own inimitable, irascible way.  I can’t believe I had this book in storage for fifteen years; it goes back on my shelves tonight.

Elizabethan Drama: Tossed.

A favorite anthology, consisting entirely of plays by Elizabethan authors other than Shakespeare.  I remember getting it in grad school, and being fascinated by Gammer Gurton’s Needle, and Tamarlane, and Cambyses: King of Persia. There was a time when such a collection would have been called something like ‘pre-Shakespearean plays,’ or something. Shakespeare was the only thing that mattered; everyone else’s work either helped us understand Shakespeare better, or helped us realize how much better Shakespeare was than anyone else.  That kind of bardolatry is passé in today’s academy (blessedly), but I remember with great pleasure a class I took in which we read and discussed all these plays.  Marvin Carlson taught it, and it was one of those great classes.  But I’m not a scholar anymore; send it away.

Four great plays by Henrik Ibsen.  Back in the day, these kinds of anthologies were very popular among academic publishers.  We teachers would have to assign certain plays to our students, and take them from anthologies, since there wasn’t really any other way for kids to get hold of them.  But publishers didn’t want to actually solicit good translations, so they’d find some public domain (and very old-fashioned) translation, and publish four plays or so.  Those old William Archer Ibsen translations are very Victorian and British, which is not to say they’re worthless, but they’re why I’m doing my own, in an updated American idiom.  I kept this book, though, to inspire me.

I don’t want to go through every book we looked at tonight.  But every book was meaningful, led to memories and spurred conversations. Books can do that, and not much else can.