Josna Rege

Archive for 2017|Yearly archive page

405. Not So Grinchy

In Books, Childhood, Food, Music, seasons on November 27, 2017 at 1:10 am

Perversely, I’ve rather prided myself on being a Grinch at Christmastime. The adult I, that is; as a child I loved the whole season, from St. Nicholas’ Day to Twelfth Night, when the tree came down and we stopped singing carols: the anticipation, list-making, decorations, card-counting, opening each new window of the battered Advent Calendar, carol-singing (Good King Wenceslas with Dad roaring “Bring me flesh and bring me wine”), Mum’s sausage rolls and shortbread on Christmas Eve, waking up before dawn on Christmas morning, the  tree (magically decorated overnight), the specially embroidered (by Mum) pillowcases that were our stockings with whole walnuts and tangerines (rarities in India in those days) down at the bottom. It was Mum who made Christmas, though Dad was her willing helper, Mum who maintained a childlike delight in it and passed on that delight to us. I kept up her Christmas spirit, or tried to, throughout Nikhil’s childhood; but in recent years, now that he and his generation have grown and gone and all seasons are the same to dear Mum, it has become more and more of a strain, and I find myself wishing, with hardly any feeling of guilt, that I could just take off on my own and hide away until it’s all over.

Nowadays, as the frenzy of the season gets underway, I resist it actively. Some of that resistance comes from sheer hatred of shopping and consumerism; some of it from sheer busyness: with end-of-semester grades due a couple of days after Christmas and my biggest annual conferences just after New Year, it is an extremely hectic time for me; and I can’t deny that some of it is down to a mildly depressive frame of mind in which I question the point of it all—Christmas, that is, not life itself.  Nevertheless I persist, trying, albeit in small ways, to quiet the cynic within and quicken instead a sense of wonder.

This year had been no exception. I resolutely shut my eyes to the holiday hype that began even before Halloween. Then, after Thanksgiving as always, came the weirdly-named Black Friday, the day the Christmas shopping season officially begins, and one on which I usually observe the buy-nothing rule. This year, for once, I did venture out, with Andrew for support against the feared onslaught of Black Friday shoppers; but it was all very low-key (though admittedly we didn’t stake out a spot in line at midnight or darken the doors of any big-box stores), and I surprised myself by not only not hating it, but actually beginning to feel downright cheery.

We made a beeline for our favorite thrift store, the Hospice Shop of the Fisher Home, all done up for Christmas. I browsed at a leisurely pace, picking up a hundred things, putting down 95 of them, and coming home with a handful of treasures—nothing especially valuable, but little things that made me smile, like a soap dish for the olive-and-argan-oil soap that our old friend Tamara brought us back from Crete. The place was crackling with Christmas cheer, with a retinue of volunteers carrying in large, colorful gift boxes reminiscent of scenes from A Christmas Carol after Scrooge’s transformation.

We kicked it up a notch and went into the discount store, T.J. Maxx. Andrew was tasked with checking out their supply of Christmas crackers, but we rejected them all in the end because of the miserable quality of their prizes; still, we did find one thing we needed there, and emerged unscathed into the bargain.

Trader Joe’s was our last port of call—just for food, nothing more. It wasn’t particularly crowded but there too the atmosphere was electric, with everyone wreathed in smiles, scents of fir, rosemary, and pine, piping hot coffee on the go, and the shelves groaning with spiced cider, specialty cheeses, and boxes upon boxes of chocolates and pannetone. Despite my innate Grinchiness, I was moved. Not to buy anything, you understand; that would have been an unrealistic transformation. But I came home with a spring in my step, put the soap in the new dish and washed Mum’s new baby-blue flannel sheets with snowmen on them.

Come to think of it, the season had actually begun in earnest the previous week with my favorite church bazaar, always the weekend before Thanksgiving, where in the past I have been known to find most of my Christmas presents (which pleases me, but not necessarily my hapless victims). This year I picked up only a few little bits and bobs (as my Auntie Angy would say), but the big find was at the jams, jellies and pickles table, where I bought a small jar of shimmering violet jelly and a larger one of pear mincemeat with nuts and rum from a courtly old gentleman who told me that the violets were from his garden and advised me on how to make the mince tarts. He had just sold his last jar of Madras eggplant pickle or I would surely have borne that home as well.

Now it’s nose to the grindstone until classes are over and final grades are in. But now I am committed to washing my face and making mince tarts with custard. You’ll be seeing no transformation (to quote Fagin) but I can think I can report with some confidence that the plans for stealing Christmas are officially off. It’s beginning to look a little less Grinchy.

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404. Colo(u)rs

In Family, Music, Nature, reflections, Words & phrases on October 22, 2017 at 5:43 pm

In Toni Morrison’s novel Beloved, set in the aftermath of slavery, the protagonist Sethe’s mother-in-law Baby Suggs (“Baby Suggs, Holy” when she was a lay preacher teaching newly freed people to love themselves), having lost just about everyone she had ever loved, gave up on people, particularly whitepeople, and spent her last days contemplating colors, one color at a time. She spent a long time on yellow.

The colors in my father’s oil paintings are rich and warm, the watercolors luminous, filling every square inch of the canvas. Migmar always brought him flowers because he loved them so much. “He is like a woman,” she would say every time, full of wonder at his passion for them. Even when he no longer had the energy to paint, he continued to derive great pleasure from just drinking them in. Taking scraps from his art studio out to the trash last week, I found a list of colors, probably a shopping list for oil paints. There were also pages and pages of elaborate color-mixing formulae and charts, bringing home to me all over again how much colors had meant to him.

I love colors too, but being a person who has derived my greatest pleasure from words, I enjoy rolling their names off my tongue (and the English spelling rolls best): Prussian blue, chrome yellow, rubine red, Havana lake, burnt umber, raw sienna, jet black, carmine. Alert to intertextuality, I mentally reference writers from Aldous Huxley (Crome Yellow) to Toni Morrison, The Rolling Stones to Donovan. Here’s the Mexican folk song  De Colores, a celebration of Nature, freedom, and unity in diversity (Spanish and Engish lyrics here).  And Donovan’s Wear Your Love Like Heaven, which, belated Hippie that I am, I continue to love despite the fact that it was coopted in an advertisement for make-up.

Colour in sky, Prussian blue
Scarlet fleece changes hue
Crimson ball sinks from view
Wear your love like heaven (wear your love like)
Wear your love like heaven (wear your love like)
Wear your love like heaven (wear your love)

Lord, kiss me once more
Fill me with song
Allah, kiss me once more
That I may, that I may
Wear my love like heaven (wear my love like)
Wear my love like heaven (wear my love)
La-la, la-la-la, la-la-la, la-la-la

Colour sky, Havana lake
Colour sky, rose carmethene
Alizarin crimson
Wear your love like heaven (wear your love like)
Wear your love like heaven (wear your love like)
Wear your love like heaven (wear your love)

Lord, kiss me once more
Fill me with song
Allah, kiss me once more
That I may, that I may
Wear my love like heaven (wear my love like)
Wear my love like heaven (wear my love)
La-la, la-la-la, la-la-la, la-la-la

Can I believe what I see
All I have wished for will be
All our race proud and free
Wear your love like heaven (wear your love like)
Wear your love like heaven (wear your love like)
Wear your love like heaven (wear your love)

Lord, kiss me once more
Fill me with song
Allah, kiss me once more
That I may, that I may
Wear my love like heaven (wear my love like)
Wear my love like heaven (wear my love)

Carmine.

Words need not replace things-in-themselves. Sometimes I too feel like taking to my bed and simply contemplating colours, slowly, deliciously, one at a time. But there is work to be done, and I’m not dead yet. In these times, when the light of freedom is being dimmed all over, colours are falling out of favor. Time to celebrate them all the more. In the meantime, I can still sing, mix, and continue to dream, in glorious color.

Carmine.

 

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403. Free from Thought

In Media, Politics, Stories, Teaching, United States, Work, writing on September 30, 2017 at 3:22 am

The purpose of Newspeak was not only to provide a medium of expression for the world-view and mental habits proper to the devotees of Ingsoc, but to make all other modes of thought impossible.
                      George Orwell, “The Principles of Newspeak”

Newspeak and doublethink are addling our brains. Doublethink is making it increasingly difficult to discern truth from lies, fact from fiction, but Newspeak actually limits the range of ideas that it is possible for us to entertain, and as such it is even more dangerous.

George Orwell gives us an example of Newspeak in The Principles of Newspeak, an appendix to his 1949 dystopian novel Nineteen Eighty-Four (which shot up the sales charts earlier this year in the wake of President Trump’s Counselor Kellyanne Conway’s use of the term alternative facts—lies, in plain English). The word “free” was still in the Newspeak vocabulary, but only in the sense that, for example, a dog may be declared “free from lice”; it was not possible to use it in the sense of “politically free or intellectually free, since political and intellectual freedom no longer existed.” “Freedom from” was still a thing (as we say in today’s sloppy parlance), but “freedom to,” not so much—not at all, in fact.

I’ve been thinking these dismal thoughts a lot recently, especially since I’m teaching a first-year seminar on the subject of citizenship and the media,. We’re currently considering the possibilities of democratic citizenship in a “post-truth era”—with the adjective “post-truth” defined by the Oxford Dictionaries as “relating to or denoting circumstances in which objective facts are less influential in shaping public opinion than appeals to emotion and personal belief.”  If the range of people’s thoughts is indeed being narrowed by 21st-century Newspeak, then even the most assiduous information-gathering and fact-checking is in vain, because it is not merely disregarded; it can no longer be recognized.

Talking points—or, as Urban Dictionary defines them, “political and moral signposts for the walking dead”—have had a powerful role in narrowing the range of possible thought on a subject. Disseminated by think tanks and political parties, they feed people politically and ideologically driven ideas in neat little sound bites that are repeated so many times across the news media that they become the default response, even as the people who have imbibed them ad nauseam and in turn spew them out may be unaware of the underlying ideology, believing that they are echoing their own opinions and beliefs. We have former host of The Daily Show Jon Stewart to thank for bringing the use of political talking points to our attention. Here, compiled by Stewart, are 50 talking points used on the right-wing Fox News channel—all proven to be lies after being fact-checked.

I love my students and find them intelligent, skeptical, and, with some encouragement, fully capable of independent thought; but like most of us, they are out of practice. Thanks to the Newspeak disseminated in a constant barrage of commercials and internet memes, their brains are overstimulated and, in the hurricane of flying debris of wordsimagessoundsstaticflotsamjetsam&sheerstuff, they cling to talking points as to anchors, ports in a storm. The trouble is, the media barrage makes sustained thought nigh-impossible and the talking points become substitutes for it.

What has sparked these gloomy reflections is an assignment on fake news in my first-year seminar that does not seem to be going as planned. After some reading, writing, and discussion about the role of “fake news” in the 2016 election and the role of social media in a “post-truth” era, I asked students to research and present a fake news story that went viral, was influential, and was finally exposed as a hoax. It would be both educational and fun, I thought, and the hands-on group exercise would reinforce some of the reading they had done.

Students’ initial written responses seemed to indicate that they had understood the reading. They were full of the kind of sentiments that make the professor happy because they echo her own words in the classroom: concerns about the future of democracy and the promise and pitfalls of the internet. But when students were asked to browse the reputable fact-checking sites and bring to class a selection of the most damaging fake news stories, what did they come up with? Stories that looked as if they were fresh out of the trashiest tabloids.

Mcdonald’s accused of using human meat in its burgers

Disney claims Hocus Pocus 2 is in production—a sequel at last, after 20 years.

J.K. Rowling fires off a round of anti-Trump tweets after watching a misleading video of his encounter with a handicapped child visiting the White House.

Apple Computer is charged with deliberately slowing down old iPhones so as to sell its new models.

The Daily Mail claims that an asteroid will destroy the earth.

Hardly earth-shattering stories—well, apart from the earth-shattering one. I guess I’m out of touch; students were aghast that I had never even heard of Hocus Pocus. Maybe I just need to lighten up. If we’re all going to die anyway, what does it matter whether it’s death by Twitter-induced nuclear war with North Korea or by a rogue asteroid colliding with the planet?  To quote a ‘friend’ of a ‘friend’ on Facebook when I pointed out that a compromising photo of Hillary Clinton they were all enjoying no end was doctored: “Why let the truth get in the way of a good laugh?”

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402. Land Where Our Fathers Died

In Books, Immigration, Inter/Transnational, Music, parenting, people, Politics, Stories, United States, Words & phrases on August 31, 2017 at 4:27 am

Unaccustomed Earth, Jhumpa Lahiri’s second short-story collection, opens with an epigraph by Nathaniel Hawthorne that also provides its title:

Human nature will not flourish, any more than a potato, if it be planted and replanted, for too long a series of generations, in the same worn-out soil. My children have had other birthplaces, and, so far as their fortunes may be within my control, shall strike their roots into unaccustomed earth.  (from The Custom-House, introduction to The Scarlet Letter)

Like Hawthorne’s children, I had a different birthplace from that of my father, and my son, in turn, had a different birthplace from mine. Do I feel that, as a result, I was raised in richer, more generative soil? I was born in my mother’s city and country, but we didn’t stay there long. For much but not all of my childhood I was raised in my father’s country, though far from the red earth of his coastal home. By the time I was coming of age we had landed on a third continent, far across the the sea and home to neither of my parents, where I was forced to strike my roots into unaccustomed earth. As a result, I will constitutionally and forever question settled concepts of home, country, and belonging.

While I reject the notion that blood and soil (Blut und Boden, that hateful Nazi slogan), race and place, have some sort of mystical unity, I know from personal experience that for some people, place is much more important than for others—that while they may be able to live anywhere (for humans are almost infinitely adaptable) they can only come fully alive in the place where they were born and raised. For them that place will always and forever be home. Some lose their minds, lose their way, even end their own lives. Do we then look at them as failed transplants, as Salman Rushdie describes some of the characters in The Satanic Verses? Should they never have been wrenched from their native soil?

But then, look at Ellis, the protagonist of Colm Tóibín’s Brooklyn. When she emigrates from Ireland to the United States, she is forced to leave everything that was familiar to her. There is a long, lonely period of adjustment; but then she works for independence and education, finds love, begins to make the unfamiliar familiar, to put down new roots. Returning “home”, she finds that everything is easy in some respects, seductively, romantically comfortable; yet the growth she has achieved in unaccustomed earth has developed parts of herself that ultimately mean more to her.

One must return to “blood and soil,” the sickening chant of the Nazis and White Supremacists as they marched with flaming torches through the street of Charlottesville, Virginia just three short weeks ago. Why was it so chilling? These men—they were overwhelmingly male—had come together to claim that they, the self-defined “White Race”, belonged to the soil of this country as Blacks did not, as Jews did not, as immigrants would never do; and that they were fully prepared to shed blood defending this soil against racially alien intruders. This country was theirs, they snarled, in a way that it could never be mine, that as far as their children’s fortunes lay within their control, they would strike their roots deeper into their own native soil.

I’m with Hawthorne: that soil is played out; and so is that hate-filled song. Yes, we must be prepared to fight to preserve our sacred Earth, but in this century all earth must be unaccustomed. While I hold an abiding affection for the two places on earth that nurtured my dear parents, I myself am a cosmopolitan, even though at times the word sticks a little on my tongue. I want to belong to a place, but I do not. When I see the people forced from their homes by the flooding in Texas and Louisiana, my heart goes out to them, but then I read of the death and displacement caused by the flooding, not just in Mumbai, home to many members of my family, but also throughout South Asia, including Bangladesh and Nepal, and my heart breaks its bounds again. I cannot feel for one people to the exclusion of all the others.

Commuters walking through waterlogged streets, Mumbai (Reuters)

Where does this leave me? A global citizen, facing potentially catastrophic climate change in uncertain times with my fellow earthlings. I’m grateful to my father for having showed me, at a young age and by his example, how to strike my roots into unaccustomed earth; this radical unbelonging is the condition of our age, and it is a condition that will better prepare us, not to soak the depleted soil with yet more blood, but to come together with others for our mutual survival, and that of our planet.

CODA
I once heard it said that one did not feel a sense of belonging to a place until one’s fathers had died there. Well, now my own beloved father has died here in the United States, and though I can scarcely say how I feel, it’s not exactly belonging, but rather, a renewed sense of responsibility to a place that we all must share. Here’s how another revered ancestor, Pete Seeger, put it:

To My Old Brown Earth

To my old brown earth
And to my old blue sky
I’ll now give these last few molecules of “I.”

And you who sing,
And you who stand nearby,
I do charge you not to cry. 

Guard well our human chain,
Watch well you keep it strong,
As long as sun will shine.

And this our home,
Keep pure and sweet and green,
For now I’m yours
And you are also mine

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401. More Than Enough

In Britain, Childhood, Family, Nature, places, Stories on July 24, 2017 at 2:23 am

Hampstead No. 1 Pond (photo: J. Rege)

I ought to have known as soon as the ATM at the Hampstead branch of Barclays Bank swallowed up my debit card on the morning of my return flight; when the taxi driver who drove me to St. Pancras to catch the train to Gatwick took me to the wrong station; when the airline found my painstakingly-packed suitcase 5 kg. overweight; when the price of an overflow carry-on bag rivaled the excess baggage charges; when, after my rush to the airport, the plane was delayed by nearly an hour; and when, to add the ultimate insult to injury, I was told that my two precious jars of Marmite would now have to be confiscated because I had transferred them from the overweight suitcase into my carry-on bag. As I fought back the tears of fury, frustration, and self-pity that sprang to my eyes, I told myself that I ought to have known the universe would conspire to make my last day in England a disaster.

But all along the way, felicity had trumped misfortune. The Hampstead walk that last morning was an experience that no bank or ATM could possibly take away from me; the guide who led me astray was set straight by another one who knew the way; at the airport, those who would exploit hapless travelers were rendered powerless by an open-hearted stranger; the delay was rendered delightful by tea and an M&S custard tart, sprinkled liberally with nutmeg; and even the loss of the Marmite, tragic to be sure, was not total: while two were confiscated, a third made it through, with a lot more besides.

It was a compressed trip, as highly charged as it was fleeting. In just over a week I had travelled up to the West Midlands to see my dear Uncle Ted, back down to London to see regal Auntie Bette, the matriarch of the clan, and Auntie Angy, who had not let marriage into the Sharp family (Sharp by name and sharp by nature) rob her of her sweet disposition. Time had not permitted me to travel up to Norfolk to see my cousin Susan and her brood (including a new grandbaby), or to Bristol to see my old friend Cylla (who had become a double grandmother since my last visit), or to Hoddesdon to see Barbara, or to visit Robin, who had become a widower since the last time and Savita, my old schoolmate from India, who were based in London itself; and I had missed two cousins altogether. But, to quote my sister’s favorite Rolling Stones song, “You get what you need.” I had got plenty.

When they told me, at the airport check-in, that I could either incur 45 pounds in excess-baggage charges or, at the conveniently adjacent luggage store, that the smallest bag I could contemplate buying would coincidentally also cost me 45 pounds, I almost gave way to despair; but this Kafkaesque double-bind was to give way to a singular sweetness. At the airport outpost of Boots the chemists, where I attempted to buy their largest plastic carrier bag, the young cashier asked me if I would prefer a cloth bag. “Yes,” I breathed, “yes please. Do you sell them?”

No, they didn’t, but if I could wait a few moments, she had one that she could give me.
“Don’t look so surprised,” she said, as I stood open-mouthed at her generosity, “it’s nothing.” And sure enough, the sweet young angel stepped out and returned with a bag whose capacity rivaled the £45 offering at the price-gouging luggage shop. I was overcome by gratitude, but my heartfelt thanks only embarrassed her, so I left to find a set of scales where I could off-load some of the heaviest items in my suitcase (including, sadly, the large and ill-fated jars of Marmite).

Earlier that day, the sinking feeling in my stomach when the Barclay’s ATM on Hampstead High Street swallowed my debit card threatened to plunge me into the Slough of Despond, as I wrangled in vain with the bank clerk, all the while watching my last free hour in London ticking away. But as I continued my walk down Hampstead High Street, the feeling of well-being returned from my walk across the Heath earlier that morning. I walked past the Oxfam shop at the top of Gayton Road,  where Andrew, Nikhil, and I had lived for six weeks in 1997, while I was participating in an NEH Summer Seminar on postcolonial literature and theory, and where I now picked up a pair of bone china mugs and paid 5p for a recycled-plastic carrier bag that bore the heartwarming slogan, “Be Humankind.” Hurrying down Downshire Hill, into Keats Grove, past the poet’s house and gardens, I reached the 24 bus terminus at South End Green at last, in good time.

Well Passage, Hampstead

All that morning a feeling of homecoming had accompanied me every step of the way, as I strode confidently and alone down Mansfield Road, where my cousin Lesley had once lived, and up the steps to the Heath, where morning dogs and dog-walkers mingled and meandered at their leisure. This was where my mother and her brothers had rambled in their youth, where my parents met and courted, and where I had been born. There was a moment, walking down the narrow Well Passage, when I might have been my mother in a sepia photo c. 1952, in which she walks, swinging her arms, with her brother Ted and his best friend Curly, in a circular gypsy skirt with a wide cinched-waist belt and a dimpled smile on her face as if the world was new and she and her mates owned it. No bank nonsense could dislodge that feeling.

(from michaelhaag.blogspot.com)

On the long summer evening before, Cousin Lesley and I had taken the 24 bus to South End Green, walked onto the Heath from South End Green, and stood overlooking the pond and the row of houses beyond. It was in one of those houses, in South Hill Park, where we had stayed for three months in 1963 with Auntie Dorrie and Tamara on our way back from Greece to India, where I had walked to nearby Gospel Oak School every morning with Lesley, where I first saw the Beatles on television, where I first saw television itself (see British TV, Fall of ’63). As we watched children watching the ducks and the swan and its half-grown cygnet, Lesley asked their mother to take our picture. We walked on, to the bathing ponds where Mum and her brothers and their friends had passed many long, happy hours in their teens and twenties. I passed and photographed a fallen horse chestnut branch, with the not-yet-ripe fruit still in its prickly skin. Come September, children would prise the glossy nuts out of their burst casings and play conkers, if children still played conkers today. But now was now. I was here, and on my last day in England, it was more than enough; it was plenty.

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400. Why Pay those Union Dues?

In Education, history, Music, Politics, Stories, United States, Work on June 30, 2017 at 4:18 am

I do like Roger Miller’s 1965 country hit, King of the Road, a song in the American hobo tradition of the lone drifter, continually movin’ on. But in the second verse, one line never fails to infuriate me. The verse begins:

Third boxcar, midnight train, destination, Bangor, Maine.
Old worn out clothes and shoes,
I don’t pay no union dues. . .

So retrograde! I can’t stand it. Instead I sing out defiantly, no doubt to the irritation of anyone in earshot, I pay my union dues!

Why pay your union dues? I’ll tell you why. Pay them because a union negotiates a contract for the benefit of all the employees. The dues allow the union to function, to organize, to advocate on behalf of the workers. If an employee proudly refuses to pay his dues, like Roger Miller’s self-styled “man of means by no means,” then he is just getting a free ride on the backs of his fellow-workers. That’s shameful in my book.

This pride in refusing to stand with one’s fellow-workers is ornery American individualism, and although I have lived nearly fifty years in this country, it still sticks in my throat. It’s the same individualism that says, Because my children are no longer in school, I will vote against funding the public schools; or Because I’m young and healthy at the moment, I don’t need to pay into the Medicaid or health insurance systems. This flouts the basic principle that makes a national insurance system work: it can provide coverage for all because everyone helps to support it. If only the elderly, the sick, and the disabled paid into the system, it would sink under the weight of the expenses; but if healthy people pay in as well, healthy people who do not draw upon it as much, then the system stays afloat. What the young, healthy, able-bodied people fail to recognize is that they will be old and sick and vulnerable one day, and then the system will support them.

What don’t people get about this principle? Damn it, you don’t have to be a dirty Commie to understand it. It’s the same principle that life insurance companies bank on: actuarial tables demonstrate that young people will pay into a policy for many years and are unlikely to draw on it before it has made a tidy sum of money for the company. If only old people bought life insurance, the premiums would have to be prohibitively high in order to make the company viable.

What makes a seemingly simple and self-explanatory principle so difficult for people to grasp? What makes it not just difficult, but downright un-American? For one, there’s that strong streak of ornery individualism I mentioned earlier, that makes Americans say, How dare they make laws that require me to wear a seatbelt in my own personal car? I’ll ride without a seatbelt if I damn well please, because I’m a free man. A free man, yes; sadly, all-too-often a dead man as well. But hell, they say, if I wanna kill myself, ain’t no government gonna stop me.

cartoon by Evelyn Atwood

Also responsible for this confounding anti-union sentiment in the United States are the 1947 Taft-Hartley Act and the so-called Right-to-Work laws. Although Taft-Hartley allowed for the setting up of union shops (which require all new workers to become members of the union), it also allowed individual states to pass laws prohibiting union shops, laws that required workers who refused to pay union dues to receive the same benefits as those who paid their fair share of the union’s operating expenses. These states, which now number 28, are known, in a fine example of Orwellian Doublespeak, as Right-to-Work states. No wonder labor activists referred to Taft-Hartley as the slave-labor bill.

Someone, please write us a new verse for King of the Road that makes it crystal clear how idiotic it is to wear the refusal to pay union dues as a badge of pride. If you don’t want to pay dues, that is your prerogative, I suppose, though you should realize that you thereby weaken the bargaining power of the workers as a whole; but then, American hustler, be principled enough to recognize that you don’t deserve the union’s benefits either. (As an example and a healthy corrective, here’s Peggy Seeger adding some new words to Woody Guthrie’s 1940 favorite, Union Maid.)

King of the Road was that quintessential American loner, a figure that many American men see as attractive, and many American women as downright sexy; I don’t. I suppose I just can’t see the glamor of going it alone when it hurts others as well as oneself.

Note: I got the idea for this post from the June 26th, 2017 edition of The Resistance Report by Robert Reich, a programme broadcast live from Professor Reich’s office most weekdays, and one I watch avidly. In it, Reich, formerly a Secretary of Labor, explains the basic principle on which universal health insurance works and makes it clear how self-defeating it is for working people to oppose it.

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399. East of What?

In Books, Music, Politics, postcolonial, reading, Stories on May 30, 2017 at 1:52 pm

Illuminated Meridian Line (Royal Museums Greenwich)

People’s faces sometimes register impatience when I insist on putting the terms “East” and “West” in quotation marks. Okay, I see them thinking, we get it: you’re flagging them as fictions, or as intellectual shorthand, but there’s no need to be pedantic; everyone knows what they stand for.

Do they really? What is it then, that the West stands for? Liberty, tolerance, and rational inquiry? As Anthony Appiah points out, these ideals are certainly not exclusive to Western civilization, and in any case the “West,” however it is defined, has spectacularly failed as a beacon of such enlightened principles.

What about the East? The late Edward Said argued that the East, or “Orient,” through the impressive body of 18th-19th-century Orientalist scholarship,  has been created as Europe’s Other, serving to justify and facilitate the ends of Empire. In European colonial thought, the East stands for everything that the West is not. Where the West has enlightened leaders, the East has “Oriental despots”; where the Westerner is active (manly), rational and capable of exercising self-control, the Easterner is passive and effeminate, superstitious, and sensual; where Western systems of governance are a model for the world, Eastern governments, without Western oversight and tutelage, cannot help becoming mired in corruption and intrigue. In a 1998 documentary by the Media Education Foundation, On Orientalism, Said and MEF founder Sut Jhally discuss these stereotypes and the purposes they serve.

How are East and West defined? During the era of European colonialism, the West was Europe and the East stretched from the Persian Gulf all the way to East Asia including everything in-between. During the Cold War, the West referred to the capitalist world: the United States, Canada, and Western Europe, while the East referred to the communist Soviet Union and its satellite states east of the Berlin Wall. Since the collapse of the U.S.S.R., the West refers, as far as I can tell, to capitalist democracies that are allies of the United States (and populated primarily by white people). Despite being in the Far East and the Southern Hemisphere to boot, Australia is considered part of the West; so is Israel, though it is located squarely in the Middle East; while democracies in Africa, South America, Asia, or the Caribbean will never be admitted to the club.

Where is the East? East of What? Well, the dividing line between the Eastern and Western Hemispheres is Longitude 0º, or the Prime Meridian. Here it is on a map:

The National Geographic Society helpfully reminds us that the prime meridian is arbitrary, meaning it could be chosen to be anywhere. However, it is no accident that the Prime Meridian runs right through Greenwich, England, which is also the center of world time. It won Longitude 0º in 1884 at the International Meridian Conference in Washington, D.C., by a vote of 22 to 1, with one No vote—Santa Domingo (now the Dominican Republic) and two abstentions—France and Brazil. Why was it chosen? Because Britain, with its far-flung empire, was then the reigning global superpower, and so it was able to claim centrality.

Ask yourself what the function of the East-West divide is in the 21st Century. Why divide the world up based on an arbitrary line that makes neither geographical nor philosophical sense? Why lump together all the diverse societies and cultures that fall into one or the other categories under a simplistic and patently false set of stereotypes?

The answer is pure, naked Power. The East-West divide serves the interests of power. That’s my view—biased, no doubt, but informed. Verify my claim if you like: start paying careful attention to where, how, and by whom you see the two terms employed and decide for yourself. But until I am persuaded otherwise, I will continue to put “East” and “West” in quotation marks.

Let me close with “The Funky Western Civilization” (a 1978 song by Tonio K from his album, Life in the Foodchain), that I danced and sang along to gleefully in my twenties, loving the irony. You can listen to it here and read the lyrics here. The Funky Western Civilization is a dance, and this is how you do it:

Grab your partner by the hair
Throw her down and leave her there. . .

Oh get down
Get funky
Get Western
(Own up to it boys and girls)
And if you try real hard
Maybe you can even get
Civilized . . .

As Mahatma Gandhi famously quipped when asked what he thought of Western civilization, “I think it would be a good idea.”

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398. This day . . .

In reading, reflections, seasons, Stories, Work, writing on May 24, 2017 at 3:48 pm


This day is the first day of the rest of your life, proclaims that 1960s poster once plastered ubiquitously on college dorm walls across the country and intoned, infuriatingly, by any number of 1970s self-help gurus and popular culture figures from John Denver to The Walking Dead. But being banal doesn’t make it untrue; quite the contrary.

Every spring, as I teach my last class of the year, and again a couple of weeks later, when I turn in my students’ final grades, I tell myself: This day is the first day of the rest of your summer. Make the most of it, start as you mean to go on. Walk and write daily, wrap up long-postponed and unfinished business, work steadily to make inroads into those large, looming tasks that take time to complete, and have plenty of fun: take trips to visit friends and family, thrift-store shop to your heart’s content, and do a whole lot of entirely extraneous reading (what Andrew used to call, in that interminable last six months of my doctoral studies, reading unrelated to my dissertation). On that first day, as the whole summer stretches before me, I am utterly exhausted, but simultaneously filled with pleasurable anticipation and resolve.

Here it is, though, a week since I turned in the grades, more than three weeks since I taught my last class, and I have precious little to show. Already I have that sinking feeling, as if the whole summer, and then some, is already spoken for. Former students with Incompletes are still turning in late work, students from this just-finished semester demanding to know why their grades haven’t shown up online; prospective students asking for the syllabus of one of my fall courses (answer: I don’t have it; the course is yet to be designed), editors asking after that book chapter that I have yet to complete, creditors asking why I haven’t paid (and never will pay) that last ambulance bill for Dad. And now, here I sit at the dining-room table with my second cup of tea, doing a little bit of this, a little bit of that, and a whole lot of nothing.

For the first few days of the summer, I always tell myself—despite my resolution to work slowly and steadily, to start as I mean to carry on—that it is okay not to do much of anything, that I need to catch up on lost sleep, unwind, and generally be kind to myself. But in my heart of hearts I know that I am simply postponing the inevitable: there is no substitute for getting started.

The trouble is that inevitably, the instant I finish teaching my last class, either I fall sick or crisis strikes at home. There is no time in-between to take a deep breath. It’s like when Nikhil was a baby and went down for his 45-minute nap (unlike my friends’ babies who regularly took two-hour naps during the day, sometimes two of them), I would immediately start rinsing out his dirty nappies (because of course I used cloth diapers rather than disposable) and inevitably, the instant that I had finished the last one, he would wake up as if on a timer. So it was this year; so much has happened since that last day of classes in early May that I can’t account for it all. Through the blur of these past three weeks I seem to recall that, among other things, my eyeglasses broke in two during the last, desperate hours of my final grading, the air conditioning failed during an unprecedentedly hot mid-May heatwave, more students than ever before failed to complete their final term papers on time, and, of course, the nation has been teetering on the brink of a Constitutional crisis. All I know is that I feel as if I’ve been continuously and furiously busy, but seem to have nothing to show for it but a lot of late nights where I fall asleep on the couch and so many rounds of Canfield’s Solitaire (called Demon in England because it is so notoriously hard to win) that my hands ache with the repetitive stress. My hands actually ache from doing a whole lot of nothing.

The cure for doing nothing seems obvious: just do something; make even a little headway with it, and you will begin to feel better. But what to start on first? Perform triage, and then start with the most urgent task. But there are so many urgent tasks; it’s overwhelming. This is where the deck of cards comes out for yet another round of Canfield. If I lose, I play again: just until I beat Canfield. If I win, I play again: why quit when you’re ahead? (Wait, isn’t the maxim Quit while you’re ahead? No matter.) You get the picture, and unless you’re superhuman, or one of those Highly Effective People, you’ve probably struggled with your own version of it.

But the summer is young yet, and despite my sinking feeling that it’s already over, it really isn’t. It is. Not. Over. So let me take stock, and come up with a game plan; just for today.

First, open that unfinished book chapter and get back in the groove: Where was I when I last worked on it, and what do I need to do next? Actually get to work on it for a short period of time, setting a timer and stopping when it goes off; but not before writing myself a brief To Do note for the next time I sit down to it.

Second, take a brisk walk; it doesn’t have to be a long one. The 40-minute loop down through the old cemetery is perfect, but the shorter leg-stretch up to the Town Line and back will suffice.

Third, Destination Henion Bakery: sit with a cup of tea and a little something (okay, a jelly doughnut; although they now make these light, not-too-sweet little French things called choquettes; if feeling righteous, substitute a couple of them for my JD). Keep wireless internet connection resolutely turned off so as to continue to work on essay without distraction for period of time not to exceed 45 minutes. Slow and steady is the way to ease into this.

Now the hard work of the day is done. If energy permits, knock off one of those Incompletes: reread, regrade, recalculate, and resubmit the grade to the Registrar.

What next? Front porch, feet up, and—oh joy!—Extraneous Reading.

After dinner, repair to living-room couch. Get required daily dose of Professor Robert Reich’s Resistance Report, and laugh at opening monologues from last night’s late-night comedians.

This day is the first day of the rest of my life. From the standpoint of now, it is the only day. It is.

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397. Why Should Not Old Women Be Mad?

In Education, Stories, Teaching, Words & phrases, Work on April 28, 2017 at 10:21 pm

St. Trinians girls (Ronald Searle)

I’m so old that when I was in secondary school in England, the teachers still addressed the boys by their last names, as if, anachronistically, we were in some sort of Monty Python sketch. (I’m so old that I was in secondary school before the advent of Monty Python.)

I’m so old that I become enraged by fundraising emails that address me by my first name.

I’m so old that students sending me their late essays via cell phone infuriate me, not by their lateness, or by the fact that I am forced to print them out, but by their failure to include a cover note.

I’m so old that when a student sends me an email message without a cover note, I reply with a cold (and to them, bewildering), “Were you addressing me?” or “Excuse me, but did you intend to send that message to me?”

I am so impossibly old that when, in their essays, students call eminent scholars like Edward Said “Edward,” or Martin Luther King, Jr. “Martin,” I say, with withering sarcasm, “Oh, I didn’t know you were on a first-name basis with him.” (It goes right over their heads.)

It’s contradictory, I know, that in email messages to my students I sign off with my first name, but have the urge to (cyber)slap them if they dare to address me as such. Although to tell you the truth, I am grateful when they address me at all. Nowadays one is lucky if a message from a student starts with a “Hey!”

By the way, while I’m giving vent to righteous indignation, Woe Betide any student who makes any of the following cardinal slip-ups, whether orally or in writing:

Pakistan is in the Middle East;
India is in Southeast Asia; or
the Mahatma’s name is spelled G-h-a-n-d-i.
Not!

I’m not done yet: on the subject of names, if you are giving an oral presentation on an eminent writer or scholar from Elsewhere, you are responsible for finding out how to pronounce his or her name beforehand. S-a-i-d is pronounced with two syllables; it emphatically does not rhyme with ‘head’. Why is it that you can do Dostoevsky without hesitation, but—like the British—balk at Bandopadhyay? Stay after class and repeat “Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak” as many times as it takes to get it right.

By the way, I’m so old that in my day they still sent the boys to the Headmaster to be caned. Just sayin’.

Mr. Quelch and Billy Bunter

All right; I’m done now.

With apologies to William Butler Yeats: Why Should Not Old Men Be Mad?

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396. Missing Ted

In Family, people, places, poetry, Stories, United States on March 18, 2017 at 2:56 am

My father-in-law Theodore (Ted) Melnechuk passed away on March the first, at the age of eighty-nine. There is a void where he once was, and we cannot fill it. Science writing was his profession—neuroscience writing in particular, but his interests and expertise were broad and eclectic. Poetry was his avocation, and he loved form in verse, from sonnets to limericks, which he wrote daily, for years, thousands of them. He wrote a poem for every occasion in our lives, on my mother-in-law Anna’s birthday and their wedding anniversary and, also for Anna, every Valentine’s Day and Mother’s Day. He was kind enough to read and edit all my writing for years, and I still follow his rules about the serial comma, the adverb following the verb, the title of an essay stating its thesis. Gently, he pointed out some of my tendencies to verbal excess, noting only that a second adjective tended to cut the impact of the word in half rather than doubling it. Once, wistfully, he expressed a wish that I would evaluate literary works for their intrinsic beauty, the way he had learned to do, rather than merely interrogating them politically.

For more than 40 years he marked, clipped, and sent me and many others articles of interest from The New York Times, which he read religiously every morning. He read the print issue, of course, and if for any reason it was not delivered he would fret, fume, make phone calls, and eventually drive down to the newsagent’s to pick up a replacement copy. Only then would his day take its proper shape.

Ted loved words, puzzles (crossword and jigsaw both), word games, games of all kinds. Puns, anagrams, acrostics, homonyms, palindromes, all endless sources of pleasure. He loved playing games with his children and together they made up their own idiosyncratic rules for them. In the ten years after his beloved wife, my dear mother-in-law Anna, passed away he had taken to organizing a games day on the third Saturday of every month, when all four children joined him for lunch followed by an afternoon of high jinks and tiddlywinks, Melnechuk-style, followed by Scrabble in teams. Ted always kept score, meticulously, and the family not only kept them in perpetuity, but compared their new scores to old ones, delighting in besting themselves. But the older he got, the less Ted, once super-competitive, cared about winning; he simply enjoyed finding good words, a place to put them on the board, and the company of his children.

Still, as much as he loved his children, my father-in-law had his priorities. He did move up his daily nap time on games days to accommodate the special schedule, but even Games Day had to give way to big football and baseball games; sometimes he would peremptorily announce that it was time for us to leave. Other events that could not be missed: all three of the horse races that make up the Triple Crown: the Kentucky Derby, the Preakness, and the Belmont Stakes (on television of course). For every one Andrew and I would receive a cordial invitation to join him half-an-hour before the race began, when we would be given a photocopy of the line-up and invited to pick our first three choices for the winner. Ted would always pick the horses with the best odds of winning, while Anna would pick the names she liked best. Another must-watch ritual was the Macy’s parade on Thanksgiving Day—mostly, I think, because it was held in his native New York City.

Ted loved New York. As a son of Ukrainian immigrants, he was born (in 1928) on the Lower East Side of Manhattan, attended high school at Brooklyn Tech (where even then he brought the arts to a science and technology high school as Editor of their literary magazine), and college at Columbia, where he studied science, took literature classes with Mark Van Doren and wrote poetry with classmates Alan Ginsberg and John Hollander. Although he left New York for Massachusetts in the early 1960s, he followed the New York scene avidly and, as long as he was able, used to travel down to the City with an old friend once a year to go to the opera and the Metropolitan Museum of Art. In Amherst he was a member of a group called the Ex-New Yorkers, who used to gather once a month to reminisce about their hometown, choosing a different theme every time.

Also every month, from the very beginning of his stay in Amherst, Ted held a men’s poker game on a Friday night—low stakes, high seriousness. He cancelled the game only once that I recall— the month after Anna’s death. In the last month of his life he moved into assisted living in Amherst, and one of his poker mates moved in soon after. But they didn’t have time to get Poker Night going again in the new venue.

So many daily, weekly, monthly, annual rituals, now all gone. Will any of us ever manage to be as faithful to them? Which of them will we keep up? Now that I no longer receive my regular envelope of clippings from the Times, I must subscribe on my own, though mine will have to be the digital edition. Nights, when I am at a loose end, I will play Canfield’s Solitaire, Ted’s favorite, though I won’t keep a running score as he did. When I need to soothe my soul, I must remember to play music, like Ted, who always listened to classical music on the radio or CD player as he worked at his desk. And on Saturday mornings I will visit the Book Shed at the Amherst town dump to see if there’s anything of interest; but I won’t get there as often, or keep my eyes peeled anymore for British murder mysteries, Ted’s favorites (he went through hundreds of them, some of the best ones many times over, since he claimed that he always forgot whodunit).

His house is empty. This weekend Andrew and his siblings are clearing his room at the assisted living place, where he stayed for only six weeks. He had insisted on continuing to live in his own home, resisting home help, remaining independent to the end. Here is the obituary that he wrote himself; a shorter version will run in his beloved New York Times this Sunday.

Rest in Peace, dear Ted.

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