Concentrate: Instrumental Playlists

image credit: VectorStock.

As those of us in North American academe stare down the final weeks of the term, it can be hard to sustain focus. Heck, whatever your job may be, there is much to distract you — in your environment, in your life, in your own head. So, here are some playlists to help you attend to the task at hand.

Inspired by Victoria Ford Smith‘s “Butt in Chair Mix” and Stephen Thompson‘s “Thinkin’ Songs” (both embedded below), I’ve created what is currently a 16+ hour playlist featuring jazz, classical (both older and contemporary), ambient, soundtracks, electronica, some rock. Whether all of it helps you focus will be partially a matter of taste, I know. But I offer it in the hopes that it does help!

Concentrate. Instrumentals.

Victoria Ford Smith’s “Butt in Chair Mix” inspired the above, and I included some of her selections in mine. Her playlist — and other such playlists — help me concentrate not only because of their selections, but also because they are not mine. When I listen to my playlists, somewhere in the back of my mind, I start thinking about how to improve it — what other tracks I might add, where I might add them, whether some tracks should be cut or moved, etc. When I listen to Victoria’s playlist, I just work.

Victoria Ford Smith’s Butt in Chair Mix.

As I say, NPR cultural critic Stephen Thompson’s “Thinkin’ Songs” was another inspiration; indeed, I incorporated nearly all of his selections into my (much longer) playlist.

Stephen Thompson’s Thinkin’ Songs

Depending on the sort of work you’re doing, you may also seek more uptempo music. For instance, I often find myself grading exams to the music of Raymond Scott — tunes you will know from their frequent use in classic Warner Brothers cartoons. (Carl Stalling, who scored the cartoons, loved to use Scott’s compositions.) Here’s a playlist featuring both Scott and a bit of Leroy Anderson — who, like Scott, enjoyed music that evoked an idea.

Raymond Scott and Leroy Anderson

I am inclined to say that this Scott-Anderson playlist is less “music for concentration,” and more “music to sustain my energy through a stack of exams,” but in sustaining my energy it actually does help me focus. I couldn’t write to this music. But I can grade exams to it.

Fans of 1980s music might enjoy this mix of mostly uptempo instrumentals from that era. Some are songs you’ll know but absent their usual vocals. Others were released without lyrics.

1980s instrumentals

If you enjoy post-rock, I recommend the soundtrack to Gary Hustwit’s Helvetica (2007) — which I have assembled via the music named in the film’s credits. (No soundtrack was officially released.)

soundtrack to Gary Hustwit’s Helvetica (2007)

That’s all! May you be as productive as you need to be. And don’t forget to take a break, too!


Other recent music posts you may enjoy, including their length at the time of this posting (when I originally posted these playlists, about half were shorter):

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Barnaby, Vol. 4: 1948-1949

Barnaby, vol. 4: 1948-1949 [not final cover]

Where is the fourth volume of Crockett Johnson’s Barnaby (co-edited by yours truly and Eric Reynolds)? Wasn’t it supposed to be out a year or two ago? What happened?

In 2017, I submitted my Afterword and notes, Trina Robbins gave us her Foreword, and Jared Gardner contributed his Introduction. We hoped the book would be out in 2018, but delays at Fantagraphics pushed the publication date forward to 2019 and now I am told that… Fall 2020 is the release date. So, mark your calendars!

Crockett Johnson, Barnaby, 26 May 1948

The above strip — shown in its unrestored form, but which, like all of the strips, has been restored to pristine condition for the published volume — directly refers to the politics of 1948 and 1949. But such strips are more rare in this volume. Why? Well, here’s a sneak peak at my Afterword — specifically, its opening paragraph —

        What do you do when the political culture shifts, exchanging hope for fear, abandoning evidence to embrace innuendo? Crockett Johnson faced this question when, in September of 1947, he returned to writing Barnaby. He and his characters inhabited a different landscape than they had at the end of 1945 — when Johnson gave up his role as the strip’s sole creator and, for twenty months, served primarily in an advisory capacity. As Anti-Communism replaced the Popular Front, his support for progressive causes now marked him not as a patriot, but as a person of interest.  In 1948 and 1949, his comic strip is less directly confrontational, and — though there are moments of specific, acerbic satire — typically gestures towards this new culture of paranoia indirectly, such as when O’Malley observes (in August of 1949), “Barnaby, your Fairy Godfather sometimes wonders about people. How they can believe in Sea-Serpents is beyond me.” After all, there’s “not one shred of scientific evidence to prove that Sea-Serpents exist.” Or, in November of that same year, O’Malley says, “I’ll never understand, m’boy, how intelligent people like your parents can make these broad generalizations about Pixies. Or people—  There are good Pixies and bad Pixies. Just as there are good people and bad people.”  Pixies are not Communists, and Sea-Serpents are not Progressives. (Johnson was affiliated with the Progressive Party in the 1940s and the Communist Party in the 1930s.) But it’s notable that O’Malley presents both as examples of poor reasoning, or of assuming that each individual embodies all characteristics of an entire group. The illogic has real-world parallels, even if the metaphor lacks a specific real-world referent. During 1948 and especially 1949, Barnaby moves towards expressing its politics mostly (though not exclusively) through metaphor. This choice is notable because these years provided what might otherwise have been irresistible targets for Johnson’s satire.

In addition to my Afterword, you also get some draft material and other art by Crockett Johnson, the Foreword by Trina Robbins, Introduction by Jared Gardner, and notes by me! For example…

Crockett Johnson, Barnaby, 17 & 18 1949

We can enjoy the above strips without knowing the specific “SOCIALIZED MEDICINE” reference, but if any readers are curious they can turn to the back of the book for my note:

SOCIALIZED MEDICINE (18 Jan.).  Johnson was a strong advocate for national health care. In support of the Wagner-Murray-Dingell Bill (which appeared in several versions between 1943 and 1946), he even illustrated For the People’s Health (1946) — the Physicians Forum’s pamphlet advocating for passage of the bill. That effort failed. President Truman’s surprising election in 1948, which included restoring the Democratic Party’s control of Congress, seemed to augur well for the creation of a National Health Insurance System. As would later be the case in America’s most recent debates on the subject (2009-2010s), opponents caricatured socialized medicine as a dangerous government takeover of health care that would deprive doctors of freedom and limit patients’ choices of physician.  The month prior to this strip’s appearance, the American Medical Association retained a publicity firm to continue its campaign to (in the words of its general manager) “alert the American people to the danger of a politically controlled, compulsory health system” (“Medical Association Moves Against Socialized Medicine”).  Johnson here refers to political cartoons that caricatured socialized medicine as a dragon.

That’s the news, posted on the 113th anniversary of Crockett Johnson’s birth. So, find the nine kinds of pie you like best, cut yourselves some slices, and let’s wish Barnaby’s (and Harold’s) creator a very happy birthday!


Crockett Johnson birthday posts from previous years

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Ruth Krauss, Sergio Ruzzier, and… the Beatles?

For the first time in 32 years, there is a new book by Ruth Krauss!  Roar Like a Dandelion, with art from Sergio Ruzzier, was published on the first of the month.  Krauss began writing the book in around 1960, just after she began to focus more on writing poetry or poem-plays and less on writing children’s books. The poetic ear she had once turned to children’s speech, she now turned towards the broader world. One result was avant-garde poetry and poem-plays, and another was… this book!


For more on how the book came to be, check out the latest episode of Jennifer Laughran’s Literaticast podcast! (I, Sergio Ruzzier, and Harper editor Nancy Inteli are all guests on this episode. Here’s the iTunes link — show will appear on Apple Podcasts site later today.)


But wait. How do the Beatles enter into this?

Moments after we finished recording the podcast, I realized something.  The book’s working title — Running Jumping ABC — is likely an allusion to Richard Lester’s 11-minute absurdist film, Running Jumping & Standing Still (1959, starring Peter Sellers and Spike Milligan).

I suspect Krauss is alluding to Running Jumping & Standing Still for many reasons, one of which is that another working title — The Running Jumping Shouting ABC — includes a third term, and thus more closely parallels the three items in Lester’s film title. More importantly, Krauss’s poem-plays and poems explore comparably absurdist juxtapositions. At least some of the avant-garde writers and artists she was hanging out with from 1959 (when she became a poetry student of Kenneth Koch‘s) on would have known Lester’s film. I’m thinking here of New York school poets Koch and Frank O’Hara, Fluxus pioneers Dick Higgins and George Brecht, filmmakers Willard Maas and Marie Menken,* and choreographer-artist Remy Charlip. She might also have encountered the film on her own: Running Jumping & Standing Still gained sufficient acclaim to receive an Academy Award nomination that year (it did not win).

And this is where the Beatles come in.  They so admired Running Jumping & Standing Still that they asked its director to direct their A Hard Day’s Night (1964) — which he did, and which, in turn, popularized Lester’s visual grammar. (Ever seen an episode of The Monkees?)

Whether or not Roar Like a Dandelion and Hard Day’s Night share a common ancestor, both works have a slightly surrealist sense of humor — curious juxtapositions and nonsensical improvisations that produce the smiles (or laughs).  When Krauss writes, “Jump like a raindrop,” I think of Ringo jumping in A Hard Day’s Night.  Or “Butt like a billy-goat,” to which Ruzzier has added a tiny billy goat head-butting a much larger rhino — head-butting the rhino in the butt, of course. The visual pun puts me in mind of the many linguistic (and a few visual) puns in A Hard Day’s Night.

So, that’s the heretofore unexplored connection between Ruth Krauss, Sergio Ruzzier, and the Beatles.** In the spirit of the mashups in Krauss’s The Cantilever Rainbow and in the (mostly) Lennon compositions “I Am the Walrus” and “Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds” and “Revolution No. 9” (which takes this idea to its extreme), here’s a little Krauss-Lennon-Ruzzier-McCartney mashup I’ve made for you:

Crow like a rooster, make the sun come up.

And of course Henry the Horse dances the waltz!

Eat all the locks off the doors.

Follow her down to a bridge by a fountain where rocking-horse people eat marshmallow pies.

Go like a road.

Help yourself to a bit of what is all around you.***

And check out Roar Like a Dandelion. It’s classic Krauss with a Ruzzier twist!


* Willard Maas (1906-1971) and Marie Mencken (1909-1970) inspired the characters of George and Martha in Edward Albee’s Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? (1962).

Front cover by Chris Ware for: Crockett Johnson and Ruth Krauss: How an Unlikely Couple Found Love, Dodged the FBI, and Transformed Children's Literature (forthcoming from UP Mississippi, Sept. 2012)** Or it’s one connection. If we wanted to pursue this further, we might note that Krauss was also one degree of separation from John Lennon. She and her husband Crockett Johnson were friends with cartoonist Mischa Richter and his son Daniel Richter. Dan lived and worked with Lennon and Yoko Ono from 1969 to 1973. For that matter, Krauss and Ono both hung out with the Fluxus group — though Ono was an active group member (inasmuch as Fluxus had “members”) and slightly earlier than Krauss. So, I cannot verify that they ever met. Nor can I verify that Krauss and Andy Warhol (who was also a friend of Lennon’s) ever met, though they have more potential points of intersection. Both Krauss and Warhol attended the parties given by Willard Maas and Marie Menken — parties that were, as I note in my biography of Krauss and Johnson, a who’s who of the culturally influential. Warhol also published four of Krauss’s poems in Instransit: The Andy Warhol Gerard Malanga Monster issue (1968), which featured work by Lou Reed, John Cale, Nico, John Ashbery, Frank O’Hara (who had died two years earlier), Allen Ginsberg, Phil Ochs, John Hollander, James Merrill, May Swenson, Charles Bukowski, and Warhol himself. An intriguing connection, I think! Make of it what you will.

*** Sources for C, E, G: Roar Like a Dandelion. Source for D: “Being for the Benefit of Mr. Kite.” Source for F: “Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds.” Source for H: “Martha, My Dear.”

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Trump is a liar. Tell children the truth. (Public Books)

Anne Villeneuve, illus. from Dear Donald Trump (2018)

Public Books (logo)Over on Public Books today, my essay “Trump is a liar. Tell children the truth” recommends some good books for educating young people about “President” Trump, and brings in a few examples of the type of books that ought to be avoided — indeed, that a conscientious publisher would have never published in the first place.  (Also: given the pace of news these days, I should add that I turned in the piece back in August….)

I had more to say than Public Books could use. Here are the most important bits that got cut, woven together with a few additional reflections.

“Rich Rump”: Trump’s first appearance in a children’s book

Arthur Yorinks and Richard Egielski, Christmas in July (1991)

Public Books didn’t publish the image (above) from Arthur Yorinks and Richard Egielski’s Christmas in July (1991) — a whimsical picture book featuring Rich Rump, a thinly disguised version of Donald Trump. As I say in the essay, the earliest children’s books in which he appears “depicted the basic truths of the man: selfish, vain, heartless, dishonest.” After he became “President,” children’s literature strove for a more “balanced” approach. However, the “both sides” approach to representing Trump — in children’s books or any media — is a very dangerous lie.

Destroying the boundary between truth and falsehood disorients us

It’s become something of a cliché to quote Hannah Arendt, but we should keep quoting her until more people heed her warnings. So: “The result of a consistent and total substitution of lies for factual truth is not that the lie will now be accepted as truth and truth be defamed as a lie, but that the sense by which we take our bearings in the real world—and the category of truth versus falsehood is among the mental means to this end—is being destroyed.”[1]

This quotation comes up a lot these days. But I also think not enough people are paying attention to this fact. Because Trump’s prolific lies damage the psyche — both individually and collectively.

Every 36 hours, Trump lies more than Obama did in eight years

As of August 12, 2019, Trump had made over 12,000 false and misleading claims during his presidency, averaging over thirteen lies per day. In contrast, Barack Obama made eighteen false or misleading statements during his eight-year presidency. Every 36 hours, Trump lies more than Obama did in eight years.[2]

Trump “children’s books” for adults

There are some fun satirical works in the guise of children’s books — one of which, Michael Ian Black and Marc Rosenthal’s A Child’s First Book of Trump (2106), also works as a story for children. Black’s ersatz Seussian verse and Rosenthal’s sketches represent Trump as part unreformed Grinch and part Sylvester McMonkey McBean (the salesman who profits from the Sneetches’ prejudice). As in all allegorical children’s picture books about Trump, he is a negative example.

P. Shauers, Donald and the Golden Crayon

Since they are adult satires delivered via the medium of the picture book, too much of the humor in Ann TelnaesTrump’s ABC, Erich Origen and Gan Golan’s Goodnight Trump, P. Shauers’ Donald and the Golden Crayon (all 2018) and Faye Kanouse and Amy Zhing’s new If You Give a Pig the White House (2019) may go over the heads of children under ten, but all remind us that the humor in allegorical Trump picture books is a vital part of their truth-telling. And anyone over that age — such as most people reading this post, I imagine — might find the books’ dark humor restorative. (If you want recommendations, my favorite three of these picturebooks-for-adults are Trump’s ABC, Donald and the Golden Crayon, and Goodnight Trump.)

Slice through the fog of lies

One of the surprises of writing this piece was that the work actually proved restorative and clarifying. Facing the prospect of writing this (for the Children’s Literature Association Conference, in June), I dreaded reading lots of children’s books about the evil orange bloviator. But reading them — all of the good ones, but especially Martha Brockenbrough’s Unpresidented — helped me awaken from the nightmare in which we are living. It helped me slice through the fog of lies. It reminded me once again that this is not normal.

This is not normal

To any who may find my truth-telling advice too partisan, I would cite historian Dave Renton’s point that “one cannot be balanced when writing about fascism, there is nothing positive to be said of it.”[3] And yes, Trump lacks sufficient belief in the state to be a fascist in the traditional sense; he is more an authoritarian kleptocrat who uses fascist tactics. But my point is this: if identifying evil as evil is now a partisan behavior, then children’s books and publishers must take a side.

This position challenges the “marketplace of ideas” approach we learn in school — the liberal idea that, to quote Mark Bray, “the key to combatting ‘extremism’ is to trust in the allegedly meritocratic essence of the public sphere: If all are allowed their say, then the good ideas will float to the top while the bad sink to the bottom, like live-action Reddit.”[4] But, historically, the public sphere has not triumphed over totalitarian movements. And some topics — such as people’s humanity — should not be subject to debate.

That our shared humanity is now subject to debate shows how Trump’s poisonous ideas have become normalized.  Remember when, in the early days of the regime, people used to say “This is not normal”? Even as Trump’s behavior grows stranger and more dangerous, we hear this far less often.

Only the truth can liberate the lie-entangled mind

Motivating this essay — though absent even from its draft versions — is postwar Germany’s need to reeducate children raised under the lies of the Third Reich. For the past few years, America’s children have been growing up in a country whose leader is a kleptocratic white-supremacist sociopath — a man who not only brags about sexual assault, but who appointed sexual-assault-hobbyist “Blackout Brett” Kavanaugh to the Supreme Court. They’ve been living in a world where this sort of behavior gets normalized — where a pathological liar’s lies get treated as if, perhaps this time, they may have some truth value, and so on tonight’s program, we invite an expert and a con artist to debate the cloak of lies in which the Trump administration has swathed the day’s cruelty.

Enough! Trump is and has always been a liar. Draw on this irrefutable basic fact of the man’s character when you report on, write children’s books about, or say anything at all about Trump. Call out his lies. Tell the truth. As Michael Chabon recently wrote in a different context, “Truth lives. It can be found. And there is no encounter more powerful than the encounter between the slashing, momentary blade of truth and a lie-entangled mind.”[5]

In sum: Children’s books can be that blade of truth.


Thanks…

For the Public Books article, thanks to Nina Christensen for introducing me to Dumme Donald bygger en mur i børnehaven (Stupid Donald Builds a Wall in Nursery School), and for translating the title. Thanks to Elina Druker for translating the book’s original Swedish title. Thanks to Jules Danielson for introducing me to The Wall and to both Jules and Betsy Bird for confirming that Christmas in July is the first children’s book to feature Mr. Trump.


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[1] Hannah Arendt, “Truth and Politics,” Between Past and Future (London: Penguin Books, 1993), 252-3.

[2] Glenn Kessler, Salvador Rizzo, and Meg Kelly, “President Trump has made 12,019 false or misleading claims over 928 days,” Washington Post , 12 Aug. 2019.

[3] Dave Renton, Fascism: Theory and Practice (Pluto Press, 1999), 18.

[4] Mark Bray, ANTIFA: The Anti-Fascist Handbook (Melville House, 2017), 146.

[5] Michael Chabon, “What’s the Point?” The Paris Review, 23 Sept. 2019.

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Harold vs. Donald, round 2

P. Shauers, Donald and the Golden Crayon

Last year, there was Donald and the Golden Crayon, a satirical look at Mad King Donald, inspired by Crockett Johnson’s Harold and the Purple Crayon (1955). For more on that, see my interview with the book’s author and publisher from October 2018.

John Darkow, Donald and the Black Sharpie (6 Sept. 2019)

This year, it’s Donald and the Black Sharpie, in which at least four five six people have invoked Johnson’s hero to mock our Evil Orange Overlord’s insistence that, with his magic pen, he can change the weather. Even before John Darkow’s cartoon (above), Bradley Whitford tweeted:

On September 6th, Dana Milbank and Tom Toles published a full-length parody of Johnson’s book, which they titled Donald and the Black Sharpie.

Tom Toles, from Donald and the Black Sharpie (words by Dana Milbank, 6 Sept. 2019)

Well, the text is a full-length parody. Toles provides a select few illustrations.

Also on Friday, Jimmy Kimmel did a Donald and the Magic Sharpie parody on his show.

On CNN on Sunday the 8th, Jake Tapper presented his own version of Donald and the Black Sharpie.

(I can’t embed the video here, but you can see it on CNN.)

Finally, on September 16th, Ward Sutton published Donald and the Purple Sharpie in the Boston Globe.

Ward Sutton’s Donald and the Purple Sharpie (16 Sept. 2019)

Sure, it would be better if Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi did her job and began impeachment proceedings against our Traitor-in-Chief. And, no, I don’t expect any elected Republican to step up: they have been Quislings throughout, only occasionally murmuring an objection.

However, until enough elected officials find the courage to act, we can at least laugh at the deranged orange bloviator. Laughing in no way offsets the damage he continues to inflict, I know. But shared laughter reminds us that we’re not losing our minds. It reminds us we are not alone. We see what he and the entire treasonous Republican Party are doing.

In his classic comic strip Barnaby (1942-1952), Crockett Johnson understood the power of satire. And so Johnson would I think be pleased to see Harold’s crayon wielded to mock the malignant narcissist and his sharpie.


For calling these to my attention, thanks to Ellen Gilmer, Dave Rintoul, Thomas Hamilton, Maureen O’Hara, Olga Holownia, Linda Nel and Stephen Sloan.


Updated (thanks to Olga) on 10 Sept. 2019 to add the Jimmy Kimmel Show, and again (thanks to Linda and Stephen) on 18 Sept. 2019 to add the Ward Sutton cartoon.


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Delights

If you have yet to read Ross Gay‘s The Book of Delights (2019), here is an invitation to pick it up. A collection of 102 brief essays he wrote over the course of a year, the book is about the possibility — the necessity — of attentiveness to joy in the world. We live in dark times, and the book does not ignore that. Gay’s sense of delight is capacious, including appreciating beauty, understanding fear, enjoying music, considering the insights gained from pain.

Let me give you an example — one I have shared with many friends, since first I read the book back in March.

The phrase “communities of sorrow” does not appear in Gay’s The Book of Delights.  But the idea does.  Gay writes:

     Among the most beautiful things I’ve ever heard anyone say came from my student Bethany, talking about her pedagogical aspirations or ethos, how she wanted to be as a teacher, and what she wanted her classrooms to be: “What if we joined our wildernesses together?” Sit with that for a minute. That the body, the life, might carry a wilderness, an unexplored territory, that yours and mine might somewhere, somehow, meet. Might, even, join.
     And what if the wilderness — perhaps the densest wild in there — thickets, bogs, swamps, uncrossable ravines and rivers (have I made the metaphor clear?) — is our sorrow? Or, to use [Zadie] Smith’s term, the “intolerable.” It astonishes me sometimes — no, often — how every person I get to know — everyone, regardless of everything, by which I mean everything — lives with some profound personal sorrow. Brother addicted. Mother murdered. Dad died in surgery. Rejected by their family. Cancer came back. Evicted. Fetus not okay. Everyone, regardless, always, of everything. Not to mention the existential sorrow we are all afflicted with, which is that we, and what we love, will soon be annihilated. Which sounds more dramatic than it might. Let me just say dead. In this, sorrow, of which our impending being no more might be the foundation, the great wilderness?
     Is sorrow the true wild?
     And if it is — and if we join them — your wild to mine — what’s that?
     For joining, too, is a kind of annihilation.
     What if we joined our sorrows, I’m saying.
     I’m saying: What if that is joy?

I find myself drawn to this because I’ve come to really appreciate sadness. Sadness connects us to others. As Gay suggests, it binds all of us humans together because we all carry within us sadness and pain. It is an affective opening-up, and in this sense sadness is the opposite of depression. When I mentioned this idea to my therapist, he said that there are many flavors of depression, and that I was describing anhedonic depression.  So, revise the previous sentence to say that anhedonic depression is an affective break with the world, an inability to feel.  But sadness offers — or, at least, can offer — a deeper connection to the world, and to our fellow humans.  On the Venn Diagram of emotions, sadness overlaps with love.

The previous paragraph is one of my delights. Since reading Gay’s book, I have been trying to be more attentive to delights. After mentioning this to Mark Newgarden in New York, in May, he asked was I writing these down? I was not. So, in June, I began keeping a kind of diary. I call it “Daily Delights,” even though I don’t write in it every day. Here are four more.


From 26 June, Manhattan, Kansas. Upon finishing my swim, I pulled myself out of the pool as another swimmer — who had just arrived — remarked to the swimmer in the adjacent lane that she knew she wouldn’t need to wait for a lane because I was predictable.  Smiling, I said, “What do you mean? I warmed up the lane for you.” After a brief, good-natured conversation, I wished her a good swim, said that I was glad to be so predictable, and began to amble off to the showers. Worried that she may have insulted me, she walked a few steps with me to explain herself. I assured her that I understood and that I was indeed predictable.

Our conversation prompted this reflection. “Predictable” is one of those few words that renders a negative judgment both as itself and as its negation. To say that a person is “unpredictable” conveys the notion that he/she is unreliable, potentially volatile, emotionally unstable, or even unhinged. Though it should be complimentary, “predictable” — when applied to a person — generally means “boring.” If we want to compliment someone’s predictability, we instead say that she/he is reliable. Or, if we want to praise unpredictability, we may call a person surprising or, perhaps, exciting. And, yet, of course, we are all of us a mixture of predictability and unpredictability. I may reliably swim for 40 minutes at the same time of the day or typically jog the same two routes. But I also embrace the unpredictability of travel, where my jogging route is not the only thing that changes. Life is a balance between the need for surety and enjoyment of change, the comfort of the expected and of finding joy in what we did not anticipate.


From 7 July, Berlin. I often say that time abroad affords me a much-needed mental-health holiday. Which it does. And lately I’ve taken to joking that I’m hiding from the U.S. — that’s why I’m traveling to so many places. I have to keep moving!

It would be more accurate to say that time abroad grants perspective. It gives me space. It provides a distance from which I can think. It allows me to reclaim my mental space more fully.

Donald Trump is a parasite who colonizes human consciousness. Placing an ocean between myself and the parasite diminishes its power. Temporarily.

It’s a bit like putting some distance between yourself and King Leck (in Kristin Cashore’s Graceling novels). In the case of Bitterblue and Katsa (though few others in the realm), the distance — and ultimately, the death of Leck — helps the fog lift and clarity return.


From 27 July, Vienna, after spending a long time staring at Johannes Vermeer’s The Art of Painting (c. 1666-1668) in the Kunst Historisches Museum: There should be a term for the experience of looking at realistic paintings after seeing a Vermeer. The (unfair) comparison makes everything else feel a bit flat. You feel that you could step into a Vermeer, as if what you have seen is not just canvas but window or portal. I spent more time looking at the Vermeer than I did any other piece of art in the museum. I had a similar experience with Vermeer’s Woman in Blue Reading a Letter, on display at the Alte Pinakothek in München in the fall. The experience of looking at a Vermeer is almost hypnotic. And you need to be there, in the gallery, looking at it. No reproduction of Vermeer has quite the same effect.


From 7 August, Edinburgh. Days are so full of thoughts and impressions. Impossible to note even just the interesting ones and keep experiencing the day. I had that thought this evening, darting between and among the umbrella’d and the uncovered, as the rain fell, but more lightly than earlier in the afternoon/evening.

Or, more succinctly: It is impossible to both live life and chronicle it fully.


In conclusion, I’d say this: inasmuch as it is possible, do not let malevolent leaders, oppressive systems, collapsing climate, etc. rob of you your own capacity for joy. I realize this is hard — and harder for those who are the direct targets of the regime’s* cruelty. I am grateful for — and acknowledge my own privilege in having — business, family, and friends that enabled me to travel this summer. I should also add that there are also more troubling thoughts chronicled amidst my delights — omitted from this narrative, even though making sense of my tangled mind is in fact one of my delights. OK. That’s all. Find delight where you can. Take care of yourselves.


* I am thinking of Mad King Donald’s regime, but feel free to insert any of the many others we have to choose from: Jair Bolsonaro, Rodrigo Duterte, and now — it seems — Boris Johnson…

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Mundo Azul, Berlin

Mundo Azul, Choriner Straße 49, Berlin

This is the bookstore I want to live in. Mundo Azul (Choriner Straße 49, Berlin) is an international celebration of beautiful children’s picture books — some of which I knew, many of which I did not, and all of which are well worth reading. While browsing, I had the sense that the proprietor, Mariela Nagle, had selected each one intentionally. She displays them not because they are popular — though there are some well-known titles, along with many that were (to me) discoveries. She displays them because they’re art that she wants to spend more time with, and that her patrons should get to know.

And then there’s the space itself.

Two rooms of books, carefully displayed on wooden shelves, many book-covers facing outward — catching the eye, drawing you in for a closer look.

There are places for sitting and reading.

(Or for taking silly selfies with your friends.)

Ada Bieber and Philip Nel display 3 books: Jessica Love’s Julián Is a Mermaid; Megumi Iwasa’s Viele Grüße, Deine Giraffe (German translation illus. by Jörg Mühle); Ruth Krauss and Maurice Sendak’s Löcher Gibt’s, Um Sie Zu Graben (A Hole Is to Dig in German).

And what is that tiny sign in the middle of that bookshelf over there?

Yes! That one! On the little easel.

“Silent books”? Does that mean what I think it means…? Yes. Perusing the books confirms that they are all wordless. An entire shelf devoted to wordless picture books! When Mariela Nagle noticed my interest, she strolled over with a new one she had just gotten in — from Portugal, which (she says) has more independent children’s book publishers than anywhere.

I think I got that right. Mariela, if I am mistaken, please correct me! I visited the shop with no intention of writing about it — so, I took no notes. I only decided to write about it afterwards, as I walked away thinking of all the people who would love this shop! Instead of writing only to them, I decided to shout it from the rooftops! Or, at least, from the laptops — via this blog.

This is the book Mariela showed me. It’s a wordless, anti-capitalist parable.
On the subject of anti-capitalist parables, I like this one even better. It has words — Karl Marx’s. (Thanks to Ada Bieber for directing me to it… and to the store!)

If ever you are in or near Berlin, you must visit Mundo Azul. Plan to spend the afternoon. Yes, all of the afternoon. And it is OK if you do not speak German. Mariela speaks German, English, and Spanish (and possibly other languages — I neglected to ask).*

If you cannot get to Berlin, I highly recommend browsing…

After you’ve done that, you’ll of course start saving up for a trip to Berlin….

Vielen Dank an Mariela und Ada! Es war wunderbar!


* Update, 11 July 2019: I met up with Mariela this evening at “Drawings from East & West: Sino-German Picture Book Exchange Salon,” and I asked. She also speaks Italian and French.

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How to Make Engaging Video-Lectures for On-Line Classes

Though I’ve only been teaching on-line for a couple of years, I’ve developed a visual style (heavily indebted to others’ visual styles*) that works for me. I’m offering this video for people who are teaching on-line and who want to make more engaging video-lectures. But please keep in mind that my visual style may not work for you. It may take time to develop a style that works for your personality and pedagogy. Indeed, the styles explored in this video would not work for all of my class sessions.

As I note (in the video), for more serious subjects, I adopt a more serious visual style. And there’s a much greater frequency of visual tricks in this video because I’m (a) trying to convey the many visual possibilities in a brief time and (b) making a semi-humorous (?) instructional video.

Anyway. Here are 9 tips on how to make engaging video-lectures for your on-line courses.

I hope it proves useful to you! Critique and comments welcome, of course!


* some influences listed in video’s end credits.


Related Posts

  • Literature for Adolescents (Fall 2018): Sneak Preview (31 May 2018). Some videos from an earlier on-line class — the later ones are better than the earliest few. I was still learning how to make these. Indeed, I still am learning how to make these. I’m sure that in 6 months or a year, I’ll look back at the above critically.
  • Sherman Alexie and #MeToo (5 April 2018). The results of a conversation in my on-line Multicultural Children’s Literature course. I taught Alexie’s novel, and then the news of his mistreatment and harassment of others broke. So, I added a discussion to my course on how we might respond. I shared it publicly in the hopes that others might find it useful for approaching the topic in their classes (on-line or in-person). Some found it useful. Others definitely did not.

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Goodbye, Pork Pie Hat

I’m borrowing the title of Charles Mingus’ tribute to Lester Young because my uncle Terry Webb liked Young, Mingus, and this song. To the best of my knowledge, Terry did not wear pork pie hats. Earlier in his career, Terry wore bowler hats. Later, he wore a Tyrolean hat. Or no hat — as in the photo below.

Philip Nel and Terry Webb, August 2018.

I could not be at Terry’s funeral in Bournemouth today. So, I sent this brief video reminiscence — which I am sharing here for any who would like to see it. Friends. Family. People who enjoy tributes for a favorite uncle.

Yes, that is an actual postcard from Terry, sent in 1975. Another annotation: the three photos that cycle through during the “same wavelength” section were cropped by Terry himself. While going through Terry’s hard drive of photos to make photo albums for Terry’s widow, my sister (Linda) came across those three, labeled terry_phil1, terry_phil2, terry_phil3. One other note: near the end, the Charlie Parker CD I hold up is one Terry gave me when he was visiting us in Nashville in the 1990s. Whenever the two of us were anywhere near a record shop, we’d go in and he would always get me a jazz CD he recommended. This particular one does indeed have “Parker’s Mood” on it. No one watching this video today could have known any of the above, of course. But hopefully the intent came through.

As I worked on selecting the music with Terry’s friends Vic Grayson and Derek Fones, I realized how much of my jazz knowledge comes from Terry. They would mention a song, and I would think: Oh, yes, Terry and I chatted about Bill Evans. And Charles Mingus. And Duke Ellington. And, of course, Charlie Parker. Here’s our Spotify playlist for the funeral.

Terry’s choices (communicated to Derek, a week or so before Terry died) are:

The Spotify playlist lists this last one as “New Orleans Function,” but don’t let that fool you: it’s actually “Oh, Didn’t He Ramble.” It’s followed by a shorter Armstrong recording of the same song, and another version by Kid Ory. Terry asked for “Oh, Didn’t He Ramble” as the exit music: we’ve added a few extra recordings so that the music keeps playing as people depart the chapel. Terry wanted people to enter to “Parker’s Mood.” However, since “Parker’s Mood” is so brief (and would conclude before people had finished entering), we decided to precede it with Bill Evans’ “Peace Piece,” and then begin the funeral proper with “Parker’s Mood.” This way, people could actually have a chance to listen to the Charlie Parker. Also, how many funerals begin with “Parker’s Mood”? I think Terry would have liked this somewhat unconventional beginning.

(Derek and Vic and I discussed including Mingus’ “Goodbye, Pork Pie Hat,” but it ultimately did not make the final playlist. As is ever the case, we had more music than time. So, check out the album Mingus Ah Um and listen for yourself. Indeed, why not give yourself a treat and listen to the whole album?)

So long, Terry. And thanks for all the delight — musical and otherwise — that you brought to our lives.

For their invaluable help in planning the funeral, special thanks to my cousin Vicky O’Neill and Head & Wheble funeral director Bob Bowater. For their indispensable assistance in making musical selections, thanks to Vic Grayson, Derek Fones, and Terry himself!

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Terry Webb (1934-2019)

Terrence Dudley Webb passed away on 12 April 2019, just over two weeks after learning that he had lung cancer. He was 85.

Terry Webb and his father Leslie Webb (1904-1992), c. 1935.

Born March 23, 1934 in Pretoria, South Africa, Terry was the first child of Leslie Ralph Webb and Mona Beatrice Webb (née Schwegmann). Leslie was a mechanic, fixing adding machines, calculators, and typewriters. He was, in his way, an early computer engineer — a field that would later be of interest to all three Webb siblings. Mona’s belief in a benevolent god and ability to see the best in everyone gave him — Terry would later reflect — “optimism and courage.”

Graham Webb (1936-2015) and Terry, c. 1939.

And two more siblings. When two-year-old Terry was told that the family would soon gain a new member, he looked forward to welcoming a little sister. So, his brother Graham’s arrival in June 1936 was a surprise. But Terry adapted. In a photo taken three years later, the two brothers — clad in matching sweaters and shorts — sit side by side, Terry smiling as Graham leans against him. The little sister finally arrived in November 1941, when Gloria was born.

Thanks to comic books, young Terry had taught himself to read before he began primary school in 1940. In 1946, a job in Northern Rhodesia (now Zambia) brought the Webb family — which now included their Zulu servant Donswene — to Lusaka. However, the promised house was still under construction, the small cottage where they lived had a leaky thatched roof, and the local schools weren’t up to par. Not wanting to send her sons away to boarding school, Mona convinced Leslie to return to South Africa. After a short stay with Cyril Webb (Leslie’s brother) and his wife Iris in Durban, the family at last moved to 97 Glenwood Drive, Durban. There, the Webb children would spend the rest of their childhoods.

Though girls’ education was not a priority, Terry noticed that his sister Gloria was bright and inquisitive. He encouraged her studies, insisting that she enroll in serious academic courses, including Latin and Maths, rather than the “domestic science” classes that girls usually took. He also challenged her to think critically.

By the end of his high school years, Terry had discovered be-bop. The music of Charlie Parker, Dizzy Gillespie, and Thelonious Monk begat a life-long love of jazz. Though more passionate about his musical education, Terry attended to his formal education, graduating from Durban High School in 1951 and Natal University in 1956.

While still a college student, this be-bop aficionado became an accountant, joining the Durban firm of Murray, Smith, Berend and Noyce. That combination — avant-garde jazz and careful financial management — encapsulates Terry’s personality. He had a sharp mind, but also a wry sense of humor. He was meticulously attentive, whether to the complex harmonies of a Lester Young solo or to the intricacies of an audit. He was fluent in the languages of art and of economics. For that matter, Terry also spoke French, Afrikaans, and — much later — Luxembourgish.

Terry married Pat Fletcher on 27 June 1959. Though (and perhaps because) they were childless, Terry took an active interest in the lives of his nieces and nephews, taking them to dinner whenever his travels brought him near, sending postcards from those travels, or — with his niece Linda — playing golf.

As Terry put it, “professional ambition” inspired him in the 1960s to take up golf and join the Royal Durban Golf Club, where his younger brother was already established as a first team player. Upon Graham’s passing in 2015, Terry recalled: “Notwithstanding my lack of ability, he introduced me to his friends, partnered me and gradually taught me the finer points of the game.”

The Webb siblings in 2004: Terry, Gloria, and Graham

While Terry rose in the ranks of chartered accountancy, he always remembered to mentor younger colleagues. When the firm of Murray, Smith, Berend and Noyce merged with Deloitte (then Deloitte, Haskins and Sells) in 1975, Terry joined Deloitte as a partner, moving to the Johannesburg office a few years later. In 1987, he moved again, this time to manage Deloitte’s Luxembourg office. In 1991, he retired, and he and Pat moved to Ferndown, Dorset, in the UK.

When Pat died in 1996, Terry reorganized, downsized, and moved to the Bournemouth flat where he would live for the next two decades. But not on his own. In February 1999, he — quite by chance — met Evelyne King. She, too, was recently widowed. They started chatting, and just clicked. They married on 6 April 2001.

Evelyne and Terry in Salzburg, Austria. December 2006.

Since they both liked to travel, over the next 18 years Terry and Evelyne visited Paris, Nice, Venice, Rome, Tuscany, Lake Como, Hong Kong, China, Japan, Singapore, Lisbon, Madrid, Andalusia, Amsterdam, Athens, Brussels, Budapest, Salzburg, the Canary Islands, the Arctic Circle, Norway, Iceland, Scotland, Switzerland, and many places in the U.S. — New York, New England, California, Colorado, Texas, Las Vegas, Arizona, Utah. (This incomplete itinerary at least gestures to their geographic range, even if it cannot conjure the many delights of traveling together.)

Back in Bournemouth, Terry was a member of the Probus Club, the Big Band Club, and (from 1998 to 2011) the Board of Governors of the Bournemouth School, serving as its Chair from 2007 to 2011. During his tenure as Chair, he helped establish the fiscal foundations for improving the school’s infrastructure, increasing its enrollment, and attracting the brightest students from the area. As Headmaster Dr Dorian Lewis noted, the school gained much from Terry’s “generosity of time and spirit” and his “wisdom and good humour.” As did all of us who knew Terry.

Terry is survived by his wife Evelyne Webb, his sister Gloria Hardman, as well as cousins, nieces, nephews, other family, and many good friends.

A funeral will be held at the Bournemouth Crematorium on Friday, May 3, 2019 at 1 pm, followed directly by a celebration of Terry’s life.

Flowers or donations, made payable to Cancer Research, may be sent care of Head and Wheble, 1A Oxford Road, Lansdowne, Bournemouth, Dorset, BH8 8EY, telephone number 01202 551190.

— Philip Nel (Terry’s nephew)

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