Archive for April, 2015

Laurie Anderson & Lou Reed’s Rules to Live By

Lou Reed and Laurie Anderson. Photo by Timothy Greenfield-Sanders

I collect quotations — the epigrammatic, the wise, the thoughtful. Sometimes, I post these in my “Commonplace Book” entries. Here’s another for the commonplace book, offered by Laurie Anderson on the occasion of Lou Reed‘s induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, on Saturday, April 18, 2015. It’s “rules to live by,” co-written by Reed and Anderson, who were life partners for 21 years (and who married in 2008):

I’m reminded also of the three rules we came up with, rules to live by. And I’m just going to tell you what they are because they come in really handy. Because things happen so fast, it’s always good to have a few, like, watchwords to fall back on.

And the first one is: One. Don’t be afraid of anyone. Now, can you imagine living your life afraid of no one? Two. Get a really good bullshit detector. And three. Three is be really, really tender. And with those three things, you don’t need anything else.

Here’s the video of the entire speech, recorded by a member of the audience (so, the audio’s not great). This “rules to live by” portion runs from 8:55 to 9:46.

There’s also an imperfect transcript of Anderson’s speech in Rolling Stone. I hope a more precise transcription (or, perhaps, the full text of her speech) is forthcoming.

Because you should hear their music, too, here’s a recording of “In Our Sleep,” co-written by Anderson and Reed, and performed by them both. This remix is from the CD single. The original version appears on Anderson’s Bright Red (1994).

Photo of Lou Reed and Laurie Anderson by Timothy Greenfield-Sanders.  I found it on this site (which seems to be defunct). So, for further information, try Mr. Greenfield-Sanders’ website.

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Reading the Penderwicks

Since you’re reading this blog post, you may have already read one or more of Jeanne Birdsall’s Penderwicks books — the fourth of which, The Penderwicks in Spring, was published last month. In case you haven’t, here’s why you should.

Jeanne Birdsall, The PenderwicksJeanne Birdsall understands the emotional intelligence of children. She knows that they feel love, guilt, joy, loss, anger, excitement, jealousy, and sadness just as acutely as adults do. In fact, they often feel them more acutely than adults do, because children lack the full range of language and experience that allows us grown-ups (well, some of us grown-ups) to manage intense emotions. Evincing an acute awareness of children’s vulnerabilities and strengths, Birdsall’s four Penderwick sisters — and honorary Penderwick Jeffrey Tifton, Ben (who arrives in book two), Lydia (book four) — are also resilient, thoughtful, funny, fully realized characters. They and the adults in their lives feel like real people. Even though you meet them for the first time in these novels, you recognize them instantly.

Like Louisa May Alcott’s March sisters, Lynn Johnston’s Patterson children, and the protagonists of J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter, Jeanne Birdsall’s Penderwick sisters feel so real because we get to watch them grow up. Especially Batty, my favorite character. She’s just four years old in the first novel. Her best friend and confidante is Hound, the family dog. She’s shy, and far more perceptive than the either the adults or older Penderwick sisters give her credit for. This may be one reason why The Penderwicks in Spring is my favorite: it focuses the most on Batty, now ten years old, exploring her joy in discovering her musical talent and her misplaced guilt over — well, I don’t want to give that away. (Read the book!)

Jeanne Birdsall, The Penderwicks in SpringThe Penderwicks in Spring is also my favorite because each Penderwicks novel is better than the previous one. Given that the National-Book-Award-winning The Penderwicks (2005) is already great, I’ve often marveled at her ability to make each successive novel is even stronger than the previous one. How does she do it? First, I think that — like the late Terry Pratchett — hers is a talent that just keeps getting better. Second, the most recent three Penderwicks books are not sequels. They’re each stories unto themselves. They’re windows into the lives of these characters, offering insights into different facets of their developing selves. Each book focuses more on a different Penderwick or group of Penderwicks, but somehow manages to advance the stories of all family members. Third, Birdsall is great at free indirect discourse — third-person narration, closely aligned with one particular character. This gift allows her to shift perspectives seamlessly, from Rosalind (the eldest), to Jane, to Skye, to Batty, to Ben, to Lydia, letting us know what they understand and what they don’t. Fourth, she understands how inadequate the word “children” is to describe a group of people who differ in ages, interests, genders, experiences, and their capacity for relating to others. This understanding makes her characters feel more like actual people. And it makes me care about them, and want to spend time with them.

Hers are fun and funny family stories, novels about how to love even those family members who may try your patience. They’re books with great animal characters (Hound! Duchess!), and human characters who understand the joy and beauty of music. They are novels you’ll want to read and re-read. If you’ve read her work, you already know this. If not, then you’ll just have to trust me on this one.

Jeanne Birdsall, The Penderwicks Jeanne Birdsall, The Penderwicks on Gardam Street Jeanne Birdsall, Penderwicks at Point Mouette Jeanne Birdsall, The Penderwicks in Spring

There are four books in all, each subsequent one taking place at a later moment in time. Begin on a summer holiday with The Penderwicks. Return to the family’s lives in The Penderwicks on Gardam Street (2008). Join them for another summer vacation (a year after the first book) in The Penderwicks at Point Mouette (2011).  Come back home, five years later, for The Penderwicks in Spring.  (She’s currently writing the fifth and final Penderwicks novel.)

If you’ll be at or near Kansas State University on April 23rd (tomorrow), she’ll be speaking at 4pm in the Student Union, room 226. Free and open to the public! Come on by.


I wrote the above to introduce Jeanne Birdsall’s talk. Since it’s far more than I can use in an intro., I’ve posted the full text here. (Tomorrow, I’ll speak just a fraction of the above.)

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The Land Where We Invisibly Rule: They Might Be Giants’ Glean

They Might Be Giants' Glean

Man, you never lost your edge.

— They Might Be Giants, “All the Lazy Boyfriends,” Glean (2015)

They Might Be Giants‘ Glean — due out April 21 — is the band’s best record since its 1986 eponymous debut, affectionately known as The Pink Album (due to its pink cover). Like that record, it has a range of musical styles, unusual subject matter, and the unexpected lyrical turns that make a They Might Be Giants song a They Might Be Giants song. It’s even similar in length: the debut offered 38 minutes and 31 seconds of music; the new record provides 39 minutes and 1 second.

Spend some time reflecting.

— They Might Be Giants, “It’s Good to Be Alive,” Glean (2015)

That said, perhaps it feels like a classic because all but three of the songs are familiar. Only “All the Lazy Boyfriends,” “Aaa,” and the instrumental title track had not previously been released through their weekly Dial-a-Song.  Much to the delight of fans (me!), the band re-launched this service in January, which from 1983 until 2006 ran off John Flansburgh’s Brooklyn answering machine. (In 2006, the answering machine finally gave up the ghost.) The new web-based version shares not demos — as the original iteration did — but finished songs, complete with videos. Those of us (me, again!) who subscribed to They Might Be Giants’ 2015 Instant Fan Club have also been able to download these songs each week, and (on some weeks) bonus tracks as well.  So, prior to listening to Glean for the first time, I had — according to my iTunes playlist — already heard “Good to Be Alive” (released March 10) and “Answer” (Feb. 17) fourteen times each.  I’d listened to “Erase” (Jan. 6), “Music Jail, Pt. 1 & 2” (Jan. 26), “I Can Help the Next in Line” (Mar. 3), “Madam, I Challenge You to a Duel” (Jan. 13), and “Hate the Villanelle” (Feb. 3) ten times each. By offering bonus tracks as well, They Might Be Giants has even been providing the b-sides to the singles.  So, one reason Glean arrives with this classic vibe is that I’ve been listening to most of its songs and b-sides for the past three and a half months.

I can help the next in line.

Do we have a problem here?

— They Might Be Giants, “I Can Help The Next in Line,” Glean (2015)

But, to puncture holes in the “familiarity” argument I’ve been advancing, I’ve been listening to these songs a lot because they’re really good songs.  The reason I know these songs well is because John Linnell and John Flansburgh are — astonishingly, thirty years later — still making great records. One of these is a catchy number about customer service, beginning with typical customer-is-always-right lingo (“I can help the next in line. / Have you been with us before?”), but quickly escalating into a confrontation (“I don’t think I like your tone”) and the threat of violence (“Put your hands where I can see them”).  They’re still following their respective muses, pursuing unusual ideas. Who else writes a song that is a villanelle about writing a villanelle?  First of all, a villanelle is hard to write. It’s a highly structured, complex poetic form that, as the Poetry Foundation’s website says, consists “of five three-line stanzas and a final quatrain, with the first and third lines of the first stanza repeating alternately in the following stanzas.” Second, they’ve not just written a villanelle.  They’ve written a meta-villanelle, documenting some of the challenges of writing one of these. Third, they’ve set the entire thing to music. Brilliant!

It might seem like a thankless existence

But don’t lose hope just yet.

You’ll be remembered for your persistence

And this is the thanks you get.

— They Might Be Giants, “Answer,” Glean (2015)

The persistence of creative intelligent people amidst rising oceans of despair gives me hope.  That Flansburgh and Linnell, Toni Morrison, Neil Gaiman, Sleater-Kinney, Tim Egan, Kadir Nelson, Frank Turner, Jeanne Birdsall, Jaqueline Woodson, Lane Smith and so many others continue to make good art improves the quality of my life. I especially enjoy the optimistic ambivalence — or would that be ambivalent optimism? — of They Might Be Giants’ approach.  On the band’s first record, “Don’t Let’s Start” advised us, “Everybody dies frustrated and sad, / And that is beautiful.”  On this one, “Answer” offers a midtempo but cheery response to disappointment: “It may take an ocean of whiskey and time / To wash all of the letdown out of your mind / And I may not be the one you expected but I / Am the answer to all your prayers.”  That’s it exactly.  To quote one of my favorite Leonard Cohen songs, “There is a crack in everything. / That’s how the light gets in.” There’s plenty of light in Glean, light through which the band filters absurdities, melancholia, poetic challenges, customer-service fiascos, and… is “Erase” about cognitive decline or the creative process? Or, perhaps, all of the above?

Glean is already one of my favorite records of 2015. Check it out. And whether or not you’ve subscribed to the Fan Club, you can hear new They Might Be Giants videos each Tuesday this year. Check those out, too. They’ll remind you why (to quote another Glean song) “It’s good to be alive.”  It is.

They Might Be Giants

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Regarding the Pain of Racism

When people ask me about the steps to empathize with someone who’s been incarcerated, as if — and in some ways, there is a grand liberal tradition of wanting to imagine that you can feel black pain, which is itself almost always an exercise in violence and privilege. Not just something that can’t be done. It is actually an exercise in violence. And so I actually think the challenge is to turn back upon yourself, and rather say: What would it feel like to feel that — to actually turn to yourself and say — what does it feel like to be in this moment, in this country that incarcerates a greater proportion of its citizens than any nation in the world, and that has built an elaborate system of cages that actually does cage black people, and that’s how it came to be? What does it feel like to be on the side of that where I pay taxes for that, and the defense happens mostly in my name? And see if you can get yourself there, rather than imagining [that you can feel black pain]. And I think if you can feel that, yourself as someone who is inflicting massive pain, then that can become your barometer for where we are.  My barometer for where I am is not how I imagine black criminality.  My barometer for where we are is: How complicitous am I for this massive amount of systemized, enforced extraction of pain and death?

— Naomi Murakawa, from “Naomi Murakawa and Eddie Glaude in Conversation — The First Civil Right,” Princeton Community Television. Recorded at Labyrinth Books, 12 Mar. 2015.  (The above statement begins near minute 54.)

No “we” should be taken for granted when the subject is looking at other people’s pain.

— Susan Sontag, Regarding the Pain of Others (New York: Farrar, Straus, & Giroux, 2003), p. 7

Nothing in all the world is more dangerous than sincere ignorance and conscientious stupidity.

— Martin Luther King Jr., assassinated on this day in 1968 and quoted in Michelle Alexander, The New Jim Crow, p. 203

Naomi Murakawa’s remark resonates deeply because I have been reading and thinking and writing about racism — a form of social violence that I have never had directed at me. I’m writing a book, currently titled Was the Cat in the Hat Black?: Structures of Racism in Children’s Literature. To reiterate, I’ve never been on the receiving end of racism. Yet, as a white male, I have — every day of my life — benefitted from institutional racism and sexism.

But writing about privilege has a tendency to shift the focus too much to the oppressor. While addressing the oppressor’s role is important and necessary work, it can have the unfortunate, even immoral, consequence of shifting attention away from those in pain. Beneficiaries of racism and sexism do have a much greater moral responsibility to fight these structures of oppression, but narratives about white men (such as myself) voicing this awareness have a tendency to become self-congratulatory. And, frankly, you don’t get a cookie for doing the right thing.

Michelle Alexander, The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of ColorblindnessMurakawa’s comment nicely illuminates the ways in which affect can mobilize oppressors to challenge their complicity in that oppression. Since my taxes underwrite the nation’s prison industrial complex, I’m responsible for the pain and death inflicted. That’s a helpful — and, of course, profoundly soul-crushing —  way of shifting the emphasis away from the facile, ersatz empathy of merely imagining someone else’s pain, and towards acknowledging one’s role in perpetuating this systemic violence.

As Murakawa says, empathy is not only impossible but is itself a form of violence against the oppressed. And, as Susan Sontag says, “No ‘we’ should be taken for granted when the subject is looking at other people’s pain.” Sympathy, however, is possible — so long as it’s cognizant of its limits. Certainly, sympathy is insufficient on its own, but it can motivate people to take the next step that Murakawa describes.

Karen E. Fields and Barbara J. Fields, Racecraft: The Soul of Inequality in American LifeIf the second paragraph’s concluding sentence implies that I’m “doing the right thing” in undertaking this book on structural racism in children’s literature, I hereby redact that implication. Yes, I would like to be doing the right thing; I hope my work makes some sort of positive difference. But it’s presumptions, even arrogant, to suggest that. The profound limitations of my raced subject position enhances the likelihood that I will come up short. Obviously, I’m doing the research, reading works by Michelle Alexander, Karen Fields and Barbara Fields, Nell Irvin Painter, Randall Kennedy, Eduardo Bonilla-Silva, Michael Omi and Howard Winant, Michelle Martin, Kate Capshaw, Rudine Sims Bishop, Robin Bernstein, Claire Bradford, Zetta Elliott, and many others. (I have not yet read Murakawa’s The First Civil Right: How Liberals Built Prison in America, but it’s now on my list.)

Yet, somehow, in this project more than any other I’ve undertaken (including the biography of Johnson and Krauss), the research feels insufficient.

I think it comes down to this. I aspire to be an ally, but I would never call myself an ally. If and when a member of an oppressed group calls me an ally, I feel grateful and humbled. But a member of a dominant group cannot confer allyhood on himself or herself. Nor, of course, does the power to designate allyhood reside in one member of a group facing institutional oppression. However, that one individual has a better ability to evaluate allyhood than I do. Straight, white men do not get to call ourselves allies. But we can and should try to be allies.

In other words, it all comes down to the work itself. And, on that note, I should get back to work.

A tip of the hat to Brian Herrera for sharing the Murakawa video, via Facebook.

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