Archive for March, 2020

The Bright Side. #PlagueSongs, no. 3

This week’s #PlagueSong is dedicated to my mother, Gloria Hardman. This is her favorite song, her motto, and very good advice.

The song is funnier when sung as Eric Idle’s “Mr. Cheeky” character (as it is in The Life of Brian). I suspect the song’s mixture of irony and sincerity is one reason it resonates with my mother, with me, and with so many others. Dark humor leavens its “Ac-cent-tchu-ate the Positive” optimism and makes that optimism somehow more plausible.

That said, in my performance (such as it is), I lean more into the song’s sincerity. When my mother sings it these days, she too draws more on its hopefulness than its irony. Indeed, she really only recalls the chorus.

Edward Lear, “The Owl and the Pussycat”
(from Nonsense Songs, Stories, Botany, and Alphabets, 1871)

Poetry she heard as a child (Lear’s “The Owl and the Pussycat,” Carroll’s “Jabberwocky”) and some songs — from her childhood, my childhood, and the life she lived in between — are most likely to elicit a spark of recognition. So, when I visited her earlier this month (during the week of Spring Break), I signed her up for Spotify, and made her a playlist of songs she still “knows” — evident via a reference either to just the chorus, or to some other lyric.

For example, when I’m about to take her for a walk, I’ll say, “Let’s grab your coat, and get your hat.” She replies, “Leave your worries on the doorstep.” Then we sing a bit of “On the Sunny Side of the Street.” But Mom knows the lyrics to “Won’t You Be My Neighbor?” the best: during my last visit, after we had sung it a few times together, she managed a rendition unaccompanied.

I chose “Always Look on the Bright Side of Life” because it’s her favorite, because I don’t know when I will see her again, and because I wanted her to have a recording of me singing this song to her. At any time, one of the good healthcare workers at the “Memory Care” facility where she lives can pull up this YouTube video and press play. Though Mom once programmed computers and taught students and faculty how to use theirs, she cannot now operate the computer in her room. For that matter, she cannot find it.

Gloria Hardman and her son, Philip Nel.  Concord, Mass.  9 March 2020.
Mom and me. Concord, Mass., USA. 9 March 2020.

Shortly after my visit began earlier this month, The Commons — the Massachusetts retirement community where she lives — went into lockdown. I could continue visiting only because I was staying in a guest room on site. As of March 10, everything was cancelled: all family visits, all trips off campus, all events, all tours (for prospective residents and prospective employees). Since I left on March 13, no other family member has been allowed in to The Commons. Mom and I still chat via Skype at least once a week — I have set up my computer to mirror hers so that I can answer the Skype on her end. But, like many people with elderly relatives, I do not know when I will be able to visit again.

That is one reason I say “I don’t know when I will see her again.” Another reason is that she is receding further into the fog of Alzheimer’s. During this visit, she recognized me about 80% of the time. Will she know me when next I see her? Possibly. Possibly not.

Although I could write other, darker paragraphs on the subject of “I don’t know when I will see her again,” context already implies these paragraphs and so they can remain, for now, implicit.

More important is that she is and has been The World’s Greatest Mother. Truly, when it comes to mothers, my sister Linda and I won the lottery. (Yes, exactly — who knew there was a Mother Lottery? We don’t even remember buying a ticket! And yet, here we are. Remarkable.) Most important of all, Mom knows we love her, we know she loves us, and her love is with us even when she is not.

And so. We look on the bright side of life. We also look on the bright side of death — as per the song’s third verse…. And we sing songs via Skype.

Will you sing this one with us?


If you’re interested in performing a #PlagueSong, but lack ideas for which one, I invite you to check out this ever-expanding playlist!


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Do Not Touch Your Face. #PlagueSongs, no. 2

Welcome to the second in my series of #PlagueSongs! As I say in my inaugural #PlagueSongs post,

Each Tuesday, I will post a video of me performing a “plague-themed” song, very broadly defined. It is my way of standing on my balcony and singing to you…. I am also inviting you to sing and post yourself singing whatever songs are keeping you going these days. I’ve deliberately defined “plague-themed” very broadly — this can truly be any song that is sustaining you.

In this week’s, I perform an international pop hit from 5 years ago that offers some excellent advice for life in the age of corona. Apologies in advance for my falsetto because no, you will not be able to unhear it.

The keen observers among you will notice that I do adjust my glasses near the end there — a near-miss that is common for the bespectacled. But I do not touch my face. And you should try to avoid touching yours.

It’s hard! I know. But perhaps the plaintive screech of my falsetto will help this stay in your mind. Or, better, check out The Weeknd’s version.

And… have any of you recorded Plague Songs of your own? Emily Wishneusky Petermann has recorded one, which she has posted to Facebook. Enjoy!

Looking for suggestions of what to sing or play? Perhaps you’ll find ideas on my COVID-19: A Coronavirus Pandemic Playlist 🎵💃🦠🕺🎶

Take care of yourselves. Take care of each other.

And stop touching your face already.


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What’s Your COVID-19 Routine?

Hi there, fellow quarantiner / social-distancer! I made a video for you. These are 5 things I am doing to keep myself going during the pandemic. (There are other things I’m doing, obviously. But I’ve limited myself to 5 here.)

What are you doing? How are you keeping yourself going? Anything working really well for you?

Sending each other video-messages is one way we can keep in touch without actually touching. Contact-less contact. Separate togetherness. That’s how we’ll help each other get through it.

Let me also thank the video’s three special guests, all of whom are isolating in the same town that I am. (Who are they? Watch the video to find out!)

So. What’s your COVID-19 routine?


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Sing. Sing a Song. #PlagueSongs, no. 1

Inspired by videos of Italians singing to or playing music for each other, I am starting a new feature on this blog: #PlagueSongs

Each Tuesday, I will post a video of me performing a “plague-themed” song, very broadly defined. It is my way of standing on my balcony and singing to you. Since I do not have a balcony and you may be anywhere in the world, I am doing this via YouTube, and will be sharing via this blog, Twitter (@philnel) and Instagram (@thephilnel). I will be tagging them all #PlagueSongs.

I am also inviting you to sing and post yourself singing whatever songs are keeping you going these days. I’ve deliberately defined “plague-themed” very broadly — this can truly be any song that is sustaining you. Sing with those you’re quarantining with. (Do NOT go and find people to sing with.) Sing a cappella. Or sing with instrumentation. But do sing.

When we sing to each other, we offer hope. We have fun. We come together, even though we cannot be with one another. We affirm our bond to each other. Because we will need each other to get through these many months of quarantine, overwhelmed health care systems (such as in Italy and the U.S.), a collapsing global economy, and whatever other challenges we face.

So. Here I am, singing to you. Will you sing to me?

As the above makes evident, I am not a professional musician. Indeed, I chose Gloria Gaynor’s disco classic in part because it must be sung with enthusiasm, and in part because it was definitely not written to be performed on acoustic guitar. I knew I would look a little ridiculous.

Indeed, I hope I look a little ridiculous. I figure that you could probably use a laugh right now.

So, pull out your trombone, sidle up to the piano, pick up the banjo, dust off your flute, or just open your mouth in song.

Looking for suggestions of what to sing or play? Perhaps I can help. I’ve been assembling COVID-19: A Coronavirus Pandemic Playlist 🎵💃🦠🕺🎶

Because, yes, we are in a plague year — an older term for what we might now call a time of pandemic (or, to borrow a hashtag from Twitter yesterday, #coronapocalypse). And, in a plague year, daily life is different.  But remember that humankind has faced plague years before. As people have done in the past, we too will persist.  We will carry on.  We will do the best we can.  Because that is what we do.

And, to sustain our spirits during this plague year, let us make music together — even if we must be physically apart. We will survive! (Sing it! We will survive!)

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The Cat, Seuss, and Race

Dr. Seuss, Cat in the Hat's hatLast June, on rather short notice, the Artistic Director for the Adventure Theatre Company asked if I would write a program note for their upcoming production of The Cat in the Hat (June 18-August 21, 2019). They had read my work on Seuss and racism, shared these concerns, and asked if I could provide something, ideally including “‘questions for the ride home’ (a series of questions that parents and kids can talk about, after they leave the theatre).” I’m posting the result today, on Dr. Seuss’s birthday, in case this condensed version of these ideas might be of use to others.

Here is a link to a pdf directly from the program.

Here is the full text (below).


        Was the Cat in the Hat Black? After all, he’s a cat, isn’t he?    

        Seuss’s Cat is racially complicated. Like a lot of 20th century popular culture (i.e. Bugs Bunny and Mickey Mouse), the Cat is partially inspired by blackface minstrelsy, a popular theatrical entertainment in the 19th century and first half of the 20th century, in which performers blackened their faces to impersonate and mock Blackness. The Cat in the Hat’s outrageous fashion sense (white gloves, brightly colored hat and bow tie), exaggerated styles of movement, breaking rules that he pretends to follow, and his confidence-man behavior all derive from a common minstrel character.

        Seuss (born Theodor Seuss Geisel, 1904-1991) did both racist work and anti-racist work, often at the same time. In the 1940s, he drew political cartoons, some of which dehumanized people of Japanese descent, and others of which opposed both anti-Semitism and racism against African Americans. In the 1950s, Seuss published Horton Hears a Who!, hailed by one reviewer as “a rhymed lesson in protection of minorities and their rights.”  He also wrote his first version of The Sneetches, an anti-racist fable, and he published an essay that critiques racist humor. During that same period, he used racist caricature in his books. In If I Ran the Zoo, protagonist Gerald McGrew travels to “the mountains of Zomba-ma-Tant / With helpers who all wear their eyes at a slant,” and to the “African Island of Yerka” where he meets two stereotypically rendered Black men.

        That Seuss is doing both racist and anti-racist work at the same time can be confusing because many of us see racism as an “either/or”: people are either racist or not racist. Indeed, that’s how Seuss himself understood racism. Unfortunately, racism is more of a “both/and.” It’s not unusual. It’s ordinary. It’s embedded in culture — such as the cartoons and books of Dr. Seuss.

        It’s upsetting to learn that a beloved children’s author used racist caricature. So, many people — especially White people — seek excuses. In response to recent criticism, his grand-nephew Ted Owens has said of Seuss: “I know one thing for sure — I never saw one ounce of racism in anything he said, or how he lived his life, or what his stories were about.” Mr. Owens’ claim relies on perception and intent. But racism does not require either. People can perpetuate racism without intending to. I don’t think Seuss intended to. Because he was unaware of the degree to which his visual imagination was steeped in caricature, he used racist stereotypes even as he was also writing anti-racist stories. We might see Dr. Seuss as the “woke” White guy who wasn’t as woke as he thought.

        “Now, wait just a minute,” you might object. “People thought differently then.” But all people at any given time do not think about race in precisely the same way. As Robin Bernstein has shown in her work on nineteenth-century anti-racism, the range of available racial beliefs remains constant over time, but the distribution of those beliefs change. Both extraordinary and ordinary people have opposed White supremacy. Both extraordinary and ordinary people have supported White supremacy. To claim that people 60 years ago were racist but people now are enlightened both suggests that past racism was inevitable and implies that social change is a natural, ongoing march. Yet, progress makes gains and endures setbacks, and always requires people committed to making a positive difference.

        So, what do we do with the Cat in the Hat? Do we say that the blackface influence would probably not be noticed, and so is not damaging? Does a gentle caricature prepare us to accept a more harmful caricature? Should the race of the actor playing the Cat in this production influence your response? And what do we do with Dr. Seuss?

        These are not easy questions. But these are conversations we need to have.


For a more fully developed version of the above, take a look at the title chapter of my Was the Cat in the Hat Black?: The Hidden Racism of Children’s Literature, and the Need for Diverse Books (Oxford UP, 2017; paperback edition with new afterword, 2019). With luck, it will be available in your local library. If not, it’s available via all the usual venues.


Some previous posts on Seuss

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