Archive for Death

Just a Shot Away (in Inside Higher Ed)

When the state legislature decides to weaponize our classrooms, how do we respond? What should we do when the phrase “killing higher education” ceases being a metaphor and becomes state policy?

Inside Higher Ed logoI tackle these questions in “Just a Shot Away,” published today in Inside Higher Ed.  Here’s the opening:

        Shortly after the Virginia Tech massacre, a mentally disturbed former student of mine contacted Kansas State University (where I teach), saying it would be too bad if something like Virginia Tech happened at Kansas State — and if I, in particular, were the target of the shooting. The university recognized the email for the threat it was, and contacted me. Fortunately, I was then out of town. Before I returned, the university determined that the ex-student, who had been expelled for several reasons, sent the email from his home abroad.

Students, faculty members, and administrators at American colleges and universities all know that, at any time, we could be shot dead. Mostly, we try not to think about it — until another mass shooting, such as at Umpqua Community College in Oregon (nine killed, nine wounded, October 2015), or the University of California at Santa Barbara (six killed, fifteen wounded, May 2014). Then, we are forced again to face the possibility that, one day, we too may join the next sad, inevitable list of the murdered.

As I say, the rest is over at Inside Higher Ed. No subscription required.

Further resources that may be of interest:

In Higher Education

Gun Control

Activism Against Campus Carry in Kansas

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Why Campus Carry Threatens Higher Education

No guns. Sign on door of ECS Building, Kansas State UniversityToday, I’m joining other members of K-SAFE (K-Staters Against Fatal Encounters) and the KCGFC (Kansas Coalition for a Gun-Free Campus) at the statehouse, in Topeka.  There, we’ll hand out flyers that — we hope — will show our legislators the grave danger the “Kansas Personal and Family Protection Act.” Yes, this is really the name of the act that invites guns into dormitories, classrooms, counseling services, lecture halls, football stadiums, and faculty offices — and that will go into effect on July 1, 2017.

Here is a pdf of the flyer I’ve brought.

Below, the text of the flyer.

Why Campus Carry Threatens Higher Education

  • According to legislation passed by the Kansas Legislature in 2013, state and municipal bodies cannot ban any legal gun owner from carrying concealed handguns on their campuses and public spaces, beginning in July 2017.
  • The 2015 Kansas Legislature amended the law to drop any requirements for firearm or permit training for carrying concealed weapons.

These moves are currently supported by the Kansas Board of Regents, who are legally charged with the safety of all Regents institutions.

Guns will be permitted on all university property:

  • Dormitories
  • Dining facilities
  • Classrooms
  • Laboratories
  • Libraries
  • Tutoring centers
  • Test-taking locations
  • Lecture halls
  • Recreational facilities
  • Student Union meeting rooms
  • Counseling Services
  • Sporting event venues (football and basketball stadiums, etc.)
  • Faculty offices

70 percent of state university employees in Kansas oppose campus carry.

— survey conducted by the non-partisan Docking Institute of Public Affairs (2016)

“Nothing in our opinion should be taken to cast doubt on longstanding prohibitions on the possession of firearms by felons and the mentally ill, or laws forbidding the carrying of firearms in sensitive places such as schools and government buildings”

— Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia, District of Columbia vs. Heller (2008)

“Concealed carry does not transform ordinary citizens into superheroes. Rather, it compounds the risks to innocent lives”

New York Times, 26 Oct. 2015

Concealed carry threatens free speech. A faculty working group a the University of Houston has advised its professors: “Be careful discussing sensitive topics.” “Drop certain topics from your curriculum.” “Don’t ‘go there’ if you sense anger.”

The Atlantic, 4 March 2016

K-SAFE: K-Staters Against Fatal Encounters

Kansas Coalition for a Gun-Free Campus: #FailCampusCarry

Further resources that may be of interest:

In Higher Education

Gun Control


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Running Out of Time

Following a December blog-conversation about Atul Gawande’s Being Mortal (occasioned in part by her own chemo), my friend Alison Piepmeier asked me to send her a contribution to her blog, Every Little Thing. It appeared there on Monday. I’m reposting it here now.

In case you’re wondering, I got permission from the close relative (named below) to quote her. Then, just after this went live on Alison’s blog, the aforementioned relative — not knowing it had just been published — also gave me permission to name her. (I didn’t, initially, because I wanted to respect her privacy.) I’ve decided to leave her unnamed here, too. If you know me, you’ll know who I’m talking about. If you don’t, you can guess.  Anyway.  Here’s the post.

Dear Alison,

Thanks for the invitation to contribute to your blog. Since our correspondence (via the blog’s comments) occasioned the invite, I’ve decided on an epistolary essay. This is it.

As I write, I’m returning from a conference (MLA!), both longing for the continued fellowship of friends and recognizing the need to face my many (and multiplying) tasks. I want the conference to go on, so that I may continue learning from and enjoying the company of smart people, but I also face classes to plan, proposals to write, manuscripts (my own and others’) to edit, and so on.

I always struggle with that impossible balance between the need to create and the need to think, between ambition and reflection, between ticking off one more item on an ever-expanding “to do” list and succumbing to sleep. I think that you do, also — though I know your struggle is more urgent. Indeed, as I share these thoughts, I’m aware that you’re living in much closer proximity to your mortality than I am to mine. Unless I’m struck down by illness, accident, or gunfire (hey, I do live in America), I should have several decades left. There’s no guarantee, but — at the moment — my long-term prospects look, well, longer than yours do. So, I hope you will forgive my presumption in addressing a subject that you (of necessity) have probably thought about more deeply than I have.

 Photo of Jack Hardman (author’s stepfather), 1990s.Although I don’t have a morbid disposition, mortality has been a lingering companion since my early 30s. There are two reasons, the first of which is my stepfather’s passing. Jack’s death was the cancer equivalent of a train wreck: the diagnosis came in December of 2000, and in January (a little over a month later), he died at the age of 72. For months afterward, I used to talk, silently, to Jack. These conversations became a bedtime ritual. Every night, before sleep, I sent my thoughts in his direction, and hoped that somehow they would arrive in his mind, in the great beyond. Though I knew I was not really reaching him, these imagined communications helped me grieve.

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)The second reason was the twelve-year endeavor of writing the biography of Crockett Johnson and Ruth Krauss, two (married) children’s writers. This was a race against time. Both were born in the first decade of the twentieth-century, and the people who knew them — especially during their early days — were dying. I narrowly missed talking to Hannah Baker, Johnson’s editor at the newspaper PM, and to Kenneth Koch, the New York School poet who taught Krauss poetry. Many others I interviewed died before I finished the book: Johnson’s sister, Else Frank; children’s writers Syd Hoff and Mary Elting Folsom; artist Antonio Frasconi; and filmmaker Gene Searchinger. Maurice Sendak died four months before the book’s publication. You don’t need to interview people in their 70s and 80s and 90s to learn this truth: the older we get, the more dead people we know.

But how do we face the inevitability of our own deaths? Religion comforts the devout, though I don’t for a moment imagine that it removes all worry. I was recently talking with a close relative of mine who, like me, is essentially agnostic. She faces the certain prospect of irreversible cognitive decline. We don’t know whether it will be a swift descent into oblivion or a slow slide towards confusion and forgetting. We’re hoping for slowness, and she’s doing her best to keep her mind and body active. She knows that Alzheimer’s or dementia (it’s likely one or the other) will claim her, but — as far as she’s concerned — not without a fight!

Recently, discussing her end-of-life plans with those close to her, she said, “I’ve lived three score and fourteen years. I’ve had a good run.”

A relative of my generation asked her, “If you had a heart attack tomorrow, you’d want to be resuscitated, wouldn’t you?”

She replied, “Not necessarily.”

“Wouldn’t you? You don’t know what the future holds.”

“I know what the future holds. A heart attack, whenever it happens, is a good way to go.”

The frankness of her statement gave us all pause. Yes: I, too, would prefer a heart attack to a slog through the thickets of dementia. But I’m struck by her ability to make peace with her own death. She does not want to say goodbye just yet, but she’s prepared to say goodbye when the time comes.

And that is what we need to learn. Or, at least, it’s what I need to learn. During your struggles with the brain tumor, have you figured this out? Have you learned how to say goodbye?

It’s a question that you shouldn’t have to face in your 40s. This may be why I can’t answer it yet, and why my 74-year-old relative can. But I know that the question confronts you, and has been confronting you, throughout your 40s. This is unfair. In fact, it’s unfair of me to expect you to have arrived at a better answer. So, please feel free to ignore this question — or, for that matter, any question I may pose here.

I know that, whenever I die, I will not be finished living. There will be things I have not learned, friends I have not made, books I have not written, places I have not seen, and many obligations unfulfilled. I also know that when my end arrives, I hope to have done more good than harm. I know, too, that I do not wish to suffer: if my prospects look bleak, others should take no extraordinary measures to revive me. Since I am not religious, I also believe that, as my last breaths evaporate and my heart stops, my consciousness will wane, and then I will cease to be. The End. Roll credits.

I do not know whether I’ll have a chance to say goodbye to the people I love, but I know — as what remains of my self dissipates — I’ll miss them. I hope, too, that, if any mark my passing, they do so not through mourning, but through celebrating life. Throw a party. Help yourself to my records, CDs, and books. Hire a caterer. Hire a DJ. Get to know each other better. Sing. Dance. Eat. Have fun.

Ta-Nehisi Coates, Between the World and Me (2015)Also, since I vigorously oppose the everything-happens-for-a-reason crowd, they are not invited to this party. Everything does not happen for a reason. To suggest that it does trivializes the suffering of others. Bad things happen to good people, good things happen to bad people. In the words of Lin-Manuel Miranda’s Hamilton, “Death doesn’t discriminate between the sinners and the saints. / It takes, and it takes, and it takes. / And we keep living anyway.” This does not mean that we should respond with indifference. Quite the opposite. It means we should engage fully in the struggle of living. As Ta-Nehisi Coates writes in Between the World and Me, “you must wake up every morning knowing that no promise is unbreakable, least of all the promise of waking up at all. This is not despair. These are the preferences of the universe itself: verbs over nouns, actions over states, struggle over hope” (71).

Lin-Manuel Miranda’s Hamilton (CD, 2015)This awareness makes me want to live as fully and as thoughtfully as I can. It makes me want to work harder, and to take more time off. It makes me want to write more, and to write less — so that I can spend more time with those I love. In other words, this awareness simply amplifies that tension between increased activity and quiet contemplation, between labor and leisure. It heightens awareness of the problem I described early in this letter. This is why I’m always (to borrow again from Hamilton) “writing like I’m running out of time.” It’s also why I want more time to appreciate “how lucky we are to be alive right now.” (Yes, I am currently obsessed with Hamilton. Why do you ask?)

I don’t know how to find this balance, but I know that it will require me to accept limits, to say to myself: “Look, Phil: if you are lucky, you might have twenty to twenty-five productive years left. What do you want to accomplish during those years? And how do you want to live?” In other words, I need to set two types of priorities, for both work and life. Since I am also an academic, the boundary between working and living is (at best) thin and (often) invisible.

Kieran Setiya, "The Midlife Crisis" (2014)Philosopher Kieran Setiya has what is, I think, at least a partial plan for how to navigate our way through this problem. In his excellent “The Midlife Crisis,” he charts a course by, first, distinguishing between telic and atelic. As he writes, “Almost anything we call a ‘project’ will be telic: buying a house, starting a family, earning a promotion, getting a job. These are all things one can finish or complete” (12). However, there are also atelic activities, projects that “do not aim at a point of termination or exhaustion: a final state in which they have been achieved and there is nothing more to do. For instance,… you can go for a walk with no particular destination. Going for a walk is an ‘atelic’ activity” (12). Other examples of atelic activities include “hanging out with friends or family,” “studying philosophy,” and “living a decent life.” As he points out, “You can stop doing these things and you eventually will, but you cannot complete them in the relevant sense…. they do not have a telic character” (13): “If you are going for a walk, hanging out with friends, studying philosophy, or living a decent life, you are not on the way to achieving your end. You are already there” (13).

This distinction is helpful because (as Setiya argues) the atelic are more fulfilling than the telic. Pursuing goals gives you purpose (which is good), but can ultimately leave you empty because you always have to move on to the next one: “Our achievements, whatever they are worth, are always numbered” (10). So, instead, he suggests, one might pursue telic activities in an atelic fashion: “Instead of spending time with friends in order to complete a shared project […,] one pursues a common project in order to spend time with friends” (15). Or, put another way, “Do not work only to solve this problem or discover that truth, as if the tasks you complete are all that matter; solve the problem or seek the truth in order to be at work” (15).

These days, this is how I’m trying to approach all projects — I’m seeking atelic joy in telic activities. This means that many of my current efforts are collaborative. For instance, I have just given a paper on allegedly “weird” children’s books, co-written by and co-presented with my friend Nina Christensen. Working on it was fun because, in addition to learning from each other, we could both hang out (on-line, since she lives in Denmark). At the same conference, I chaired a discussion on “Children’s Literature Scholarship and Its Publics”: that was great fun to talk with and learn from smart people whose work I admire. With my friend Eric Reynolds I’m co-editing two more volumes of Crockett Johnson’s comic strip Barnaby. And so on. All of this labor will result in good work that should (we hope!) be useful to others, but it will also be fun — because it will all be accomplished with friends.

I expect that this partial answer — indeed, this entire letter — tells you little that you don’t already know. As I said earlier, my sense is that facing mortality puts these questions into much sharper focus. So, you will (I imagine) have already arrived at better and more complete answers than I have.

I’d like to conclude here by wishing you a long and full life, but I worry that such optimism contradicts your experience. So, let me instead wish you this: sufficient health to enjoy however many years remain, sufficient time to guide your young daughter into an uncertain future, and sufficient energy to pursue those projects that are important to you.

Yours in the struggle,



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When will I be shot dead?

GunAs we read the news of yet another shooting at a school (the 17th on a college campus this yearthe 45th school shooting shooting this year*), I cannot help but wonder: when will I be among those murdered?  Earlier this year, a roving gunman had the campus of Kansas State University (where I teach) on lockdown. Fortunately, no one was shot, and — since the lockdown began very early in the morning — few people were on campus at the time. But each time I hear of another massacre, I wonder when I will be among the dead. 

Our governor and legislature have eliminated even the most minimal gun safety laws. In Kansas, all you need to get a gun is a heartbeat and a credit card. I’m not kidding. Our wise leaders have even removed the requirement that aspiring gun owners learn how to use their firearms.  In Kansas as in much of America, it is easier to get a gun than it is to get a driver’s license or to adopt a child.  Think about that.  There are no obstacles to buying a device designed for killing other living creatures.  In the U.S., the right to kill is valued more highly than the right to live.

If there were evidence that increased gun ownership made society more safe (as weapons enthusiasts insist there is), then we could rejoice in the indiscriminate proliferation of firearms. However, the evidence is quite the opposite. Guns in the home do not make that home safer; instead, they increase the risk of homicide. Ordinary citizens wandering around with guns do not make the streets more safe. More guns increase the risk of firearm-related deaths. Period.

Contrary to the claims of gun aficionados, the Second Amendment to the U.S. Constitution does not say “Every man, woman and child should be armed to the teeth!”  It actually says: “A well regulated Militia, being necessary to the security of a free State, the right of the people to keep and bear Arms, shall not be infringed.” I’d be willing to make an exception to this for, say, hunters, or people who enjoy target shooting. That seems fair. But even that exceeds what the amendment itself allows. According to the Second Amendment, “the right of the people to keep and bear arms, shall not be infringed” because a free state requires a “well regulated militia.” Guns are for the militia. Indeed, the amendment covers only the militia.  The clause modifying the word “right” is “A well-regulated Militia, being necessary to the security of a free state.”  That right is therefore accorded to members of this militia.

No guns. Sign on door of ECS Building, Kansas State UniversityAt the moment, people are not supposed to bring guns into campus buildings.  Our buildings even have signage to that effect.  However, the conspicuous absence of full-body scanners and security guards in the doorways of each building suggests that it would not be difficult to bring guns into a campus building.  In any case, it’s not clear how long even this restriction will hold: our legislature wants guns everywhere. To their credit, the Kansas Board of Regents, though dismissive of faculty and staff’s right to free speech, does seem to want us to remain alive.  They’ve supported an exemption for state universities. The sign you see at left (from the building my office is in) is a result.

And so I wonder: when will an armed white man enter my classroom and begin spraying the room with bullets?  (The shooter is usually a white man, but it could be a non-white man, or — very rarely — a woman.  Since a white man is statistically the most likely, that’s what my imaginary shooter always is.)  How will I react?  Can I stop him by talking to him, perhaps buying myself and the students some time?  If not, will I have time to duck?  And will ducking save me?  Perhaps his weapon will jam or he will have to reload, and one of us can intervene in time.  Perhaps not.

I know that, should this day come, the responsible parties will include: Governor Sam Brownback, the members of the Kansas legislature who abdicated their responsibility by supporting these dangerous laws, members of the US Congress and Senate who oppose sensible gun policy, and, of course, the National Rifle Association.  All of these people will be accessories to my murder.  I don’t imagine that they can be prosecuted for their role in the crime, but they should be.  And I would ask those who cared about me to send all responsible (the governor, legislature, congress, the NRA) a photo of my bloody corpse so that the responsible parties can appreciate the results of their handiwork.  Indeed, I would invite people working towards sensible gun laws to use photos of me (alive or dead or both) to support their cause.

I hope that I somehow evade the violent death that reckless American gun laws (and their advocates) have prepared for us all. However, should I be found among the dead, I want my family and friends to know that I love them, and that I’m sorry our time together had to end so soon.


* And over 142 school shootings since the Sandy Hook Massacre.

Correction, 2 Oct. 2015, 8:20 am: Changed the parenthetical in the first sentence. It was the 45th school shooting of 2015, not the 45th mass shooting (as I initially stated).  So far, there have been 294 mass shootings in the US this year.

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Legend, Gentleman, Friend: George Nicholson (1937-2015)

George Nicholson

George Nicholson died yesterday. He was 77 years old.

He was a legend in children’s publishing. George was in the children’s literature business for over 50 years. In the 1960s, he introduced paperbacks to the children’s book industry. That’s something we take for granted now, but we owe it to George. As an agent (at Sterling Lord since 1995), he represented Betsy ByarsPatricia Reilly Giff, Sergio Ruzzier, Leonard Marcus, and several literary estates — including those of Don Freeman, Hardie Gramatky, and Lois Lenski.

Since 2006, he also represented me.

Initially, I couldn’t quite believe that the great George Nicholson was my agent. I’m an academic. Scholarly books about children’s literature don’t make much money. (And that’s an understatement.) I worried that — as George’s client — I wasn’t really helping his bottom line. I mentioned this to him one or twice, and each time he brushed it off. So, I stopped bringing it up.

It took me a year or two to figure this out, but George was my agent because he believed in me, not because he thought I’d write a bestseller. To put this another way, George was my agent because he was my friend.

George Nicholson

Harold LloydHe was a giant in the business, but never acted like one. Silver-haired and with glasses like Harold Lloyd’s (see photo at left), he was soft-spoken and kind. George was a gentleman, in the best, old-fashioned sense. He was courteous, but did not stand on ceremony. He was polite, but also let you knew what he thought. George had class, but was no snob. While we’re on the subject, his look was also classic. No matter the weather, he invariably dressed in a jacket, tie, oxford shirt, blazer, and slacks.

I was shocked to see Sterling Lord’s announcement today.

I gasped, and sat down. George is gone? It was — and is — too much to take in.

Yes, George Nicholson was 77. And he’d had some health issues, as everyone who makes it into their 70s does. But he was still actively involved, always returned my calls and emails promptly, ready to offer his advice. Whenever I went to New York, I would meet him for lunch or dinner — whether or not we had any business.

A Little Night Music (2010): Elaine Stritch, Bernadette PetersIn December 2010, George, my mother, Karin, and I went to dinner, and to A Little Night Music (starring Bernadette Peters and the late Elaine Stritch!). On a couple of occasions, he and Susan Hirschman and I went out to dinner. When last I saw him, the fall of 2013, he had to postpone our dinner engagement because he wasn’t feeling well. But the postponement was brief — we went out to lunch two days later.

George knew everyone connected to children’s books. Maurice Sendak, Edward Gorey, Ursula Nordstrom, Lloyd Alexander, Richard Peck, Margaret McElderry, Robert McCloskey. Everyone.  And he had lots of stories.

Maurice Sendak in his 20s, New York CityHere’s one he told me about Ted (as Edward Gorey was known to his friends) and Maurice. When they were both young artists, in their 20s or maybe early 30s, Gorey and Sendak were friends, and often saw each other in New York. One day, Maurice saw Ted on walking along the street — dressed, as Gorey tended to, in a fur coat and tennis shoes. Maurice strolled up to greet him: “Hi, Ted—”  Gorey started shouting, “RAPE! RAPE!” Terrified, Maurice turned and fled.

A few days later, Ted phoned Maurice to say hello, and to ask why he ran off. As it turned out, shouting “RAPE!” was Gorey’s way of making a joke.

So many stories. I wish I’d taken notes.

I spoke with George just a few months ago, in the fall of 2014. I had flown to Connecticut to give a couple of talks and to help my mother move. I’d hoped to catch MetroNorth into New York to see him, but mom’s move — as these things inevitably do — took longer than expected. Well, I figured, I’ll see him in 2015.

I last saw George for that slightly postponed lunch, in October of 2013. We met at his office, and then strolled to a nearby restaurant. We talked about my ideas for future projects, he shared stories, and we enjoyed each other’s company.  It was a happy lunch. When we parted, he — as he always did — first made sure I knew how to get where I was headed. (I did.) Then, he turned to walk back to his Bleecker Street office.

As he walked away, the autumn sunlight on his silver hair and blazer, I paused and thought: I wonder when I’ll see George again? Indeed, it’s because I had that melancholy thought that I remember our parting so vividly: George, walking across the street, into the early afternoon light.

Farewell, old friend. And Godspeed.

More on George Nicholson:

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The Meaning of Life; or, How to Avoid the Midlife Crisis

Kieran Setiya, "The Midlife Crisis" (2014)Why do successes sometimes feel like failures? As philosopher Kieran Setiya points out in a wise new essay, “Our achievements, whatever they are worth, are always numbered” (10). Each time we accomplish something, it’s done, finished, and we must move on to the next thing: “the completion of your project may constitute something of value, but it means that the project can no longer give purpose to your life” (12). And so, in “pursuing a goal, you are trying to exhaust your interaction with something good, as if you were trying to make friends for the sake of saying goodbye” (12).

What’s the solution? Key, Setiya argues, is to distinguish between telic and atelic activities:

  • Telic: “Almost anything we call a ‘project’ will be telic: buying a house, starting a family, earning a promotion, getting a job. These are all things one can finish or complete” (12).
  • Atelic: “not all activities are like this. Some do not aim at a point of termination or exhaustion: a final state in which they have been achieved and there is nothing more to do. For instance,… you can go for a walk with no particular destination. Going for a walk is an ‘atelic’ activity. The same is true of hanging out with friends or family, of studying philosophy, of living a decent life. You can stop doing these things and you eventually will, but you cannot complete them in the relevant sense…. they do not have a telic character” (12-13). So, “If you are going for a walk, hanging out with friends, studying philosophy, or living a decent life, you are not on the way to achieving your end. You are already there” (13).

This, however, does not mean that one should only invest in the atelic. The issue is where you derive value: locating the majority of life’s meaning in the telic will leave you unfulfilled, and often precipitates a midlife crisis. As Setiya writes, “it is at midlife that the telic character of one’s most cherished ends are liable to appear, as they are completed or prove impossible. One has the job one has worked for many years to get, the partner one hoped to meet, the family one meant to start — or one does not. Until this point, one may have had no reason to dwell on the exhaustion of one’s ambitions” (14).

To avoid or resolve the midlife crisis, yes, you can (as Setiya puts it), “invest… more deeply in atelic ends. Among the activities that matter most to you, the ones that give meaning to your life, must be activities that have no terminal point. Since they cannot be completed, your engagement with atelic ends will not exhaust or destroy them” (15).

But you can — and should — also continue pursuing telic activities. Just pursue them for their own sake instead of for the end product: “Instead of spending time with friends in order to complete a shared project […,] one pursues a common project in order to spend time with friends” (15). As Setiya advises, “Do not work only to solve this problem or discover that truth, as if the tasks you complete are all that matter; solve the problem or seek the truth in order to be at work” (15).

Setiya’s “The Midlife Crisis” appears in Philosophers’ Imprint 14.31 (Nov. 2014), pp. 1-18. Just follow the link. As you may have guessed from my summary, I highly recommend it.

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Dallas 1963, New York 1980, Washington 1981

Zapruder film, frame 312

On the 50th anniversary of the assassination of President Kennedy, I happen to be staying at the Washington Hilton — the hotel in front of which President Reagan was not assassinated 32 and a half years ago.

Don DeLillo called the Kennedy assassination, “The seven seconds that broke the back of the American century.” But I had not yet been born on November 22, 1963.

Newsweek: attempted assassination of the Pope, 1981The murders and attempted murders that color my childhood are John Lennon (killed December 1980), Reagan (shot in March 1981), the Pope (shot in May 1981), and Anwar Sadat (killed October 1981). I saved the issues of Newsweek magazine that covered each event. The cover for the Pope issue featured a black-and-white photo, moments after the assassination attempt.  The caption, in bright letters, was: “Again.”

Kennedy’s assassination reached me via popular culture, in collections of Life magazine photographs, or the Kinks’ “Give the People What They Want” (1981), which includes the line: “When Oswald shot Kennedy, he was insane / But still we watch the re-runs again and again. / We all sit there glued while the killer takes aim…. / ‘Hey, mom! There goes a piece of the president’s brain!’”

That last line neatly encapsulates my 11-year-old self’s experience of the Reagan assassination attempt. Television news played the clip so frequently that it began playing on an endless loop in my head, too. My friends and I began re-enacting the event on the playground. The person playing Reagan would wave, and then duck into an imaginary car, pushed by the person portraying a Secret Service agent. The person acting the role of Press Secretary James Brady (shot in the head), would fall to the ground. The person playing DC policeman Thomas Delahanty (shot in the neck) would fall forward.

The attempted assassination of President Ronald Reagan on March 30, 1981

Yes, we were aware on some level that our recess re-enactments of the Reagan assassination attempt were not “appropriate.” These were real people, wounded by real bullets. It was not something that we should be play-acting for fun.

So, why did we do it? Play is a way of understanding the world. Though horrific, the event was also so unreal (televised, rewound, repeated) that our improvised absurdist performances helped us make it real for ourselves. We were not merely making light of the darkness (though we were doing that, too); rather, our silliness was a way of understanding the seriousness.

Newsweek: John Lennon (1940-1980)My reaction to the murder of John Lennon was, I think, much closer to how people responded to President Kennedy’s murder. Neither of these were televised murders. (Jack Ruby’s murder of Lee Harvey Oswald happened on live TV, but the Zapruder film was not broadcast until the 1970s. While Lennon’s and Kennedy’s murder were both covered on TV, there was at the time no footage of the murders themselves.) The absence of the televisual made me feel Lennon’s murder more personally, more deeply — as did the fact that I was a fan of the Beatles. That was truly sad. The Reagan assassination attempt felt more surreal.

The highly mediated world in which we now live affords us little time to actually feel the pain, much less think about it. In public places (at a school, in a movie theatre, in a store), the gunman — it is nearly always a man — fires. People flee, get maimed, die of their injuries. Survivors tell their stories to the media. Our legislators assure us that these murders are a byproduct of living in a free society; regulating guns would somehow make us (well, those of us not murdered by guns) less free. The sad inevitability of gun violence, offered up for our infotainment, impedes our ability to make sense of it.

But it’s not just media. Experience also dulls the senses. I felt more acutely Lennon’s murder precisely because I had no memory of the murders of Robert Kennedy, John F. Kennedy, or Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Its newness made its impact sharper.

Perhaps, then, that is one legacy of the Kennedy assassination. There were political murders before November 22 1963 (Presidents Lincoln, Garfield, and McKinley were all assassinated), but in the years since that afternoon in Dallas, they seem to have become commonplace. And, as DeLillo has observed, “Our grip on reality has felt a little threatened.”

Above: Steinski’s “The Motorcade Sped On” (1986); video by Coldcut (2008).

Images: Zapruder film from Fans in a Flashbulb; Reagan assassination attempt from L.A. TimesNewsweek cover of Pope from eBayNewsweek cover of John Lennon from The Pop History Dig.

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This Job Can Kill You. Literally.

G.B. Trudeau, Doonesbury

As you likely already know, Margaret Mary Vojtko — an adjunct professor of French for 25 years — was found dead on her front lawn on September 1st. Facing mounting medical bills and lacking money to maintain or even heat her house, she died of a heart attack earlier that day.  As Daniel Kovalik writes, “Even during the best of times, when she was teaching three classes a semester and two during the summer, she was not even clearing $25,000 a year, and she received absolutely no health care benefits.”  His article, “Death of an adjunct,” has been widely shared across social media, been reprinted in the Huffington Post, and inspired stories in Inside Higher Ed, the Chronicle of Higher Education, and Gawker.

In some senses, her death was not preventable: she was 83 and fighting cancer. It’s likely that she would have died sooner rather than later.

But in other senses, her job killed her. And I’m not speaking figuratively. As Mr. Kovalik notes,

in the past year, her teaching load had been reduced by the university to one class a semester, which meant she was making well below $10,000 a year. With huge out-of-pocket bills from UPMC Mercy for her cancer treatment, Margaret Mary was left in abject penury. She could no longer keep her electricity on in her home, which became uninhabitable during the winter. She therefore took to working at an Eat’n Park at night and then trying to catch some sleep during the day at her office at Duquesne. When this was discovered by the university, the police were called in to eject her from her office. Still, despite her cancer and her poverty, she never missed a day of class.

Full Time Respect for Part Time Faculty!

Her job left her unable to meet her basic needs (heat, food, medicine). Furthermore, that level of stress has an adverse effect on a person’s health. People forced to cope with large levels of extreme stress — and poverty is definitely an extreme stress — have shorter life expectancies. A job that reduces you to poverty also hastens your demise.

I would not suggest that Duquesne University acted alone in killing Professor Vojtko, nor that all individuals at the university lacked sympathy for her. But the university is certainly an accomplice. While it claims to be a Catholic university, Duquesne has fought its adjuncts’ attempts to unionize, alleging that it deserved an exception on religious grounds; in contrast, Georgetown University, citing the Catholic church’s commitment to social justice, recognized its adjuncts’ union.

Duquesne has many accomplices. Its treatment of Professor Vojtko was cruel, but not unusual. Exploitation of adjunct labor has become the norm in academe. Faced with rising costs (and, in “state” schools, decreasing support from the state), colleges and universities consider adjuncts an “economic” solution to their staffing needs. They’re highly qualified cheap labor, and — as the number of tenure-track jobs decreases — there are more Ph.Ds. to choose from each year. It’s a buyer’s market. Duquesne only did what other universities and colleges have done. Indeed, at American universities, 73% of all instructors are non tenure-track (adjuncts or grad students).*

Adjuncts United!

Yes, some institutions treat adjuncts more humanely than others. Some provide health insurance and even retirement plans. Some. But, even under the best conditions, adjuncts are second-class citizens. And, yes, some make it on to the tenure track. But most do not.

Relying on adjuncts as the primary way to teach classes has become normal, but it’s not good for the adjuncts and it’s not good for higher education. Adjuncts owe no loyalty to the institution that employs them; so, at the beginning of term, heads of departments must scramble to find people to cover classes. That’s no way to run a university. As Professor Vojtko’s death makes all too clear, that’s also not a humane way to treat an educator — or anyone, for that matter.

G.B. Trudeau, Doonesbury

One reason that universities rely upon adjunct labor points to the third group responsible for killing Professor Vojtko: all those who mock academic labor, consider teaching a cushy job, argue that educators are lazy (as in the familiar misconception, you only teach a few classes and then you get summers off!). The concerted effort to refashion intellectual labor as a form of leisure diminishes sympathy for a hard-working group that has much to contribute. It deprives them of their humanity. It makes them easy targets. They become easy to neglect, easy to ignore, and easy to crush beneath the weight of indifference and poverty.

Certainly, teachers — at primary, secondary, and post-secondary levels — are not the only people who have been maligned in this way. Factory workers (especially unionized ones), policemen, firemen, all public-sector workers have all been criticized as somehow unworthy of the salary and benefits they receive.

I’ve been using the passive voice, failing to name just who is doing the maligning, because this is not merely the fault of one particular faction. Certainly, responsibility lies with pundits on the right who complain about “the takers” mooching off “the makers,” governors who slash education budgets while simultaneously giving tax breaks to the wealthy, and businesses pushing an “educational reform” because it serves their financial interests. But people on the left are also at fault. In an effort to reduce the cost of college (certainly a laudable goal), President Obama fails to address the single greatest contributing factor to the rising cost of tuition: decreasing state support requires universities to find money from other sources. This is not something that the privately funded Duquesne University (Professor Vojtko’s employer) faces, but the president’s move to hold colleges accountable without a comparable push to restore public funding simply perpetuates the myth that educators are too highly paid. This myth obscures the fact that many of us are not well paid at all.

G.B. Trudeau, Doonesbury

I spent three years as an adjunct. Those years (1997-2000) were not happy ones. I was often angry. Indeed, I am frankly surprised and grateful that I have friends from that period of my life: a bitter person isn’t fun to be around. Today, I am tenured, a full professor of English at Kansas State University (which receives 20% of its funding from the state). As an ex-adjunct, I find stories like Professor Vojtko’s especially troubling. Her path might have been my path. It wasn’t, but it has been and will be the path of many others. The exploitation of adjuncts has only increased since my days as an adjunct.

This brings me to the fourth and final group I would indict in the death of Professor Vojtko: me, and people like me. No, I did not create the conditions that foster the exploitation of adjuncts. Nor do I support those who think that college should be run like a business, and am frankly appalled by the efforts (by President Obama, and others) to apply a capitalist ethos to institutions that strive to serve the public good. And, sure, I’m sympathetic to adjuncts. But that’s not enough.

American Association of University ProfessorsThose of us who have attained even a modest amount of institutional power need to speak up. We need to support organizations fighting for adjunct rights — such as the American Association of University Professors. I have been intending to join this group for years, and only now — while writing this paragraph — did I actually join. Writing this essay and joining that group aren’t sufficient, I know. But it is at least a step in the right direction.

We need to stop exploiting adjuncts. It’s killing them. And it isn’t good for the rest of us, either.


* Note and Correction (added 22 Sept. 2013, 5:40 pm): According to the study, the 73% includes full-time, non-tenure track faculty (15%), part-time/adjunct faculty (37%), and graduate employees (21%). Those first two groups are both adjunct: that is, “full-time, non-tenure track faculty” is the equivalent of adjunct. So, if we add these two together, then we get 52% adjunct, plus an additional 21% graduate students, for a total of 73%. A more recent study indicates that  non-tenure track faculty (adjuncts and graduate students) now comprise 76% of instructors at American colleges and universities.  The correction here is that my original post stated that “73% of all instructors are now adjuncts”; using the source I originally cited, the more precise way to state this is that “73% of all instructors are now non-tenure track (adjuncts and graduate students).”  So, when Chris pointed this out (comment no. 37, below), I made the change.

Resources (updated 18 Nov. 2013, 3:00 pm)

Image sources: “Adjunct Professors Petting the Short End of the Stick” (Politics 365, 4 June 2013),  “Precarcity Everywhere” (Disorder of Things, 1 Feb. 2012), American Association of University Professors.  The Doonesbury strips come from “Mathematicians and the Market” (, 1997), but check out Doonesbury at Go! Comics for more of Trudeau’s work.

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Antonio Frasconi (1919-2013)


Antonio Frasconi, woodcut artist and children’s-book illustrator, died on January 9th at the age of 93. I heard about it this morning, but I’ve yet to find a full obituary (apart from this brief notice by Joey of Purchase College). So, I’m writing a few words.

He was born in Buenos Aires, to Franco Frasconi (a chef) and the former Armida Carbonia (a restaurateur), both of whom had emigrated from Italy during World War I.  Young Antonio grew up in Montevideo, where, by age 12, he had become a printmaker’s apprentice and, by his teens, was seeing his satirical cartoons appear in local newspapers.

In the 1940s, he began working in woodcuts, producing work which won him a scholarship from the Art Students League in New York.  To study there, he emigrated to the United States in 1945.  By 1948, he had his first exhibit — at the Weyhe Gallery, also in New York.

But the reason I know about him are his beautiful illustrations for children’s books. He married fellow artist Leona Pierce in 1951, and the birth of their first son, Pablo, in 1952, inspired him to create work for young people. As Frasconi noted in a 1994 Horn Book interview, “the happiness he brought, both as an inspiration and as an audience for my work, made me think in terms of using my work as part of his education.”  Frasconi observed that, with his accented English, his own reading to Pablo was different than his wife’s reading to Pablo. He went to the library, looking for bilingual books, and, finding none, decided to create his own.

The result was the groundbreaking and beautiful See and Say: A Picturebook in Four Languages (Harcourt, 1955). It presents a series of objects, each named in in English (printed in black), in Italian (blue), French (red), and Spanish (green).  Illustrated in bright woodcut prints, the book is a great “first words” book for young children, and language education for any age. Though not the first children’s book Frasconi illustrated, it was the first one he both wrote and illustrated, and I highly recommend it. Used copies are not too hard to find, but this book (attention, New York Review Children’s Collection!) really ought to be brought back into print.

Antonio Frasconi, from See and Say (1955)

Antonio Frasconi, from See and Say (1955)

The images above come from The Ward-o-Matic‘s post on See and Say.  Visit the site to see more.

Back in 2000, I spoke with Mr. Frasconi because he was a very close friend of Crockett Johnson. Both men leaned left, had artistic influences that extended beyond children’s books, and held each other’s work in high regard. Indeed, Antonio’s political leanings inspired him to move — along with his family (Leona, Pablo, and Miguel) — to Village Creek, a planned integrated community that is directly adjacent to Rowayton, Connecticut, where Johnson and his wife Ruth Krauss lived.  That was in 1957.  The family met Johnson and Krauss soon after moving there, and quickly became friends.

photo of Antonio FrasconiThere were regular spaghetti dinners at Ruth and Dave’s house (Crockett Johnson’s real first name was “Dave,” and friends called him “Dave”).  Antonio illustrated Ruth’s The Cantilever Rainbow (1965), her greatest avant-garde children’s book.  When the Berkeley Free Speech Movement (1964-1965) got television coverage, Dave phoned Antonio so that he could come over and see it (at that time the Frasconis didn’t have a TV). So, the family went over and watched the protests. When Dave started serious painting, the Frasconis were among the first people he showed them to. As Miguel Frasconi recalled, Dave was “so excited,” as he explained to Antonio “the geometric properties of these pictures — like he had discovered something totally new.” At the time, Miguel thought: “this is an adult, and he’s as excited as a little kid.”

While my own brief acquaintance (one interview, really) with Antonio Frasconi and his family derived from work on my biography of Crockett Johnson and Ruth Krauss (2012), Frasconi’s work is well worth getting to know in its own right.  He illustrated and designed over 100 books, including collections of poetry by Langston Hughes, Walt Whitman, and Pablo Neruda. He created Los Desparecidos (The Disappeared, 1984), a powerful collection of woodcuts that tells the story of those tortured, imprisoned, or killed under the Uruguayan dictatorship.  He created art for children’s books.  He was a great teacher, artist, and humanitarian.

Thanks for sharing your recollections with me.  And rest in peace, Mr. Frasconi.

Works Consulted:

“Antonio Frasconi.” The Annex Galleries. <>

“Antonio Frasconi.” Contemporary Authors Online. Detroit: Gale, 2003. Literature Resource Center. Web. 13 Jan. 2013.

 “Antonio Frasconi (Uruguay).” North Dakota Museum of Art. <>

Goldenberg, Carol. “An interview with Antonio Frasconi.” The Horn Book Magazine Nov.-Dec. 1994: 693+. Literature Resource Center. Web. 13 Jan. 2013.

Nel, Philip. Telephone interview with Antonio Frasconi. 12 Oct. 2000.

—.  Telephone interview with Miguel Frasconi. 2 Dec. 2007.

—.  Telephone interview with Pablo Frasconi. 28 Nov. 2007.

Sources for images: Facebook post from Miguel FrasconiWard-o-Matic blog post on See and Say, and “Artist and Professor Antonio Frasconi, 1919-2013” (at Jane Public Thinking).

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Remembering Remy Charlip (1929-2012)

Remy Charlip. Photo by Paul Chinn, SFC / SF

As you may have heard by now, Remy Charlip has passed away at the age of 83. The author of Fortunately (1964), Arm in Arm (1969), Thirteen (1975) and many others, Charlip was also a dancer, choreographer, and the model for Brian Selznick’s rendition of Georges Méliès in The Invention of Hugo Cabret.

He was also one of many people I interviewed for the biography of Crockett Johnson and Ruth Krauss.  He knew them both, and illustrated two of Ruth’s books — A Moon or a Button (1959) and A Fine Day For… (1967).  During our interview (23 March 2003), he told me about working with Ruth on the first of these two books.

Philip Nel: Well, let’s see.  Maybe we should just start with when you first remember meeting them — or meeting Ruth.

Remy Charlip: OK.  Well, actually Ruth sent me a fan letter.  She saw my book that I did of Ruth Krauss’s [Margaret Wise Brown’s] called David’s Little Indian.

PN: Mmm-hmm.

RC: Do you know that book?

PN: I don’t know David’s Little Indian, no.

RC: Anyway, it was published after Margaret Wise Brown died, and it’s a story about a little boy who finds a little Indian and together they name the days.  So, she said she loved the book, and I don’t remember the letter very well, but I do remember that either she asked me to get in touch with her or I got in touch with her.  I don’t know.  I knew her books — I think I knew A Hole Is to Dig and I’ll Be You and You Be Me.  And I’ll Be You and You Be Me is a very — one of my favorite books of Ruth’s.  She influenced me in writing.  I think Arm in Arm actually came as a direct inspiration from her work.

I usually tried to read some (or most) of an author’s work before I interviewed him or her. In this case, I did not: I had grown more aware of the mortality of my interviewees. So, as soon as I had his telephone number, I gave him a call.

RC: Well, one thing I learned, for instance, was we did — I decided — she started to, after a while — let’s see, what was the first book that we worked on together?

PN: Well, A Moon or a Button?

RC: A Moon or a Button.  OK, so, we did that, and (Laughs).  And this is very interesting.  She brought me up to see Ursula Nordstrom, and Ursula would have no truck with me at all.  I made full-color paintings for that book, and the first thing Ursula said to me was, “Black-and-white separates the men from the boys.”  It was a total insult, and a total, you know, particu — you know.  Um.  I don’t know.  Maurice used to call her “the” — and you can’t print this —


(I’ve cut Maurice Sendak’s occasional nickname for Urusula.)

RC: And, so, I think what Ursula really resented was that in Ruth’s generosity, she would always work with people who were younger, who were inexperienced, and who she thought had some talent and would like to help them — and as well as to work with people that she thought [their] work was exciting.  So, let’s see — so, she got very upset.

PN: Ruth did.

RC: Yeah.  At Ursula.  And, she took my paintings, she kind of gathered them up from the desk in her arms and hands, and threw them up in the air, and ran out, crying, to the ladies room.  Ursula ran after her.  And I sat there thinking, “The children’s book business is much more exciting than I thought.”  (Laughs.)

PN: (Laughs.)

Discussing Ruth’s poem, “The Song of the Melancholy Dress,” he told me:

RC: And anyway, I asked her where she got the idea for the melancholy dress, and she said, “Oh, I overheard somebody say something at a party, and the woman said that she bought a melon-colored dress.”  And, so, a lot of her ideas came from misunderstandings, and I love that because I found that very helpful when one is working, you know, that you –.  And that’s really creativity, when you use something as something else.  And so, when I did the Paper Bag Players, which is a children’s theater, the costumes were all made out of common-place household objects and material — like, say, a shower curtain for the water, a box, big box, for the costume of a soldier — you know, that kind of thing.

PN: Mmm-hmm, mmm-hmm.

RC: And, or a lampshade as a hat, lace curtains for a dress.  So, the Paper Bag Players was all about how you can — so, that’s another thing that I actually learned from her — in another way, I mean, I also had friends who were, like Lou Harrison, for instance, who one day said, “I’m going shopping up in the Bronx.  Would you like to come with me?”  And I said, “Sure.”  And we went up to an automobile graveyard, and had a little meter with him, and he was hitting brake drums to get the sound that he wanted, a particular note. And he was very — it was very urgent that he do it because they were now not making the break drums in the same way that they were.  They made thuds instead of boungs.

PN: Ahh, I’ve gotcha.

RC: So, it was probably something at the time, where I myself take things that you ordinarily look at one way, but then you can look at it in another way.

PN: And that’s a good description of what Ruth does.

It’s also a good description of what Remy did.

For an example of that (and of his sense of humor), you might take a look at this excerpt from his It Looks Like Snow, which I posted back in March of 2011.

Photo by Paul Chinn, from the San Francisco Chronicle‘s obituary.

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