On Being in the Room Where It Happens: Observations from an Aca-Fanboy on Hamilton The Musical, Shortly After Viewing a Performance of Same, at the Richard Rodgers Theatre, in New York City, on the Afternoon of July 2nd, 2016

Hamilton, Richard Rodgers Theatre: marquee, as you approach from the left side, queuing to get in.We saw Hamilton at the Saturday matinee, and several people have asked for a review. So,… here are a few thoughts on being in the room where it happens.

I Can’t Believe We’re Here with Him

I don’t remember when I’ve ever been so excited to see a show — any show, of any kind. Sitting in the audience before it started, I felt like a teenage girl, waiting to see her favorite band. I say that not as a slight against teenage girls, but rather as a testament to the sincerity and enthusiasm of their fandom. Since it was a matinee, I had not expected Lin-Mañuel Miranda to be performing the role of Hamilton. When I noticed that not only would he be performing, but so would Leslie Odom Jr. (Aaron Burr), Daveed Diggs (Lafayette/Jefferson), Chris Jackson (Washington), and Renée Elise Goldsberry (Angelica),… my eyes went wide.  I would be seeing almost the entire original cast. Live. In a few minutes’ time! (“Almost” because Jonathan Groff is no longer King George, and Andrew Chappelle played John Laurens/Philip Hamilton.)

Hamilton: bare stage, before show begins

Just before the show starts, King George (now played by Rory O’Malley) announces — unseen, via the theatre’s speakers — that people should turn off their cell phones, not take photos, etc.  Then he invites you to enjoy his show. The audience laughs.

And then,… the opening chords, as Leslie Odom Jr. walks on stage, we applaud, and it begins. “How does a bastard, orphan, son of a whore and a Scotsman….” About halfway through the song, while I was lip-syncing along, he made eye contact with me (as he was singing/rapping the very words I was lip-syncing), and his eyes yielded a hint of a smile. That’s part of the thrill of live theatre. You’re all in the room where it happens, together. The audience and the performers share the experience. Being very close to the stage (center orchestra, just six rows back) made us feel even closer.

Leslie Odom Jr as Aaron Burr

Having listened to the cast recording and seen photographs and video clips, I arrived with an imaginary performance in my head.  In that version, the stage was much larger. Sitting in the Richard Rodgers Theatre, I realized the stage is actually more compact and intimate. An enormous amount happens in a relatively small space — and quickly. The show itself compresses so much — history, love, betrayal, time, loss, death — into just 2 hours and 45 minutes. Proximity makes what is already an intense show even more so.

You’ll Be Back

After lip-syncing to the opening number, I mostly resisted the temptation to continue doing so. Mostly. Actually, it would be more accurate to say that, as I became absorbed in the performance, I lost interest in lip-synching and wanted to experience the show. To be in the moment (“this is not a moment; it’s the movement”). My focus gravitated to the center of the action, but I would love to see Hamilton multiple times so that I could focus on different areas each time. It would be great to watch just the company, dancing. And then attend another show, during which you focus only on one actor’s performance. Or see it once attending primarily to the costumes and choreography. Or view it while considering the ways in which the set of wooden beams, bricks and rope frames the action of each scene. It’s beautifully staged, costumed, performed, orchestrated. There’s so much to take in.

Hamilton: Hercules Mulligan (Okieriete Onaodowan), Alexander Hamilton (Lin-Manuel Miranda), Marquis de Lafayette (Daveed Diggs), John Laurens (Anthony Ramos)The staging brought out nuances and jokes I didn’t get when listening to the cast recording. As “My Shot” begins, Lafayette, Laurens, and Mulligan regard Hamilton doubtfully. As his skills as an MC win them over, their facial expressions change from uncertain to impressed. During the opening of Act II, the expressions on Madison’s and Washington’s faces convey skepticism towards the flamboyant Jefferson. Near the end of that number, Washington and Hamilton exchange a look that seems to say, “Who is this guy?”  Oh, and of course, actually seeing “Stay Alive (Reprise)” as Eliza and Hamilton share their son Philip’s last moments, and the moment of “forgiveness (can you imagine?)” in “It’s Quiet Uptown” are emotionally wrenching. I thought I would cry during “It’s Quiet Uptown,” but didn’t realize that I’d also be crying during “Stay Alive (Reprise)” and “The World Was Wide Enough.”

I also didn’t remember how funny the show is. While we’re wiping our eyes with our handkerchiefs following “It’s Quiet Uptown,” Jefferson says, “Can we get back to politics?” Madison — dabbing his eyes with his own handkerchief — says, his voice cracking, “Please?” In performance, the handkerchief gesture made this moment a hilarious meta-comment on what we had all just experienced. We laughed! After having been brought so low in the previous song, laughter was such a relief. Earlier, during “The Schuyler Sisters,” I hadn’t realized how playful Burr and Angelica were. On the recording, I took “Burr, you disgust me” as a slam — which it is. But, on stage, they’re dancing, and Burr smiles as he gives his retort, and then keeps smiling she responds. It’s a more joyous moment than I’d imagined.

Hamilton: Aaron Burr (Leslie Odom Jr.) and the Schuyler Sisters (Phillipa Soo, Jasmine Cephas Jones, Renée Elise Goldsberry)

Hamilton: Daveed Diggs as Thomas JeffersonI knew the Tony Award-winning actors Leslie Odom Jr. and Renée Elise Goldsberry would be amazing, but I did not realize how fantastic their fellow Tony Award-winning cast-mate Daveed Diggs would be. His serious but playful Lafayette, rapid-fire rapping with a French accent, seems the de facto leader of the revolutionaries until Washington’s arrival.  His flamboyant, narcissistic, but politically savvy Jefferson is brilliant.  Diggs’ Jefferson is also non-stop, high-stepping across the stage in his purple velvet coattails.

Look Around, Look Around

New York Public Library: Alexander HamiltonThere’s something about seeing Hamilton right now, in New York, with (most of) the original cast. Beyond the sheer thrill of seeing it, most of the musical takes place in the city where it’s being performed. As you look around (“look around, how lucky we are…”), you encounter frequent reminders of the history dramatized by Miranda’s play. Walking towards Washington Square Park, we crossed both Lafayette Street (“Everyone give it up for America’s favorite fighting Frenchman!”) and Mercer Street (“The Mercer legacy is secure”). We happened upon the New York Public Library’s small, free exhibit on Alexander Hamilton, displaying the Reynolds Pamphlet (1797),“Phocion” no. 26 (1796 essay critical of Jefferson, notably his hypocrisy on slavery), The Farmer Refuted (1775), Federalist essays 12 and 13 as they originally appeared in the Daily Advertiser (1787), and letters by Hamilton. As befits a man who trained as a clerk, his handwriting is precise and legible.

Trinity Church: Alexander Hamilton & Eliza Hamilton

The graves of Alexander Hamilton and Elizabeth Hamilton are unaccountably moving. On the day after the show, we visited the graveyard of Trinity Church.1 I did not expect to be tearing up. But I was. Somehow, confronting these slabs of stone felt like experiencing their deaths again. Note left on Eliza Hamilton's grave, 3 July 2016Hamilton died 212 years ago this month. He was only 47 — the same age as I am. Sure enough, next to the Alexander Hamilton monument is a large, flat stone for Eliza. She died 162 years ago this November. Well-wishers have scattered coins on his monument and her stone. One woman — I imagine a young woman, though I don’t know — left a note for Eliza. “Thank you for telling your story and for guarding your husband’s legacy. Its flowers are growing beautifully.” She signed herself “with love from a fellow Albany girl.”

Who Lives, Who Dies, Who Tells Your Story

Hamilton Broadway Opening Night: Curtain Call

NEW YORK, NY – AUGUST 06: Cast of Hamilton perform at “Hamilton” Broadway Opening Night at Richard Rodgers Theatre on August 6, 2015 in New York City. (Photo by Neilson Barnard/Getty Images)

Back at the show, the moment the final number concluded, the audience rose as one, applauding and cheering as tears rolled down our cheeks. The entire cast lined up to do a curtain call together in a single line. They did not (as often happens) have the supporting cast take a bow first, followed by those with increasingly larger parts. Underscoring the collective nature of this endeavor, they took their bows as one — after which, as casts typically do, they gestured to the pit and invited us to applaud the orchestra. We did. The house lights came up. I wanted to linger, but reluctantly exited with the departing crowd.

Ron Chernow, HamiltonOthers have had far more intelligent things to say about the show’s cross-racial casting, use of history, elision of historical people of color,2 gender politics, cross-pollination of Broadway and hip-hop traditions. Hamilton will continue to inspire criticism to match the phenomenon. I expect books are already being written, essay collections being edited, special issues of journals assembled. I love musicals and have read Ron Chernow’s Hamilton biography, but I’m no scholar of musical theatre, nor of early American history and culture. I of course enjoy the allusions to 1776 and Grandmaster Flash, to Les Mis and Mobb Deep. The tunes are catchy, the lyrics are clever, the story is engrossing.

Unsurprisingly to those who know me, I also identify with Hamilton. I write like I’m running out of time because I’m acutely aware that I am running out of time. I will die before I have learned, written, seen, understood, done all I would like to. Unlike Hamilton, I have no heirs. If I “build something that’s gonna outlive me,” that something will be words and ideas. Have I written these yet? I can’t and will never know. I do know, however, that in my pursuit of that elusive something, I can be “a polymath, a pain in the ass, a massive pain.” Thankfully, my friends and colleagues manage to put up with me anyway. Thankfully, also, I’ve been fortunate to publish some of my ideas, collaborate with smart people, and continue on my impossible quest.

On that note, and to quote a line not on the cast recording, “I have so much work to do.”3


  1. Located at the intersection of Wall Street and Broadway, Trinity Church is the appropriate resting place for a founder of America’s financial system who is currently being celebrated on New York’s stage.
  2. When, during “What’d I Miss?” Jefferson says, “Sally, be a lamb, darling” to a member of the company, she becomes — for that moment — Sally Hemmings. I think she is thus the only historical person of color we see on stage. But more astute viewers of Hamilton should correct me if I am wrong.
  3. The show includes one scene not on the cast recording. The Hamiltons receive a letter from John Laurens’ father, reporting the death of his son — Hamilton’s friend. Eliza reads it to her husband. He’s silent. She asks if he’s OK. His voice choked with emotion, Hamilton says the line “I have so much work to do.”


I took the ones of the Hamilton marquee, empty stage, NYPL banner, gravesite and note. All other photos found elsewhere on the web.  For example, you’re not allowed to take photos during the performance; these were done specially, with the cooperation of the cast.

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Children’s Lit vs. Brexit

According to my unscientific survey, most creators of children’s literature and YA literature thought that Britain should remain in the European Union. They did not see the EU as without problems, but rather understood that remaining a member was far more advantageous than leaving. Here, then, are a few responses to the Brexit vote. I’ve gathered some from Oliver Jeffers, Malorie Blackman, Lucy Coats, Neil Gaiman, John Green, Guus Kuijer, Andrew Prahin, Philip Pullman, J.K. Rowling, Stephen Savage, Bob Shea, and G. Willow Wilson. UPDATE: Added Patrick Ness and Michael Rosen.

Did I miss any of your favorites?  Let me know, and I’ll add them.

Oilver Jeffers

Oliver Jeffers, Brexit

Source: Jeffers’ Instagram.

Malorie Blackman

Lucy Coats

Neil Gaiman

John Green

Guus Kuijer

According to Google Translate, this is: “I believe that Britain is falling apart. So sad!”

Translation, courtesy of Vanessa Joosen: “I finally understand that being a patriot means you don’t want to belong to anything.”

Google Translate: “The North Sea remains as narrow though. Though ..”

Google Translate: “The gray establishment outstrips the young people”

Google Translate: “Go out of Twitter: ‘Twixit’? Worth considering.”

Patrick Ness

This last one is a response to Mr. Trump’s characteristically idiotic statements, made just after he landed in Scotland:

There are more Brexit-related Tweets in Ness’s feed.

Andrew Prahin

Philip Pullman

The following day, Pullman published an editorial, “on the 1000 causes of Brexit,” which includes two paragraphs that I’m excerpting primarily because they offer the strongest parallels to the U.S. media’s complicity in facilitating the rise of America’s fascist orange dumpster fire:

Then there is the tendency of our broadcast media to be seduced by strong personalities. The oafish saloon-bar loudmouth Nigel Farage was indulged with far too many appearances on Any Questions and Question Time. Producers seem to have felt his dog-whistle racism to be amusingly transgressive.

Similarly, Boris Johnson, a liar, a cheat, a man said to have betrayed a journalist to someone who wanted to beat him up, a shameless opportunist, an idle buffoon, to name but a few of his disqualifications for high office, was flattered over and over again by programmes such as Have I Got News For You. Without the completely needless exposure these two gained from the generosity of TV and radio, they would have found it harder to spread their lies and not-even-quite-covert racism during the referendum. They’d have been starting from a different place.

In the next paragraph, he identifies David Cameron’s “flippant, careless, irresponsible” decisions as the “immediate cause of the disaster.”  Read the entire piece at The Guardian.

Michael Rosen

You can read Michael Rosen’s modest proposal, “Time to cull old people,” on his website.  It begins like this:

Good evening

on what is a historic moment in history,

a truly momentous moment

and I want to take this opportunity to discuss something

which up until now has been swept under the carpet:

old people.

Quite frankly there are too many of them.

I’m going to say it simply

and you can quote me on this:

there are too many old people in Britain today;

we can’t cope

they’re putting pressure on our public services,

they’re forcing wages down through doing low-paid jobs
and volunteering all over the place;they’re hanging about on street corners
talking to each other in their own odd ways
they go to their own special places
segregating themselves off from the rest of us

failing to integrate.

As I say, read the rest of it on his website, and remember that it’s satire — specifically, a commentary on the fact that those in favor of Brexit were older, and that a lot of the pro-Brexit rhetoric was anti-immigrant.

J. K. Rowling

Stephen Savage

Bob Shea

G. Willow Wilson

Credits: Thanks to Vanessa Joosen for translating one of Guus Kuijer’s Tweets, to Lara Saguisag for pointing me to the responses from Michael Rosen and Patrick Ness, and to Poushali Bhadury for pointing me to Philip Pullman’s Guardian piece.

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The Colors of Madeleine

Jaclyn Moriarty, Colors of Madeline (Scholastic editions, 2012-2016)If you have yet to read Jaclyn Moriarty‘s The Colors of Madeleine trilogy, then many pleasures await you. The third volume — A Tangle of Gold — was just published last month. It is fantasy that remains fully grounded in everyday experience. It has characters that I enjoy spending time with. It is about growing up, it asks big questions, and its themes resonate with our own uncertain times.

It is about many things.

(1) There’s an epistolary friendship between Madeleine and Elliot. She lives in Oxford, the World. He lives in the Bonfire, the Farms, in the Kingdom of Cello. They communicate via a crack between their worlds. In her world, this crack appears at a parking meter; in his, it is at a sculpture in his schoolyard. Initially, their relationship sustained my interest more than the fantasy.

(2) But that’s because the world-building is done with sufficient subtlety that you’re not fully aware it’s happening. Volume three — the book I’ve just finished — thus had a number of fully earned “a-ha!” moments. Themes and allusions that seemed to be telling us more about a particular character, or developing another subplot, turned out to be gestures towards a larger picture that — until that moment — was not fully visible. Information that appeared incidental was in fact central.

(3) As the previous sentences indicate, there are many mysteries. Where have the missing people gone? Is Elliot’s father dead… or just missing? Where is Madeleine’s father? Why are the color storms growing increasingly volatile and frequent? There are also deeper, more philosophical questions, such as: Where is the line between sane and crazy?  Where does art come from?  There are many other questions, but mentioning them might give away some surprises, and I’m trying not to do that.

Jaclyn Moriarty, A Tangle of Gold (2016)(4) Different elements of the series pull you in at different times. For the first book (A Corner of White), the relationship between our two protagonists kept me coming back. The second (The Cracks in the Kingdom) had more narrative drive. If I claimed that the first book were more devoted to character and the second more to plot, then I’d say that the third combines those in equal measure. But I say “If” both to invoke and to reject an admittedly facile plot-character dichotomy. The plot unspools at a slower pace in A Corner of White, but the book is never dull. So, perhaps I might instead say that the first book invites us to become its friend — just as Madeleine and Elliot become each others’ friends in that same volume. The Cracks in the Kingdom complicates and deepens that friendship, as Elliot and Madeleine get pulled in different directions, take on new responsibilities, and (Elliot in particular) make new friends — notably Kiera, who will become even more important in the third novel. A Tangle of Gold entangles and disentangles, weaves and unwinds, binds the strands of the narrative together while revealing a much broader canvas.

The books merit deeper consideration than this dashed-off review, but that’s all I have time for right now. In any case, that’s one use of the blog — a place to jot down ideas that may or may not get developed fully later on. And I do want to recommend the series!

Update, 14 May 2016: Ms. Moriarty kindly responded to this review. A brief Twitter conversation followed. Here it is.

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For Mom

My mother was my first best friend. My mother is the reason I have succeeded in life. My mother is the reason I managed to live through adolescence.

There have been many other important influences. Let’s not forget my sister, stepfather, friends, teachers, neighbors, and the many patient people who have managed to put up with me over the years. It takes a village, as they say. Growing up, I needed several villages, plus the occasional hamlet, borough, and suburb. My path to adulthood (such as it is) hasn’t exactly been smooth.

When I was in first grade, the teacher asked us, “What’s your favorite thing to do?” I answered, “Special Time.” A few times a week, my mother would set aside time — maybe 15 minutes, maybe a half hour — when she would play with just one of her two children. For that period of time, you had her undivided attention. She called it “Special Time.” It was.

Gloria and Phil read Richard Scarry, 16 May1971

This is why I say that she was my first best friend. True, despite my shyness, I did make friends with kids from the neighborhood and from school: there were several best friends during my grade-school years. But mom was the first.

I did not, at the time, think of her as my first best friend. I’ve only come to realize this in retrospect. About a year ago, while listening to the Dear Sugar podcast on “When Friendships End,” Emily Chenoweth spoke of her mother being her first best friend. And I thought: Exactly! My mother was my first best friend, too.

Unlike most friends (best or otherwise), my mother loved — and loves — me unconditionally.

I took this for granted at the time. Now, however, I realize how truly miraculous such a relationship is. I know people who had a mother addled by addiction, or who left the family, or whose own childhood left her too damaged to love well, or who died young, or who failed to protect her children from an abusive spouse. I know plenty of folks who have had wonderful mothers, too. But the unconditional love of a parent is not a given.

Her love kept me from killing myself. As a depressed teen-ager, I thought about suicide more often than I’d like to admit, and considered many different ways of doing it (slit wrists & lie in bathtub? use sleeping pills? asphyxiate in garage with car on? Etc.). To quote Dorothy Parker’s “Resumé,” a poem I memorized when I was a teen:

Razors pain you;
Rivers are damp;
Acids stain you;
And drugs cause cramp.
Guns aren’t lawful;
Nooses give;
Gas smells awful;
You might as well live.

The reason I lived, however, was not the inconvenience of the methods. I could never kill myself because I knew it would break my mother’s heart. Her love penetrated the fog of my depression.

From the relative emotional serenity of adulthood, I look back at my teenage self and think: What an idiot I was! Or, in the words of Bugs Bunny, “What a ma-roon!” (For those who neglected to squander their youth watching cartoons, that’s Bugs’ mispronunciation of “moron.”) However, when I was so depressed, I just wanted to end the pain. In hindsight, this “solution” seems daft. At the time, it seemed to offer a way out.

The better way, provided by my mother, was a first-class education. Most (though not all) of my public school education deadened my curiosity, sapped my motivation, nurtured my indifference. Having arrived at school already able to read, I began my formal education bored and then quickly tuned out. I could get A’s without paying attention …until about fifth or sixth grade, when I couldn’t. At that point, my grades began to slip, aided — no doubt — by the public-school ethos of just getting by. (Effort was frowned upon, coasting encouraged. Seeking my peers’ approval, I coasted.)

Gloria and Phil (dressed for Last Hurrah) at Choate, 1988

Then, mom got a job teaching at a private school, which allowed children of faculty to attend tuition-free. Suddenly, my sister and I were getting a first-class education where effort — not coasting — was the norm. After two years at the one school, she got a second job at an even better private school where, again, my sister and I attended at no additional cost. It took a few years for me to embrace this new emphasis on actually paying attention: I tended to work hard in classes that interested me, and to neglect those that did not. But, eventually, I got with the program. After repeating my senior year to get my grades up, I managed to get into a good college, and then into a good grad school, and ultimately became an English professor.

I owe this career to mom. She gave me a second chance. Had she not become a private-school teacher, it’s unlikely that I would have attended college, much less become a college professor. Indeed, when I think of my younger self’s half-assed approach to education, I blink and pinch myself: How could such an indifferent pupil become a teacher? Unlike most people in the world, past failures did not sabotage my future.

In addition to the incredible luck of having such a caring, intelligent, devoted mother, I of course reap many other unearned privileges. As a white person, I’ve never struggled under the daily (hourly!) burden of racism. As a man, I’ve never felt the sharp lacerations of sexism. As a heterosexual, I’ve never had my love used as a pretext for others’ hatred. I would never deny these or any other unmerited benefits (class, ability, etc.) that have helped me along my way.

Yet of all the advantages I did not earn, my mother’s care is the one I feel most deeply. Her devotion is a debt that I can never repay. When asked to express my gratitude, language falters, looks shyly at its feet, and stumbles off the stage. What else can it do? Its words are inadequate, clumsy.

I can only say: Thank you. And: I love you, mom. Happy Mother’s Day.

Gloria and Phil, Oct. 2014

Photos: 1. Mom and me (age 2) reading Richard Scarry. 2. Mom and me (age 19), just before I went to the “Last Hurrah,” a.k.a. senior prom. 3. Mom and me a couple of years ago.


  1. For Mother’s Day in 2015, I sent mom a version of the above. I had told her these things several times, but never chronicled them in such detail. She told me that she was “very moved” by what I had written. I mention this because we should tell the important people in our lives how important they are to us!  Incidentally, I didn’t post it then because I was contemplating trying to publish the essay beyond this blog. Doubting that it would find a wider audience, I’ve since decided to publish it here.
  2. To address what may seem an omission in the second paragraph, I’m keeping my promise never to mention on this blog the person whom I’ve omitted.

Selected autobiographical writing (on this blog, unless otherwise indicated):

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Gosh! Barnaby Volume Three (1946-1947) is here!

Crockett Johnson, Barnaby Vol. Three (1946-1947), ed. Philip Nel & Eric Reynolds (Fantagraphics, 2016)

74 years ago this month, five-year-old Barnaby Baxter wished for a fairy godmother.  Instead, Mr. O’Malley — a loquacious, endearing, pink-winged con-artist — flew through Barnaby’s (open) bedroom window, and announced himself as the lad’s fairy godfather.  For the next ten years, devoted readers of Crockett Johnson‘s Barnaby saw O’Malley elected to congress, running a business, and — in this volume — becoming a diplomat trying to avert war between the U.S. and Sylvania.  Barnaby Volume Three brings our cast of characters from the relative clarity of the Second World War homefront into the anxieties of the Cold War era.

For those who may be new to the series, other characters include Atlas (the mental giant, shown above holding a slide rule), Gus the Ghost (too timid to be effective at haunting), Gorgon (Barnaby’s talking dog), McSnoyd (the invisible leprechaun who, in this volume, does briefly become visible), Jane (a no-nonsense little girl and Barnaby’s next-door neighbor), and Barnaby’s parents.  The strip is both fantasy and topical satire.  The children can see the fairy characters but the adults (usually) do not see them; we readers know, however, that the fantasy characters are real and not just a projection of Barnaby’s and Jane’s imaginations. Because O’Malley is a character of possibility, Johnson can put him into any situation he’d like to satirize, be it politics, filmmaking, diplomacy, or high finance. Barnaby never had a mass following, but — like Krazy Kat — did have many readers who either were or became influential.  The strip’s fans include Chris Ware, Art Spiegleman, Daniel Clowes, Charles Schulz, Dorothy Parker, and Duke Ellington.  As Ware says in his foreword to the first volume, Barnaby is “the last great comic strip” that has yet to be collected — which, of course, our five-volume series in the process of realizing.

Barnaby Volume Three‘s official release date is June 1st, but — I am told — copies of the book may well start shipping in May.

Crockett Johnson, Barnaby Vol. Three (1946-1947), ed. Philip Nel & Eric Reynolds (Fantagraphics, 2016): back cover

After you enjoy Daniel Clowes‘ book design and open the cover, you’ll find….

  • two years of Barnaby comics (1946-1947)

Barnaby, 20-21 Oct. 1947

Jeff Smith, foreword to Crockett Johnson's Barnaby Volume Three

Nathalie op de Beeck, "Notes on a Haunted Childhood," from Crockett Johnson's Barnaby Volume Three

  • an essay by yours truly

Philip Nel, Afterword: Escape Artist?, Crockett Johnson's Barnaby Volume Three

  • and, for those who may be curious about the strip’s many allusions, notes (also written by me).

I hope you enjoy the book!  You can buy it via Fantagraphics, the usual online retailers, and your local brick-and-mortar bookstores and comic shops (should you be fortunate enough to have either of these in your area). Our — that is, my and my co-editor Eric Reynolds’ — plan is to bring out Barnaby Volume Four: 1948-1949 in 2017, and Barnaby Volume Five: 1950-1952 in 2018.

To learn more about Crockett Johnson or Barnaby, see:

  • my Comic Art essay from 2004 (pdf)
  • my biographyCrockett Johnson and Ruth Krauss: How an Unlikely Couple Found Love, Dodged the FBI, and Transformed Children’s Literature (2012, featuring cover art by the great Chris Ware!)
  • my Crockett Johnson Homepage (established 1998, and still proudly Web 1.0!)
  • the relevant tags on this blog: Crockett Johnson, Barnaby

Chris Ware's cover for Crockett Johnson and Ruth Krauss: How an Unlikely Couple Found Love, Dodged the FBI, and Transformed Children's Literature

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Commonplace Book, Also

Welcome to the sixth aggregation of quotations that interest me — that is, the sixth blog installment of my “commonplace book,” a sixteenth-century tradition (that continued for several centuries), in which “one records passages or matters to be especially remembered or referred to, with or without arrangement” (OED).  I’ve thus far done two other “general” collections of quotations, and three devoted to children’s literature. You’ll find links to the other such posts at the bottom of this one.

This collection of thoughts seems to fall in the category of “with arrangement.” That is, the ten quotations below do have a sort of logic to them. They all seem to address a search for meaning, and for hope — or at least for the will to keep struggling.

Buying books would be a good thing if one could also buy the time to read them in: but as a rule the purchase of books is mistaken for the appropriation of their contents.

Warren Zevon, Sentimental Hygiene (1987)—Arthur Schopenhauer, Counsels and Maxims, Vol. 2 (1851), Ch. 23

It’s tough to be somebody. It’s hard not to fall apart.
— Warren Zevon, “Detox Mansion,” Sentimental Hygiene (1987)
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.

— Laurie Anderson, describing her and Lou Reed’s rules to live by, in induction speech for Lou Reed, Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, 18 April 2015.

I’m just this meat sack with a conscience trying to make sense out of all this bright noise.

— Traci Brimhall, in Todd Gleason, “Building Impossible Houses: A Conversation With Traci Brimhall,” Drunk in a Midnight Choir, 8 June 2015.

Charles Simic, A Wedding in Hell (1994)Every worm is a martyr,
Every sparrow is subject to injustice,
I said to my cat,
Since there was no one else around.

It’s raining. In spite of their huge armies
What can the ants do?
And the roach on the wall
Like a waiter in an empty restaurant?

I’m going to the cellar
To stroke the rat caught in a trap.
You watch the sky.
If it clears, scratch on the door.

—Charles Simic, “Explaining a Few Things,” from A Wedding in Hell (1994)

There is no time for despair, no place for self-pity, no need for silence, no room for fear. We speak, we write, we do language. That is how civilizations heal. I know the world is bruised and bleeding, and though it is important not to ignore its pain, it is also critical to refuse to succumb to its malevolence. Like failure, chaos contains information that can lead to knowledge—even wisdom. Like art.

—Toni Morrison, “No Place for Self-Pity, No Room for Fear,” The Nation, 23 Mar. 2015

Ta-Nehisi Coates, Between the World and Me (2015)So 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.

—Ta-Nehisi Coates, Between the World and Me (2015), p. 71

Buck up — never say die. We’ll get along!

—Charlie Chaplin, final words of Modern Times (1936)

We’re all just walking each other home.

—Ram Dass

Chaplin, Modern Times (1936): final scene

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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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How Do We Stop the Trump on the Stump? The Truth Is in Seuss!

Many have likened Donald Trump to a “schoolyard bully.” Back in September, Mr. Trump even admitted that his own campaign rhetoric had been “a little childish.” To best understand a candidate who addresses voters at a fourth-grade level, we need the stories of one of our most plain-spoken political analysts — Dr. Seuss. These four Seuss books best explain Mr. Trump’s character, and offer insight into how to prevent him from conning his way into the presidency.

Dr. Seuss, The Cat in the Hat (1957)At first, the Trump on the stump may seem like the Cat in the Hat. He refuses to play by the rules, and disdains the advice of the political establishment (represented by the fish in Seuss’s story), but he’s very entertaining. He knows some new tricks — a lot of good tricks. Perhaps he should not be here, but — wait — he’s going to show us another good game that he knows? And it’s going to be amazing, fantastic, tremendous, hugely classy? The Trump, like the Cat, is disruptive and exciting. However, as Robert Coover’s satirical novella The Cat in the Hat for President (1968) points out, nominating Seuss’s Cat for president would be very risky. While an unpredictable clown can be fun to watch, he’s dangerous to put in charge.

Dr. Seuss, The Sneetches (1961)Of Seuss’s many con-artist characters (the Cat, the Grinch, the Once-Ler), Sylvester McMonkey McBean is the most Trumpish. A businessman, McBean makes his money by exploiting the prejudices of the Star-Belly Sneetches and the Plain-Belly Sneetches. To the excluded Plain-Belly Sneetches, he says: “I’ve heard you’re unhappy. But I can fix that.” He insists, “I have what you need,” and promises “my work is one hundred per cent guaranteed!” After the formerly star-less have all paid for stars on their bellies, McBean then turns to the original star-bellied group, and offers to remove their stars. So begins an “Off again! On again!” race in which Sneetches alternately pay to gain and pay to lose stars, until they all run out of money. Seated in a car now overflowing with bags of their cash, McBean drives away laughing.

Like McBean, Trump is adept at exploiting the hatreds of his constituents. According to him, Mexicans are “criminals” but also “good people.” Muslims should be banned from entering the U.S. but also are “wonderful people.” Oh, and Islam “hates us.” He flaunts his racism less out of conviction and more because he knows that manipulating people’s prejudices will help him sell himself as the solution.

Dr. Seuss, Horton Hears a Who! (1954)As Ezra Klein observes, Donald Trump has “the demagogue’s instinct for finding the angriest voice in the crowd and amplifying it.” This talent makes Trump an ally of the kangaroo from Horton Hears a Who! (1954). While Horton the elephant works to save the Whos, the kangaroo rallies the mob that nearly kills them. Her delight in encouraging violence echoes that of Trump, who has said of one protester “I’d like to punch him in the face.” When two of his followers attacked a homeless man, Trump excused their behavior by noting that his supporters were “very passionate.” At rallies, Trump condones violence against his opponents.

Dr. Seuss, Yertle the Turtle (1958)The kangaroo, the Cat, and McBean all illuminate aspects of the Trump psyche, but, to glimpse a Trump presidency, we need look to Yertle the Turtle, the despotic reptile who loves to brag about all he owns: “I’m king of the butterflies! King of the air! / Ah, me! What a throne! What a wonderful chair!” If Trump delivered one of his “I’m really rich” speeches in anapestic verse, he would sound just like Yertle. Seuss wrote Yertle the Turtle (1958) as an anti-fascist parable, in which the turtle king represented Hitler. Trump is not Hitler, but he is an authoritarian bully who scapegoats society’s vulnerable. He rejects democratic institutions — many of his proposals (such as the mass deportation of Muslims) are unconstitutional. Like Yertle, Trump is interested only in his own power, and not in his constituents’ welfare. In Seuss’s book, Yertle quite literally builds his empire on the backs of his citizens. This, too, is how Trump operates, and is what a Trump presidency would look like.

At the end of each Seuss story, the villain either fails or changes. Led by Mack’s revolutionary “burp,” Yertle’s subjects topple their king, freeing themselves and relegating Yertle to “King of the Mud.” In Horton Hears a Who!, the kangaroo changes her mind, recognizes the Whos’ humanity, and vows to protect them. The Sneetches (1961) ends with the Sneetches poorer, but wiser, having learned “that Sneetches are Sneetches / And no kind of Sneetch is the best on the beaches.” But what will be the end of Trump’s story?

Will the Trump on the stump make us all chumps?

Or will people wise up, and send Trump to the dump?

There’s no land of the free in his presidency.

Only anger and threats, bluster and bigotry.

If the Trump’s demagoguery wins in the fall,

Then a new idiocracy threatens us all.

I wrote this about a month ago, & pitched it to Buzzfeed & Politico, but got no response. In one version, I opened with a reference to Jimmy Kimmel’s December 2015 clip, in which he presents an ersatz Seuss children’s book as a commentary on Mr. Trump. I offer it here as a little bonus material.

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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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The Treachery of Images

Perhaps you have also seen these memes drifting through your social media feed. There’s a photo of Hillary Clinton and George W. Bush sharing a hug.

Hillary Clinton & George W. Bush at Nancy Reagan's funeral

This was taken at Nancy Reagan’s funeral earlier this month, but one meme-maker offers the photo as evidence that her politics and policies are identical to those of George W. Bush.

There’s another photo of Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump, taken at Mr. Trump’s third wedding, in 2005.

The Clintons at Trump's 2005 wedding.

This, too, is supposed to indicate a political alignment between the two presidential candidates.  Indeed, both photos are being shared by supporters of Bernie Sanders, in an effort to persuade you to vote for the Vermont senator.

There are many excellent reasons to vote for Mr. Sanders: a rebuke to Secretary Clinton’s neo-liberalism, or in opposition to Mr. Trump’s neo-fascism, to name but two possibilities.  However, the frequent sharing of these photos suggests that at least some of Senator Sanders’ supporters lack the ability to reason.  Secretary Clinton has spent nearly 40 years in public life. You can find photos of her next to lots of different people, some of whom you may admire, and others of whom you may revile. She shares a human moment with President Bush at a funeral, and accepts a wedding invitation from Mr. Trump (then a major donor to Democratic candidates). Is it not possible to be civil to those with whom you disagree? Indeed, why not read the photos of evidence of civility rather than ideological affiliation?  These photos prove that she is a public figure and a politician. That’s all.

Here is a photo of First Lady Clinton and Mickey Mouse, circa 1993.

Hillary Clinton & Mickey Mouse, c. 1993

Here is a photo of Secretary Clinton and Vladimir Putin, in 2010.

US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton (R) shakes hands with Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin (L) outside Moscow in Novo-Ogarevo on March 19, 2010. Photo credit: ALEXEY NIKOLSKY/AFP/Getty Images.

Here is a photo of Mrs. Clinton, Tipper Gore, and a stalk of broccoli, in 1992.

Hillary Clinton, Tipper Gore, & broccoli, 1992

What do these photos prove?  Are they evidence of a nefarious Russian-Disney-broccoli alliance?  Obviously not.  So, yes, debate the merits of Sanders, Clinton, Trump, Cruz, Kasich, and whomever else you like.  There are real policy differences, and a healthy debate is vital for democracy. But deploy convincing arguments, not facile memes.  Please.

Credits: Title of this blog post comes from the painting by René Magritte.  Photos via, respectively, Pro-Labor Alliance on Facebook, CNN, Amber J. Phillips’ website, Newsweek, and Pinterest.

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