Charleston, Family History, & White Responsibility

In response to concerns expressed by some members of my family, I have removed this blog post. This marks the first time that I’ve removed or changed something for reasons other than finding an error or a typo.

This post will not reappear here.  But nor will it completely disappear.  I plan to revise and expand it, with the aim of publishing it somewhere else in the future. If I can initiate a dialogue with family members, I want also to incorporate their critique into a new and better essay.  As I said in the original piece, I refuse to deny the truths about racism’s legacy.  But I also want to do a better job at expressing those truths.

As James Baldwin writes in The Fire Next Time (1963), white people “are, in effect, still trapped in a history which they do not understand; and until they understand it, they cannot be released from it” (8).

[The links that accompanied the original post remain.]


Essays on the 2015 Charleston Massacre


Related posts (on this blog)

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Emmylou Listens to “Emmylou”

Emmylou Harris, receiving the Polar Music Prize. Behind her, at right of picture: Klara & Johanna Söderberg (of First Aid Kit)

Emmylou Harris has that catch in her voice. When she sings, the lyrics seem poised perfectly, uneasily, between her beautiful, glistening tone and a deep well of intense emotion — often, pain or longing. Her voice says: the world is broken, we are broken, but this music will keep us afloat… for now.

When First Aid Kit sings their song “Emmylou” to Emmylou Harris, the catch in her voice appears on her face.

It’s a lovely song. And it’s unaccountably moving to listen to the song while Emmylou Harris is also moved by the song. Perhaps the affective experiences amplify one another: Emmylou Harris’s voice is moving, the song “Emmylou” is also moving, and so watching the subject of the song be moved by the song is that much more powerful.  I think, also, that her presence in the room makes the lyrics suddenly more poignant. Of the four people named in the chorus (all of whom were friends of hers), only Emmylou Harris is alive. Gram Parsons, Johnny Cash, and June Carter Cash have shuffled off this mortal coil. As she listens, I imagine she is thinking of them. That in turn brings to mind my own absent friends, which engenders empathy.

The song “Emmylou” yearns for a love that may or may not revive. First Aid Kit’s performance makes love’s absence more palpable.

I first started seriously listening to Emmylou Harris twenty years ago, when Wrecking Ball (1995) came out. Produced by Daniel Lanois, it had a scruffier production, with nice touches of ambient noise — reminiscent of his collaborations with Brian Eno on U2’s albums. So, I’ll conclude this brief post with my two favorite songs from Wrecking Ball: “Where Will I Be?” (written by Lanois) and “Deeper Well” (written by Lanois, Harris, and David Olney).

Photo credit: “Emmylou Harris Awarded Polar Music Prize,” 3NewsNZ, 11 June 2015. (First Aid Kit was performing for Harris as part of this award ceremony.)

Not a photo credit: Instead, thanks to Cecelia Tichi, who — back in 1995 — gave me a cassette with Wrecking Ball on one side and Cowgirl’s Prayer on the other. I soon went out and bought copies of both on CD.

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Maurice Sendak’s Will

Maurice Sendak, Northeast cover (Hartford Courant Sunday Magazine, 19 Dec. 1993)

Wills offer unique insights into people’s lives — what they value most, how they see themselves, how they hope to be remembered. Ruth Krauss left most of her estate to homeless children, a fact which floored Maurice Sendak, when I told him: she died the same year that We’re All in the Dumps with Jack and Guy, Sendak’s book about homeless children, was published. Today, on what would have been Maurice Sendak’s 87th birthday, here is his will (click for a pdf).

And here is my inevitably subjective interpretation of what this 22-page document tells us about Maurice Sendak. If the named items in his collection of manuscripts, letters, toys, and ephemera tell us which literary and cultural figures were dearest to him, then those figures are:

  • Beatrix Potter
  • Mickey Mouse
  • Herman Melville
  • Henry James
  • Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart
  • Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm
  • James Marshall

Maurice Sendak, cover for Herman Melville's Pierre (1995)But especially Herman Melville, who is named three times. To the Rosenbach Museum and Library, Sendak gives all of his “rare edition books, including, without limitation, books written by Herman Melville and Henry James” (2), and his “collection of letters and manuscripts written by persons other than [him], including, without limitation, letters written by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm (also known as the Brothers Grimm) and Herman Melville; and the publishing contract for ‘Pierre’ between Herman Melville and Harper and Brothers Publisher” (3). His affection for all of these figures is well known. In 1995, he even did an illustrated edition of Pierre, dedicating the pictures “in remembrance of” his brother Jack, who died earlier that same year. What fascinates me is that he so loved the novel that he obtained a copy of Melville’s contract with Harper and Brothers.

Sendak, Melville's Pierre: "Youth is hot, and temptation strong" Sendak, Melville's Pierre: [untitled] Sendak, Melville's Pierre: "The secret is still a Sendak, Melville's Pierre: "Pierre and Isabel stood locked"

Sendak’s love for Mickey Mouse is also no secret. He named the protagonist Maurice Sendak's earliest extant drawing: Mickey Mouse (1934)of In the Night Kitchen “Mickey” after the mouse (and because “M” is Sendak’s own first initial), and painted that book’s “Mickey Oven” in the red of Mickey’s shorts and yellow of Mickey’s shoes. (Originally, he’d wanted to use an image of Mickey, but Disney refused to grant permission.) Sendak’s earliest surviving drawing (from 1934, the year he turned 6) is of Mickey Mouse. So, Mickey’s appearance in the will is more confirmation than revelation. Still, though, it is the first item he lists among those going to the Rosenbach: “Such articles of my Mickey Mouse collection as my executors, in their sole and absolute discretion shall select” (2). He then directs that “the remaining balance of [his] Mickey Mouse collection” go to the Maurice Sendak Foundation, Inc.

Maurice Sendak, detail from Mickey Oven, In the Night Kitchen (1970)

Suggesting that he wanted to help scholars study the works of those he collected, Sendak also took care to locate like materials together. When I interviewed him back in June 2001, he fretted over whether work related to his collaborations with Ruth Krauss should go with the rest of his materials or to the University of Connecticut at Storrs, where her papers are. In that conversation, he concluded that the Krauss work should go to Storrs. The will James Marshall and Maurice Sendak, Swine Lake (1999)indicates either that he changed his mind or forgot this earlier decision, but he does remember to send “all of [his] collections of books and related papers, drawings, works of art and letters created by James Marshall” to Storrs. He also gives his “two (2) walking sticks that previously belonged to Beatrix Potter and William Heelis” to the Beatrix Potter Society in London.

There’s something about these physical objects that captures the imagination — Maurice Sendak with Beatrix Potter’s walking sticks! Maurice Sendak with original letters from Mozart, Melville, and the Brothers Grimm! Maurice Sendak with vintage Mickey Mouse toys! What we collect reflects who we are. The books on the shelves, the art on the wall, and the saved childhood memorabilia all offer a glimpse into a person’s interior life. When I think of these things that were dear to him, I imagine him at home, contemplating his collection. I also wish I’d taken him up on the invitation to visit, but I was then too shy, too intimidated by the idea. (Visit the great Maurice Sendak? At his home? Me? Uh….).

Maurice Sendak's will (2011)His will suggests that, if we are to catch sight of Sendak’s inner life, we will have to glean it from his works and from the works of those he collected. The second item on the will’s first page orders the destruction of his personal papers: “I direct my executors to destroy, immediately following my death, all of my personal letters, journals and diaries” (1). As a biographer, I feel a pang of loss at this sentence — what insights these materials would have offered! But I am not writing Sendak’s biography. And whoever does will have plenty to work with. In addition to being a public figure (many interviews!), Sendak collected his non-fiction in Caldecott & Co. (1988), worked with Selma Lanes on The Art of Maurice Sendak (1980) and with Tony Kushner on The Art of Maurice Sendak Since 1980 (2003). All three of these works are partly biographical. Adding to that record, next year will mark the appearance of Peter Kunze’s Conversations with Maurice Sendak, which includes — for the first time — my 2001 interview.

Maurice Sendak, Where the Wild Things Are (1963)I remember Sendak once saying, somewhat ruefully, that Where the Wild Things Are would be in the first line of his obituary. He was proud of the book, but he did so much more, and hoped people would recognize his larger body of work. As if to aid in that recognition, Sendak leaves his original works in libraries where others can study them. He gives his “designs of sets and costumes for operas, plays and ballets” to the Pierpont Morgan Library (2). To the Maurice Sendak Foundation, he bequeaths “All the works of art created by me for my books and all materials related thereto, including, without limitation, manuscripts, dummies, sketches of and for my books, changes to and proof sheets for my books, and all related ephemera” (5). Indicating that Sendak wants scholars to have access, he asks that the Maurice Sendak Foundation “make arrangements with the Rosenbach Museum and Library for the display” of these items. Indeed, he specifically asks the Maurice Sendak Foundation to use his house “as a museum or similar facility, to be used by scholars, students, artists, illustrators and writers, and to be opened to the general public” (4-5).

Rolling Stone, 30. Dec. 1976: cover by Maurice SendakAs you probably already know, the question of which materials go where is the subject of a lawsuit. (The Rosenbach Museum is suing the Sendak Foundation.) I won’t speculate on that dispute here, but I will say that authors’ and artists’ legal legacies are intriguing. Since wills and lawsuits are a matter of public record, they’re also available for our consideration. Indeed, though I don’t have the time to pursue this, someone should edit an essay collection titled In the Event of My Death: The Legal and Literary Afterlives of the Great Children’s Writers. In addition to authors’ and artists’ wills, there are other notable legal battles, such as those between A.A. Milne’s heirs and the Walt Disney Company, or Dr. Seuss Enterprises vs. Penguin Books (1997).

Posthumous lawsuits tell us as much about the artist’s friends and advisors as they do about the artist. But the will displays what and who was most important to the late artist. In this brief, speculative essay, I’ve focused more on the what than the who, but — as you’ll see, if you read the will — the who for Maurice Sendak is clear. It’s Lynn Caponera, Sendak’s caretaker and friend and, today, one of the executors of his estate. What’s so wonderful about Sendak’s will is that he remembers not just the friends and family who were dear to him, but all of us who care about art. So, on his birthday, I’ll add my thanks to a great artist not just for leaving a rich legacy, but for envisioning a future in which his own legacy can be appreciated and studied.

Further reading on Maurice Sendak (mostly on this blog):

Image credits: Maurice Sendak, “Northeast cover” (Hartford Courant Sunday Magazine, 19 Dec. 1993) from Sendak in Asia: Exhibition and Sale of Original Artwork (1996); Sendak, cover and four illustrations from Herman Melville’s Pierre or the Ambiguities (The Kraken Edition, 1995); Sendak’s earliest extant drawing (Mickey Mouse, 1934) from Selma G. Lanes, The Art of Maurice Sendak (1980); Sendak Sendak, detail from Mickey Oven, In the Night Kitchen (1970); James Marshall and Maurice Sendak, Swine Lake (1999); first page of Maurice Sendak’s will (2011), courtesy of probate court in Bethel, Connecticut; Sendak, Where the Wild Things Are (1963); Sendak, cover for Rolling Stone (30. Dec. 1976).

Thanks to Sara & David Austin for sending the will, and of course to the probate court in Bethel, Connecticut, for providing access to it.

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The Cyclops Who Mistook His Cake for a Hat

Rowboat Watkins' Rude Cakes (Chronicle Books, 2015)The best picture-book debut of 2015 is Rowboat WatkinsRude Cakes. Yes, I know it’s only May 7th. And I don’t claim to have read every picture book published thus far. But it’s going to be hard to top this one.

(Spoiler alert! There are spoilers below! Lots of them!)

The notion of an ill-mannered, sentient cake is funny on its own. But Watkins goes further. In the first half of the book, the titular character — a pink, bratty cake — refuses to listen to its parents or to wait in line, bullies a cupcake and a Cake in bathtub. From Rowboat Watkins' Rude Cakes (Chronicle Books, 2015)marshmallow on a playground, and glowers in the sudsy water of the bathtub before reluctantly going to bed. So far, it’s a comic didactic tale. Then, enter a Giant Cyclops. Really. The cake is jumping up and down on the bed, playing with the little stuffed toy blue Cyclops that it stole from the cupcake, when — through the open window — a giant blue Cyclops hand enters, plucking the cake from its bedroom, lifting it up towards its toothy open mouth… only to wear the cake on its head. As Watkins narrator explains, giant Cyclopses “LOVE to wear jaunty little hats.” And this Cyclops thinks that the cake is a hat.

Rude cake jumps on bed. From Rowboat Watkins' Rude Cakes (Chronicle Books, 2015)Watkins’ doodley, expressive line and soft watercolors provide his cakes and Cyclopes with the necessary solidity and silliness. Think of James Marshall’s hippo duo, George and Martha. Or of Laurie Keller’s misunderstood pastry, Arnie the Donut. As in any book by Marshall or Keller, Watkins’ characters have a real presence, and joy. Lots of joy. When I read the book, it feels like Rowboat Watkins is standing just behind the illustrations (where I can’t see him), and he’s smiling happily to himself. Or maybe he’s smiling at the fact that I am also smiling while I read his book.

He has imagined an oddly coherent universe populated by polite Giant Cyclopses, one rude cake, two beleaguered playmates (the cupcake and the marshmallow), and the rude cake’s exasperated parents (also cakes). In other words, Watkins understands Dr. Seuss’s principle of “logical nonsense”: as Seuss put it, “If I start with a two-headed animal I must never waver from that concept. There must be two hats in the closet, two toothbrushes in the bathroom and two sets of spectacles on the night table. Then my readers will accept the poor fellow without hesitation and so will I.” So, for instance, the Cyclops seems to come out of nowhere until you remember that the chocolate cupcake had a toy Cyclops, and the rude cake had a Cyclops poster over its bed. Later in the book, the child characters (rude cake, cupcake, marshmallow) frolic with Cyclopean balloons — each balloon has a giant eye. Theirs is a world in which Giant Cyclopses not only exist, but also are — in toy form — a cherished part of childhood. And why not? After all, we live in a world where we’d think twice about cuddling real live bears, but quite happily give children teddy bears to cuddle. In Watkins’ world, Giant Cyclopses are similar.

Rude cakes never say thank you. From Rude cake jumps on bed. From Rowboat Watkins' Rude Cakes (Chronicle Books, 2015)

By the book’s end, our bratty cake learns some manners. But, as in Marshall’s George and Martha or Arnold Lobel’s Frog and Toad books, Rude Cakes sublimates its didactic impulse, expressing its lesson via the pleasures of story. Watkins’ book has a moral, but what makes Rude Cakes work is its playful, loopy storytelling. In his baked goods and Cyclopses, Watkins offers an unusual but perfect metaphor for how larger forces can shake an obnoxious child out of its selfish egoism, revealing the kinder, gentle person within.

Rowboat Watkins is an original, singular talent. I can’t wait to see what he comes up with next.

P.S. If you’ve not read Jules Danielson’s magnificent interview with Rowboat Watkins, then get on over to Seven Impossible Things Before Breakfast and read it now. Then, read it again. Mr. Watkins has thought very carefully about picture books. You could learn a lot from him.

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Laurie Anderson & Lou Reed’s Rules to Live By

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Reading the Penderwicks

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

They Might Be Giants' Glean

Man, you never lost your edge.

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

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

Spend some time reflecting.

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

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

I can help the next in line.

Do we have a problem here?

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

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

It might seem like a thankless existence

But don’t lose hope just yet.

You’ll be remembered for your persistence

And this is the thanks you get.

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

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

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

They Might Be Giants

More They Might Be Giants on this blog:

More They Might Be Giants elsewhere on the web:

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Regarding the Pain of Racism

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Title of the Mix

Title of the Mix (a meta mix)This is the introductory text of this mix, which, before listing the songs (below), offers a few facts about them, such as the sad truth that the Free Design (track 3) had only one moderate hit, “Kites are Fun” (#33 on Billboard’s Adult Contemporary charts, and #114 on the pop charts), or the happy fact that there are three Monty Python-affiliated songs here, one (8) from Monty Python’s Contractual Obligation Album (itself a “meta” title), another (20) from Monty Python Live! At City Center, and yet another (24) from the Original Broadway Cast of Spamalot. These sentences might also point out that since all “Python” tunes feature different performers, the three songs do not violate the mix-maker’s unwritten rule of never including two songs performed by the same artist. However, the rather dull nature of this observation renders it unlikely for inclusion here. Of perhaps greater interest might be the information that the Beatles’ (16) publishing company was “Northern Songs Ltd.,” and that George Harrison wrote this one. Or that, while not actually the shortest song in the universe (12), the track by that name appears on Sandra Boynton’s book-and-CD combo Rhinoceros Tap.

1) Title of the Song DA VINCI’S NOTEBOOK (2000) 4:27

2) Gotta Sing High KENNY WHITE (2010) 4:47

3) 2002 – A Hit Song THE FREE DESIGN (1969) 2:43

4) Hit Song DJ FORMAT featuring ABDOMINAL (2003) 4:45

5) Overnight Sensation RASPBERRIES (1974) 5:37

6) Top Forty MOSE ALLISON (1987) 4:23

7) A Happy Song  MICHAEL FLANDERS & DONALD SWANN (1959) 2:01

8) One of Those Songs THE KING’S SINGERS (1980) 2:20

9) The Hut-sut Song THE MERRY MACS (1941) 2:35

10) Happy Working Song AMY ADAMS (2007) 2:10

11) The Shortest Song in the Universe ADAM BRYANT & MICHAEL FORD (1996) 0:47

12) Bass Man JOHNNY CYMBAL (1963) 2:32

13) Who Put the Bomp (in the Bomp, Bomp, Bomp)? BARRY MANN (1961) 2:47

14) Number Three THEY MIGHT BE GIANTS (1986) 1:28

15) Only a Northern Song THE BEATLES (1969) 3:25

16) Look What They’ve Done to My Song, Ma MELANIE (1971) 4:03

17) The Folk Song Army TOM LEHRER (1965) 2:12

18) How to Write Ultimate Protest Songs CITIZEN FISH (1990) 2:54

19) Protest Song NEIL INNES (1975) 4:10

20) A Road Song FOUNTAINS OF WAYNE (2011) 3:04

21) Fountains of Wayne Hotline ROBBIE FULKS (2005) 5:29

22) Velvet Underground JONATHAN RICHMAN (1992) 3:29

23) The Song That Goes Like This CHRISTOPHER SIEBER, TODD ELLISON & SARA RAMIREZ (2005) 2:54

24) Atheists Don’t Have No Songs STEVE MARTIN & THE STEEP CANYON RANGERS (2011) 3:51

It’s highly unlikely that any omitted “meta” songs would be mentioned here, in this concluding paragraph, because that would deprive the listener of the fun of pointing out the mix’s inexplicable failure to include the Axis of Awesome’s “How to Write a Love Song,” Simon & Garfunkel’s “Song for the Asking,” Howard Jones’ “New Song,” Elton John’s “Your Song,” the Four Tops’ “It’s the Same Old Song,” or Sammy Davis Jr. and Dean Martin’s “Sam’s Song,” to name but a few. It’s much more probable that these words would indicate that “Number Three” (15) appeared on They Might Be Giants, They Might Be Giants’ first album (also known as the pink album), or that “A Happy Song” (7) is one of three “Songs for Our Time” on At the Drop of a Hat.

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Nine More Kinds of Pi: Happy Pi Day 2015!

Since this blog takes its name from an artist who wrote about pie and painted π (see last year’s post), I try to offer a little tribute to this beloved irrational number each Pi Day. Today, at 9:26:53 am and pm (twice!), the date will spell out the first ten digits of the number. Well, it will if you write the date in the American style: 3/14/15, 9:26:53.

Last year, I managed to offer nine kinds of π / pie. And this year,… here’s another nine!

1. Andrew Huang’s “Pi Mnemonic Song” (2013)

I’ve featured π music on this blog before (see here and here), but only just discovered this piece, thanks to Paul DeGeorge, who shared it on Facebook. Yes, there’s a minor glitch late in the video. As Huang acknowledges on the song’s YouTube page, “there was an editing error at 1:18 with a couple of the numbers, but the song does all truly line up with Pi.”

2. “Joy of Bubbles,” π art from Cristian Vasile (2014)

Cristian Vasile, "Joy of Bubbles"

Vasile describes the piece as the “First few thousands digits of pi displayed over radial paths. Small size dots.” In an article from last year’s Pi Day, the Guardian shares art from Vasile and others.

3. π in superballs (2015)

Pi in superballs (Photo by Philip Nel)

Yes, these are my superballs, on my bathroom floor. Why do you ask? Also, technically, they’re not superballs (a brand name) — they’re just bouncy rubber balls. But they do spell π out to the 11th digit.

4. Sandra Boynton’s Pig & Pi (2015)

Sandra Boynton, Pi

Every day, Boynton posts something funny via Facebook and Twitter — here’s what she has for today. (I hope the pig finds some pie soon….)

5. Stephen Doyle’s global Pi (2015)

Stephen Doyle's global Pi

Doyle’s photographic portrait cleverly places the number within a circle, half of a globe — presumably to signal global Pi Day. This piece of art accompanied Manil Suri’s “Don’t Expect Math to Make Sense” in the New York Times, 14 Mar. 2015.

6. Technische Universität Berlin’s Pi mosaic

Technische Universität Berlin's Pi mosaic

Located outside the Maths Department at the Technical University of Berlin.

7. Tim Habersack’s π in color (click for larger image)

Tim Habersack's Pi in color

Click on the above to see the larger image (it takes Pi out to 786,432 digits). As Habersack explains, he “Wrote a php script which reads in the characters of pi one at a time. I assigned a single color to each character, 0 = white, 1 = teal, 2 = blue, etc. I create an image, and starting at position 0,0, I draw in my pi calculation one pixel at a time.”

8. Michael Albert’s Pi collage

Michael Albert's Pi collage

From PBS’s “6 Ways to Celebrate Pi Day.”

9. The Barbury Castle Crop Circle (allegedly)

Barbury Castle crop circle

Located in Wiltshire, England, this crop circle is alleged to be a graphic representation of the first ten digits of Pi. Full explanation here, though I’m a bit skeptical of it, myself.  Whether or not it spells out Pi, it is an impressive crop circle.

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