No matter how I struggle and strive. #PlagueSongs, no. 11

Given that I’ve played all of these on an acoustic guitar, you’d think I’d have covered a country song by now. But this song, co-written by Hank Williams and Fred Rose, is the first.

Williams recorded “I’ll Never Get out of This World Alive” in June 1952, the single was released in November 1952, and Williams died January 1, 1953 at the age of 29. The song hit #1 on the country charts that month. It was the last song released in his lifetime.

I think my favorite couplet in the song is:

And brother, if I stepped on a worn-out dime
I bet a nickel I could tell you if it was heads or tails.

I love the layers of humor embedded in those two dozen words. A dime is the smallest-sized US coin — to even notice that you were stepping on it indicates not just holes in your shoes but (likely) no socks on your feet. And there’s a comic fatalism in betting half of the ten-cent piece you’ve just found, when your odds are only 50-50 of guessing right. Merely noticing a regular dime beneath one’s feet would be remarkable; accurately guessing which side of a worn-out dime is up is, quite literally, a toss-up.

That said, the absurdity of a lawyer proving that you weren’t “born” but only “hatched” is funny on a couple of levels, too. Is it a commentary on a shifty lawyer or a shifty singer? That is, did the lawyer “prove” something impossible about Williams, or is Williams wryly acknowledging that his relationship to the “distant uncle” was “only hatched” — a plan he hatched, to claim the inheritance?

The song has been covered by many, including the Delta Rhythm Boys in December 1952.

Jerry Lee Lewis in 1995.

Jimmie Dale Gilmore in 2005.

In 2006, the Little Willies (featuring Norah Jones and Richard Julian on vocals) recorded a version.

Steve Earle did a version in 2011.

And I’m sure there are many other versions out there!


Looking for a #PlagueSong to perform? Check out this ever-expanding playlist. Of course, you may have a song in mind that I don’t know — and that would be welcome, too!


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It’s later than you think. #PlagueSongs, no. 4

This week’s #PlagueSong is a cover of Prince Buster’s “Enjoy yourself” (1963).

But I first heard the Specials’ cover version (1980).

That said, Prince Buster’s version is itself an adaptation of Guy Lombardo’s 1949 version, which reached #10 on the US pop charts in 1950.

Prince Buster retains the chorus of the 1949 song (music by Carl Sigman and words by Herb Magidson), but offers completely different lyrics for the verses. The other big difference is that Buster’s version is ska — so, the beat is on the upstroke, or, if you like, on the second and the fourth. And, as my rendition (unfortunately but predictably) reveals, that rhythm was the trickiest part of this cover for me! So, do check out the other, better, versions!


This week, featuring another bonus Plague Song! Emily Wishneusky Petermann covers Tom Lehrer’s “I Got it from Agnes.” Keep those Plague Songs coming, Emily!


If you’re interested in performing a #PlagueSong and are seeking ideas, I invite you to check out this ever-expanding playlist. But, of course, you may well have a song in mind that I don’t know — and that would be welcome, too!


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The Bright Side. #PlagueSongs, no. 3

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Will you sing this one with us?


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


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Goodbye, Pork Pie Hat

I’m borrowing the title of Charles Mingus’ tribute to Lester Young because my uncle Terry Webb liked Young, Mingus, and this song. To the best of my knowledge, Terry did not wear pork pie hats. Earlier in his career, Terry wore bowler hats. Later, he wore a Tyrolean hat. Or no hat — as in the photo below.

Philip Nel and Terry Webb, August 2018.

I could not be at Terry’s funeral in Bournemouth today. So, I sent this brief video reminiscence — which I am sharing here for any who would like to see it. Friends. Family. People who enjoy tributes for a favorite uncle.

Yes, that is an actual postcard from Terry, sent in 1975. Another annotation: the three photos that cycle through during the “same wavelength” section were cropped by Terry himself. While going through Terry’s hard drive of photos to make photo albums for Terry’s widow, my sister (Linda) came across those three, labeled terry_phil1, terry_phil2, terry_phil3. One other note: near the end, the Charlie Parker CD I hold up is one Terry gave me when he was visiting us in Nashville in the 1990s. Whenever the two of us were anywhere near a record shop, we’d go in and he would always get me a jazz CD he recommended. This particular one does indeed have “Parker’s Mood” on it. No one watching this video today could have known any of the above, of course. But hopefully the intent came through.

As I worked on selecting the music with Terry’s friends Vic Grayson and Derek Fones, I realized how much of my jazz knowledge comes from Terry. They would mention a song, and I would think: Oh, yes, Terry and I chatted about Bill Evans. And Charles Mingus. And Duke Ellington. And, of course, Charlie Parker. Here’s our Spotify playlist for the funeral.

Terry’s choices (communicated to Derek, a week or so before Terry died) are:

The Spotify playlist lists this last one as “New Orleans Function,” but don’t let that fool you: it’s actually “Oh, Didn’t He Ramble.” It’s followed by a shorter Armstrong recording of the same song, and another version by Kid Ory. Terry asked for “Oh, Didn’t He Ramble” as the exit music: we’ve added a few extra recordings so that the music keeps playing as people depart the chapel. Terry wanted people to enter to “Parker’s Mood.” However, since “Parker’s Mood” is so brief (and would conclude before people had finished entering), we decided to precede it with Bill Evans’ “Peace Piece,” and then begin the funeral proper with “Parker’s Mood.” This way, people could actually have a chance to listen to the Charlie Parker. Also, how many funerals begin with “Parker’s Mood”? I think Terry would have liked this somewhat unconventional beginning.

(Derek and Vic and I discussed including Mingus’ “Goodbye, Pork Pie Hat,” but it ultimately did not make the final playlist. As is ever the case, we had more music than time. So, check out the album Mingus Ah Um and listen for yourself. Indeed, why not give yourself a treat and listen to the whole album?)

So long, Terry. And thanks for all the delight — musical and otherwise — that you brought to our lives.

For their invaluable help in planning the funeral, special thanks to my cousin Vicky O’Neill and Head & Wheble funeral director Bob Bowater. For their indispensable assistance in making musical selections, thanks to Vic Grayson, Derek Fones, and Terry himself!

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Terry Webb (1934-2019)

Terrence Dudley Webb passed away on 12 April 2019, just over two weeks after learning that he had lung cancer. He was 85.

Terry Webb and his father Leslie Webb (1904-1992), c. 1935.

Born March 23, 1934 in Pretoria, South Africa, Terry was the first child of Leslie Ralph Webb and Mona Beatrice Webb (née Schwegmann). Leslie was a mechanic, fixing adding machines, calculators, and typewriters. He was, in his way, an early computer engineer — a field that would later be of interest to all three Webb siblings. Mona’s belief in a benevolent god and ability to see the best in everyone gave him — Terry would later reflect — “optimism and courage.”

Graham Webb (1936-2015) and Terry, c. 1939.

And two more siblings. When two-year-old Terry was told that the family would soon gain a new member, he looked forward to welcoming a little sister. So, his brother Graham’s arrival in June 1936 was a surprise. But Terry adapted. In a photo taken three years later, the two brothers — clad in matching sweaters and shorts — sit side by side, Terry smiling as Graham leans against him. The little sister finally arrived in November 1941, when Gloria was born.

Thanks to comic books, young Terry had taught himself to read before he began primary school in 1940. In 1946, a job in Northern Rhodesia (now Zambia) brought the Webb family — which now included their Zulu servant Donswene — to Lusaka. However, the promised house was still under construction, the small cottage where they lived had a leaky thatched roof, and the local schools weren’t up to par. Not wanting to send her sons away to boarding school, Mona convinced Leslie to return to South Africa. After a short stay with Cyril Webb (Leslie’s brother) and his wife Iris in Durban, the family at last moved to 97 Glenwood Drive, Durban. There, the Webb children would spend the rest of their childhoods.

Though girls’ education was not a priority, Terry noticed that his sister Gloria was bright and inquisitive. He encouraged her studies, insisting that she enroll in serious academic courses, including Latin and Maths, rather than the “domestic science” classes that girls usually took. He also challenged her to think critically.

By the end of his high school years, Terry had discovered be-bop. The music of Charlie Parker, Dizzy Gillespie, and Thelonious Monk begat a life-long love of jazz. Though more passionate about his musical education, Terry attended to his formal education, graduating from Durban High School in 1951 and Natal University in 1956.

While still a college student, this be-bop aficionado became an accountant, joining the Durban firm of Murray, Smith, Berend and Noyce. That combination — avant-garde jazz and careful financial management — encapsulates Terry’s personality. He had a sharp mind, but also a wry sense of humor. He was meticulously attentive, whether to the complex harmonies of a Lester Young solo or to the intricacies of an audit. He was fluent in the languages of art and of economics. For that matter, Terry also spoke French, Afrikaans, and — much later — Luxembourgish.

Terry married Pat Fletcher on 27 June 1959. Though (and perhaps because) they were childless, Terry took an active interest in the lives of his nieces and nephews, taking them to dinner whenever his travels brought him near, sending postcards from those travels, or — with his niece Linda — playing golf.

As Terry put it, “professional ambition” inspired him in the 1960s to take up golf and join the Royal Durban Golf Club, where his younger brother was already established as a first team player. Upon Graham’s passing in 2015, Terry recalled: “Notwithstanding my lack of ability, he introduced me to his friends, partnered me and gradually taught me the finer points of the game.”

The Webb siblings in 2004: Terry, Gloria, and Graham

While Terry rose in the ranks of chartered accountancy, he always remembered to mentor younger colleagues. When the firm of Murray, Smith, Berend and Noyce merged with Deloitte (then Deloitte, Haskins and Sells) in 1975, Terry joined Deloitte as a partner, moving to the Johannesburg office a few years later. In 1987, he moved again, this time to manage Deloitte’s Luxembourg office. In 1991, he retired, and he and Pat moved to Ferndown, Dorset, in the UK.

When Pat died in 1996, Terry reorganized, downsized, and moved to the Bournemouth flat where he would live for the next two decades. But not on his own. In February 1999, he — quite by chance — met Evelyne King. She, too, was recently widowed. They started chatting, and just clicked. They married on 6 April 2001.

Evelyne and Terry in Salzburg, Austria. December 2006.

Since they both liked to travel, over the next 18 years Terry and Evelyne visited Paris, Nice, Venice, Rome, Tuscany, Lake Como, Hong Kong, China, Japan, Singapore, Lisbon, Madrid, Andalusia, Amsterdam, Athens, Brussels, Budapest, Salzburg, the Canary Islands, the Arctic Circle, Norway, Iceland, Scotland, Switzerland, and many places in the U.S. — New York, New England, California, Colorado, Texas, Las Vegas, Arizona, Utah. (This incomplete itinerary at least gestures to their geographic range, even if it cannot conjure the many delights of traveling together.)

Back in Bournemouth, Terry was a member of the Probus Club, the Big Band Club, and (from 1998 to 2011) the Board of Governors of the Bournemouth School, serving as its Chair from 2007 to 2011. During his tenure as Chair, he helped establish the fiscal foundations for improving the school’s infrastructure, increasing its enrollment, and attracting the brightest students from the area. As Headmaster Dr Dorian Lewis noted, the school gained much from Terry’s “generosity of time and spirit” and his “wisdom and good humour.” As did all of us who knew Terry.

Terry is survived by his wife Evelyne Webb, his sister Gloria Hardman, as well as cousins, nieces, nephews, other family, and many good friends.

A funeral will be held at the Bournemouth Crematorium on Friday, May 3, 2019 at 1 pm, followed directly by a celebration of Terry’s life.

Flowers or donations, made payable to Cancer Research, may be sent care of Head and Wheble, 1A Oxford Road, Lansdowne, Bournemouth, Dorset, BH8 8EY, telephone number 01202 551190.

— Philip Nel (Terry’s nephew)

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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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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

Kansas

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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,

 

Phil

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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.

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