June 15, 2011
“Today we don’t remember kings and queens…but we remember our poets and we remember our musicians and artists.”
I could listen to that man talk forever. I really could.
Full interview with Tift Merritt here.
June 4, 2011
While it may sound like an appeal to emotion and romanticism rather than practicality to protest at the decline of cursive that kids won’t be able to read their grandparents’ diaries, I can’t help but find it a compelling appeal. Recently, my dad, knowing that I’ve become interested in digging into and preserving family history, sent me a box of stuff that someone found in someone’s basement. Paperclipped inside a typed and 3-ring-bound collection of stories and autobiographies was this little envelope.
It’s a letter from my great-great-great-grandfather Albert Darius, who served as an army nurse and then hospital steward during the Civil War, to his son Edward. After the war, as he was finishing medical school, struggling to set up a practice, and being divorced by his wife, Albert Darius was unable ever to keep all of his children with him, and they were fostered out to various neighbors and friends. (Clarence, mentioned in the second paragraph, was my great-great grandfather.)
I would scan it in its entirety and make you all try to read it, but my scanner is broken, so I transcribe it here….
May 27th 1869
My Dear Son,
I have been so very anxiously awaiting a letter from you for some time; at last Mr. Wilson wrote me that you had gone to live in Shelbyville with Mr. O. A. Andrews so now I can know where to write you and I hope you will write me as soon as you get this.
I want to know how you like living in the country–what you do–and all about the people you live with–how many in the family, and their names–and how far you live from the post office and which way. And all about your place there–and how you like it. Mr. Flowers writes that Miner has gone to live with Mr. Evans at Garden City. I hope you and Miner will write to each other and to me often. I expect Clarence will stay with me.
I hope Eddie you will not form bad habits, use no profane language. It is very foolish and wrong and no one will ever use in good society. Don’t use tobbaco (sic) in any form. Shun it as you would poison. And remember to be true and faithful. Ask advice of older persons on all subjects which you may be undecided upon. Strive to please, but act true to principles of right, whether it pleases or displeases, and you will be respected for it.
O Eddie I am very sorry we cannot all be together in our own home. It is almost killing me to think of you and Miner and Clarence and little Eva being scattered so but I know sometime we will be together, if we live, but where I know not. Oh how much I think of you every day and every night. And wish the good angels to watch over you and help you always, and I know they will if you are true and good.
I want you to keep all my letters. You will want them sometime.
I send you Harpers Monthly and in this I send you one dollar, to buy stamps and paper or anything you may need, and I do wish Eddie you would write me when you need money, and I can send you some, a little most any time but remember it is for yourself and no one else–write me if the folks will get you some clothes for summer, and all about everything–write a long letter a whole sheet-full anyway–and then I will be so happy.
From Your Affectionate
Father, A. D. Ballou
Yes, the Constitution has been propagated endlessly in print and online, but stuff like this has not. Our own emotional and personal history, not just the stuff that’s in textbooks, is written in cursive, and risks being lost by a generation who is simply incapable of reading it.
May 18, 2011
This is probably my most belligerent and exasperated blog post ever. Consider yourself forewarned.
I got myself into a couple of Facebook arguments recently, in which I’m not sure how much I accomplished, and which served mainly to undermine my regard for humanity. Apparently, after Osama bin Laden’s assassination a couple weeks ago, it was said by some on the political right that information we obtained by “harsh interrogation methods,” allowed us to find him. And I don’t even know enough about the chain of events to judge whether it’s true or not, but it hardly matters to my opinion: if it is true, then it wasn’t worth it. We paid too high a price in our own humanity and national honor. I would rather never have caught him, and let him die holed up in his little fortress, than have stooped to that level, morally, to get to him.
And if it isn’t true, then the argument is even more malevolent for being a lie.
So I really don’t care whether the practice of torture allowed us to catch bin Laden.
But I’ve already learned the immensely frustrating way that apologists for torture aren’t swayed by ethical arguments, or legal ones. There is always some end that justifies the means or legal loophole or illusory ticking time bomb.
I’ve only got one more argument:
The use of torture isn’t just weak, unconstitutional, un-American, illegal, immoral, and un-Christian. (Did I miss anything?) It’s stupid. It makes us as a country look brutish, and it makes its supporters look unintelligent.
It demonstrates an utter lack of foresight, of historical memory, and of imagination. You’d have to be totally unable to imagine yourself in the place of an innocent torture victim—swept up in a dragnet in the midst of civil unrest, at the mercy of a regime desperate to quash dissent or inconvenient criticism, the resident of an invaded country whose invaders understand neither your language nor culture very well but are convinced that you must know something that they want to know. And while it’s true, practically speaking, that you’re probably fairly safe from those circumstances here in America (for the time being, anyway), that’s only by sheer accident of birth. It’s not by any virtue or deserving of your own that you were born here, and not in Afghanistan or Iraq, or a Canadian citizen of Syrian descent. It’s luck of the draw.
Look back—how do we regard countries and regimes which engaged in torture? As evil. They all had high ideals. They all saw their own goals as ultimately good and so justified ignoring the human implications. But it’s their actions that reveal them for what they really were. So how is the future going to look back on us and this sorry decade in our history?
Look forward—what we do to the world and to other people comes back to us, one way or another, over and over again. You have to have not been paying very much attention not to have noticed this, or not been alive for very long. Or maybe I’m just better at pattern recognition. But we do reap what we sow. What if America finds itself in some kind of serious danger in the future; what will it do for our chances of finding support or cooperation from other countries if they know that when push comes to shove, we’ll behave just as badly as our enemies?
It’s arrogant, and arrogance is always shortsighted and dumb. It pretends that we know more than we can; I’ve heard the attempted excuse that we only torture people who we know are bad guys, or who we know (feel the sarcasm) have some kind of vital information but don’t want to give it up. But our record doesn’t support this confidence. See story of Maher Arar above, or look at the US justice system’s record of having to release people who turned out to have been wrongfully convicted of major crimes. And those are people who’ve had a lawful trial in which all available and legally admissible evidence was supposed to have been presented. Most of the people we’re interrogating at GITMO have not. We’re seriously not good at realizing what we don’t know.
Anyway, sorry to sound belligerent and angry. It’s tiring and it doesn’t make me feel good. It’s just that I feel like I shouldn’t have to explain this stuff, and it makes me really sad.
March 29, 2011
For the vast majority of my life, I never felt like I had much in common with other girls. Most of the people who ever tormented or abused me were girls or women, and so before I was very old, I didn’t have much desire left to have anything in common with them. I could never call myself a feminist. I read Mary Pipher’s much-discussed book about the emotional lives of adolescent girls, Reviving Ophelia, in high school, thinking “surely this expert will be able to articulate what’s really wrong with my life and then I’ll be able to explain it to everyone who’s getting it wrong (and not least of all, to myself).”
I was bitterly disappointed. It was a marvelous book (and I still think so), but it was like reading a very fascinating book about a completely alien species. Not me.
Then there was a sequel of sorts, Ophelia Speaks, a compilation of teen girls’ own responses and reflections on their lives and the original book, seeking to let girls speak for themselves about their lives and somewhat fill in the gaps they felt were left in Pipher’s book. I ran out to buy it. “Now someone will tell the truth for me, surely now someone will get it right!” I thought.
Nope. It was another fascinating book, this time in the words of the fascinating aliens themselves. But I recognized myself nowhere among them. I started to accept that either there were no girls like me anywhere, or I wasn’t a real girl at all. I don’t even remember there being any women who made me think “I could grow up to be like that.”
And then (to make a very long story short), I was diagnosed with Asperger’s Syndrome, and in reading the blogs and books of other autistic women and developing supportive relationships with them, I found a way to identify with other women at all for the first time.
I don’t write much about my work, for a variety of reasons, but it’s been no big secret lately that I’ve been working on a particularly difficult production, which has taken more or less everything out of me in the past couple months. It was a choral music piece called From the Fire, about the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire, which had its 100th anniversary this past week. On March 25, 1911, 146 garment workers, mostly teenage girls and young women, either burned or jumped to their deaths because they were locked in on the 9th floor of the factory building near Washington Square when a fast-moving fire broke out in a bin of cotton scraps. The tragedy proved a watershed moment in the social history of America, for workers’ rights and unions, mandates for workplace safety, and voting rights for women.
Within the first couple weeks, the rehearsal process had become so hard that I felt myself starting to shut down emotionally and detach myself from any real feeling for the show, which was the last thing in the world that I wanted, since what this kind of show can accomplish is exactly the reason that I wanted to work in theater in the first place.
Then one night in vocal rehearsal, I sang along silently in my head as the chorus of girls sang a line of a song: “Blessed are you oh lord our God who made me a woman, yes, a woman who can work.” And it hit me: I am one of these girls–the ones in front of me. I was there to look out for them, backed up by a strong union, in no small part because of what happened to the girls of Triangle. Performing artists are still a vulnerable population in many ways, and I was one of them, and as hard as things were still going to get, my job was to protect them. I was there to be on their side.
In the final song of the show, a cascading canon of voices sing out the names of girls of the Triangle factory, both survivors and the dead. The performers had been directed to abruptly face outwards, to an individual member of the audience, as each one sang her line. It wasn’t until the third performance, which happened to fall on the actual anniversary of the fire, that I realized that one of the student actresses, in the down right corner of the stage, was turning directly to me (where I was calling the show from an improvised platform) when she sang “Lizzie will be remembered.” I teared up. I couldn’t hold her gaze for more than a moment.
I could practically feel the ghosts of the Triangle girls around me.
And they were all my girls.
More on the production:
From the Fire production homepage
May 20, 2010
I distinctly remember a book called Pillars of the Earth, by Ken Follett, sitting on my parents’ bookshelf in the loft of our house for much of my childhood, and then on a shelf in a spare room of my mother’s house for all of my adolescence, and always in my continual quest to find something to read, I would see it, and decline to pick it up and read it. It looked boring, in my childhood judgment.
Then last Christmas, literally as I was about to leave to get on a plane back to New York, my mother brought out her copy from the spare room for me and said she thought I would like it. Why then, I have no idea. But I did read it. It was not boring.
Pillars of the Earth follows the trials of a family of builders, and their adopted town, in their ambitions to build a cathedral in 12th-century England. The eventual heroes are Jack, the illegitimate son of an outlaw woman and a mysterious traveler, and Aliena, noble-born, disinherited, and self-made merchant, whose unlikely romance flourishes against all taboos and obstacles thrown in their way. Quickly it became one of my favorite books; despite somewhat flat and clunky writing, Follett’s storytelling is masterful. I wanted it never to end.
I didn’t know there was a sequel until tipped off by a colleague as we were trading book recommendations: World Without End, released almost 20 years after the original. Oh joy!
“We normally think of history as one catastrophe after another, war followed by war, outrage by outrage–almost as if history were nothing more than all the narratives of human pain, assembled in sequence. And surely this is, often enough, an adequate description. But history is also the narratives of grace, the recountings of those blessed and inexplicable moments when someone did something for someone else, saved a life, bestowed a gift, gave something beyond what was required by circumstance,” writes Thomas Cahill in his introduction to How the Irish Saved Civilization, and there could hardly be a better characterization of the situation of the characters in World Without End, whose story picks up 200 years after the conclusion of Pillars of the Earth with Caris and Merthin, descendants of Jack and Aliena, childhood friends navigating a troubled love affair on the verge of the beginning of the Black Plague. Except that I would add to the graces of historical narrative, the desperate efforts and innovations of people bent on little more than survival. Reading World Without End, I found myself again stricken strongly with the lament, “Wow, they really didn’t teach us anything in school about how history actually works.”
Many conflicts are illustrated through the hardships faced by the characters of medieval Kingsbridge: peasants versus cruel and despotic nobles, poor families against hunger and cold, reason against magical thinking and superstition, independent women and ambitious girls against institutionalized misogyny, the rigid and all-powerful church against the interests of the people it governed, circumstances continually stacked against people without money or influence, and rule of law against the presumed superiority and “might makes right” mentality of the ruling classes. In one sense, the both the book, and the course of history, could be conceived of as the narrative of the vulnerable learning to stand up to bullies of all kinds, in all times and places.
But Follett’s narrative implicitly proposes an even more central conflict of history: that between people who are sincerely trying to accomplish, build, or create something; and those seek primarily to advance their own position or ensure their own power. The astonishing but elegantly simple thesis of World Without End is that the advancement of humanity rides on the triumph of those who create or build something real over the obstructionism of those who seek only to advance themselves (usually by controlling or oppressing other people). The heroes of this book are not heroes because they’re particularly admirable as people (often, they aren’t), or because of their resilience in the face of impossible odds, or even because they’re less self-interested than their powerful adversaries, but because they find a purpose in building something real, or in making their world richer, more fair and less cruel as it directly affects the real lives of themselves and their neighbors, when they see that the only obstacles to a truly better world are the ego, incompetence, rigidity, or spitefulness of those in higher position. They didn’t set out to change the course of Western civilization, but just to do something worth doing–building a cathedral, a hospital, a bridge–or even simply what they needed to do under the circumstances to survive or to preserve their human dignity and autonomy–starting a new business, becoming master of a craft, figuring out how to grow a new crop to lift your family out of serfdom, standing up for your legal rights when they’re all you have left. And in so doing, they became the great gift-givers of history, the hinges upon which would hang the fate of the world as we know it today.
In yet another curious incident of thought-pattern synchrony this week, Rachel Maddow gave the commencement address at Smith College, telling the graduates that, sometimes, “personal triumphs are overrated,” illustrated by stories of people whose personal aspirations to fame turned out very badly for society, as opposed to people who found “glory” in real creation and lasting contributions to human well-being. “Don’t be the granddad, don’t be the grandma, whose temporal, personal triumph is something that you only hope gets forgotten in history,” she said. “Gunning not just for personal triumph for yourself but for durable achievement for life is the difference between winning things, and leadership.” I can’t help thinking that Merthin and Caris would agree. The entire speech is well worth watching.