Monday, September 29, 2014

The Call


This fall my fifth book of poetry “This Miraculous Turning” is being published.  Most of the work is about my children, but there are a number of incidents and experiences that aren’t in the book because I couldn’t shape them into what I thought were successful poems.

When the social worker called to announce our daughter’s birth, we were on vacation, but we had taken a bottle of champagne to be ready.  She told us the news, hesitated, then said . . . She’s black.
Having met the birthmother, this was no surprise.   In fact, the social worker had been at the meeting.  Was she healthy, we asked?  Yes, the woman said, then repeated, But, you should know, she’s black.  We were puzzled by this and only realized later what she was trying to say.

            Oh…black as in black black.

Since the placement had been for a bi-racial child, the social worker had assumed this might be important to us, that we might be adopting bi-racially in hopes of somehow mitigating our child's "blackness."  And we recognized she made this assumption because it was important to others.  My wife and I aren’t na├»ve; we know there is a long legacy of prejudice against those with darker skin, even within races. Still it was a shock to realize that some parents might get that far along in the adoption process and then halt a placement if the baby was not as light as they had expected.
We had known our joy would be tempered by the birthmother’s grief, and we had thought we understood some of what we’d encounter, but the social worker’s comment evoked an unexpected sadness and gave us a quick, brutal, lesson.  Our choices were going to be subject to misunderstandings and misinterpretations.  The very presence of our family would trigger all sorts of assumptions and judgments. 
We told the social worker how relieved we were the baby was healthy and how excited we were to meet her.  We hung up and poured the champagne into tumblers to celebrate.  We knew this wasn’t how most people thought it was supposed to be drunk.  So be it.  This was how we were going to do it.

Saturday, September 20, 2014

40 Years of Blazing Saddles


This year is the 40th anniversary of the release of Blazing Saddles, a film full of cheap gags, puns, drug jokes, and sophomoric humor, including the famous farting campfire scene.  It also is a smart satire of racism and prejudice.  A reflexive film, one that breaks out of its own sound stage and spills across the studio, its meta-technique isn’t a gimmick or stylistic trick, but an incisive critique of the film industry itself.  Mel Brooks isn't satirizing the West, but Westerns and the way they have constructed “the West.”  In doing so, he emphasizes the racism that has been a persistent component of that mythic construction.  As he puts it, “the engine that runs Blazing Saddles is hatred and race prejudice.  Serious stuff for a movie with an on-going joke confusing Hedley Lamarr and Hedy.
            From the beginning, Brooks’ intentions are clear.  The whites in power are idiotic.  They demand, using racial slurs, that the blacks working on the railroad sing good old work songs.  They not only want the workers to work, but to act out stereotypes.  They want to control their labor and their identity.  When Bart sings Cole Porter’s “I Get No Kick from Champagne,” Lyle, the white boss, is bewildered and suggests “The Camptown Races” instead.  The black workers feign ignorance, so he gets down and sings it himself, complete with a ridiculous dance which the other whites mimic.
Those in authority – the law makers – are either corrupt or child-like.  Either way, they are intolerant, narrow-minded, and depraved while the “common people” are racist and in-bred (all of the citizens of Rockridge are Johnsons).  They spout and admire “authentic frontier gibberish.”
            The slapstick of some of the humor can make it easy to overlook the film’s skillful artifice.  When Bart, who has become the sheriff of Rockridge, meets the Waco Kid, the Kid is hanging upside from his bunk.  He literally has the opposite viewpoint and vision of those around him.  He doesn’t see the world or Bart as the people of Rockridge do.  Bart asks, “Are we awake?” and the Kid replies, “We’re not sure.  Are we black?”  He then says, “We’re awake, but we’re very puzzled.”  The use of the first person plural – we – unifies them, and whereas everyone else, including the old ladies, address Bart using racial slurs, the Kid doesn’t. 
When Bart asks the Kid if he needs any help, he says, “Oh, all I can get.”  The townspeople too need help.  They’ve begged the governor for a sheriff, then they’re scandalized and appalled by the person he sends. As the Kid tells Bart, “What did you expect? Welcome, sonny? Make yourself at home? Marry my daughter? You've got to remember that these are just simple farmers. These are people of the land. The common clay of the new West. You know... morons.”
The friendship of Bart and the Kid, the respect and admiration they have for one another, is the core of the film, and it argues for the possibility of breaking out of the damaging, imprisoning, stories, and telling new ones.  I want to believe this, and, most days, I do.  Just as most of the time, I believe satire can be a weapon for change.  But, as the daily headlines show, some stories keep repeating themselves.
            Genres are easy to parody, but as Stephen Colbert has said “satire is parody with a point.”  Forty years later the point of Blazing Saddles – the pervasive prejudice of our story-telling and American mythologies – still stings.

Saturday, September 13, 2014

What Makes a Good Course Good


During advising sessions at my school, I’m sometimes asked, “Will that be a good course?” 
It’s a funny question, particularly when they’re asking about one of mine. Do they expect me to say, “No, that course I’ve designed and I’m offering is going to suck.”
Sometimes a course does end up being bad (and sometimes I’ll wonder what I was thinking putting certain works on the syllabus), but no teacher thinks it will be before the first day.  We’re fundamentally, perhaps delusionally, optimistic.  Each new term and year, we think, “This time it’s going to be great.”
But, what I actually tell students who ask, “Will that be a good course?” is “I don’t know.”  I hope so.  I’m excited enough about the material to dedicate sixteen weeks to it, but we won’t know until we get started.
            What makes some courses good is not just the professor and material, but the students who take it.  I can teach the exact same lesson, and it will go over great in one section and terrible in another.  Did I change in the ten minutes between classes?  No, the students did.  (Similarly, I can read the same poems in, mostly, the same manner, and one audience will be enthusiastic and one will make me wonder if the microphone is on.)
The engagement and commitment of the students contributes to the quality of the course and, consequently, to the quality of the education of those involved.  So, when someone is late or hasn’t done the work, they don’t owe me an apology; they owe it to their colleagues because they’re not just diminishing their own education, but also the education of those in the room.  Similarly students who make contributions and enthusiastically engage ideas are enhancing the experience of others.
Courses, particularly ones that rely heavily on small group interactions, are collaborations.  They are discoveries and shared experiences.   In this way, they’re similar to other things.  I’ve loved some movies because of the people that I went with or because the audience was into it. 
To ask “will that be a good course?” is like asking, “Will it be a good party?” “A good wedding?”  “A good marriage?”  It depends on the people involved.

Saturday, August 30, 2014

Jilly, Jane, and J.K. Rowling: The Pleasures of Reading Out Loud


            In our first year together, my wife and I started reading out loud to one another.  It began as a joke.  She had picked up a Jilly Cooper novel somewhere – England’s equivalent of Danielle Steele – but she couldn’t make it through the first chapter, deciding it was too trashy.  One night, as we cleaned the kitchen, I began reading it out loud.  At first I declaimed and emoted and goofed around and then . . . we got into the story.  We read the entire book.  And then another one.
            I think we read three Coopers before we decided to elevate our tastes and try Jane Austen.  I was skeptical.  I had “read” Pride and Prejudice in college and hadn’t liked it.  This time, however, I loved it.  It may have been because I was no longer nineteen, but it also was because reading it out loud meant reading it slowly.  In college, it had been an assignment, and we had done the book in less than two weeks.  I whipped through it, concentrating only on plot – they don’t like each other and then they do.  I was going too fast to appreciate the irony, the wit, the style, in short, what makes Austen Austen.
            We read all of Jane Austen, and then moved on to Harry Potter, a series that was just coming out.  Each year, as Rowling published a new volume, we would read it out loud.  A chapter a night.  We weren’t among those who finished a book as soon as possible.  That seemed crazy to us.  No, we savored it.  And, sometimes to prepare for the release of a new volume, we would read the last one again.
            My son has now reached the age where we think he can handle the series (which grows progressively darker), and we’ve begun reading it out loud once again.  The family gathers after dinner and listens to my wife.  (She is fantastic with accents and reads wonderfully.  If I even make a gesture of reaching for the book, the children understandably complain.)  For my son, it’s a revelation.  Harry’s a wizard?  Awesome!  For us, it’s also a revelation as we realize how tightly Rowling has constructed this world.  Hagrid brought the baby to the Dursleys on a motorcycle he borrowed from Sirius Black, a character who won’t show up for two volumes?  Awesome!
            Part of the pleasure stems from the story itself.  Rowling’s very popularity sometimes means she doesn’t get as much credit as she should for her skill as a writer.  Part of it is seeing my son’s engagement and knowing he has the whole series in front of him.  And much of it is from a sense of communion.  Books are usually solo experiences.  We read them by ourselves.  Even when we read the same ones, we have different experiences.  But, a book read out loud, that’s a shared experience.  It’s a story, and more than a story; words spoken out loud are a spell, binding us together.