30 May 2017

On Memorial Day



Why does God permit suffering?

The State tells us that the murder of ourselves by ourselves is acceptable, or, rather, neccessary. And so, on Memorial Day, in America, we might wonder if we should suspend this question or interrogate it.

In memoriam, in marmoreal memorial, today, our war dead, we remember, and those who made war and lived through it. Even if your sacrifice meant little to you, it means a great deal to me.

We remember you, today.


16 May 2017

On David Brooks on Jane Addams

Hull House, Chicago

I have criticized him, sharply, over the years, and it has been fascinating to watch his Times pieces evolve through Bush II, the Republican Congress with Obama, and Trump. At base, through dilatory, piecemeal self-expressions--as "the conservative" voice at the Times, through his initial excuses for the Right, followed by his subsequent bewilderment at the madness and obvious venom of their agenda, which was an agenda of inaction-as-sabotage-and-brinksmanship, when it wasn't one of plutocratic self-interest at the expense of, well, anything, everything, else--Brooks has slowly revealed himself to be a classic, true conservative--who does not put party before country--and the kind we need many more of.

I'm not a liberal, I'm a radical, but I respect a real, conservative movement, that seeks to conserve, that doesn't need the appellation "compassionate" before it to find the spurious taste of being palatable. We have come to a place where "conservative" means something it was never meant to mean. It's an insult to conservatism, as such. Let's just call it the Far-Right, and be done with it. And don't forget, there are--or were--both Right and Left conservatives. Oh, how I miss texture, nuance, investment, and thought.

David Brooks! I might start liking you one day.



From the New York Times, in its entirety:


The Jane Addams Model
David Brooks
 
April 25, 2017

These days everything puts me in mind of Jane Addams. Many of the social problems we face today — the fraying social fabric, widening inequality, anxieties over immigration, concentrated poverty, the return of cartoonish hyper-masculinity — are the same problems she faced 130 years ago. And in many ways her responses were more sophisticated than ours.

Addams was born to an affluent family in Cedarville, Ill., in 1860. She was a morally ambitious young woman who dreamed of some epic life of service without much idea about how it might come about. In her teenage years, she earnestly set to reading — “Pilgrim’s Progress,” Plutarch’s “Lives,” “The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire” — but in her twenties she was one of those young people who don’t get to themselves quickly. They spend years in study and in acquiring degrees with a vague sense they are preparing for something, without actually leaping into what it is they might want to do.

Addams took a Grand Tour of Europe and found herself in a vegetable market as the leftovers were being tossed to a crowd of paupers, who stood with their grasping hands upraised. The image had a powerful effect on her. Forever after, the sight of hands raised up, even in dance and calisthenics, caused her to feel the pain of poverty and want.

In London, she visited a place called Toynbee Hall, a settlement house where rich university men organized social gatherings with the poor in the same way they would organize them with one another. Addams returned to Chicago and set up Hull House, an American version of the settlement idea.

As today, it was a time when the social fabric was being torn by technological change. Addams moved her family possessions, including the paintings, books and heirloom silver, into a large mansion in a blighted district. The idea was to give the dispossessed the same sort of refined and cultivated home environment that she had known, and thus create a network of family and neighborly bonds. Before long, 2,000 a day were streaming through the place, taking and teaching courses, offering and receiving day care, doing the housekeeping, conducting sociological research.

This was not rich serving the poor (Addams hated paternalism). It was rich and poor, immigrant and old stock, living and working in reciprocity, and as a byproduct bridging social chasms and coming to understand one another. For example, Addams thought it was especially important to put immigrant adults into the role of teachers, because it affords “a pleasant change from the tutelage in which all Americans, including their own children, are so apt to hold them.”

There were classes in acting, weaving, carpentry, but especially in art history, philosophy, and music. Addams was convinced that everyone longs for beauty and knowledge. Everyone longs to serve some high ideal. She believed in character before intellect, that spiritual support is as important as material support. And yet “the soul of man in the commercial and industrial struggle is under siege.”

High culture was her way to elevate the desires and tastes of all who passed through. Residents were surrounded with copies of Rembrandts and presented with Greek tragedies and classical concerts. One new immigrant walked in and Addams handed him an Atlantic Monthly and recommended an essay he could barely understand. But it was a sign of respect and equality, and access to a different world. Even poor kids, she believed, should “share in the common inheritance of life’s best goods.”

Our antipoverty efforts tend to be systematized and bureaucratized, but Hull House was intensely personalistic. She sought to change the world by planting herself deeply in a particular neighborhood. She treated each person as a unique soul.

Addams had amazing capacity to work from the specific case to the general philosophy, and had the ability to apply an overall strategy to the particular incident. There are many philanthropists and caregivers today who dislike theory and just want to get practical. It is this sort of doer’s arrogance and intellectual laziness that explains why so many charities do no good or do positive harm. Addams, by contrast, was both theorist and practitioner.

In her day, like our own, public life was dominated by manly men who saw politics as a competition between warriors and who sought change through partisan chest thumping and impersonal legislative action.

Addams was certainly political, but she defended the primacy of the “woman’s” sphere. People are really shaped by dense intimate connections. People thrive in “familied contexts.” As Jean Bethke Elshtain wrote in her biography, “The world of women was, for her, a dense concoction of imperatives, yearnings, reflections, actions, joys, tragedies, laughter, tears — a complex way of knowing and being in the world.”

Tough, Addams believed that we only make our way in the world through discipline and self-control. Tender, she created an institution that was a lived-out version of humanist philosophy. In today’s terms, she was a moral and religious traditionalist and an economic leftist, and an incredible role model for our time.

08 May 2017

The White Dogwood



In the posttwilight blue,
The white blossoms of
The dogwood hang in
Silence--only for the
Car that winds by, in
The night--like memory,
Like ghosts on the line.

L. Steve Schmersal, The White Dogwood, May 2017.

25 April 2017

What is Jazz? This is Jazz. Happy Birthday, Ella Fitzgerald.



Jazz Appreciation Month 2017, Day 25

Today marks the actual Fitzgerald centenary. Happy Birthday, Ella Fitzgerald.

What is Jazz? This is Jazz.

I heard this song on the radio on the way home from work this afternoon and was kinda knocked out--a young Fitzgerald, singing, "Don't Worry 'bout Me," doing some fairly Billie Holliday scooping and singing in fine, 1938 period form. Just smashing.

When I saw Fitzgerald live in 1989 in Cincinnati, we were all seated, respectfully, like adults, and between songs, during a quiet pause, after our applause, a woman yelled out as though she couldn't contain herself another second, " I LOVE YOU, ELLA!!" 

Fitzgerald gave a beat and replied, very simply, in that one-of-a-kind, immersively warm voice of hers, into the microphone, and her voice came from everywhere and nowhere, like God, "I love you too, sweetheart."

I love you, Ella.


Forget 'bout Me

Don't worry 'bout me,
I'll get along.
Forget about me,
Be happy, my love,

Let's say that our little show is over,
And so the story ends,
Why not call it a day the sensible way
And still be friends?
We'll be friends.

Look out for yourself
Should be the rule,
Give your heart and your love
To whomever you love,
Don't be a fool.

Darling, why do we cling to this old faded thing
That used to be?
If you can forget,
Don't worry 'bout me.

[dance break]

Yes, just look out for yourself
Should be the rule,
Give your heart and your love
To whomever you love,
Don't don't be a fool.

Darling, why should we cling to some old faded thing
That used to be?
Yes, if you can forget,
Don't worry 'bout me.

If you see somebody new
Someone who looks good to you,
You please don't worry 'bout me

Rube Bloom, music; Ted Koehler, lyrics; Ella Fitzgerald, vocal; "Don't Worry 'bout me," Ella Fitzgerald and her Savoy Eight, 1938.

05 April 2017

What is Jazz? This is Jazz. Toxic.




What is Jazz? This is Jazz.

I am late to the appreciation of Jazz Appreciation Month, again, the spur, as always, being, my friend, the essential, Rose, who was raised, as I was--a hopeful, white, American child--in a house of Jazz.

I always seek the liminal, the undefinable, the indecipherable, the edge-places, and in-between places. All of the true, American art forms belong to this space of uncertain certainty: they all come from and are beholden to earlier expressions and traditions, yet pose a problem-solution so special that we decide, upon some thoughtful, knowledgeable, respectful analysis that it presents a unique position. 

Not even Athena sprang Athena-like from the forehead of Zeus. Her mother, Metis, the Titan of Wisdom, whose progeny would be greater than the father, were that prophecy allowed to take place properly, had been swallowed as the fly into which she'd transformed herself to escape Zeus' amour. There are two great prophecies, that I know of, in Greek mythology, calling out the offspring of the mother as greater than the father, the other being a sea goddess, Thetis. Both prophecies encounter Zeus, who--wily as Odin and the other Skyfathers--sidesteps the prophetic outcome made in the lap of a woman, which is to say, a womb. Who says the Fates can't be denied?

Metis. Thetis.

In the case of Thetis, Zeus, who "loved" her but, given her prophetic baggage, was unwilling to chance his throne on his lust, through an incredible public relations coup, relegated her offspring, through a mortal father, King Peleus, to the mortal dimension, as Achilles, mightiest of doomed mortals. Similarly, Athena--as a woman, not a man, as a goddess of wisdom and war, out-does her father in every way; she is her father's favorite--poses no threat to the line of succession and the base of power, since only male offspring pose that issue of issue. And thus, the rape of her mother, and the prophecy about her, was constrained, contained, diffused, and defused into the most fascinating of deities, as a female, always-virgin god.

All the post-indigenous-people, indigenous, American forms are based on a kind of love, appropriation, and violence: the Blues, Jazz, the Broadway Musical, and Rock and Roll--all of which, constantly, bleed into each other. Miscegenation is our American past and our American future. It is our heritage, our dowry, our inheritance, our legacy, and our estate. Just ask Thomas Jefferson.

Welcome to Jazz Appreciation Month.


Toxic

Baby, can't you see,
I'm calling.
A guy like you
Should wear a warning.
It's dangerous.
I'm falling.

There is no escape;
I can't wait;
I need a hit;
Baby, give me it;
You're dangerous;
I'm loving it.

Too high,
Can't come down;
It's in the air
And it's all around.

Can you feel me, now?

With a taste of your lips,
I'm on a ride:
You're toxic,
I'm slipping under.

A taste of your poison paradise,
I'm addicted to you,
Don't you know that you're 
toc-sick,
And I love what you do,
Don't you know that you're 
toxic?

It's getting late
To give you up;
I took a sip
From my devil's cup;
Slowly,
It's taking over me:

Too high,
Can't come down;
It's in the air,
And it's all around.

Can you feel me now?

With a taste 
of your lips,
I'm on a ride.
You're toxic,
I'm slipping 
under;

Taste of a poison paradise,
I'm addicted to you;
Don't you know that you're toxic?
And I love what you do,
Don't you know 
that you're toxic?

Intoxicate me, now,
With your lovin', now,
Think I'm ready, now,
Think I'm ready, now.

Toxicate me, now,
With your lovin', now,
Think I'm ready, now,
Think I'm ready, now.

Toxicate me, now,
With your lovin', now,
I think I'm ready, now,
I think I'm ready, now.

I think I'm ready, now.

I think I'm ready, now.
Toxicate me, now,
With your lovin', now,
I think I'm ready, now,
Think I'm ready, now.


Now.
Now.
Now
Now.
Now-ow.
Now.
Now
Now.
Now.
Now
Now. Now. Now. Now. Now. Now Now. Now. Now. Now.

I think I'm ready, now,
With a taste of lips,
I think I'm ready, now.
I think I'm ready, now.

Intoxicate me, now,
With your lovin', now,
I think I'm ready, now,
I think I'm ready, now.

Intoxicate me, now,
With your lovin', now,
I think I'm ready, now,
I think I'm ready, now.


Yael Naïm, "Toxic." 

"Toxic" is a song recorded by American singer Britney Spears for her fourth studio album In the Zone (2003). It was written and produced by Christian Karlsson and Pontus Winnberg (known collectively as Bloodshy & Avant), with additional writing from Cathy Dennis and Henrik Jonback. 


20 March 2017

On the Current Antisemitism



Okay, so this must be the proof in the pudding. 

Since the election, the United States has seen a spike in reported hate crimes and violent acts against a whole array of people--this is reported, countable, legible, provable, and obvious. The high-profile ones are on the national news, but you can see them in your local newspaper, on your city news broadcasts, you can hear about them on the radio, and you sometimes witness them in person, when you are not the victim of them. This is happening. 

Some of these "groups"--to be absurdly reductive, but why not? The perpetrators of these aggressions are--are painfully expected, for example Muslims.

Obviously, Muslims--or people perceived to be "Muslim"--would be the first recipient of this local (but also executive and, thus, national) aggression: mosques, individuals, islamic organizations.

Then "immigrants"--but not all immigrants, really, just immigrants of, shall we impolitely call it, in that charmingly, antique phrasing, a "duskier hue": apparently that's Indians (from India), Sikhs (turbans: because turbans are exotic and the exotic is unfamiliar and the unfamiliar is frightening and what frightens us is automatically dangerous), anyone suspiciously Latin (i.e. "illegal Mexican" rapist/murderer/au pair/gardener), and anyone else with brown skin ("Go back to your country!"). 

Then we have African-Americans--you know, "Black people"? You've probably heard of them.

This comes as no surprise, since targeting black people is a national pastime and seems to be written into our national DNA, when it is not written into our national Constitution. (The horrible words, the curses, the slurs, the lies, half-lies, statistics, the violent words uttered against African-Americans, Blacks, People of Color, and Negroes in this-great-country-against-itself, need never be repeated again, to my way of thinking. We have all heard them, far too much, in our minds, in our homes, in our beds, on television, in books and magazines, and on the street.)

Okay, there's been a spike in violence against gay people, particularly men ("Trump won! Get used to it!"), which is not that weird, considering the kinds of people we're talking about, and how late the gay have been to the party of even tacit or expected "tolerance"/"acceptance." 

But the one I really can't wrap my stupid, fucking, American mind around is the spike in antisemitism everywhere, and against long-established synagogues (Sure! Why not attack a neighborhood place of worship? Synagogue=Mosque) and Jewish community centers.

When people are clearly other by skin color, the cowards go after them, sure.

Muslim, immigrant, dirty Mexican rapist, black man--I get it. It's asinine and repugnant, but I can at least follow the ham-fisted, racist logic at work, here. 

With our Jewish friends and neighbors, we enter into a strangely different territory.

This is not just because these individuals and communities have been here, on our shores, for so long (Black people, after the First Nations and Native Americans, after the Dutch, are the people who have lived here the longest: yes, they were slaves in New Amsterdam), but because of Jewish assimilation to American-ness, especially during the postwar period; their imbrication with American culture; their strange invisibility and presence--their frequent ability to pass, especially after entering the current period, where black Irish, Italians, Greeks, mediterraneans, and so on, were no longer considered "animals," in America--and the long, difficult history with and against antisemitism in the United States; our experience and non-experience/our knowledge and non-knowledge/our non-complicity and complicity in the Holocaust; our relationship politically, imperially, territorially, and culturally to Israel: for all these reasons, the sudden temerity in the attacks against Jewish cultural centers and people in the U.S.A., after the election, really pulls the mask off the clown.

Oh... It's YOU!

And, even if all the people committing the violence aren't motivated by the same animus, they are each being animated by each others' animus. 

And so, the oldest--the foundational--bigotry in Christendom; that most European of christian hatreds; that two thousand-year-old, murderous rage rises again, after being told to settle down for so long: Jew-hatred; Jew-murder; God-murder; Antisemitism: two-thousand years of death, pogrom, exile-in-exile, status-without-status, nationality-without-nationality. This? Again?

To my mind, this is how we should know it's serious.


What would Jesus do?

12 March 2017

On "My White Knight"



These lyrics don't exist online--I had to transcribe the whole thing, myself. This is a sort of reconstruction, by Cook and company, for that first, legendary Carnegie concert, of a version that never really existed because there were so many versions of "My White Knight," as they put The Music Man together; my friends, Meredith Wilson and friends: Welcome to the stream-of-consciousness that is Marian the Librarian.


My White Knight

All I want is a plain man,
A modest man, a quiet man,
A straightforward and honest man,
With habits
That do not exclude the occasional reading of a book;

I do not yearn for,
Nor do I wait,
Any handsome,
Hand-kissing,
Wine-tasting,
Silk-pillow,
Hookah-smoker;

No world-traveller,
In fact or fancy,
No show-off,
No clotheshorse;
He need not necessarily be
In uniform;

Ah, you wait,
No clean-cut,
Weather-beaten,
Square-rigged, white duck
Pants in tennis shoes;

No plumed hat,
No splendid insignia,
No Moose-, Elk-, Eagle-
Oddfellows-, National Guardsman,
Fire chief, or Highlander;

Be he from the Arabian Knights,
Or the French Foreign Legion;
No lothario shoe salesman,
No bandleader, no railroad conductor,
Or any other charmer,
Either of me, or anybody else;

No Chautauqua advance agent,
No vaudevillian,
No depot telegrapher;
I'm not dazzled or for any such a kind
Of fascinating flame.

All I want is a plain man,
A modest man,
A quiet man,
A straightforward,

And honest man,
To sit with me,
In a cottage somewhere,
In the state of Iowa;

And listen with a smile,
To a poem or a song
That is neither a five-line
Limerick about Saint Peter,
And the Man from Duluth,

Or a sing-song Lament
Of a Purple Cow;
And not every day,

But just occasionally,
We could walk down by the meadow,
In the twilight-sprinkled dew:

My White Knight,
Can be blacksmith,
Welldigger, clerk, or king;

All I want is a plain man,
A modest man, a quiet man,
A straightforward, and honest man,

With habits,
That do not
Necessarily include

The chewing of snuff,
Or exploding root beer,
In the cellar, every June;

And I would like him to be
More interested in me,
Than he is in himself,

And more interested in us,
Than in me.
And if occasionally

He'd ponder
What makes
Shakespeare and
Beethoven great:

Him, I could love,
till I die. Him,
I could love,
Till I die.

My White Knight,
Not a Lancelot,
Nor an angel with wings,

Just someone to love me,
Who is not ashamed
Of a few nice things;

My White Knight,
Let me walk with him,
Where the others ride by,

Walk, and love him,
Till I die,
Till I die.

Meredith Wilson, "My White Knight," The Music Man, 1957. Book, lyrics, and music: Meredith Wilson. Barbara Cook went through the development process of The Music Man and put this version together, with her music director, from snippets and versions that didn't make it into the final song; from "My White Knight," Barbara Cook at Carnegie Hall, 1975.

07 March 2017

Non-Laughter, Laughter, Perhaps Syllables, or Only Phonemes in Western Civilization











I have long been interested in the representation and musicalization of laughter, or that representation of that which we take as laughter. It is a long history, and a rich one. I offer, here, only a small sample, a cross-section, an intersection, of texts, the crossroads, where Death--or its undead refusal, its burial, or the deal with the Devil--and the Devil, as the God, always seems to be, and be in the details.

My aunt, who is a nun, once said to me, a long time ago, "How can we know what other people know, when we can barely know ourselves?" She has since repudiated this remark, but for me, it was foundational. And psychoanalysis--and our current political situation--bears this observation out. How can we know another, when we can barely know ourselves? We insist on imputing intentions and meanings to others, when we barely understand our own. The lie tells the truth. The tangled web we weave, when we practice to deceive, tells a better truth than when we try to tell the truth. And our understanding of another, tells us so much more about ourselves. Is someone laughing, or just extending her lips and making a sound?

Of course, we begin with Mozart.


Der Hölle Rache kocht in meinem Herzen

Der Hölle Rache kocht in meinem Herzen,
The vengeance of Hell boils in my heart,

Tod und Verzweiflung flammet um mich her!
Death and despair flame about me!

Fühlt nicht durch dich Sarastro
If Sarastro does not through you feel

Todesschmerzen,
The pain of death,

So bist du meine Tochter nimmermehr.
Then you will be my daughter nevermore.

Verstossen sei auf ewig,
Disowned may you be forever,

Verlassen sei auf ewig,
Destroyed be forever

Zertrümmert sei'n auf ewig
Abandoned may you be forever,

Alle Bande der Natur
All the bonds of nature,

Wenn nicht durch dich!
If not through you

Sarastro wird erblassen!
Sarastro becomes pale! (as death)

Hört, Rachegötter,
Hear, Gods of Revenge,

Hört der Mutter Schwur!
Hear a mother's oath!


W. A. Mozart (music), Emanuel Schikaneder, (libretto), Lucia Popp (vocal), "Der Hölle Rache kocht in meinem Herzen," Die Zauberflöte, 1791.




Glitter and be Gay

And, here I am,
my heart breaking,
Forced to glitter,
Forced to be gay.

Glitter and be gay,
That's the part I play;
Here I am in Paris, France,
Forced to bend my soul
To a sordid role,
Victimized by bitter, bitter circumstance.
Alas for me! Had I remained
Beside my lady mother,
My virtue had remained unstained
Until my maiden hand was gained
By some Grand Duke or other.

Ah, 'twas not to be;
Harsh necessity
Brought me to this gilded cage.
Born to higher things,
Here I droop my wings,
Ah! Singing of a sorrow nothing can assuage.

And yet of course I rather like to revel,
Ha ha!
I have no strong objection to champagne,
Ha ha!
My wardrobe is expensive as the devil,
Ha ha!
Perhaps it is ignoble to complain...
Enough, enough
Of being basely tearful!
I'll show my noble stuff
By being bright and cheerful!
Ha ha ha ha ha! Ha!

Pearls and ruby rings...
Ah, how can worldly things
Take the place of honor lost?
Can they compensate
For my fallen state,
Purchased as they were at such an awful cost?

Bracelets... lavalieres
Can they dry my tears?
Can they blind my eyes to shame?
Can the brightest brooch
Shield me from reproach?
Can the purest diamond purify my name?
And yet of course these trinkets are endearing,
Ha ha!
I'm oh, so glad my sapphire is a star,
Ha ha!
I rather like a twenty-carat earring,
Ha ha!
If I'm not pure, at least my jewels are!

Enough! Enough!
I'll take their diamond necklace
And show my noble stuff
By being gay and reckless!
Ha ha ha ha ha! Ha!

Observe how bravely I conceal
The dreadful, dreadful shame I feel.
Ha ha ha ha!

Leonard Bernstein (music), Richard Wilbur (lyrics), Barbara Cook (vocal), "Glitter and be Gay," Candide, 1956.




O Superman (for Massenet)

Ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha...

O Superman.
O Judge.
O Mom and Dad.
Mom and Dad.

Ah, ha, ha, ha, ha, ha, ha, ha, ha.

O Superman,
O Judge,
O Mom and Dad,
Mom and Dad.

Ah, ha, ha, ha, ha, ha, ha, ha, ha.

Hi! I'm not home right now,
But if you want to leave a message,
Just start talking at the sound of the tone.

Ah, ah-ah,
Ah, ah, ah, ah, ah, ah, ah.

Hello? This is your Mother.
Are you there?
Are you coming home?

Ah, ah, ah, ah-ah, ah, ah.

Hello? Is anybody home?

Well, you don't know me,
but I know you,
And I've got a message
to give to you,
Here come the planes.

So, you better get ready,
Ready to go;
You can come as you are,
but pay as you go,
Pay as you go.

Ah-ah, ah-ah, ah-ah, ah, ah, ah, ah, ah.

And I said: Okay,
Who is this really?

And the voice said:

This is the hand,
the hand that takes.
This is the hand,
the hand that takes.
This is the hand,
the hand that takes.

Here come the planes.

They're American planes,
Made in America,
Smoking
or non-smoking?

Ah, ah-ah,
Ah, ah, ah, ah.

And the voice said:
Neither snow nor rain,
nor gloom of night,
Shall stay these couriers
from the swift completion
Of their appointed rounds.

Ah, ah-ah,
Ah-ah,
Ah-ah,
Ah, ah, ah, ah, ah, ah-ah.

'Cause when Love is gone,
there's always Justice;

And when Justice is gone,
there's always Force;

And when Force is gone,
there's always Mom.

Hi Mom!

Ah, ah,
Ah, ah-ah.

So hold me, Mom,
in your long arms,
So hold me, Mom,
in your long arms,
In your automatic arms,
Your electronic arms,
In your arms.

So hold me, Mah-ahm,
in your long arms,
Your petrochemical arms,
Your military arms,
In your electronic arms.

Ah, ah, ah, ah, ah, ah, ah, ah, ah, ah, ah, ah, ah, ah, ah, ah, ah....

Laurie Anderson, "O Superman (for Massenet)," Big Science, 1982.



I have written a poem for a woman who rides a bus in New York City. She's a maid. She has two shopping bags. When the bus stops abruptly, she laughs. If the bus stops slowly, she laughs. If the bus picks up someone, she laughs. If the bus misses someone, she AH-ha-ha-ha. So, I watched her for about nine months. I thought, "Mm, uh-huh." Now, if you don't know black features, you may think she's laughing, But she wasn't laughing, she was simply extending her lips and making a sound, Eh, heh-heh-heh! I said, "Oh, I see. That's that survival apparatus. Now, let me write about that to honor this woman, who helps us to survive." By her very survival--Miss Rosie--through your destruction, I stand up. So, I use the poem with Mister Paul Laurence Dunbar's poem, "Masks," and my own poem for old black men. Mister Dunbar wrote "Masks" in 1892.

We wear the mask that grins and lies,
It shades our cheeks and hides our eyes,—
This debt we pay to human guile;
With torn and bleeding hearts we smile,
And mouth with myriad subtleties.

Why should the world be over-wise,
In counting all our tears and sighs?
Nay, let them only see us, while
We wear the mask.

We smile, but, O my God, our tears
To thee from tortured souls arise.
And we sing, but oh the clay is vile
Beneath our feet, and long the mile;
But let the world think otherwise,
We wear the mask!

When I think about myself,
I almost laugh myself to death,
My life has been one great big joke,
A dance that’s walked,
A song was spoke,

I laugh so hard, Ha-ha! I almost choke,
When I think about myself.

Seventy years in these folks’ world.
The child I works for calls me "girl";
I say, “HA-HA-HA, Yes ma’am,” for working’s sake.
I'm too proud to bend
And too poor to break,
So, I laugh, until my stomach ache,
When I think about myself.

My folks can make me split my side,
I laughed so hard, HA-HA-HA, I nearly died.
The tales they tell, sound just like lyin',
They grow the fruit, but eat the rind.
I laugh, AH-HA-HA-HA, until I start to cryin',
When I think about myself,
And my folks, and the little children.

My Fathers sit on benches,
Their flesh count every plank,
The slats leave dents of darkness
Deep in their withered flank,

And they nod, like broken candles,
All waxed and burnt profound
They say "But, Sugar, it was our submission
That made your world go round."

There in those pleated faces
I see the auction block,
The chains and slavery's coffles,
The whip and lash and stock.

My Fathers speak in voices
That shred my fact and sound,
They say, "But Sugar, it was our submission
And that made your world go round."

They laughed to shield their crying ,
They shuffled through their dreams
They step 'n' fetched a country
And wrote the blues in screams.

I understand their meaning,
It could and did derive,
From living on the ledge of death,
They kept my race alive.
By wearing the mask.

HEH-heh-heh,
Ah, HA, HA, HA, HA!
HA, HA, HA. HA, HA!
Aaah-aaaAHH!

Paul Laurence Dunbar and Maya Angelou, We Wear the Mask/When I Think about Myself/Song for the Old Ones, 1892, 19-something, Angelou's poem dating is not coming up on Google, which is its failure. The colloquium on Evil, from which this performance was taken, was held in Texas in 1988.




07 February 2017

Maya Angelou: We Wear the Mask/When I Think about Myself/Song for the Old Ones



It's Black History Month, all y'all,
And there is some amazing shit to see,
During February,
The shortest month in the year,
And all the year round,
And the world goes round,
And round and round and round and round.

When I was in high school, back during the last century, Bill Moyers aired a special on PBS covering a colloquium on Evil. Yes, on Evil, itself--these were the sorts of things that interested me when I was in high school. I videotaped it on VHS and still have that videotape.

It was my introduction to Maya Angelou, that chameleonic, kaleidoscopic, polymath and autodidact of American Letters and performance. I was bound by her spell and her deeply humanistic openness, immediately. I encourage you to watch her segment from that colloquium, in which she reads three poems.

The segment begins with her reading her poem for Clinton's inauguration; moves to an earlier piece about her home town, Stamps, AK; continues to the colloquium in question, during which she discusses her rape and five-year silence; and ends with her reading of some three poems. I encourage you to watch the entire clip.


Three poems, one by Laurence Dunbar and two by Maya Angelou:


We Wear the Mask/When I Think about Myself/Song for the Old Ones

We wear the mask that grins and lies,
It shades our cheeks and hides our eyes,—
This debt we pay to human guile;
With torn and bleeding hearts we smile,
And mouth with myriad subtleties.

Why should the world be over-wise,
In counting all our tears and sighs?
Nay, let them only see us, while
We wear the mask.

We smile, but, O my God, our tears
To thee from tortured souls arise.
And we sing, but oh the clay is vile
Beneath our feet, and long the mile;
But let the world think otherwise,
We wear the mask!

When I think about myself,
I almost laugh myself to death,
My life has been one great big joke,
A dance that’s walked,
A song was spoke,
I laugh so hard, I almost choke,
When I think about myself.

Seventy years in these folks’ world.
The child I works for calls me "girl";
I say, “Yes ma’am,” for working’s sake.
I'm too proud to bend
And too poor to break,
So, I laugh, until my stomach ache,
When I think about myself.

My folks can make me split my side,
I laughed so hard, I nearly died.
The tales they tell, sound just like lyin',
They grow the fruit, but eat the rind.
I laugh, until I start to cryin',
When I think about myself,
And my folks, and the little children.

My Fathers sit on benches,
Their flesh count every plank,
The slats leave dents of darkness
Deep in their withered flank,

And they nod, like broken candles,
All waxed and burnt profound
They say 'But, Sugar, it was our submission
That made your world go round.'

There in those pleated faces
I see the auction block,
The chains and slavery's coffles,
The whip and lash and stock.

My Fathers speak in voices
That shred my fact and sound,
They say, 'But Sugar, it was our submission
And that made your world go round.'

They've laughed to shield their crying ,
They shuffled through their dreams
They step 'n' fetched a country
And wrote the blues in screams.

I understand their meaning,
It could and did derive,
From living on the ledge of death,
They kept my race alive.

By wearing the mask.


Paul Laurence Dunbar and Maya Angelou, We Wear the Mask/When I Think about Myself/Song for the Old Ones, 1892, 19-something, Angelou's poem dating is not coming up on Google, which is its failure. The colloquium on Evil took place in Texas in 1988.


23 January 2017

Fourteen Points about You, Me, and Everybody Else

I, actually, don't look anything like this.

So, I've been meditating on the last few days for the past three months.
And I have a couple things to say about it:


1.
If you wanted "CHANGE," Honey, you are about to get some REAL CHANGE, for real. 
I hope it's to your liking.


2.
I never thought the day after an in-inauguration would move me more than the day itself. The day after became a new kind of the-day-itself, and I thank each and every one of you for making that happen.


3.
The Law is something we subscribe to--and when it is often wrong--we resist it. The United Republican Democratic States of the continent of north America only exists because of resistance, dissent, and revolution. 

Never forget that while we agree to disagree, we disagree in order to agree. We build consensus out of dissent. But you have to know shit in order to disagree and then change your mind. 

Know shit. Be educated, nuanced, sophisticated, smart, and compassionate. 

Listen. Know more later than you know right now.


4.
We are all immigrants to this land..

No human life took hold in the western hemisphere, until immigrants, who crossed the Bering Strait/Sea, long ago, in our prehistory, settled it.

After that, the settlers were all people from across either of the oceans that nestle us in "the West," some of them, even in the earliest days before the Republic for which the American flag stands, brought here forcibly to labor without pay and to make more people, their children, who would also be forced to labor without pay, and to foster grandchildren, great, great-great, and great-great-great, great-great-great-great grandchildren, to be ensnared until the present day, and after, in American law and the "Justice" system, to be imprisoned, paid lower wages, to be denied the franchise, and to, on the average, die at a younger age, unless they were made to join the lowest ranks of the armed forces as cannon fodder or, often unarmed, shot dead by the police.

We are all immigrants to this land. This land, which is your land, this land, which is my land, from California to the New York Island(s), from the redwood forest to the Gulf Stream waters. This land, which, in point of actual fact, was not made for you and me, but which is a land upon which we are all living, so, we certainly had better start figuring out how to get along better, because none of us is going anywhere. Except for the very old, who tend to vote Republican.

We are all immigrants to this land.


5.
Respect people who came here because they had the temerity to believe in The American Dream. A Dream that still exists in those foolish enough to believe in it. Do not let them down! Respect immigrants. We are only a land only of immigrants.


6.
Jews are actually people.
Muslims are actually people.
Women are actually people.
Women's rights are human rights.
And black lives actually do matter, too.

Why is this so hard to get through your skull? Black lives mattering is not about all lives not mattering, it's about the fact that, heretofore, it didn't seem to matter to much of anyone not black that lives lived by black people matter, too. Not just your bullshit. This isn't that hard. Stop resisting it. It's called normalization, motherfucker. It's called Brown vs Board of Education, motherfucker. It's called Loving vs Virginia, motherfucker.

Could we, please, put a stake into that insidious vampire, in my lifetime? Please? It just makes you look like an ignorant asshole. And you're probably not that ignorant or that much of an asshole to completely disregard reason.

The point isn't that black lives matter more than all other lives when they're black, it is that lives actually matter when they're not white.

Honestly, this is so American basic. It's something even a racist could understand. In America, all men are created equal, even when they are black, even when they are women. And yet black men are disproportionately killed by the police and women are disproportionately underpaid, even when they are white, and even in Hollywood. The evidence is epidemic; the evidence is moribund.

Black lives matter, too.

I guess there's only one way to find out.


7.
Corporations are not people. People are people.

Any questions?


8.
Money is not free speech. 

If you have more money that does NOT give you more speech.
And THAT is the American way, okay?

Any questions?


9.
I'm sorry you grew up in coal country--or oil country. I'm sorry your fathers and mothers killed themselves to give you life, clothe you, feed you, and do everything they could to make your lives better than theirs. They were good people doing good things in this life. But the fossil fuels are fossils. 

We have to move on from fossil fuels. If your local, state, and national governments haven't done all they can--and I am certain most of them have done very little--to help your communities with jobs, most especially in the renewable energy sector, then blame THEM and vote them out of office. 

The canary in the coal mine isn't that big business found lower-wage workers to do the job you used to, the canary in the coal mine is that no one gives a fuck about funding a proper public education for you or your children, or figuring out a way to help you find a job.

You're not lazy. PS Black and brown people aren't lazy, either, Cracker. But we pay taxes to the government to make our lives better, not worse. I will happily pay all the tax dollars you let me to get your kids an education, get you healthcare, get you off drugs without incarcerating you, get you a job you like that will make you solvent enough to feed yourself and your kids, pay your rent, buy your home--if you want to--and live life for sunsets, dancing, laughter, friendship, love, music, reading, philosophy, pleasure, family, joy, education, civic duty, goodness, and NOT doing unto others as you have them NOT do unto you. 

We are our sisters' keeper. And our brothers', too.


10.
Rich people do not know more than we do and do not, as a function of their wealth, make your life, my life, their lives, or anyone's life better. Wealth only takes away some of the harm that life deals out to you, personally. Wealth doesn't make you happy or smart.

If anything, wealth just makes you better at taking advantage of other people.

And is that who you really want to be?


11.
The canary in the coal mine isn't a canary, it's the whole fucking environment telling you to stop burning fossil fuels. When the planet is dying from the fumes--instead of a tiny bird--I'm pretty sure it's time to pay attention.


12.
Educate yourself--because the Republican-led government doesn't care about your mind or body, male or female, white or black or brown. Speak truth to power. Volunteer; not just for religious groups--the world actually includes things beyond religion--and in this country, we're supposed to have a separation of church and state, which is a good thing. And here's why: it may not be your church. Are you really willing to take that chance? Stop trying to get your government to enforce your religious details and get them to embody the compassion that Allah, Adonai, Jesus, God, and the Buddha have been telling you to embody for the past ten centuries.

Vote. Run for office, locally. For Christ's sake, believe in something that doesn't only include you.


13.
I lived in the same city as Donald Trump for twenty-two years. If you voted for him, I feel sorry for you. But you probably didn't live in the same city with him for twenty-two years.

Because, if you had....


14.
The perfect is always the enemy of the good. 

Strive to be good. Strive to be happy. I bet no one told you it was very important to strive to be happy. Strive not to be angry. Strive not to be anxious. Strive to be compassionate. Do some yoga. Strive to be happy.


That's it. So, anyway.
Please, have a great day.

20 January 2017

This is Prophetic

In the bedroom communities let us be taken by surprise.
Yes! Let the band play on and on,
This is Prophetic

Smiling and waving, Mrs. Nixon and her entourage leave the commune and proceed to the next stop on her tour: the Summer Palace where she is photographed strolling through the Hall of Benevolence and Longevity, the Hall of Happiness in Longevity, the Hall of Dispelling the Clouds, and the Pavilion of the Fragrance of Buddha. She pauses in the gate of Longevity and Good Will to sing.

PAT
This is prophetic! I foresee a time will come when
luxury dissolves into the atmosphere like a perfume,
and everywhere the simple virtues root
and branch and leaf and flower.
On that bench there we'll relax
and taste the fruit of all our actions.
Why regret life which is so much like a dream?
Let the eternal plan resume.
In the bedroom communities let us be taken by surprise.
Yes! Let the band play on and on,
let the stand-up comedian finish his act,
let Gypsy Rose kick off her high-heeled party shoes;
let interested businessmen speculate further,
let routine dull the edge of mortality.
Let days grow imperceptibly longer,
let the sun set in cloud;
let lonely drivers on the road pull over for a bite to eat,
let the farmer switch on the light over the porch,
let passer by look in at the large family
around the table, let them pass.
Let the expression on the face
of the Statue of Liberty change just a little,
let her see what lies inland:
across the plain one man is marching...
the Unknown Soldier has risen from his tomb,
let him be recognized at home.
The Prodigal. Give him his share:
the eagle nailed to the barn door.
Let him be quick.
The sirens wail as bride
and groom kiss through the veil.
Bless this union with all its might,
let it remain inviolate.


John Adams (composer), Alice Goodman (librettist), "This is Prophetic," Nixon in China, 1987.

18 January 2017

Angoisse



Angoisse

Every day, I awake
To a litter from dreams
Of cans and shelves,
Appointments and bills,
Politics and non-politicians,
Debts monetary and emotional,
Scattered across the
Floor; too distracted
For sleep, too tired to
Get out of bed,
I wade instead
Into a small, private
Pool, the temperature
Of cooling urine or
Vomit, just for me,
Cold enough to
Make you shudder, but
With the warmth of a
Mild fever, which makes
You feel treacly, nauseous.
And that is how I
Start my every day.

L. Steve Schmersal, Angoisse, January 2017

17 January 2017

I Post Song Lyrics: Black & Blue



It seems fitting for the day after MLK, Jr., Day.
I saw it as an uncomprehending child at my father's behest on PBS in South Jersey;
I have tried to begin to comprehend it in my adulthood. Witness the spellbinding original cast, Nell Carter, Charlane Woodard, Armelia MacQueen, Andre Deshields, Ken Paige:


Black and Blue

Cold, empty bed,
Springs hard as lead,
Pains in my head,
Feel like old Ned.

What did I do
To be so black and blue?
No joys for me,
No company,

Even the mouse
Ran from my house,
All my life through,
I've been so black and blue.

I'm so forlorn.
Life's just a thorn.
My heart is torn.
Why was I born?

What did I do,
To be so black and blue?

I'm white inside,
But that don't help my case.

Don't you know it, brother.

'Cause I can't hide
What is on my face,

Oh!

I'm so forlorn.
Life's just a thorn.
My heart is torn.
Why was I born?

What did I do,
To be so black and blue?

Mercy. Mercy, mercy.
Looka here, looka here, looka here.
Well, all right.
Hey, there. Hey.
Here it'is.

Just feelin' black
And blue.

I'm white
Inside,
But that
don't
help
my case.

Don't you know it, sister.

'Cause I
Can't hide
What is on my face,

Oh.

I'm so
forlorn,

Life's just 
a thorn,

My heart
is torn,

Why was
I born?

What did 
I do,

To be so
black

and
blue?

(What Did I Do to be So) Black and Blue, Ain't Misbehavin', 1978; lyrics by Andy Razaf; music by Thomas "Fats" Waller and Harry Brooks, 1929

And now, for the video:

16 January 2017

Happy Martin Luther King, Jr. Day, Everyone



I see the past three presidential elections--but let's include the midterms, too--as working out interesting and strange oppositions; as exemplifying sometimes murky notions of investment in somewhat murky abstractions. So--if you like, if you want to get really barbaric about it--you could say, if you wanted, that it came down to Change trumping Hope.

I don't know if I feel that the Obama administration ended up fulfilling its hope for Hope, partly because Obama let me down in his aggressive deportation program, his continuation of the W. Bush surveillance of the American people, his support of TPP, and other programs. However, and it is a BIG HOWEVER, while his administration oversaw the strengthening and stimulating of our economy, while it succeeded in bringing unemployment down, most of his actions--not just the positive ones, like the Affordable Healthcare Act, while not wholly successful, was hardly a failure--were stymied, sabotaged, brought up for repeal, and/or stopped by the Republican-controlled houses of Congress: everything from ambassadorial and cabinet nominations to, well, everything else, including his last Supreme Court nominee.

So, my question is this: if you wanted Change, why did you re-elect Republicans to control Congress and your state legislatures and governorships, when they have not only proven to be the source of our federal gridlock and brinkmanship, but said eight years ago that that is exactly what they were going to do?

Or was the "Change" you meant something traveling under a different name?

Happy Martin Luther King, Jr. Day, everyone.

I hope you're allowed to--or have thought to--celebrate it.

12 January 2017

Trump is an algorithm.





Trump is an algorithm. He is not a politician, not a really a person, except to perhaps embody the faults, flaws, and dangerous inclinations of what it means to be human.

He will maximize every loophole to his advantage, because that's the only thing he knows how to do.

I lived in the same city as that creature for twenty-two years. It's not about you; it's only and always will be only about him. He will blunder into fascism without even knowing the word.

Pence is a known category. I can fight that category. 

Give me President Pence.

10 January 2017

"Then you didn't make an apple pie, Viola": Davis and Streep, Scanning



She is an observer and a thief. 
Her artistry reminds us of the impact of what it means to be an artist, which is to make us feel less alone.

If you didn't see Meryl Streep's speech at the Golden Globes this year, or Viola Davis' introduction, the whole thing is interesting.

I actually enjoyed Davis' intro more—not for lack of worth with respect to what Streep had to say, which was very important—but for the respect of artistry: artist to artist, talking.

Streep nods as Davis talks, but she knows the camera is on her, so... is she acting, or agreeing? Or both? Or neither? I don't worry about these things too much, because I am certain all the answers are correct. Even "neither, " as that non-singular answer.

As a writer—as a person who writes things down—I am fascinated by the conversation of professional actors about their art, because I am always searching for others' insight into character. 

And the best of actors are circumspect—I'm talking to you Colleen Dewhurst—and even though they are always "lying," they are always telling the truth. They are always, the best of them, telling the truth, but someone else's truth. As Lacan said, in the context of the unconscious, "I always tell the truth, I just can't tell all of it"—one of the things he was saying was that even when we are lying—because we are hiding the truth under the lie—we are always telling the truth. As Streep said to James Lipton, she believes her job is "to make a soul" come into being—I didn't believe her then, but now I think she probably does try to do that. Listen to Davis' speech. The best of actors are circumspect, but when you catch them, they can teach you shit. A lot.

She stares. That's the first thing you notice about her. She tilts her head back with that sly, suspicious smile and she stares for a long time. And you think, "Do I have something in my teeth, or does she want to kick my ass?" Which is not going to happen. 
And then she'll ask questions.
"What did you do last night, Viola?" 
Oh, I cooked an apple pie. 
"Did you use Pippin apples?" 
No, I didn't use Pippin apples. What the hell are Pippin apples? I used Granny Smith apples!
"Ohh. Did you make your own crust?" 
No, I used store bought crust, that's what I did. 
"Then you didn't make an apple pie, Viola." 
Well, that's because I spent all my time making my collard greens. I make the best collard greens. I use smoked turkey, chicken broth, and my special barbecue sauce. Silence. I shut her down. 
"Well. They don't taste right, unless you use ham hocks. If you don't use ham hocks. it doesn't taste the same. So! How's the family?"
And as she continues to stare, you realize that she sees you. And that, like a high-powered scanning machine, she is recording you. She is an observer and a thief. She reveals what she has stolen, on that sacred place, which is the screen. She makes the most heroic characters vulnerable, the most known familiar, the most despised relatable. Dame Streep.
Her artistry reminds us of the impact of what it means to be an artist, which is to make us feel less alone. I can only imagine where you go, Meryl, when you disappear into a character. 
I imagine that you are in them, patiently waiting. Using yourself as a conduit. Encouraging them. Coaxing them. To release all their mess. Confess. Expose. To live. You are a Muse. Your impact encouraged me to stay in the line, Dame Streep. I see you. I see you.
And you know, all those rainy days we spent on the set of Doubt, every day my husband would call me at night and say, "Did you tell her how much she means to you?" and I would say, Nah, I can't say anything, Julius. I'm just nervous, All I do is stare at her, all the time. And he said "Well you need to say something, you been waiting all your life to work with this woman, say something." I said Julius, I'll do it tomorrow. "OK, well you better do it tomorrow because when I get there, I'm gonna say something." 
Never said anything. But I'mma say it, now. 
You make me proud to be an artist. You make me feel. That what I have in me: My body. My face. My age. Is enough. 
You encapsulate that great, Emile Zola quote that, if you ask me, as an artist, what I came into this world to do, I, as an artist, would say: "I came to live out loud."

And now for the video.




08 January 2017

On Love in the Twenty-First Century



In the twenty-first century, Love lacks kindness, compassion, or sympathy. Love is quick to judgment and blame. Love is stupid. Love is busy and impatient. Love will seek the cliche of you before it seeks understanding. Love feels too stingingly the critique of it. Love is too glib and willing to joke about its own mistakes. Love doesn't make mistakes. Love is very tired, right now. Love is self-seeking; Love dishonors others and is easily angered. Love is mean-spirited, though Love doesn't mean to be. Love is weak and blameless. Love records wrongs. Love renounces its protection, trust, and hope, yet says it perseveres. Love is sad about it and wants to help but doesn't know how. Love has another person on the line, right now. Love is long-winded and short of breath. Love is jealous and thrifty. Love is never having to say, "Please," "Excuse me," "Thank you," or "I'm sorry." Love is sick of you. Love is unhappy and too unhappy to deal with more unhappiness.

Make me a channel of your peace,
Where there is hatred let me bring your love,
Where there is injury, your pardon, Lord,
And where there's doubt, true faith in you.

O Master, grant that I may never seek
So much to be consoled as to console,
To be understood as to understand,
To be loved as to love with all my soul.

Make me a channel of your peace.
Where there's despair in life, let me bring hope,
Where there is darkness, only light,
And where there's sadness, ever joy.

O Master, grant that I may never seek
So much to be consoled as to console,
To be understood as to understand,
To be loved as to love with all my soul.

Make me a channel of your peace.
It is in pardoning that we are pardoned,
In giving to all others that we receive,
And in dying that we're born to eternal life.

02 January 2017

Everything Old in New Again

This is an older post you guys don't seem to be finding: That Great Unexorcised Demon of the American Soul. Don't be afraid to click on the labels I append to most posts and not just rely on the Most Read lists on the right. Popularity doesn't necessarily indicate quality.

That said, thanks for reading me at all.

Have a great day.