The modern re-issue of a classic: Rogers Dynasonic Snare Drum. What a beauty!
Turning and turning in the widening gyre
The falcon cannot hear the falconer;
Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
The ceremony of innocence is drowned;
The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity.
—from “The Second Coming,” by W. B. Yeats
Bridges. Airplanes. Political systems. Things fall apart.
So, deleting Facebook (and Messenger) from your life turns out to be like checking out of Hotel California:
Just in case that print is too small for you: “To reactivate your account, log in using your old login email and password.” In other words, you can delete Facebook, but Facebook will never delete you and your data.
Comical coda: When you go to deactivate (not delete!) your account, you are told that deactivating FB will NOT deactivate Messenger, so after you deactivate FB you need to open Messenger, tap your profile pic, go to Privacy & Terms, and then click “Deactivate.” So, I re-install Messenger, then I deactivate FB on the computer, then I tap my profile pic, Privacy & Terms, “Deactivate”—only to get a message saying that my session has expired. So I log in, repeat the taps, only to find . . . “Deactivate” is not an option anymore! My guess is that logging back into Messenger reactivated my FB account.
At which point I removed my Franz Kafka mask, deleted Messenger from my phone, and walked away.
Memo to Mark Zuckerberg, Facebook CEO:
Let’s face it, you are filthy rich several times over. This monetizing-users thing has been a big, big success for you. You don’t need any more money. Your descendants for several generations don’t need any more money. How about you do something for the rest of us?
Make Facebook a free service with zero data collection, zero advertising, zero promoted posts, zero monetizing of users. Pay for ongoing costs with premium services, but keep it free for basic accounts. Make it into a non-profit corporation. Turn it over to some good people to run. Maybe Jimmy Wales of Wikipedia could recommend some to you.
Then go enjoy your money.
‘Want to freak yourself out? I’m going to show just how much of your information the likes of Facebook and Google store about you without you even realising it.’
‘One of the primary creators of this unintelligible academic rhetoric, Judith Butler, is best known for her theory of gender performance central to her 1990 book “Gender Trouble.” Yet in recent years, one cannot be sure that even Butler understands her own writing . . . .’
‘How did we arrive at this moment where learning means parroting incoherent political rhetoric?’
School, including Harvard, had taught him comparatively little; his fellow collegians had taught him less than he had hoped and wished; independent inquiry had taught him relatively much; and, lead where it might, he had decided to follow the path of self-education. This did not mean he would leave the college. No, he would conform to the faculty’s requirements sufficiently to graduate as expected. Neither did it mean that he would try to dispense with teachers; he would need and be glad to have them, in many instances; but he would try to take charge of his own education completely, including the finding of teachers.
—Both Sides of the Ocean: A Biography of Henry Adams, by Edward Chalfant. Pp. 84-85.
Those inclined to the optimistic view that anti-intellectualism in America dwells primarily in remote Appalachian hamlets, or has been produced by television and its digital descendants, will be dismayed to read Henry Adams’ 1857 assessment of his Harvard College classmates’ reading habits:
There are not . . . twenty students in College who ever read, of their own accord, fifty pages of Homer, or Euripides, or Aeschylus, or Demothenes, or Cicero, either translated or untranslated. The number of those who appreciate or even like the classics is absurdly small. It is so too with modern languages, or nearly so. English literature is the bound [i.e., limit], and even in English literature, little except the lightest and most common portion is at all known. The fishes all swim on the surface, and neither dare nor wish to go deeper.
—from “Reading in College,” published in Harvard Magazine, October 1857, and quoted by Edward Chalfant in the first volume of his biography of Adams.
Chalfant goes on to describe the response to Adams’ critique: “His classmates looked carefully at his ‘Reading in College’ and told him he was conceited” (Both Side of the Ocean: A Biography of Henry Adams, by Edward Chalfant, pp. 83-84).
So there you have it: even at Harvard College in 1857, people who enjoyed reading were regarded as snobs.
He has read very little during the Course of his Life, and has now totally renounc’d all Reading: He has seen very little, and has no manner of Curiosity to see or remark: He has reflected, properly speaking, and study’d very little; and has not indeed much Knowledge: He has only felt, during the whole Course of his Life; and in this Respect, his Sensibility rises to a Pitch beyond what I have seen any Example of: But it still gives him a more acute Feeling of Pain than of Pleasure. He is like a Man who were stript not only of his Cloaths but of his Skin, and turn’d out in that Situation to combat with the rude and boisterous Elements, such as perpetually disturb this lower World.
To see what is, is really quite arduous. How does one clearly observe? A river when it meets an obstruction is never still; the river breaks down an obstruction by its weight or goes over it or works its way under it or around it; the river is never still; it cannot but act. It revolts, if we can so put it, intelligently. One must revolt intelligently and accept what is intelligently. To perceive what is there must be the spirit of intelligent revolt. Not to mistake a stump needs a certain intelligence; but generally one is so eager to get what one wants, that one dashes against the obstacle; either one breaks oneself against it or one exhausts oneself in the struggle against it. To see the rope as the rope needs no courage, but to mistake the rope for a snake and then to observe needs courage. One must doubt, ever search, see the false as the false. One gets power to see clearly through the intensity of attention; you will see it will come. One has to act; the river is never not-acting, it is ever active. One must be in a state of negation, to act; this very negation brings its own positive action. I think the problem is to see clearly, then that very perception brings its own action. When there is elasticity there is no question of right and wrong.
One must be very clear within oneself. Then I assure you everything will come right; be clear and you will see that things will shape themselves right without your doing anything about it. The right is not what one desires.
There must be complete revolution, not only in great things, but in little everyday things.
—Letters to a Young Friend, 10
Unmotivated students are uninspired students. Good teachers help them find a dream that will make the perspiration worthwhile. Inspire them first; then ask them to work.
I try to challenge and inspire students by speaking to them respectfully as young adults, and by sharing with them my enthusiasm for reading, and writing, and building a better life by becoming a lifelong learner. It is much easier said than done. Moreover, as teachers we sometimes don’t see the effects of our work. Many students over the years have reached out to tell me that my teaching made a difference in their lives, and not all of them were the high achievers. I wrote about one of these, a student from my first years of teaching, here:
“Never Give Up: An Inspiring Story”
Those who are ready and willing to achieve at a higher level need work that inspires and challenges them, whatever their current skill level. Daily independent reading has been a constant component of my teaching, across multiple continents and curricula and exam systems, throughout my career. Why? Non-readers need to begin reading; readers with limited reading experiences need to be introduced to new authors and titles and genres; avid readers need to be guided to fill gaps in their reading experience and to take on ever more challenging books.
These principles apply to all of my work: find out where the students are, and help them to move one step higher in the same way that one climbs a mountain . . . looking at the distant peak one moment, and at the path ahead of one’s feet the next.
“A granfalloon is a proud and meaningless association of human beings.”
—Kurt Vonnegut, Wampeters, Foma & Granfalloons (1974)
Today I saw a brief post on Facebook from a former student in which she expressed dismay at the news that the Barcelona terrorists were Moroccans. My immediate thought was this: Why should Myriam feel dismay, anymore than I should feel dismay that the Charlottesville neo-Nazis were Americans? or males? or white? or from the state of ____________ or the city of ____________? or attended x college or high school? or were raised in this or that religion?
We should all feel dismay that any human being would commit atrocities or engage in hateful behavior. But I feel dismay, too, when groups—minorities, usually—are shamed and blamed for the bad behavior of some of their members.
I did not choose my gender, my skin tone, my body type, my place of birth, my sexual orientation, my mother tongue, the town, city, state, region, or country where I was raised, the religious beliefs, if any, of my parents, etc. I did choose to attend a certain university, but I did not personally vet and approve all the other students who attended that university. I am a reasonably decent human being. I am not more responsible than we all are for other males, or other white guys, or other tall guys, or other Californians or Americans or Lutherans or Acme University grads who do horrible things.
We are all responsible, because we are all human beings. But only the perpetrators are to blame.
When other human beings do horrible things, we must all pause, again, to consider what forces, what trauma, what past experiences or injustices or distortions of personality could have pushed the perpetrators to such hatred and violence. We must also resist the lazy and cruel temptation to turn to other good and innocent people who happen to look like the perpetrators, or who share the same religion or nationality or home town or who belong to any other of the perpetrators’ granfalloons, and then to blame those good and innocent people for someone else’s terrible behavior.
I am not to blame for the bad behavior of other members of my granfalloons. Neither are you.
Information has, in the internet age, moved to the forefront in the arsenal of weapons used in political and international struggles. China emphasizes defensive measures in the new information wars, investing heavily in its “Great Firewall” to cut off its citizens’ access to news and ideas the government deems inappropriate or dangerous. Russia is taking the offensive approach, flooding the media with disinformation to such an extent that many people, not knowing what to believe, cease to believe anything they read or hear. The United States, with its Wild West adulation of “Freedom!” above all, has proved particularly vulnerable to the torrent of lies and half-truths found today on the internet. In their responses to this torrent, Americans resemble the young students I have taught over the years. When a claim or idea they previously believed to be true is shown to be false, they rush to the conclusion that there is no truth at all. When political leaders they had formerly admired, or at least had assumed to be honorable, turn out to have been dishonest, they rush to the conclusion that all politicians are corrupt. “The system is rotten to the core!” people exclaim, and others from all points on the political spectrum nod their heads vigorously.
But there are honest, conscientious politicians, and there is a difference between truth and lies. So how can we recover our footing? Our response to these challenges may well determine whether the democratic experiment begun in America in 1776 continues, or whether the chaos grows so pervasive that Americans decide that, for the moment at least, they would prefer more order and less freedom.
Many people wiser and more experienced than I will have ideas, but here are three to start with—none of which is original to me.
- We need to make it possible to run for political office without having to raise millions of dollars. Our politicians should not have to spend their time fundraising instead of working to solve our society’s problems, and they should never have to feel pressured by rich donors and special-interest groups who, if offended, could engineer their defeat in the next election.
- We need to reform or replace PBS and NPR so that we have a completely non-partisan, independently-funded, non-profit source of news that is freely accessible to all. Commercial media organizations depend on advertising for their funding, which means they must keep their ratings as high as possible by publishing sensational content, while avoiding the sort of “boring,” long-form material that would actually do justice to the complex political and social and economic issues before us. Dependence on advertisers also means that commercial media organizations are subject to pressure from their advertisers to avoid controversial material.
- We need to honor education, and educated people. We need to promote education as a good in and of itself, in addition to whatever economic benefits it may bring. The deeply-ingrained suspicion of education in American culture, the denigration of “intellectuals,” the insistence that ignorance and manual labor go together, and that the ignorant manual laborer is more admirable than the ivory-tower university professor—these attitudes are unsustainable in a democracy that depends on every citizen being educated, well-informed, and highly skilled in the critical thinking that, today more than ever, citizens must employ to make wise decisions in the voting booth.
In this beautiful, heartbreaking book, the descendants of Crazy Horse tell the true story of his life, as it was handed down from generation to generation. Partly history, partly a family memoir, and partly the manifestation of a quest to reclaim Lakota culture and continue fulfilling Crazy Horse’s purpose: to protect the people and their land. If you are interested in Crazy Horse, this is the book to read. Highly, highly recommended!
John Gruber of Daring Fireball extends his middle finger to Facebook, with some help from Dave Winer. The f-bomb may or may not offend you, but the argument is persuasive. So I posted a link to his piece on Facebook, naturally, but I am also posting it here.
Down the hill on Bates Road, off Liberty Road in the suburban farmland south of Salem, Oregon, you will find the former site of Rosedale Elementary School. The Rosedale building, along with a row of portable classrooms behind it, is now occupied by Abiqua Academy’s pre-K to Grade 8 students and teachers. West of the old school is a gravel parking lot, and behind it a new concrete path leads up to the unassuming, pre-fabricated square building where a remarkable new program opened its doors in the fall of 2015.
This is Abiqua Academy’s High School. No athletic teams. No pep assemblies. No cheerleaders. No long hallways lined with a double stack of metal lockers. No noisy cafeteria. No bells announcing the beginning and end of each lesson. No fixed daily schedule of classes. No assemblies in which the vice principal admonishes students about the importance of adhering to the school’s dress code. No sessions with the school counselor about what to do when you are bullied, or see someone else being bullied.
Inside the front doors, you see a small lounge area with sofas and a coffee table, a larger table for lunch or discussions, and a kitchenette in the corner. In the opposite corner, a photocopier sits next to the usual supplies of staplers, paperclips, sticky-notes, etc. Beyond this entrance area, a screen blocks from view the rows of study carrels that fill the remainder of the central space. Along the left-hand wall are the science lab, two restrooms, the janitor’s closet, and a mathematics classroom. Along the right-hand wall are two more classrooms, the office of Lily Driskill, our Academic Director, and a small meeting room. The two full-time teachers, Jo French (mathematics and sociology) and I (English and history), have our desks in the main area with the students’ study carrels.
In this inaugural year, we have just four students: two freshmen, one sophomore, and one junior. They follow highly personalized programs designed to meet their immediate needs and help them to achieve their future goals. Some of their coursework is completed online. Often the online curriculum is modified or supplemented by Abiqua teachers. For PE, three of the four go to a local fitness center twice a week to exercise under the supervision of a personal trainer; the fourth attends a CrossFit class on his own time. Two of them study Spanish, both online and with Abiqua’s Spanish teacher. The other two study German and Latin, following online courses supplemented with biweekly lessons with tutors. A part-time teacher comes in for lessons in biology. One student studies Anatomy & Physiology with the help of a senior at Willamette University. Another WU student visits twice a week to tutor one of the freshman in creative writing.
Anyone who works with teenagers knows that, as a rule, nothing is more important to them than friends. As we prepared for the start of school, I wondered how our four students would cope with the social isolation they were bound to find at Abiqua. I kept thinking of Jean-Paul Sartre’s play, No Exit, in which Hell is imagined as four people locked in a room together. In December the students were interviewed, without their teachers being present. They loved the program, the teachers, the flexibility . . . they loved everything, in fact, about their experience so far, with one major exception: they wanted more students!
Now as we near the end of January, I see so many signs of growth. The students who lacked confidence are gaining it as they see that they can, in fact, be successful in areas where they had given up on themselves. Those who had learned to see teachers as the enemy and to regard schoolwork as drudgery imposed on them, have learned to trust their Abiqua teachers and are beginning to take ownership of their own education. And these four young people, so different in ages, personalities, interests, and backgrounds, have grown to trust and tolerate each other to a degree that I find remarkable. Their mutual kindness achieved a peak moment just a week ago when one of them, without the slightest prompting by any adult, offered to help another with his writing. I held my breath when they moved into the small meeting room for their first session, waited apprehensively, and then had no words when they emerged smiling and happy after forty minutes.
So here is my first-semester report card for Abiqua Academy’s High School program:
Comment: A great beginning, with the promise of much more to come. Bravo!
Let’s imagine that, somehow, Americans reached agreement that universal, single-payer health care is the way to go. How could it be implemented? Clearly, the transition would have to be managed in stages. It might seem logical to gradually lower the eligibility age for Medicare—say, five years of eligibility every twelve months. In the first year, 60-year-olds would be eligible; in the second year, 55-year-olds; and so on.
It makes more sense, however, to start with the children. Shouldn’t the health of our children be our first priority? And aren’t families with young children the people most in need of affordable health care? The problem, however, is that taking the youngest people out of the private health insurance pool would make it impossible to cover the expenses of older Americans without enormous premium increases.
The solution, it seems to me, is to move people into Medicare from both ends of the age spectrum, so that the balance of people left in the private system—younger, healthier people and older people with more medical expenses—remains about where it is now. In that way we could both give children first priority, and avoid a huge spike in insurance premiums for those still in the private system.
Imagine a transition something like this:
|Medicare for everyone ages . . .
In the first year, families with young children would immediately benefit. Those who already had health insurance would save money by removing their children from their policies, and those without insurance, or whose insurance included high deductibles and co-pays, would be able to take their children to the doctor without worrying about what it would cost. Both the finances and the health of working families would improve dramatically.
In the second year, people ages 60-64 would become eligible for Medicare. Every year thereafter, another group would be added, alternating between younger and older. Making the transition in this gradually like this would allow all the legal and bureaucratic and financial changes time to take place in an orderly way, and would give the private insurance companies time to move into other products. With experience, better arrangements would be discovered, and adjustments made. Companies providing insurance to their employees would have time to plan and implement the transition to the day when everyone would be covered by Medicare.
If the process began in 2020, then by 2030 every American would be covered by Medicare, and the United States would finally have caught up to the rest of the developed nations by providing health care to every citizen, with the costs borne by everyone through an equitable system of taxation—a non-profit, universal health insurance system that would benefit all of us, instead of filling the accounts of behemoth insurance companies with billions in profits, while leaving ordinary people scraping to pay medical bills, putting off medical care to save money, and fearing financial ruin should we suffer a major illness or injury.
I say, let’s do it.
- Use a water flosser.
I hate using dental floss. My hands are too big to fit into my mouth, the floss keeps getting stuck between my teeth, and in the end I just don’t do it. The water flosser, on the other hand, is quick and easy and it’s right there by the sink where you brush your teeth. And if you have never tried one, you’ll be amazed at how many little bits of food it flushes out from between your teeth, right after you think you have brushed them thoroughly.
- No sugar! No processed foods!
All the sugar you need is in fresh fruit. Any other form of sugar, including fruit juice, overloads your liver and leads you where you really do not want to go: obesity, diabetes, heart disease, even cancer. And tooth decay, of course—which we used to think was the biggest problem with sugar. Ah, those were the days.
Don’t take them unless your life depends on it.
- Cat litter
Put a layer of biodegradable cat litter in the bottom of your kitchen compost bucket and your kitchen waste bin. No more nasty smell!
- Clean your house without poisoning yourself.
Fill a spray bottle with white vinegar. Use it to clean counters, sinks, bath, and toilet. For mirrors, use isopropyl alcohol on a paper towel. If something really needs a scrub, use Bon Ami. Chuck all those toxic chemical cleaning products.
Chuck the shampoo, too. Wash your hair with warm water and a good brush.
- Avoid cold drinks.
I only learned this in China, when I was in my fifties. Cold liquid in a warm belly is a bad combination. Try drinking hot water. Same temperature as tea, but without the tea. Surprisingly good.
- Close the lid before you flush.
If you don’t, the flush launches an atomized mushroom cloud of everything that’s in (or has been in) the toilet bowl. Result: every surface in your bathroom is coated with fecal matter. Including the toothbrushes in that glass next to the sink.
- Speaking of toothbrushes . . .
Keep your toothbrush clean by putting it business-end down in a glass with two inches of rubbing alcohol in it.
- And speaking of toothbrushing . . .
Put some baking soda in a small glass, add water, and use that to brush your teeth. No more toothpaste.
As a lifelong baseball fan I have concluded that continuing the current system of voting players into the Hall of Fame has become such a fiasco that it should be discontinued.
Instead, the Hall should be a museum of baseball history, full stop. Everyone in, no one out. Fans will always debate whether this player or that was the greatest x, y, or z, but all this nonsense about PEDs and moral turpitude should have nothing to do with who is mentioned in the Hall.
Ty Cobb was a great ballplayer and also a racist and an unpleasant human being. Pete Rose was a great ballplayer and is a deeply flawed human being. Barry Bonds broke the home run records under a cloud of PED suspicion. All of those players, and every other player, should be remembered in the Hall, with both their accomplishments on the field and their personal triumphs (Roberto Clemente!) and failings off the field. And Marvin Miller, who played a crucial role in shaping the game and business of baseball as it exists today, should be there, too. To exclude Rose or Bonds or Miller makes the Hall a joke.
History should comprise everything and everybody—including the antiquated Hall of Fame. Keep it as another artifact in the Museum. Add an exhibit explaining how and why it became untenable.
This may seem extreme, but to continue the current ridiculous voting system lacks any credibility. It actually offends fans to the point of turning them away from the game. For the sake of the game, the fans, and the Hall, stop it now.
In the summer of 1989 my bride-to-be and I drove my battered Renault 5 through France. We chose the smaller roads, and stayed in municipal campgrounds, preferring to spend the little money we had on food instead of lodging. On arrival at one such campground I parked the car near the entrance and walked over to the office to see if there was a space available. There was, and the girl began peppering me with questions as she filled out my registration form. Finally she asked, “Do you have une canadienne in your car?” Surprised, I said, “Yes, but how did you know? She’s my fiançée.” The girl erupted in laughter. After a bit of confused explanation I understood finally that the word for a camping tent in French is une canadienne.
We found another campsite about halfway between Lyon and Geneva. A small river ran on the western edge of the campground, and across the river was a village with one street of shops not even one hundred yards long. Oddly, though, in those hundred yards were five or six decent-looking restaurants. We walked up one side of the street, and back down the other side. On a whim we chose “La Mère Bourgeois.” The interior was furnished as a simple country inn, and very pleasant. Imagine our surprise when the supper that followed turned out to be, by far, the most delicious single meal of our lives. We were in the middle of nowhere, and somehow had stumbled upon a mysterious paradise of gastronomy. And the price was very reasonable (especially when our overnight stay at the campground cost about two dollars). Ever after, “La Mère Bourgeois” remained a treasured memory. We often thought of going back, but never did.
Thirty-six years later—this past weekend, in fact—I was in Lake Oswego, Oregon. Mike Radow’s parents had left him and his sister the home they’d grown up in, a low ranch house styled like a summer cabin. The spacious living room, all wood floors and rustic wood panelling, with a long stretch of windows looking out on the trees and brambles, had its end-walls lined with floor-to-ceiling bookshelves. They were only half-filled now, but Mike urged me to take what I wanted. He and his sister were eager to clean the place up and get it ready to sell. I looked through most of the volumes on one wall the first evening. There were many temptations, but I resisted them. The next morning I started in on the other wall. I saw a thin book by Gertrude Stein titled, Paris France. “If it’s written in comprehensible English,” I thought, “it might be interesting, and otherwise hard to find.” So I pulled it from its place and opened it at random, just to sample the language. This is what I read:
There was Madame Bourgeois in a little lost town in the centre of France. She and her husband who had been servants in one of the homes in France that still cared for cooking had inherited a little café in this little town that was not on the road to anywhere not even on a railroad. And she began to cook, nobody came except a few fishermen and the local tradesmen and every day she cooked her best dinner for them and then one day after two years of this, a man from Lyon came by accident, a lawyer, and he was pleased with his dinner and he asked her if she could undertake to cook for a dozen of them who were going to celebrate the legion of honor of one of them and she said yes, and from then on the place was famous and she always tired as she was cooked with the same perfection.
—Gertrude Stein, Paris France (1940). Pp. 52-53.
And that was all.
So I kept the book, and when I got home I searched the internet and found only a brief Wikipedia article reminding me that the name of the town is Priay, and adding that “The restaurant was established in 1923 and was awarded the prestigious 3 Michelin stars under chef Marie Bourgeois between 1933 and 1937.”
Someday, perhaps, I will go back.
Coda: Sadly, the restaurant was closed in 2010 and abandoned.
Reading history reminds us how briefly we appear on the stage of life. The king of a great nation who reigns for thirty years and lives more than twice that long seems a minuscule blip in the stream of time. How much less are we, leading our quiet lives in peaceful obscurity.
Ten years ago I heard of the passing of Anne Osman, my friend and colleague from Casablanca American School, where I worked from 1986-89. Today I came across this piece that I wrote about Anne. It was published on an earlier version of this web site but was somehow lost in the move. This seems like a good time to re-publish it. Special thoughts and best wishes for Anne’s family.
“I respond, therefore I am.” Eugen Rosenstock-Huessy, who fled from Hitler’s Germany in 1933, adopted these words as his personal motto.
I have always understood him to mean that, whatever life threw at him, he still retained the ability to respond, and by that response he could preserve and extend his being. By responding in a certain way, he defined who he was.
I was reminded of Rosenstock-Huessy this week when I heard the news that Anne Osman had finally lost her long battle with cancer.
I was lucky to work with Anne at the Casablanca American School from 1986-1989. She was a warm and kind friend, a highly competent and supportive colleague. It was shortly after I left Morocco that Anne was diagnosed with cancer, and the initial reports suggested that she did not have long to live. I don’t think anyone expected her to survive another thirteen years.
But she did much, much more during those thirteen years than merely survive.
Anne exemplified Rosenstock-Huessy’s words better than anyone else I know: it is not our misfortunes that define us, but our response to them. Everything I heard of Anne from my old Casa friends told me that she responded to her cancer magnificently. When I knew Anne she was always modest and self-effacing, and never drew attention to herself. By all reports, she remained so. She continued to work—to serve the CAS community. Her service to others, her courage, tenacity, and dignity inspired everyone who knew her.
Anne was a teacher. Her life teaches us that we are, every one of us, capable of responding with courage, dignity, and determination to the challenges and difficulties that confront us.
She was a teacher, and a teacher’s first job is to inspire her students.
Anne, you have certainly inspired all of us, and we will never forget you.
(6 September 2003)
A letter to Maury Wills. For those who don’t know, Maury Wills played shortstop on the great Dodgers baseball teams that featured Sandy Koufax and Don Drysdale in the 1960s. In 1962 Wills stole 104 bases, breaking Ty Cobb’s 1915 record for steals in a single season.
I was following reports about the Dodgers-Yankees old-timers game played today in Los Angeles and thinking about my 10-year-old self, hiding my transistor radio under my pillow so that I could listen to Vin Scully narrate Dodgers games long after my mother thought I had gone to sleep. Suddenly it occurred to me that it must have been because of you that, for as long as I can remember, I have always been on the side of African-Americans in their struggle for equality and justice.
I grew up in a largely white suburban community in Southern California—a very conservative place, where the John Birch Society had many fans. It would have been easy for me to adopt the attitudes that surrounded me. Somehow I did not, and although these things are far too complicated to work out in any definite way, I do know this: if anyone had suggested to me that Maury Wills, one of my great heroes, should sit in the back of the bus or be refused entrance to certain hotels or restaurants, I would have been astonished and outraged.
And it must have been so for many, many others like me.
So, I just wanted to write and say thanks for your amazing performances on those great Dodgers teams of the 60s, and thanks for being one of my childhood heroes and helping me to turn into a better person than I might otherwise have been.
And just for the record, I don’t care who stole more bases than you did, later on. To me you will always be the greatest base-stealer of all time, and one of the most exciting baseball players in history.
Update: Maury Wills walked on, Tuesday, September 20th, 2022, age 89. For more about his career and a few videos, see this page on the Dodgers website.
Q: What portion of the human body consists of human cells?
A: About the amount from the knee of one leg down to the foot. The rest is bacteria.
This reminds me of commercial television. We commonly regard TV as a medium of art and communication financed by advertising. Actually, however, it is an advertising medium to which viewers are lured by the programming. Ironically, a small portion of this programming is sometimes thought to have real value and significance.
Similarly, we commonly regard human life as The Most Important Thing in the Universe, while bacteria are incidental fellow-travelers, sometimes useful, sometimes troublesome. Actually, however, bacteria dominate life on Earth, and human beings are merely hosts that provide food and shelter for bacteria. Ironically, some of these bacterial hosts occasionally write War and Peace or paint Guernica.
In 1968 millions of people were outraged when anti-war activist Kiyoshi Kuromiya announced that a dog would be burned alive on the UC Berkeley campus to protest the use of napalm (jellied gasoline, for you youngsters out there) in Vietnam. No dog was harmed: Kuromiya’s point was that Americans were less concerned about the Vietnamese people being napalmed daily by the U.S. military than they were about a dog being napalmed.
Comedian and anti-war activist Dick Gregory made a similar point around the same time when he proposed to end the war in Vietnam by drafting family pets instead of young men. People wouldn’t stand for that, he said; the war would end in a week.
This attitude toward animals is a form of sentimentality, i.e., the over-indulgence of easy emotions—and, inevitably, the avoidance or suppression of difficult emotions. It has been around for a long time. Geoffrey Chaucer, for example, in his Canterbury Tales (ca. 1400), describes the Prioress as a nun who really would rather be a lady. Against convent rules, she wears jewelry and she owns pet dogs. She feeds her dogs with roast beef, milk, and bread, and weeps if anyone strikes one of them. She weeps similarly if she sees a trapped mouse bleeding, or dead. Her sympathies, in other words, are directed toward small, cute animals because the suffering of such animals does not require her to do much more than weep and express her sorrow. Her sympathies are decidedly not directed toward the hunger, poverty, and suffering of thousands of people all around her in medieval England, because acknowledging human suffering would require her to do something about it, and this would be difficult.
Animals are, of course, widely mistreated, especially those that are raised to be slaughtered and eaten. Notice, however, that very few people like to think about this, and even fewer decide to stop eating meat. A sentimental story about a pet rescued miraculously from some natural disaster, on the other hand, gets lots of people talking and clicking and ‘liking’.
In one respect, however, we really do treat animals better than we treat our parents and grandparents. When people are fatally injured, or terminally ill, or when they are simply too old to go on living without suffering daily, we extend their suffering for weeks, months, or even years by medicating them, by force-feeding them, by hooking them up to machines that keep their hearts pumping and their lungs inflating, and deflating.
However, when the family dog or cat is injured, or is ill beyond cure, or is simply too old to live without daily suffering, we do the humane thing: we put it painlessly to death.
Chaucer would appreciate the irony.
In the first place, you have to buy the goddam cigarettes, unless you just bum ’em off other guys all the time and then don’t even say thanks like that sonuvabitch Ernie Morrow. Anyway, like I said, you have to buy them, and who do you buy them from?—these stinking-rich gigantic corporations with about as much social conscience as your average mass-murderer, that’s who. I mean, they probably hire all these poor people to grow the damn tobacco, pay ’em peanuts, then turn around and sell cigarettes to the poor bastards who can’t afford decent clothes, let alone cigarettes, but they probably can’t stop smoking on account of they’re so depressed about their lousy lives.
And in the second place, once you give your money to these fat corporations,
what do you get? You get to start stinking up everything in your life. Your breath stinks, your clothes stink, your house stinks, your car stinks, your whole life stinks, if you want to know the truth. Gorgeous.
The only good thing about smoking is, if you’re lucky, with the right genes and all, you’ll get lung cancer or emphysema or something and die an early death.
The problem is, you might not die an early death. You might live until you’re about seventy-five with yellow teeth and dried-up, papery skin and ashtrays all over your goddam house, and drapes that stink enough to kill a damn moose and then you get cancer and you spend about three years in the hospital with tubes sticking out of you all over the place and your grown-up kids come visit you and stand around your bed talking when they think you can’t hear them about all the birth defects they got from you and the asthma they got from you smoking around their cribs and playpens when they were little and all and then you wish to hell you’d given all that money to the Red Cross or something instead of buying all those damn cigarettes.
It just goes to show how stupid a guy can be who’s actually pretty smart, if you know what I mean.