A Brief. . . Pause

It will be a busy weekend around these parts.  No time to post, although there might be a moment or two on Sunday.  I’m doing some interesting reading, though, and I’ll have a few things to say about it when I’m done.

Tropical Storm Cindy missed most of Texas, but it did draw up moisture from the Gulf.  It’ll be wet around here for the next five days or so.  My friends in LA are storm veterans.  They’ll ride this one out, and I wish them well.

Have a good weekend.


The Best Beatle

Paul McCartney turns 75 today.  For the millions of us who grew up listening to his music with the Beatles and with Wings, his age is a significant milestone.  In our heads, he’s still the mop-headed, enormously-cute twenty-something lad from Liverpool who could make every girl in the world scream.

He was also enormously talented.  It took years for those of us not in the music industry to figure out how talented he was.  And there were even some in the music industry, like Albert Hague, who couldn’t do it right away.*  We were too busy rocking out to songs like “I Saw Her Standing There” to listen to him too closely, but he and John Lennon and George Harrison and Ringo Starr made us listen.  It was they who fit the sweetness and the sorrow of life into the beats of rock before anybody else.  It was they who endured the consequences of “sex, drugs, and rock and roll” before anybody else had to.  Even now, I think back to the crush of people who followed them everywhere, recorded their every movement, and took down their every word, and I marvel that they survived at all.

That they also pushed back the boundaries of what was possible in rock music, a genre that had been developing for less than a decade when the Beatles emerged, is nothing short of a miracle.  It took focus and it took drive.  Other bands were striving, too:  some tried mere imitation, and soon fell by the wayside; others, to capture the music of youth with their own distinctive sound.  But for the period 1962-1968, the Beatles soared ahead of the curve and stayed there.  Their subjects encompassed every age group and every facet of life.  They invented album rock itself, and the concept album.  They influenced every band of the era that cared about the sound of their work, from the Rolling Stones to the Beach Boys, and their lyrics demonstrated that bands could go as far beyond conventional expressions as their courage would take them.  Bob Dylan won the Nobel Prize for Literature last year.  I would not have given such an award to such a talent because the success of a song lyric depends as much upon the tune within which it is set as the words themselves.  Were I to give such an award, however, I would have given it to Sir Paul, whose words for “Eleanor Rigby” from the Revolver album match exquisitely the ticking of life’s clock, represented by the background strings, and the ebbing away of life itself:

“Eleanor Rigby, picks up the rice
In the church where a wedding has been
Lives in a dream
Waits at the window, wearing the face
That she keeps in a jar by the door
Who is it for

Eleanor Rigby, died in the church
And was buried along with her name
Nobody came
Father McKenzie, wiping the dirt
From his hands as he walks from the grave
No one was saved”

This lyric is so sharply observed, so compact in its excellence that in the 1970s, there was  a movement afoot to call it poetry.  It’s not, for the reason I’ve given.  But it is a lyric supreme of its kind and McCartney had poetry in his soul that carried him forward to a lifetime of achievement.  “Nowhere Man,” “Norwegian Wood,” “I Feel Fine,” “Yesterday,” and “The Long and Winding Road” are songs as fine as anybody can write in English, and I take great pleasure in the knowledge that, a century from now, some young musician somewhere will find an old CD of the Beatles (or, even better, a vinyl record), pop it into his machine, and draw soaring inspiration from the music therein.

[*  Hague, playing the character of music teacher Mr. Shorovsky in the television series Fame, once confessed to a student, “The Beatles?  When they started, I couldn’t stand their stuff.  Now, they’re pretty good.”]


Writing Non-Fiction

William Dalrymple, author of From the Holy Mountain:  A Journey Among the Christians of the Middle East and many books on India, pens a most-helpful essay on how he goes about writing those non-fiction books.

Note that the process, in total, takes him about four years, only the last of which is devoted to writing the text itself.  Of course, Dalrymple is doing a little writing (of the unconscious variety) when he’s making his notes, because that’s what we all do:  we’re thinking, “How does this statement fit in with the story I want to tell?  How do I weave it into my narrative?”  But the act of writing the book proper comes later.

Dalrymple writes notes corresponding to every event mentioned in his books (transferred from his note cards to a laptop), and then, when he’s ready, composes his text.  Most writers work this way, myself included.  In the old days, I’d write directly from the notecards themselves, after thoroughly grouping them into related piles on my bed, table, or desk (it was fun).  These days, my notes are in the computer.  Dalrymple revises chapter by chapter.  Since his notes (the 400-page event log he’s made) has structured the work for him, he knows where he’s going and can afford to revise individual chapters alone until they meet his standards.  Fiction writers could work this way if they wanted to.  Indeed, contrary to Dalrymple’s assertion that novelists write out a whole draft and then revise, Richard Rhodes, author of The Making of the Atomic Bomb, revises his novels chapter by chapter, as well.  Whatever works for you is the way you should work.  The most important result of your choices about how to work is your productivity:  are you getting the words on the page at a pace comfortable to you?  If you are, you’ll know it; if you aren’t, there are ways to adjust your work habits.

Dalrymple is delightfully honest.  His advice about no liquor while writing is sound; so is his admonition about allowing no distractions.  Read his whole essay, and see if you can spot the typo his editor left in the text.


Sloane’s Gift

Here’s a snarky but fascinating profile of Hans Sloane, the collector whose prodigious efforts in the late seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries formed the foundation of the British Museum.

When I started college and my studies of Shakespeare and Milton, the British Museum still housed millions of books and literary artifacts.  By 1997, the literary collection had moved to a new building and been renamed the British Library.  The Britons also moved the Natural History collection to a separate locale.  For most of its life, however, the entire collection–a fair sampling of British industry, curiosity, and generosity–was in one central place, accessible to all.

Kathryn Hughes seems unwilling to concede that generous motive, preferring instead to focus her attention on the critics of Sloane, who long said that he wasn’t collecting the “right” objects; who said that he had no taste or judgment.  About a century and a half after the British Museum was opened, people began saying the same things about James AH Murray and his colleagues working on the Oxford English Dictionary.  They said he was spending too much time on completely unimportant “little” words, like “a” and “an” and “set” and “go”; and he certainly spent too much time collecting material on vulgar words like “muck,” and plain obscenities and profanities.

Sloane’s and Murray’s answers to these objections were the same:  the purpose of the collection and the dictionary was to show everything humanly possible about the variety of the English language and English cultural artifacts.  To not catalogue common words, vulgar words, or curious objects, would be to make as powerful a statement by their omission as any effort to arrange them within some interpretative scheme would have been.  The words would be lined up in alphabetical order; the objects of the collection would jostle each other side by side.  Murray’s job and Sloane’s job was to collect.  It would be up to succeeding generations to make their own judgments about what was valuable and what was not.  We must also recognize that “ordering” and “judging”, because they are separate acts from collecting, take years to accomplish.  Sloane may have lacked the acumen to relate the items in his collection in a coherent way, but other people in other countries were already beginning to do so, and Britain’s scholars learned over the next three generations from their practices.  Murray’s dictionary was built on the scattershot and sloppily-preserved work of F.J. Furnivall and Walter Skeat; much of that prior work had to be checked and then abandoned before the OED team could proceed.  When they did proceed, they moved slowly, with the aim–as the French understood–to be perfect.

While no one can deny that the British took enormous pride and satisfaction in ruling (and lording over) so much of the world from the eighteenth century to the end of World War II, the fact that the whole of Sloane’s enormous collection was open to the public from the outset was itself a powerful counterstatement to British snobbery.  That parts of it could still reflect national pettiness, meanness, and cruelty (as in consigning the Irish collection to a backroom) is neither here nor there.  The collection in its entirety belonged to all of the people.  Every piece in it had a value.  And the fact that one eccentric man had enough foresight and ambition to collect the foundation of all that stuff is itself an almost hidden sign that smug Britons of every social stripe are likely to miss unless they’re hit over the head with it (a falling mastodon skeleton, perhaps, or maybe a book like Collecting The World):  a sign that Britain began to value the world, and value its own domains, far sooner than we like to think.  Many, many things had to happen during the course of Britain’s maturation, but the establishment of the British Museum may well have been the first sign of Britain growing up.  James Delburgo’s account of Sloane’s intellectual adventures may be set alongside Elizabeth Gilbert’s novel, The Signature of All Things, and Andrea Wulf’s biography of Alexander von Humboldt, The Invention of Nature, on your shelf.


The Missing Thread

About this time of year in 1941, Morris Durham sold his farm in the East Texas town of Garrison, Texas and moved his family south, to the big city of Houston.  All of his children–a son and three daughters, the eldest of whom would become my mother–loved their time on the farm, hard work though it often was.  Morris Durham, however, had read the signs of the time:  he knew that agrarian America, driven and sustained by generation after generation of family farms, was passing away.  He also knew, as every adult around him knew, that war was coming, and that manufacturing jobs would soon be in plentiful supply.  He found work as a die-maker in a steel plant on Houston’s North Side, and made enough money to eventually buy a modest house in Spring Branch, what was then an up-and-coming suburb northwest of Houston.

The Durham family’s move was an early, westward manifestation of the migration from the hills, backwoods, and farmlands of Appalachia in the 1950s to the larger towns and cities of Ohio, Indiana, and Illinois that J. D. Vance traces in his memoir, Hillbilly Elegy (2016).  In that slightly later time, it was Vance’s grandparents who moved, just as it had been my own grandparents who moved a decade before.  Such people moved because the time had come to see farm life for the backbreaking existence it often was (wringing a chicken was no lark; neither was hoeing a row), and they caught sight of better-paying work elsewhere.  The steel plant Armco and my grandfather’s die-making job were part of the upsurge in manufacturing as America readied for war.  Those jobs, in turn, led to other jobs.  A younger sister of my mother married a high school classmate who took a job with the Rohm and Haas chemical plant in Baytown, Texas.  They built a comfortable life for themselves and their own children, one of whom became a geologist, a wildcatter, and the fellow who introduced me to comic books when I was young.

In the early days of his career, my uncle had to work the graveyard shift at Rohm and Haas.  I had no idea what that meant, but it didn’t sound pleasant at all.  Eventually, I figured out that it meant working roughly from midnight to 8:00 a.m., or some similar schedule.  Suddenly, the work became very interesting (except for the part about getting up at midnight.)  I’d always wondered what in the world people could be doing at such hours, and I wanted to find out.  My uncle didn’t always enjoy getting up so late, but as far as I knew, he never missed a shift, and he made good money, eventually becoming a plant supervisor.

J.D. Vance’s grandfather might have been able to tell the same story in his job with Armco Steel.  But something happened in the Appalachians and the Midwest of the 1950s and 1960s that did not happen in Texas during the same period.  The workers at Armco, a company that employed most of the transplanted Kentuckians and Ohioans Vance describes in his book, lost their passion for work.  They neglected it, or blew it off entirely, as absenteeism became chronic.  The generation that followed Vance’s grandfather could have sustained the life and work of the plant, but they didn’t.  The wages the plant could pay were sufficient to maintain a modest house or apartment, but that was it.  There was no upward mobility, and, if you didn’t have a job at the plant, you didn’t have a job.  Under those conditions, the children of my generation–heirs of my uncle and grandfather–have often opted for staying in the jobs that we have, believing, practically if not philosophically, that something is better than nothing.  Vance’s kin–made up of both a nuclear family and an extended one–made a different choice, almost a suicidal one:  they chose not to work.  Hillbilly Elegy does not condemn those people for making that choice, and neither do I condemn them.  Other people at other times have made similar choices, and I have written about them before.

What I am interested in, rather, is the question, why has work become so devalued in American society?  I see condemnation of it on every hand, although every piece of evidence I could personally cite is anecdotal, including the story my friend, Mario Leal, told me of his supervisor, a black man, who one day ordered Mario to stop working so fast on the line because “we don’t work that way around here.  You’re making the rest of us look bad.”  The question is nevertheless implicit in much of what Vance writes, but he doesn’t have an answer to the question, either.  There are nuanced studies of American unemployment; Vance even refers to a good one in William Junius Wilson’s The Truly Disadvantaged.  Yet, for all their statistical sophistication, such books do not explain our loss of passion for work; and none of them, as far as I know, has inspired changes in social and economic policies the way Michael Harrington’s book, The Other America, did for poverty in 1962.  To get at the roots of our disdain for work, volumes like Studs Terkel’s Working (1974) are more useful.

The chronicle of the disdain for work, from Bartleby, the Scrivener to the poetry of Charles Bukowski to Terkel’s conversations with doctors, lawyers, and prostitutes, is a lengthy tome, but its weight has always been balanced by the multitudes of workers who were proud to have built Hoover Dam, or the latest skyscraper, or the smallest yet most vital piece of the James Webb Telescope.  Now, however, we have an imbalance of our feelings toward work.  Well-to-do New Yorkers complain (with some justice) about the rising cost of private school tuition, and they worry–even on salaries from $200-500,000 a year–how they and their kids are going to make it.

This particular struggle is not quite the same struggle as that of a hillbilly from Kentucky, but its causes and effects are too similar to be left out of account.  In both cases, parents worry; they put stress upon themselves.  Where the cases differ, however, is in the reactions to that stress.  The hillbillies are violent.  The men hit their women; both sexes drink excessively.  The well-to-do cut back on expenses, or they divorce each other.  Both outcomes have terrible consequences, but the causes of the behavior are more complex in the hillbillies–more complex than even Vance himself will acknowledge.

For the hillbillies, the motivational  problems are a combination of lack of upward mobility within the jobs that are available and a lack of jobs themselves.  For generations, many workers in America stayed with the relatively low-paying jobs they had because, even though the pay was low, advancement to a higher pay grade was possible.  Whether the work was simple (the post office), hard (a steel plant), or dangerous (coal mining), it was possible to improve one’s station in life through diligence.

Today, not so much.  There isn’t a whole lot of upward mobility in manufacturing and construction, and the upward mobility available in more technologically-oriented jobs is conditioned on what kind of degree you have as much as it is your willingness to learn a new task.

Just as important, however, is the attitude all of us take toward work itself.  As Vance himself learned as he moved from being a graduate of Ohio State to a member of Yale Law School, there’s more to class than the money someone makes on the job.  There’s more to a job than the labor involved in fulfilling it.  There’s also the perception we have and society has of how that job fits in to the larger scheme of things.  The W.P.A.  and CCC workers who built Hoover Dam, paved roads in Mississippi, and compiled oral histories of slave life during the Civil War weren’t proud of the work they did simply because the federal government put them to work; they were proud of what they did because they could see, in many cases, how their work contributed to the greater good, and they were praised for that work from President Roosevelt on down.

In contemporary times, praise of a job, or a vision of how that job might fit into a future, seems non-existent.  In my lifetime, we’ve gone from praise of the honest work of teachers in a memoir like Jesse Stuart’s The Thread That Runs So True (a literary ancestor of Hillbilly Elegy) to withering contempt for those who teach at every level of our system.  Even our highest-paying jobs in Silicon Valley–at Google and Apple, for instance–have complaints routinely lodged against them.  It makes even the most thoughtful of us question whether anyone is happy in his work.

That, to me, is a key question emerging out of Vance’s book.  It’s a more important question than the question of who hillbillies themselves are, or where they live.  Vance tries to draw a broad picture of them for us, but the reality is, he’s talking mostly about his own family, and no one else.  He comes down hard on the side of taking personal responsibility for one’s difficulties in life–a laudable stance, but one that doesn’t entirely square with the broader economic and social movements that have obliterated manufacturing jobs and construction jobs and service jobs in front of the faces of people who could perform them.  People are responsible for the behaviors they engage in during their working lives; they are responsible for how they behave when they lose their jobs.  They are not wholly responsible for losing the job itself; that decision is not theirs.  There’s a whole economic undercurrent of changes in the types of jobs over the years that Vance does not address.

As a result, Hillbilly Elegy is an affecting but ultimately odd mix, a literary version of what it’s like to watch Sgt. York (1941), with Gary Cooper.  The first half of that movie chronicles Alvin York’s family life in the backwoods of Tennessee before America’s entrance into World War I.  The second half details York’s reluctant military service, his crisis of conscience over the possibility of taking a life, and his later heroism that made him a national figure, hobnobbing with generals and senators.  The first half of Vance’s book recounts his stormy family life, and then, in the second half, swings to his days as a Marine in Iraq and, later, his education at Ohio State and Yale Law–all without giving us much of an idea how he became the writer he is.  We are told that, growing up, he struggled in school.  Fair enough.  But this man can write.  How is able to do so?  Who taught him?  We’re given clues, but not told.  There is, consequently, a disconnect between the man we see on the page–eloquent, warm, insightful–and the boy he claims to have been.

The social ills that Vance documents are quite real.  They affect people from every race and ethnic group in the country.  Solutions to the problems of unemployment–and thus solutions to the problems of mental and physical health unemployment causes–are hard to create and apply on a broad scale.  FDR did the best job of it that’s ever been done.  The elder Bush was laughed at in the 1980s every time he announced a gain in jobs that was rooted mostly in an expansion of openings at McDonalds or Taco Bell.  The larger, better success Roosevelt had was gained because he was able to communicate to people the idea that their work–whatever it was–had meaning and value.  It made the country as a whole better.  That idea runs through every bit of the work that we still remember today.  It is the thread which is missing in every contemporary discussion of unemployment and economic performance in Washington, D.C.  None of our leaders, from government through the private sector, talks very much about the value of the jobs in this country, or the essential, irreplaceable value of the workers who perform them.  FDR’s ability to talk about such things was his gift, and perhaps it belonged only to him.  But a president of any era has to be able to articulate a vision of what the United States can be.  That, in large measure, is why Ronald Reagan succeeded and why Donald Trump may fail.  FDR involved us in huge projects; so did President Kennedy, in driving the space program that fueled Houston’s economy.  Both men gave us hope for the future.  It may take a similar large initiative to spark nation-wide job creation and our imaginations once more, whether it’s space or medicine or automation that drives the change.  Regardless of how many jobs are created, though, along with them, we are going to have to hear some heartfelt words about the value of the work those jobs represent.  Given the elitist Presidency we’ve had over the last forty years (Carter, Clinton, the Bushes, Obama, Trump), such words may ring hollow from the President’s mouth, but we who do the work of the country need to hear them, and we need to begin to believe them again, if we are ever to become as  hard-working a country, as great a country, as we say we want to be.




Farewell, Bright Knight

We have all awakened this Saturday morning to discover that Adam West, who played Batman in the once hugely-popular television series, has died at the age of 88.

When the series premiered in 1966, I was thrilled.  Already I was reading the comic books and scribbling Batman stories instead of doing my math homework (much to the consternation of my father), but I was hooked beyond redemption.  ABC devised a brilliant TV spot for the show, displaying only a front chrome wheel of the Batmobile (the coolest car, ever) and a voiceover artist intoning, “He is coming.”

I was slightly disappointed to realize that the show itself was going to be an exercise in camp.  Years later, West commented that they could’ve done the show in the serious spirit of Christopher Nolan’s Dark Knight films if they had wanted to.  Indeed, at least one of the Batman novels I read in 1967 was done in a serious, straightforward way; and, if you go to YouTube and look at the first two episodes of the series (episodes that were West’s favorites), those two were done in a far less campy manner than all the others.

It wasn’t until I became an adult that I realized how much fun the villains had on the show, but they did.  The Riddler, played with psychotic glee by Frank Gorshin, was my favorite.  He was the villain in those first two episodes, and did a great job.  The success of Jack Nicholson and Heath Ledger as the Joker in their respective films, however, made me go back and begin to admire the work of Cesar Romero as that character.  He was played for laughs, yes, but Romero always had a cruel sneer under that makeup, particularly when the Dynamic Duo captured him at the end of an episode–a sneer that was there long before Nicholson and Ledger got hold of the role.

What I admired most about West was his sense of humor about himself.  He freely acknowledged that he might be typecast forever because of Batman, and he was; but he knew also that the role could make him comfortable in life, and it did.  He enjoyed the work; he accepted the risks that came with the job (he could not see out of his cowl every time he made the leap down the steps of the Batcave to the Batmobile); and he got along with his co-stars.  Stories of West introducing the twenty-year old Burt Ward to the Hollywood pleasures of wine, women, and song have become the stuff of legend, and I believe the legend.  I also believe, however, that West took seriously the responsibility of being a role model to young kids.  All the cast did.  West, Ward, and Yvonne Craig, who died over a year ago, did personal appearances at schools, hospitals, conventions, and the like for years after the show ended, and they were happy to do so.  They were of the spirit, if not quite the generation, of George Reeves, who, for all his personal travails, also took his relationship with children quite seriously all the time he was doing Superman in the 1950s.

West was never a great actor, but he was good enough in a TV series like The Detectives, with Robert Taylor and Mark Goddard, to show that he could handle action sequences, and good enough in his work in commercials (like the one for Nestle’s Quik, also viewable on YouTube) to show that he could handle humor.  Batman combined the two, and the formula was successful, at least for a while.  Although he was occasionally discouraged  after the show ended, West persevered.  As the 2012 documentary Starring Adam West reveals (I’ve seen it), he kept his good humor and sweet spirit with the fans who never forgot the fun he helped them have.  He escaped the Hollywood rat race and moved to Idaho.  He married for love, and raised fine children.

The present generation watches re-runs of Batman now and again on television, and they know him as the Mayor of Quahog on Family Guy.  I am saddened a little by his death, because it takes away a tiny but essential piece of my own childhood.  That child learned through him that there were–and are–good guys and bad guys in the world, but the good ones, bent and twisted though they may be by the daily struggle against evil, far outnumber the bad ones.  That’s a pretty good lesson to learn, as early as any of us can learn it; and if it can be taught to us by someone as witty and cheerful as Adam West was, well, so much the better.  If we have to leave this life (and we all do), that’s a good example, even a shining one, to leave behind for others to follow.


The Day Of All Days

A brief note in remembrance of D-Day, June 6, 1944–the day upon which the Allied forces landed, at enormous risk to themselves, upon the beaches of Normandy, France to begin the long-planned invasion to free Europe from the occupation and domination of Nazi Germany.

So many things went wrong that day for the Allies that the only conclusion I’ve been able to draw from the facts is they succeeded by sheer, overwhelming numbers against the soldiers and weapons arrayed against them on those murderous beaches.  James Doohan, part of the Canadian forces on Juno Beach, was wounded four times in the leg and lost a finger on his left hand, but he survived, did his job, and came home to live again.  We know him today, and will remember him, as Lt. Commander Montgomery Scott on Star Trek; but I myself will remember–always–the kind of man he truly was on that singular day so long ago when every warrior on those beaches was scared to death.

The wisdom or unwisdom of making war will be debated among us until the last man and woman has faded from the earth and the stars go out.  We can regard going to war, I suppose, as a kind of failure–a failure of diplomacy, certainly; but more generally, a failure of the ways of peace.  But, in my view, there was no choice but war for the generation coming of age in 1939.  The exhausted peoples of Europe didn’t want to police each other.  They didn’t want to police Hitler’s Germany or Tojo’s Japan, despite clear evidence that they needed to do so.  Failure or not, however, the truly remarkable thing is that the Allies succeeded.  They did so in the way that Winston Churchill said they would have to:  not by doing their best, because sometimes that isn’t enough.  They did so because they did what was required.  Every one of us is here, and we are the people we are, because those soldiers at Normandy did what was required on that day and on all the days that followed, though it cost thousands of them their lives.