Tuesday, November 20, 2007

Springsteen's Charge

Already the internet is littered with concert-goers' memories of last night's visit with Springsteen in Boston. The set list is available, photos are downloaded, and nostalgia for those moments of heightened connectedness, group activity, and loud, loud LOUDness is upon us.

Before the show, I wondered about this nostalgia, which I predicted I would feel. Blearly with little sleep, listening to "Radio Nowhere" on my way to teach at 7am, it came. I felt a ripple of adrenaline as the chords began, like I did last night. As a younger fan, I don't have nostalgia for Bruce of the 70s, even much for Bruce of the 80s. I became a fan late in the game, after Human Touch, and now I'm still catching up.

But I feel entitled to my love, my fandom, and my little reflection, because I was among those last night who were truly permeated by the beauty of the show. In front of me were four people who incesantly drank beer, danced self-consciously or not at all, sat down, and yelled in each others' ears about things OTHER THAN THE SHOW. The worst kind of people to sit near, at a revivial. We're getting lifted up here! I wanted to tell them. Shut up and let it take you!

Then I became dreadfully sad, realizing that even this, this multi-sensory overload of color and sound and emotion and poetry, even this does not move them. If not this, what? If Bruce Springsteen, who can make me cry in secret soul recognition as he sings "I want to find one face that ain't lookin' through me," Bruce who sings for dead soldiers, for lovers, for people who dream and people who are too tired to dream, who kisses his wife on stage and reminds us to pay attention, if Bruce can't do it, who can? Then, I looked to my right and left. Left, Max. Screaming his lungs out, pumping his fists, overcome. Right, Tony. Brightened and bouncing, right hand thumping on his heart in time. Ok. I'm not alone in this. Boston crowds may be fickle and slow to excitement, but there are a few of us to want to hear this story about the work we have left to do.

"We're musicians," Bruce says. "We're going to sing about it," referring to the fear culture of our government and media, "and it's up to you to do the rest." Who heard this call? I wondered on the train home. What do we do with this grim knowledge and perservering faith we've got now?

Because there were moments during the show where a profound grief overtook us. At the end of Devils Arcade, when the blue light on Bruce's face held long enough to show his sadness, his acknowledgement of all the terrible realities we must face, in personal and in global arenas, I cried straight through to the next song, The Rising. A simultaneous experience of horror and hope--fully conscious of suffering due to mismanagement, fear, insecure and faulty reasoning, in myself and in my culture, in my relationships and in my country, AND the necessary faith to continue daily marching towards change.

In his VH1 "Storytellers" show, Bruce called Thunder Road his big invitation to a "long and very earthly journey." I thought about that invitation as he asked us to come on up for the Rising, I thought about the places we'd been--the garden of a thousand sighs, the paths of consequence, the old homes, the bars, the settings both literal and metaphorical in all the songs. And I felt their beauty, the dilapidated loveliness. What a mystery, that we can love broken things so dearly, but we must if we are to love ourselves.

That flag above the courthouse, means certain things are set in stone: who we are, what we'll do, and what we won't.

It wasn't quite nostalgia that made everyone scream during "10th Avenue Freeze Out," I think. For some, maybe. But it was the assertion of endless possibility--we can sing this, we can do it big and happy, even now, we can do anything we want. It was the way to tell us not to give up. Springsteen and E Street will play the anthems of our hope, and if we can open up to receive them, if we can acknowledge that we need hope, which demands we acknowledge we are trampled beneath so many mistakes, if we can be humble in that way, we escape the self-cancellation of self interested living and become something wonderfully transcendent, huge in our awareness, committed now to moral choices, and that is when we are free to laugh and scream and sing and dance and consider ourselves rock and rollers.

Tuesday, November 13, 2007

Newport Opulence

Last Sunday I went on a quick road trip (thanks to E and G!) to Newport, RI to visit mansions. This is a picture I took of a house called "The Breakers."

What struck me as most marvelous was the story of Alva Vanderbilt (later Belmont). A fierce suffragette, pioneer for the rights of women, divorcee, and terribly controlling person, she seemed to break nearly every stereotype and gender role she was given. Including the "nice" ones like nurturing mother. I was in awe of the strange juxtaposition involved in her material excess and defense of justice. She had a huge tea party, with special "Votes for Women" china, in order to bring attention to the cause at her Marble House estate in Newport. As far as I can tell, the women's suffrage movement in general was a rather high-class affair, and it's somehow a much more complex issue when faced with the idiosyncratic personal works of someone like Alva than it is in the history books. For Alva, women's suffrage was of the utmost importance, yes, but one of the ways she sought to secure it was through incredibly lavish parties that necessitated 40-50 servants, whom she tended to treat rather poorly. She forbade her daughter from marrying the man she loved, and kept her under house arrest until she agreed to marry the Duke of Alva's choosing. Fascinating, in light of all she'd said and written regarding women's rights and abilities to lead their "own" lives.

I'm tempted to introduce Alva to my class as an example of the twisted, complex notions we have of morality in historical hindsight. "Thomas Jefferson owned slaves," they like to say, with a kind of superiority that is meant to undermine all history they've ever been taught. I wish they'd simply been taught that Jefferson owned slaves from the beginning, so that these quaint ideas of "progress" and "development" and "good men" and "bad men" are revealed as the childish cultural myths they really are, and we could all settle in and get down to the real business of teasing out the complexities of historical acts.

Anyway, I almost bought a "Votes for Women" teacup for my mother, who, I think, would have actually ended up totally bored during these mansion tours except for the Alva bits. As fascinated as I am with demonstrations of opulence, the roomful of Vanderbilt's yahting trophies seem much less important than that blue and white china and the myriad cultural meanings it now holds. I ended up not buying the teacup--while Alva may have felt vindicated by their being priced at $21.95, I decided it was better to write about them for free.

Tuesday, November 6, 2007

The Art of Asking Questions

A week ago, I piled into a sweaty auditorium with 300 other literati at the Boston Public Library to listen to Salman Rushdie give a lecture. Sir Rushdie discussed the "human scale" of novels, and how dealing with political issues or social climes in a novel directly is more and more possible now. He claimed that traditionally, writers explained a character's life from the inside, the "character is destiny" trope, but that now, acknowledging the "outside" (i.e. class, race, nationality, community, etc.) is also important. The intervention of outside forces, often political or more recognizable state-run forces, into the private lives of novel characters seems more possible, from a technical standpoint, than it used to. "How do we deal with this kind of material, considering that our work can so quickly become dated?" he asked.

The answer, for Rushdie, is that a novel either gets better or worse. If it gets worse, it is because it is only topical, not great in any other way. If it gets better, it is because it is a great example of form, contains excellent character development, in the face of its topicality.

I took notes, learned things, and wanted to ask Rushdie to elaborate on a point he'd made about
how current writers incorporate material of the social & political spheres differently than the political writers of the past. I raised my hand with all the other excitable fans when it was time for Q & A.

I never got a chance to ask my questions. This is due, in large part, to the way everyone else who asked a question sucked up valuable minutes, minutes I could have spent listening to Rushdie talk, telling their own opinion or story before they got to their "question," which was usually not a question at all, but a plea to be agreed with. Someone would begin with "Don't you think that it's just a matter of..." and I would put my hand down again, again, again. I may never have been called on anyway, I realize. But I did start reflecting on the questions that were being asked.

They were bad. This is not a problem that is relegated to those particular kinds of social hangers-on who want a chance to have their literary hero look them in the face. The problem of bad question-asking is visible in every area of my life--in my students, adminsitrators, fellow faculty, fellow writers, people in performance, friends, summer camp staff, and so on. Bad question-asking is a product of bad note-taking, bad reading, bad listening, and bad logic. It's not just narcissim, although for some that plays a part. It's also a failure of education.

A good question after a lecture references some piece of the lecture directly, or some general theme of the lecture, interprets it, and then draws out a new idea from it. For example, "Mr. Rushdie, you mentioned that great novels have both a literary meaning and a political meaning. I'm curious as to the relationship between those meanings--must they always be different? Do they change? Can you provide an example of a literary meaning and a political meaning in a particular text?" Good questions don't seek merely to reinforce the asker's personal beliefs. Good questions, asked in front of a group, open up discussion that other listeners can feel included in. Good questions prompt the answerer to reconsider their own ideas, language, and delivery.

I don't know where and when students are taught to ask good questions. My writing students have to brainstorm questions for their research projects. I've certainly trained my camp staff to do "active listening," but in general , people see personal conversations as separate from public debate. I don't see the big difference, at least when it comes to the best ways to elicit information from others.

At one point, a man got on the microphone and told a very long story about how he'd been ostracized from his cult religion because he wrote a book denouncing their doctrines. "I'm just like you, Rushdie," he said. "I've been opressed for my beliefs too."

"I'll try to find a question in there," Rushdie said, and proceeded to discuss the important of writing novels even under tyrannical governments. He quoted Bellow, "For God's sake, open the universe a little more."

It was a graceful way to evade a self-interested non-questioner. So these are my two new skills to practice: formulating better questions, and finding good questions where they may not have been intended.

Sunday, November 4, 2007

Tutu for Pope

Anyone who's had the pleasure of seeing Archbishop Emeritus Desmond Tutu give a public address will appreciate the incredible profundity of my (a) seeing him on a Monday and then (b) going to a public speaking faculty development seminar on Wednesday.

"Look people in the eye," the public speaking people said. "Don't just scan the room."

When Desmond Tutu wanted us to understand something, he would point at our faces. "We need you to change the world," he said. Then, pointing, "You. And you. You-you-you-you-you." All different faces. All people responsible for making change.

It's rare for me to be truly moved by a Christian speaker. I grew up listening to them, feeling left out as a woman, as a sexual being, as a creative dreamer. I found that the "god-breathed" idea was beautiful to me metaphorically, and disturbingly un-intellectual when applied literally to a text. This is and has been a source of grief between myself and my deeply religious, spiritual family.

But we can all agree that Desmond Tutu, including whatever version of God he's chatting with, is pretty damn awesome. To the youth of Boston he said, "People are hungry, but we do not see hamburgers flying down from heaven. God needs us to do it, to make the food, to give the food to the hungry people."

At the end of his special convocation ceremony, Tutu was discussing the God he believes in, who needs human intervention and action to create peace. "God is saying, 'I want peace, I want you to be happy, but I can't do it without your help. Please help me. Please. Please. Please?'"
And that was the end. The END! My public speaking trainers would have had a fit. Ending on a question? Ending in a tiny, sad voice?

But yes. And we erupted into applause. Even the atheists, the agnostics, the Unitarians among us, because we can get behind this idea of human "help," human sacrifice for social justice. Interesting, I thought, to have a theology that incorporates a God who "needs" help, what with the omnipotence and everything. But I didn't care. Tutu was too dynamic, too honest, too hilarious, too filled with grief, too beautiful to challenge on what, ultimately are irrelevant aspects of his life's work. His life's work is change on earth. He's seventy six and still can prance about the stage like a deer. I'd respect him anyway, on principle, but I was in awe.

A highschooler sitting behind me said, "I wish he was my grandfather."

An Evening with the Torture Expert

Darius Rejali is a professor of political science at Reed College, an international expert on torture, and author of the forthcoming book "Torture and Democracy." (Princeton UP)

Also, he's one of my favorite academics to have dinner with. I'm lucky that Darius was my brother-in-law's thesis advisor, because that means when he visits Boston, we all get to sit around a table and chat about torture.

Talking with Darius is like simultaneously reading a great history book and watching a Wes Anderson movie. He's filled with knowledge, and he's trying to get it out of him in ways that are at turns hilarious, opaque, revelatory, complex, and/or shocking. I learn content from him, but even more than that, I learn about a way of being a scholar that truly appeals to me.

During his "Reed on the Road" lecture on Monday night, Darius dropped this in as an aside: "People ask me how can I study something so grim? And I tell them it makes the beauty in the world that much more beautiful."

Not squeamish, not afraid, not dismayed, but filled with curiosity and a longing to understand the processes by which human beings destroy each other, for the purpose of ceasing that destruction? Yes. Oh yes.

Thanks Rejali, for giving me context to the Kerry-stun-gun episode. Thanks for reminding me that all social processes are simultaneously miraculous and studiable. Thanks for caring enough about human rights to write a 900-page book on the history of how we've violated them.

Bob Dylan in Worcester, MA

I had a strong urge to call Dylan a "rakish little man" in his broad white hat and smart suit. What stuck with me was how every song sounded bluesy, every chorus a bit more sinister, even the love songs slightly melancholy, and yet the subtle joy of creation flowed on the stage constantly. Dylan moved like a drunk cartoon character from the waist up while he played harp, but didn't move his feet for two hours. He growled more than he sang, which was particularly effective on "John Brown," "Don't Think Twice," and "Ballad of a Thin Man."

The high point for me were songs 11-16, starting with Highway 61 Revisited. It was so loud and urgent I almost didn't recognize it. I was clapping and dancing, filled with awe at how many people love a song with lyrics that complex. I can only hope they know it's more than nonsense. Ain't Talkin' is one of my favorite new songs, and the live version compelled em to say over and over again--"if I ever catch the enemy sleeping, I'll just slaughter him where he lie."

It felt like an incredible gift to hear him play Ballad of a Thin Man and Watchtower, like these are precious drops of sanity in the abysmal chaos of bad American rhetoric, the clear voice of reason shooting through in metaphor. Dylan was a nice southern gentleman, spinning us fables late at night, and the clarity of their truth came through like a balm, and like fire.

We tried to paraphrase the urgency of the performance, the interaction between old protest songs and newer images of a world crumbling under its own inflated language, diluted ideas, and injustices, and my friend Max said: "Love is great, and, we're all getting on the shit-boat." I feel that what Dylan battles now is not the willful injustice of the Masters of War, but the passive, complacent handmaidens to injustice in American cynical "it's always been bad, why do anything" culture. We don't like injustice, but we really don't believe our love can stop it. Or we're afraid to be the ones weilding any power, because that means we can be judged.

At the end, Dylan stood at the front of the stage, weaving and waving his hands, with the band stoically lined up behind him. They didn't bow, they didn't nod, they just presented themselves for our attention. And then they left. And I felt a debt of gratitude. Because he never stopped making art, not when he was using bizarre Christian tropes, not when he was tired or sick or high or alone, not when he was old and had given us more than his fair share of creation. He never stopped making things, never stopped giving. If he was insecure, he was never ruled by it. If he was wrong, it never stopped him. If he was misguided, he found another way. And that model of what it means to be an artist rang so deeply true to me I was moved, moved, moved.

Oh, and the white hat. Did I mention the white hat? The hat was fantastic.

The guy sitting behind us wailed, after every song, "Bobby, Brownsville Girl!" and it didn't irritate me, because there was some obsessive longing in his voice, as if he couldn't help himself, he had to keep hoping, and I identified with that too. The high water is everywhere, and still, I write a novel, and send little missives about music out into cyberspace, and teach my students that justice and personal integrity are still possible. Because if we all gave up when the sadness hit, there would be no music at all.