Thursday, December 31, 2009

The Dude Abides

Over the holidays, while spending time with family in California, I happened to see "The Big Lebowski," a film made by the Coen Brothers in 1998. I guess I live a hopelessly sheltered life, as I had no idea what a huge cult following had developed around this movie. It has become, as the New York Times said yesterday, the past decade's "most venerated cult film." And why should this be? According to reporter Dwight Garner, it enjoys "that elusive and addictive quality that a great midnight movie has to have: it blissfully widens and expands in your mind upon repeat viewings." I don't know about you, but I have no idea what Mr. Garner means, but that's okay because I have no idea why the "Big Lebowski" should attract so much attention either.

When seen by a naive viewer who has no idea what the fuss is all about, it seems to be a movie about nothing, a kidnapping/revenge comedy, that overuses the word "fuck," is unnecessarily hostile, and relies too heavily on catchphrases that seem to be mean something but really don't like "This aggression will not stand, man," and the "Dude Abides." And, as Mr. Garner suggests later in his article, if lines like "Nice, Marmot," and "I can get you a toe," send you into paroxysms of laughter or stir dreamy recollections of seeing the film for the 11th time, then you have become a certified Lebowskiist.

In all honesty, though, the part of the article that most intrigued me were the references to Umberto Eco's article that uses the movie "Casablanca" to explore how any book or film acquires a cult. Popularity, though necessary, is less important than the creation of an alternate universe peopled by its own unique characters who say inane but catchy things that others, outside that world, want to repeat - endlessly. Eco adds that the world fashioned must be "ramshackle, rickety, unhinged in itself." That is, the more incoherent the better, as isolated, out of context lines of dialogue take on whole new meanings of their own, owing to their "glorious ricketiness."

Others would say that the chief appeal of the film is the performance of Jeff Bridges who, as the Dude himself (remember, he abides!), plays the unruffled, shambling, basically good main character (though the people he hangs out with leave a lot to be desired). Bridges does this sort of thing better than anyone else and is thus fondly remembered by his many fans. And he inhabits, as one Lebowski scholar asserts, the personality of the Dude that so many find so attractive. He goes his own way in an admittedly irrational world, but he never gets overly upset about anything, and, in the meantime, "he's gonna care about his friends, he's gonna go to somebody's recital, and that's it."

And so I find myself ending this post with the same lines used by the Times. "Happy New Year, Dude," and to anyone who finds him or herself nodding sagely as Jeff Bridges famously declares once again "The Dude Abides."

Wednesday, December 30, 2009

Cold In New York City

It has been VERY cold in New York the last few days, particularly when the wind chill index is used as an indicator of temperature. The wind chill was below zero for most of the day yesterday which made it difficult to go more than a few blocks at a time by foot. Of course, when it's that cold and when you need indoor warmth intermittently, you have to be careful where you go. Our big plans to traverse Central Park and migrate up 5th Avenue to drop in on the major museums there were canceled, because we were afraid we might not make it across the Park know, without being reduced to tears or getting frostbite or worse! We did have the courage to walk the nine blocks down to the fancy mall at Columbus Circle to visit the Border's Bookstore that is there on the second floor, which, with special coupons in hand, allowed us to get Malcolm Gladwell's book of essays for slightly more than the price of a cup of coffee, but even bookstores lose their appeal after a while and we finally ventured back out into the cold.

Walking home, we seemed to be directly confronting the wind blasting at us from due West, but it turned out relatively well. Only two of my fingers went numb and Karen's small toe on her left foot turned a strange shade of blue, but after dipping these digits in a warm container of water for 40 minutes, we were okay. The time passed pleasantly as we regaled each other with stories from Gladwell about Ron Popeil's Veg-O-Matic.

But we live in New York City and even when it's cold during the holidays, our penchant for being amused must be satisfied. So off we went to see Orson Welles' 1948 version of "Macbeth" at Lincoln Center (a mere three blocks away) before descending into the number one subway (one block from Lincoln Center) to head the 66 blocks to Film Forum (one block from the subway) to take in another Orson Welles' classic "The Third Man." All of this was grand fun, though it probably should be noted in this weather-oriented post that the subway is not heated (though the cars are - Ahh!), and waiting for a train more than 5 minutes can be life threatening. Fortunately for us, just as we could feel our hearts beginning to stop and our skin losing touch with our garments, the trains came in the nick of time.

Tuesday, December 29, 2009

Cooperative Power (2)

With Gandhi and the practice of cooperative power in mind, Jonathan Schell asserts: “We call that person free who, in disregard of force and fear, acts in accord with what his soul prompts him to love.” My claim would be that a decisive part of Education as the Practice of Nonviolence is supporting people in moving toward a personal and shared understanding of what one’s soul prompts one to love. At its best, education has always been focused on helping learners to see what they care about most, in guiding them toward that animating passion that makes their lives more meaningful. But education as preparation for a life of cooperative power also demands that we gain an understanding not just of what we want for ourselves, but what we can accomplish with undiminished passion in collaboration with others. Education as the Practice of Nonviolence then entails, at the very least, the learning of three great arts: 1) knowing and appreciating self; and 2) knowing and appreciating others; 3) understanding how groups can best function to accomplish great things together.

Know thyself is the greatest of all aphorisms about education. It must accompany any educational effort, but by itself is insufficient. For one thing, knowing self must be paired with loving self. For another, self-knowledge is far too individualistic to prepare for a life of nonviolence. Although not doing violence to oneself is a necessary principle, nonviolence is primarily a relational concept and practice. It emphasizes how we regard others, how we treat others, and how we work with them actively and conscientiously for positive, life-affirming change. The preliminary argument here is that we cannot appreciate and work well with others without knowing their stories. Therefore giving all members of the group or community who are learning together and/or working together opportunities to tell some part of their story is essential. It is, I hope, self-evident, that the dispositions to listen and acknowledge others are necessary concomitants of such communal storytelling.

Education as the Practice of Nonviolence cannot focus only on self and communal knowing, however. It must also involve taking action together and then setting aside time to reflect on this joint experience. If nonviolence is a highly proactive and energetic practice, then the education that prepares people for such a life must be similarly active and engaged. Classroom learning would have a place, but at least as much time should be spent in the community learning about its needs and what committed activists can do to begin the process of fostering positive change. Such an education would also oblige learners to remain in close contact with those they are attempting to help to make sure that their efforts are benign, and not visiting a form of unintended violence on the very community they mean to support. Education as the Practice of nonviolence takes seriously the notion that community, communication, and common good are interrelated and must be kept in delicate balance throughout any effort to learn, assist others, or promote change. In the end, though, at least from an educational perspective, the goal is to learn how to work with others more productively and fruitfully to bring about changes that are consistent with nonviolent means and nonviolent ends. Keeping the focus on an active and engaged process that is life-affirming is one part of the work. Another key part is doing everything possible to act in accord with what our souls prompt us to love.

Monday, December 28, 2009

Cooperative Power (1)

One of the most thoughtful recent critics of the philosophy of nonviolence is Jonathan Schell, who gained fame years ago for condemning the nuclear arms race between the United States and the Soviet Union. In 2003, Schell published “The Unconquerable World” in which he argues that far more has been accomplished under the banner of nonviolence than most people realize and that nonviolence, or “cooperative power” as he calls it, remains a potent force for positive change. In his own recounting of the contributions of Gandhi to thinking about nonviolence, he emphasizes Gandhi’s commitment to noncooperation with injustice, to a direct, unhesitating, even fearless confrontation with powers that limit human freedom and agency. It is Gandhi who most convincingly argued that nonviolence was, in fact, freedom in action because the steps one takes to express oneself nonviolently arise from the actor’s “own judgment, inclination and conscience, not in helpless, automatic response to something done by someone else. He is thus a creator, not a mere responder.” For what it is worth, by the way, I want to add here that Gandhi always claimed he would opt for violence over passivity, which underscores that for him what mattered most was the proactive intervening in a situation, not nonviolence itself. But he regarded nonviolence as the more active, creative, and EFFECTIVE (my caps) alternative.

In striving to find a more positive way to capture the active, creative, and effective side of nonviolent practice, Schell has coined the term “cooperative power.” In so employing this term, Schell builds on the work of the political philosopher Hannah Arendt who distinguished violence from power. She argued that any form of coercion or force was actually antithetical to power, which she saw as a voluntary, active, and communal process. Power for Arendt “corresponds to the human ability not just to act but to act in concert.” For her, power in human terms refers only to people willingly taking action in support of some joint enterprise. To express this more familiarly, we might say that for Arendt power derives ONLY from the consent of the governed. Government enjoys power only to the extent it is able to gain consent. When that consent is withdrawn, it becomes powerless. Arendt would add that an authoritarian government can force consent through violence, but this is not power, only a substitute for it. And the long term price for substituting violence for power is extremely high in the energies dissipated and the anger generated.

Persuaded that much of what Arendt argues has merit, but still doubting that violence is not a kind of power unto itself, Schell introduces his own distinction between “cooperative power” and “coercive power.” The first is based on support, the second on force. The first emerges when people work together voluntarily for some public good; the second occurs when violence or the threat of violence shapes action. Schell further argues that love is the functional equivalent of cooperative power and fear of coercive power. In the next post, we will explore how all of this relates to education as the practice of nonviolence.

Sunday, December 27, 2009


As I think I mentioned a few posts ago, there is no “proactive” word for nonviolence in English. Apparently, as it turns out, there isn’t any proactive word in ANY language for this concept. The only way to express this idea is by making a negative out of a positive as in NONviolence or, in Sanskrit, for instance, coining the word Ahisma, which literally means “no harm.” As Mark Kurlansky says in his quirky book “Nonviolence: The history of a dangerous idea,” the only possible explanation for the lack of such a word is that “all societies have viewed nonviolence as a marginal point of view, a fanciful rejection of one of society’s key components, a repudiation of something important but not a serious force in itself. It is not an authentic concept but simply the abnegation of something else.” By the way, in case you’re thinking that, say, pacifism is a positive word for this concept, most commentators would say that pacifism is a passive response to war, whereas nonviolence is an active, highly political stance. Turning the other cheek is pacifism, winning people over through love and compassion is nonviolence. As Kurlansky has said, nonviolence is a “means of persuasion, a technique for political activism, a recipe for prevailing.” To be effective, it requires practitioners who are courageous, creative, and dogged. When the means are boycotts, demonstrations, highly charged rhetoric, and dramatic illustrations of the injustices that one is up against, nonviolent activists have been far more dependent on their wits and their imaginations than those who rule by force ever were. Nonviolence, as radical and revolutionary as it can be, is the strategy of those who embrace the long view; they are the slow knowers, who are convinced they will prevail in the end, whether it takes decades or even centuries.

It is therefore consistent that Gandhi’s own coinage for the philosophy and practice of nonviolence was Satyagraha, which has been translated as “truth force,” or “soul force,” or even “remaining steadfast in truth,” or “holding firm to truth.” The primary issue for Gandhi was never only to challenge injustice, to promote greater equality, or even famously “to be the change you want to see in the world” though all of these things were important to him. What was primary was always to be true to oneself and more specifically to one’s conscience. Whatever was offensive to one’s humanity must be challenged but in a manner, too, that was not offensive. No one must be physically harmed in the process, but some would be required to make material or financial sacrifices. Such sacrifices were trivial to Gandhi, however, because they were superficial and did not go to the core of what it means to be human or humane. Accomplishing all this while clinging to truth, to what is fundamentally human or even what is essentially sacred, would take time, a great deal of time. But that was okay, because the stakes, of being true to self and to some greater spiritual force, were so high. "Satyagraha," Gandhi insisted, "is not predominantly civil disobedience, but a quiet and irresistible pursuit of truth."

What do practitioners of Education as the practice of nonviolence learn from all of this? That in addition to listening and mutual recognition, an almost inhuman commitment to truth and to patience is required. Without them, the project of educating people for nonviolence, for what is truly important, not what is falsely and superficially significant, must fail.

Saturday, December 26, 2009

Mutual Recognition as the Practice of Nonviolence

The conditions that lead to violence are complex and not fully understood, but there is no question that some people use violent means to get attention, to shake people into recognition of them. One thing Education must seek to do is to recognize learners, to find a way to say here is a unique and fascinating individual. If respect means literally "to see again," recognition just as clearly means "to know again." And getting to know learners in profound ways is part of what many teachers who care about nonviolence try to do.

One of my favorite educators has said that teachers should be able to recount a story about every student’s learning. That story could focus on the frustration that preceded an exciting “discovery” or the satisfaction that comes from finally seeing how one idea connects to another or the joy experienced when a difficult project is successfully completed. Whatever it is, those stories, which, by the way, are like family stories that parents sometimes tell, often repeatedly, to single out their children, are meant to give learners a distinctive identity that also represent a declaration by the whole community that we know this about you as a learner. Such storytelling which marks each member of the community as unique also enhances the sense of belonging that every student needs to feel special and that often gives that student the confidence she needs to become both an independent learner and a more productive member of the group.

Education as the practice of nonviolence is another way of saying that although learning may be difficult and dispiriting at times and sometimes even rather unpleasant, it does not have to breed fear or brand someone as a personal failure. It can be a way of communicating to learners that although there are some things that are especially distasteful and hard, there are others that are joyful and relatively easy. When educators help students figure out what kind of learners they are, they are also helping them in important ways to figure out what kind of people they are and what they can do in the future to make the most of their strengths. When we practice nonviolence with our students, we may sometimes judge their work harshly on a particular test or writing assignment, but never as a condemnation of who they are, but only as a means to help them accomplish their goals, increase their opportunities, and realize their potential both as human beings and as future practitioners in the fields that excite them most. To accomplish this, we must know who learners are and revisit this question again and again, adjusting the conditions for education all along the way as we get to know and appreciate our students more and more.

Friday, December 25, 2009

Listening as the Practice of Nonviolence

Few things promote peace and human well being as effectively as listening. To listen, to really listen to another with our whole mind and our whole heart is not only a great gift to another, it is a way of saying to that other “I see you” in all your fullness and complexity and I want to understand you better by giving you my undivided attention. A few years back, the sociologist Robert Bellah and his associates said “Democracy means paying attention.” By that they certainly meant that we cannot do our part to give voice to ideas to help the community get better without paying close attention to what is going on around us. But giving voice to what is needed most is the result of paying attention that begins and ends with listening. Incidentally, the etymology of the word listening suggests that it literally meant at one time "to pay attention." Without listening, the self-esteem of those around us suffers. Without listening, rich, enlightening experiences go undocumented. Without listening, critical concerns continue to fester. Without listening, learning itself is impossible and growth is hopelessly stunted. Listening is one of the keys to Education as the Practice of Nonviolence.

When we listen actively and well, we lose ourselves, we literally lose ourselves in the process of absorbing the concerns and experiences of another. The person to whom we are listening holds center stage. Her issues become our issues. Her worries become our worries as well. To listen fully has nothing to do with problem solving either. In fact, problem solving while listening just gets in the way of the listening part. To be able to hear another, to digest what is being said, and to register that you understand at least to a degree what you have heard is a great accomplishment in itself. To go beyond this all-important listening to ask questions that are the extension of listening, that are meant to amplify what you have heard, not to resolve the problem described, is also an important sign that you have listened closely. The educator Parker Palmer refers to a Quaker custom known as the Clearness Committee in which the person “owning” a problem has a chance to recount a story about that problem and then opens himself up to a committee of people whose job it is to clarify the problem through questioning. The point is not to critique the problem, to recall how others have handled a similar problem, or to suggest possible solutions, but only to listen well enough to ask questions that will help the owner of the problem get clearer about the situation and how to approach it. Many people find this difficult, but those committed to Education as the Practice of Nonviolence, who may also find it quite challenging, know how valuable such close listening can be, because responsibility for resolving the issue stays with the original “owner.” The possibility for a successful resolution, however, is enhanced through the intervention of an open, selfless, non-judgmental, "sharp-eared" group. That group wants nothing more than the "owner" of the problem to work his way through the problem in a constructive way, and is especially eager to do this as facilitator, sounding board, and open-ended questioner. What could be more respectful, more life-giving, more likely to add to individual growth than to be that kind of generous supporter of another?

Thursday, December 24, 2009

Education as the Practice of Nonviolence (2)

Education as the practice of nonviolence cannot begin without affirming that what we are trying to teach is that which gives life - to individual persons, to the human community, to our shared conversation, to new ideas, to keeping an open mind. It is a way of being together that expects disagreement and contention, that actually embraces conflict and the inevitably of conflict (perhaps disagreement is a better word here - I hope to return to this at some point), but does so in a completely respectful, considerate and non-hostile manner. Such a practice says that we all matter and that everyone's contributions to that conversation must be actively heard and carefully taken into account. However, it also acknowledges that when decisions are made some of those contributions will be adopted and others will be set aside. The fact that everyone has a roughly equal chance to add to that conversation does not mean that everyone's ideas are equal in value or in impact. But the right to be heard and to be taken seriously remains a key aspect of nonviolent education that cannot be compromised.

Education as the practice of nonviolence challenges us to be our best and to keep alive what is best for the whole community. These include mutual respect, which sounds pleasant enough, but at its root challenges all of us literally “to look again” at those around us and to consider anew what each person is straining to communicate. Education as the practice of nonviolence also demands that we collaborate together on our most difficult problems, bringing to bear the many different ways of thinking that are found in any group and using those diverse ways of thinking to deepen our understanding and broaden the bounds of what might be deemed an acceptable solution. Additionally, this practice of nonviolence obliges us to search for solutions to our problems that enhance everyone’s well being, not just the few. As the great educator Myles Horton has said, it is wrong to want something for myself that I would not also want to extend to everyone else. According to any reasonable standard of justice, I cannot insist on a right for myself that I would not also demand for all others. Nonviolent education regards it as a sacred principle that anything which contributes to life, to growth, to ongoing development should be available to everyone without exception.

Wednesday, December 23, 2009

Education as the Practice of Nonviolence (1)

What would it look like for us to renounce all this violence and all of these instruments of violence? What would it mean to struggle with even more persistence than ever for a country that is humane, fair, equitable, and caring, but to do so nonviolently? How conceivable is it to be creative, engaged, undeterred activists for a better world, but to be so by employing nonviolent means toward the accomplishment of peaceful ends?

I honestly don’t quite know the answers to these questions, but would like to try to get there by exploring an approach to education that is nonviolent in both process and product. It would highlight practices that avoid diminishing people or bringing them down, while striving always to appreciate people, to elevate them, helping them to enact their best and highest selves. Nonviolence actively resists and disapproves of beliefs, ideologies, world views that diminish or abase people and works actively to support people’s creativity and fulfillment as human beings. In a very real sense, nonviolence promotes those forces that support life, that nourish possibility and nurture our passion for recreating those conditions that contribute to human flourishing.

Tuesday, December 22, 2009

More on Nonviolence

This is the continuation of the diary entry from June 22nd:

This sense that so many people have of being violated, brutalized, betrayed, and damaged is hardly surprising, though, in a country where the right to carry a concealed weapon is more prized than the right of same-sexed partners to marry. It is hardly startling in a country where gun deaths often exceed 30,000 a year and where the number of homicides with firearms is often ten or twenty times what it is in most other Western countries. When the United States is compared to Japan in this regard the contrast is even more jarring, as Japan’s rate of gun-related homicides is .03 per hundred thousand, whereas in the USA, the rate is 3.92 per hundred thousand.

It is well known that the United States has a long history of violence. What may be harder to accept is that this violence continues to be part of the fabric of everyday, contemporary life in America. Of course, homicide is just one measure of such violence. Bullying has reached epidemic proportions in public schools, with some polls indicating that as many as three-fourths of all school children are victims of bullies at some point in their schooling, and that about a fifth of those experienced severe reactions when they were bullied ( Another indicator of how virulent the strain of violence is in this country can be gathered from statistics on domestic abuse. The American Institute on Domestic Abuse (AIDA) says that over half a million women are stalked each year, that over 5 million women are actually abused each year, and that well over a thousand women a year are murdered by their intimate partners ( Incredibly, the AIDA says that domestic abuse is the number one cause of injury to women in the United States.

These statistics are just a small reminder that violence rules in America. It is often our first resort when, for instance, we slap a child for disobedience, and frequently our last, as indicated by the mounting number of prisoners slated for death row. We now have proof that violence in the form of corporal punishment doesn’t foster learning or lead to more stable families or help people enjoy more productive lives, but the impulse to lash out goes unrestrained.

Monday, December 21, 2009

More on Nonviolence

This is part of a diary entry from June 22, 2009:

It is June 22, 2009 and I can’t escape the grip of a haunting and disorienting anger brought on by this country’s economic and global troubles. I am upset that elected representatives in this country have done so little to manage our deteriorating economy, but I am especially angry that people who have enjoyed outrageous salaries and bonuses during the so-called boom years expect to continue receiving such sums as some kind of entitlement. Their fourteen-hour days and Ivy League degrees alone seem to make them worthy, despite the fact that most of their clients have lost millions and many of their actions actually led to the current economic freefall. I am distraught that everyday young men and women continue to risk their lives to fight senseless wars in Iraq and Afghanistan which accomplish nothing, other than to destroy their prospects for a worthwhile future and further damage America’s standing in the world. Even more I am mad that bankers and financial managers have shown no sign of patriotism, no desire to make a sacrifice for their country in one of the greatest crises of the past century. It seems so natural to forgo a bonus or accept a reduction in pay. But somehow this has become un-American, because the first priority, at least for the wealthy, is to receive payment that is worthy of one’s talents and training. How often have we heard that if you reduce bonuses or salaries, you will be unable to recruit the best and the brightest. On the one hand, I am unimpressed with this so-called aristocracy of talent. They are the products of some of the greatest universities in the world, and yet their thinking has been deeply flawed, their judgments hopelessly misguided and their decisions have further undermined the welfare of those least able to meet hardship. Virtually none of these geniuses can even explain the toxic financial products they have inflicted on the American economy. But I am also fed up with the idea that money is the only way to attract talent, that the promise of a still bigger paycheck is the sole way to enlist capable managers. Perhaps we should begin to consider the possibility that those who are willing to accept lower pay are the kind of people we want, who are excited, not by a fatter pot of gold, but by the challenge of doing good work with worthy purposes. Most of all, I am outraged by the bitter contrast between the soldiers who are called on to die for their country in some distant conflict in which they have no stake and the big money people who get us bogged down in these wars to protect their investments but don’t lift a finger to shoulder the inevitable burdens.

I feel somehow brutalized by a country that favors profits over people. I am disgusted by leaders who demand the waging of wars for some unexplained, trumped-up purpose, but who also strategize endlessly to conceal the pain, the suffering, the horrible waste that accompanies such madness. I am appalled by the desire to continue fighting wars that destroy our youth and only make the world more dangerous. My patience has run out with the media commentators who profess inside knowledge and yet whose shrill predictions and prognostications show that they lack the most basic understanding of the underlying structures of our economy and society as a whole. I despise the increasingly mean spirited and spiteful rhetoric that can be found everywhere on the public airwaves and I am sick of the leaders who lecture to us so piously about how we should conduct our lives and yet are themselves hypocrites who again and again betray the public trust.

I am, too, ashamed of a country that has done so little to protect and support its veterans of these destructive, usually meaningless conflicts. Too often, these sacrificing, innocent warriors, who have only tried to do their duty for their country, have suffered the brutalization of a government that has turned its back on their needs by cutting off medical care or suspending essential disability payments. Recently, I learned that veterans of the Bataan “Death March” lost their benefits for decades without explanation, though the author of a recent book about Bataan is quoted as saying that her research indicates that the United States has never adequately supported its veterans. How can this happen in a country that professes to be so proud of its boys in battle? How can this be in a country that claims to want to do all it can to support our troops? The truth is this country has given frequent lipservice to supporting its men and women in war, but more often than not turns its back on these people because it is easier to look away, to go on with one’s life without concern for the young people whose lives are destroyed by war. But if this is so, it is still another reason for avoiding war at all costs, for making war an unacceptable alternative.

Sunday, December 20, 2009

Snow in New York City

As probably the whole world knows by now, it snowed a lot on the East Coast yesterday. In some places, a whole lot. In New York City, there are reports of a foot of snow, but two blocks from the South end of Central Park, not far from where we live, snow accumulations don't exceed 6 inches. Still, there is something delicious about heavy snowfall when you don't have to deal with it in any way - no driving in it, no shoveling, no worry about snow accumulating on your rooftop. You wear layers and have a decent pair of boots handy and you're set to go just about anywhere in the city. And when you don't have to worry about removing the snow or navigating through it, you are free to enjoy it more fully. To appreciate how beautiful it is falling in the artificial light of late evening, or glistening in the early morning sun. And there is something especially festive about trudging through the snow, especially when it is relatively light, as you make your way to the bookstore or the movie house just down the street. In this regard, the area just in front of Lincoln Center is especially iconic. There is a large tree with purple Christmas lights sitting on the triangle where Broadway, Columbus and Amsterdam meet that seems to be one of the places that stands for Christmas in New York City.

Yesterday, we did, in fact, trudge to Lincoln Plaza - 63rd and Broadway - to take in the movie I've been meaning to see for weeks - "Me and Orson Welles." It was terrific, much better than could have been expected. The guy who plays Orson Welles, even though he's too old is, well, perfect, and the whole movie is a jovial remembrance of the music and the popular entertainment (or is it art?) of 1937. My kind of movie. Jaunty, fun, historically accurate, with a pretty good message about what makes life worth living.

Saturday, December 19, 2009

Yesterday's Obituary of C.D.B. Bryan

Yesterday the New York Times reported that C.D.B. Bryan, the author of "Friendly Fire," recently died at the age of 73. Bryan's book which chronicled a family in turmoil after learning that their son, who was a soldier in Vietnam, had been killed by American forces by accident, became a best-seller and an acclaimed television production. It also brought Peg Mullen, the matriarch of the family, to prominence for challenging the US government and eventually becoming an antiwar activist. Interestingly, Mullen herself recently died. Her obituary was also featured in the NY Times and noted in this blog. "Friendly Fire" brought to public attention a phenomenon well known to military veterans, that in combat, casualties which result from one's own artillery are commonplace.

Bryan was a prolific writer who wrote on many subjects. Apparently, he also led a rather "colorful" life. He was married four times, smoked incessantly, often drank to excess, and was a commanding conversationalist. He was, in other words, a character of the first order. It should not therefore be all that surprising to learn that he has not only been cremated in advance of a memorial service to be held next year, but that his "remains are to be stored in martini shakers" in the meantime.

Friday, December 18, 2009

Thoughts on Nonviolence (4)

I cannot in good conscience fail to add in the context of this ongoing discussion about the need to practice nonviolence more assiduously, the outlandish amount of violence that throughout the world continues to be directed toward women. Once again, I rely on the data that Kristof and WuDunn have so brilliantly gathered together in their book Half the Sky to get some sort of grip on the extent of this problem. Consider this absolutely mind-boggling statistic: About one-third of all women world-wide face regular beatings in the home. Or what about this from The World Health Organization which estimates that 30-60% of all women have been subjected to some kind of physical or sexual violence. Or, perhaps most shocking of all, as Kristof and WuDunn reveal with stunning plainness on page 61 of their book, "Women aged fifteen through forty-four are more likely to be maimed or die from male violence than from cancer, malaria, traffic accidents, and war combined."
Kristof and WuDunn also note that violence is not only out of control, it follows an increasingly cruel pattern. The first documented case of a man attacking a women with acid occurred in 1967. But since then, it has become a common practice throughout South Asia for men to hurl vials of sulphuric acid into the faces of women who have rejected their sexual advances. Kristof and WuDunn add that the "acid melts the skin and sometimes the bones underneath; if if strikes the eyes, the woman is blinded. In the world of misogyny, that is technological innovation."

This is not just a crisis, it is a world catastrophe that in terms of the sheer number of people afflicted exceeds anything that has been experienced since World War II. Such a picture of undiminished suffering would seem to demand from us a new, non-militaristic, nonviolent means for moving ahead. Violence is everywhere and only seems to beget more violence. Whatever good it does is short-lived. As Gandhi said, its evils are permanent. When will we learn? What can we do to transition, however glacially, toward a new, more human way of relating and co-existing together?

Kristof and WuDunn emphasize education. And they have seen it happen. In case after case where women have been denied education previously, when schools become available, cultures transform. Education changes people's minds and women, as well as men, become less tolerant of such everyday abuse. They begin to see ways to resist the notion that it is all right for men to treat women as things, and they pass laws and adopt customs that fly in the face of practices that make violence easy and opposition hard. All that makes me want to add that a necessary component of such an education should be learning the ways of being, seeing and behaving that together make up the nonviolent way of life. Only by making nonviolence a habitual part of how we think, work, and do can we finally make strides toward a humane society. Remember what Gandhi said when asked about Western Civilization? He answered," I think it would be a good idea." It still is.

Thursday, December 17, 2009

Thoughts on Nonviolence (3)

What can we learn about nonviolence from the fact that those who are the targets of violence are usually the most vulnerable, the weakest, the most marginalized, the ones most looked down upon and neglected by the rest of society? It is indisputable that violence preys on children, the most innocent and least privileged members of almost any society, with shocking regularity. Recently, I was disturbed to learn that back in the 1870s, one of the first cases of severe child abuse that was actually prosecuted in the US began as a complaint to the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, because there was no legal or institutional recourse for cruelty against children at that time. To this day, we seem to think that parents and other caregivers have a right to treat the children for whom they are responsible in any way they see fit. But this is simply a particularly pernicious part of the entire ethos that condones and perpetuates violence.

In the United States alone, three children die everyday owing to adult abuse. Throughout the world, millions, perhaps even hundreds of millions of children are violated, battered, sold into slavery, shipped off as prostitutes, or starved into illness and death. This inclination to inflict violence on those least able to defend themselves and least responsible for their actions, prompts me anyway to wonder how violence can ever be productive, except perhaps in the most extreme cases of self-defense where not responding with violence could produce irreparable harm. But I don't want to draw attention to those extreme cases, because they are so rare. Better simply to state that violence is wrong, especially violence inflicted on the innocent, and until this is acknowledged and consciously practiced, little progress can be made. Practicing nonviolence in everyday life with conscientiousness and heightened awareness is one of the ways to begin confronting this violence that clings to the very fabric of society and brings with it a steady degradation and deterioriation of the relationships that hold it together.

I often recall my own years as a child when my safety and security were never in doubt, when I knew that no matter what happened I would be protected. This is in contrast to the thousands of children who fear returning home everyday and who cannot know how an offhand comment or a simple laugh might trigger a torrent of violence. It leads me to wonder whether a radical movement in favor of nonviolence is not a necessary next stage in which violence everywhere - in the home, at the workplace, in the popular media, even in sports - is actively discouraged. I don't know, though. It is also possible to become a fanatic for nonviolence who judges too harshly, silences too abruptly, and condemns too severely, and in the process, does more harm than good, propagating a kind of violence of one's own.

Wednesday, December 16, 2009

Thoughts on Nonviolence (2)

So think of nonviolence not as passivity or the absence of something but as a proactive stance, a form of persuasion that to act without force is a more effective and just plain practical form of action than violence. As Mark Kurlansky has pointed out in his little book called Nonviolence: The history of a dangerous idea, there is no positive word for nonviolent action in English. Nonviolence is the best we can do. Pacifism doesn't quite capture it, as it usually denotes simply the position of condemning all war. But nonviolence is much more active and political than that. For one thing, strictly speaking, pacifists have nothing to resist when there is no war. Nonviolence rather implies not pacifism so much as passive or nonviolent resistance to a state that is hurtful or unjust or disrespectful to human beings. Nonviolence recognizes that there are many ways to do violence to people. Doing intentional physical harm to another is a terrible, almost always inexcusable thing, but there is also psychic violence. Such violence is harder to see and difficult to calculate the harm it does. And there is the violence that results from poverty and inhumane conditions, violence that causes untold suffering to millions.

Kurlansky imagines a world for us in which the only word for war is nonpeace. In such a world, he surmises, war would be a trivial, marginalized, unimportant thing. Similarly, in our actual world where nonviolence is the best we can do, you can bet that we are referring to what most would see as a fringe idea that only extremists and kooks entertain.

I participated in a discussion about nonviolence recently, I believe the question posed was is violence ever justified. But the discussion, at least as far as I was concerned never got anywhere, because not a single participant could imagine a world where violence was rejected. People love to talk about the extreme cases when nonviolence is brought up - what you would do if a loved one were attacked? But they rarely are willing to even consider the possibility of behaving differently under more normal conditions. When the example of Martin Luther King is brought up who stopped people from acting violently dozens of times in response to violence inflicted on them, there is a tendency to dismiss King as a philanderer or as a myth, but we have many eyewitnesses who can attest to the fact that King repeatedly responded to violence with nonviolence, including an attempt by a deranged woman to stab him in the heart when he was signing books in a bookstore. Nonviolence is weird, off-beat, something not to be taken seriously because it is so ridiculously impractical. But why am I finding myself thinking again and again that few things are more impractical than violence itself.

Tuesday, December 15, 2009

Thoughts on Nonviolence (1)

Fair warning to readers of thethirdnewyork, I'm probably not going to be saying much about New York City in the next few posts, but will be experimenting instead with a few thoughts about a subject that has been much on my mind lately - the virtues of nonviolence. Nonviolence is a complicated subject, because it means so much more than simply refraining from physical violence. For one thing, it is often a political stance against one's country or any country using force to bring about change. For another, it can be focused on the harm done by inflicting emotional or verbal violence on others. Or, in still other cases, it can focus on the many subtle and insidious ways we do violence to one another without fully understanding the impact we are having.

I have been an admirer of practitioners of nonviolence like Gandhi and King for years, but it was only last year that I found my thoughts turning to this subject repeatedly. Two intersecting events brought me here. One, I became appalled by the war in Iraq and the horrible sacrifices our soldiers have made there and especially by the fact that the war has not necessitated the rest of us to make any sacrifices at all. Second, during our great financial crisis, when we were looking into the economic abyss, I don't recall a single member of the financial industry suggesting that it might be patriotic to make a sacrifice by accepting a smaller bonus or deferring that bonus altogether. The juxtaposition of young people, often people of color, having to make the ultimate sacrifice for their country, for something that was said to be in our national interest, with the fact that it barely even occurred to us that those making millions might have to make a few millions less for awhile in the wake of a national emergency, made me ill. And although I accept that it is a somewhat irrational and irreconcilable pairing, it has caused me to doubt whether a resort to violence is ever anything but a kind of nationalist folly.

We assume violence works and that nonviolence doesn't, but we are also familiar with how much collateral damage violence can do. We know that violence, which seems in some cases to produce a superficial peace, can leave seething hate and hostility roiling just beneath the surface that can easily erupt into new violence when the conditions are right. I guess we think it would be a terrible risk to adopt a pacifist national philosophy, one that would follow Kristof and others in favoring books over bombs and healthcare over holocaust, but what a transformation it would be for the US to spread peace and well being to other countries in the world instead of violence and trouble.

Quick thought on violence: The root of the word has something to do with violation; with raping and ravishing; with outrage, dishonor, breaking in upon, with the use of excessive force to harm or frighten. Given that word history, given those meanings, does anyone really want to stand for anything but nonviolence?

Monday, December 14, 2009

Ragtime and Houdini

Ragtime as a musical has been revived again on Broadway. We went to see it on Saturday afternoon and we were surprised by how enjoyable it is. I am a big fan of the book by E.L. Doctorow and I have strong memories of how poorly I thought it was adapted for a film. But the musical strikes me as quite a bit better than the film in capturing the richness and variety of the original novel. The movie seemed too focused on the fictional story of Coalhouse Walker, but the musical does a much better job of introducing us to the panoply of characters that Doctorow wanted us to get to know from the period of about 1905-1914: from Harry K. Thaw to Stanford White to Evelyn Nesbit to Harry Houdini to Henry Ford to Emma Goldman to J. P. Morgan and Admiral Peary and his first mate Mathew Henson. We get a glimpse of all of these people in the musical and even a bit more than a glimpse of Evelyn and Emma and J.P. and Henry Ford.

There are a few bits about Houdini, too, but not nearly enough. Houdini. I have been fascinated by him since I was kid. And the musical does offer us a take on Houdini which suggests that as an escape artist, he was an inspiration to many people who were trying to escape their own chains - the chains of racial oppression and anti-semitism and the exploitation of ordinary laborers. Houdini was a brilliant entertainer and a master magician who could do things that it seemed no one else could do. But in the end, virtually all he accomplished involved some sort of trick or manipulation of the audience. He yearned to do something that was truly mystical, that took people beyond the ground of ordinary experience into the realm of the supernatural and inexplicable. After his mother died, he expended huge amounts of money and time attempting to communicate with her. He exposed a countless number of corrupt mediums who claimed to have an ability to bring people in touch with their late relatives. He honestly thought he could find a way to reach across the divide separating the living from the dead. At one point, he even had himself buried alive from which he planned a spectacular escape. In the end, though, it was an ill-fated experiment and he had to have his assistants dig him up before he suffocated.

Houdini remains one of the great symbols of a bygone era. He was an amazing escape artist and a perfectionist who drove himself and everyone around him nearly to the breaking point. There is something about him that remains mysterious and just a bit other-worldly. Like Charlie Chaplin and Babe Ruth, he truly was a representative American figure. And he deserves a prominent place in that remarkable period before World War I when America was listening and dancing to ragtime and rapidly becoming the most powerful nation on earth.

Sunday, December 13, 2009


The double feature at Film Forum yesterday was The Awful Truth and Holiday, two Cary Grant films from 1937 and 1938. They show him in all his beauty, good humor, and versatility. Most of all, they illustrate how utterly alive he was. Even more than his perfect tan, tall, slim build, piercing eyes, and inimitable cleft chin, his vivacity is irresistible. David Thomson, that critic you love to hate, but who also sometimes says extraordinary things that you come to believe might be true, asserts that Cary Grant "was the best and most important actor in the history of the cinema." Wow! Kind of takes your breath away, doesn't it? Cary Grant? I mean he's clever and funny and charming and handsome, but the "best and most important actor," how can that be?

I'm not going to make a case for Thomson's claim, at least not here and now, but I do want to suggest that it is easy to lose sight of how brilliant Cary Grant was in some films from the 1930s when he was just emerging as a movie star, because that Grant is overshadowed by our stronger recollection of the more stable and predictable Grant from the 1950s. In my humble opinion, one of the most underappreciated films of the 1930s is Holiday, and part of the secret of its greatness is the performance of Cary Grant.

I have never quite figured out why I love Holiday so much. It partly relates to a theory I have that every time we watch a film we have seen before, we are not only watching the film, but also reliving previous viewings. I have a fond and strong memory of seeing Holiday for the first time on TV with my mother. She loved this movie and her affection for it definitely rubbed off on me. But I do also love its theme, of wanting early on in one's life to take time to figure out what work is for and take stock of the purpose of one's life. In Holiday, Cary Grant is Johnny Case, a young man who has been working hard since he was ten and is on the verge of accumulating a small fortune. If his investments pay off, he wants to use them to take some time off, to go on an extended holiday so that he can figure out who he is. As the film begins, he is visiting his fiancee's family for the first time and does not know that she is a member of one of New York's first families, because he only met her ten days earlier. They are not only very rich, they have a "reverence for riches" which means that they never talk about having money but that they get a special thrill from continually adding to their pile of dough. Cary seems to be in love with one beautiful sister, but she loves money most of all, whereas what he loves most is his freedom. The other sister, played incomparably by Katherine Hepburn, doesn't quite understand Cary's penchant for a holiday, but nevertheless has total faith in him. If he wants it, it must be worthwhile.

I think what strikes me especially about Mr. Grant's performance is his ability to be entirely convincing while mugging and joking, and to be just as persuasive as a confused, struggling young man who cannot hide his excitement about this quest for the meaning of life but who grows weary and unsure the more he encounters resistance from his fiancee and her father. He is alternately fun loving, acrobatic, diligent, polite, just a bit sassy, compassionate, a wonderful listener, a riveting talker, a dreamer, a realist, comely, and yet unconcerned about how he looks or comes across to others. When the film opens, he is happy and utterly unself-conscious, that is, until he encounters his fiancee's family, a crew that seems to love making money more than making a life. He comes to feel there is a conspiracy against him. It weighs him down, changes him for a time from his fun-loving ways to someone solemn and obedient, until finally, in the end, he realizes he must live his life for himself and frees himself forever from this acquisitive family. One of the things that must be emphasized about Grant is how revealing he is physically. The way he holds his body or gestures with his hands depending on his mood or situation is remarkable. As the film proceeds, you can see how he is weighed down by worry and doubt, even as he tries, superficially, to stand up straighter as a proud, prospective member of this distinguished family. The way he uses his face, his hands, his torso is a key part of his performance here. Interestingly, too. his experience as an acrobat is much on display here, and, in fact, the film makes much of the point that he expresses himself best when he is doing a somersault or a back flip flop.

Of course, the other sister, played by Katherine Hepburn, is entirely different. She is the black sheep and has never gone along with the family's ways. She recognizes Johnny Case for what he is, life itself. And his life force cannot be denied, at least not by her. It is one of her greatest performances, and even as I finish this little paean to Cary Grant and Holiday, I must add, strangely enough, that if Holiday works as well as I think it does, it probably has at least as much to do with Hepburn as it does with Grant. But we'll leave that subject for another post.

Here is the beginning of a short list of movies that I think are very good but vastly underappreciated. Please feel free to add to this list, if you are so inclined.

1. Holiday - 1938 (there is also a 1930 version)
2. I am a fugitive from a chain gang - 1932
3. Shadow of a doubt - 1943
4. Sweet smell of success - 1957
5. The wrong man - 1956
6. Ox-bow Incident - 1943
7. Gentleman's Agreement - 1947
8. Advise and Consent - 1961
9. Seven Days in May - 1964

Saturday, December 12, 2009

Stephen Toulmin

I write about Stephen Toulmin today, a philosopher who died recently and who had been a persistent critic of a certain brand of modernism which, to his disappointment, had put the quest for certainty and for universals at the center of scholarly concern. Toulmin, who first became known for a more practical, down to earth and real world approach to logic in his 1950 The Uses of Argument, spent the last few years of his life singing the praises of such unsystematic but "wise" thinkers as Montaigne and Emerson. Seeking to put less emphasis on the theoretical and more on the practical, striving to draw new attention to the concrete at the expense of the abstract, Toulmin was attacked by many of his colleagues for this "unphilosophical" agenda. But to me, anyway, unschooled and uninterested in the purities of Platonic ideals, Toulmin seemed to be trying to come up with an approach to philosophy that was truer to the actual twists and turns of the everyday world.

Following John Dewey in some surprising ways, Toulmin became enthralled with the lessons of experience, of the value of narrative, of the honoring of the here and now in all its gleaming concreteness. Toulmin's desire of modernism to recall the lessons of a pre-rationalist humanism led him to reemphasize the value of the oral, the local, the particular and the timely. Which meant that Montaigne's informal and uncensored reflections on experience should be regarded as one paradigm of how to do philosophy, not in a vacuum, but in the crucible of the "hard knocks" of chance, contingency, and uncertainty. Doing philosophy that humbly faces up to the challenges of uncertainty was one of Toulmin's legacies, and why, I suppose, I felt this pang of sadness when I saw his obituary this morning.

Friday, December 11, 2009

New York Performers

At Barnes and Noble Bookstores all over Manhattan, authors come to speak about their new books. It is one of the best forms of free entertainment in the city. Oh, sure, some of these "booktalks" are dull and uninspired, but a surprising number are lively and inflected with a love of performance. New Yorkers do love to perform, to show off, to mug, to strut their stuff, to attract attention, even to entertain. And a fair amount of this entertainment is available at no charge, and we don't even have to work very hard to find it.

There is one spot, however, that abounds with wonderful and dependable free entertainment. That spot is the Lincoln Triangle Barnes and Noble Bookstore at Broadway and 66th (just a few steps from where we live). This Barnes and Noble is loaded with books - 4 floors of books as well as a basement jammed with DVDs and CDs that makes it one of the best stocked stores in the city. But what perhaps makes this store unique is its impressive "performance" space on the 3rd floor. They not only have booktalks there, they offer 60 minutes of excerpts from the latest Broadway shows and musicals, as long as there is a connection to a new book, CD, or DVD. The cast of West Side Story has been there, the stars of Bye Bye Birdie have made an appearance, the folks producing Guys and Dolls weighed in, and so many others have appeared on their stage. Unfortunately, these performances are usually early in the evening and strictly on weekdays, making it difficult for us to attend.

Two evenings ago we finally made it to one of these mini-extravaganzas, and it did not disappoint. It was a tribute to Zero Mostel that included the new star of the play about Mostel - Jim Brochu in Zero Hour (noted very favorably in these pages a few posts back), the actress Frances Sternhagen who worked with him in Ulysses in Nighttown back in the late fifties, the wife of the songwriter Barton Lane, who knew him socially for many years, and a number of others, including the lyricist for Fiddler on the Roof - Sheldon Harnick (now 85). Brochu performed off and on as Zero, again brilliantly, but to hear these people talk about their colleague and friend in such rich and revealing ways was truly a treat. For the most part, this was a lovefest of a very crazy and impetuous man, but Harnick offered the most surprising insights. I think it would be fair to say that during the run of Fiddler on the Roof (Mostel was only in it for 9 months) in which Mostel starred as Tevye, there was never any let-up in the trouble that Mostel caused Harnick and the other producers of the show. He was such a ham, such a brilliant comic, and such an ingenious improviser, they could not get him to do it the same way every night. Thus, there were some nights when it went beautifully, and others, resulting from Zero's clowning, that did not come off well (at least according to Harnick). Audiences loved Mostel, in part because they never knew what we would do. But a lyricist, of course, wants a performer to do a song the way he imagined it or at least the way it was rehearsed with the director (Jerome Robbins, respected by Mostel as a director, hated by him for naming names when he appeared before HUAC). Zero Mostel could not do it the same way two nights in a row and so it was a luck of the draw whether his improvising resulted in something brilliant, or, in some bit of businesss that would cause the whole cast to get off their timing.

In any case, it was great to hear all these people talk about one of the greatest of New York performers. An event that probably couldn't have happened anywhere but in New York City.

Thursday, December 10, 2009

Mike Daisey - Monologist

You walk into one of the many stages at the Public Theatre to take your seat and the usher gives you a program and either a one, five, ten, twenty, fifty, or one hundred dollar bill. Very few people get a hundred, but quite a few get a twenty. Karen was given a twenty. I got a one. You look at the bills carefully and at first you think they must be very good counterfeit. But you can tell pretty quickly that they're genuine. Now your eye goes to the stage where there are many boxes arrayed, many of them with well known brand names stamped on their sides. You're wondering, like some version of the old TV program Let's Make a Deal, whether at some point in the show you will be trading your bill for the contents of one of the boxes. I only have a one, but I feel uncomfortable with it and can't quite figure out where to put it. I fold it and rest it on my knee as the show begins.

The show is Mike Daisey, storyteller. He sits at a desk with a glass of water, which he never touches, and launches into this long elaborate story about being on a remote South Sea Island. The main story is mildly interesting but the tangents are riveting, taking us from the financial crisis of 2008 to the meaning of life. He talks on and on but somehow keeps us engaged. There is no intermission and after over two hours he is just about finished.

He tells us that at least two things are true about what we have been through together listening to his story. That on the one hand he couldn't care less about us. He doesn't know us and will never get to know us. We don't matter to him. On the other hand, it is no less true that by telling us this long, involved story an indissolvable bond between us has been formed; we are inextricably linked. And he would have done anything, he insists, to have this chance to share his story with us.

Finally, he says that the money that has been distributed to us is his fee for recounting his story. He sets an empty bowl on the desk on the stage, right next to the glass of water that he didn't drink from, and adds that we can either keep the money we have been given or we can deposit it in the bowl. It is up to us. If we want to add a little, we can do that, too. And with that, he ends his presentation. We watch people tramping up to the stage to deposit the bills in the bowl. We do, too, all $21.00 of it. We stand with a number of other people on the stage and listen to him talk about himself, his work, and this dramatic conclusion. He says that most of the time people return virtually all the money. He rarely loses anything and sometimes even gains a little. With that, we turn to leave the stage. I reach into my wallet and put an extra $20 in the bowl. It seems to me he has earned it.

Tuesday, December 8, 2009

Anne Frank, USA

A while back I mentioned my interest in a book by Francine Prose about the history of Anne Frank's diary. The book which is aptly titled "Anne Frank - The Book, the Life, the Afterlife" - includes a recounting of Anne Frank's remarkable story, an exploration of how the diary became a worldwide best seller and then an award winning play and successful movie, and later gained popularity as one of the books most frequently assigned to students in school. Prose herself ends her book with a story of Bard college students who read the book with her and come to see themselves in new ways as a result. These students amaze Prose who identify with Anne's humanity, sympathy, and humor, and "are keenly aware of the gap between what Anne was forced to endure and the trivial setbacks that their contemporaries found nearly unendurable." Their discussions together help the students to see Anne as a fully developed and fascinating character who changes and grows so enormously in just two years. As the students read the end of Anne Frank's Diary together, a hush fell over the class, and Prose recalled thinking about Anne's wish expressed in the diary to go on living after her death and how, in a very real sense, this had come to pass in a thousand classrooms like this one across the land.

Well, it just so happens that on the 5th floor of a small street in Manhattan's Soho neighborhood, there is a museum dedicated to documenting the life of Anne Frank. It is located in a rather cramped and disheveled space, but given its limitations, it does a good job of bringing Anne Frank alive. The day we were there a young girl was working on her own diary inspired by Anne's, and one of the Franks' distant relatives spoke informally about what she knew of the family and the others who hid from the Nazis for 2 full years in Amsterdam. All of these people that the woman remembered perished in the Holocaust, save Anne's father Otto who would go on to make sure that Anne's diary got published.

Actually, I like the fact that Anne Frank, USA is such a small scale organization. It seems right that a monument to this girl's experiences and to preventing such terrible injustices in the future should not be a slick, well funded operation, but something that is struggling, just getting by, yet having an impact far greater than its modest appearance. One of the reasons we know this is the degree to which the foundation is working with schools to revitalize school curricula. The Bell Academy in Queens is just one place where students are studying the book and creating comic strips or graphic novels, like Maus and Persepolis, that capture their experience of reading the book or of the continuing problems associated with racism in the world. These students revere Anne Frank and have learned a great deal from her. They refer to her as brave and unselfish, and they have learned how lucky they are to be largely free of such oppression. Their work is literary, artistic, personal, moral, imaginative, exciting. And drawing connections between Anne Frank's life and their own efforts to eke out a life are giving school a powerful meaning that is surprising even them. To the extent that Anne Frank, USA can continue to have this kind of impact on the way these children see the world, it will continue to be well worth the effort and expense.

The New York Public Library

Once a year, as Christmas is approaching, the New York Public Library, which continues to hold one of the greatest collections of books in the world, opens its doors wide, including the ordinarly forbidden stacks, to celebrate the holiday season and to thank its many appreciative members. Sunday, on our way to Anne Frank USA (the subject of tomorrow's post), we stopped off to share in the holiday cheer and to get inside the Library's vast and mysterious inner sanctum.

As we walked into the great atrium of the library, which can be entered at the famous Fifth Avenue entrance, men and women could be seen walking around on extra high stilts, which seemed pretty festive in itself. But these were not conventional stilts; their bottoms looked like reindeer hooves. So there we were staring up at gleefully decorated holiday giants strutting around on sticks that looked like the feet of reindeer. One of the male giants leaned over to us to inquire if we had been naughty or nice, but it was a question accompanied by such a lascivious guffaw that we couldn't help but respond in unison, "Naughty!"

As we shuffled through he crowd toward the free wine and bread that beckoned on tables just beyond the atrium, we were already thinking about those stacks. How would we get in? How much would they let us see? What would it be like?

We stepped into an uncrowded chamber with a large elevator that took us upstairs to the library's magnificent main reading room, which is said to be about the size of a football field, and then with a respectful hush and a gentle warning about not touching anything, we joined about 40 other people and slowly snaked down the spiral staircase that delivered us to a timeless world of leather bindings, marble floors, and Carnegie steel.

The stacks are huge! They are held together by shelves of ornately carved Carnegie steel that cover many levels and those shelves don't just hold books; they also provide the structural support for the great reading room above. As you wander around in the stacks, you can't help being struck by how long the corridors are and how far down the levels go. It made me think of the Krell from the movie Forbidden Planet. When Walter Pigeon takes the visitors from Earth down below the surface of the planet and introduces them to the ancient world of the Krell, part of the tour includes their power plant which is the source of perpetual energy for the entire planet. No matter how far you look to the side or up and down, all you can see are the levels that the Krell created. The same goes for the stacks of the New York Public Library. Regardless of which way you look, all you can see are shelves of books, the legacy of those far seeing visionaries who constructed New York's greatest edifice of learning well over a hundred years ago.

Monday, December 7, 2009

Cate Blanchett and A Streetcar Named Desire

You may have seen Ben Brantley's rhapsodic review in the New York Times recently of Cate Blanchett's performance in A Streetcar Named Desire at the Brooklyn Academy of Music. He absolutely stopped me in my tracks with these words in particular: "Ms. Blanchett’s Blanche is always on the verge of falling apart, yet she keeps summoning the strength to wrestle with a world that insists on pushing her away. Blanche’s burden, in existential terms, becomes ours. And a most particular idiosyncratic creature acquires the universality that is the stuff of tragedy."

But when we inquired about tickets to this remarkable performance and production, we learned that the entire run was sold out. Not to be deterred and with memories of a similar situation when Ian McKellan was at BAM in King Lear, we headed for Brooklyn to stand in the cancellation line for a Saturday matinee. After a surprisingly pleasant wait of almost two hours in which we bonded with some of the other expectant patrons, and with ten minutes to go before the start of the show, we learned that tickets were available in Row D of the Orchestra section on the aisle. We grabbed them, skipped a much needed bathroom break, and settled into our perfect seats. The start of the performance was delayed slightly and for perhaps three or four minutes before the actual opening, an anticipatory hush fell over the audience. Hardly anyone spoke as we all waited patiently for greatness to reveal itself in the partially lit theatre. Then the bluesy, New Orleans music came up, and a spotlight illuminated Cate Blanchett's Blanche Dubois as she rode into town on the Streetcar named Desire headed for that section of the city known as Elysian Fields.

For the next 3 hours and 15 minutes we sat in on the lives of Blanche and Stanley and Stella and Mitch. Thankfully, there was an intermission in the middle that allowed us, finally, to relieve ourselves. But all the rest of the time we were riveted on Blanche and her struggle to stay strong. In the end, like the dishes that Stanley smashes to the floor and the radio that he hurtles out the window, Blanche is destroyed. But it is a most divine destruction. Blanchett turns out to be every bit as good as Brantley claims, though it should also be noted that the entire cast does a remarkable job. In the end, Karen and I were weeping, but to my surprise, I continued to cry as we left the theatre. What was it about Blanchett that elicited such raw and unfettered emotion?

Well, first it must be said that the true hero of any great production of this play is the author - Tennessee Williams. I do not care what anyone says about Arthur Miller or Eugene O'Neill or someone else. For me, the greatest of all American playwrights is Williams. Second, I can't quite say why Blanchett's Blanche moves me so much (funny, isn't it, the similarity between the actress's name and the character she is playing), but it is something about her ability to completely lose herself in this character, to be her without any sign of let-up or release. In all the intensity and strangeness that is Blanche, Blanchett inhabits her world, and yet as Mr. Brantley points out, somehow makes it possible for us to relate to her as well. It is a great and ultimately inexplicable performance, as all such performances are.

Sunday, December 6, 2009

Author of Hokey Pokey Dies at 104

On November 23rd, 2009, Robert Degan, one of the people officially attributed with authorship of the famed Hokey Pokey Dance, died in Lexington, Kentucky at the age of 104. Mr. Degan, a well known guitar and banjo player in the Scranton, Pennsylvania area for many years was also a member of the Scranton Sirens in the 1920s, a jazz group that at one point counted both Tommy and Jimmy Dorsey as members. Working with Joe Brier at a resort near the Delaware Water Gap in the 1940s, Mr. Degan produced his one and only musical copyright "The Hokey Pokey Dance." Larry LaPrise also claimed that he had written a very similar version of the song which resulted in a long term dispute about the song's official authorship, a dispute which was finally settled out of court in the 1950s. The words of the song penned by Mr. Degan and his collaborator Joe Brier are slightly different from the better known version attributed to Mr. LaPrise. Here is how the first part of the Degan and Brier version goes:

Put your right hand in,
Put your right hand out
Put your right hand in and you
wiggle all about.
Everything is okey dokey when
you do the Hokey Pokey
That is what the dance is all

Despite this success with the Hokey Pokey, Mr. Degan eventually gave up his music making and became a furniture salesman in Lexington, Kentucky for many years until he retired in 1970 at the age of 65.

The preceding comes primarily from a December 3rd obituary in the New York Times, but I have learned from other sources of a legend that Mr. Degan continued to refine the lyrics and the melody for the "Hokey Pokey Dance" using different articles of furniture. One of the many versions that he experimented with is as follows:

Put your arm chair in
Put your sling back out
Put your Eames chair in
Your comfort is what counts
When you're doing the Hokey Pokey
You're finding a seat that's right
You've got the right one now so just
sit there nice and tight.

Mr. Degan is reported to have experimented with over a hundred variations on these lyrics. He is alleged to have said a few weeks before his death that he had just about finished the definitive version of the Hokey Pokey. Unfortunately, none of this work could be found in the papers that he left behind. Nevertheless, the "Hokey Pokey Dance" remains Mr. Degan's legacy. The next time you have an occasion to launch into the Hokey Pokey, please keep in mind the troubadour from Scranton, Pennsylvania - Robert Degan.

Saturday, December 5, 2009

The Lurking Dangers of the Subway

Yesterday, as Karen and I were hurrying down the steps into the subway to catch the express train to downtown that was just starting to pull into the station, she either caught her heel in the hem of her pants or hit a little bump on one of the stairs and was suddenly sprawled in the middle of the stairway with one hand hanging on to the railing and both of her shoes knocked off her feet and out of her reach. As the people below and above us briefly halted their forward momentum so that we could gather ourselves together, Karen quickly righted herself as I grabbed her shoes and we skittered into a very crowded subway car. But this only meant we were narrowly averting one danger to encounter another. For with Karen quickly slipping on her shoes, it was too late for us to spy a corner where we could find a safety bar to hold onto. With both us stranded in the middle of the subway car, I reached for the low ceiling and tried to hold my hands in place there, as Karen grasped me around the waist to keep herself stable. It was not the sort of arrangement suitable for a trip to Washingon Heights, but it got us safely to 42nd Street when the car emptied out just a bit. The rest of the trip was uneventful, Karen to 14th Street, me to Chambers and then onto the Ferry, but it certainly got our adrenaline running.

You see, the subway is no place for the faint of heart. There are so many lurking dangers - cracks in the pavement, bumps on the stairs, turnstiles that aren't large enough for those bags of groceries you just bought, gaps between the station platforms and the entrance to the cars, rats abounding, especially late at night when the people are scarce and you think you're safe. Scariest of all perhaps are the amateur performers who are everywhere underground looking for a handout, some of whom are talented, but this time of year you are as likely to run into someone singing Silent Night off key as you are a bongo player with rhythm. So if you dare to descend into the subway, stay alert. There is no telling when something dangerous might come your way. Look out! Here comes somebody now running right at you because he's late for an appointment. Get out of the way before it's too late!!

Friday, December 4, 2009

Nicolas D. Kristof and the need for a new American Foreign Policy

Well, Kristof has said it again, right there in the December 3rd New York Times. We need a whole new approach to foreign policy that focuses on how we can help people around the world through education, healthcare, and democracy, not through force and military intervention. This new direction in foreign policy, which should be made universal and implemented immediately, is being put forward, of course, in the context of President Obama's recent decision to escalate America's military presence in Afghanistan. For those who recall the United States' misguided escalation in Vietnam and the Soviet Union's own ill-fated deployment in Afghanistan, this recent decision is almost certainly a mistake, first from a tactical or strategic point of view, second with respect to everyone's long term best interests, and third, inevitably but undeniably, from a moral perspective. It will not only fail to stabilize the situation, it will make things worse by creating a "nationalist backlash" that will unleash more terrorism and more hatred for the U.S. I really think we pretty much know this to be the case, by the way, but the pressure from the military-industrial complex is so intense to fan the flames of this situation, to see it as a dispute that can only be resolved with force, that the people that represent this complex cannot be denied by a President whom I fear is increasingly weakened by the conservative forces arrayed against him.

Kristof quotes Greg Mortenson, the author of Three Cups of Tea who has built dozens of schools in Afghanistan and Pakistan, to the effect that congressmen and generals in the U.S. made this decision to escalate "with nobody consulting Afghan elders. One of the elders' messages is we don't need firepower, we need brainpower. They want schools, health facilities, but not necessarily more physical troops."
Kritof adds, based on Mortenson's own experience, that 20 schools could be built - TWENTY SCHOOLS! - for what it costs to deploy one soldier for one year in Afghanistan!

And he ends his column with these words: "My hunch is that if Mr. Obama wants success in Afghanistan, he would be far better off with 30,000 more schools than 30,000 more troops. Instead, he's embarking on a buildup that may become an albatross on his presidency."

From now on, we need to make the case against such military buildups, unless we can be certain that there are good political and moral reasons for them. Such a case has not been made. Instead, we need to use America's wealth and power to distribute the goods that have helped to make us so strong. Only then will we begin to make any progress at all toward constructive and peaceful co-existence with the rest of the world.

Thursday, December 3, 2009

The Rhythms of School

I have been in some sort of teaching position for over 35 years now. One of the things I rather like about being in schools, at least as they are currently structured, are their distinctive rhythms. Virtually everyone knows the exhilarating feeling of being released for a long summer break or the exciting anticipation of a new school year about to begin. What gets mentioned less often is the trajectory of a typical semester in which the work load and the pressure build fairly steadily as the term proceeds until that pressure, at least for many students and a few faculty as well, grows so intense that it gets in the way of everything else. I am working with a few students this very semester who are experiencing that sinking feeling of needing to get everything done as time seeps away from them.

But the up side of that pressure is being released from it; few feelings are more pleasant or more gratifying, particularly if you have performed well. I am not only working with students who are experiencing that pressure, I am feeling it myself, but I can also anticipate the feeling of being freed of that pressure and what I plan to do with my new found freedom as a resident of New York City.

One plan is to take in a museum a day. There is an ongoing exhibit about Lincoln in New York City at the New-York Historical Society that merits another visit. A show about the photographer Man-Ray at the Met should prove interesting. The curving walls of the Guggenheim are still covered with Kandinskys that demand another look, and a new program in their Works and Process series exploring the connections among Sex, Stress, and Music is calling as well. MoMA has a kind of crazy show about the film director Tim Burton, but it is rather fun and a bit more than at first meets the eye, which means we'll be back at MoMA again. The Whitney offers the abstractions of Georgia O'Keeffe, and the Museum of the City of New York is exhibiting some fabulous photographs from Look Magazine that require a look. Penultimately, and, of course, this is only the beginning of what will become a longer list, the museumofSEX down in Chelsea is advertising Sex in Action and Naked Ambition, two shows that are perfect for the holiday season. Finally, the Morgan Museum invites folks to see the original manuscripts of Dickens' A Christmas Carol. Now that really is a holiday season must and another great way to unwind from that pressure-filled school semester.

Wednesday, December 2, 2009

Hair Loss Post and Christopher Plummer

I hope that all you loyal readers noticed something striking about yesterday's post. Right alongside my hysterical post about my balding head were a series of google ads to prevent hair loss. How does that work? What mysterious technical process makes it possible for the ad people to absorb all those posts out there and then to affix the appropriate promotional blurb?

On a tenuously related note, I went to see an interview with the actor Christopher Plummer at Film Forum last night and even at the age of 80 (80th birthday this month), he has a full head of beautiful, white hair. Not only that, he gets to be Christopher Plummer! You see, not only is Christopher Plummer one of the finest actors of our time, especially as a stage actor, though he's done some fine film work, too, he is clever and charming and incredibly articulate as well. Not sure it's entirely fair for someone to be so talented and so entrancing as a person, too, but that's pretty much how he comes across. At this interview, by the way, it was suggested that Mr. Plummer's new theatrical memoir, In spite of Myself, is one of the great books about the theatre in recent memory. Sounds like the perfect read for a long plane flight or for a series of relatively short rides on the Staten Island Ferry.

Tuesday, December 1, 2009

No Greatness, No Transcendence

Okay, I'm tired of greatness and transcendence. I yearn for something simple, something everyday, something so firmly rooted in reality it can't be misconstrued for anything else. That fundamental thing I am thinking about a lot lately is hair and how quickly I am losing mine. People used to say to me, "you have such a thick head of hair, you'll never go bald." But they were wrong, tragically and glaringly wrong. Here I am approaching 60 and the hair at the front of my head and extending back at least four inches is thinning at an alarming rate. Oh, sure, at this point I can hide that loss of hair with a strategic combing or two, but the truth must be faced openly and courageously. In the next two to three years, I will have only thin slivers of hair covering the top of the my head and even those will eventually vanish, leaving my pate hopelessly exposed. And once my hair goes, all the world will see me for what I am, an aging man suffering from a severe case of loss - of hair, of wit, of knowledge, of the ability to remember not just a few names, but all names. I will end up bereft of everything, save recollection of only the lifetime batting averages of baseball players from the 1930s and 1940s. There I'll be, all alone, scrunched down in a tiny, unlit corner repeating those averages over and over again: .325, .367, .344, .333, .358...