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Archive for May, 2012

Dork

with 7 comments

Okay.

I hate to sound like a complete idiot here, but I need somebody to explain something to me.

Why do writers put sex scenes in novels, and why do readers like to read them?

I don’t mean the sort of perfunctory “and then they went to bed” sort of throwaway thing that shows up pretty much everywhere these days. 

I mean the play by play–her put his tongue into her mouth and she began to melt kind of thing.

I mean, what’s the point? 

I assume there is one.  And I assume that most people find this sort of thing a turn on.  They must, because they like reading it, and they read a lot of it.

It turns me straight off.

For a long time, I thought that this was because what I’d read of this kind of thing was actual pornography.  And, for some reason I’ve never understood, most actual pornography seems to be aggressively ugly. 

I’m not sure why this is, or why people who go looking for pornography–for literature to turn them on, sexually–seem to want such a varied array of the physically violent and the generally unappetizing, but there it is.

Lately, though, I’ve been reading some mainstream fiction, and some romance novels, and the explicit sex scene now seems to be a staple of them all.

In general, these scenes are not aggressively ugly.  They’re just very explicit–his tongue, her tongue, how things feel when they go into orifices, whatever.

And I find myself thinking–even in scenes describing activities I have engaged in myself and found very nice indeed–I find myself thinking, “my God, that sounds unpleasant.”

Somebody once said that the only way we ever make love is that we fool ourselves into thinking (for the moment) that we’re Robert Redford, when in fact we’re Woody Allen.

I’m putting that badly, but I think I know what it means.

And I also think that we are only able to do the things we do when we make love because we bypass the logical faculties and feel instead of think about what we’re doing.

But a book is a logical thing.  It requires linear thought to understand.

When I read, all my logical faculties are up and running.  I am–necessarily, in order to do what I’m doing (meaning: read)–in a cold, non-physical place where I can concentrate on how words go together.

When he puts his tongue up her whatever, what I experience is a something on the order of what that would feel like in the mental state I’m already in.

In other words, yucky as hell.

I presume other people do not do this.  If they did, there would be no pornography, and no erotica, and the fact is that something fitting these two categories is probably the most prevalent aspect of literature throughout time.

But I don’t get it.

And I really don’t get it at five o’clock in the morning.

Written by janeh

May 18th, 2012 at 7:31 am

Posted in Uncategorized

Once More Into the Breach

with 3 comments

Breech?

I don’t know.

Let me see if I can be clearer.

In 1945, attendance at major league baseball games was a working class to lower middle class activity.

You could get tickets for cheap, and you could get them on the day of the game just by walking up to the ticket booth.

Sometime between then and now, attendance at major league baseball games became an upper middle to upper class activity.

Why?

The vast majority of upper middle class and upper class people would not have gone near a profressional baseball game under any circumstances in 1945.

Why do they go now?

Why is going to a major league baseball game now a “prestige” activity, when it was decidedly declasse only 60 years ago?

And, while we’re at it–what does this mean for the future?

Does the working class entertainment of one era always automatically become the upper middle and upper class entertainment of another? 

Okay.

Not much.

A busy day.

Written by janeh

May 16th, 2012 at 8:38 am

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The Gentrification of Amusement

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I found this article on Arts and Letters Daily yesterday

http://www.nytimes.com/2012/05/03/opinion/death-of-a-salesmans-dreams.html?_r=1

and I put it up here because it represents the first time I have ever seen anybody talk about–in print–something that has been bothering me for a while.

I’m not screamingly fond of this article for a number of reasons.  Most of all, I think he gets the point of Death of a Salesman wrong., which is not a small issue in a piece that anchors itself to that particular play.

That said, the overall point is true, and it’s not true only about theater–almost everything that was once a mass form of entertainment, cheap and available to all comers, has become pricey and out of the reach of practically everybody.

Consider, for instance, sports–attending baseball games used to cost almost nothing, even for major league teams, and seats in stadiums were readily available on the spur of the moment.

A father and son with a little time on their hands could go out to the ball park and be reasonably sure of getting a seat–and a seat that a millworker or a second assistant clerk could afford.

These days, tickets to the games of major league teams run into the hundreds of dollars for even bad seats, and good ones can easily go for five figures. 

The same is true of lots of other things–Broadway shows, for instance, now define the “cheap seats” as something in the $50 range, and movies, out where I am, cost $10 for a matinee. 

What used to be mass entertainment for a mass audience mostly made up of poor, working class and middle class people has become entertainment for the well heeled.

Even tickets to the fights are now expensive as hell and out of the reach of the man in the street.

I really did just say “man in the street.”  I must be tired.

But think, as well, about amusement parks.  In the 1950s, Disneyland was so cheap that the kids in the area used to go there to hang out every day after school.  These days, you practically have to take out a loan just for the admission, and the rides and other attractions are just as expensive. 

And think of books.

The Forties and Fifties brought the paperback revolution, where books could suddenly be had for a quarter–and not just paperback original potboilers, either.  Paperback editions of just about anything were available in any bookstore.  I used to take $15 worth of birthday money to the Yale Co-op and buy Aristotle and Jane Austen in cheap paper editions. 

These days, the minimum price of a mass market paperback is $7.99 (and not much cheaper on Amazon, never mind the shipping) and those are being phased out for more expensive trade paperback editions.

Of course, there are new forms of entertainment aimed at people without much money–all that reality TV, for instance, but that still leaves open the question of how and why what was once entertainment for the masses has become the preserve of people with serious money and a badge of upper-income socioeconomic status.

Why was baseball (and football, and basketball) a spectator sport for everyday people in 1945, but a spectator sport for the upper classes by 1980?

Maybe it’s just that it’s hard for me to believe that the content of these amusements has been so much qualitatively raised as to justify the sudden shift in social status and expense.

Okay.

It’s obviously not a question of earthshaking importance, but it’s still an odd thing to have happened.

Written by janeh

May 15th, 2012 at 8:09 am

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Adventures in Electricland

with 9 comments

There’s something you have to know about me. 

I am no good in an emergency.

Or, rather, I am, as long as there is an emergency.

It’s when the emergency is over that I go to pieces, and I’m completely useless for–well, it depends. 

After Bill died, I was completely useless for about a year, but that was an extraordinary circumstance.

The emergency that occurred here Thursday night was not so extraordinary.

It started around nine or so, at night, and what it started with was a scene out of somebody’s movie.

We have a chandelier in the dining room, a little one, that’s on a dimmer.

Don’t ask.  The dimmer wasn’t my idea.

The switch had been wonky for a while, but we almost never use the dining room.  The lights on the chandelier were off, and we therefore presumed that the switch was also off, and had been for–well, months.

We were wrong.

The first thing that happened was the the light on the chandelier went on.  They didn’t snap on, the way they would if we had pushed the switch.  They sort of gradually glowed on, as if they were signalling the existence of a ghost in the dining room.

What a ghost would want in my dining room is a very good question, but it isn’t one I could answer if I tried.

At any rate, I sent Greg over to turn the chandelier off, and when he did he found that the metal pole of the dimmer switch was very, very hot.

I had him turn the switch off anyway, and then I called 911.

I will say that the 911 people were everything you’d want in 911 people, although why the fireman had to call for backup from six extra guys after he’d already determined it was just the switch, I don’t know. 

We have a lot of fires in this town, from what I can tell by sirens going by in the night–it’s not crime; we seem to have none of that–but this must have been a slow night.

The fireman came and turned off the breaker to that light and used this neat little machine to determine that we did not, in fact, have an electrical fire in the walls. 

The police officer who came along with them–a woman–liked Greg a lot, and spent most of her time trying to bring him down from his usual “I’m going to panic now and get it over with” position.

Actually, he isn’t that bad.  He just tends to get extremely revved up, so that he has to run around Doing Things until he unwinds, which can often be several hours after the emergency is over.  It’s the best time to get him to do chores.

At any rate, the emergency wasn’t much of one.  It was a bad switch, and the next day my friends Carol and Richard (see any Gregor acknowledgements page) came over and installed a new one.

In the meantime, however, I’d passed into my no use for anything phase, and I couldn’t get to sleep until really, really late, in spite of having called my calmest friend to get him to help me calm down.

And the lack of sleep meant that I went into my very last class in a state of–well, what  you wouldn’t want me to be in a state of if you were in danger of failing.

It was my regular class, too, not my remedials, which means it was the class for which I have the least patience when students are busy shooting themselves in the foot.

It was an interesting collection of people, too–I think I’m going to have the most lopsided grades list I’ve ever had.  Lots of As, lots of Fs, not much in between.

It is virtually impossible to fail any class of mine if you do what I tell you to do.  I allow them to rewrite papers as often as they like for a better grade, without penalties.  I accommodate their schedules so that they can get their papers in (also without penalties) and still make it to work or take care of their children.

In spite of all that, I still get a solid little knot of people who simply will not do anything at all, or who leave everything to the last minute so that even if they do what they’re assigned, they have no time to fix it if they’re wrong.

And the ones who leave it until then are almost always the ones who will, in fact, do it wrong.

In this, they are not too much unlike my remedials, but there is one big difference–they almost never resort to rampant dishonesty to try to weasel out of the F.

My remedial students will whine that they did do the paper and I gave it a grade–but of course be unable to find said graded paper.  They’ll tell me I wrote the grade down wrong–but of course either cannot find the paper with the other grade on it, or find the paper and the grade is the one I have in my book.  They will complain that “you didn’t tell us to do that!” about virtually any assignment.

My regulars are much more on to themselves.

They don’t like it, and they’re embarrassed, but they will own up to it.

I’ve spent the last couple of days wondering if that’s the really important thing–wondering if some of my remedials are remedials not just because of the bad schools and the chaotic home environments, but because their response to screwing up is so often to do anything at all to evade responsibility for it.

If I think about it, my best remedial students–the ones who get through it and go on to actual college work–almost never do that dancing around it all thing.  If they screw up, they come to me and say:  what did I do wrong and how do I fix it?  And then they do what I tell them to do.

There’s a writer named Barbara Ehrenreich whom I often find interesting to read.  One of her big arguing points is that there is no such thing as a “culture of poverty,” that poverty is a matter of just not enough money, and that’s it.

That line always bothered me, because it seems to imply that what we do–how we conduct our lives–has no effect at all on the way our lives proceed.

This seems to me to be untrue on the face of it.  If you drink yourself into a stupor every day, you will end up poor and on the street, unless your family has literally millions of dollars to support you.  The children of the middle class who behave that way end up down and out, and I’ve known more than one or two of them.

But I’m also pretty sure we couldn’t run a society of any kind, egalitarian or otherwise, with people who respond the way most of my remedials do to–well, to everything.

And I wish I knew how to fix it. 

Because by and large, my remedials are not stupid in the IQ sense.

They’re just–like this.

Written by janeh

May 13th, 2012 at 12:28 pm

Posted in Uncategorized

Out, Damned Spot

with 4 comments

Okay. Here is a piece of history a friend of mine reminded me of this morning.

Practically everybody who is reading this will know that there was an epidemic of plague in the Middle Ages that wiped out a considerable portion of the population.

Some of you will  know that there were also, in the Middle Ages, something called “sumptuary laws” that restricted what people could wear and own by their place in the social hierarchy–only people of royal blood could wear purple, for instance, and only members of the aristocracy could wear velvet.

The sumptuary laws varied by place.  The plague didn’t much.  And the two are connected.

That is–sumptuary laws were a response to the first great Continental exposition of the law of supply and demand.

The plague killed indiscriminately, rich people as well as poor, which is the kind of thing that happens when you know nothing about either germs or hygiene.

The kick is that it also killed the skilled craftsmen and experienced husbandmen who had provided the work that kept the aristocracy in spectacular clothes and working farms. 

And once enough of those people had died, the ones left were in increasing demand.  There weren’t enough of them to go around.

And since they were in demand, the money they were paid went up.

And not just for the ones at the very top of the skill scale, either.  Wages for skilled work rose dramatically in the wake of the plague, and skilled workmen suddenly found themselves with lots of disposable cash.

They were therefore in a position to buy Stuff, as such Stuff existed in the Middle Ages, and buy it they did.

Aristocrats and functionaries suddenly found themselves in a position of not being able to tell the class of a man or woman just by looking.  People whom they believed ought to be poor weren’t poor any more, and they looked just like gentlemen. 

The rich and the well connected were in constant danger of treating inferiors as equals, among other things.

That’s why the sumptuary laws–to try to stop the upstarts from getting the Stuff tha that made them look like quality, and to try to make sure that you could know immediately, by looking at a man, whether he was your superior, your inferior, or your equal.

In case you’re wondering, this did not work very well. 

But in the long run, it didn’t have to work very well, or for long.  The plague receded.  The population was replenished.  Eventually, the population of skilled workers went up enough so that their wages went down enough that nobody had to worry about them buying velvet and silks.

What has always interested me about this, however, is the extent to which the issue was framed as “being able to know on sight” who occupied which place in the social hierarchy.

One of the geniuses of capitalism is that it is a constant corrosive against just this–anybody who can scrape the money together can wear Tiffany diamonds, or buy a Lear Jet, or send the kid to Harvard.  Anybody who can scrape up less money can wear Armani and get married in a Carolina Herrera wedding gown.

I have a suggestion to make.

I think that the constant effort to define class–and especially “in” groups and “out” groups–by taste in things like music, reading material and art is a direct result of the fact that we cannot install sumptuary laws in a capitalist world.

We fight our class battles out on the level of taste because we have no other way to “know on sight’ who people are and what place they occupy in the social hierarchy.

And since taste is not something that depends absolutely on material means, it also becomes a way to get out from under the logic of capitalism altogether–to divorce social status nearly absolutely from the money calculus.

Class comes to depend, then, not on how much money you have–although if you want to play the game well, you’ll have to have some–but on whether you can walk the walk and talk the talk. 

It doesn’t matter if the kid you hated in high school started a successful plumbing business and now makes three times as much as you do with your Wesleyan degree and your job at the art gallery.  He may have money, but he’s just so obviously–not.

The real question, of course, is why people want to do this–and they do want to do it.  Almost everybody wants to do it.

And not only do most of us want to do it, most of us have to do it, if we’re not going to make a mess of things in day to day life.

When someone comes along who doesn’t comform to outwardly to our understanding of how to judge status, what results is often upsetting in the extreme.  No matter how often we tell ourselves that we treat everyone the same, we don’t. 

And we don’t all expect to be treated the same, either.

In some cases, not conforming to the expected outward appearances can be positively dangerous.  If the cop stops you in an old beat up car wearing dirty sweat clothes and a hoodie, it won’t matter that you’re Warren Buffet.

It is still something of a puzzle to me as to why this is so important to almost all of us.  Why does it matter if we know the exact social status of the people we work for, or the people we see at the movies?  Why do we need to signal our own and to signal it unambiguously?

Most of us try to present ourselves as a little higher in the hierarchy than we actually are, unless we’re running for public office and want to appear to be “just like one of us” to a lot of people we would normally think of as our social inferiors.

We also keep trying, and failing, to price the riff raff out of the market for upper class markers. 

And in every group everywhere, status markers emerge in no time at all.

Some of you don’t much like the books of Henry James, or F. Scott Fitzgerald.  I don’t know how you feel about Proust.

But those were three writers nearly obsessed about the status markers that take up so much of our time.

There has to be a reason for this that goes past the “people suck” and Original Sin varieties of explanation.

I keep trying to figure out an evolutionary story for it, and can’t quite.

Written by janeh

May 10th, 2012 at 8:21 am

Posted in Uncategorized

Hortense Powdermaker

with 4 comments

I did not make that name up, although I sort of wish I had.  It’s a wonderful name.  It ought to be the name of a major-secondary character in a fair play mystery set in a small midwestern town.  It ought to be something.

And, in fact, it is something.  It’s the name of a very real person, one of the early cohort of female anthropologists who rose to prominence between the two world wars.  She even has her own Wikipedia entry, here:

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hortense_Powdermaker

There are pictures, so that you can see what she looks like.  From the description, she was a very intelligent and professionally accomplished woman. 

I have no idea what the body of her work was like.  There is an excerpt from one of those books–or maybe an article on the same subject–in the Mass Culture anthology I’ve been reading, and it’s as clueless and heavy handed as the other pieces I described here yesterday.  The subject there is Hollywood, and how human relations in the movie making industry resemble totalitarianism.

Or something.

It’s that kind of thing.

But that’s not what I want to talk about here.  What I want to talk about is this:

Whatever else Hortense Powdermaker is or was, what she represents is a stereotype.

We have gotten to a place where stereotypes are automatically assumed to be “bad,” and, I think, to be false.  The badness of stereotypes consists of two things.

First is the fact that a stereotype automatically treats groups of people AS groups, and not as individuals.  We don’t respond to Dr. Mary Smith, an individual who is also an anthropologist.  We instead respond to The Female Anthropologist, who is a type with a set of predetermined characteristics.  This is very bad for Mary Smith, who may not run true to type at all.  It may even be bad for anthropology.

The second part, however, is the tacit assumption that stereotypes aren’t true to anybody’s type–that there are not, actually, any examples of the group in real life who fit the stereotype. 

Stereotypes, rather than being collective responses to something real in the environment, are instead supposed to be exercises of power by a dominant group over the subgroups beneath it.

The stereotype of the homely, humorless, culturally clueless Female Social Scientist, therefore, is supposed to have arisen not because there were a number of prominent female social scientists who fit the description, but because the culture wanted to discourage women from moving away from their primary roles as wives and mothers.  The culture therefore threw up a thoroughly unattractive alternative to wife and mother status, and let the girls form their own conclusions about who they wanted to be.

I learned this definition and analysis of stereotypes early, and I still tend to think there is a lot of truth in it. 

I do know that treating people as stereotypes in most situations–when they’re you’re students, say, or your employees, or candidates for new friends when you move into a new situation–hampers efforts to get to know them, and to get them to produce their best work, and to know what kind of work they might be able to do to be useful.  It hampers the enterprise, in fact, and so stereotyping tends to be a bad thing on a practical level.

It is because I believe these things that I am always brought up short by the emergence into my consciousnes of somebody like Hortense Powdermaker. 

Because whatever wonderful qualities she may have had as a human being, alone and at home with family and friends, in her public life it seems she’d been shipped from Central Casting. 

If the pictures are anything to go on, she was a homely woman very uncomfortable in her body, awkward and stiff, with little of the grace of femininity.

If the article is anything to go by, “humorless” and “clueless” are exactly the right adjectives for her habits of mind.

Even her decision to study Hollywood as an anthropoligist studies primitive cultures–her other area of academic interest was “rural poor Negroes”–fits the stereotype.

I never know what to do with things like this when I stumble across them–when there appears, in my classroom, a student whose behavior could have been directed by D.W. Griffith; when I click through to Judge Judy and find that the defendant is a perky little blonde idiot who giggles at everything and bats her eyes at the baliff.

I also know, of course, that we have not given up our stereotypes and probably couldn’t if we wanted to.  It’s just that, in situations where we believe them to be true, or think them to be useful, we call them something else. 

“That’s their culture,” we say.  or “that’s their work style.” 

And it’s always better to work with their culture or their work style or their learning mode than it is to work against it.

In some cases, we’ve traded one stereotype for another, and then pretended we haven’t.

It would be more than your life is worth to write a character for modern television that was in the tradition of Jack Benny’s Rochester, for instance, or shucking and mumbling and shuffling with his hands in his pockets and his eyes rolling around in his head.

It would be money in the bank to write a psychopathic black criminal who rapes and dismembers his victims, or black drug dealer who’d just as soon have you shot as look at you, or a pimp with a hat made of feathers and a black limousine.

I’m not sure that that’s progress.

With women, I think the issue has been, for me, that the original stereotype was not only untrue, but untrue on any level–untrue even when it appeared to be true.

When I saw women acting like the blonde idiot, I assumed that this was a mask adopted for specific instrumental purposes.  She was acting like that because she wanted to catch a husband who would support her.  It was all an act, a false facade, and underneath she was nothing like that at all.

There is even a standardized trope, in the culture, that played to just that assumption–the character in the movie or the television series who, when you peel off her facade, turns out to be a rip-snorting heroine of the martial arts or the smartest girl in the room about whatever we’re talking about.

Think Legally Blonde.

Obviously, real people are not stereotypes.  There is always much more in the life and times of any individual human being than a stereotype can cover. 

Most of us, though, do not deal with most individuals in their completeness, and couldn’t if we wanted to. 

And in fiction, most of us not only want, but need, the shorthand that stereotypes provide.

We just don’t call them stereotypes, because stereotypes are bad.

Written by janeh

May 9th, 2012 at 9:04 am

Posted in Uncategorized

The Clueless Stumbling Over The Obvious, In Astonishment

with one comment

There’s a blog title for you.

Before I start, though, I’d like to point out something that is obvious in itself:  listening to Beethoven’s 9th first thing in the morning will really wake you up.

Anyway, having done that and drunk enough long-steeped tea to turn me into a little buzzing center of nervous energy, I come to the following.

A few posts ago, I gave the link to an article about how intellectuals destroyed high culture from Commentary magazine.

In that article, there was reference to a book of essays put out in 1957, with emphasis on the extent to which it resorted to intellectual snobbery and just plain snobbery, as one more piece of evidence that intellectuals spent so much time sneering at an American public attempting to acquire knowledge of the high arts that the American public gave up and took up with Liberace instead.

As an analysis of the American public in the Fifties, it’s probably half right.  But what occurred to me as I read this article was this:  I own that book.

It’s called Mass Culture: The Popular Arts in America and it’s by Bernard Rosenberg and David Manning White, and it was the kind of thing I’d pick off the shelves of the Yale Co-Op when I was in high school, flush with money, and could get somebody to drive me to New Haven.

I also bought the yellow paperback study volumes of Aristotle, Locke and the rest of the boys, but I was desperate to find a way in to the world of people who Talked About Books, and so I bought things like this.

The first thing I need to say is this–I do not remember, even a little bit, what I thought about this book when I first bought and read it. 

Somewhere around what must have been the same time, I also bought and read the paperback of Susan Sontag’s Against Interpretation, and that I remember quite well.  It’s also one of those books that I have kept, not so much because I deliberately wanted to keep it, as that it just seems to follow me from place to place.  The same is true of a thick paperback copy of Gone With The Wind with a sort of bluish cover, released to coincide with a theatrical rerelease of the movie, and priced at a staggering $1.25.

So here I was, sure that I had not only once owned this book, but that it had made it here to Connecticut with me in one of the various moves.   I thought I had about a 1 in 10 chance of being able to find it, and then there it was, right out there in an upstairs bookshelf. 

I really do try to maintain the upstairs bookshelves for stuff I read a lot, but I’m not quite organized enough to make that stick, and the boys aren’t organized at all.

So I found the book, and then I sat down to read it. 

It is a collection of essays, meant for classes studying “mass culture,” whatever that meant in that time and place.  It includes a selection from Tocqueville, which everything seems required to have, whenever the subject is “America.”  I think that explains why I’ve never read Tocqueville’s book from beginning to end.

It also includes Edmund Wilson’s piece called “Who Cares Who Killed Roger Ackroyd,” which means that I put a friend of mine to a lot of trouble sending me a book with that essay in it, because I thought I’d never read it before.

All I can say is that I didn’t remember having read it.  Maybe the reality is that my 15 or 16 year old self had more sense in some areas than I give it credit for.  I was a passionate lover of detective novels at the time, maybe even  more than I am  now.  I probably knew when somebody was spewing nonsense.

And, of course, there are the essays that the writer of the Commentary article was so annoyed with:  pieces by Dwight McDonald and others about how awful all popular culture is, how awful the tastes of the Philistine masses are, and all the rest of it.

But the real interest of this book, now that I’m reading it again, comes in another set of essays altogether–the ones by professional “social scientists” trying to “explain” “mass culture,” the “mass mind,” and why anybody bothers with all this awful stuff.

And, quite frankly, these are interesting because they’re hysterical.

In one article, about why people read comic strips–comic strips, now.  Things like Charlie Brown and Little Orphan Annie–the writer finds himself endlessly astonished that the readers of comic strips tend to identify with the characters and become absorbed in the problems and follow the storylines as if these were events the the lives of real people.

This, he is convinced, is some kind of pathology, presaging the development of many dire psychological consequences–except that the readers often just get tired of the strips after a while, or get too absorbed in their own lives, and stop reading.

These findings are so inexplicable, the writer literally has no idea what to make of them. 

Which brings us all to a very good question: has this person ever read any kind of fiction at all?  Short stories?  Novels?  Anything?  Does he know anybody who reads fiction? 

In an era when college distribution requirements should have ensured that he had at least some acquaintance with imaginative literature, he seems to have escaped the experience without ever having figured out how most people who respond to fiction actually respond to it.

If this man had been the only one to be this thoroughly divorced from the experience of reading, watching and responding to fiction, I’d have put him down as an idiot.

But his essay was by no means the only one to exhibit this astonishment at actually becoming interested in the events in the lives of fictional characters!

All the sociological essays in this volume seem to display the same cluelessness, each convinced that this strange phenomenon must be the symptom of some kind of psychological disorder, or maybe the hallmark of an intellectual and emotional immaturity, or the harbinger of a sudden turn of US culture to fascism–or something.

This is not, mind you, the tack of the snobs.  The snobs also think mass culture heralds the coming of American fascism, but they think so because they think that the ordinary American is both stupid and vicious.

The serious sociologists here seem to think that identifying with the characters in fiction without actually deluding yourself into thinking they’re really real is some kind of abberation that does  not occur in “normal” people, and that obvious has never occurred in them.

I have, of course, known in my life people who were completely tone deaf to fiction.  My mother was one of them.

The impression I get here, though, is that an entire generation of sociologists was this way–and no, there’s nothing to indicate that they’d find what I’d think of as a normal response to a novel or a comic strip to be normal if it was directed at, say, Henry James.

They would be just as appalled at such “identifying” with characters in the readers of James as they are in the readers of anything else. 

That’s how we end up with Superman as a “psychopathic deviant” and Mike Hammer (who may actually be a psychopathic deviant) as one of those harbingers of the coming American fascism.  Maybe.  Unless it’s…I don’t know.

I don’t read a lot of sociology, but if this is the kind of thing they do–I mean, really. 

It’s not just that it’s not science. It’s that it all seems to be written by people who have no idea how to read anything but other sociology papers.

Anyway, I’m going to go off and identify with some characters, thereby proving myself to be either deviant or immature.

I’d like to warn you guys that I’ve been having that odd problem with the WordPress site today, so you may not be able to commment directly.

Just post comments to other posts and we can go from there.

Or, knock wood, maybe it didn’t mess up this time, and you’ll be able to post here.

Written by janeh

May 8th, 2012 at 9:31 am

Posted in Uncategorized

And One More Thing

with 3 comments

I did a serious blog post below.

But this showed up on RealClearPolitics this morning

http://www.theglobeandmail.com/news/opinions/margaret-wente/is-anybody-normal-any-more/article2423352/

and since it’s one of my hobbyhorses, I’ve posted the link.

I will admit I disagree with the thing about them being “well meaning” and “not corrupt”–

But hey.

I’m a cynic.

Written by janeh

May 6th, 2012 at 10:28 am

Posted in Uncategorized

Playing Fields, Level and Otherwise

with one comment

So it’s the end of the term, and I’ve been sitting around trying to get my correcting down and my grades done.  Contrary to any impression I may have given, I am not more cultured than Judy.  It’s just that I think of alcohol as something you do after you’ve corrected the papers.  I think of music as what you do before you correct them, as a kind of innoculation against despair.

In the middle of all this, I have been reading things, and one of the things I’ve been reading is The Nation. 

I don’t know if I was reading the print or the online version when I came across the article on equality of opportunity, but I doubt it matters.  And this is The Nation, which devoted an entire issue, a couple of months ago, to why the Soviet Union was really a good thing and we should honor it.

Thirty million dead, repression of speech and press and even homosexuality–what the hell.

The article was pretty much the same old same old–the Republicans say they want equality of opportunity, but they refuse to put their money where their mouths are.  We can’t say we have equality of opportunity if some people go to schools that are better than others and some people have parents who can pay for SAT test prep.

My usual response to articles like this is to roll my eyes and go looking for something more sensible, but for some reason this one really got me exercised, and so here we are.

Let’s exclude the fact that the SAT test prep courses, which can cost thousands of dollars, actually raise scores very little–too  little for most people to manage a leap from, say, a tier 2 school to a tier 1.

Let me just point out here that what the Nation article was talking about was not equality of opportunity, but equality of initial condition.

And that equality of initial condition is not possible to us, ever, unless genetic engineering gets to the point where we can simply make human beings to order.

Equality of opportunity is this:  the requirement for getting something (into a college, hired for a job at NASA) is that you must take test A, and the best scorers on that test will get the prize.  Everybody can compete.  Nobody will get special favors from the examiners.  Individual attributes that have nothing to do with the test will be rigorously excluded.

That’s it.  That’s equality of opportunity.

And it is never offered to people who are on a level playing field, because people are never on a level playing field.

There are, in the first place, genetic differences between human beings.  Some of us are born smarter, or prettier, or more atheletically talented, or more musically talented. 

Some of these differences are can be compensated for by environment or education, but not all of them can, and NONE of them can be so compensated to a degree significant enough to change the odds in the genetic lottery.

What’s more, the genetic lottery may account for other things, most importantly temperament, which makes a lot of difference in life outcomes.

My mother was a coloratura soprano was a four octave range.  She sang for a year in the chorus of the Metropolitan Opera in New York.

And then she stopped. 

She went back home, took the kind of job women of that generation usually got while waiting to get married, and eventually did get married and had…me.

An argument can be made–and has been made, to me–that what happened to my mother was the result of the gender oppression of the time.  Women of that era were expected to get married and have children.  They were heartily disapproved of by family and friends if they did something else. Possibly, if my mother had been born in 1960 instead of 1918, she would have been a great opera diva after all.

And I suppose it’s possible.  But I don’t think so.

It’s true enough that, in order to become an opera diva in the 1930s, a woman had to be an extraordinary person, with not only extraordinary talent but with extraordinary drive.

But that’s true now, too.  Genius is 90% perspiration, the old cliche goes.  I don’t know if that’s true, but success is 90% drive.  It’s the Sonny Bono principle.  An awful lot of people were trying to get into show business at the same time Sonny Bono was, and many of them were brighter and more talented.  He just had more drive.

It is, of course, true that personality is affected by environment–but I don’t think basic temperament is.  I think the public expression of basic temperament is wildly affected by environment, but that’s not the same thing, and it won’t get you where The Nation wants you to go. 

People are not all the same.  They are not all born with the same talents and capabilities.  Some of us get luckier than others.

Of course, some of us get luckier than others in ways that can be changed, or that we can at least attempt to affect.

Sometime last year there were stories all over the Net about a high school principle who sent messages  home to the families of students in AP classes–no discussing AP work at home, because some students might have families that knew more about the material and that would give those kids an “unfair” advantage.

If that had happened to one of mine, I’d probably have threatened to sue the man–but in a way, he’s got a point.

If youwant to do well in school, it would really help to have me as a mother.  Forget the finances, although finances always help if they’re good.  If you had me as a mother, I would not only have been able to help you with your homework, but I’d have provided a home life that was full of Plato and Aristotle as well as comic books and video games, intense interest in politics and lots of lectures on how the political process works, and on and on and on–so that you’d find yourself sitting in classrooms already knowing material most of your classmates would have to learn.

And the obvious is, of course, obvious.  If your mother is crackhead who’s willing to sell you to her boyfriends for dope, or even just a well-meaning but not very bright woman who thinks the television is a wonderful babysitter and doesn’t own a book–well, there’s that.

This is the kind of thing we often think we can fix, but can’t–at least not without turning the country into an actual police state.   Nor can we change families that fear and despise intellectual work into families that value it.

Families that do value intellectual work and education often get their kids where they want them to go in spite of wretched schools, bad neighborhoods and abject poverty.  That’s why, when you kill affirmative action, the percentage of white students tends to stay the same, but the percentage of Asian students tends to skyrocket–and a fair chunk of those Asian students are the children of immigrants from language groups that don’t get accommodations for the fact that they don’t speak English.  There just aren’t enough Vietnamese in Connecticut to get ballots printed in that language.

None of this is to say, of course, that we shouldn’t do anything about bad schools or disintegrating neighborhoods or any of the hundreds of other things that make life for so many children so very difficult.

I’m on record as favoring a vastly expanded EITC to offset the money problems.  And I’d be all for the school reforms that might actually have a chance in hell of making some kind of difference.

The problem is, no one is going to install those reforms, and not because the wicked teacher’s unions are blocking them.

Resetting the standard of graduation from elementary school and high school back to where it was in 1950, failing or holding back the students who do not legitimately pass, insisting on standard English (no slang, no foreign languages) at all times in school and on schoolwork–we’d have a “high school graduation” rate in the toilet in no time at all, and the disparate impact would be enormous.

What’s more, it would probably take two to three generations before the reforms would result in higher rates of graduation for some minority groups. 

On the other hand, they’d be real high school graduation rates, and not bits of paper that indicated nothing but that the student in front of you sat still, behaved himself, and achieved a sixth grade skill level.

On the other hand, it would save everybody a lot of money.  It would completely collapse the educational arms race that requires everybody to “go to college” and rack up six figure debt to do it. 

A lot of those kids are not “going to college.”  They’re acquiring high school level skills that employers can no longer trust high schools to provide.

We won’t do any of that, though, because embedded deep within the system is this–the fact that most teachers and other educational professionals, along with a big hunk of politicians and government bureaucrats, that black and Latino students are INCAPABLE of meeting the same standards as whites and Asians.

Incapable.

Nobody will admit to this, because thinking such things actually is racism, and the worst kind of racism.

But because nobody will admit to it, nobody will talk about it–and since nobody will talk about it, nothing can change. 

What happens instead is what we have now, which IS a society in which equality of opportunity does not exist, first because we deliberately dumb down the curriculum for students we think of as just not capable, and then because we try to compensate for that by imposing various preferential systems for the people we think of as poor, oppressed incompetents.

I’ve been teaching students from these environments for over ten years.  Most of the ones I get are bright enough.  Some of them are very bright indeed.  There was never any need for any of them to waste four years in a “high school” that was for the purposes of academic work a middle school.

I don’t know if living with reality would give us a picture perfect proportional representation of all ethnic and racial groups.  I don’t think it matters.

The people who are being killed here are not some faceless proportion, but the honestly bright kids who don’t get a middle school education until they get to high school or a high school education until they get to college. 

And it isn’t helping anybody.

I say restore equality of opportunity by getting rid of the preferences for race and gender (and getting rid of “diversity” as the primary goal of admissions and hiring policy–it’s code for “we’re going to judge you by your race and gender, that matters more than anything else you do.”)

And let’s restore the integrity of our educational system by resetting the standards for elementary school, high school and college graduation so that they have some connection with the real world.

That won’t settle everything–I won’t go into the enormous difference in outcomes between children whose parents were married at the time of their birth and still married when they got to school–but it will at least be a start.

Written by janeh

May 6th, 2012 at 8:24 am

Posted in Uncategorized

Music in the Morning

with 5 comments

I should have a nice long time today to write a blog post, but as it turns out I’m dying under a pile of student papers, and I don’t. 

The simple truth of the matter is that the less skilled your students are, the more work it takes to correct their papers.  Their high school teachers may have engaged in “holistic grading,” but the only way I can even begin to get them to write sensible English is to engage in grading of the old fashioned kind.

A friend of mine suggested the other day that I should get myself a rubber stamp, and the odd thing is that I’d once considered it.  Back in the first year I taught remedial students, I thought I’d get two stamps.  One would say “this is not a sentence.”  The other would say, “pick a tense, any tense.”

Unfortunately, it’s almost never that simple.  Most of my kids don’t read unless something is assigned to them, and then they don’t know how to read it or what they need to do to understand it.  Many of them come from environments where no form of standard English is spoken, so that they haven’t actually heard anything like what they need to write, either. 

Lately, even television isn’t helping.  Stick to MTV and Jersey Shore, and you can watch hours of the stuff without hearing any standard English either.

It has been a particularly bad term for this, and I got up this morning thinking that I could not face another stack of papers without some kind of breather.

My favorite breather in these sorts of situations is music–mostly 18th and 19th century orchestral and chamber music. 

Over the years I have been very careful to keep music out of the sphere of Things I Think About, the one aspect of art I do not intellectualize.

I can tell you a lot about the technical aspects of reading and writing fiction and poetry.  I’m getting to that point with painting, although I’ll never get all the way there. 

But music is something I just let wash over me, and it never fails to make me feel better.

My students may write “sentences” like “if you cant relate to it then your not gonna read it”–and spell “going to” just like that.

Half an hour with Back or Mozart and I’m happy to be a human being again, because human beings can do that.

 Now, my tastes in music are what they are.  I hear things I like the sound of and listen to those.  And I pretty much stay away from the early 20th Century, because I know from experience that, at least when it comes to the Art Music forms, it’s not what I’m looking for.

I can handle some Stravinsky, but only some.  Philip Glass is entirely beyond me.

(A note–popular forms are different.  I truly and sincerely love all forms of jazz, including the stuff that’s supposed to be “progressive” an difficult to listen to. But jazz is music for the dark, and it doesn’t usually come up in the morning.)

That having been said, there is almost always another requirement for what I listen to in the morning:  it can’t have words I readily recognize as it plays.

This is because I’m almost always on my way to write in the morning, and I don’t write as well when I have somebody else’s words in my head. 

This doesn’t mean that I never listen to music with words when I first get up.  It just means that I need those words to be either overwhelmed by the instruments, or in a language I don’t readily understand.

Okay, that last part is not hard.  I can learn to read anything.  Speaking a foreign language, or understanding it when spoken, is something I have to whack away at, and mostly I don’t.

For many years now, friends of mine have been urging me to listen to a piece called Carmina Burana, written by a modern(ish) composer names Carl Orff in the 1930s.

A German composer in the 1930s?  Really?

And then there was the rest of it–being based on a set of Medieval poems was nice, but the ballet aspects were off-putting and…

In other words, it just did not sound like my kind of thing, and I resisted it.  About five years ago, a friend of mine gave me a CD of it for Christmas, apparently under the assumption that if I had the thing lying around the house, I wouldn’t be able to resist listening to it.

It stayed there, on my music stacks, in its shrink rap, until this morning.

And I’m here to say–I was wrong.

The only part of this piece that is anything at all like what I was resisting is in the emotional atmosphere of the song that opens and closes it, which is a bit too much like Wagner to make me truly comfortable.  The only performance of that kind of over-the-top German mythologizing in music that I’ve ever really cared for is…kill the wabbit…kill the wabbit…

In most ways, though, this is just lovely. 

The original Latin poems are secular.  I am always glad to find those, because although there was a lot of secular poetry in the Middle Ages, there was a lot more religious stuff, and the religious stuff tends to drown out the rest.  Most students coming to the Middle Ages for the first time tend to think that the religious stuff is all there is.

It was, in fact, a very nice morning, and I may play this thing a couple of mornings down the line, when I’ve got time again to listen to music.

I do have a couple of mornings down the line here where I’m going to have to be in at some God awful hour that won’t let me do much of anything before I get started.

But this piece has impressed me in a way that’s very unusual for me–I would like to see it performed.  With the dance.

Jazz is the only kind of music that I’ve ever sought out to hear live, and that’s because jazz pieces are often improvisational, so that what you’re doing is going to hear a specific musician play rather than a specific piece replicated.

Mostly, I think the CD is one of the most wonderful inventions ever.  It means I get to hear what I want to hear in my own house with my own tea and without having to haul out to some inconvenient place in the dark wearing uncomfortable shoes.

But I would like to see this performed.

Unfortunately, Orff’s record under the Nazis is mostly not good.  He did not belong to the Nazi Party, as far as anybody can tell, but he didn not resist it, either, and he did a few things that cannot be called anything but actively collaborationist.

It brings me back, again, to the contemplation of the curious way in which so many German high culture figures seemed to find Naziism congenial.

The attraction, in most cases, doesn’t seem to have been principled.  Orff, like Heidigger, emerged from the war declaring that he had never been a Nazi to begin with, no matter what it looked like.  He even claimed to have been one of the founding members of a resistance movement whose exposure claimed the life of one of his best friends–a man whom Orff refused to even try to help after his arrest.

Music, however, is not philosophy, and you can listen to a lot of it–especially if it doesn’t have lyrics, or takes as its lyrics something that does not express Nazi ideas–without being in danger of doing yourself moral damage.

Still, you have to wonder what it was about German artists, writers, philosophers, composers, and other high culture types that made the Nazis look so good.

Maybe it is the same something George Steiner sees in aristocratic regimes, just taken to its logical extreme.

Finally, there is the irony.  Orff was one of the composers the Nazi government called on to replace the music of Mendelssohn, because Mendelssohn had become unacceptable because he had been a Jew.

I really like this piece by Orff–but let’s face it.

Orff is no Mendelsshon.

Written by janeh

May 2nd, 2012 at 9:57 am

Posted in Uncategorized

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