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Archive for October, 2009

Renaissance Fair

with 12 comments

It’s Sunday, and on Sunday I have an invariable routine.  Well, almost invariable.  As long as there aren’t any plumbing problems, or funerals, or that kind of thing.

What  I do on Sunday after I work and write this blog (sometimes), is make a lot of Stash  Double  Bergamot Earl Grey tea, put “early music” on the CD player, and read whatever it is I’m reading.

At the moment, what I’m reading is the very end of the  Trollope novel, The Duke’s Children, that I’ve been reading for a while, and the music that’s going on the CD player is a collection of lute music from Renaissance Venice played by Paul O’Dette.   If this is the kind of information you like having, Paul O’Dette is the person to go to for lute music, Renaissance or otherwise, and Gerhardt Leonhardt is the person to go to for harpsichord music.   In fact, I’ve got recommendations for just about anything done before 1700.  I do not have recommendations for the piano, because for some reason I don’t really like the sound of it.

Maybe because my mother made me take lessons, and then my father laughed at what I produced. Which was legitimately laughable, but still.

One of the priveleges of being born into a rich nation in the twentieth century is the luxury of retaining resentments about things that happened when you were eight.

Both Aristotle and  Aquinas would have called me an idiot for doing it.  Or worse.

But  I do this every Sunday and I don’t write about it ever Sunday, so there must be a reason I’m bringing it up, and there is.  Two reasons, actually.

The first is an odd thing that happened in the first of my classes on Friday morning.  We were discussing the ways in which to write a “definition” paper, and therefore what a definition is, and how it can be used, and what it’s place can be in an argument.

And I went through my usual thing about how, if you capture the language, you can often win great strides without having to do nothing else–consider the war of words that is the argument over abortion in America.  If you can get people calling you “pro-life,” then what is it that they’re instinctively calling the other side?

This is all pretty standard stuff, and I don’t know what got me going in another direction, but I got started on the concept of justic in Aristotle and in Medieval  England and the way in which it depended heavily on social assumptions that we are not all created equal–that men and women, slaves and freemen, highborn and lowborn have different natures and capacity, so that treating them alike would be injustice rather than otherwise.

Then I went off on a short sketch of how we got here from there–about St. Paul to the Corinthians (you are neither Jew nor Greek…), and the Protestant Reformation, and John Locke, right down to the Declaration of Independence.

I did not do a hugely wonderful job with this.   If the lecture lasted all of ten minutes,  I would be surprised.  I just gave a sort of sketch, in order to point out the importance of definition not only for winning a finite argument but for determining the course of civilization itself.

Okay, okay.  I can’t help myself.

But what got me was that my students responded by being absolutely fascinated.  All the noise in the room stopped, and when  I stopped and sent them back to the little group project I’d given them, there was an immediately clamor that I should “talk more.”

Because “you know all this stuff.”

These are the same kids who complain that they don’t see why they should have to learn any of this stuff that doesn’thave anything to do wi th their “major.” 

These are the same kids who spend half their time telling me they’re not interested in knowing anything.

It’s the kind of thing that makes me think I’m not crazy to believe that there is a real itch for education–real education, not just training–even among the kids without trust funds.  Or much of anything else.

The second thing that’s on my mind this morning is this, which is related in an odd way:  next week-end, my older son will be going with a group of his friends to the annual Renaissance Fair (Renaissance Faire?) near Philadelphia.  They do this every year, and, for Matt, the week in question is usually preceded by several weeks of working more than usual to make sure he’s seriously funded.  I’m not sure why, since he never seems to buy anything but the occasional puppet, but, you know.  Whatever. 

I don’t know if any of you have ever been to one of these things, but the ones I’ve seen, and the ones I’ve seen advertising for, have not been about the Renaissance so much as they’ve been about a sort of faux-Middle Ages.  They don’t go quite so far as events for the Society for Creative Anachronism, where people not only dress up, but have mock jousts and things, but the fundamental principle seems to be the same:  enormous costume parties where actual knowledge of standard or intellectual history is not required.

My question is:  why?  I think I understand what my students want when they want me to talk more about the history of ideas, but I don’t understand what people get out of going to Renaissance Fairs.  I can’t ask Matt, because he isn’t one of hte people who dresses up.  He just goes, eats a lot of food, buys his puppet, and then comes home to put this latest puppet into his latest film project.

Don’t ask.

But Renaissance Fairs are not a passing fad.  They’ve been big business in the US for at least two decades, and they show no signs I can see of petering out.  They’re just not about the Renaissance, or even the Middle Ages.

I’d blame Tolkein for them, but I have a feeling that’s just too simple.

Maybe I’ll go listen to Elgar.

Written by janeh

October 4th, 2009 at 9:24 am

Posted in Uncategorized

And Now For Something Completely Different. Or Maybe Not.

with 5 comments

Okay–some breaking news.   Or something.

Last night,  one of my sons took me to see a comedian named Ron  White, live in concert (a theater, not a club) in a small city near our house.

Actually, the history of this is a lot more complicated than  I’m making this sound.  One of my sons bought the tickets for hismelf and my other son, and then couldn’t go himself.  And since neither of my sons drive, in spite of both being of age, and both of them have been at non-local schools, so they don’t have anybody in the immediate area to ask…well, there I was, with the car.

So we went.

I’m not going to complain about the performer here.  He’s what my Victorian novelists would have called “coarse,” but not so “coarse” as Larry the Cable Guy, and besides, we’ve got his albums.  I like White’s stuff well enough, and it was a decent show, and as for all the swearing–well, as my father said, if you’ve never heard it before you don’t know what it is, and if you have, you’re not dead yet.

No, what got to me about last night was the a udience.  As I said in the beginning, this was a theater, not a club.  There was a bar in the lobby, and you were allowed to bring your drinks into the theater with you, but there were no tables and no waiters.  White himself drinks from what is supposed to be a large bottle of Scotch onstage, and he’s either trying to pretend to be a high functioning alcoholic or actually is one.

But still. 

The first thing that blew me away was how many people came in late.  And not a little late.  Really late.  The first half hour of this thing was given over to a warm up guy, who was okay but not spectacular.  If people had simply come in through this guy’s act, or just when it ended–okay, I’d think that was pretty stupid, but I’d understand the rationale.  

But people not only came in during this first guy’s act, and at the end of it, but all the way through at least the first half hour of Ron White’s act itself, the one they were presumably paying to go see. 

And paying a decent amount, too.  We had very good seats, in the first three rows of the upper orchestra–if I get to choose any seats I want in a theater, I always go for first row upper orchestra right behind the rail, dead center.  We were a little off to the side, but I was still very happy.

But a big hunk of the people who were coming in late were sitting in the first three rows right in the center–in, in other words, the best and most expensive seats in the house.  And it wasn’t, as I’ve said, just a matter of five or ten minutes, so that you could say that they had had trouble in traffic (all of them? and most of them down front?) or trouble finding a place to park. 

And the thing is, it got worse.  People in all sections of the theater were constantly getting up and going out and coming back with new drinks–and that meant climbing over people in the rows, apologizing in audible whispers, and all the rest of it. 

And it went on, continuously and nonstop, throughout White’s entire performance. 

Is this something new?  I’ve never been to a comedy show in a theater before–I don’t think I’ve been to one in a club, either–is there something I’m missing here?  The streaming flow of people was really distracting and annoying, even though I was seated off to the side and therefore free of being climbed over directly.

Whatever.  It was a good enough show, with at least some new material, although bluer than most soft core porn, and I’m glad we went.

I’m just..astounded at the way people behave.

Written by janeh

October 3rd, 2009 at 10:43 am

Posted in Uncategorized

Getting Lucky

with 5 comments

So yesterday was crazy, but let me see if I can straighten any of this out.

I don’t know enough about what was going on inside this woman’s head to say for sure, but my guess is that all this began with simple confusion.  She was an elderly woman, in spite of the hair dye and the Spandex (yes, Spandex, sorry Lymaree). 

I might not think this except that my mother, before her dementia, was the same–to her, if it was a plastic card, it was a credit card.  We would go out to the mail and I’d use my card in the ATM and she’d tell my father I was charging money on my credit card.

I can easily see how that confusion would be even greater with the VISA logo right there on the card, and my guess is that the way that entire incident started was that this woman called up, was asked if she had a credit card, said yes (because she honestly didn’t know there was a difference), was given a set of requirements, and thought she was all set.

This place will, in fact, rent to you with a debit card, or for cash, but to do it they require that you put down a deposit of $300,    But if she said she had a credit card, she would have been told that.

And I’m also not entirely convinced that she didn’t think she’d heard what she said she’d heard–I do know that neither the man who owns the place or his daughter would have said the things she said they said, but I do understand how she might have thought that’s what they’d said.

If that makes sense.

I doubt if she was lying consiously, except possibly at the very end.

And the belligerance came and went.  Once she’d accepted no for an answer, she got very retiring and meek and quiet.

If I knowhow to map this incident with complete confidence, I might be more help to everybody here.

But what struck me was the extent to which the comments were divided between the assumption that the woman had had ill luck and the assumption that she’d made bad choices.

Maybe it’s just me, or the life I’ve lived, but my tendency is to think that the most likely explanation for a life without money or success is luck, not choices.

That doesn’t work for me in the other direction–I tend to think that having money and success is the result of the choices we make. 

The problem is that we don’t all make choices in the same context–that all things are not equal in some very basic senses.

My sister and brother in law both held jobs, my brother in law had a business on the side.  They adopted older children and put a lot of work into raising them in spite of the difficulties that kind of thing brings with it.  They paid their bills.  They didn’t gamble, drink, or drug.  They bought a modest house and paid a modest mortgage–and then Joann got cancer, and it all went to hell.

Most of the people I know whose lives have turned out sadly–not badly, so much as sadly, if that makes sense–have been broadsided by luck.  The guy who lost his house on my road lost his job not because of fecklessness but because the place went out of business, right smack in the middle of an economic downturn and right after his wife had just had their second child.  I can’t see that he could have done anything other than what he did do in the leadup to all that.

The same is the case with many of my students, who come from families and neighborhoods I wouldn’t wish on the cat.  Certainly being a drug addicted crack whore is to make lots of bad choices that will ruin your life, but being born to one (or not) is out of your control.  So is going to a school where nobody gives a damn if you learn anything or not.  Children are not responsible for their parents–and no choice they can make will change their parents–but parents are a large element in the success or failure of children, both as children and in later life.

And yes, of course, there is making lemonade out of lemons.  But not all of us are capable of that–not all of us have the intelligence, or their imagination, or the drive, or the temperament. 

I wonder how much of the support for certain kinds of government programs and structures–welfare, for isntance, or even uinversal single payer health insurance–is based on the amount of weight we give to luck and work in creating a decent life for oneself.

And on that matter I get very torn.

First, I am incredibly aware of how much luck matters. 

I mean, let’s face it–forced to live a normal life, Paris Hilton would not end up with enough money to buy $3000 handbags.  The “trust fund babies” some of you complain about do nothing to make their own money or to justify their position among the rich and famous except to have been born to the right parents, or even great-grandparents. 

But it’s not just trust fund babies.  Intelligence has a strong heritable element.  Temperament has an even stronger one.  Even if you’re born to that crack addicted mother, if you’re also born with intellect and drive, you’re going to get somewhere.  It may be the Harvard Law School, or it may be the head of the biggest drug operation on the Lower East Side, but you’re going to get somewhere.

And even if you’re born with the trust fund, if you’re born without the intellect and the drive, you’re probably not going to get anywhere, except drunk.  The only reason  you won’t be counted as a casuality is because the family lawyers will keep you out of trouble as far as possible.

And while we’re talking about luck, what about the simple luck of being born in my generation instead of the ones my students belong to–a generation in which schools took standards far more seriously and there was much more of a consensus about the basic values necessary to earning respect in this society?

Second, however, I am very aware that although luck can destroy you, it cannot make you succeed, at least not on its own.

I know a lot of rich kids with first class prep school educations who got shuttled off to schools you’ve never heard of because they just didn’t get the grades to get into a “name” college. 

Stephen King said in one of his nonfiction books that not everybody can be in the right place at the right time, but anybody could go to the right place and wait–luck determines whether or not you’re going to wait in vain, but work determines whether or not you’re going to be there when the trend comes around.

If that makes sense.

Third, I’m also convinced that thinking that luck isn’t very important makes it more likely that you will succeed.  There’s psychology here that gets a little convoluted for me, because I tend to be one of those people who gets spurred on to do things when people tell me they’re impossible. 

In fact, I’ve gotten myself in some fairly stupid trouble in my life with that particular reaction.

Most people seem to be more easily discouraged, and some people seem to be very easily discouraged, and it does make a lot of difference if they’re convinced that their destiny is entirely under their control.

But when I see an old woman who is poor and friendless and sortoflost, I’m not ready to assume that she got that way by being a jerk, especially since evidence of her jerkiness was at least mixed.

And I have absolutely no idea if I’m making any sense here.

Written by janeh

October 1st, 2009 at 9:55 am

Posted in Uncategorized

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