Saturday, December 21, 2013

Roosevelt University: Diversity and Social Justice

On December 13, 2013, I attended the winter Commencement ceremonies at Roosevelt University in Chicago. As a new member of the University’s Board of Trustees, it was my first such event at Roosevelt; the Board had met the day before. I have, of course, been to other graduations. Some have been of family and friends, but most have been as a faculty member in medical school. I have sat on the stage looking out at the assembled graduates and families before, but never in the role of a Trustee, and never at Roosevelt.

Graduations are pretty special events. At the medical school graduation ceremony, we look on as our future colleagues march across the stage, many of them people we know and have taught, while their families watch and clap and sometimes cheer. We have pride in them, and also wonder how fast the time goes, remembering when they were just starting a few short years earlier. But the Roosevelt graduation was different, and not just because it was not a medical school and not just because I was there as a Trustee.

For starters, it was in Chicago’s beautiful Auditorium Theater, in the Auditorium Building designed by Louis Sullivan, opened in 1889 and about to celebrate its 125th anniversary next year. I have been there before but only in the audience; sitting on the stage looking out at this gorgeous auditorium whose balconies soar 6 or 7 stories, filled with 4,000 people, was amazing. Roosevelt owns the Auditorium, and the building has long been its home, but recently the 40-story Wabash Building has been built next to it, rising 40 stories, the top 27 dorms with priceless views, its own architectural splendor complementing in a very different way that of Sullivan.

There were also some special events during the graduation. The honorary degree recipient was Joe Segal, a Roosevelt alumnus who for 60 years has run Chicago’s Jazz Showcase, bringing all of the great jazz artists of those years to perform at a series of venues; I began attending his shows in the 1970s. Danielle Smith, graduating with a bachelor’s degree in Special Education (and a minor in Spanish) was the first-ever current student to be commencement speaker. She was joined on the stage by Sheree Williams, receiving a Master’s in Early Childhood Education, who was the 85,000th graduate of the school (it took 60 years to get to 65,000 and only 6 for the next 20,000).

Those of you who read my last post, Suicide: What can we say?, know that the date, December 13, was also the 11th anniversary of my son Matt’s suicide. While the two facts are coincidental, they are not unrelated; my presence on the Board and thus at the graduation was entirely about Matt. A few years after leaving his first (quite elite) college and then obtaining an associate’s degree, Matt moved back to Chicago and enrolled at Roosevelt. He loved it. It was, and is, a school, originally established to focus on returning GIs and people of color, that both educates young (and older) people from all backgrounds and prides itself on its diversity, and its explicit commitment to social justice. This resonated with Matt, and does with me. I later met President Charles Middleton though the sponsorship that Matt’s mother and I do of the annual Matthew Freeman Lecture in Social Justice (see, most recently, Matthew Freeman Lecture and Awards, 2013, April 26, 2013), and later when he hosted my group of American Council on Education fellows at the university. Dr. Middleton calls Roosevelt the “most diverse private university in the Midwest”, and sitting there as the graduates cross the stage it is not hard to believe. Virtually every race and ethnicity was represented by the graduating students, many obviously first-generation Americans, and the pride in their faces was unmistakable.
In her speech, Ms. Smith spoke about coming to Roosevelt from an all-white, middle-class, suburb, in large part to play tennis – which she did. She also, however, learned about diversity, and met fellow students from all races, religions, ethnicities, and socioeconomic groups, and made them her friends. She talked about a concept that she had never heard of before but was omnipresent at Roosevelt, social justice, which she says will guide the rest of her life. Ms. Williams’ presence on the stage, as 85,000th graduate, may seem like a quirk, but she also is “typical” of Roosevelt; an African-American woman who received her bachelor’s in education there and now her Master’s, and will be teaching second grade in Chicago, before, she plans, to get her doctorate. Wow.

President Middleton, in his closing address, asked several groups to stand. They included the international students, who had to add learning English in addition to their studies, and the families, friends and other supporters who jammed the Auditorium. Most impressive, to me, however, was when he asked all the graduates who were the first members of their families to get a degree at their level to stand. Some were getting doctorates and master’s degrees, but the large majority of the graduates were receiving bachelors. Two-thirds of the graduates stood, to rousing cheers.

There are plenty of colleges that offer the opportunity for students from working-class and poorer backgrounds to get an education, for first-generation students to learn. They include the our community colleges (I still remember a talk at the 2008 ACE Conference by the president of LaGuardia College in NYC, where she said -- as I remember it -- “there are two kinds of colleges; those that try to select the students who will be the best fit at their institutions, and community colleges, that welcome students”), and our state universities. And some are private schools, like Roosevelt. And others may have the explicit commitment to social justice that Roosevelt does.

But I am proud to be associated with one that so overtly and clearly demonstrates it.


Sunday, December 1, 2013

“Oh, what a beautiful city!” (Oaxaca Part 1)

As far as I know there are not 12 gates (or any, actually, unlike, say, Florence), and it is not heaven by any means, but Oaxaca is quite something. The state of Oaxaca is very far south in Mexico, the south side of which borders on the Pacific. It is west of Chiapas where Guatemala and Central America attach. The city of Oaxaca is in its center, with mountains to the north and south. It is very Mexico but very different from the border and even the Yucatan further east. A colonial city with many beautiful old buildings, including the converted mansion we are now staying in two blocks east of the zócalo, Casa de Sierra Azul.  It is a UNESCO world heritage city (see more later) and the zócalo is lined with restaurants and cafes, many on the second floor. Adjacent to it is the beautiful Cathedral, and several blocks north an even more impressive church, the Templo de Santo Domingo de Guzmán. Impressive, indeed, although it is hard to think about them and  incredible amount of gold used in decoration without thinking of how many Indian lives it cost, to mine the gold and build the temples. There is a Plaza outside the Temple also, and many more through the city. The food is wonderful, Oaxacan cuisine based in large part on molés, red and green and, especially, black. Oaxacan chocolate (the unsweetened basis of the moles) is also ubiquitous. The city and the surrounding pueblitas are famous for their textiles (the Muséo de Textils is across the street) and their pottery – black from Coyotepec, green from Aztompa, etc.  The most famous wool weaving are from Téotitlan del Valle, but there are others as well.

But for now, walking around the city! What a lost art in the US! Very few cities are walkable any more in the US, but the existence of historic “centers” still characterizes European and colonial Mexican cities, with plazas, courtyards, and places to sit and rest, as well as, of course, stores. Lots of them here, but most sell either the regular necessities of life (provided your life requires two shoe stores, zapatarias, per block!) or the crafts and foods of the region. Very few chains (mostly “Italian Coffee”, as ubiquitous as Starbucks on the Upper West Side of Manhattan, and apparently using Italian syrup not Oaxacan chocolate for their hot chocolate!) and none of the American ones. Frankly, I have not been in Guanajuato or Puebla and it has been a while since I was in Mérida, so I can’t compare the historic colonial center of Oaxaca to those, but it is very nice. They have closed a major street, Macedonio Alcalá, to traffic from the zócalo to the plaza of Santo Domingo, so it is a great place to stroll. Given that Oaxaca is a poor state, and that tourism is about 1/3 of the economy, it is an area that they want to focus on; were I an advisor to the city fathers, I’d suggest that it would be even more inviting to tourists if they’d close much more of the historic center to non-commercial traffic, say at least 2 blocks in every direction from the zócalo.
So walking around is great, however not completely hazard free. The beautiful slate paving stones on the sidewalks provide an uneven surface for the inattentive walker; they are also (typically) narrow and when a streetlight or mailbox or public phone (yes! There are public phones!) takes up half the width and a pair of people is going the other way, it can be a squeeze.

But who cares! So much to see! So many places to try the molé! The zócalo is always great for strolling around, promenading. We saw two formal concerts there, one by a band of mostly young people that was more like song—45min interlude—song, so we didn’t stay for a lot of it; the other was the state marimba band, much more fun and exciting, with the interludes filled with digressions into the history of Oaxaca but the elderly (now wheelchair bound) man who directs it. One evening, we actually attended an indoor concert at the lovely Téatro Macedonio Alcalá. And even when no concerts, there is always interesting stuff happening. The first day we were there there was a demonstration in front of the municipal

palace that lines the southern side of the zócalo. The city was hosting a big meeting of the UNESCO “patrimonio” cities, and the demo seemed to be about the fact that while Oaxaca gets lots of money from UNESCO for this designation, the state is still very poor and the money is spent on – no one seems sure what. But not helping the poor.

The conference certainly generated a major police presence; police, both municipal and state, patrolling on foot, in cars, and on trucks with machine guns mounted on every corner within several blocks of the zócalo. After the weekend, the end of the conference, the police presence dramatically decreased, but there was still an obvious presence in the streets of the historic centró. Other political activity continued in the zócalo, particularly a booth advocating for communal benefit, rather than privatization, of the nation and  state’s oil resources. Also the zocálo and adjacent square outside the cathedral were full of stalls selling many goods – food, textiles, pottery – that had been apparently “cleaned up” for the UNESCO conference. In addition to the stalls, many individual vendors have returned.

Stalls in the zócalo are small manifestations of the huge markets, Juárez two blocks away, and 20 de Noviembre, on the block beyond that. Also, to the north, the Mercado Pascua Sanchéz, with the huge fig tree in front. Near to that market is the escalera, section after section of steps lined with houses going up the hill toward the Guelaguetza arena at the top. But, before reaching the arena, in a covered area under the highway, a beautiful group of murals portraying history and music of the region. And, north of that, the small street of Rufino Tamyo lined with the arcos supporting the old aqueduct that brought water into Oaxaca from the foothills of the Sierra Juárez, and the village of San Felipe del Agua, now with stores and houses built into the arches, along with an occasional shrine and a small street guarded by a statue of the archangel Gabriel.

Monday, November 4, 2013

Matthew, we miss you

November 5, 2013

Matt, it is 35 years since you were born. I remember that day very well, anticipating whether you would turn around or if your mom would need a Caesarean section. Turned out you didn’t, and she did, and when you came out I can never remember being happier. I called your grandparents and when asked what (i.e., what sex) I said “It’s a baby!”. I loved you so much, and I still do and I miss you because you are not 35 years old, you are no longer with us. I can only imagine how you might be now that would be different from you were at 24. I can look around at your friends and lovers, at Erin and Tequia and Joe and see what they are doing, and look at Adam who is 31 and has a good and interesting job and is going to be marrying Jess and wonder how you might be, and all I can think of is that you would be you. Smart, and caring, and kind, and sometimes, unfortunately for the rest of us, too silent about the most important things that were going on in your mind.

The world is in many ways a different place than it was 11 years ago, at least measured by the rapid pace of technological change. You never had a cell phone (that was by choice); now everyone has one, and a “smart” phone at that, and is on Facebook and email. Of course, you wouldn’t have liked the intrusion into your life when you didn’t want it; you were the original “12 messages on the answering machine! Too many! Delete all!”.  You have also been spared the 1984 intrusion of both government and corporations into all our email and web activities and phone calls, which you would have hated. But, I think, fundamentally, you would have been the same, both because who you were, we all are, is much deeper than these ephemeral changes, and because you never had great optimistic expectations for how the world would change. Yes, values, no question about it, but you never let your values cloud your understanding of the probable direction in which we were headed. Indeed, while I can never know this, I believe that this was no small part of the most significant decision that you ever made, to end your life.
Andrea is now married to Cheryl; we went to the ceremony in DC where they live now, and Stefanie and Paul came as well as Sarah, and her husband James who you never met, and their daughter Sabine who I had never met. Andrea and Cheryl seem so happy!
But, you see, we needed you, and we need you. The world has Adam, and Jess, and Erin, and lots of other wonderful people, but there are never enough. You wisdom is missed, and your love. At the last (outstanding) Matthew Freeman Lecture in Social Justice, I talked with Heather, and she told me about how some things you had told her long ago were helpful to her now. I can’t talk about the details, but you know. They have asked me to be on the Board of Trustees of Roosevelt, and I have accepted, and now I have an excuse to go to Chicago to see Adam and Jess four times a year, and (at least for now) see the block where they live, that Cathy and I lived on before you were ever conceived!

I see other people’s children, and young people that I work with, medical students and residents growing ever younger, younger mostly than you or Adam, and I think about you every day and I miss you so much. I wish you were here. And I love you.

Saturday, September 21, 2013

A working class hero is something to be just turned 64, and so it was natural, I suppose, that several people (beginning with my sister) sang to me or quoted the Paul McCartney song (credited to Lennon-McCartney) “When I'm 64”. It was recorded in 1967 when McCartney, now 71, was 25 (his father had just turned 64 the year before, perhaps when he wrote it). It's a light, fun song with a good melody, discussing a seemingly far-off future centered around a stable and loving relationship, with children and “grandchildren on my knee”. So I found myself walking around singing it and was struck by the lines “every summer we could rent a cottage in the Isle of Wight (if it's not too dear); we will scrimp and save...”. Although he had already achieved a lot of success and money, McCartney's positive vision of a far-off future was a decidedly working-class one, natural based on his background. And it's good, and right, and much more likely to be something his fans could hope for than images of wealth and luxury such as the older Sir Paul was able to enjoy. It spoke to and speaks to the people.

All the Beatles came from working-class backgrounds, and far from being ashamed of it, were proud of where they had come from, who their fan base was, and, while enjoying their wealth (and often using it to support good causes) never portrayed themselves as better than the people they had come from. This is expressed most explicitly in John Lennon's anthem “A working-class hero is something to be”. While the concept of “class” is a consciously more English than American one, consistent with their history of aristocracy (we talk more of “socioeconomic status”) the reality is that today class (measured as the probability that someone will stay in the same socioeconomic group as their parents) is more entrenched in the US than it is in Britain. Still, Britain has a Labor (“Labour”) Party, consciously acknowledging the working-class. It has a powerful legacy; in the late 1940s, it led to the creation of the National Health Service, guaranteeing access to medical care for all its people, while the US labor movement sought to use bargaining for health insurance through union contracts as a way to enhance itself. This was fine when most Americans were in unions, or even employed in jobs with health insurance, but has created some problems since. Many other British singers have advocated even more assertive working-class values, most notably Billy Bragg, but also Dire Straits and many others.

This is not to say that there is an absence of such working-class consciousness among US performers. Clearly, the exemplar is Bruce Springsteen who, 3 days younger than me, also is just turning 64. His songs do not general espouse an overtly political message but rather tell the stories of people like those he grew up with, who work in factories, get laid off, get pregnant young, get divorced, have drinking problems, have fun in lots of ways, and mostly are defined by an economic uncertainty about the present and the future. Whether a vacation in a cottage on the the Isle of Wight (or its US equivalent) is what they look forward to – perhaps it is a bass boat at the lake – but their visions of retirement are generally not Palm Beach or skiing at Gstaad.

Springsteen is of course not the only US rock musician to consciously sing of working-class roots, but other American musical traditions. American folk music, whether of English/Scottish/Irish roots though the Appalachians, or African roots through slavery and the African-American experience, or the more recent Spanish language (but of many cultures), or all of the many ethnic and language groups that make up this country, has always told the story of the people, and the people have always been mostly workers. The descendants of these traditions are still vibrant not just in the small bin labeled “folk music” (with Woody Guthrie, and Pete Seeger, and Phil Ochs, and others), but “rhythm and blues” and “country music”, all of which tap into the experiences of regular people for their strength and their identity. The blues are certainly about poor and working people, and so is most of country music. Sometimes folks like Billy Bragg record songs that are explicitly political (“The Internationale” or “The Worker's Flag”), or tributes like “I Dreamed I Saw Phil Ochs Last Night”, based on an earlier paean by Alfred Hayes to a working-class hero, Joe Hill, who didn't get rich but was, rather, hanged for his songs about workers. But, mostly, these songs are about people who work hard and, if they're lucky, are just making it.

In a recent article in Salon, “Millenials hate Bruce Springsteen”, EJ Dickson tries to show them why they are wrong. This is not my focus, but rather it is on some of the comments on the article (and I recognize that finding moronic comments on almost anything posted on-line is easy pickings!) which suggested that Bruce “pretends” to sing about workers, but was a phony because he had “made millions”. Sure he has, but he hasn't forgotten where he comes from hasn't stopped thinking about them and their lives, and that is a good thing. What would be a bad thing would be for him to have changed his loyalty to defend the folks of his newly-acquired social class. As some have. Frank Sinatra, a working class kid from Hoboken, was a New-Dealer, who sang (and made a film of) the progressive patriotic “The House I Live In” and opposed HUAC, but later became a Reagan Republican. Even Sir Paul no longer writes about workers. It is OK to be a class traitor like FDR, to defend regular folks from those who run everything and need no defending, but not the other way around.

As John Lennon wrote, “A working-class hero is something to be”!

Sunday, September 1, 2013

Labor Day at the lake: Honor Labor!

Labor Day weekend at the lake. We weren’t going to come because this last weekend of the summer is crowded and busy. It ends this weekend; once we took vacation here with Adam and Herbie and came down on Labor Day itself, and by that afternoon and for the rest of the week it was quiet and beautiful.. We came down mid-day Saturday, 95+ degrees, took a couple of hours for the house to cool down.

I did make good on my promise to wake up early no matter what time we went to bed (moderately late after watching “Murder by Decree”, a Sherlock-Holmes-finds-the-real-story-behind-Jack-the-Ripper with Christopher Plummer and James Mason), and was rewarded with a truly Homerian rosy-fingered dawn. Sunglasses were superfluous for quite a bit of my 90 minute kayak trip down the lake and back, as the clouds that made the dawn beautiful precluded a real sunrise. I had hoped to miss the noise and wake of powerboats, which I largely succeeded in doing (but not completely; some fisherman get up early and really need to go FAST across the lake to get to their quiet fishing spot). I hugged the shore, hoping for early-morning wildlife sightings, but was largely frustrated. Down a narrow cove I saw movement, and watched a deer feed; later in the shallow water of the inflow stream, I surprised a great blue heron, but the viewings were sparse.

While there were not many powerboats, there was a continuous booming in the background. I try to convince myself that, despite the early hour, it is fireworks from the folks who figure any holiday is good for fireworks. But …today is September 1, the first day of the 9-month hunting season around the lake that began last year. My neighbor, who was here Friday night, says there were fireworks at midnight and guns at dawn, a day early. They do not sound like shotguns, too many single shots in a row – and “only” shotguns and bows are allowed right around the lake, not rifles. So maybe it is fireworks, or maybe it is rifles farther away…the walk-in hunting in the woods is supposed to begin across the road from the lake road. I take heart in that, and the fact that, as I paddle down the lake, the noise seems to get neither closer nor farther, so maybe it is far. Maybe I will not be an accidental target in my yellow kayak. Pretty confident. Pretty confident, but not, I fear, totally. And it cannot be good for seeing wildlife.

We didn’t come until Saturday because on Friday night we went to the preview performance of the premiere of Daniel Beaty’s “Tallest Tree in the Forest”, about Paul Robeson. Written and performed as a one person show by Beaty (and directed by Moisés Kaufman), it was excellent, and should be seen. One of the Robeson songs that Beaty performs is the “Ballad for Americans” by Earl Robinson and John LaTouche. One of the most popular songs of its time (per Wikipedia, “In the 1940 presidential campaign it was sung at both the Republican National Convention and that of the Communist Party”). It is worth reading the lyrics of and listening to, among them:
Well, I'm an
Engineer, musician, street cleaner, carpenter, teacher,
How about a farmer? Also. Office clerk? Yes sir!
That's right. (Homemaker?) Certainly!
Factory worker? Yo
u said it. (Mail carrier?) Yes ma'am.
(Hospital worker?) Absotively! (Social worker?) Posolutely!
Truck driver? Definitely!
Miner, seamstress, ditchdigger, all of them.
I am the "etceteras" and the "and so forths" that do the work.

Tomorrow is Labor Day, and we celebrate the “’etceteras’ and ‘and so forths’ that do the work.” In this era of billionaire financiers and too-big-to-fail banks, Labor Day is the day for the rest of us.
In the spirit of Rosie the Riveter: Honor Labor!

Tuesday, August 6, 2013

Santa Fe and the Pleasure of Flat Hikes

Four days into my vacation at our recently built small house SE of Santa Fe, and hopefully getting into a pace where I spend less time on work email and more on sitting out on the east deck in the early morning cool, sipping coffee and watching the hummingbirds with binoculars. I think that they are broad-tails, with deep green back; the majority would be females, though, without the scarlet neck. Most of the other birds seem to be some variety of sparrow. Our land and the surrounding Galisteo Basin Preserve is beautiful, and there are lots of trails on the ridges and in the basin; mostly more or less level after going down into it (and, of course, back up). Have done many of them, and on Friday night, when I arrived, we joined a group for a geology talk and hike describing the layers from a really long time ago to as recently as 45 million years ago!

There is a temptation, though, to do mountain hikes, covered in woodland, to beautiful streams, so we did one on Sunday, the “Borrego Loop” off Hyde Park Road (which runs NE from Santa Fe to the ski area). Much of the Borrego Trail is downhill through forests of Ponderosa pine and tall aspens and some spruce and fir, down to the Tesuque Creek; the segment of Windsor Trail which forms the base of the triangle runs more down along the creek, and the Bear Wallow trail back is, thus, uphill. Close to 8000 feet and 36 hours from my baseline 400 feet in KC, it took a lot out of me! The book says a 760 foot gain, but I don't know if that is net or gross -- a lot of down also! I was ready for lunch (lovely) and a nap. Well, I’m almost always ready for a nap. That’s how I know it’s vacation! We’d done this before, with my sister and brother-in-law, in the snow of winter. Mountains have the advantage, compared with canyons, of being down on the way back, this one was a little different for hiking in the mountains. I also note that the book doesn't seem to care too much about total elevation gain; if it is not too steep and the trail is in good shape, it is "easy", as was this one.

This morning got up early to see the sunrise, despite having been up late seeing La Traviata at the  gorgeous outdoor Santa Fe Opera last night, have breakfast and hang around for the guys who work for the builder to get our eastern door open before going on the morning hike.
The house is glass on 3 sides (except north) but none of the windows open so the breeze comes through with the east and west doors open. The wind is from the west, so can blow the east door (hung inside) closed, so we had two rubber doorstops in it. A big enough gust came, however, to slam it closed hard, with the doorstops wedged into what should be a tiny potential space between metal door and sill, making it impossible to open. They used a couple of prybars to lift it from inside enough to pull the doorstops out from outside.

There is a trail along the railroad tracks just north of here; they run (and people bike it) into Santa Fe to the northwest; there is a tourist train, but also the Southwest Limited runs through Lamy, NM en route from Chicago to LA. Lamy is the closest stop to Santa Fe, so maybe there are a different set of tracks heading out of it to Albuquerque. Pat just took it from KC to Lamy overnight last week, but, of course, didn’t stay on to see where the tracks go this side of town. Anyway, there is a barbed wire fence along the tracks making it hard to get to overland, but the other night we discovered a trail that starts off the road across from us and winds through the desert to the tracks and an opening in the fence, where the bikers and hikers (us) can get through. Lovely walk; took the hiking poles even though I didn’t need them for balance on a basically level walk but it is apparently more exercise since you use your arms. Then walking along the rail trail, mostly right alongside, some up and downs where the tracks go through a narrower area, and some (for fun) walking along the rails (there I did use the poles for balance). Someone has put birdhouses all along the fence line, and at one point we came across a large patch of  squash plants; blossoms but no fruit yet, and presumably, given the location, volunteers. The tracks go over a very pretty wooden bridge over a wash, and eventually cross US-285. There we turned south (using the poles as leashes for the dogs) a short ways to our own road and back about a mile and a half.

I notice, walking back the mile or so along the road in the direction we usually walk out on (coming back on a higher trail), two things. First, it is mostly uphill; going on an easy downhill is never so obvious. Second, there are a lot more mature piñon pines here than farther down the road, for some reason. At 6700 feet, our trees are almost all juniper and piñon, unlike the Ponderosa and aspen of the higher elevation, and lots of the piñon had died from bark beetle, drought making the trees’ defense (coating them in sap) more difficult. Over the last few years we’ve seen more piñon coming back, often in the shelter of protective junipers, but down the road there must be a microclimate that has had them surviving. I cut across our land, looking down because ground-hugging prickly pear look a lot like the other vegetation until you get close, and I see a tiny, one-inch high, hedgehog cactus. All the other cacti are prickly pear and cholla so it is a lovely surprise.

By now, it is getting warm, but it has been a lovely hike, and I’m not completely wiped out by climbing up and down. There is a lot to be said for level hikes!

Sunday, July 14, 2013

Less Fauna at the Lake Fort Scott: Is it the hunting?

I live in Kansas City, but have a cabin 90 minutes south on Lake Fort Scott. It is pretty and peaceful most of the time. It is not always quiet, as there are frequently power boats going by pulling water skiiers or folks (mostly kids) hanging on to a water-couch (??) or speeding to a corner where they can fish quietly with the electric trolling motor, or in the case of jet-skis, simply running around in circles creating noise and wake. And there is some building, and folks mowing the grass. It is nicest during the week (if you can get away) or before Memorial Day or after Labor Day, when there are fewer people and boats.

So I like taking my kayak out early, before the power boats get busy, and paddling the shore, looking for wildlife. I’m not a birder or wildlife biologist so I don’t know everything I see, but do know I see deer, and otters, and minks, and lots of birds and ducks. Great blue herons, and sometimes green herons and wild turkey and “our” osprey (which is not supposed to live in Kansas).

But not so much this year; instead of at least 5 or 6 great blues on a paddle down the length of the lake, I’m happy to see one, and its way down at the end. For the first time this year, they allowed hunting along the shores of the lake (“only” shotgun and bow, a relief, not deer rifles whose bullets can travel a half-mile). There wasn’t a whole lot, I think, because there are plenty of other places to hunt around here, and it is pretty clear that the decision was made for primarily political (“we believe in hunting!”) reasons. So, maybe it was the hunting this winter and spring that scared them off; even though it is summer now and there is no hunting, I guess it could have disrupted their nesting season. Maybe not. Maybe global warming is coincidentally having its impact this year. Or something else. I don’t know.

Still, it’s sad. There is a lot to be said for the lake, and beauty, and quiet, are a big part of it. And, with the shotguns booming, the “off season” will not be so “off”. And I am less likely to see a big flock of white pelicans resting in the middle of the lake during their fall migration. And see fewer birds and animals in the summer.

Or maybe I just need to get up even earlier.

Wednesday, May 15, 2013

TV Westerns without Women

When I was a child in the 1950s (and probably into the early 1960s), there were a lot of “action/adventure” TV shows for children that had only men, no women.  So I guess they were mostly meant for boys. There were a few shows that stood out for featuring strong women (notably, and beloved by my sisters, “Sheena, Queen of the Jungle”, meant to be comparable to Tarzan and certainly a forebear of “Xena, Warrior Princess”. Many of these shows had strong, single men (bachelors or widowers, usually) with a single son, or perhaps ward. “Ward” was an odd term; it had no meaning in our regular lives, but we were familiar with it from DC Comics, as it described similar relationships there (Batman and Robin, of course; also Green Arrow and Speedy and others). It is obvious that there are many implications to these shows regarding gender roles, child rearing, sexual identity, and the role of women; however, I am not going to provide explicit analysis of these themes, which are probably best done by those with scholarly credentials. I am pretty much just going to share memories (with occasional help from Wikipedia for names and dates).

Among these shows were “Fury” (1955-60) with Peter Graves as Jim Newton, and his adopted son Joey, played by Bobby Diamond, “The Rifleman”  (1958-63) with Chuck Connors as Lucas McCain (the kid, Mark played by Johnny Crawford, was, in a rare twist, actually his son), with the adults actually parenting as well as providing role models. Two others that stand out in my memory are “The Adventures of Rin Tin Tin” (1954-59) and “Circus Boy” (1956-58), where the person responsible for the child was the hero, but most of the actual parenting care was done by someone else, an older, lower-status member of the organization. In “Rin Tin Tin” it was Sgt. Biff O’Hara, played by Joe Sawyer, in “Circus Boy”, Joey the clown played by Noah Beery, Jr. These men provided a caretaker role for the boys (both were adopted orphans, Cpl. Rusty, played by Lee Aaker in “RTT”, and Corky, played by future-Monkee Mickey Dolenz, in “Circus Boy”). At the time I perceived this role as “maternal” but in reality was just “parental”, while Lt. Rip Masters and ringmaster Big Tim Champion (what names!), played respectively by James Brown and Robert Lowery performed their handsome, lean-jawed, leader of men activities. The similarity of these two shows was quite obvious to me even as a child; they were carbon copies in different settings.

These men, Sawyer’s O’Hara and Beery’s Joey, were definitely men, both worldly wise and wise in terms of giving advice to the boys worthy of June Cleaver. They  also filled the role of comic-relief sidekick that was a staple of Westerns (movies as well as TV shows), including Andy Devine’s Jingles on “Wild Bill Hickok” (1951-58) opposite Guy Madison, Pat Buttram on “Gene Autry” (1950-56) , Leo Carrillo’s Pancho on “The Cisco Kid” (1950-56) opposite Duncan Reynaldo (in its own twist, notable because Cisco, the hero, carried only one gun while the sidekick, Pancho, carried two!), and Pat Brady in “Roy Rogers” (1951-57). The latter, of course, even had a woman, Roy’s wife Dale Evans who rode her horse, Buttermilk, alongside Roy and Trigger, while Pat followed in his jeep, Nellie Belle. Of course, I always got the Pats, Brady and Buttram, confused.

Obviously, the tradition of stories-for-boys-without-significant-female characters goes far back before these shows, to radio, film and novels well back into the 19th century at least, with swashbuckling heroes. Occasionally, notably in Stevenson’s “Treasure Island”, there is even a boy who is himself at the center of the story, perhaps making these a little more accessible than the similar-but-no-boy classics of Dumas and Sabatini. There may be nothing significant in the trope I noted so long ago of the sidekick-cum-mother, although it appears in the comics, where Alfred the butler plays this role for Batman and Robin.

 And, somewhat later, in “Bonanza” (1959-73), an “adult” TV Western of the 1960s (a group that also included “Maverick”, “Gunsmoke” (with Peter Graves’ brother James Arness), “Have Gun, Will Travel”, “Cimarron”, “Rawhide”, and “Sugarfoot”), Lorne Greene’s Ben Cartwright has three sons (Pernell Roberts’ Adam, Dan Blocker’s Hoss, and Michael Landon’s Little Joe), from three different mothers, all conveniently passed on to both not be present in the show and meet the requisite morality of sequential legal monogamy (each passing before Ben married the next and sired another son). Later the short-lived “Yellow Rose” also had three sons by different mothers (David Soul’s Roy, Edward Albert’s Quisto, and Sam Elliott’s Chance McKenzie), but the patriarch was only married to the mother of Roy. And of course, to Cybill Shepherd’s character, who also had affairs with all of them. There was also a kid, Roy’s son, and humorously Shepherd’s step-grandson. It was, I have to admit despite having had a crush on Shepherd since she was on the cover of “Seventeen”, a pretty bad show that lasted only one season, 1983-84.
OK, enough memories. I could post lots of pictures, but I think I’ll just stick with one. The anomaly, Sheena, Queen of the Jungle. It had its origins in films and pulp novels, and was resurrected more recently, but the one that sticks in mind, and I am sure that of my sisters, is Irish McCalla in the TV show. Oh, and maybe Noah Beery and Mickey Dolenz from Circus Boy.

Friday, January 25, 2013

Les Miserables: not just a good show, but a really important theme

I saw the film Les Misérables recently. I liked it. I acknowledge that it was too long, and that the actors in it were not chosen for their singing voices. I even thought that the opera-style everything-is-sung-even-dialog was ok. I suppose I would have been less surprised by the latter, and maybe even more intolerant of the former (the singing) had I been one of the 60 million or so people who had seen the musical on stage, but I was not. I was familiar with the story, though I am certain I never read the entire 1500 pages (Cliff’s Notes, maybe? or "Classics Comics"?), and I had seen previous film versions.

My favorite is the one with Jean-Paul Belmondo, updated to take place in WW II, from 1995. I have always like Belmondo, but tended to think of him as the lean hero of his youth; to see him as the big, handsome older man in his 60s (he was born in 1933) was great. And it seemed more plausible that he was able to lift the cart off the trapped man than Hugh Jackman, even though Belmondo was much closer to what Jean Valjean’s actual age would have been. 

The reason that updating the Belmondo film to WW II was fine was the same reason I liked the recent movie: that the social and political issues it addresses are timeless. Les Misérables, book, musical or film, is not about the music but about the oppression of people – mainly poor people – by the rich and powerful and their minions. It is a profoundly political movie, and to see it and to not understand that would be, well, something I don’t understand. It is not just about the nobility and heroism of one man, who was imprisoned for 19 years for stealing a loaf of bread to feed his starving nephew and then becomes reborn and redeemed (did he have to be redeemed?) by a kindly monsignor, and his future works, which included sparing the life of his life-long adversary Javert when he had the chance to kill him. 

It is not about religion. It is about the ever-present possibility of the people rising up to free themselves of the yoke of tyranny as much as the tyrants continue to be able to continue to return to power. When Anatole France wrote in “The Red Lily” in 1894 that “The law, in its majestic equality, forbids the rich as well as the poor to sleep under bridges, to beg in the streets, and to steal bread,” he is both thinking of Hugo and commenting on profound injustice of the social order. Les Misérables takes place between 1815 and 1832. The French Revolution has come, and gone, as has Napoleon, but there is still a monarchy, and an aristocracy, and brutal oppression of the poor and repression of those who rise against the powerful.

Kind of like today. When banks are too big to fail, when millions of Americans have lost their jobs and homes and the banks like JP Morgan Chase, bailed out by our taxes, records a record profit of $21 billion, and their CEO is proud of it when he should be in prison. When corporations seek to be judged solely on how much profit they make, rather than whether in doing so it makes the world a better place. In America, we support capitalism and for-profit corporations, but we should not be supporting rapacious profit making, profit making that depends on destroying so many people’s lives. 

In Kansas, Governor Sam Brownback proposes to make up the enormous budget deficit caused by the tax cuts he pushed through last year by “growing the economy”. This is dubious and uncertain enough in itself, but this is also his solution to meeting the health needs of the people he will not expand Medicaid to cover: they will get jobs. Except that the kind of jobs they get don’t usually come with health insurance, and Brownback would be the last person to require them to do so. The goal should not be to grow the economy so that some people can make most of the money, it should be to grow the economy to be able to make people’s lives better.  In my “Medicine and Social Justice” blog from November 3, I quoted Greek physician Alex Benos saying ““Health and health care are not commodities that exist to drive the economy. They are among the social goals which we have an economy to achieve.”

The catchphrase of the French Revolution was “Liberté, Égalité, Fraternité -- Liberty-Equality-Fraternity. I recently purchased a roll of stamps, and the familiar flag stamp has had added to it “Freedom, Equality, Justice (each on every third stamp). The difference in the third one is instructive. Justice is good, and is important, and certainly was absent in France both before their revolution of 1789 and in the years depicted in Les Misérables. Sure, in the US we don’t say “fraternity” in this context, but there could be a similar word, like “brotherhood”. But it is not the word, it is the concept. It is the concept of social responsibility, of caring about others, about a “we are in this together” attitude that does not characterize American society. If it did, we would not tolerate people being without access to health care, or civilians carrying assault weapons, or ever increasing percentages of our national wealth being in the hands of the top <1%.

In the Hooper film, the final scene is after Valjean’s death. There has been a lot of church in the movie; in addition to the good monsignor who tells the police that he has gifted Valjean with the silver he has stolen, creating the transformation of Valjean from an amoral victim to a hero, later he and his “daughter”, Cozette, are hidden from the police in a convent. He dies in a church, with Cozette’s dead mother, Fantine, coming for him in a most mystical way. A lot of church and a lot of religion. And yet, that final scene does not show Valjean in a heaven of clouds, harps and angels with wings. The heaven he goes to is the revolution, all the people who have died in the movie and hundreds more massed on an enormous barricade, many more than were in the actual battle in the film. They are there, they are militant, and though they have been beaten are singing about liberty.

The fight will not be easy, the oppressor has many weapons on his side, you may be killed in the battle, but it is the good fight, the fight for what is right. This is the true message of Les Misérables.