Thursday, November 28, 2013

The Same Thanksgiving Post I Have Put Up Every Year Since 1621

Serve the LORD with gladness: come before his presence with singing.... Enter into his gates with thanksgiving, and into his courts with praise: be thankful unto him, and bless his name.

-- Psalm 100:2, 4

ANYA: I love a ritual sacrifice.
BUFFY: It's not really a one of those.
ANYA: To commemorate a past event, you kill and eat an animal. It's a ritual sacrifice. With pie.

-- Buffy the Vampire Slayer, "Pangs" by Jane Espenson
Thanksgiving is a holiday, and holidays are rituals. And one of my holiday rituals is to give thanks to you, Noble Reader, for reading. Not all sentences said ritualistically are heartfelt -- it goes with the territory -- but this one always is.* I am thankful that you have dropped by; I hope you will come back again.

I wish everyone a joyful Thanksgiving, however (and whether) you celebrate it, and to whomever (and however) you give thanks.

But I must admit to you all that the title of this post is a lie. The first Thanksgiving feast was in 1621; so obviously I did not put up my first blog post commemorating the event until the following year, 1622. My apologies for the inaccuracy.

* Yes, that sentence noting that the ritualistic sentence is said not just ritualistically but sincerely is now, itself, a part of my Thanksgiving ritual. I will note that it, too, is said sincerely and not just realistically, and shudder at the inevitable extrapolation of this trend. (As, for instance, the slightly odd shudder I get at copying & pasting the previous sentence from last year's post... (A parenthesis which, unlike this second-order parenthesis (which, along with this third-order one, is the only original text in this increasingly convoluted footnote (nay, post (this way madness lies!))), was itself cut & paste from last year's post...))

Friday, November 22, 2013

50 Years Ago Today

Here is a short editor's note from the December 7, 1963 issue of The New Yorker.  As was their custom at the time, it was unsigned; but it was written by John Updike (and was later republished in one of his many volumes of collected nonfiction—Assorted Prose (1965), I believe).  When I teach my seminar on the 1960s—as I am doing this fall—I use this to discuss Kennedy's death, since it captures (so far as I can tell, viewing the event through the lens of history) the experience of living through the assassination—the immediate, human experience of those days—as well as anything I've read.

For the fiftieth anniversary, I thought I'd share it here.
It was as if we slept from Friday to Monday and dreamed an oppressive, unsearchably significant dream, which, we discovered on awaking, millions of others had dreamed also. Furniture, family, the streets, and the sky dissolved; only the dream on television was real. The faces of the world's great mingled with the faces of landladies who had happened to house an unhappy ex-Marine; cathedrals alternated with warehouses, temples of government with suburban garages; anonymous men tugged at a casket in a glaring airport; a murder was committed before our eyes; a Dallas strip-tease artist drawled amiably of her employer's quick temper; the heads of state of the Western world strode down a sunlit street like a grim village rabble; and Jacqueline Kennedy became Persephone, the Queen of Hades and the beautiful bride of grief. All human possibilities, of magnificence and courage, of meanness and confusion, seemed to find an image in this long montage, and a stack of cardboard boxes in Dallas, a tawdry movie house, a tiny rented room where some shaving cream still clung to the underside of a washbasin, a row of parking meters that had witnessed panicked flight all acquired the opaque and dreadful importance that innocent objects acquire in nightmares.

What did it mean? Can we hope for a meaning? "It's the fashion to hate people in the United States." This quotation might be from one of a hundred admonitory sermons delivered after President Kennedy's death. In actuality, it occurs in an interview granted in 1959 to a United Press reporter, Aline Mosby, by a young American defector then living in Moscow, Lee Harvey Oswald. The presumed assassin did not seem to be a violent man. "He was too quiet, too reserved," his ex-landlord told reporters. "He certainly had the intelligence and he looked like he could be efficient at doing almost anything." In his room, the police found a map on which was marked the precise path that three bullets in fact took. The mind that might have unlocked this puzzle of perfectly aimed, perfectly aimless murder has been itself forever sealed by murder. The second assassination augmented the first, expanded our sense of potential violence. In these cruel events, democracy seemed caricatured; a gun voted, and a drab Dallas neighborhood was hoisted into history. None of our country's four slain Presidents were victims of any distinct idea of opposition or hope of gain; they were sacrificed, rather, to the blind tides of criminality and insanity that make civilization precarious. Between Friday and Monday, three men died: a President, a policeman, and a prisoner. May their deaths be symbols, clues to our deep unease, and omens we heed.

The dream began to lift at the sight, on television, of President Johnson giving his broad and friendly handshake, with exquisite modulations of political warmth, to the line of foreign dignitaries who had come to Washington as mourners. The sanity of daylight has returned, but the dissipated dream should not be forgotten; it must be memorized and analyzed. We pray we do not fall into such a sleep again.

-- John Updike
At some point, in my handing this out, I lost the last paragraph, and gave out only the first two to my classes.  It was an error—hence my adding it back here—but I think it was the sort of error that, in popular memory, sands the rough edges off of famous quotations.  Which is to say that I think that, in certain respects, the passage reads better truncated at the word "heed"—that it does not feel incomplete without the final paragraph, and indeed that it is in some ways diminished with it.  Hence, in reading it over, I did not notice the lack, since the lack improved it.

Tuesday, November 19, 2013

Seven Score and Ten Years Ago...

...on this date, Abraham Lincoln said this:
Four score and seven years ago our fathers brought forth on this continent, a new nation, conceived in Liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal.

Now we are engaged in a great civil war, testing whether that nation, or any nation so conceived and so dedicated, can long endure. We are met on a great battle-field of that war. We have come to dedicate a portion of that field, as a final resting place for those who here gave their lives that that nation might live. It is altogether fitting and proper that we should do this.

But, in a larger sense, we can not dedicate -- we can not consecrate -- we can not hallow -- this ground. The brave men, living and dead, who struggled here, have consecrated it, far above our poor power to add or detract. The world will little note, nor long remember what we say here, but it can never forget what they did here. It is for us the living, rather, to be dedicated here to the unfinished work which they who fought here have thus far so nobly advanced. It is rather for us to be here dedicated to the great task remaining before us -- that from these honored dead we take increased devotion to that cause for which they gave the last full measure of devotion -- that we here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain -- that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom -- and that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.



So say we all.

Saturday, November 16, 2013

Poem of the Day

Mirror in February

The day dawns with scent of must and rain,
Of opened soil, dark trees, dry bedroom air.
Under the fading lamp, half dressed - my brain
Idling on some compulsive fantasy-
I towel my shaven jaw and stop, and stare,
Riveted by a dark exhausted eye,
A dry downturning mouth.

It seems again that it is time to learn,
In this untiring, crumbling place of growth
To which, for the time being, I return.
Now plainly in the mirror of my soul
I read that I have looked my last on youth
And little more; for they are not made whole
That reach the age of Christ.

Below my window the awakening trees,
Hacked clean for better bearing, stand defaced
Suffering their brute necessities,
And how should the flesh not quail that span for span
Is mutilated more? In slow distaste
I fold my towel with what grace I can,
Not young and not renewable, but man.

Thomas Kinsella, "Mirror in February"

Wednesday, November 13, 2013

Seven Songs Per Decade: 1970s (Part 1 of 4.5)

In the spring, I am teaching I brand-new class, on the history of the United States from 1974 - 2014.  I am currently in the process of preparing the course.  One thing I thought I'd do, mostly just for fun, is play a song as the students walk in every day as a processional.  I'm only going to do this on days I lecture (not on discussion days or exam days), so it won't be every day.

But I want to come up with a list of songs which are A), Good, B) Representative, and C) Iconic.  Some songs will be on the list primarily for one of those reasons, but ideally most will be a mix of all three.  In order to get a comparatively even chronological mix, I'm going to try to do 7 songs each from the 70s, 80s, 90s and 00s, plus 3 from the 10s.

And I'm soliciting suggestions!

To give you a sense of the sort of thing I'm thinking about, here is a preliminary, mostly off-the-top-of-my-head list of six songs (leaving one TBD):
  1. Sweet Home Alabama, Lynyrd Skynyrd (1974)
  2. Born to Run (or Thunder Road), Bruce Springsteen (1975)
  3. Stayin' Alive, Bee Gees (1977)
  4. Psycho Killer, Talking Heads (1978)
  5. Gotta Serve Somebody, Bob Dylan (1979)
  6. London Calling, The Clash (1979)
  7. ??
At the moment, all six are by white men. I'm not happy about that (it's not true for other decades).  That's one dimension I'd like suggestions on how to fix.

Note that as a general rule, I am limiting every single musician to one song on all five lists.  (I am making an exception for one, and only one, musician, to be revealed later.)  But bear that in mind: if you think someone's best or most representative or most iconic song is from a later decade, don't put them on this list!  Save them for later.

Note that while all suggestions are welcome, I'd prefer complete lists, either just a set of seven, or telling me what you'd add/subtract to my rough draft.

Update, November 15:

This query, cross-posted to facebook, generated a vigorous and (for me) very informative discussion, and far, far, far more suggestions than I could actually use.  After reading what everyone had to say, and painfully cutting it back down to seven, I came up with this revised list:
  1. After the Goldrush by Neil Young (1970)
  2. Search and Destroy, Iggy and the Stooges (1973)
  3. Sweet Home Alabama, Lynyrd Skynyrd (1973)
  4. The Payback, James Brown (1974)
  5. I Will Survive, Gloria Gaynor (1978)
  6. The Promised Land, Bruce Springsteen (1978)
  7. Rapper's Delight, Sugar Hill Gang (1979)
 ...with the idea that the Talking Heads will be on the 80s list instead.

So now I'm soliciting suggestions, comments and revisions on this second draft list.  I'd love to hear what you think — but please, only suggest an addition if you also suggest which it should replace.  Also, remember that we are going for a representative list of iconic songs; quality is important, but only within that larger constraint.

Myself, I am liking the list pretty well.  The one I am most tempted to cut is "After the Goldrush", not as any reflection on the song itself, but since the chronology of the course really starts a few years later, in 1973/1974.

Up next: the 1980s. Stay tuned.