Wednesday, September 23, 2009

Houston: There's no there there.

Today I tutored a young woman who was supposed to be writing a "descriptive paragraph." One choice was to write about one's own neighborhood and describe it. Her paragraph described driving along a street on a cool, windy day, and seeing the bare trees and the big, beautiful houses.

The problem is, in Houston we don't have bare trees, really. And the number of cool, crisp days you can count on one hand. Some of the pecans and oaks lose their leaves for a few weeks in mid-winter, but the dominant species--the live oak--is never bare: it starts to put out tiny new yellowish leaves in February, and at that time, some of the older, brown leaves fall. But it's never completely bare.

Right now, although it is "fall," you would never know from looking at Houston or its trees: they are all green and leafed out. The oaks and pecans don't start losing leaves until December. And although it's the end of September, it was 96 degrees on Tuesday.

There are some big, beautiful houses in Houston, but those are not the houses that our students live in.

So I asked her if this descriptive paragraph was really about her neighborhood, and she said that it wasn't; that she had made it up. I thought so: usually when you read vague, insipid student writing, the student didn't obey the injunction to "write what you know."

I asked her, "So, where do you live?"

She answered, "What do you mean?"

I didn't know how to respond to this. After a few seconds I said, "Ok, so where did you wake up this morning?"

She said, "Oh, ok, I live over by the airport."

So then we had something to work with. I asked her about her commute home, what exit she got off at, what was at the exit, what did she see on Monroe Avenue on her way to her street, what she saw after she turned onto her street, whether she could hear the airplanes, and what her own yard and house looked like. The trouble was, all she could say was, "Houses. Trees." She didn't know what color the houses were or what kind of trees were in her own yard, or what kind of flowers grew in the little garden in the front yard.

This is just pitiful. This is worse than the unexamined life: this is the unseen life, the life that is thought by its subject to be so unworthy as to be not worth looking at, at all.

Or maybe it's just that the average Houstonian doesn't look at her city, for fear of what she might see. If you really do look at Houston, it's somewhat horrifying in its ugliness. Maybe it's a form of psychological self-protection to imagine fall in a New England college town, rather than have to face the fact that your dirty, hot, humid city has no seasons, and that what you see when you drive home is an adult bookstore.

It reminded me of what Gertrude Stein said when she visited her old hometown of Oakland, after having lived in Paris for years. She said, "There's no there there." The home she grew up in was gone, her synagogue was gone, her neighbors were gone. Everything that had once made it a place was gone.

That kind of alienation is endemic in Houston, where the built environment is so transitory, where perfectly good houses are torn down every day to make townhouses at a frenetic pace, and where place is rarely created at all, even temporarily. Everybody is here from somewhere else, some other "there," most often a village in the Third World. Or in my case, a village in Tennessee.

How can a writer even describe such a city? Houston has a gritty, concrete (literally) reality that should be easy to describe, but somehow many people can't. They can't tell you what they see on their commute, maybe because it doesn't mesh with their ideas of what they SHOULD see on their commute. They should see a street out of a movie or TV show.

Most movies seem to be set in a world where people live on leafy, prosperous streets that literally have white picket fences. A movie I saw recently, "Father of the Bride," is an example. The family is not presented as being especially affluent, but the house is big, covered with blooming roses, and sited on a street with other "big, beautiful houses." It seems to be in New England somewhere; the people wear sweaters, and leaves fall in a picturesque way. It snows.

Nothing like that happens in Houston. Leaves fall IN SPRING! Roses bloom IN WINTER! It never snows! Our lives and neighborhoods don't look like movie lives or TV lives. So, if we don't have fiction to guide us in writing about our lives, we sort of have to start from scratch, with what really is happening on the ground, even though it's not supposed to be happening.

Maybe that's actually a good thing. Somebody could probably make a list of great writing that comes from just such circumstances: the alienated subject in the nondescript city, where there is no there there. If you can think of writing like that--whether novel or memoir--let me know. One example might be a great story about Houston that I read in The New Yorker years ago by Antonya Nelson, "Eminent Domain." It described the placeless place and the ensuing anomie perfectly.

Tuesday, September 15, 2009

How bad is a comma splice really?

Today I tutored a guy in the writing center who had written a narrative about his childhood in the notorious East End of Houston. He was in a gang by the time he was ten, and he took a 9mm pistol to school in order to ward off the mean guys in a rival gang. They started harassing him on the way to school, and he took the gun out of his backpack and shot at them. They ran away and never bothered him again.

That's the great thing about guns, I suppose. Bad boys used to follow me home, too, and throw rocks at me. I suppose if I'd shot at them, they might have stopped.

(Amazingly, this kid never got apprehended for shooting at other kids. Rather, he got caught selling pot and spent several years in juvenile detention. When he got out, he was a new man. He got his GED in juvie, and now he's in community college. His friends, however, are still in gangs and dealing drugs.)

In light of these serious offenses, it seemed silly to carp about his comma splices. But that was what I was supposed to explain, so I did. I felt very silly though. "Shame on you for connecting two sentences with only a comma! You could have hurt somebody! To Huntsville with you!"

Wednesday, September 9, 2009

Single mothers telling their story

Two young women came in to the writing center today back to back. Each had the assignment of writing a personal narrative. Both narratives began with the drama of reading a pregnancy test and finding out that it's positive.

One of these young women looked almost too young to be the mother of a one-year-old. The other had three children. One was married to the father of her child, and she had a lot of family support to go back to college. The other one was not married to the father, and he didn't help her at all with the expenses of daycare and formula and diapers. This woman had, despite her family responsibilities, managed to get a certificate in dental assisting, and was working for a dentist for a good wage, but she still could not pay her day care expenses and have any money left over.

Both had written well-structured, dramatic narratives with good telling details. Both appeared to be smart and hard-working. Both loved their children so much that they would do almost anything to make their children's lives better. Both seemed to have some support from their own families.

But both were being screwed by the low wages we have in America and by the lack of affordable, quality day care. And one of them was being seriously undone by the father's unwillingness to take responsibility for the lives he had created.

It's hard not to feel outraged when stories such as these come in the writing center, and they come in regularly. Some people might be tempted to say something like, "Well, come on, they knew that sex creates babies." And the young women themselves did not let themselves off easy: both stated in their writing that they understood their own complicity in their hard lives. But young people are wired to want to have sex. There's nothing we can do about that. Why not prepare them a little better? Why not tell these young Catholics that the Pope is wrong about birth control being a sin? Why not point out that the Church is not going to help them raise their babies or pay for their day care?

One of the women said that most of the teenaged mothers that she knows just stay home with their babies and don't work or go to school. So apparently it is somewhat normal for Hispanic teenagers to get pregnant. I heard a young Hispanic mother on NPR, in fact, say that it was pretty normal. An article this summer in the Dallas Morning News said that a CDC study "found that Hispanic teens aged 15-19 are much more likely to become pregnant (132.8 births per 1,000 females) compared to their black (128 per 1,000) and white (45.2 per 1,000) peers." The teen birth rate is rising again after years of improvement.

It may be normal in some communities to be a teenage mother, but as these young mothers know better than anyone, it is very, very hard. The fierce determination of these young women to do the best thing for their children--to get educated to work at a higher level--is inspiring. But imagine what that drive and determination could have accomplished if they had had some help earlier with birth control; if they had not been brainwashed by the Catholic Church; if the fathers of their babies weren't so feckless; if wages for high school graduates were higher; and if our society believed it was in the common interest of everyone for young mothers to have more support and help with daycare.

Tuesday, September 8, 2009

the vorpal blade went snicker-snack

Stanley Fish has been writing a series of articles in the New York Times about the teaching of writing. The third one appeared yesterday, and it's worth reading.

He makes several good points. First, we should stop moaning about how poorly prepared college students are, and how their high schools failed them (which they did), and get on with the job of getting them up to speed. Second, yes, it's true that a lot of reading makes people into good writers, but good luck persuading eighteen year olds to do a lot of reading. And, while theoretically everybody is entitled to write in their own dialect, it's not the best way to get ahead in the world: you have to learn standard English, as a second language if necessary.

Fish's main point is that college students today need a lot of help understanding something very basic: what a sentence is. We may think that we writing teachers should be teaching researching skills, or complex argument skills, or organization skills in writing. But a great many students have a lot of trouble with the basic unit of writing: the sentence. (Ok, the word is a more basic unit, but most students know what a word is.) I have found it to be true that the most common errors in student writing revolve around the problem of not knowing what a complete sentence is: this misunderstanding underlies the sentence fragment, the run-on sentence, the comma splice, etc.

How does Fish remedy this misunderstanding? He has some great ideas. He writes a sentence like "Jane likes cake" on the white board, and challenges students to elaborate this simple sentence into a Proustian one of a hundred words, explaining how they did it and why it's still one sentence. He gives them the famous Lewis Carroll nonsense poem "Jabberwocky" and has them replace the nonsense words with "real" words, explaining how they know, for example, what you could write instead of "Oh frabjous day!" (Unfortunately anything you might write instead would be worse.)

I was amazed by his final assignment: he divides his class into groups and tells them to invent a language! With a lexicon, and a grammar. Wow. Budding Tolkiens must love this class. Then they have to present this language to the rest of the class and explain how to translate its messages into English. Presumably they use the Roman alphabet? Or not?

Sometimes he writes a boring sentence on the white board--"The first year of college is full of many challenges"-- and then the students add to this sentence in a kind of linguistic Exquisite Corpse game, but where you can see what everybody else did.

Fish provides some useful links to other teachers' books and methods. I recognized one: They Say/I Say, which is about the scholarly debate that we're trying to get students to join. Only problem is, there are some things about this debate that are kind of stupid, such as the requirement that we start our papers with propositions like, "Everybody that has ever written about Faulkner and environmentalism up to this point has been wrong. I'm the one with the goods."

I'm sure Fish's methods work great with students who have a basic command of English. But in many community colleges, we are teaching students who are not only unsure about what a sentence is; they are unsure about what a lot of English words mean. I wonder if ESL students could do that Jabberwocky exercise. To them, everything sounds like, "the vorpal blade went snicker snack!"

Harold Bloom on spectacle vs. text

Wow, no sooner did I diss the overabundance of spectacle and the dearth of good text in country music, than I read this editorial in the New York Times by Harold Bloom, who writes,

"More than ever in this time of economic troubles and societal change, entering upon an undergraduate education should be a voyage away from visual overstimulation into deep, sustained reading of what is most worth absorbing and understanding: the books that survive all ideological fashions."

I'm not totally against ideological fashions, but I know what he means. He lists Some Great Books: "Homer, Plato, the Bible, Virgil, Dante, Chaucer, Cervantes, Shakespeare, Montaigne, Milton." What I am against is visual overstimulation, via those glowing rectangles that seem to be everywhere. Real pictures, not so much. Over-indulge all you want in black and white silver gelatin photographs in particular.

The death of the country music author, circa 1971

Last night I watched a DVD of the Johnny Cash show, which ran on ABC from 1969 to 1971. By that time, I was not watching much TV; I stopped in the summer of 1968, because the police riot at the Chicago convention scared me so much. But I think I might have watched a few episodes of the Johnny Cash show. It was a big deal for Nashville; it was filmed at the Ryman Auditorium, the Mother Church of country music, and the home of the Grand Ole Opry. Johnny Cash envisioned the show as a way of bringing together musicians from many genres: country music, jazz and blues, folk, and rock. Last night I saw Dylan, Kris Kristofferson, Louis Armstrong, Linda Ronstadt, George Jones, Waylon Jennings, Tammy Wynette, James Taylor, Neil Young, and Credence Clearwater Revival.

It was amazing to see some of these powerful singers and songwriters when they were very young, at the beginning of their careers. But the most striking thing about the Johnny Cash Show was the fact that it looked completely different from the way TV music shows look now. When singers perform on television now, they dance, gyrate, throw their hands in the air, grab their crotches, etc. But in the late sixties and early seventies, they stood ramrod straight and barely moved as they sang. Some of the folk rockers made expressive faces--James Taylor closed his eyes to sing--but the country music people looked like deer caught in the headlights. Tammy did not move at all the whole time she sang "Stand By Your Man." When she was talking to Cash, she looked down at the ground, afraid to look into the camera. George Jones looked more like a possum than ever, about to play dead. Marty Robbins sort of tried to move around a bit, but he had trouble. Only the Man in Black seemed truly comfortable in front of the TV cameras.

I have seen these people perform since, and they are passionate, powerful performers in person. Why were they so damped down? It was as if somebody had turned down the volume on everything: the voice, the body, the passion. Suddenly it occurred to me that country music people were not used to being on television! They were comfortable on the stage of the Ryman when it was full of Shriners and middle-aged people on vacation in Music City, and on the stages of county fairs and small-town auditoriums around the country; but the lights and cameras of television, even on that familiar stage, made them very nervous.

These performances were interspersed with recent interviews with Kris Kristofferson and Hank Williams, Jr, about the show and its effects on country music especially. Somebody, I think Kristofferson, said that there wasn't much music on TV in the late sixties, and there was almost no country music at all on television. It was a huge thing for country music, to be broadcast on a network TV station into the homes of people all over the country. It was so huge that it scared the shit out of them, and their fear showed.

Still, the performances were great, although wooden by today's standards. What made them great? The songs. The song lyrics were really, really great back then. Think of "Sunday Morning Coming Down":

Well I woke up Sunday morning,
With no way to hold my head that didn't hurt.
And the beer I had for breakfast wasn't bad,
So I had one more for dessert.
Then I fumbled through my closet for my clothes,
And found my cleanest dirty shirt.
An' I shaved my face and combed my hair,
An' stumbled down the stairs to meet the day.

I'd smoked my brain the night before,
On cigarettes and songs I'd been pickin'.
But I lit my first and watched a small kid,
Cussin' at a can that he was kicking.
Then I crossed the empty street,
'n caught the Sunday smell of someone fryin' chicken.
And it took me back to somethin',
That I'd lost somehow, somewhere along the way.

On the Sunday morning sidewalk,
Wishing, Lord, that I was stoned.
'Cos there's something in a Sunday,
Makes a body feel alone.
And there's nothin' short of dyin',
Half as lonesome as the sound,
On the sleepin' city sidewalks:
Sunday mornin' comin' down.

In the park I saw a daddy,
With a laughin' little girl who he was swingin'.
And I stopped beside a Sunday school,
And listened to the song they were singin'.
Then I headed back for home,
And somewhere far away a lonely bell was ringin'.
And it echoed through the canyons,
Like the disappearing dreams of yesterday.

On the Sunday morning sidewalk,
Wishing, Lord, that I was stoned.
'Cos there's something in a Sunday,
Makes a body feel alone.
And there's nothin' short of dyin',
Half as lonesome as the sound,
On the sleepin' city sidewalks:
Sunday mornin' comin' down."

The imagery in this song is so vivid. The persona wakes up dirty and drunk, and probably under the influence of some other substances than just beer. His kitchen has no food; he has to have a beer for breakfast. There's nobody taking care of this man, cooking him eggs and bacon, or cleaning his clothes; he's alone, and he doesn't take care of himself. He lives in a gritty walk-up downtown somewhere. All around him are signs of normal family life: children playing, somebody frying chicken, people singing in a church. These are things that he has lost "somehow," but like anybody hung over, he can't remember exactly how he lost the normal comforts of family life. The listener is left to imagine the events that caused this kind of wreckage and loneliness, and it's not too hard to imagine them. But the persona's understanding of his loss seems like a small ray of hope, that he might yet pull himself out of this lonely, dissipated life.

Johnny Cash sang this song on the show, and apparently the fact that he actually sang, "Wishing, Lord, that I was stoned," was an amazing TV moment, because the network execs wanted him to change the lyrics to something less gritty.

Kris Kristofferson himself sang, "Lovin' Her Was Easier Than Anything I'll Ever Do Again," another poem set to music:

I have seen the morning burning golden on the mountains in the skies.
Achin' with the feelin' of the freedom of an eagle when she flies.
Turnin' on the world the way she smiled upon my soul as I lay dying.
Healin' as the colours in the sunshine and the shadows of her eyes.

Wakin' in the mornin' to the feelin' of her fingers on my skin.
Wipin' out the traces of the people and the places that I've been.
Teachin' me that yesterday was something that I never thought of trying.
Talkin' of tomorrow and the money, love and time we had to spend.

Lovin' her was easier than anything I'll ever do again.

Comin' close together with a feelin' that I've never known before, in my time.
She ain't ashamed to be a woman, or afraid to be a friend.
I don't know the answer to the easy way she opened every door in my mind.
But dreamin' was as easy as believin' it was never gonna end.

And lovin' her was easier than anything I'll ever do again.

Again, this is better than average love song writing. In the first stanza there's some ambiguity about whether it's the speaker or the sun that's aching, turning, and healing; so the sun's movement becomes a metaphor for changes in the speaker, under the influence of this warming, golden woman, who herself, if she is the sun, is also aching, turning, and healing.

The next stanza repeats the series of verbs ending in "-ing" or rather "-in'": waking, wiping, teaching, talking. You also have some alliteration going on in the repeated w's and t's. And this wonderful phrase, "Teaching me that yesterday was something that I never thought of trying." What could that mean? Many things: that the past wasn't as bad as he thought; that things could have been different if he'd done things differently; that memory itself is possible and good. And that these yesterdays, rather than being just a blight on memory, are the seeds for better "tomorrows," of money, love, and time. Kristofferson seems to be making an oblique allusion to another famous love poem, "To His Coy Mistress," which also wonders about how much love and time there is to spend; but whereas the poet Marvell was urging his mistress that there was not much time left for love, in this poem it's the lady that's telling the poet how it is, and her view is that there is plenty of time in the future for love (and money). Rather than scarcity, she preaches abundance, like the sun that gives off limitless energy to everything that can soak it up.

Of course at the end of the song there's a sense of tragic loss, of this abundance and ease. Country music used to be tragic. It used to be about loss, mainly. This is hard to remember when you listen to the radio now. At some point in the seventies, the decision was made by people on Music Row to make country music more appealing to more upscale, younger, and more urban listeners, and country music lost its roots in Great Depression hardship, poverty, and loss. The Johnny Cash Show was canceled for the same reason by ABC in 1971 during the "rural purge," when they canceled everything that had a tree in it, as somebody quipped: Mayberry, the Beverly Hillbillies, Hee Haw, and the Johnny Cash Show. Again, they were trying to appeal to younger, more urban, more hip audiences.

The Johnny Cash Show stood at the cusp of a new era in music entertainment. In the future, music would be more spectacle and less meaning, as Baudrillard would say. Less text, more dancing, color, and lights. It would be about the simulation of reality, not the actual gritty reality of the Great Depression that people of Johnny Cash's age could remember. No more songs like Merle Haggard's about working class resentment and anger: "I'm tired of this dirty old sidewalk...You can keep your retirement and your so-called social security...Think I'll walk off my steady job today." Instead, the country music of the radio morphed into the country music of CMT, a world of fast-cut, surrealistic editing, elaborate costumes and sets, lip synching, and "stars" who look more like models than like hard-scrabble survivors of rural working class life.

As "wooden" as George Jones was on the TV set, he still looked like a possum, which is something that you could never say about Tim McGraw.