Saturday, May 18, 2002
TRUTH IS STRANGER THAN FICTION
I have rented a book on tape from the library. I thought it would be nice, since I had a lot of housework to do, to listen to a story. I found one by Ralph Ellison, Juneteenth. It is a really good recording; they even gave a little introduction to the book before they started.
It turns out that Ellison had been working on this book for 40 years, and had not finished it at the time of his death. I read his fabulous novel, The Invisible Man. If you haven't read it, it is a really good treatment of race relations and experience in the 60s.
I wondered about why he would have taken 40 years, and not finished Juneteenth. It seemed like he might have finished it a long time ago, and published it during his lifetime.
But then I began to think about what The Invisible Man was about, and I thought…Hmm…It could be scary to write a book that other people don’t like.
I remembered Martin Luther King Jr. I remembered Malcolm X. They were killed for talking about things that other people didn’t like. And they are not the only examples.
But this is only a book. Why would anyone be scared of a book?
Here is something Joseph Conrad wrote:
Fiction is history, human history, or it is nothing. But it is also more than that; it stands on firmer ground, being based on the reality of forms and the observation of social phenomena, whereas history is based on documents, and the reading of print and handwriting—on the second-hand impression. Thus, fiction is nearer truth. But let that pass. A historian may be an artist too, and a novelist is a historian, the preserver, the keeper, the expounder, of human experience.
Books can be more powerful than real life, sometimes. They focus your attention on the details that are important, at least, the ones deemed important to the message.
Stories, writing, is powerful, and can move people and shape culture. What if some of those people are extremely unwilling to be moved? Books can be revolutionary, and in revolution, there are casualties.
I remember the stories of Salman Rushdie, after he wrote the Satanic Verses. It was a book that raised a question about Islamic doctrine, and he suffered for it. His life was threatened; he had to go into hiding. He survived all the threats, but his wife couldn’t take it anymore and left him.
What about Galileo? He wrote a revolutionary book about science, and was imprisoned.
I don’t know why Ralph Ellison waited to publish Juneteenth. Maybe he just was being a perfectionist. But just thinking about it, makes me realize again that the power of a book, to change the life of many people or just one, is not insignificant.
posted by Murphy 5/18/2002
Friday, May 17, 2002
TRAVELING MUSIC, PLEASE
I ran across an article by Angela Davis called " I Used to Be Your Sweet Mama: Ideology, Sexuality, and Domesticity". It had to do with the birth of the blues. Now, i like the blues, but I am not really an expert.
She had a really interesting theory about the evolution of the blues. Basically, it is an African American art form, and it grew up after the slaves were emancipated. Prior to emancipation, African Americans sang in groups, because they never really had a place for the solo performer.
When freedom came, the soloist had a place to perform, and people had a place to congregate to listen. Apparently, the earliest blues singers were women; she names Bessie Smith, Ma Rainey, Ida Goodson, and some others. But the part that really grabs me is the subject matter.
One of the major freedoms granted with the release from slavery was the freedom to MOVE. If you are enslaved, you cannot go anywhere of your own free will. When you are your own person, you can go anywhere you want.
So traveling was sung about; it continues to be subject matter for the blues. "Movin' on" I am so excited to see that a historical event, which created new possibilities for travel, revealed itself in an emerging art form.
It gives me new insight into what traveling means to me. Being able to travel is an ultimate expression of freedom. When I am uncertain about where my life is headed or what is in store for me around the bend, I often comfort myself with the idea that I could just get up and go to any place I wanted.
I keep my passport current for that reason.
It's not so much that I WOULD, it's just that I COULD.
It is a form of power. Having a plan. These women who sang and made a new music called the blues knew they had a backdoor; they could leave. Sometimes knowing that makes all the difference. Because when you stay it's your choice. And if it gets bad enough, you know that you can pull the ripcord, hit eject, GET OUT.
It gave her the power again. Being able to travel meant that she was the one in control.
And that can make all the difference.
posted by Murphy 5/17/2002
Thursday, May 16, 2002
My last class for my undergraduate career is finished. It was a Political science class.
THe teacher seems impossibly old. But he tells a lot of stories. He tells them well too. One of the things about being an old person is having such a great amount of stories to tell.
He was actually a politician, so he had a personal viewpoint to speak from, when discussing all the branches of government and how they work.
He took a whole hour today to talk about the wonderfulness of the government.He was trying to convince the class to consider working for the government as a career. He said, "there are a lot of really sharp people in this class. For my own selfish reasons, I would like to have sharp people in the government. You should seriously think about it."
But his story is the kind of story that has been heard so often it doesn't seem like it could be true. He told us his whole life story, this time, not just the bits and pieces.
He was born to a young woman, 20 years old, and his father was 19. His father left them right after he was born. His poor mother, in the middle of the depression, had no skills and had to take care of herself and her child. THe only thing she could do was be a waitress. So she was a waitress, and supported her little baby. He said he remembers that once, when she worked at a hotel, she was able to buy the broken cookies for a discount price. So every once in a while, he was able to have the broken cookies. And he began to resent the broken cookies. He wanted a WHOLE cookie.
Later, he went to live with his grandparents. They were sharecroppers in Northern Indiana.
Sharecropping seems so remote. Almost as far away as medieval fuedalism. But it wasn't THAT long ago...
He remembers sharecropping, and raising the pig and the cow. He described how they would put a barrel in the ground, wrapping up all their carrots and potatoes in newspaper, and use it for cold storage. He said some of the potatoes would be rotten, but it was the way they could preserve vegetables for the winter.
His major goal was to finish high school. NO one in his family had finished high school. In fact, going to high school was in some ways an act of selfishness. What you were supposed to do was find work and help out your family. But he did not do that. He went away at age 15 to live on his own, pay his rent and feed himself with a parttime job and finish high school.
Then came WWII. And the GI bill. That let him go to college. The poor sharecropping boy who used to sit in the Indiana sun with nothing on but his tattered trousers and watch the trains go by, wanting, wanting to go too, but not believing it.
He went to college. And he describes how once, when things were bad, and couldn't pay his dorm rent because he didn't have a job. He was living off oranges picked from trees in the town plaza. For WEEKS.
Then he decided that he was going to do whatever it took to get a job. He decided to walk down the street and ask for a job at every single place, every single one. until he got a job.
My god. I find that so admirable. Because, really, that is what a job is for: food and shelter.
In Tolstoy's masterpiece War and Peace, Pierre struggles to find contentment, and he only finds it after he figures out that food and shelter are not to be taken for granted.
I have been very close, very close, to living off oranges. When I remember that, it is easier to remember how blessed I truly am.
If you have food and shelter, all the other things are frosting.
In Russia, there is a cultural emphasis on bread. You must have bread at every meal. Bread was very important, even though not everyone enjoyed the bread or ate it. I asked why bread was such a big deal.
"Because if you have bread, you are not hungry. You have food, and you have enough, if you have bread. You will be satisfied, you will be okay"
It takes less than you might think to make it. A slice of bread, apparently. Or, in this land of sunshine, oranges in the park.
The important thing about my professor's story is that he did not quit school to find a job. He stuck it out.
As he was going from business to business, he was turned down again and again. He went into an insurance broker's office and told his story to the guy. The guy said, "i'm sorry. I have kids of my own I'm taking care of. I can't use you. Good luck"
But as he turned to go, another man stopped him. He said, "You mentioned that you were taking classes in Political science at college. I might be able to use you."
He was the insurance broker, and on some kind of drunken dare, he had been nominated to run for state senate. Only, he knew nothing about government.
They reached an agreement. THe broker would train him in the insurance field, and he would train the broker in how the government worked.
He threw his pride out the window; no need for pride. It's just about the basics.
posted by Murphy 5/16/2002
Tuesday, May 14, 2002
Well, you just never know.
I have already mentioned that I won some awards at school. It was a sudden and surprising avalanche of awards, and I didn't even do anything special. I was working hard and someone all of a sudden noticed. I think there must be a lot of students who work hard; I am not really sure why I was noticed.
I remember back when I was about 13. I decided that I MUST learn to play the piano. I was obsessed with playing the piano. I did not have a piano in my home. I did not have money for piano lessons.
But I couldn't leave it alone. Anytime I got near a piano, in church or in an empty classroom, anywhere, I had to sit down and play whatever I could. Mary had a little lamb; this is the Day, anything. I learned to find melodies with one finger. Almost any melody.
But that wasn't playing the piano. I needed MORE.
I asked the church piano player how to play the piano.
He said, "You have to learn Chords"
All right. I bought a chord chart and painstakingly placed my fingers in every chord configuration for every single key. I memorized them and I practiced until I could move quickly between them.
But that was still not playing the piano.
Finally, I heard about a nice woman from a neighboring church who was teaching a whole group, an entire class of students how to play the piano. I got to join them. I was so anxious to learn, I practiced from the book, and made sure I could do it.
Then, because of sickness and being snowed in, I missed TWO WEEKS of classes. I didn't know how far the class was in the book, so I went as far ahead as I could. I guess I was about halfway through the book.
When I joined the class again, the teacher asked me where I was in the book, and I played all I could for her. She sort of looked at me, and said, "I think you are ready for private lessons." And she offered to teach me. For free!
As she said later, "It is fun to teach you, because you really want to learn"
In one month, maybe less, she had taught me how to put the pieces together, and I could play. I will never forget her.
Back to the awards at SJSU...
Ever since I got these awards, all my teachers, even ones I haven't seen in years, have all been congratulating me and coming out of the woodwork to ask me how I'm doing and what my plans are and asking me to stay in touch.
I'm shocked. I hardly know what to think. I feel like the prom queen or something.
I've always felt like these teachers must forget all about me after I leave their class. I mean, I only have 5 or 6 teachers a semester, but they have hundreds of students. I hate to presume that any of them would remember me.
But apparently they do. And now that I've won some awards, they are all well wishing and giving me advice. Good advice too. Telling me about different opportunities and programs that I didn't know about.
Weird. I don't feel any different. But I am treated different.
If these are the results of winning awards, I am going to try to win as many awards as I can. The fancy paper with my name on it is not such a big deal, but all this advice and concern is quite valuable.
I was just trying to fit the pieces together, so that I could understand this stuff I'm wondering about.
posted by Murphy 5/14/2002
Sunday, May 12, 2002
Today I was introduced to Odd Todd.
Then I realized, It's funny because it's true. The job market is tough out there. Holy Crap.
I will soon be belched forth out of my blissful state of panicking about finals into the reality of panicking about finding a job.
I try to panic about one thing at a time. It's good to have goal.
I also found my first gray hair today.
Which makes me pause and gasp and feel a sort of sinking feeling, like my life is passing me by.
But when I realize how stupid and ordinary it is to worry about being unemployed getting old and ugly is, I decide to throw in the towel.
I mean, Goddamn. If I am going to worry, I'm going to worry about something important. Worrying about large abstract concepts lends me the air of being large and abstract. I've always admired abstract people.
Besides, it will take my mind off being unemployed.
posted by Murphy 5/12/2002