Thursday, March 26, 2009

RIP: John Hope Franklin

(Finally posted)
John Hope FranklinI was particularly saddened to learn yesterday of historian John Hope Franklin's death at 94. He was by every measure the most significant living African-American historian, and one of the most important historians of African America that we've ever had. His magnum opus, From Slavery to Freedom: A History of African Americans, first published in 1947 and now in its 7th edition, still offers one of the richest and most complete overviews, in narrative form but buttressed by considerable research, of the history of black people in the north-American British colonies and the United States. (My battered, black and fox-eared copy saw considerable use when I was writing my first book, and I even cite it at the work's end.) It's a book I've recommended to many people alongside Lerone Bennett's more popular volume, Before the Mayflower: A History of Black America (Penguin, 1994), and one that high school students across the US should have to delve into.

Franklin, who was born only 15 years after the end of slavery, also explored specific dimensions of American and African-American history, such as Emancipation and Reconstruction, the South before and during the Civil War, free blacks in the antebellum and post-bellum South, and, most recently, escaped slaves, with significant publications, ranging from papers to books, in each area. In 2005, he published his autobiography, Mirror to America: The Autobiography of John Hope Franklin, and his most recent book, written and edited with his son John Whittington White, was My Life and an Era: The Autobiography of Buck Colbert Franklin, which explored the life of his own father. During the late 1990s, he took an even more public role when he thanklessly led President Bill Clinton's "National Conversation On Race," drawing more criticism that honest dialogue on how race and racism had functioned and does function in this society.

After taking degrees at Fisk University and Harvard University, Oklahoma native Franklin taught at three historically black colleges and universities, St. Augustine's College (NC), North Carolina Central University, Howard University, and then Brooklyn College, the University of Chicago, and Duke University, where he was the James B. Duke Professor Emeritus of History, and for seven years was Professor of Legal History in the Law School at Duke University. The historical profession, black academics, and Americans of all colors can mourn the passing of one of the leading intellectual beacons of the last half-century. His books, thankfully, are still with us.

Monday, March 23, 2009

Break + White House Garden

Grades are in, it's the first day of Spring Break, and I am sitting happily here at home petting one cat as her sister reclines on the kitchen counter in a pool of sunlight and dreams, I imagine, about the backyard she faces, which C and I call "Cat TV," since said cat never tires of staring through the backdoor panes of glass or the kitchen window onto the narrow strip of lawn and garden remains that is now mostly brown and blanketed by river magnolia leaves and the occasional errant plastic bag or potato chip package, but which often provides a staging ground for birds, cats, insects of all sorts, and, I'm told, opossum. Later this week, I'll be doing my part to return the yard and the little flower, fruit and vegetable plots bordering it to full vibrancy, as I've also dreamt of them in full bloom during this past long and relentless winter. I also hope some spring weather arrives soon, with a little warmth before the April rains begin. There is nothing, unfortunately, that I can do about that, except hope and wait.


I was glad to see that the White House decided to start a garden, as Chez Panisse owner, chef and locavore guru Alice Waters, and many others, online and off, have been urging. On Friday First Lady Michelle Obama and 26 DC fifth graders took to the allotted plots on the South Lawn with rakes and pitchforks to begin the process of transforming it into a garden that will provide fresh fruits and vegetables not only for the White House but also for Miriam's Kitchen, a facility providing meals for the homeless in DC. I imagine the First Family will be employing professional gardeners to maintain the plot, but I do hope Mrs. Obama, the president and their daughters hit the soil now and then. They feel as exhausted and yet restored as any session on the basketball court or weight machines can provide. I see from the plans below that they've wisely decided not to cultivate blackberries; I love them and highly recommend blackberry sorbet and blackberry mojitos for when the hottest days of midsummer roll on up, but as I tell everyone who's interested, unless you're willing to be vigilant, your entire plot will be a blackberry thicket if you're not careful, and not even thick gardening gloves are much of a match for the tiny switchblades the thorned versions wield to ensure their dominance over not only predators, but their worst enemies, gardeners.

Friday, March 20, 2009

Sister Rosetta Tharpe Day

At the earliest moment of rhythm and blues, before there was rock & roll, there was Sister Rosetta Tharpe (1915-1973), an Arkansas native who pioneered gospel and secular popular musical forms all the way back in the 1930s and 1940s. She also played the electric guitar like she was born with it, and could give drama better than a thespian. Elvis Presley, Bob Dylan, Aretha Franklin, John Cash, and many others attested to how important she was to what they did, and really, she's easily one of the most important but least well known 20th century American musical figures. Today is her birthday. Here are two clips of her, from YouTube. I love the first particularly for how she tosses off pitpatter as she strolls inarm-in-arm with her host from the band, to perform for a British audience. "This is the wonderfullest time of my life. Awwww, let me tell you something...!":

And here she is singing "Trouble in Mind," one of the great blues standards.

Thursday, March 19, 2009

Mr. Monceaux in NY Times + Gays In Jamaica + Obits (Richardson, Purdy, Updike)

A few brief thoughts in the midst of endless end-of-quarter reading:

Morgan Monceaux
Chris Hartlove for The New York Times

About two years ago around this time, as I was sunk deep into one of my usual brutal quarters, I posted a little squib on a friend, Morgan Monceaux/Sir Nagrom, a brilliant artist I first met in Providence back in 2001. That mini-piece discussed a show he was participating in at that time, and today's New York Times offers a fuller portrait of Nagrom, focusing on his many series, some of the many vicissitudes he's faced, and a little of the acclaim he's finally receiving, at age 62, for his art. (The "primitive" bit, along with the "living in a shack," miss the mark, but we are talking about the NY Times, which loves its romantic narratives.) If you happen to be anywhere near Baltimore, check out his "Divas" show at the New Door Creative gallery. It runs through May. (H/t to Geoffrey Jacques!)


Another squib from that same post focused on the anti-gay violence taking place in Jamaica. I noted that link, sent by Thomas Glave, as I thought about this recent post I came across on Michael Petrelis's blog, which links to the 2008 US State Department report on human rights in Jamaica. In its section on LGBTQs and people with HIV and AIDS, it notes that the anti-gay violence in Jamaica and the government's approach to it have not improved; the report points out that "target shootings" of gays and lesbians are occurring, attacks on Jamaica Forum for Lesbians, All-Sexuals and Gays (J-FLAG), the primary gay rights group in Jamaica, continue, and that the situation is also grave for people with HIV and AIDS. To quote the report (as Petrelis does):

The Jamaica Forum for Lesbians, All Sexuals, and Gays (J-FLAG) continued to report human rights abuses, including arbitrary detention, mob attacks, stabbings, harassment of homosexual patients by hospital and prison staff, and targeted shootings of homosexuals. Police often did not investigate such incidents.

J-FLAG members also suffered attacks on their property, home intrusions as people demanded to know the number of persons and beds in a home, and in one instance, a fire bombing at the home of two men that left one of them with burns on more than 60 percent of his body. In addition homosexuals faced death and arson threats, with some of these directed at the J-FLAG offices. J-FLAG did not publicize its location due to such threats, and its officials reported feeling unsafe having meetings with clients at the organization's office.

In February a mob broke into the home of four presumed homosexual men, killing three of them. The fourth was missing and presumed dead. The men had reported being harassed for their perceived sexual orientation prior to the fatal attack. Police made some inquiries in the case but did not conduct a full investigation or make any arrests by year's end.

The trial of six suspects arrested for the 2005 robbery and murder of Lenford "Steve" Harvey, initially begun and then postponed in 2007, was scheduled to recommence in January 2009.

And there's more. Petrelis argues for a boycott of Jamaican products, but I would urge that people contact the Jamaican Embassy in Washington, by letter and telephone, and urge them to become proactive in addressing this constellation of crises. Thinking about the situation in Jamaica also reminds me that many friends and correspondents have written me asking my thoughts about President Obama's decision to sign onto the United Nations gay rights decree, a decided shift from the prior administration. I do think it's a great move, but other issues, such as federal support for partner benefits, ending the failed Don't Ask, Don't Tell policy, and so on, still loom, and I am hoping that Obama doesn't try to slink away from his campaign promises when it comes to LGBTQ issues.


I was sorry to hear about the freak tragic death of actress Natasha Richardson at age 45. I never saw her act on stage, for which she received ample praise, but I thought she shone on screen in a number of roles, including in The Comfort of Strangers (1990) and the film adaptation of Margaret Atwood's dystopian novel The Handmaid's Tale (1990). The circumstances surrounding her death are particular sad; a fall on a downhill baby slope at a Québec ski resort led to a subdural hematoma and swelling of the brain, yet she thought she was okay and refused more extensive treatment at first until she became severely ill 4 hours later. (I've tried nordic skiing, but alpine skiing, which I love watching, terrifies me to no end.) She leaves her husband, actor Liam Neeson, two sons, her mother, the extraordinary figure Vanessa Redgrave; a sister, actress Joely Richardson; and a half-sister, among other family members.

Also passing away recently was author James Purdy, at age 94. This is a slightly expanded version of what I wrote to Reggie H. about Purdy's passing:

Years ago I engaged in a little spat with him, in the then-titled Harvard Gay & Lesbian Review, based on a racist (and anti-Semitic) comment he made after [Toni] Morrison won the Nobel Prize. [He something to the effect that now mainly Blacks and Jews were winning it.] I did like some of his books, though, particularly In a Shallow Grave [which was made into a 1988 film starring a very young Michael Beach and Patrick Dempsey], Malcolm, and Eustace Chisholm and the Works. Garments The Living Wear, the AIDS novel, was a disaster, I thought, rambling, failing in its ironies, verging on incoherent. He, like Coleman Dowell and a few others, was ahead of his time, at least in aesthetic terms.
I do give Purdy--a native West Virginia and longtime Chicago and New York resident who drew upon both cities in his work, and whose combination of raw sexuality and violence always struck me as fitting for our society--credit for having stuck to his vision, even when it meant obscurity; his four novels of the 1970s and 1980s perhaps sank his reputation with the New York publishing industry at a time when that really was the kiss of death.

Some time back, during one of my periods deep in the paper pit, reader Kai had written to ask my thoughts about the passing at age 76 of John Updike, one of the most prodigious and acclaimed writers in contemporary American literature. Reggie H. and I naturally exchanged emails about Updike's death, and I wrote to him:

Wow! He was one of the writers (authors, poets, nontheoretical critics, etc.) who towered over the last 50 years, pretty much from the time he graduated from college. It's strange to think that he's not with us. I had many quarrels with him, his work, his racism or racial [and gender] limitations [and in particular, his sorry excuse for a novel titled Brazil, which led me to write a letter to the newspaper in protest], and so on, but at the same, he was a remarkable figure and often superb writer with greater syntactic and figurative facility than nearly all his peers. His stories again and again show an innate and assured grasp of structure that would take a lifetime to learn. Rabbit At Rest is one of my favorite books, and the first of that tetralogy, Rabbit, Run, is a landmark work of 20th century American literature. [Like perhaps many students over the past four decades, I had to read the book in high school, and found it intermittently enthralling and so tedious I had to force myself to finish it so that I could write a paper on it.] I almost can't believe he's dead, even though I'm typing this.
I used to find it almost unbearable to read his work, since it was so highly extolled during my high school and colleague years (his fiction, that is; I don't think I ever heard much praise for his poetry, and a colleague, one of the major poets out there, recently assessed it as "awful"); its fluency and capacity for almost the most infinitesimal shadings of description and detail were so daunting; and its focus, after the earliest works, on such a narrow stratum of American life, middle-and-upper-middle-class suburban white Northeasterners, was so relentless, but I have cut him some slack over the years, and though I haven't taught an Updike story or novel ever, I do find the novel Memories of the Ford Years, and many of the short stories, such as "A&P" (one of his most famous), "Snowing in Greenwich Village," "The Hermit," "The Killing," and "Playing With Dynamite," among many others, to be exceptional. And they remain, though he's gone.

Wednesday, March 18, 2009

Review: The Class

When I read the other morning about President Barack Obama's planned announcement on education, I realized it was as good a prompt as any to post my review of Laurent Cantet's Oscar-nominated film The Class (Entre les murs [literally 'Between the walls']), which despite its French setting explores some of the issues central to contemporary discussions on US public education. Cantet has based his film on a highly praised novel by former teacher, soccer journalist and singer François Bégaudeau, with whom he co-wrote the script, and the film has the feel of documentary truth; in fact, in its adroit use of non-actors, primarily the schoolchildren who populate the film's classes and playgrounds but also some of the teaching staff, and its somewhat grainy, handheld digital high-definition images, it impressively straddles the feature/documentary line. 38 year old writer Bégaudeau also stars in the film as a fictional version of himself: François Marin, a French teacher leading a diverse, packed French class of 14 and 15 year olds. As the French title literally and figuratively suggests, The Class tracks events between the school's walls, and more specifically, in Marin's class and the teacher lounge, over the course of a school year. In fact, except for the opening scene, the film never leaves the school building or grounds. The effect at times is claustrophobic, particularly in the classroom scenes, where the students appear to be stacked on top of each other in their tiny desks, or when they gather for recess on the outdoor asphalt lot which is smaller than a soccer field. Another way to read the title might through the trope of the domestic; the film repeatedly shows both the physical and emotional connections and distances between the faculty and students, putting the viewer in mind of a large, contentious, dysfunctional family, in which communication and understanding occur in alternating measures. Communication and misunderstanding across the figurative family of the school and within a specific family, as it turns out, are central elements of the film's plot.

The Class opens with teacher Marin polishing off a coffee at a tabac across the street from the school and then heading to a first-day meeting of the teaching staff. Old and new teachers introduce themselves, with the veteran staff, which includes Marin, urging the new staff the best. What we see is a mostly middle-class white teaching staff, with a few people of color scattered among them, a narrative fact that will prove key to the film's central theme and plot hinge of miscommunication and disrespect. Then we're in Marin's in the classroom, and the students pour in. They could easily be sitting in a New York public school classroom, though the racial and ethnic mix is specifically metropolitan French: there are Maghrebians, West Africans, Turks, several East Asian students, along with a smattering of white French middle and working-class students. Marin's primary antagonists turn out to be two girls, Esméralda (Esméralda Ouertani) and Khoumba (Rachel Régulier), the second of whom he's taught before, but who has now become intractable. Both girls use his grammar lessons as a scene to hash out personal and larger political issues. For Esméralda, the issue is belonging, or not belonging, in France, and her awareness of her position, expressed in constant challenges to Marin, gathers force throughout the film. For Khoumba, the issues are more diffuse and inexpressible, and Marin cannot grasp or tolerate them. But there are other antagonists, particularly the young men, whose degrees of participation, embodied by the bright and talkative Boubacar (Boubacar Touré) and non-participation, which is most of the boys, bedevil Marin. Among the most problematic is a popular Malian-French student, Souleymane (Franck Keïta), who rarely speaks and just as infrequently completes or turns in his work. The film shows Marin trying to connect with him, even after Souleymane, in a striking moment, tries to clock Marin by asking if he's "gay," but Cantet shows that Marin's view of and approach to dealing with Souleymane, while full of empathy, will not be reduced to this. Amidst all of the problem children, there are a few ideal students, including Marin's favorite, a Chinese immigrant named Wei (Wei Wang), on whom he and the rest of the faculty can heap no few praises. But Wei'spersonal life, like those of all the other students mirrors the various social crises and fractures affecting contemporary France; his father, in France illegally, is sent back to China, and there's great concern about how this will effect the son and the rest of the family.

The French class setting is a brilliant touch, since language is the material and discursive embodiment of any country's history, its society, its culture, its ideals, and its identity. In terms of France, the language also indexes the country's incapacity, at various levels, to fully acknowledge sociopolitical, economic and cultural differences and counternarratives to its sense of itself as a beacon of liberty, equality, and brotherhood. As I watched the struggles in the class, through the language itself, play out, I thought about debates in the US over Ebonics, English-as-a-Second-Language, and testing standards, while also considering the flexibility and pragmatic aspects of English itself. At various points in The Class, we see Marin's or students' questions or arguments over language, such as the use of the highly formal and rarely used French past subjunctive, which Khoumba knows and deploys correctly, to Marin's surprise and disbelief, then disdain, expand into serious arguments over class, race and ethnicity, citizenship and Frenchness. The more casual and colloquial language the students deploy, the language of metropolitan France, butts heads with the textbook French that Morin is trying to teach, that he wields at times, as a vehicle not only of learning, but also of condescension and superiority. For nearly all the students, including the white French students, there appears to be no easy identification with the language of Pierre Corneille and François Molière, André Malraux and Simone de Beauvoir, or the vast array of attitudes, the vast culture, these figures represent: they define themselves and their ideas against this France discursive, by other means and modes, such as religious affiliation, national belonging, racial categorization, or identity categories such as Goth culture. And in the classroom and outside, these forms of identity and identification keep clashing; during a series of in-class talks, students quarrel over the teams in the African Cup of Nations, dividing along national lines (Morocco/Arabs/winners vs. Mali/Black Africans/losers vs. Ivory Coast, whose teams have done well in international competition), which leads to a near fistfight between Malian champion Souleymane and a newcomer, Carl (Carl Nanor), a young Afro-Caribbean student who has been ejected from another school, and who identifies with...France. For Souleymane, the epithet "brother" goes no further than Mali touches Guadeloupe; blackness here fractures like French society itself.

It's appropriate to call The Class a tragedy with a small "t," as the unrelieved conflicts build to a sad but foreshadowed end. At the same time, tragedies of this sort, I imagine, occur all over France and, as we know, all over the United States, the larger tragedy being a national one, as generations of students remain undereducated, their psychological, emotional, economic, and cultural needs unmet, and the country, our country and the world, are the worse for it. In this film's case the triggers are language, naturally enough, and the concept of respect. At a teacher's meeting, the faculty debate the progress of students, and, in a truly French touch, student representatives must be present. In this instance, Marin's antagonist Esméralda happens to be one of them, and displays her utter respect for the teachers through giggling, joking, misremembering comments that will prove explosive when she recounts them later in Marin's class. The next day, Marin, in a bit of pique, tosses off an insult at Esméralda and her fellow conspirator, basically calling them sluts, and this leads to a violent outburst and confrontation with Souleymane, who is determined to preserve their honor. The altercation provokes a trial, but again Cantet mixes things up by having Marin as the chief defender of Souleymane, who, we learn, is in danger of being sent back to Mali by his father if he is thrown out of school. I won't give away the ending, but there are no comic turns here, no deus ex machina, no easy or slick redemptive turns. Marin takes his knocks, as does Souleymane, and the liberal attitudes the teachers may individually hold are no match either for the parents' representatives, the students' proxies or what amounts to the rule of law. When the film ends, as the academic calendar itself reaches its end, the school, Marin fields responses from the class on what they got out of his class, and the responses vary, but one young woman, who has barely uttered a word, her eyes wide with something verging on despair, expresses an anxiety that is redolent of many classrooms across France, the US and elsewhere: she has not learned anything, she says. Nothing. It was all beyond her. And we gather that she'll pass, move up a grade, and then what? Marin has no answers, as film offers none, instead uniting everyone on screen, as a family, even if the various dramas and traumas have not fully healed and what passes for the respect that the faculty and students have reestablished is as a fragile as a very thin pane of glass.

The acting throughout is unmannered and effortless, grounding the film in a realist mode. Bégaudeau inhabits Marin completely, demonstrating more than once that he is neither an angel nor a monster, but utterly human. Nearly as good are Jean-Michel Simonet as the principal, many of the teachers, and Fatoumata Kanté as Souleymane's mother. The performances by the student actors, however, are what set this film apart. All of them are excellent, but particularly noteworthy are Ouertani, Régulier, Keïta, Touré, and Nanor. Keïta is like a silently smoldering volcano, all charm and youthful cool covering a rage that could split an opponent in two, while Nanor smolder like an ember from the moment he hits the screen, his lips pouty and unibrow furrowing, as if it is taking every fibre in him not to punch anyone who crosses him out cold. Ouertani, however, is the revelation. Smart-mouthed, with a breathy voice and a cutting wit, the young actress plays her character as the kind of student many a junior and senior high school teacher may secretly fear, someone whose sense of outrage and justice fuels a contempt that matches a brilliance the teacher hardly expects or wants to deal with ever. All contribute to making the movie one of the best and truest to life I've seen about contemporary public school education. I now wish that an American filmmaker would attempt something along these lines, instead of the endless, soupy features and comedies about the education of the suburban rich and upper-middle-class, or the urban school redemption stories, which are more about the (usually white) teachers and less about the (usually not white) students, that flood our screens. There is a rich and worthy vein of narratives across this country, just awaiting a writer and a director talented enough to tell them.

Tuesday, March 17, 2009

St. Pat's Day + Dhani Travels + A-Rod-ics

Like a sizable number of Americans, including millions of African-Americans, including our president, and black people across the Caribbean, I have some Irish ancestry (those Keen[e] brothers who settled in Illinois back in the mid-19th century are the ones I know about, the others in the line I can't be sure), so to all, Happy St. Patrick's Day.

I won't be celebrating, though. I think the last time I was anywhere close to a St. Patrick's Day celebration was when I ran for my life from Andrew Station in South Boston as a few rowdies decided that I was to be part of their celebration. Wasn't. Going. To. Happen. The good old days. My late grandfather Cecil used to wear a bright green boutonniere on St. Patrick's Day, which, I was told all through childhood, merited stares and occasional comments, which received his consequent "And a Happy St. Patrick's Day to you too." With a twinkle and smile. And why not?

I won't be wearing any holidayish clothes today, since the only bright green articles of clothing I have these days primarily feature the colors of Brazil, which is not a country St. Patrick ever made his way to....


On a completely different note, I have had little time to watch much TV beyond the weeknightly Newshour With Jim Lehrer, this past season of Top Chef (a very disappointing outcome), and the occasional Keith Olbermann and Rachel Maddow shows on MSNBC. I did watch the opening rounds of the World Baseball Classic, but classes made sure that I forgot about it almost as soon as I'd started enjoying the outcomes. Almost everything I know about what's current on TV comes from things I read on the internet, usually HuffingtonPost, RawStory, the New York Times's art pages, or something along these lines. Things are a little different during periodic visits home to New Jersey, when I do catch weekend marathons of various shows.

This is fine; I'd rather watch little or no TV, unless there's something really compelling on (like catching Tomas Gutiérrez Alea's remarkable film, one of my all-time favorites, Memories of Underdevelopment, on WNYC years ago) or I want to zone out (so I sat through the entire Oscars broadcast, despite having seen almost none of the films this year), but I will be following every episode of this show: former University of Michigan star and linebacker for the Cincinnati Bengals (and formerly of the New York Giants and Philadelphia Eagles), Dhani Jones's new traveling sports show, Dhani Jones Tackles the Globe. In the first episode, the whipsmart and multiply talented--yes, truly; he's a poet, bowtie designer, orchestral conductor; etc.--dreamboat Jones went to Thailand and participated in a Muay Thai bout, on one week's training. He won. (His hefty opponent appeared to be on his last leg, but that's not the point.)

Dhani Jones and Trainer Pit
Picture: Thom Stukas/Travel Channel, L.L.C.

Between the actual training and fight scenes, gorgeous Jones offered a travelogue filled with charm-rich commentary and humor. Eating insects. Check. Visiting the red-light district (and showing utter terror). Check. Strolling through a sacred field and viewing important ruins and temples. Check. Playing soccer with elephants. Check. Getting his fortune told. Check. And frequently wearing tight or no clothes. Check. What's not to like? In case you are still on the fence, view the clip below, and see what you think. Until the No. 1 Ladies' Detective Agency, starring Jill Scott, Annika Noni Rose and Idris Elba drops on HBO, it's Jones's world tour is one of the best things TV has to offer.


Lastly, and this has nothing to do with St. Patrick's Day, since he never made to the Dominican Republic (or New York, for that matter), but I must give it to the Mariah Carey of the baseball world, Alex Rodriguez. He knows how to create drama, spectacles, excitement. He seems a bit off his rocker, but in an appealing way. And he keeps people buying papers, Yankees' tickets, turning to online forums to blast his behind far out of the ballpark. Before the revelations about his steroid use it struck me that he probably would be unmasked as one of the many who juiced up to improve his already abundant gifts, but I also thought after his roller-coaster seasons, or rather post-seasons, with the Yankees, that such an unmasking would probably work to his favor, as it would bring his almost unreal talent--if not his beauty and his ego, a prisoner of his anguished sense of himself--down to earth, and it has. He is like the rest of them, the Cansecos and Caminitis and McGwires and Giambis and Clemenses, and all the other less famous roiders who couldn't break out of the bullpen of their limited talents, only prettier and more likely to send Yankees haters into rabid fits with his whines and preening. If the Steinbrenner family debated whether they ought to pay this man the loot they've been forking over, I hope they realize he's definitely worth it. Between tabloid-friendly marital dramas, starring no less than Madonna and Lenny Kravitz, and complete pre- and post-season physical and emotional breakdowns, to spreads like the one below, in Details, which I can only imagine have sent his fans and detractors spinning, he knows how to build momentum, positive or negative--Stray-Rod, A-Roid, Mr. Regular Season, etc.--until he can get onto the next new thing, which of course will center on, you guessed it, him. What will he come up with next? Some of my favorite shots (all photos by Steven Klein) from the photoset:
A-Rod in Details
A-Rod As Narcissus (or as someone put it on the Huffingtonpost, as the "Narcissexual")

A-Rod in Details
A-Rod As the Thinker (a/k/a Ms. Understood)

A-Rod in Details
A-Rod As The Music Lover (And Somebody Who Has Much More Muscular, Bowed Legs Than I'd Imagined--Damn!)

And none other than the not-very-funny but really on it here Jimmy Kimmel had to get in on the fun:
Jimmy Kimmel as A-Rod

Monday, March 09, 2009


"More soon" turned into "nearly a month later." (Maybe I should retitle this blog "Notes from the Underground" or "Another Frequency".) I think this is the longest I've paused in my blogging since I began other than during this past summer, when I was ill, but that involved multiple surgeries and pain medication, while this hiatus has been the result of one of the rougher academic years I've had in a while. Winter quarter classes did officially end on Friday, and I already miss teaching the two I had, though the upcoming raft of revised short stories and final papers will ensure that I'll be in contact with the students at least for the next few weeks. But classes are never the issue....


For my literature class this quarter, I asked students to send me short commentaries from the critical journals they have been keeping. I posted these commentaries to a blog, Thinking Aesthetics (on Wordpress).

If any J's Theater readers have the time, please do browse through these short entries, and offer any short responses that you can. The students have posted on perception, Kant, Hegel, Winckelmann, horror, sentimentality, and pornography, with more to be posted soon.

I've tried the class blog format once before, but it's still a work in progress for me. Please note that the leap in topics is a result of the class's foci, not an desultoriness on the part of the students.


Back around February 20, right after my "More Soon" post, I'd planned to jot down some thoughts about the first month of President Barack Obama's tenure, but there was so much else to do, and...the result was silence. (I couldn't even manage to post quotes or poems or photos, things I've done in the past--my brain was just shutting down.) As we are approaching the two-month mark, however, I felt I ought to offer some thoughts before I looked up and half a year had passed.

It strikes me that Barack Obama has been consistently pragmatic, with moments of boldness and of caution coming in alternating fashion; on some issues, such as the immediate halting of the Bush administration's last minute environmental rule changes and his upcoming 2010-11 ten-year-budget scenario, which hews to his campaign promises in many ways (on health care, on taxes, etc.), and decelerating the discursive battle with Russia, he's show true progressiveness. On the successful but inadequate stimulus bill, his administration's move to try some of the Guantánamo and other "terrorist" detainees in federal courts while still holding on to some of the Bush policies that created these problems, and the piecemeal approach to releasing the Bush administration's outrageous "legal" memoranda that legimated torture, illegal spying and other unconstitutional lawlessness, and the draw-down of US troops from Iraq, he's proved to be cautious and Clintonian. On the relentless denial of the necessity of "nationalizing" the giant failed banks and his financial team's overall approach, his adherence to Bush's "state secrets" policies, and his failure to speak out forcefully for some nominees (like Hilda Solís or Charles Freeman), he's demonstrated not only a lack of will, but a bit of cravenness as well. On other issues, such as the Israeli-Palestinian crisis, the US's relations with Cuba and more broadly with other hemispheric neighbors, and the "drug war," the verdict is out.

Although Obama's chosen avatar is Abraham Lincoln, and the daily tide of news underlines how badly we need a contemporary version of Franklin Delano Roosevelt, so far he has operated like a combination of John F. Kennedy, Dwight Eisenhower and Bill Clinton. The youthfulness, vigor and clarity is Kennedyesque; the watered-down progressivism is Eisenhowerian; and the occasional double-talk and accommodation of GOP frames and talking-points verges on being Clintonian. In other words, he is tacking most closely, at least as I see it, to Ronald Reagan (though in reverse in terms of partisanship). This isn't the worst we could expect, but seriously, the president has got to take bold steps when necessary, despite GOP/MSM criticism, the timidity of Democrats in Congress and the party apparatus, and even public opposition when it arises.

On a symbolic level, his tenure so far has been exciting and energizing. In addition to the country being able to wake up every day and realize that we have a black president, we also can note Obama's seriousness, his engaging manner, and his candor, which we haven't witnessed in decades. He also comes across as real, especially whenever he leaves the White House, and fairly sincere. Someone enamored of his own ego, but also willing to admit his faults when he must. He isn't play-acting in the way that we had to endure from his predecessor; no fake ranches, no pseudo-cowboy swagger, and no lies wrapped as linguistic rebuses that only right-wing fanatics could resolve. Also energizing is his ability to change his plans as the circumstances demand; this fact, which he has demonstrated repeatedly so far, should encourage anyone that no matter how the next few years turn out, he and we will not stagger down we had. But there is a stubbornness, or inertia that appears at times to creep into the picture. Take the ongoing resistance of his chief financial officers, Timothy Geithner and Larry Summers, to change course. Their repeated shopping of a flawed plan as the economy devolves can only dismay, even if you aren't regularly reading the informed pleas from Paul Krugman and the dire prognostications of Nouriel Roubini. Yes, we could have predicted some intransigence given that Geithner is tied to Wall Street and was a party to its failed policies, and Summers's previous Treasury tenure exemplied a deregulatory approach whose assumptions have proved disastrous. But they work for someone who, as I noted above, is not rigid. So WE really have to make sure he hears that a change of course is necessary, right away--and it must come from us, the people who voted for him, since the mainstream media show they're incapable even of grasping basic tax policy, let alone the mathematics of a spending bill ($7.7 billion out of $410 billion is less than 2%, yet how often have you heard even a single talking head note this, and the ones who babble on Sunday morning talk shows are the worst). But this is nothing new. At least now we have someone in office who, with adequate pressure, will listen. But the pressure must be there, because it's becoming clear that the voices whispering and yelling into his and his administration's ears unfortunately do not have the country's--that is, the vast majority of the country's, and world's--best interests at heart.


I watched the Oscars a few weeks ago, the entire broadcast, despite having seen only one of the films--The Visitor--that received a nomination. I still haven't seen Milk, The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, Slumdog Millionaire, Resurrection Road, Doubt, Vicky Cristina Barcelona, or most of the other films that merited some academy recognition, though I do hope to catch Milk and The Wrestler, along with a few other films like Madea Goes to Prison and The Watchmen soon. But I did catch Laurent Cantet's The Class--which was nominated for an Oscar and didn't win one--the other night, and will try to post a review of it in the next few days. I highly recommend it.


On a lighter note, I watched the World Baseball Classic matchup between the Dominican Republic and the Netherlands. In addition to being a beauty fest, it initially appeared as if, despite two first in errors by Dominican shortstop and Tampa Bay Rays star Hanley Ramírez, it would be a romp by Quisqueya. It turned out, however, to be a closely fought game that the Netherlands team, made up mostly of Caribbean players from Curacao, Aruba, and the rest of the Dutch Antilles, won, 3-2 over the Dominicans, who came back the next day to wallop Panama 9-0. I still think DR is the team to beat in Pool D, which also includes Puerto Rico. The USA won its first two games, a squeaker 6-5 over Canada (which lost to a Major League-packed team of Italian Americans, i.e., Italy, in its second game) and then a romp over Venezuela 15-6, and appears to be the team to beat in Pool C. Japan appeared to be the team to beat in Pool A, defeating China 14-0 and Korea 14-2, but Korea won the second contest and thus the pool, by a 1-0 score. In the final pool, B, Cuba and Australia look like the likely winners, though Mexico could pull out a qualification, but its team lost 17-7 to Australia, not a good sign.

Team USA after their victory over Canada (Frank Gunn/AP)

José Reyes and Nelson Cruz celebrating after their win over Panama (Fernando Llano/AP)

Korea's Kyung Oan Park hitting against Japan (Andrew Malana/