Monday, March 23, 2015

Is college necessary? (Part One of 1,000--an ongoing discussion)

In my last post (In the absence of leisure, where is art?), I reinforced the conceit that people who are "cultured" (i.e., read books) go to college. But is college really necessary?

It's an argument--and an essay--that I've tried to work up but haven't completed for a couple of years now, since my son was facing student loan debt for his last year of college (all parental college funds being depleted). Did he really need to finish a history degree that was going to cost him nearly $20K if he was going into the performing arts and didn't have a good (not just minimum wage) job at the ready?

My argument was weakened by the fact that I graduated with a degree in Western Civilization--perhaps one of the more frivolous majors, in terms of making money afterwards and/or in having something to talk about with regular people on the bus. (In my experience, few people outside the university environment have heard of Catullus or want to talk about the Aeneid.) I was so intent on learning that I didn't understand, once it was all over, that the world hadn't changed while I was changing--it was indifferent to my acquisition of knowledge. It merely asked, as it had before: Could I type? Serve food? Clean houses?

One difference is that I didn't have to go into debt to get a degree. Debt seems unavoidable now. Yet colleges continue to churn out the same kind of skills for their humanities majors--reading books and writing papers--that few businesses need and that, unless the graduate wants to be go to graduate school or become a professor, have few real-world applications. And few real-world continuations: how many times have I read Catullus in the original Latin over the years since college? Once? Twice?

Yet how could I deny him the experience that I still maintain (marketability be damned!) changed my life?

So I dropped my not very firm argument and let him take on his own debt. And I think now it was the best decision he could make, despite the fact that he is living at home working part-time as a barista (the best job he could find after searching for several months) and facing a 10-year loan pay-off. He grew intellectually. He made connections. He tried new things. All the things one hopes will happen at college.

Is college necessary for other people? Can you educate yourself and find a way to be intellectually engaged outside a campus? I think so, but that's the subject for a future post. It's a challenge for college graduates as well--how to maintain a level of intellectual curiosity away from a university environment and not get sated with empty cultural calories.

Thursday, March 19, 2015

In the absence of leisure, where is art?

In the second installment of its series on the shrinking middle class (The Devalued American Worker, December 15, 2014), the Washington Post tells the story of Ed Green of Winston-Salem, NC, who works more than 12 hours a day, 60 hours a week, to make ends meet and so that his kids might go to college.

I have met many people like Green in recent months, particularly young people who are working multiple jobs to pay off student loan debt or to eventually, or slowly, go to college. For example, a cashier at a big box hardware store last summer apologized for her slowness, telling me that me that she had been on her feet for eight hours already and she still had another job to go to. She looked to be 18 or 19, and said that she was working three jobs in order to afford college. Even then, she said she only had time and money to take one class at a time and didn't know when she was going to finish her degree.

What does this have to do with "writing and creativity"—the stated intent of this blog?

Without at least some leisure, people are less likely to engage in creative activities or to enjoy the arts. That should concern any writer at this point—the potential audience is shrinking.

Perhaps working class folks have never really been big subscribers of The New Yorker or the symphony, but the chance of that becomes less likely if their free time is only used for sleep. And why would they spend their money on magazines or concerts if any remaining salary can be targeted for their children's tuition?

Why do I care? I was one of the poorest students at the California colleges I went to, there with the help of VA and SS benefits, in addition to summer jobs and a small amount of financial aid. I didn't go skiing or to arena rock concerts or on European adventures, as other students did. Yet I still had time (and money) to go to poetry readings, art museums, and concerts in small venues and to take long bike rides and walks along the beach. I would never have thought that I was privileged by doing any of these things, nor did I feel any guilt at having free time while carrying a full load of classes.

A student rushing to class from work and back to work again is less likely to enjoy the cultural activities offered by her university, or even to go to the library. I am sad if such moments are going to be a luxury except for the rich.

I once went to hear Robert Duncan read his poetry at UC-Santa Cruz. It was a warm enough night, so afterwards my companion and I walked the long path down to the bottom of campus, through the redwoods and the bay laurel trees, past the organic farm. We weren't rushing home to get on to the next thing, but just enjoyed the moment, walking to the rhythm of the poetry we had just heard and savored.

Without those moments of savoring, what chance is there for art?

Tuesday, March 3, 2015

The sameness of contemporary country music

Forget what I said several years ago about liking country music. I finally persuaded E-girl to listen to it on the radio yesterday during a long car ride. We both agreed:


All male singers. Nearly the same melody.  And the same topics:

• trucks and/or Chevys
• pretty girls with jean shorts (sun tans/smiles, etc.)
• drinking cold beer/partying
• a disdain for cell phones (3 out of 5 songs) and foreign cars (2 out of 5 songs)
Everything was cheerful. No angst allowed.

"Make it stop!" E-girl said after the fifth song, putting her hands over her ears. "I can't tell them apart."

Their voices sounded like they like to pop a cold beer now and then--not like they sit at a bar all night downing whiskey and smoking endless cigarettes. They were more akin to pop singers than to Johnny Cash.

Tom Petty has criticized contemporary country music as sounding like "bad rock with fiddle." I actually didn't hear any fiddles or banjos yesterday. It really could have just been generic rock music, the only difference being, instead of complaining about a breakup or sexual frustration (or the usual narcissistic urges of rock music), these songs celebrated the simple pleasures of a rural life and the possibility of seeing/being with a beautiful "girl."

What I liked earlier about country music is that it celebrated monogamy--something rock music isn't too strong on. But now it seems heavily imbued with an almost anxious nostalgia for a rural/idyllic life that hardly exists. A lot of under-65 year-old rural people aren't working on the farm--they are more likely to be sitting in front of a computer all day than behind a forklift. They drive their trucks (or, more likely, SUVs) to a metro area to earn their pay.

The best critique of the sameness of contemporary country music comes in this mashup published by "Cowboy Dave" earlier this year. (I think I heard at least two of these songs yesterday--but maybe not.) Enjoy?

Sunday, November 16, 2014

Tap shoe optimism

A row of tap shoes has made me hopeful about public education--specifically, a row of tap shoes outside a hallway, waiting for young dancers to put on just before their performances. The shoes are used multiple times per show, and many times a day per class, at the (free) public school arts magnet that my daughter attends.

They are there for the students who cannot don't buy their own tap shoes (tap is only taught for part of the year, so it can be a big investment for strapped families, especially when feet unexpectedly grow mid-quarter), and yet there is no stigma attached to using them. The kids slip them on and go. There is even a kind of cred in getting them on and off as fast as possible for the next kid to use in a show.

The recital costumes are given to the children for free as well, reused with each show, assigned by costume size. (Those that are still too big are pinned in the back with safety pins). They slip them on over their black leggings and black tank tops in front of one another since there are no dressing rooms.

This is in comparison to for-profit dance schools where dance classes can run hundreds of dollars a month and annual dance recitals require buying one-time-use costumes for $50 to $100.

Most of these children will not grow up to be professional dancers. And these three years may be their only experience with dance. So, what good it do to learn these movements that they may never practice again? I think it's the pride they take in performing and seeing their peers perform. As they wait "backstage" during the winter and spring performances, watching the performances going on above them on-stage via close-circuit TVs, even the toughest and loudest kids will sit down and watch. The subdued conversations are only about who is on stage, how good he or she is doing, and what they think of the choreography and costumes.

I wish there was something equivalent to this for math and science classes, classes where many of these children, especially those from non-English speaking homes, often struggle to do well. A place where they could cheer one another on, and show off what they know. I don't know how to make that happen. I just hope that some of the pride that they experience from these performances permeates other parts of their school day lives.

Friday, September 19, 2014

Silent Summer

Oh the things I planned to write this summer. I cut my workload in May and had several weeks where I had no obligations to anyone. Finally, my work would take precedence.

And then (the day after one of my work contracts ended, in fact) I found a tiny lump in my breast.

Since then I have had surgery and three rounds of chemotherapy (as well as a collapsed lung from my chemo port insertion that went awry). I note this to explain where the time went--but cancer is nothing that I really want to write about. Perhaps some people can find inspiration in their hospital bed, or in the chemo ward. I can't, at least not right now.

For me, it's all been one big time and energy suck. I get through the day and go on to the next. I sleep, I go to appointments, I take short walks. I try not to think about feeling nauseated.

My reluctance to write any more about this comes mostly from not wanting to re-experience any of it. I just want to get through it and be done with it. And I don't want to identify myself particularly as a cancer patient, not here at least.

This is supposed to be a blog about creativity, but I don't feel very creative right now.

I wanted some kind of ending for this post, some summation or slight epiphany. I am exhausted from writing these few words. My necessary nap will have to be an ending for now.

Thursday, June 5, 2014

Growing up, page by page

And so we ride along the streets, immersed in stories. Who knows what the other people sitting at the traffic light are listening to—talk radio? shock jocks? light rock? We are rehearsing for a holiday concert, struggling to survive in a prairie cabin, or walking to school in our new rain boots. And, sometimes, when we delve into fantastic tales like the Spiderwick Chronicles, we can almost see the fairies flying by.
from: The writer, reading (listening) (posted Nov. 15, 2009)

I wrote that blog post four and a half years ago. I knew that we couldn't stay in the land of Pooh or The Little House forever, yet even as they slipped further and further into memory, I thought we still might revisit them occasionally with books on CD in the car.

But the last kid's book we listened to together was Syren (book five of the Septimus Heap series) more than a year ago. A couple of chapters in, E-girl complained that it was nearly the same plot as the last and that Septimus's sister, Jenna, always served the same annoying, inquisitive role. And it was getting bor-ring.

We tried to listen to young adult books together, but there's something discomfiting about listening to a book with your mom (The Future of Us) in which teenagers discuss being "felt up" and having erections. So it's back to the radio for now.

Listening to the radio is a different kind of education for E-girl—and for me. For example, I  know that "Demons" and "Radioactive" are both from Imagine Dragons. I am glad to hear her expressing strong feelings for Nirvana, and for trying to like good heavy metal bands like Metallica—and for turning the channel when Justin Bieber comes on...

Tuesday, May 13, 2014

The construction and deconstruction of a work email account

I'm finishing up one of my writing/editing contracts today, which should give me more time for creative writing. One necessary part of this completion process was cleaning out my work email, searching for what might be useful to someone else in the future, and to jettison everything else.

There were more than 30 folders and subfolders of emails tucked under my Inbox. Over 2,700 messages in my Sent folder—45 screens of messages sent over the last two years.

At first I took the time to read every email message before I deleted it—those emails were, after all, evidence of the hundreds of hours I had put into this job. They had all been important enough to me to send, at least for the moment I sent them.  But after the first few screens, I began to grow weary of the repetition of it all. Most emails fell into two categories: here's what I have for you/here's what I need from you.

I began to mark whole screens of emails at a time and hit "purge" after glancing merely at the subject lines. It felt empowering. Two screens gone, then 10. The list of messages was getting smaller. White space began to appear on my front screen where all those folders used to reside.

But then I felt something akin to vertigo, like the ground was going away, or (as in a recurring nightmare) the lower rungs of a ladder were disappearing beneath my feet. Apparently I am an information hoarder. I feel uncomfortable when I'm not surrounded by lines of information residing on my computer screen. Some part of me must believe that to delete is to die a little.

And then I realized that work email (or, really, any work effort) is a lot like the sand mandalas that Tibetan monks create. So much intensity and time put into the effort and then it's gone. You go to another job or retire or die. The electronic trail eventually disappears for all those everyday efforts. There's a finiteness in that, a beauty of unburdening.

[The film below is an excerpt from from the Werner Herzog documentary "Wheel of Time," showing the construction and destruction of a sand Mandala by the Dalai Lama.]

Friday, March 7, 2014

The scrutiny of celebrity

I try to imagine what it would be like if I were to write a blog post and then, a few minutes later, walk out to get the mail and find myself surrounded by paparazzi, documenting my every move.

Who am I wearing?
Croft and Barrow

What is my hairstyle?

Being a successful performer in the United States means a level of visibility that I cannot fathom. I cannot think of any other art form that requires this of its most successful participants. Even Stephen King could probably walk down most streets in America without anyone bothering him.

If I could only sit down and write when I was at my most gorgeous, I'm afraid I would hardly write at all. I am grateful to have chosen an art form that can be accomplished in sweatpants.

I've been thinking about this since watching the Oscars the other night. It is that incessant scrutiny, I'm sure, that led several of the older actresses to try to smooth away the aging on their faces. The result was too much like the Ecce Homo fresco in Spain that an elderly woman tried to restore but instead turned into a muddy ruin. Alas, I didn't recognize Kim Novak. (I don't mean to add to the snarkiness by saying this, and I'll say no more about how she looked,  but would instead point the reader to an excellent and respectful piece about Ms. Novak from the Self-Styled Siren blog).

The criticism really should be aimed at the doctors who engineered these pumped-up, swollen faces, claiming them as more youthful and vibrant. And also to those who make it their job to tell us who passes and who doesn't—the self-proclaimed experts at celebrity magazines and shows like TMZ. Or maybe it should be directed at all of us, sitting in movie theatres or on our sofas in front of the TV, deciding who is beautiful or not, feeling somehow superior by making such judgements when we ourselves probably wouldn't be able to survive under such scrutiny for more than a couple of minutes.

Tuesday, February 11, 2014

The Artist's Way

A few weeks ago, I began to dip into the book, The Artist's Way. In case you don't know it, it's a 12-week workbook for creative people to get their creative lives back on track. (I'd never heard of it until someone recommended it to me, despite its having sold over a million copies).

One of the things that its creator, Julia Cameron, recommends is doing "morning pages"—three pages a day of stream-of-consciousness babbling, preferably as soon as you wake up. That's all I had been doing so far. That  explains my absence here because my morning pages (which I confess I often write in the early afternoon or even at dusk, or whatever is the soonest I have time to sit down and go at them) have replaced my attempts at blogging. I suppose that's because they serve a similar purpose for me—sharing my thoughts in the moment. Cameron recommends that people starting out with the program not look back at the morning pages for a while, so I can't dig through them looking for blog post fodder.

Today I began the first week of the program more or less in earnest. One of the things she suggests for this week is to work on affirmations and to listen for how your inner-censor will try to negate them. She calls these negative whispers "blurts." Listening for blurts is the real work here. She also offers a list of 20 common negatively held beliefs about being an artist. And there, at number 20, is mine: "20. It's too late. If I haven't become a fully functioning artist yet, I never will." The funny thing is that I said this to myself at the age of 30. It follows that if I haven't been published widely, it is too late; I am obviously not any good—never mind that I have been busy working jobs, rearing children, keeping house and pulling weeds in the garden, too busy to research markets, write cover letters and polish prose as much as I think it needs.

(I have always tried to assuage such negative talk with a reminder that Helen Hooven Santmyer published And Ladies of the Club at the age of 88; but looking at her entry in Wikipedia just now I see that she published a book when she was young, and continued to write and publish poetry while working as an English professor at Wellesley College. So that HHS story will no longer serve to soothe me.)

Does it matter when we create or how much we create as long as the desire to make something is not diminished? That is what I hope to teach myself this week. To stop whining and to just keep writing.

Tuesday, January 14, 2014

Must Masterpiece Theatre butcher BBC dramas?

"I don't want to be somebody's sweetheart—I want to be somebody!" Denise declares to Sam in the fourth episode of "The Paradise." This is perhaps the purest statement of an ongoing theme* in the series. But American viewers who watched "The Paradise" on PBS this winter didn't see it. It went to the cutting room floor, along with the eight or so minutes that were cut in PBS's broadcasts from the original 59-60 minute BBC episodes.

In its December 5th issue, Parade Magazine explained that the reason for the lag of four months between the BBC and PBS showings of "Downton Abbey" was to allow time for "editing for American audiences." One might assume that this means the disappearance of references to obscure facets of Britannia. But what it really seems to mean is to allow PBS to add ads—Ralph Lauren's anorexic girl-women slouching in their fur hats, rich people enjoying river cruises—along with a Masterpiece Theatre introduction.

Since receiving the original BBC version of "The Paradise" on DVD for Christmas, it has become a game with me to try to figure out which scenes and snippets of dialogue were cut from the PBS broadcast. Party scenes, perfumed letters sent on a tray, old lovers meeting in a park—all appeared for the first time in this viewing. Sure, the series could move along and seem intact without such moments. But some cuts are more egregious than others: the orphan, Arthur, finally being told his true origins by Mr. Lovett (the PBS version had him bring up the question, never resolved); Clara being ordered never to go to Mr. Moray's room again by Mr. Dudley (no reason why she suddenly stopped trying in the PBS version); Sam's more blatant attempts to romance Denise; Miss Audrey talking about "regret" with Mr. Moray, a phrase he will later, significantly, repeat to Denise that  same evening (revealing that Miss Audrey was more empathetic and aware than was seen in her American form).

I know that PBS has to pay for its programming, but I wish there was a way they could do it without resorting to such surgery.

When I was young and in a small town with few intellectual resources, I looked to PBS as a lifeline to the greater world. It is a lifeline I have cherished for many years, even after I moved to bigger towns. I hate to cut that lifeline now, and I won't entirely. But if there is a BBC drama I really want to invest my time in, I know now that I will have to buy it on DVD or wait for it to appear on Netflix if I want to see it the way the screenwriter and director intended for it to be seen.

* Unlike the female characters in "Downton Abbey" who are punished for trying to rise above their station, or for simply being women.