At a vigil in South Bend, Indiana, last night, I noticed the alertness of the police officers, which seemed different from other times I've attended political rallies here downtown. Three officers were near the edge of the crowd of maybe 400, in a square with a fountain out front of the Morris Theater, the fancy old venue where the big traveling acts like Phantom of the Opera play.#

I suppose the officers had already given a good look at the crowd itself. Every time I looked over, pretty much, they were scanning the approaches to the site, implying that danger would come, if it did, from the outside. That the vigil group would be approached by others intending to challenge them.#

Suggesting that our local police department considered this evening a more dangerous evening than most others here. #

Based on what, I wondered? On a tip? On a website posting from a fringe group? On a general concern about the state of society this week? I don't know.#

But they scanned the sidewalks and streets approaching the vigil site steadily, while most of us looked away from them toward the speakers at the other end of the crowd.#

Big company far away says things are going to go this way now, not that way. We get used to this sort of thing and do the best we can.#

Then they forget their promise, or their threat, and for the time being we don't have to change what we're doing. We just have to keep looking over our shoulders, just in case.#

I haven't been using the outliner lately but I'd like to write a book, chapter by chapter, using the outliner as the basic composing space.#

From the obituary today:#

Alta made Indiana a better place for women to work and live. But, one should say, not only for the women of Indiana, but for all women throughout this great country. She fought to eliminate barriers by filing a class-action sex discrimination suit against a corporate giant and a local union more than 40 years ago. And her effort has not been forgotten. A statewide council of judges from the Indiana Commission for Women has acknowledged her commitment to battling discrimination by presenting her its Torchbearer Award for labor advocacy. She was nominated by the Indiana Women's History Association. The state honored women torchbearers at the second annual “Salute to Women” held in November, 2005 in Indianapolis. There were 42 finalists in 23 categories. Just to be a finalist is an honor. All were recognized for their accomplishments and they received certificates. Alta was also the recipient of the “2005” Women at Work Award” presented by the Indiana Women's Commission in October. She made history during a 10-year legal battle with Uniroyal and United Rubber Workers Local 65. On Jan. 13, 1970, Alta and seven other laid-off female co-workers traveled to Chicago to the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission's office to file a lawsuit. Her objective as the lead plaintiff in the sex discrimination suit filed against the corporate giant and the union was clear. Alta wholeheartedly believed that Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 was meant to protect workers from discrimination on the basis of sex or race. Her story is as dramatic as that of the story of “Norma Rae” and how she unionized workers into the Textile Workers Union of America. Alta's struggle was every bit as difficult. “We had to go through so many lawsuits to achieve our goal,” she said. In 1959, she was hired at Uniroyal in Mishawaka. More than 1,100 local women worked on footwear lines. However, in 1969, Uniroyal began closing down manufacturing lines. Alta was laid off in August 1969. “I was self-supporting,” she said. “And I didn't realize how hard it would be financially.” When her supplemental unemployment benefits were cut -- along with those of female co-workers -- she prepared to file charges with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. May Alta's legacy live on.#

I got distracted somewhere along the way and stopped blogging, sad to say.#

What was the first sentence of your first blog post, all those years ago (or last Tuesday)? Here's mine:#

By giving a fellowship to blogging innovator Dave Winer, Harvard University points higher education in the direction of the on-the-run web collaboration and publishing known as blogging. (March 7, 2003)#

The blog is no longer online. It was a pMachine site that eventually held nearly 1400 posts.#

Some of the things writers say about essays remind me of the traits of blogs; some of the things writers say about blogs remind me of the traits of essays. I'll gather some quotations here to start to explore that. Maybe others will come to your mind, too?#

Edward Hoagland, from his introduction to the 1999 edition of The Best American Essays:#

Like you, an essayist struggles with the here and now, the world we have, with sore and smelly feet and humiliation, a freethinker but not especially rich or pretty, and quite earthbound, though at his post. (xix)#

And the form of composition Montaigne gave a name to would not have lasted so long if it were not succinct, diverse, and supple, able to welcome ideas that are ahead of or behind the blurring spokes of their own time....[The essaysist] is an advocate for civilization.... Working in the present tense, with common sense as his currency, "This is what I think," he tells the rest of us. (xiv-xv)#

[Essayists] are not nihilists as a rule. They look for context. They feel out traction. They have a stake in society's survival, breaking into the plot line of an anecdote to register a reservation about somebody's behavior, for instance, in a manner most fiction writers would eschew, because an essayist's opinions are central, part of the very protein that he gives us.... He has the job of finding coherence in the world. (xvii)#

Theodor Adorno, from "The Essay as Form," in Volume 1 of Notes to Literature:#

[The] essay's innermost formal law is heresy. Through violations of the orthodoxy of thought, something in the object becomes visible which it is orthodoxy's secret and objective aim to keep invisible. (23)#

Here is another translation of that:#

The law of the innermost form of the essay is heresy. By transgressing the orthodoxy of thought, something becomes visible in the object which it is orthodoxy's secret purpose to keep invisible. (171)#

On the other hand, there are the feeble imitations of the real thing. Austrian writer Karl Kraus said that certain would-be essayists were merely "baking bread from bread crumbs." I like Kraus's provocation there. No doubt there's more to think and say about the weaknesses of both genres.#

And we'll have to talk about gender someday, too.#

[From an old posting at my original blog, which lived on trusty pMachine software. The blog is no longer easily found on the web.]#

What about the title? It's The Shepherd's Life instead of A Shepherd's Life. My hunch is that we're not meant to overlook the centrality of tradition, right from the start, right from the cover. This is not the story of a particular shepherd, but the story of a way of life that particular people inhabit. We're meant to think about the broad patterns, the long patterns over time, not just the me-centered stories that are the more familiar currency of our society. The author is pushing back, then, quietly, insistently, right from the first here on the cover.#

As pertinent as the book's subtitle and the jacket copy are, these are elements of marketing. Even though the author probably had a hand in both of them, I feel like stepping past them, at least for now, and opening the book itself. The dedication to the author's father and grandfather makes it all personal and old-fashioned in a way that the author respects and hopes we will respect, too, without undoing the work that has commenced in the title, the work of a meaningful tradition.#

The table of contents: two notes. First, "hefted" is new to me and I'll need to read on to know why it has been given the place of honor here at the start. Second, the cycle of the seasons that organized Thoreau's Walden is set out here too. It's an ambitious plan that a writer should not carry out lightly--it promises real knowledge of the natural world. Once again, it's not a me-centered story here, not the story we tend so much of the time to hear. There's a different touchstone of experience and meaning being promised here, and it's refreshing to think that an alternative of this kind still exists. Many of us probably assume that this other world has been lost, or that it is made up of the customs of another place and time. Its patterns, by our modern standards, may seem quaint or arbitrary. But this table of contents hints that the patterns are anything but arbitrary, and not yet lost either. #

I remember camping in 1980 or so in the Lake District, in a field owned by a farmer who was listed as being willing to have tent campers there. You were to knock on the door, pay the fee, and then set up your tent out away from the house. I did so. After a time, some curious sheep came by. I was ignorant of their ways, didn't know if they'd nibble on the tent ropes, didn't know if I might accidentally annoy them there. I had no idea that they were the meaningful center of a way of life, an economy, an ecology. I had no clue how much they could mean, and when time came to pack up I was glad to be away from them because I didn't know what I was dealing with. The layers of ignorance there.... I am persuaded that the book will help with that ignorance.#

More in episode #2.#

How does authority work? Sometimes it is a style of performance rather than a matter of substance, isn’t it? Sometimes it’s just what we’re used to rather than a considered judgment about what counts in the world. Ira Glass tells how he sees it in his field:#

“I think it comes down to, like, What do you think authority comes from? And back when we were kids authority came from enunciation, precision, [Baldwin: ‘Right, delivery.’] and a kind of gravitas that you are bringing to the character you are playing, and I think that, you know, not just me but a whole generation of people feel like, well, that character’s obviously a phony pretending to be this, like, cartoon, sort of, like the newscaster on The Simpsons, with a deep voice, having gravitas. And so I think a lot of us just went in the other direction, and for me, I felt like, you know, any story hits you harder if the person delivering it doesn’t sound like some news robot but in fact sounds like a real person having the reactions a real person would have and be surprised and amazed and amused and all of those things.” #

To get past the beautiful veneer of the professional broadcaster, Glass spent time unlearning that style and trying for a style much more like everyday speech. This means that authority can sometimes find its roots in the heart and mind of a person rather than in an institution or a person trained and accredited by an institution. This gets us to the territory of the essayist, the blogger, perhaps the active citizen, certain kinds of stand-up comics—people who locate meaning in their own experiences and shape a public voice from that source and, as James Baldwin wrote, “renew themselves at the fountain of their lives.” (The Fire Next Time)#

Source: Ira Glass in a conversation with Alec Baldwin on the Here’s the Thing podcast's 11/24/14 episode, starting at 2:05 or so.

It appears that yesterday's behind-closed-doors meetings of Statehouse GOP leaders, business leaders, and people from the governor's staff has lead to language for a revised RFRA law that the GOP legislators will accept and vote for. This language is supposed to be announced at 9:00 am today. It sounds like the Indy Star was told about the language late in the evening after the deal was set, but they have not printed the text as far as I know. It sounds like Democrats were not made part of the conversation--no need since there is a gerrymandered GOP supermajority in place. Reporters paced the halls of the Statehouse tweeting about who went in and out of closed doors and passed them without comment during much of the process. Since that's what the press has been able to gather, that's what voters are left with for now. The GOP supermajority is accustomed to having conversations behind closed doors so that people can't see the process work of the democracy.#

“Strength lies in organization, in careful long-range planning and implementation, in consistency of action over an indefinite period of years, in the scale of financing available only through joint effort, and in the political power available only through united action and national organizations.” --Lewis Powell, via Bob Herbert's 2/28/2011 "Unintended, but Sound Advice" column#

Every time I buy a book, I make a choice that helps shape the landscape of American publishing, right?#

Any of the country's great independent bookstores would be happy to sell me the book I seek--Prairie Lights Bookstore in Iowa City, say. On social media, any of us can help diversify the American book market by linking to one of our great independent bookstores. No need for Amazon.#

We can help keep independent bookstores strong across the country if we spend our book dollars strategically.#

Hi, (name of journalist-friend). Something has started bugging me. You know, of course, how both parties use slanted or even propaganda names for bills up for consideration, like the Religious Freedom Restoration Act. Then journalists have a choice, I guess: to use the bill # or the slanted name or to apply a neutral description when they write about it.#

So for example, this headline:#

Indiana Senate Passes Religious Freedom Restoration Act (headline from a news website)#

That's the slanted name of the bill there. So, what do you think--is that a political party (both sides do it) slipping its slanted or even propaganda language into the mouth of the journalist calls it by that name on the air or in print? Is this a manipulation, a small victory over the independence of the journalist?#

Even though both parties do it, it feels to me like a propaganda victory of a political party over the journalist. But I am curious to know what you think about this sort of thing. Yours truly, etc.#

There's a quotation from Joan Didion that always sounds very hip and I run across it fairly often. It's the opening sentence of her powerful nonfiction collection, The White Album, and it goes like this:#

We tell ourselves stories in order to live.#

It's a wonderful book, and disturbing, not just because it is about America in turmoil or Joan Didion in turmoil. It's also got this thread of attraction to the dark side--a clumsy way to put it, I know. I help myself think about that with a contrasting essay by Adrienne Rich from On Lies, Secrets, and Silence. It's called "Women and Honor: Some Notes on Lying." The essay has some dazzling sentences, but not one that stands in simple clarifying opposition to the Didion sentence. If you will allow me to use ellipses, however, we get something like this:#

An honorable human relationship--that is, one in which two people have the right to use the word "love"--is a process . . . of refining the truths they can tell each other.#

In the Didion sentence, stories make it possible to go on; they provide the structure for a person's life and a community's as well. In her essay, the circumstances are dire and the stories are falling apart and there doesn't seem to be anything the individual or the community can do about it. To my ear, there's a fatalism there, or a temptation to it. In Rich's essay, working on the understandings between people is essential, a given, an ordinary process of health and the hope for health. To my ear, it's the opposite of fatalism. It's not a dreamy optimism--real things are at stake in our lives and it doesn't always work out, as Rich tells it, but it's not fatalism. The order of our lives is something we create together. Her essay ends this way:#

. . . we both know we are trying, all the time, to extend the possibilities of truth between us. The possibility of life between us.#

Scroll down a bit past the English professor shop talk to hear Robert Frost read his poem. The poem is a problem because the "I" in the poem is something approaching as ass, but he is the one who gets to tell the story. The first time Frost, reading the poem aloud, says "Good fences make good neighbors," he emphasizes 'good' both times. To me that's a hint of this: if we take the time together to build the good, necessary boundaries and protections with our neighbors, if we do that work together, we will in the process become good neighbors, which is a seriously worthwhile thing to be and to become.#

I want to thank fellow teachers I know on social media for such good behavior this grading season. It's not unusual for teachers to be worn down by grading and to slide into a grumpy mood. Now that we all have a place to let slip our little witticisms and ventings, it's too easy to grump in public about the people we are trying to serve. (*See end note.)#

I have vented in the past, I confess. I once wrote a travesty of the little gem of a poem by William Carlos Williams called "This Is Just To Say," in which he leaves a note apologizing for eating all the plums. I changed a few words and came up with this:#


This Is Just To Say#


I have read#

the papers#

that were in#

the your folder#


and which#

you were probably#


to pass with#


Forgive me#

they were boring#

so long#

and so dull#


I recognize and remember the emotional fatigue in those lines but I also know that it's just plain unprofessional to talk that way in public. Probably also in the copy room. Also, there are more interesting and useful ways to talk about how students move through their academic lives.#

*I have been trying to hear my students carefully enough that I notice their best sentences in time to jot some of them down. When they fit, I have been putting a sample or two on social media myself, like this one.#

© 2017 Ken Smith.
Last update: Tue, Aug 15, 2017 at 7:59 AM.
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