Archive for December, 2009

Happy Birthday Frank

December 22, 2009

A big musical birthday this week, one of the Street Parade’s holy trinity figures: ZappaDylanGarcia. Frank Zappa was born Dec. 21 1940 in Baltimore., MD.  Baltimore has just officially named the 21st as Zappa Day. From social commentary and satire, to avant-garde composition, to brilliant guitar work, Zappa’s influence can’t be overstated.  Zappa challenged the status quo on many fronts. As a plainspoken curmudgeon, he confronted just about every group and ism imaginable.  He pioneered the artist-run independent record label, launching his Straight and Bizarre imprints back in 1969 and later founding the Zappa, DiscReet and Barking Pumpkin labels. He mocked middle-class mores, took on racial inequality and discord, and  satirized everything in sight, including disco and new-age movements. He also took on the Parents Music Resource Center (PMRC), delivering memorable testimony about the First Amendment at a congressional hearing.

With an unswerving conviction, Zappa remained an often brilliant voice of dissent to the end of his career. When the music industry began branding albums with voluntary warnings about offensive content under pressure from the PMRC in the mid-Eighties, Zappa wrote a disclaimer of his own, which he stickered on his releases: “WARNING! This album contains material which a truly free society would neither fear nor suppress. The language and concepts contained herein are guaranteed not to cause eternal torment in the place where the guy with the horns and pointed stick conducts his business. This guarantee is as real as the threats of the video fundamentalists who use attacks on rock music in their attempt to transform America into a nation of check-mailing nincompoops (in the name of Jesus Christ). If there is a hell, its fires wait for them, not us.”

Zappa died in 1992, but certainly not his music.

Frank Zappa


December 22, 2009

People have told me that tenure is an anti-climactic event, and frankly it’s true. I just spoke with the Dean today who told me the committee enthusiastically supported tenure (yea, yea, yea, it’s not final until the Board meets in February but I’d have to rob a local liquor store to get turned down if the committee and the dean votes in my favor). Yes, I’m thrilled, but it also feels like a long way around to a conclusion I never really doubted. Hmmm…

It’s rare, however, that a variety of decisions all come together at the same time. The tenure committee meets throughout the year to make reappointment, tenure, and promotion decisions. Its just a quirk of the schedule that my meeting fell this week which coincides with sabbatical decisions and decisions for funding. I got word on all three today: yes on tenure, yes on sabbatical, yes on funding. Woo-hoo! I will be a Campbell McConnell Fellow for the next year which will allow me a variety of travel funding for my half-year sabbatical. When I spoke with the Dean, though, he also offered me the position of director of Cornell’s “wilderness field term” in northern Minnesota, a program that takes students into the Boundary Waters. With a half year sabbatical, I would normally teach three courses in the fall, but the director position allows me a two course release (and one course release for the next two years), so I will only be teaching one course next year. In Cornell’s “One-Course-At-A-Time” schedule, this means that I will only be teaching in November next year. I will travel to the Minnesota field station in September, travel elsewhere in October, teach in November, and for all practical purposes begin my sabbatical in December.

I have a variety of projects I am working on for my sabbatical, most notably applying for “artist-in-residence” programs at a variety of national parks to work on a series of essays about our relationships with landscape. But another new and intriguing project I’m working on is with the relatively new non-profit “Act and Empower” which is working to help the Batwa peoples of Uganda. I am hoping to travel to Uganda over the next year to record a variety of their folk tales and have them translated and collected into a book. This would not only be a way to highlight the dire situation of the Batwa (and bring awareness to the important work that Act and Empower is doing and hopefully raise some money for the organization), but it will also  serve as a way to preserve some of this culture that is at immanent risk of being lost because of their displacement. This is a very new arena of work for me, but I’m excited to get this project rolling. I feel honored that Cornell has agreed to help me in this venture.

It’s exciting how much has been determined very quickly. I can see the next few years much more clearly now than I could a few weeks ago. So tonight definitely called for a special beer and I tapped into the Lost Abbey supply that I’d been saving for a worthy occasion. MB has a busy few days still, then we can settle back in to what will supposedly be a good Christmas ice/snow storm for a few days, drink some nice wine, eat some good food, and celebrate.

A Little Bit of Humbug

December 21, 2009

I should probably clarify my post title up front: I like Christmas. I like the lights, the food and drink, the tree, etc. Yes, my Christmas is a pretty secular version of the holiday, but let’s be honest, even the most devout Christians I know also celebrate a fairly secular version: this notion that the Christmas tree is some symbol of the cross (or wait, isn’t it a symbol of the trinity? What is it?) is a pretty convenient revision of history that ignores the fact that it actually came from pagan traditions. And if it’s not at least somewhat of a secular holiday, why do we have it in December when every theological and historical scholar I’ve read firmly agrees that the date has nothing to do with Jesus’ actual birth?  No, it came about as a way to take over old pagan holidays and rituals. Some people argue that a holiday like Kwanzaa has no real connection to December and was only created to contest the hegemony of Christmas. First off, the founders of Kwanzaa actually admit this, but second, this is exactly what Christians did originally trying to usurp the pagan solstice celebrations. And the candy cane as symbolizing the purity and blood of Christ? Rather than go through the whole history, you can just take a look here. And then there’s Santa and reindeer and endlessly crass commercialism (remember: it’s patriotic to spend extra on Christmas). I know there are people who buy into none of this, and have simple devotional celebrations, but they are few and far between. As I say, the most religious also have a secular holiday here. So even if we just are dealing with the Christmas holiday, it has always seemed plural to me. So I have no qualms wishing people a happy holidays. Again, even if we stick to Christians, there’s also New Year’s in the mix. So I’m not being PC if I wish you a “happy holidays” instead of a Merry Christmas, but acknowledging a season of celebrations.

I have no big axe to grind on the issue. If you want to wish me a merry christmas that’s fine; but I hope you realize that it seems much more about your holiday than actually sharing it with me. You feel better somehow if you wish this on someone who clearly doesn’t celebrate Christmas, not the person you say it to. I’m sure you’d get the point if you (I know I’m speaking directly to certain group of people here–you can decide whether you’re in this group or not) if you imagined yourself living in a Muslim country and everyone there felt compelled to wish you a happy Eid ul-Adha at Christmas time. I think you’d get pretty sick of it, yes, and find it pretty arrogant? (oh, but that’s right, Christianity has the “truth” while no one else does).  We somehow feel compelled to make sure that everyone is wished a merry christmas in every store, all day, for months at time as the speakers blare out that Christ is our Lord or what have you (mixed in with those songs about reindeer et al, go figure…).  As I say, I don’t have a problem if you want to say Merry Christmas (although, if we’re going to have this debate, can we at least get it straight: if Wal-Mart or any other business wants to stop you from saying  this, it’s not an infringement of your first amendment rights. A business can prohibit your speech while you’re working; a government can not. If you don’t want Wal-Mart to do this, don’t work there or don’t shop there. That’s the idea of the “free market” isn’t it?). And I absolutely would agree that the Left is a bit ridiculous in its approach to this issue. But what I don’t get is this sense that somehow if Christmas isn’t in everyone’s face, everywhere, 24/7, then somehow your Christmas can’t be enjoyable or fulfilling. Is it that important to you that I know you want me to have a merry christmas? The rhetoric makes it seem as if people who still say Merry Christmas are religious martyrs out to do the Lord’s work in an unaccepting society. Please….

There are many versions of groups on facebook that are all about the importance of sayingMerry Christmas. Here’s what the group  “I Still Say Merry Christmas rather than Happy Holidays” says:

“It’s the time of the year that we celebrate Christ’s birthday. December 25th is CHRISTMAS! Period! So where does this Happy Holiday stuff come from? We have always said Merry Christmas and we always will!! If you have a problem with it, get over it! Please join this group if you are tired of having to be politically correct. So keep on wishing everyone a MERRY CHRISTMAS!!!”

“Get over it?” That sure seems Christian and in the spirit of Christmas, doesn’t it? What I really like is the “we” in this statement. “We” have always said Merry Christmas. On the surface, it’s obviously referring to Christians. The subtext is clear, though: “We” refers to Americans. If the majority is Christian, that’s what “we” do and the rest of you should just get over it. How charitable. I know, if you can’t wish me a merry christmas, your holiday just isn’t fulfilling. It’s evangelical at core: somehow you think putting christmas carols in my head for months on end and making sure that you wish me a merry christmas at every possible opportunity will open my eyes to the real meaning of Christmas. I hate to break it to you: you are either preaching to the choir or you’re turning people away. As I said, I may not celebrate your version of Christmas, but I do celebrate Christmas, but at some point I want to scream enough!! As much as I love the season, I end up not wanting to go into any store for about 2 months. And I say Happy Holidays because there is a whole season of wonderful celebrations and festivities, not just Christmas. It’s important to celebrate a bit of light (and, yes, I know you think of the “light” as Jesus, but there are other versions out there) in the oncoming dark winter. Go ahead, wish me a merry Christmas; but please take my happy holidays as a sincere wish for the season and don’t condescendingly roll your eyes at me in judgment when I say it. I just can’t believe that’s what Jesus would want you to do.

In Memoriam: Jack Myers

December 12, 2009

Well it has been a long time since I’ve posted here on my blog. I was just thinking of all the things I should catch up on, KRNL playlists (including my annual Dave Ray tribute from a few weeks ago), thoughts on the anniversary of John Lennon’s death, some random thoughts about facebook I’ve had since I joined recently, all kinds of things I was just thinking I should be writing about and was just about to post a few things this weekend, but then I just got the news that poet Jack Myers has died and that sad news takes precedence.

Jack was one of my first writing teachers, and he was a gifted and generous man, both as a writer and as a teacher. He taught for many years at Southern Methodist University in Texas and was a fixture in the MFA program at Vermont College where I got to know him. I took two workshops with him and spent a good bit of time at the bar with him and watching football during the winter residencies. He had a sharp wit and a keen eye for the drama, humor, and absurdity around him every day. And for all the sarcasm and cynicism, tenderness always shines through the poems.

What I loved most about his poetry was its quiet demeanor. The poems make no pretensions, and feel friendly, comfortable, and familiar in their tone.  But at the end, the poems always take you somewhere that you didn’t expect to go. I often find that I read a poem and then immediately need to read it again, thinking, “how did he do that?” “How did he get there?” He was much the same in conversation, too. You would have a fairly normal conversation with him and then find yourself scratching your head as you walked away. Wait, what did he say?

Seamus Heaney is right on target when he talks about Myers’ work:  “Stylish in their pretense of being without style, wise in their pretense of just fooling around, Myers’ poems take us to a place beyond their irony and salutary laughter where we can once again trust in sanity, tenderness, tolerance, freedom, art, and love.”

Jack led my very first graduate poetry workshop, a group that descended into pure chaos. I literally had to hold another student back from punching another member of the workshop. It was a disaster of big egos, inflexibility, and intolerance–a volatile mixture of personalities. While I learned a great deal from Jack as he talked poetry, I was not particularly impressed with how he handled the group. I sat down to lunch with him one day to talk about it and basically he shrugged and said, “well, you know there’s a poem in that, right?” I learned more from that than I realized at the time.

Here is a poem from his1986  book As Long as You’re Happy:

Do You Know What I Mean?

For the sake of argument
let’s say there are three of me:
the one with the bummed-out body,
the one who senses things are going badly,
and the bright one who can’t cope. That’s me!
Don’t get me wrong. It’s a family.
For example, if #2 has a sexy dream,
#1 may salivate. That leaves #3 free to feel guilty
or write. Only sometimes in the face of authority
1 opens his mouth and 3 slips out “I hate your guts!”
Then 2 tries to get 3 to repent, but isn’t smart enough
and then everyone feels like shit and gets a headache.

Do you know what I mean?

2 and 3 are always sniffing each other suspiciously
while 1 sticks a bottle of sour mash in his face.
We know that somewhere some elegant in a gray silk suit
and shiny black shoes reflecting the tips of the Alps
is slowly turning toward his tasty companion
the date 1957 on their green bottle of pouilly-fuisse.

I did that so #3 would feel better
about having said a spot of French.
That means 1 has the green light to celebrate
and 2 can slink around pretending he’s french.


Dear God,
I’m not sure I believe in you,
But #2 is feeling bad today.
He thinks you’re out there and you’re great.
But he can’t tell the difference between something small
tearing apart and the sound of something large in the distance
moving far off.

So this is my brother, #2
standing here like we’re in church.
Sometimes when we’re quiet like this
I think we’re all the family we’ve got.

Myers is the author of seven volumes of poetry and five other works about poetry including the reference work The Longman Dictionary of Poetic Terms and the anthology New American Poets.

His work has been widely anthologized and has appeared in hundreds of literary journals, from Esquire and The Nation to Poetry and The American Poetry Review. His book of poems, As Long As You’re Happy, was a National Poetry Series selection.

He served on the Board of Directors of the Dallas literary center, The Writer’s Garret, and was a past Vice-President of the Associated Writing Programs.

Jack Myers