Thursday, February 27, 2014

Shameless Plug for an Amtrak Writer's Residency Starts in ¶ 3

“Hobokens and Cuautitláns of the world, unite!”

I recently, actually put that tortured allusion  in a call for papers for a journal issue that I’m guest editing. The topic is “Elsewheres,” and I want it to be a bunch of great essays about the art that is made in and about places that are emphatically not capitals of the world. (“Cuautitlán” was a Chilango’s answer to the question “What is the Hoboken of Mexico City?”) I got the word “elsewheres” from a talk Junot Díaz gave at the University of Kansas. Díaz referenced Robert Smithson, who talked about the art world as being split into “somewheres” and “elsewheres.” Elsewheres are where art gets made and somewheres are where art goes to become important.

I want the issue to be a kind of coalition of elsewheres, a reminder of how much peripheral places have in common, which is to say that I want the issue to have an agenda (why else leave in a winsome nod to Marx and Engels?). I want the issue to give an intellectual dimension to my conviction that with the twenty-first century ought to come an end to the unequal distribution of cultural authority. I want to make explicit the consequences of continuing to rely on a system whose generators of value and engines of public opinion are all packed into the same few somewheres.

I’m very excited about the issue. But I need Amtrak to give me a Writer’s Residency. I need to write the introduction while traveling over the connective tissue between elsewheres and somewheres. I need to board the Southwest Chief in Kansas City and ride it all the way to Los Angeles.

Rail writing will provide me an everywhere from which to theorize about the how the axes of sway might change in the twenty-first century, about whether New York or LA will ever be irrelevant, or if such an idea is too fantastic, the stuff of zombie novels and post-apocalyptic action movies. As fantastic as an Amtrak writer’s residency. 

I want to my ideas about these big questions to take shape while I move through the elsewheres of the American narrative, while I glimpse Wyatt Earp Boulevard in Dodge City or pace the fast lane of Route 66. The train offers the rare experience of seeing America’s elsewheres on their own terms, as it enlivens the common ground that connects them.

Sunday, January 19, 2014

East Side, West Side

I’ve been re-watching Ric Burns’s New York documentary. During episode three, which is about the late-nineteenth century (from Boss Tweed’s rise to power to the consolidation of the five boroughs), I dozed off and was awakened sometime later by an eerie, a cappella voice singing the lyrics of “The Sidewalks of New York.”
The lyrics “eeeeast siiiiide, weeeest siiiide, aaaaaall aaaroooound the toooown” whispered as they were into my sleeping ear iced my brainstem, and the waltzy melody merged enough with the rhythm of my own breathing so that, for a second, I thought the dirge was coming from my own body, that I was an engine of nostalgia for a song about a city I’d only ever really been to once, a city whose monopoly on cultural trusteeship I'd never been quite happy about.

That whisper in the ear and the inception about old New York that came with it created a micro-moment of melancholy. I opened my eyes. I couldn’t quite focus on the old photos panning slowly by, Burns style. By the time the part of the song that includes the line about “tripping the light fantastic” came around, I was awake and knew had been a victim of emotional manipulation. I put my glasses on, got back to work.

What struck me about the song was how like Celtic music it was. How awfully its singer wanted me to want preserved in song the bygone era his lyrics embroidered. The part of me that doesn’t wear green on St. Patrick’s Day and that winces when I hear stories about happy, hospitable Irish people—stories about tourists finding confirmation of their own preconceptions—said “bleck.”

But the nostalgia that that song so assertively conveyed was different from the Thistle and Shamrock schmaltz I’d dodged so often on so many NPR Sunday afternoons. I noticed that “The Sidewalks of New York” makes a lot of references to specific people and places. There are the names of the boys and girls who had taught the singer how to dance and what to play in the streets, boys and girls who had long since vanished into various corner of America. It was the kind of referencing that makes me love Tom Waits songs, like this one
Johnny Casey, Jimmy Crowe, Jakey Krause, Mamie O’Rourke, Nellie Shannon, and Tony—this kind of hood-rat roll call always warms my heart. It carries the kind of dense verisimilitude one might find on an old grade-school class roster. The academic in me paused at the naming of “Jimmy Crowe”—is that some cryptic reference to nostalgia for segregation? I did some rudimentary research (that is, I googled “The Sidewalks of New York”).

A popular vaudeville number in the 1890s, “The Sidewalks of New York” became somewhat canonical piece of Americana. It had been recorded by the likes of Duke Ellington and Mel Tormé and had even been echoed in two early Fleischer cartoons (one made in 1925 and one in 1929). This ubiquity excited me. I’m teaching Edith Wharton’s The Age of Innocence and I immediately perked up at the fact that more makers of culture than Wharton had been, in the 1920s, thinking about late-nineteenth-century Gotham. A youtube clip of either of those cartoons would have offered an excellent lowbrow contrast to Wharton’s novel--would have made for great class-time discussion fodder. Alas, I could find neither cartoon. But, I did find this Fleischer 1935 production:
Notice how rural the old couple’s home is. It’s like Ma and Pa Kettle are from New York. Of course, in a way, they are. Could there be a more unifying an image in this polarized country than a red-state elderly couple communing over stereoscopic images of the sidewalks of New York?

That got me thinking about that Uncle Tupolo song, “New Madrid,” with the line “they all come from New York City.”
The fact that New York is the port of entry for so many ancestors of red-state citizens is good barb to use against unsuspecting New York haters. Like these guys…
Benign and incidental as it may be, the fact that the sidewalks of New York constitute the earliest, most sepia-toned memories of America that most European immigrants can call up is worth pondering. Maybe that pitchforked old man in “American Gothic,” you know the one,
is thinking about the hurdy-gurdy man on the corner Hester and Bowery in the Lower East Side, not the wheat and milk-cows of the prairie. Maybe the capitals of the world really are our fathers.

If so, I’m that much closer to getting why my uncles love Bruce Springsteen, why his ballads of sainthood in the neighborhoods of the Jersey Shore ring so true them, boys who grew up in the Irish-Italian ward of Kansas City. There may have still been some traces of the blue-collar, urban sensibility of Springsteen’s lyrics in the streets of the northeast Kansas City when my uncles were young. Maybe sidewalks of New York once extended all the way out to middle America.

It's the suburbs that severed the link to New York, that repackaged our stereoscopic birthrights into the bright lights, big city skyline posters and the “I <3 NY” T-shirts we all ignored on our way to the Orange Julius stand.
The ties that bind red and blue America are buried somewhere beneath the shopping malls of our youths.

Saturday, February 9, 2013

Does this bus stop at 52nd Street?

There's a chance that, starting soon, Rockhurst students will, like their UMKC neighbors, be able to ride the KC Metro or free--FREE!--with the simple swipe of a student id card. A single Metro bus fare is $1.50--one way (counting a transfer). Needless to say, it's a great deal, and I am jealous (faculty ids won't be included in the benefit).
But there's a chance that it won't happen, that students won't show insufficient interest in the privilege. What's up with that? 

I live with a woman who answered that very eloquent rhetorical question, reminding me that there's a stigma attached to public transportation. She used to take the bus to work--had a job that even paid for her bus pass. Now she works at a job that's even more convenient for bus travel, but (despite being an advocate for mass transit) she's decided to stop riding the bus. Why? She wants to control the kind of impression she makes at her new job. Who's to keep someone who sees her getting off the bus from thinking that she either doesn't have her life together enough to own a car or hasn't managed to acquire or maintain driving privileges.

Sure, I say, but who's to keep you from being seen as an awesome, civic-minded person who believes in responsible energy use and wants a more palpable connection to her city. Be a trend setter, I say. Show corporate American that riding the bus is cool.

She gives me that look that tells me that my ivory-tower idealism is getting out of hand.

Fine. I get it. The professor in me knows that Americans have always had a fraught relationship with public transportation, that busses and trains have been the testing (and, too often, failing) grounds of equality. I think of that provocative cover photo of Robert Frank's photobook, The Americans (1958) ...
... a photo that brings to mind a line from Amiri Baraka's play, Dutchman (1964): "Staring through train windows is weird business."

Busses and trains have been the sites of social unrest in America, the epicenters of legal arguments about race and equal rights--it was Homer Plessy's refusal to sit in a "blacks only" train car that sparked the case that led to the U.S. Supreme Court's endorsement "separate but equal" racial segregation, and it was Rosa Parks's refusal to move to the back of the bus that pretty much started the Civil Rights movement.

Long story short, one is definitely stepping onto more than a vehicle when one steps onto a bus or a train or a trolly or a streetcar. I like to think that whatever force it is that keeps so many of us off the bus, locked away in our private cars, is subsiding. And I'm not the only one.

A facebook friend posted this delightful reminder of the enchantment public transportation.

And this, my favorite song about busses: 

Saturday, February 2, 2013

Teaching Practical Jokes

"If you have built castles in the air, your work need not be lost; that is where they should be. Now put the foundations under them." 
Henry David Thoreau, Walden (1854)

I like counterintuitive writing assignments, assignments that challenge students to think in ways they never expected to be asked to think.

For instance, for their first paper this semester, my Freshman Comp students had to demolish a U.S. monument of their choice and erect a better monument in its place. The assignment is an exercise in description. It doesn't matter what monument they choose, so long as it (a) can be described vividly and (b) sends a message about history that the student sees as in some way flawed/counterproductive. 

Students must describe the monument in such a way that illustrates its candidacy for (hypothetical) demolition. They then have to describe the replacement as an answer to the flaws of the first. It's a chance to think big, to build "castles in the air," to let the imagination to run wild. 

For their second assignment, students have to devise a campus prank that reveals something unique about their generation. For this assignment, they have to think smart, not necessarily big. They have to be practical, imagining a prank that is actually possible--though (as I remind them often) must remain hypothetical

Before such awful TV shows as Punk’d and Jackass, practical jokes were revered traditions on college campuses. Contrary to their names, practical jokes are quite serious—serious not just in terms of consequences but in terms of their ability to help otherwise powerless groups define themselves within a larger institution. When we take practical jokes seriously, we learn something about the community-building and belonging.

Here are some of my favorite pranks: 
This hijacked road sign is the handiwork of MIT pranksters.
I love it because it engages the viewer's  sympathy, and because
 it is a poignant reminder of the human element lurking just behind the machinations of daily life. 
Harmless fun. And it shatters any preconception that your hight teachers are humorless automatons.
These prank stickers an be found on the London tube. Leave it to the British
to strike such a subtle balance between alienation and cheeky fun. 
A reminder from the elusive graffiti artist Banksy to break out
 of the pattern of daily life and smell the flowers. Or paint them. 
Regardless of how I stress that pranks should be harmless but provocative--that they redressing injustice and reduce alienation without also putting anyone in harm's (or humiliation's) way, students always first associate pranks with cruelty (thanks, in part, to Daniel Tosh, Ashton Kutcher, and Johnny Knoxville), which is why I allow for a ten-minute cruelty-fest, wherein students (and I) recall some of the more sadistic pranks they've witnessed. I kick off the cruelty-fest with this clip from one of my favorite movies, Rushmore (1998): 
After we purge ourselves of cruelty, we set about the task of making the world a better place, one prank at a time.