Category Archives: Social Commentary

Boxes

Since Education is back in the news because of the appointment of a Dutch Calvinist from my neck of the woods, I thought it might be a good time for people to examine just what is an “education”. John Taylor Gatto makes the distinction between ‘”education” and “schooling”. I have read his book “The Underground History of American Education”. He wrote an article in 2003 in Harper’s called “Against Education”. You have to subscribe to Harper’s to read the essay, but there are excerpts available on line. I’m not sure of some of his ideas about but definitely like some of his observations about how awful and mind numbing school can be.

You are made to sit in BOXES and are taught to behave so that when you graduate you can sit in another BOX all day long. And at the end of your life you end up in a hospital BOX and then a real BOX. Every four years, in preparation for the ballot BOX, for 18 months we were being herded into two awful BOXES called political parties.  The whole process looked more like that cartoon of the cow staring at a meat packing plant with a sign that said “Enter Left” and “Enter Right”.
My 2¢ is that we need shorter work weeks with one parent working so they have more time to spend with their kids. I learned more from helping my Dad build a barn than I did from awful Miss Bloemendal who kicked me out in the hall every week. As an educator himself, he said, “Children should be hand made and not mass produced.”  I read a lot of books. And I spent a lot of time in the woods making up stories of elves and other mythical creatures.

We hear an awful lot of yapping about “freedom”, but we imprison our children and literally imprision lots of teenagers.  We imprison in prisons around 2.3 million people, more than any other nation.  However, we are a big country.  Proportionately though, we still imprison more than any other nation except maybe North Korea and Cuba.  But according to Politofact, we don’t have accurate information on prison populations in those 2 countries, but they could be ahead of us.  The point is whether we are first or third, it’s a disgrace.

Freedom should not be about the so-called free market of freedom to choose between 20 different cereals.  It should more appropriately be about freedom to think differently and being able to freely express those different thoughts.  But….(there is always a but), as much as we should respect individual freedom, with freedom comes responsibility to “do unto others as you would have them do unto you.”  Children should be free to have safe places to run and holler at the top of their lungs.  They should also have mutual respect for others and the good manners not to scream in other peoples spaces.  That goes for adults too!

Good manners and mutual respect for others opinions and cultures are great goals for an educated person.  Since education is a journey, there will be many stops and starts along the way.  So when you come across a different opinion, it is wise to take the PACE approach.  Be Playful, Accepting, Curious, and Empathetic.   Not an easy task especially the Playful part if it’s been knocked out of you due to years of being stuffed in boxes.

The Maven

Notes:  I got the boxes idea from the anthropologist and anarchist thinker David Graeber in his essay on “Revolutions in Reverse” and PACE from cognitive behavioral therapist Dorothy Dacar.

My Mother Made Me a Commie

My mother and I watched lots of old movies in the 1950s on a tiny TV screen in our tiny winterized screened in breezeway.  My mother knew all the supporting players by name.  Her own sisters had been MGM contract players.  She was never political and always voted Republican except for George McGovern.  But without her knowing it, the movies we watched left a deep impression on me.  They reinforced the idea of “getting in other people’s shoes whether they were worn out with holes in the bottom or velvet ones studded with pearls. I could feel for the “down and out” while coveting the lacy ball gowns, crystal goblets, and fox furs. It nurtured my love of contradiction that persists to this day.

The economist, Milton Friedman, was right in one respect. He once said, “When a crisis occurs, the actions taken depend on the ideas lying around.” This statement became the basis for Naomi Klein’s frightening book “The Shock Doctrine.” In it, she chronicles the ways his followers jammed his free market ideas down the throats of citizens in various countries when a crisis, man made or natural, occurred. Some of the ideas lying around during the 1930s and 1940s that produced movies like “It’s a Wonderful Life” (1946) were often anti-capitalist, labor friendly and surprisingly saturated with feminism.  I watched “It Happened on Fifth Avenue” (1947) this past Christmas. It’s about a hobo who occupies (YES, Occupies!) a rich man’s mansion every winter when the rich guy goes to his winter home in Virginia.   The hobo wears his clothes, smokes his cigars, and drinks his wine. Year after year nobody noticed anything awry.

One day on his daily stroll through Central Park. The hobo happens upon a homeless WWII vet (YES, veterans are always treated like crap even after [1]“the good war”.) Against his better judgment the hobo takes in the veteran. The daughter of the rich man runs away from her snooty college and decides to hide in her father’s mansion. She overhears the hobo confessing that he’s a hobo to the vet. She decides to pretend to be poor so she can stay there too and cuz the Vet is cute. Turns out that the vet has a bunch of ex GI buddies and their wives and kids who also need housing, so, somewhat reluctantly, the hobo takes in all of them. The vet and his buddies then hatch a plan to purchase an army barracks and turn it into communal housing. Well there are many more complications when the rich man (who started out poor) comes back to New York to look for his missing daughter. When they finally meet, the spunky girl confronts her father. She tells him that she doesn’t understand why they should have big empty houses when there are people who need them. Then she convinces him to disguise himself as a bum and join the merry band of people inhabiting his mansion. And soon her divorced socialite mother joins up disguised as a poor cook.

Other movies of that era also have spunky females like Barbara Stanwyck in “Christmas in Connecticut” (1945) who writes a Martha Stewart-like column in a NY newspaper about her Connecticut stately farm. Truth is she’s a poorly paid journalist who lives in a one bedroom flat in NYC.  “Holiday Affair” (1949) is about a war widow raising her son and trying to find a good father while trying to maintain her dignity and independence. “My Man Godfrey” (1936) is my favorite film. Filmed at the height of the Depression, it opens with a bunch of rich people going on a scavenger hunt. One of the “items” they must find is a “forgotten man”. So they go to where all the homeless are shacked up tin order to find one. And audiences loved these stories of people struggling together in an often dog eat dog world. They still do if given the chance. “The Devil Wears Prada” is in this tradition, but not quite as subversive as the old movies.

Besides giving people work on sewer systems and dams in the 1930s, the WPA funded writers, artists and photographers. It certainly wouldn’t hurt to have another WPA type deal in order to have writers and artists come up with other ideas.  Margaret Thatcher once famously said about financial capitalism  aka Milton Friedman’s“free market” that “there is no alternative,” referred to as TINA.  But there must be.  There were other ideas not so very long ago.  Time to dig them up and repot them.  We need to  “imagine” a better world that we can actually Occupy rather than watch on the TV.  I was lucky to watch old movies with my mother.  No, she didn’t make me a Commie, but she did help make me a Contrarian.

[1] “The Good War” was the name of the 1985 book by Studs Terkel. It is composed of first hand accounts of veterans of World War II.

Montana ‘s Inquisition

(This was originally published in 2010 and I think it’s time for re publishing it.  With all the hubbub and disagreement surrounding the film “American Sniper”, we should try not to fling around the word “treason” for people who disagree with you.  I heard about Christine Shupp at our watering hole, The Grand from a neighbor.)

So you are a little girl in grammar school in 1917.  Your name is Christine Shupp.  You related to a neighbor here in Montana that as a child you were forced every morning after the pledge of allegiance to the flag to  kneel down on the floor and kiss the flag.  It is because you were German. And say you are a rancher in Rosebud County, Montana and you call WWI “a millionaire’s war”. Whamo, you are dragged off by neighbors to jail. You’re in a saloon and call war time food regulations “a big joke” and you are sentenced to from 7 to 20 years.  http://www.seditionproject.net/index.html

Montana played a huge part in suppressing free speech during WWI.  In light of all the noise about Julian Assange,  Wikileaks, and Joe Lieberman’s “upgrading” The Espionage Act of 1917,  it ‘s probably a good idea to take  a look backwards to the Montana Council of Defense.  (Yes, President Obama and MSNBC, it’s a good idea to look backwards because leaning forwards can more often than not have you falling on your face.)

Historian K. Ross Toole wrote a chapter called “The Inquisition” in his book “Twentieth Century Montana: A State of Extremes” about a very dark time in Montana’s history.  At the  beginning of WW I, Woodrow Wilson formed a National Council of Defense and asked each state and each county in the state to help with war propaganda, helping in recruitment of troops, and getting people to buy Liberty Bonds.  The Montana Council of Defense went whole hog into this endeavor and was especially keen on finding “slackers” and “draft dodgers”.  The Governor of Montana, Sam Stewart called a special session of the legislature in part to make the Montana Council of Defense a legal body with funding by the state.  The legislature also passed the Sedition Act and the Criminal Syndicalism Act, which the federal government would use as a model for the federal Sedition Act which was an amendment to the Espionage Act of 1917. This act was probably one of the harshest anti-speech laws ever passed in the United States. Continue reading

Express Yourself – An Evie Taloney Movie Observation Worth Ropin

There was a song written in 1970-71 by Charles Wright and the Watts 103rd Street Rhythm Band that summed up a good part of the 1970s.  It was “Express Yourself”.  It said “Whatever you do, do it good.”  “It’s not what you look like when you’re doing what you’re doing.  It’s what you’re doin when you’re doin what you look like you’re doin.”

As we approach the Oscars, I can’t help thinking about how perfectly David O Russell’s “American Hustle” captured the 1970s with all it’s gaudy messiness.  The film’s characters and costumes and art direction and cinematography and, of course, direction help capture and amplify the strange whirlwind that blew through the 70s.

Here is the costume designer,  Michael Wilkinson, describing how he went about the design of the costumes.  He remarks that the 70s were more about expressing yourself than “looking your best”.

Women were coming into their own and becoming bolder about their sexuality.  While still trapped in hair curlers the size of lemonade cans, they also began to let their hair down and lowered their necklines.  And I remember the color, oh the color.

Wilkinson had as much fun with the men’s costumes as he did the women’s.  In the 1970s men also felt freer to “express themselves” even while they too seemed trapped by their hair; Christian Bale’s Irving Rosenfeld carefully applied comb over and Bradley Cooper’s Richie DiMaso permed-look hair took a lot of time and effort.   Jeremy Renner’s silver/gold tux lights up the screen as does Renner’s New Jersey mayor with a pompadour that takes a lot of gel and spray.  He’s a sunny big-hearted character who dresses the part of the would be savior of his city.

At the heart of the story is Christian Bale’s Irving and Bale dazzled me.  As Wilkinson remarks in the video, Bale’s lead character is awash in “paisleys and patterns” in his suits, scarves, shirts, and ties.  He carefully constructs a persona for his hustler and Bale loses himself completely in Irving.  Amazingly, Irving doesn’t see what we see when he looks in the mirror or when Amy Adams’ Sydney looks at him.  We see a paunchy balding slime ball with an ID bracelet.  They see a clever and dapper cultured entrepreneur out to have some fun as do the other characters in this wild frenzied ride through the heart of the darkness of America; a land born of hustlers and con men who still think of themselves all as masters of the universe and kings of the world.

It is a story about deceptions and lies.  But these are mostly small time cons while a much bigger con was starting to be hatched as wages stagnated never to rise again for the average worker.  By the end of the 1970s when this film takes place, hard times were the norm and what was coming was the era of “greed is good” that hasn’t yet let up. I lived in New York during this time.   So, as Cindi Lauper sang “When the working day was done, girls just want to have fun.”    That’s what I did.  And as the designer Michael Wilkinson concludes, it’s about a time when you just didn’t give a damn.  You just wanted “to try stuff”.  For a time we were out of the box called adulthood and we had some fun.

P.S. I hope the film and it’s designers win lots of awards. It is the mirror opposite of the lovely, funny and sad “Nebraska” which should also win gobs of awards.  Maybe that’s why there shouldn’t be any awards at all.  How can one really choose what’s best?

Fun

(This is the second in “The Grand” series.  The first one was “Old Blisters” that introduces the cast of characters.)

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It is another cold and windy night in Little Twig, Montana. The temperature had been below zero for almost a week, but with the rise in temperature to above zero, the wind had picked up again.  You could hear it howl and it made the sign outside the saloon bash against the bricks.  It was the usual cast of characters at The Grand sitting at booths and at the bar.  Daphne is sipping a Sauvignon Blanc.  She is dressed all in black with a jaunty grey cloche on her head.  Cowboy Clay with a Chardonnay in hand is next to her talking to Carl who is nursing a micro brew when Sonny breezes in and sees a spot next to Clay.  Claudia pours him a glass of Merlot.

Clay: How’s it goin’?

Sonny: Not bad.  Just came in from Idaho and it’s really dry.

Clay: Is it like California?  I hear that’s bad.

Sonny: Well, those Californians are just going to have to decide whether they want to take a shower and flush the toilet or eat.

Daphne chimes in:  Is that really the choice?  Flush or starve? Can’t the Ag business use less water?  I mean it’s not like they are a bunch of small family farms growing enough for themselves and the people in their towns.  Don’t they export most of the lettuce, tomatoes, pomegranates, almonds?

Sonny: Well, they are family farms, just really big ones.  And they have the long water rights.

Well, the discussion went on for a few minutes about who owns what and how water rights came to be through mining rights and taxpayers rights versus corporations rights and Beverly Hills farmers and manifest destiny and survival of the fittest before a truce was called and they went back to talking about the weather.

Clay:  Some trucker said his temperature reading went from 20 below to 60 below for a few miles past Reed Point.

Daphne: What shall I play on the Juke?  Lorde or Alan Jackson?

Clay: Whatever you want, Darlin’?

Daphne: Oh and I brought some pears if anybody wants some.

Sonny: I’ll take two.  I like to drizzle a little balsamic on them and sprinkle with a little  blue cheese.  Thanks!

I had fun last night.  Different people have different ways of having fun.  And most people have various ways of having fun.  But one of my favorite ways of having fun is a lively discussion of something or other.  In that respect, I should have been born French where I could go out to a cafe after work and philosophize with friends over a nice bottle of wine and some oysters and good bread.  We could talk about anything but the weather unless it was about how the weather might influence our moods or our art.  We could talk about who could call themselves writers and who couldn’t.  Or who was an artist?  Or was all life and thus all art futile? Continue reading

Cabins

A cabin is not the same as a house.  “It is not a shelter” but often a place of “delicious peril” and “a jumping off place” for a child.  A cabin on a lake is a place to be alone with oneself and from that will come strength to deal with “the more serious winter perils later on.”   Diane Johnson makes these observations in her new book “Flyover Lives: A Memoir”.  Diane Johnson has numerous books published as well as having written the screenplay for Stanley Kubrick’s “The Shining.”  She grew up near Moline, Illinois; part of the vast in between of the United States called flyover country.  It’s not far from where I grew up and I share some of her memories of going to a cabin for the summer time.  For as she reminded me, the Illinois summers are mercilessly hot and humid and escaping north was an old tradition.  But there are as many dissimilarities too.

Her family has been in America for more than two hundred years and her stories of them are not of timber barons or inventors.  They are quite ordinary lives of farmers, teachers, country doctors and a lot of housewives, but she writes with such detail and feeling that their lives are as intriguing as any biographies of presidents or generals. And they bring back memories. And sometimes that is a good thing.

One of her relatives, a great uncle, built a cabin on the Upper Peninsula of Michigan near the Mackinaw Straits    She spent summers there in  the 1930s and 1940s.  And she writes of the difference between a cabin and a house.

I felt for this house the special love that almost everyone, I’ve since discovered, feels for a summer house—a love quite different from the feelings you have for the house you grow up in.  Perhaps a summer house is where,  forced into your own company, you discover that you are yourself, and maybe that’s something that can’t happen in an ordinary life, when you belong to your parents and school. The organized city child is deprived of these hours of messing around alone, though they must be the crucial ones in which we discover things, develop a point of view, learn to rely on ourselves as reliable observers, establish in our own minds that we are we. Continue reading

Old Blisters: Cracking More Bar Codes

MEMO0006It was a cold, dark, and icy night as I made my way into Little Twig, Montana from the ranch.  The sun had set at 4:30 PM and there was hardly a sliver of moon to light the way into town. The sign on the bank read -2 degrees. The outfits in front of The Grand were all running with nobody in them as I pulled up beside them.  I turned my outfit off since I was just coming in for a quick one.  Daphne entered the bar in her customary below zero regalia that consisted of her sister Deb’s mink coat, a trapper’s hat and knee high boots.  (There is no reason to forsake fashion in sub zero weather; none whatsoever.)

Daphne would imagine herself in an old 1930s Klondike movie on nights like this (like “Call of the Wild” with Clark Gable and Loretta Young.)  The saloon is at the edge of the frontier and there are the usual assortment of patrons that at times also reminds her of the bar in Star Wars where all kinds of aliens from all kinds of different planets meet, rub elbows, and occasionally get into a scuffle.

Over there in the corner sits Ed who sticks to himself and is eating an oyster poor boy special.  Jingo John sits in the rocking chair by the fire singing a old-timey tune to himself.  At the bar sit the regular happy hour duo of Cal and Carl who are just about to leave as it is a little after six and the drinks go up a buck.  Behind the bar is Claudia, the sultry Mexican bartenderess writing up a ticket for Cal.  Daphne sidles up next to Carl.  Just then a blast of cold air ushers in Sonny Stevens who sits down at the end of the bar and orders a Cab and a blackened chicken Caesar salad to go. Continue reading