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Friday, March 31, 2006

Leavin’ on a jet plane

I’m still in a copyediting frenzy, and my plane for State College leaves in two hours.  I finished the page proofs for What’s Liberal about the Liberal Arts? last night, having spent the entire day slogging through the first copyedit of Rhetorical Occasions.  But I had the odd experience of copyediting a book for the University of North Carolina Press in the offices of the University of North Carolina Press, surrounded by the people who’ve been working on the book for the past year.  That was cool.  Also extremely efficient.  Whenever I ran into a snag, I would just holler randomly down the hall: “hey,” I hollered randomly, “is ‘cohort of theorists’ singular or plural”?  This launched a learned debate about whether “cohort” implies the kind of collectivity and loss of individuality one associates with “herd,” since of course “herd” is singular.  It was finally decided by a 17-12 vote that “cohort” is plural, which suggests that the staff of the UNC Press are a cohort rather than a herd.  Then there was the question of whether Right and Left should be Capitalized Throughout, and the question of whether “sic” should be italicized if “ibid” is not.  All of these questions were answered within seconds, thanks to my hollering and my strategically central location at a large work desk that faced six offices at once.  In return, the staff asked me if I knew what “seditty” meant, and that gave me a rare and valuable opportunity to recite all the lyrics of Grandmaster Flash’s 1982 hit “The Message.” Which is not bad for an ofay.

I now think every academic-press author should be required to edit his or her book in the offices of their publishers.

Anyway, I’ll have a real post on my NC sojourn a bit later on, and in the meantime, here’s one of the paragraphs I was copyediting yesterday.  From “The Utility of the Arts and Humanities,” forthcoming in Rhetorical Occasions:

I sometimes think this is why the cultural right has urged us so often in the past two decades to return to the eternal verities of the fine arts:  it’s part of a two-step plan to eliminate the arts and humanities from any serious social or curricular consideration.  For when it comes to defending the utility of the arts and humanities, the cultural right is every bit as and ambivalent and divided as is the cultural left, yet far more coordinated:  one bunch of conservatives—we could call them the Allan and Harold Bloom Consortium—wants us to return to the canon, to aesthetics, to the pursuit of beauty, leaving behind all this queer theory and multicultural pabulum.  These are the conservatives one finds clustered around the New Criterion and the Hudson Review, the ones who line their shelves with volumes from the Loeb Classical Library and decry the mediocrity of contemporary American theater.  The other bunch of conservatives—let’s call them the Tom DeLay Gang—doesn’t see any reason why taxpayers should support public universities, or why parents and trustees should support private universities, in which faculty and students fritter away their time pursuing pointless things like “beauty” when there’s important work to be done and people need to see a return on their college investment.  These are the conservatives who, in alliance with economic libertarians, declaim from the editorial page of the Wall Street Journal that the “important work” to be done consists of eliminating estate and capital gains taxes, gutting workplace regulations, and shredding environmental standards.  They like to have a few Allan Bloomers around to talk about the cultural superiority of the West and the depravity of Western academic intellectuals, but as long as those estate taxes are repealed they really don’t care whether college students are reading Cicero or comic books.  The two-step plan, then, consists of this: the first group will urge arts and humanities faculty to return to beauty, whereupon the second group will come along and cut all funding for the frivolous aesthetic pursuits of the arts and humanities.

Oh, and one more thing before I grab my cab.  If you want to make wingnuts’ heads explode this week, just propose an illegal immigrant amnesty program in which immigrants become naturalized citizens if they agree to take jobs away from liberal professors

Posted by Michael on 03/31 at 08:39 AM
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Wednesday, March 29, 2006

Local man of mystery


Where did I get the bike and the bike gear, you ask?  From a loyal reader and occasional commenter, that’s where!  That’s what blogs are for:  bringing people together . . . in such a way that they do me favors like lending me bicycles and inviting me to watch The Sopranos.

I’ve decided that I’m a great deal less likely to damage other Fellows’ cars if I stick to biking along the Tobacco Trail.  So far, so good:  I have not struck any other bicycles on my seven-mile journey from downtown Durham to the Center.  I did send a few hapless pedestrians into the ditch, but they mostly deserved it for moving so slowly.

There was only one catch:  after my first day on wheels, I remarked to my benefactor that I was unable to find the gear-shift mechanism.  There seemed to be gears, all right, but how could one change them?  “Oh, I should have told you,” replied the benefactor, inexplicably forgetting that I am less than ideally adept on these vehicles.  “It’s an index shift.”

“An index shift,” I repeated.  “That means the bicycle goes up or down in accordance with the Consumer Price Index?”

“No, fool,” said my increasingly exasperated benefactor, who had given me a helmet and a yellow jacket and a pair of gloves only to learn that I needed a lesson in what makes the wheels go round.  “You just push this lever with your index finger.” And lo!  Yesterday I made it to the Center in about forty minutes.  Today, thirty-five—and that included a five-minute wait for a freight train crossing Cornwallis Road.  It seems that this “index shift” thing really works!

Today I also learned that the bicycle has “calipers” or “forceps” or something, and that they need to be in the right “position” or the front brake will not “work.” Don’t ask how I learned this!  Just close your eyes and imagine.

Posted by Michael on 03/29 at 06:18 PM
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Monday, March 27, 2006

Die even harder with a vengeance IV

Welcome to the working week, folks.  The first full week of spring, and my last week in the Bermuda Research Triangle.  Over the weekend, Janet and Jamie came to visit, and we drove down to Wilmington—more precisely, to Wrightsville Beach—for some sightseeing.  It was extravagant, but you know, Janet needed a break, and so did I, for our various reasons.  So we file it under “extravagant but obviously necessary.” And Jamie (as you probably know) loves to travel, loves to stay in hotels, and loves to go to aquariums and beachfront arcades.  Why, he even managed to enjoy himself at the arboretum, which was lovely despite the 50-degree weather.  And when we got back to Durham yesterday afternoon, he pronounced my apartment complex “cool.” Then he dug into some fine North Carolina barbecue.

But because I have only four full days remaining on my fellowship, and because last Friday turned out to be Manuscript Day (I received my page proofs for What’s Liberal About the Liberal Arts?, which were promptly followed by Phase One of the copyedited version of Rhetorical Occasions), I’m going to be all about the mss. for the next two days at least.  So I’m going to reprise yet another Ancient Post from ‘way, ‘way back in May 2004.  I figure Friday’s post on Neil Young deserves a followup that is also, somehow, a flashback, so here’s my almost-two-year-old musings on the Replacements.


May 20, 2004

For my trip down to Norfolk / Virginia Beach last weekend, I borrowed / stole one of my son Nick’s CD cases—partly because I didn’t have time to go through my own CDs and pick music for the trip, and partly because I thought it would be a good time to catch up on what the kids are listening to these days, with their long hair and their electrical instruments.  (Nick turned 18 last month.) I know the rudiments—I’m familiar with the Vines and the White Stripes and Interpol, and I’m aware that the second anti-Strokes backlash is so over—but I just don’t have the time to keep up with lesser lights like And You Will Know Us from the Trail of Dead or British Sea Power, unless I have a few hours to myself in a car (or kind of to myself, while Jamie occupies the back seat with his own CD player full of the Beatles, the Pretenders, and Robert Palmer—I take all the credit for introducing him to the melodic and inventive Palmer of “Clues” and “The Ballad of Johnny and Mary").

Actually, it turns out that both these bands—Trail of Dead and British Sea Power—are quite good, despite their fondness for these humorously ponderous names.  I listened to the Trail of Dead through much of central Pennsylvania, then after jumping around through the happy pop of the New Pornographers and deciding that the Doves were ultimately too boring to follow, I switched to a couple of things Nick files under something like “ancient alternative” (I’m kidding—Nick doesn’t file anything under anything), namely, The Smiths’ The Queen is Dead and The Replacements’ Tim, neither of which I’d heard in its entirety in over a decade.  (I’m fascinated, by the way, at the continuity, or what’s passing for continuity, between good alt.rock bands 20-25 years ago and good rock bands now.  Thanks to this intergenerational alliance, it is possible for me to say to Nick, “if you like this you should also buy X’s Wild Gift,” or “you might want to pick up the Pixies’ Surfer Rosa” or “some people I trust really liked Sonic Youth, but I never cared one way or another” and for him to say to me, “British Sea Power sounds like one of your old bands,” by which he surely means “one of your old bands that did not suck.")

So, then, TimTim reminded me of a long-term, long-distance Replacements conversation I had through the 1980s and early 1990s with my friend and former bandmate Larry Gallagher, whom I’ve plugged here once or twice.  I’m more than familiar with “Hold My Life,” “Kiss Me on the Bus,” “Bastards of Young,” and so forth, so listening to them was like going to 80s Nostalgia Nite.  But I’ve always thought that Tim was an every-other-song record:  incendiary, brilliant stuff followed by self-parodic dreck followed by a gorgeous riff followed by stupid adolescent sneering, and so on.  I hadn’t listened to “I’ll Buy” or “Lay it Down Clown” or “Dose of Thunder” for twelve years or so, as a result.

That’s not to say that I listened to those songs on this weekend’s trip and realized for the first time their hidden charms.  Quite the contrary.  I was right the first time: they have no hidden charms.  Westerberg, in my humble opinion, always needed a sympathetic editor, someone to tell him that you can only open a song with a flourish and an ear-splitting scream once per record, and that it worked on “Bastards of Young” but not on the tuneless “Thunder.” Or to tell him that the premise of “Waitress in the Sky” makes him sound like an asshole (or at least like a drunken rock star complaining that the flight attendant won’t serve him champagne, and who doesn’t know that flight attendants, unlike waitresses, are actually trained in CPR) and that the melody is a note-for-note ripoff of the verses of the Harold Dorman song “Mountain of Love” (sent to # 9 on the charts by Johnny Rivers in 1964).  Westerberg’s occasional ripoffs were a problem for me at the time, fussy listener that I am, because I never knew what to make of a guy who titles a record Let it Be on which the catchy pop highlight, “I Will Dare,” is an uptempo version of the chorus of the Beatles’ “I’m Only Sleeping.” I mean, when I first heard this, I thought either he’s an ignoramus or a charming rogue, or some irritating mixture of the two. 

I was introduced to Let it Be shortly after its release by one Andy Bienen, whom I met in graduate school at the University of Virginia and recognized immediately as (a) a fellow resident of northeastern Queens, (b) a dark and brilliant wit, and (c) a charming rogue.  (Andy has since gone on to co-write the screenplay for Boys Don’t Cry, and thus to be thanked by Hilary Swank at the Oscars, which is something I can’t say about anyone else with whom I went to graduate school.) For most of the 1980s, the Replacements were one of the few bands that people cared about in both the circles I ran in—the post-punk scene in Charlottesville and DC, and the grad-school hothouse at the University of Virginia.  You could say that they had crossover appeal—between these two minuscule 20something constituencies, that is.  And for Larry Gallagher, Tim was It, as he told me in a couple of letters as he made his way from freelance writing / music in New York to freelance writing / music in San Francisco.  The Replacements’ followup, Pleased to Meet Me, he said, was terrific—but listening to it and trying to love it completely was like pretending you’re crazy when you know you’re not, whereas Tim was the real thing.

This kind of exchange, as many of you know very well, turned out to be part of the standard critical line on the Replacements: their Classic Period consisted of the years between Let it Be and Pleased to Meet Me, and all the fans who called them Mats (you know who you are) discussed among themselves which of the three was truly their best effort.  But we all agreed at the time, as Larry put it, that the Replacements were the present of rock and roll.

Some years later, in 1992 or 1993, I wrote to Larry to say that I’d been listening to the Replacements’ 1989 record, Don’t Tell a Soul (technically not their last—that would be All Shook Down—but effectively their last), and that I was surprised to find how much I liked it, especially given its word-of-mouth rep as a slickly produced, sellout version of Replacements pop.  There wasn’t anything incendiary and brilliant on it, true enough, and three songs stuck out as retreads:  “Anywhere’s Better than Here” (flourish, scream, yadda yadda yadda), “I Won’t” (plodding) and “Rock and Roll Ghost” (also known, by me, as “Here Comes a Regular—Again").  But the other songs were fresh (the entire first side—remember “sides?”—as well as “Asking Me Lies” and “I’ll Be You"); Westerberg had a better melodic sense than ever; and the lyrics were as catchy-clever as always ("take me to your followers”; “a rebel without a clue”—which later became a device by which you could distinguish genuinely clever lyricists like Westerberg, who toss off these things at the end of lines, from smug hacks like Tom Petty, who blow them up into concept albums) without going the Declan McManus route (that is, moving from early-Elvis Costello gems like “I know you’ve got me and I’m in a grip-like vise” or “I’ll do anything to confuse the enemy” to Serious Songwriter material like “Indoor Fireworks").  All in all, it sounded to me like more mature and less drunken Replacements, and for reasonably sober people over the age of 25, I thought this might be a good thing.

Larry wrote back and said this:

In the formulaic quality of the later Replacements stuff I hear the sound of someone “achin’ to be,” to borrow a phrase.  It’s a Groucho kind of irony, and one that reminds me of one of my favorite Mad magazine cartoons that I saw in a Don Martin anthology a million years ago.  It’s called “The Rejection Slip” or something like that.  It’s about this guy who has the world’s largest collection of rejection slips and is writing to Mad magazine requesting theirs so that he can complete his set and put it on the shelf.  He accompanies the request with some little drawing of himself and his set of rejection slips.  The editors of Mad reply that they loved his letter and would like to publish his drawings.  He writes back to them that he’s not really interested in contributing, and would merely like to have a slip.  Again he accompanies the letter with some funny picture of himself with his head sticking through a mailbox, awaiting a reply.  This exchange continues back and forth a few more times, with greater and greater accolades from the editors, until the guy finally decides to burn his collection and submits ten drawings for publication, which of course gain him the official, impersonal rejection slip that he had been looking for all along.  It’s kind of like that with Westerberg.  He’s saying, “I’m a bum, see?” and we’re saying, “You’re an artist.” Until he gives up and says, “Okay, I’m an artist” at which point we tell him he’s a bum.  Can’t blame the guy for feeling had.

I remember this (obviously, I kept the letter) for a reason, namely, it seems to me exactly right.  In fact, I can no longer think of Westerberg without thinking of Don Martin.  (And earlier in the letter Larry had even agreed me with about Tim, saying that “‘Dose of Thunder’ and ‘Lay it Down Clown’ are so utterly turgid that I forget they are on the album.") But there’s another reason, as well.  I don’t think the difference between Classic Period Replacements and Late Replacements is the difference between alt.rockers being true to themselves and alt.rockers falling all over themselves to try and cross over.  You can’t tell me that the guy who wrote “I Will Dare,” “Swingin’ Party,” and “Alex Chilton” doesn’t have pop instincts in his bones.  It’s just a shame that 1980s radio was such a vast wasteland, dominated by crap like “We Built This City” and “Everybody Have Fun Tonight,” that’s all (which, by the bye, is a fine example of what Janet and I call Paradox Songs, like Orleans’ undanceable 1970s hit “Dance with Me,” insofar as there is no possible way for a person to have fun while listening to “Everybody Have Fun Tonight").  A decade later, post-Nirvana, it’s much likelier that the Replacements would’ve had the couple of smash hits they deserved, but that could only happen in the parallel universe in which Nirvana helps pave the way for the Replacements.  (And let’s not even get into the question of whether hardcore Replacements fans—let alone Westerberg himself—could bear the thought of the Replacements being rich and famous.)

Instead, I think the difference between Tim and Don’t Tell a Soul is the difference between a spotty, erratic, annoying but occasionally amazing pop-music bum / artist and a saner, more competent, more assured but less inspired or inspiring pop-music bum / artist.  And I think this is a significant—and psychologically revealing—kind of difference.  As if you’d rather date Tim but would feel better, all around, marrying Don’t Tell a Soul.  So, dear readers, which do you prefer?  And (for you over-40 types, like me) has your preference changed over the decades, one way or the other?

Posted by Michael on 03/27 at 10:53 AM
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Saturday, March 25, 2006

Weekend update

Thing one:  the mysterious Talking Dog has another one of his wonderful interviews—this one with Dr. David Nicholl, the neurologist who was the lead signatory of a recent letter in The Lancet protesting the force-feeding of hunger-striking detainees in Guantánamo.

Thing two:  for those of you interested in the future of academic publishing, Kathleen Fitzpatrick has more information on ElectraPress and the upcoming (April 24) meeting in which a bunch of people who know their way around digital texts will begin talking about the architecture of electronic publication and peer review and such matters.

Thing three:  while visiting KF’s place, I noticed that she thanked me for picking Iona over LSU in round one, thus indirectly propelling LSU over Duke on Thursday night and into the Elite Eight.  You’re quite welcome, Kathleen and Tiger fans everywhere, and I hope you will protect me from my new neighbors in Durham.  And I’m very glad I stayed up last night to watch U Conn come back to beat U Dub in overtime, because that gives me two—yes, two—teams in the Elite Eight.  My brackets are so destroyed that I’ve decided to root for George Mason the rest of the way.

Thing four:  Koufax voting closes tomorrow night.  There’s this category and that category and another category, and that’s all I care about.  We shall leave the “most humorous” awards to those who are truly humorous, and the less said about those unsavory Cobbs, the better.

Posted by Michael on 03/25 at 08:03 AM
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Friday, March 24, 2006

Heart of gold never sleeps

Now, about Heart of Gold, and about Neil Young.  The film and the performance are all about mortality: Neil has recovered from his aneurysm, but his father has just died, and the film’s final words, after the credits have rolled, are “for daddy.” Young wrote and recorded the songs from Prairie Wind in the week before his surgery, which makes a song like “Here for You,” from an empty-nester dad to his daughter, all the more precarious and poignant: I promise I’ll be here for you, but first I have to see about this here brain surgery.  But then, the whole thing—the film, or, more accurately, life itself—is precarious and poignant. So it’s practically impossible to see the movie without thinking of it as the work of the Neil Young Preservation Society—and this is a good thing: Hey, we still have Neil with us!  Things can’t be all bad, now! Add to all this the venue of the Ryman Auditorium, its intimacy, its acoustics, its atmosphere, its ghosts backstage: it’s as if the National Historic Landmark, renovated in 1994, hosts the International Rock Legend, restored in 2005.  The entire film is flushed with a gentle ochre glow, and Neil Young turns out to have been an alt-country sage all along, even when he was writing “I’ve been a miner for a heart of gold, and I’m getting old” in his late twenties.  Country is, after all, a much kinder and more appropriate genre for Advanced Grownups, since it tends to be more concerned with how to make sense of the years than with how to do it all night long.  And the songs are mostly acoustic, mostly pleasant, and mostly accented by Ben Keith’s lovely, plaintive work on pedal steel.

There’s a curious tension, though, between the lushness of some of the arrangements and the sparseness of the film itself.  The movie opens with brief interviews with some of the principal musicians, riding in elevators or the back seats of cars, almost as if the film is being made on the fly and they didn’t have time to set up “formal” interviews in studios with proper lighting.  There’s no time to bother with blather—let’s get to the show!  Hop in the car!  Here we go! And, of course, as every reviewer duly notes, Demme doesn’t do audience shots.  So there are about ten minutes of setup, during which we hear about Neil’s recovery and the wonderfulness of the Ryman, and the rest of the film is nothing but music.  No cutaway reminiscences, no accounts of the life and work, no interviews with rock journalists.  Just the performances themselves.  Whereas the performances themselves include dozens of performers: not just Neil Young’s friends and associates, but also the Nashville Strings, a completely unnecessary horn section, many lovely backing vocals, and the Fisk University Jubilee Singers to boot.  Apparently the Greater Tennessee Gamelan Society couldn’t make it for the August dates.

Now, about those backing vocals.  From the moment the concert begins, we’re reminded that Neil Young can’t really sing.  It’s not because he’s 60 and recovering from brain surgery; his voice sounds pretty much the way it did thirty or thirty-five years ago.  He couldn’t sing then, and he can’t sing now.  Often, his inability to sing has its own charm: see “precarious and poignant,” above.  That high reedy voice, which now sounds so strange coming from this old, lined, wizened face, is wonderfully effective on songs ranging from “Down by the River” to “Helpless” to “Powderfinger” (which aren’t in the film) and downright heartbreaking on the gossamer “Harvest Moon” (which is).  And sometimes, it doesn’t matter in the least that Neil can’t sing, because his wife Pegi can, and so can Emmylou Harris, who appears here as Featured Backup, the role she plays whenever she’s not playing her own material.  (Can’t hit the high notes?  Need help with vibrato? Not strong on harmonizin’? Call 1-800-EMMYLOU today!)

But Neil Young’s vocals have been a point of contention for me and Janet over the past twenty-two years or so.  Janet, you see, comes from a family of harmonizers; her oldest sister, Cynthia, is the leader of Eight to the Bar, and all the sisters have sung in the band at one point or another in its almost-thirty-year history.  (The lone boy in the family, Bud, is a bassist, and more in the tradition of Jah Wobble than swing.) My family, by contrast, can’t even manage a round of “Frère Jacques.” The Lyons, accordingly, place great emphasis on vocal virtuosity or the lack thereof, and they have nothing but disdain for the tradition of white-boy singer-songwriters who don’t hold up the “singer” part of the deal (and they do consider it, with some justice, as a white-boy tradition).

As I may have mentioned once or twice before, I’m a drummer, and I could care less about the vocals or the lyrics.  If you’ve been reading this blog for two years or so, you’ll remember that I once had a contest for pop lyrics written by space aliens, and that when it was all over, I wrote, on behalf of drummers everywhere,

Privately (or at least privately until now), we suspect that they’re all versions of “Collar me, don’t collar me/ I’ve got my spine, I’ve got my orange crush.” We know what really matters—just us and the bassist, working away in the engine room to make sure everybody else has a good time.  We’ve long suspected that the lead singer was really just saying “Today is her birthday/ They’re smoking cigars/ He’s got a chain of flowers/ And sows a bird in her knickers.” So thanks, everyone, for giving me indisputable proof.  I will now spread the word to the rest of the U.S.D.A. (Underappreciated and Spiteful Drummers Association).

Which is to say, I don’t always pay attention to what’s going on up front, and don’t always see the need to.  In the case of Mr. Young, the vocal track does not affect in the slightest my love for a gorgeous little tune like “Winterlong” (whose lyrics are weak and whose vocals just suck) or for such an incandescent piece of work as “Like a Hurricane,” whose second guitar solo is somehow even more glorious and agonized than its first, and should be treated with great reverence. 

Janet counters that the vocals are unbearably whiny on songs like “The Needle and the Damage Done,” and beyond embarrassment on the turgid “A Man Needs a Maid.” She happens to be right about that, but I think this is merely evidence of a certain, ah, radical unevenness in Mr. Young’s body of work.  So Janet brings up a more sweeping and structural point: the bad-singing white-boy tradition licenses all kinds of horrors in hands less talented than Young’s, and—here’s the kicker—leads to rockism.  For example: while we can all appreciate Pavement and their unique contribution to our important Alternative Music Heritage, Stephen Malkmus can’t sing for shit and doesn’t try to.  That may be all right for Pavement, but it is not all right for the ten to twenty thousand bands influenced by Pavement (I saw another one just the other day—a special new band).  In less exalted climes, there is the phenomenon of Eddie Vedder, who can’t sing, who begat Scott Stapp, who can’t sing, who begat. . . .

Ah, but this train of thought leads me to my decisive counterargument.  In rock, yes, weak or introspective or whiny or mumbled white-boy vocals are part of the odious apparatus of rockism.  But too exclusive a focus on vocals leads straight to fascism.  The vocalist tradition may mean one thing when you’re talking about Dinah Washington, Billie Holiday, and Sarah Vaughn right on down to Aretha and Gladys and Toni and Lauryn, but quite another when you’re dealing with the likes of Jim Morrison or Bono or Scott Weiland.  The lead-vocal tradition represented by these guys inevitably produces not only excessive critical attention to the Leader and his Cult of Personality (hence fascism) but also the genre of really awful rock journalism (“in his more recent work, Bono’s yearning reaches a blah of blah blah blah, as in the song ‘You,’ where he sings, ‘You/ Oh, you/ You are you/ You know’”). And you don’t want that, now, do you.

So we’ve never been able to decide whether the vocals matter all that much.  Since the question remains open, feel free to chime in.  Meanwhile, the drummer will relax and wait between shows for his cinnamon girl.

Posted by Michael on 03/24 at 12:15 PM
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Wednesday, March 22, 2006

Fellow from Hell

You’ll notice that I haven’t done any blogging about my new surroundings in Durham - Chapel Hill - Research Triangle Park.  That’s partly because of my vastly underrated capacity for discretion: I don’t blog about my department back home, either.  It’s also because my one-month National Humanities Center gig arouses quite enough envy as it is. You have a what? And you do what? And that’s just Janet talking!  My friends and colleagues are even more incredulous.  “I so envy you,” said one dear old friend through clenched teeth.  “Hey,” I replied, paraphrasing the legendary Derek Smalls, “I envy me.”

When I returned to North Carolina last Friday from my 48-hour sojourn in State College, I thought I was all set for two furious weeks of good healthy productivity.  Daily workouts, reading for eight or ten hours, lots of peace and quiet, and—as a new feature for Phase II of the Fellowship—doing things at night.  You know, going out.  Now that I was a little more familiar with the area, I figured I could stretch out a bit and see what’s what around here.  I also figured, as I left the blowing snow of central Pennsylvania, that the second half of March would be beautiful and blossoming in these gentle climes, and that I’d be reading in my Center office, hanging out in coffeeshops, and checking out clubs in my short-sleeved shirts.  I left the overcoat and other winterwear at home, and traveled light for Phase II.

I have managed to “go” “out” and “see” “things.” On Friday I saw Jonathan Demme’s concert film, Neil Young: Heart of Gold, about which I will be happy to blog this Friday, because it raises fundamental questions about the nature of the universe.  On Saturday I checked out this, because it (a) seemed like fun and (b) turned out to be at the Durham Armory, a five minute walk from my apartment.  But I thought it would be a bad idea to go hear this bunch, because they’d be playing swing, and I, as a lonely Traveling Humanities Fellow, would be hanging out and listening to the band while happy couples were lindy-hopping and jitter-bopping all about me.  So I got a ticket for these guys instead, thinking that the son-soukous fusion would make for a somewhat more rhizomatic kinda atmosphere.  Alas, I was a lonely Humanities Fellow after all, checking out the band while happy couples danced to the salsa tunes and made up any old thing for the Central African riffs.  So I hung out in the balcony and learned a few things about rhythms that I badly needed to learn about.  The Armory isn’t a club; it’s an armory.  And that meant that there was a good hardwood dance floor, weird lighting, and Snickers and water bottles at the concession stand.  But I had a good time, and walked myself home promptly at 1.

On Sunday night I caught up on The Sopranos, thanks to the hospitality of a gracious woman who took pity on my Sopranosless plight, and I was duly amazed at how goddamn funny the first two episodes are.  “Marvin Gaye” as a verb?  Bobby in the conductor’s hat?  And then, from the ridiculous to the sublime, Edie Falco at Tony’s bedside.  Oh.  My.  God.  There should be acting classes that specialize only in Edie Falco.  “Today, class, we will devote ourselves to Edie Falco’s facial expressions.  Next week, her arm gestures from the elbows to the wrists only.” Also, Ray Curto dying out of nowhere.  But then Gene Pontecorvo dying out of nowhere.  I can’t wait for episode three, which I’m going to have to watch next Friday, the 31st.

On Monday night I took myself to Caché, which turned out to be a three-minute walk from my apartment.  I saw it with five other people.  I’d presented my project to the NHC fellows that afternoon, which was profoundly nervous-making, so I thought I’d take myself to a controversial recent French film that’s so controversial and so French that it will come to State College only quand les porcs volent.  I could blog about that too, if only because the local alternative weekly’s review of the film was so thoroughly misleading and hamhanded as almost to ruin my experience of a reasonably thought-provoking (but not entirely satisfying) film, but first I’d have to know how many of you have seen it or have any interest in seeing it.  I wouldn’t want to get all self-indulgent on this here blog, after all.

Then last night I drove to Chapel Hill to talk to the new UNC chapter of the AAUP about academic freedom—that is, the real kind, not the stuff U.No. thinks he’s talking about.  That went well, I think or hope, but when I got back to the apartment I realized I’d left the Center at 4 and had tossed my belongings on the couch at 10.  How in the world did a 40-minute talk take six hours?  Oh, yes, they took me to dinner, and a fine dinner it was.  But I was completely drained.  Not so drained, however, as to forget to get a ticket for Stereolab’s show tonight at Cat’s Cradle.

It didn’t help that on Monday and Tuesday, the area was treated to forty-degree temperatures and a bitter, driving rain that sometimes arrived in the form of pellets bouncing—literally bouncing—off the car windshield like a new form of precipitation that wanted to be hail but succeeded only in being brittle-gelatinous.  And last night, as I drove back from Chapel Hill in the drizzle and the gelizzle, I was tailed for a few miles by Psycho Cabbie, who kept flashing his lights at me and climbing into my trunk for no reason I could discern.  I checked my lights, my speed, my radio, my armpits—nothing.  It was annoying, and just a tad ominous.

Still, today I woke up nice and early, before 7, refreshed . . . but vaguely apprehensive.  Maybe I’d been here too long.  Maybe I missed Janet and Jamie too much.  Maybe I was really Kevin Finnerty, a solar heating systems salesman from Arizona.  But something was wrong, something was awry.

I got to the Center at 9 sharp (for once!  you all know I’m a night person), read about two-thirds of The Book I Am Currently Reading, noodled around email a bit, and then decided to go the gym and clear my head at about 3:30.  I’d assigned myself eight books for the month, a long-overdue book review (done!) and a smattering of piddling professional tasks.  I was nearly done with book six, and everything else was gradually getting done, too.  I was checking off one thing after another: to do?  done.  To do?  also done.  And yet I felt weird, tenuous, almost spectral.  Surely an hour in the gym would straighten me out.

And as I backed slowly out of my parking spot, looking cursorily over my shoulder around the truck to my right, I felt a deep, muted crunch.  My heart stopped.  I’d hit something!

No, I hadn’t just hit something—I’d hit another car, the car of someone who was leaving the parking lot at that very moment.  What in the world?  In three weeks here, I’ve never seen another moving vehicle in the NHC parking lot; I’ve never arrived (and I’ve never left) at the same time as somebody else.  And today, I’d gotten in so early, and parked so close to the Center, that almost no one could have been driving off from my right: there were only about a dozen cars to my right, which is why I’d looked over my shoulder so quickly. . . .

Yes, well.  The driver of the other car just happened to be the Director of the National Humanities Center, Geoffrey Harpham.  That’s right.  I hit the Director’s car.

This is, I believe, the twenty-eighth year of operations for the National Humanities Center.  Each year, the Center hosts about forty scholars.  We’re talking about more than a thousand fellows over the course of a generation, scholars nationally and internationally renowned—and yet, from the fall of 1978 to the spring of 2006, not one of them has managed to hit the Director’s car in the parking lot. Until now.

Geoffrey invented new forms of sociability and magnanimity on the spot, pointing out that the panel I’d crushed was the smallest panel on the car, and that my view was surely blocked by the pickup truck, and that he himself might have been driving too close to other parked cars.  “Oh no,” I said.  “This is all mine.  I’m . . . so . . . sorry.” But I was beyond sorry.  I was mortified.  And I still am.

Geoffrey’s front right panel was crumpled, and he found he couldn’t open the passenger door.  “Oh, god, that’s a serious repair,” I said when I saw the damage.  Geoffrey demurred, but I pointed out that all of us with $500 deductibles know full well that all body-shop work starts at $500.  And even though my car was moving more slowly than I walk, there was no getting around the fact that force equals mass times acceleration, and the “mass” part had made a real mess of things.  As had the driver of the mass.

In other words, folks, in my brief tenure as a short-term National Humanities Fellow, I have truly distinguished myself.  And let this serve as a warning to all you Humanities Center Directors out there who might be so foolhardy as to invite me to join you someday: I am a Dangerous Professor.  I will hit your car with my car, and then I will cover my head in my hands with shame, crying that if only I’d managed to live in North Carolina for nine more days without hitting any other moving vehicles, I would have been fine.

My timing is impeccable, by the way.  The NHC Trustees arrive tomorrow for their annual dinner.  Eminent scholars, university presidents, heads of foundations.  And the Director of the National Humanities Center can’t open his car’s passenger door.

Just shoot me now.

Posted by Michael on 03/22 at 08:30 PM
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