Monthly Archives: April 2011

Memories of My Son, the Baseball Player

I hope I may be excused for revisiting a poem I have posted on before, along with some of my previous observations about it. It is a sports poem that brings to mind my oldest son, who died 11 years ago on this day. Dabney Stuart’s “Ties” is out of season—it’s about football—and Justin’s sport was baseball. Nevertheless I feel awash in sadness and sweet memory when I read it.

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American Hollywood Had Its Own Princess

I’m not a Royal Wedding enthusiast, but as a cultural historian I’m interested in it as a social phenomenon: why are so many Americans are fixated by British royalty? The Hollywood star system can be seen as an American version of the British monarchy. This gives me an excuse to talk about Aubrey Hepburn, whose signature film “Breakfast at Tiffany” celebrates its 50th anniversary this year.

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Confessions of an Addicted Bloglodyte

Yesterday was the two-year anniversary of this blog’s website, which gives me an opportunity to reflect upon what I have been doing these past 24 months. I’ve also come up with a label for myself: I am a bloglodyte.“Troglodyte,” which etymologically means cave dweller, has come to describe those who live their lives in seclusion. This is not a bad way of describing bloggers, who spend much of their lives in the caves of their laptops.

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The Cosmic Meaning of Flushing Flies

I don’t know how deep my father’s qualms go about flushing a fly down a toilet bowl. At the very least, the prospect makes him think twice and look for a larger message, as he does in the following comic poem.

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Ayn Rand vs. America’s Social Safety Net

Normally I prefer to write on great literature, not on novels that make our lives worse. But given the outsized impact that novelist and social philosopher Ayn Rand is currently having on current American political discourse, literature blogs need to pay attention.

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Final Instructions from a Dying Teacher

Last Thursday we had our memorial service for my friend Alan Paskow, the philosophy colleague whom I have written about several times. In my own remarks I invoked Plato’s Crito. I said that, for the three-plus years that Alan lived with the diagnosis of a terminal illness, he was like Socrates after having drunk the hemlock He knew that he was dying but he used his illness as an opportunity to explore with others what it meant. Like Socrates, he was a teacher to the end.

Posted in Plato, Thomas (Dylan) | Tagged , , , , | 1 Comment

Rise, Heart, Thy Lord Is Risen

I write this the night before our sunrise Easter service where, as members of our church choir, Julia and I will arise before dawn to sing in the rising of the sun/son. No matter how early we get up, George Herbert’s “Easter” reassures us, the Lord is always there before us

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Before Michael There Was No GAME

By capturing a player as unpredictable as Michael Jordan within a verse form as rigidly formatted as a sestina, poet Jay Spoon makes it appear that “his airness” operated to the dictates of a higher law. Within the rigid confines of the boundaries of the court and working to deposit a round rubber ball within a small metal rim 12 feet above the floor, Jordan made magic happen.

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Faith in the Face of Terrorism

Today I recommend Of Gods and Men (2010), an extraordinary French film that I saw last month. It is about a small community of Cistercian monks in rural Algeria who must decide whether to stay or leave in face of rising terrorism. Good Friday is a good day to write about it since it deals with Lenten themes.

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America Encourages the Vagabond Self

Looking at the United States from the vantage point of Iran, Nafisi writes that it was America’s vagrant nature that she connected to. She writes that America “somehow encourages this vagabond self.”

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King Lear and Medicare Politics

In the 2010 elections, seniors over 65 voted overwhelmingly Republican, perhaps in response to perceived threats to Medicare. Democrats may respond in kind in the upcoming election. In short, a lot of electoral politics involves firing up seniors. Frightened and angry old people can do a lot of damage. Which brings us to King Lear.

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Rebelling against Big Nurse’s Nanny State

If Hillary Clinton were currently our president, I have no doubt in the world that rightwing pundits and politicians would be comparing her to a lead character in the work I am writing about today. She would be Nurse Ratched from Ken Kesey’s One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest.

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Reaching Out to the Needy in Tough Times

Yet having nothing, the Joads still share. In the final scene of The Grapes of Wrath, Steinbeck taps into the legend of “Roman Charity” where a daughter breastfeeds her starving father. In this case, however, Rose of Sharon feeds a starving stranger. A new human family is rising out of the ashes of the old.

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A Night Different from All Other Nights

In celebration of the Jewish Passover, which begins Tuesday, I post this beloved poem by Primo Levi, written in 1982, which many people now incorporate into their seder rituals. Knowing that Levi was an Auschwitz survivor gives the poem a special poignancy.

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Poetry Often Prefers Losers

Young McIlroy, bidding to become the youngest golfer to win the Master’s since, yes, Tiger, found himself cast in the role of Icarus. Flying close to the bright sun of fame, the wax in his wings melted and he plummeted to earth in a debacle that scorched the eyes to watch.

Posted in Blake (William), Kipling (Rudyard), Marlowe (Christopher), Shakespeare (William) | Comments closed

American Idealism Under Fire

Americans are desperate for hope and grand vision, but it remains to be seen whether we can come together as a nation rather than indulge in nonstop partisan bickering and brinksmanship. Until we do so–or perhaps until the economy turns around–our combat films will be continue to be cynical and dark.

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Telling a Dog to Stay

Since I know that some of you are dog lovers and have had the experience, as I did three years ago, of “putting your pet down,” I offer you this poem by Daniel Groves” called “A Dog’s Life.” It is sad and playful both and may bring a smile amidst the tears.

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A Day in the Life of a College Professor

I had a very interesting day Monday. Taking inspiration from Alexander Solzhenitsyn’s A Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich, I thought I’d describe it to give you a window into the life of a college teacher.

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The Immigrant’s Choice

Adrienne Rich has a well-known poem that is powerful in large part because it captures, simply and directly, the immigrant’s plight. Rich depicts immigration as a stark choice—either one goes through the door or one doesn’t. The decision has immense ramifications, both positive and negative.

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Meaning Is the Meaning of the Liberal Arts

When Frost’s tree falls in front of us, it can mean two things (at least). Literally, it’s a hassle. To the unexamined life, that’s all it will ever be. Get down and clear it away. On the other hand, there’s that question of meaning and where it comes from. Human beings do their best when their actions are invested with significance. That’s why we have ceremonies, like this one, to compel us to stop (because time itself doesn’t do so on its own), take some time, reflect on the significance of what is happening to us.

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Dry Tears & Raise Your Heads as Flowers

In “The Beauty of Death,” Kahlil Gibran orders his friends not to mourn him when he dies but to celebrate instead. “Let me rest, for my soul has had its bounty of days and nights,” he says. When Alan learned that he only had a limited number of months to live–months that he managed to stretch to four years–he made sure that he reaped each day’s bounty. He spent a lot of his time intoxicated with the beauty of it all.

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March Madness Ends with a Whimper

“This is the way the world ends, not with a bang but a whimper.” Eliot’s well-known conclusion to “The Hollow Men” (read the poem here) came to mind after watching the Butler Bulldogs lose to the Connecticut Huskies 53-41.The game was so bad that it takes a masterpiece of modernist despair to do it justice.

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Tea Party Plays Chicken with America

Are there other way in which Rebel without a Cause applies to the budget battle? Maybe Jim Boehner is the weak father, unable to stand up to his Tea Party fantatics and failing to teach them that governing requires compromise. Maybe President Obama is the man in the apron, failing to robustly address a future deficit that will be unsustainable, thereby letting radicals step into the vacuum.

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I Weep for Adonais–He Is Dead

When W. B. Yeat died on January 28, 1939, a despondent W. H. Auden wrote, “The day of his death was a dark cold day,” an instance of how we look to the weather for confirmation of our distress. The idea of a dying friend slipping away without leaving a trace is an unsettling one. Much better if the weather functions as a second witness, which it seems to do if it metaphorically expresses how we feel. When my good friend Alan Paskow died on Tuesday, I latched on to the fact that the day began with a tornado alert and that we were lashed by slashing rain for much of the morning.

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A Plague on Both Your Houses!

“A plague on both your houses!” So I found myself venting at both Christian and Muslim zealots as I heard the recent news in Afghanistan. In this case, the Montagues were Pastor Terry Jones and his fundamentalist followers who burned a Koran in South Carolina while the Capulets were the fundamentalist Muslims (a crowd exiting a mosque) who attacked and killed United Nations workers in Afghanistan.

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The Long Goodbye

My friend Alan Paskow is in his final days. Although not in a coma, he appears in perpetual sleep, and each day his breathing is more labored. Thomas Hood’s poem “The Death Bed” captures some of the experience of waiting and watching.

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Schools Cowed by the Religious Right

Holly Blumner had a vision. A member of the St. Mary’s theater department, Holly wanted to stage Susan Zeder’s Mother Hicks, a adolescent girl’s identity quest, and then take it into area schools. This post is the story about how rightwing groups have so terrified our schools that the vision died.

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Reading Literature, A Spiritual Practice

McEntyre notes that, in the ancient practice of lectio divina, one sought to maintain “spiritual focus and equanimity” by “reading Scripture slowly, listening for the word or phrase that speaks to you, pausing to consider prayerfully the gift being offered in those words for this moment.” Ditto, the author says, for reading literature.

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Take Me Out to the Orgasmic Experience

In his poem, Scott Bates fastens on the fact that the baseball diamond and the outfield, in their intersection, resemble a mandorla. An almond-shaped figure of mythic significance, the mandorla has been seen to symbolize “the interactions and interdependence of opposing worlds and forces,” such as spirit and matter or heaven and earth.

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Bread, Chocolate, & Immigrant Self-Hatred

While watching Franco Brusati’s 1976 film Bread and Chocolate about Italian immigrant workers, I thought about how our own Latino and Latina immigrants must see both the United States and themselves. Do they reject their own cultures and idealize those of America? How does the anti-immigrant feeling evinced by parts of America enter into how the newcomers see themselves? Is there this same mixture of envy and self-loathing?

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  • Literature is as vital to our lives as food and shelter. Stories and poems help us work through the challenges we face, from everyday irritations to loneliness, heartache, and death. Literature is meant to mix it up with life. This website explores how it does so.

    Please feel free to e-mail me [rrbates (at) smcm (dot) edu]. I would be honored to hear your thoughts and questions about literature.

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