Excelsior!

Reports from multiple sources indicate that Stan Lee has died, at the age of 95. Mr. Lee (born Stanley Lieber) was a crucial figure in the 1960s renaissance of superhero comic  books that has produced the current series of blockbuster movies called the Marvel Cinematic Universe, and the characters he created with folks like Steve Ditko and (most notably) Jack Kirby have become the heroes of our various pop cultural mythoi, from my father’s generation to the Spawn’s.

The Prof and Stan Lee

The Prof and Jack Kirby

All three of us in fact met Mr. Lee: Dad and I met him (along with Mr. Kirby, Dave Berg, and various other major figures of the genre) at a symposium at Vanderbilt when I was not quite seven years old. The Spawn, meanwhile, met him at HeroesCon six years ago. In 1972, Dad and I talked to him and got an autographed comic for free. The Spawn’s encounter, however, was much shorter, and a bit spendy. I suppose that says something about the Hulk-like growth of the medium.

StanLee

I’m guessing this dates to the early 70s. Imagine how much larger the bills could have been in recent years.

One of the things that I find interesting about Mr. Lee’s career (and his mentions have popped up at this blog on several occasions) is that his revolutionizing of the field happened somewhat accidentally. Although he had been in the industry since before the beginning of WW II, by the early 60s he had wearied of the form and nurtured hopes of becoming a writer of what gets called “literary fiction” these days. As he was planning to leave the business anyway, his wife suggested that he try applying some of his ideas to his comic work. This led him to create characters with both superhuman powers and very human flaws, emotions, and problems. By the late 60s (and certainly by the early 70s), his work had helped turn comics from “kid stuff” to the sort of thing that received attention at highbrow places like, well, Vanderbilt U. And it hasn’t stopped; a quick check of one of Mondoville’s literature databases reveals dozens of articles about the man and his work.

Along the way, he displayed a genius for self-promotion, taking on his own character of Stan “The Man” Lee, complete with a number of catchphrases (including the one I used to title this entry) and a public persona that ran from a sort of hipster patois to corn and back again. Indeed, recent years have seen some challenges to his self-constructed legend (again, most notably from fans, friends, and family of Mr. Kirby), but even then the complaints were frequently met with winks and smiles. It was just part of Stan’s hype.

And now he’s gone, and unlike a comic character, there won’t be a surprise comeback. But while he may not always have wanted to stay in the world of comics, I’m sure there was satisfaction in the idea that his ideas have become part of the culture in ways that only the rarest literary authors can achieve. Very few people can quote Don DeLillo or John Updike (and I have a hard time imagining why someone might want to in the former case), but I guarantee that a whole bunch of people can tell you what comes “with great power.” And while I’d like to think that my morality is more developed now than it was when I was reading comics as a toddler and grade-schooler, I can’t help suspecting that some of my sense of right and wrong owes a bit to the stories he wrote and Jack (or Steve, or John Romita) drew.

So goodbye, Mr. Lee. Thanks for the stories.

Posted in Culture, Family, Literature, Why I Do What I Do | 1 Comment

Sunday Potpourri: The Quiet of A Sunday Night Edition

The week has been hectic, with multiple meetings to go along with the usual load of teaching and grading. I have a fresh crop of student work coming in later this week, and Gradeapalooza begins with Thanksgiving week. But here we are, and what better way to close the week than by chatting with friends?

***

The weather abruptly turned wintry (by local standards) this weekend, with highs dropping from around 80 earlier this week to a predicted 48 in a couple of days, and heavy rain in the next day and a half. To me, it finally feels like November is supposed to. Although I’ve lived down here for more than 15 years, I’ve never entirely acclimated. This is compounded by the fact that the heating and air in my classroom building has only two settings, those being “meat locker” and “crematory.” For the last couple of weeks, we’ve moved to Setting #2, and by the time I finished my lectures, I generally look like someone to whom Louis Armstrong would lend his hanky.

It amuses me to see my kids dressed for class like they’re extras in Ice Station Zebra while I teach in short sleeves, and I take some pleasure in telling them about scraping Mrs. M’s car windshield in Muncie, IN, while the radio informs me that the air temperature of -7 feels like -17 with the wind chill. On the other hand, I stay indoors as much as possible here for most of the year.

I summed it up for a friend last weekend: It’s odd, living somewhere that doesn’t get football weather before the last home game of the season.

***

On the writing front, I’m pleased to show you the cover of my next excursion into print. At Home in the Dark derives its title from the last words of O. Henry, who allegedly wrapped things up by saying, “Turn up the lights— I don’t want to go home in the dark.” Anyway, it looks like this, thanks to a fine illustration from Ken Laager.

AHITD

You know, seeing my name between Joe R. Lansdale and Joyce Carol Oates never gets old.

I looked over the galleys for my contribution a couple of days ago (part of the week’s busyness); “Rough Mix” is a return to my rock and roll milieu, and as the book’s title indicates, it isn’t for the faint of heart. I also had the pleasure of reading Jill D. Block’s story, “O Swear Not By the Moon,” and I think you’ll get a charge out of it as well. And of course, the rest of the roster is filled with heavy hitters, so there’s likely not a dud in the bunch.

At this point, you’re probably wondering how you can lay hands on a copy (and if you aren’t, you should be). The answer is that you can’t just yet. But … I have it on good authority (namely, LB’s newsletter) that Subterranean’s 500-copy, signed and numbered hardback edition (the only hardback edition) will be available in early Spring, with paperback and e-dition available around then as well. I’ll keep you posted.

***

To wrap things up, here’s a song the robot at the campus radio station seems to enjoy, having moved it into heavy rotation this week. The Five Emprees (a/k/a the Five Empressions [sic]) hailed from Benton Harbor, MI, cut one album and released nine singles from 1965-68. This one was the closest they got to a hit and occasionally gets play on oldies stations up that way. A later release added a horn section, but I prefer the stripped down original. It sounds to me like the verse and chorus belong in different songs, but it does have a certain charm in a left-turnish kind of way. Here are the Five Emprees, with 1965’s “Little Miss Sad.”

See you soon!

Posted in Culture, Education, Literature, Music, Uncategorized | Leave a comment

Sunday Potpourri: Weekend Roundup Edition

I have one paper left to grade this afternoon before I get a fresh batch on Wednesday, and of course, Gradeapalooza isn’t all that far away. Still, since I have a few minutes, I may as well check in.

***

Yesterday was another admissions event, which means that two of my colleagues and I represented Mondoville’s Humanities department (and in the case of my colleague Amanda, the Honors program as well) while prospective students and their parents ambled through a common area in the library. While more vocationally oriented programs (STEM fields, business, and the like) drew most of the traffic (as always), we got to meet and greet several kids with an interest in what we do, while in the past, we’ve been met about as enthusiastically as door-to-door leprosy salesmen. The bowl of candy may have helped as well.

In any case, we’ve been ramping up our pitch by attacking the English major-as-barista stereotype head on. Of course, it helps that we have numbers to back it up — numbers that our chair, David Rachels, has conveniently arranged on a take-home flyer (with sources!), and we can mention things like the fact that Humanities majors typically outscore STEM folks on things like the MCAT. “Why? Because we’re used to reading, understanding, and communicating hard concepts!” Likewise, we talk about so-called “soft skills” like effective verbal and written communication, and developing an understanding of why and how people have faced the joys and challenges of life over the centuries. And I think these pitches help — not least by easing minds. We also point out that because this is a small college, we’re more than happy to try to help kids arrange second majors or minors to go with their (allegedly) more employable interests.

But of course, because I’m who I am, I frequently put in words for what we do as an end in itself. I’ll warn them of the unexamined life or the midlife loss of purpose, and remind them of Matthew 16:26. I’ll tell them that other majors may talk about whats and hows, but we’re interested in whys, which are different questions indeed. And I’ll get worked up about this stuff to the point that when folks have left, and I say to my colleagues, “Yeah, I used to sell tires and batteries,” I’ll get an appreciative nod.

“What’s it gonna take to put you in this English major today?”

***

After the meet-and-greet, I grabbed a few hot dogs at the free “tailgate” luncheon at the admin building, washed them down with some lemonade, and made my way to the last home football game of the year. The seniors sent the Mondoville crowd home happy, with a 40-10 win over the visiting Catawba Indians of Catawba College. We’ll close the season next week up in North Carolina against Mars Hill University, and the outcome will determine whether the Mondovillians finish above or below the break-even point for the season.

As I’ve said in the past, I have a much harder time enjoying sports than I used to, and I’m far more likely to flinch when I see a particularly hard hit. Seeing my students in braces or casts as they move around campus (or not seeing them at all because they’re recovering from a concussion) has sensitized me to the damage these kids absorb, at least in part to make their way through college. Still, when I’m sitting in Mondoville’s rickety bleachers with some concession stand goodies, and the marching band is honking through “Hey Baby” once again on a gorgeous fall afternoon, it’s easy to think that things are the way they should be, and to comfort myself with the thought that I’m supporting all the kids — players, cheerleaders, musicians, and fans — in shared experiences beyond the classroom as well as within it, just as I do when I go to a recital or a play. And hot dogs taste best outdoors.

***

Within the classroom, meanwhile, on Wednesday we’ll be installing a half-dozen new members in ΣΤΔ, the English Honor Society — I’m the faculty sponsor, despite my colossal ineptitude at matters involving organizational skill. This incoming group will include some of the top students we have — including the Spawn. Just wait until they see the paddles and electric razors!

But seriously, I have to admit that it’ll be a kick to welcome the Spawn into an organization that  supports something we both love so much. So I’m looking forward to Wednesday afternoon.

***

On other scholastic fronts, we got good news as Mrs. M  achieved another ten years of certification from the National Board for Professional Teaching Standards. We already knew that she’s an ace at this stuff, of course, but it’s nice to get external confirmation every so often. She even got an extra dose of approval earlier in the week, when she learned she had been named the Teacher of the Month at her elementary school. In particular, the citation repeatedly mentioned her devotion and connection to her first graders. To be fair, having been married to me for a quarter-century is good training for dealing with six-year-olds.

***

Well, speaking of devotion to students, I had best get to this last paper, but before I do, how about a bit of music?

My freshpeeps recently wrote papers analyzing the lyrics to some of their favorite songs. Because this is the South, I get a fair share of country music, but most of it tends to be the contemporary stuff for which I feel little love. So I was surprised when a student wrote her paper about this one. When I was doing my two-year hitch at Transy, a fraternity that prided itself on its “Old South” roots (despite the fact that most of them seemed to hail from New Jersey) had a habit of playing this one at all hours, and I’d hear it when I wandered around the “Back Circle” between the dorms. The fraternity is still there, although the residence halls where they and I lived have been gone for a while now, and I wonder what the current crop is listening to. Probably nothing this good.

See you soon!

Posted in Culture, Education, Family, Literature, Music, Why I Do What I Do | Leave a comment

Monday Afternoon Potpourri: Fictioneering and Other Stuff

This was Homecoming Weekend in Mondoville, and though the visiting Wingate Bulldogs overcame our side on the football field, it was the usual nice time seeing alumni from the fifteen years that I’ve been here. The Spawn rode on her sorority’s float in the Homecoming parade, and since she’s a senior this year, this may be the last time she does it for a while. Indeed, that’ll be kind of odd. Although she was a first-grader when we started here, she frequently rode in the parade, with the sheriff’s family, a school group, or some other set of participants. I know it’ll look funny to me, not seeing her there.

***

I saw a few of my former students as I waited for the parade, including a couple from my early years here. At one point, a young man walked up to me. I knew he was an alum, but I couldn’t place his name. When I admitted it and he told me who he was, I was able to tell him that he had been in my FroshComp and my first Shakespeare course — an evening course in the science building’s lecture hall. Indeed, I could show you where in the room he sat on those nights. He was also a very strong student, but it’s funny how I remember the kids by the courses we’ve had together.

In other cases, I met students with new spouses and new babies, and that’s one of my favorite parts of these weekends. A favorite of mine arrived with her husband and son, with a daughter currently under construction. It always makes me wonder what it’ll be like to have grandchildren — eventually.

Meanwhile, a tent for the Class of 88’s 30-year reunion was playing mid-80s dance music, which reminded me that I finished my undergrad 31 years back, and also that I don’t really have college reunions, as I earned my B.A. from a non-traditional program, and grad school reunions aren’t really a thing as far as I know. Maybe that’s a reason that I enjoy Mondoville’s Homecomings so much — I value the community that I only sort of had before I got there.

***

So some more writerly things have gone on of late, and the results of those efforts will hit the scene. I recently mentioned that I’ll have a story in Lawrence Block’s At Home in the Dark anthology, which Subterranean will put out this spring.  Also appearing this spring will be a short I wrote for Ryan Sayles’s clown-themed anthology, Greasepaint and .45s. Down and Out will be issuing that one. And yesterday afternoon, I finished a piece for El Bee’s next art-themed antho, From Sea to Stormy Sea, which Pegasus will put out next fall. While In Sunlight or In Shadow focused on the work of Edward Hopper, and Alive in Shape and Color let the writers choose the artists who inspired them (Dali, in my case), FStSS will contain stories inspired by American artists. Mr. Block suggested an artist whose work I didn’t know — Wolf Kahn — but when I looked at the painting he recommended, I knew I could find a story there. I’ll even include an image of the painting, but the one in the book will be nicer.

gray-cloud-magenta-water-145-1991

Gray Cloud, Magenta Water, #145, by Wolf Kahn, 1991.

Some of the people with whom I’ll share space at Sea (Get it? Get it?) will include Patti Abbott (inspired by the work of Harvey Dunn), Charles Ardai (Piet Mondrian, who finished his career in the US, so he counts), Jan Burke (Andy Warhol), Jerome Charyn (Rockwell Kent), Brendan Dubois (Winslow Homer), Janice Eidus (Mark Rothko), Christa Faust (Helen Frankenthaler), Scott Frank (Robert Henri), Tom Franklin (John Hull), Jane Hamilton (Grant Wood), Barry Malzberg (George Bellows), Micah Nathan (Daniel Morper), Sara Paretsky (John Steuart Curry), Gary Phillips (Reginald Marsh), and John Sandford (Thomas Hart Benton). And Mr. Block is offering a new story of his own, inspired by a work by Raphael Soyer (who happened to be the uncle of another of my favorite writers, Peter S. (for Soyer) Beagle). What’s not to love? I’ll let you know when pre-release orders are available.

***

And in keeping with our artistic theme, here’s a song I heard yesterday that seems to fit. Merrell Fankhauser’s musical career spans early-60s surf rock, 60s/70s psychedelia, and the acclaimed studio project known as Fapardokly. This track is from his 60s outfit HMS Bounty. From 1968, this is “Your Painted Lives.”

See you soon!

Posted in Culture, Education, Family, Music, Pixel-stained Wretchery | 1 Comment

Shocked, Shocked!

Yesterday at The Atlantic, Adam Serwer put forth an idea that has struck me as so obvious that it could only surprise a sophisticate. The headline:

Trumpism Is ‘Identity Politics’ for White People.

Serwer seems to think that he’s achieved some sort of satori with this realization, and that he is exposing a hypocrisy, because the GOP has historically complained about the very identity politics that his piece puts in ironic quotes, and that he defines as “a politics based in appeals to the loathing of, or membership in, a particular group.”

Congratulations, Sir: you’ve discovered tribalism. We look forward to your development of the wheel and axle next semester.

But to me, the surprising part is that this should surprise anyone. I have seen much of the discourse during my lifetime driven by the tribalist conceit that membership in Group X defines Member Y’s interests and political positions. Along with this comes loopiness like “true Scotsman” fallacies (“You can’t hold position Z and be a real woman/African-American/member of the LGBT community!”), and the notion that the individual’s fate is also inextricably linked to his or her tribe’s position in the social hierarchy (which is generally expressed as a zero-sum game: the rise of one tribe means the descent of another).

And part of what this means is that members of those tribes are expected to pull together to establish, maintain, or improve the tribe’s position. All the tribes find themselves in forms of the Prisoner’s Dilemmawith a seeming incentive to distrust and screw over members of the other tribes. (Why yes, I did set my metaphor mixer on frappe today. Why do you ask?)

So why is anyone surprised that a sizable chunk of a tribe that has been defined as “white people” would act accordingly, and would respond to the same incentives that the other tribes have recognized? If what is important is a tribe’s status, why wouldn’t the members of that tribe place the tribe’s interest first? Heck, isn’t that kind of the goal of stuff like “class consciousness?” “The true Scotsmen/United/Will never be/Defeated!”

And the corollary to all this is that a tribe (or class, or party…) in our system must focus on the acquisition and maintenance of power as a means to its ends, and in turn, power becomes an end-in-itself. If identity politics (as defined above) is how the game is now going to be played, and if it’s a zero-sum game with power as the prize, we shouldn’t be surprised when all the groups play it, even if it leads the game in ugly directions, and even if it surprises Adam Serwer.

As for me, I’ve come to think that it’s a stupid game with stupid prizes, and I don’t want to play it any more than I must.

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QotD: Pith and Vinegar Edition

Libertarian magazine Reason is celebrating its 50th anniversary, and as part of the celebration, they’ve posted a series of short pieces, in which members of their editorial staff explain how they arrived at their libertarian positions. It kind of reminds me of what a church I formerly attended called “the story of your faith walk”, and of some of the coming-out narratives I’ve encountered over the years. (I’m hardly the first to notice the similarities between those particular genres, but there you go.)

Anyway, as I was reading these mini-essays this afternoon, I ran across several accounts reminiscent of moments from my own life, from Katherine Mangu-Ward’s encounter with (and subsequent outgrowing of) Ayn Rand to Scott Shackford’s realization that libertarianism can come from a deep humility. But a line from Jacob Sullum really struck me, and so here’s the Quote of the Day:

 I realized that politics gives people of limited ability the power to forcibly interfere with the lives of their fellow citizens, and I concluded that it was best to limit that power as much as possible.

Happy anniversary, Reason — I’m glad you’re there.

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In Which the Mondohaus is Gripped by Lotto Fever, but Quickly Recovers

What with last night’s big lottery prize, Mrs. M had organized a pool of coworkers for the drawing, and although lotteries are taxes on folks who failed prob and stat, I went ahead and bought a few tickets as well.

Upon awakening this morning, I saw that there had been one winning ticket sold, and mirabile dictu, it was sold here in South Carolina. I wandered into the kitchen to find Mrs. M combing through the pool’s tickets to see if there was any money coming in. She had already established that neither the pool’s 65 tickets nor my three had scored the big prize.

“It’s OK,” I said. “There’s still Powerball tonight, and a few hundred mil isn’t shabby. Besides,” I added, “You hit the jackpot when you found me.” I added a pair of index finger “gun points” for extra emphasis.

So apparently it’s possible to roll your eyes so hard you can sprain something. Sorry, hon.

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