Independence Day, 2018

fireworks

It’s quiet right now in Mondoville. In about three hours, Mrs. M and I will park at a strip mall a few blocks from the high school, where the annual fireworks display will originate. We went to the high school itself some years ago, but the combination of the heat of a South Carolina July and the wisdom of age have led us to opt for the air-conditioned comfort and quick return home that the car provides. And it’s not like we’ll be the only ones watching from there — we usually have a few other cars and trucks pulled alongside us, with truckbeds full of kids and the occasional adult. We’ll celebrate.

And there is still much to celebrate about life in my country. Many voices in our media and political culture, both on left and right, seem bent on having us forget that, in the hope that we will surrender our wills to theirs. Our world of instant communication and the far range of social media calls us to the anonymous and self-righteous comfort of the mob. “We’re at one another’s throats!”

But that’s not true. If my car were to run off the road this evening, I’m morally certain that the people who pull over near me would want to help me, not to take advantage of my situation. The people I see when I donate blood don’t care whether their blood goes to someone rich or poor, to someone gay or straight. They just give. When I go to a convenience store, there’ll be a jar on the counter, raising money for someone’s sick family member. Folks who have never met the beneficiary, and who likely never will, put in a dime or a dollar. They don’t ask who voted for whom. I believe in my neighbors, and I hope they believe in me.

And even when we look at the shortcomings of our present and the worst moments of our history, I marvel at the standards — liberty, justice and equality before the law — that we’ve professed, and that we’ve believed in enough to strive for them — or to feel guilty when we haven’t lived up to them.

I’ve spoken before of my own family’s rise, from a housing project on one side and from dirt farmers on the other to where I am now, and from near third-world levels of Appalachian poverty to self-sufficiency and better on Mrs. M’s side. Neither of my grandfathers made it through high school. My father didn’t earn his B.A. until my senior year of high school, getting his higher ed in bits and pieces over the decades. My mom didn’t go to college. Mrs. M’s parents had similar, harsher stories of lives of limited opportunities. But now, both Mrs. M and I work to give other people the opportunities to enrich their lives as well. Neither of us were to a manor born — but the country in which we live gave us the chance to earn a better house than our parents and grandparents had. And every fall, I meet a new group of young people trying to rise. I’m proud to be in a country where they can, and where I can help them while doing things I love, and things that I chose to do, that weren’t decided for me by someone in a faraway capitol.

My country is not perfect — nor can it be in a fallen world. But the world is a better place for its presence, and if we are wise enough to think beyond the cacophony of those who benefit from our fear and confusion, we can make our immediate worlds and the larger one better for a long time to come.

Happy Independence Day. God bless America.

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Over the Top

When I was in Scouts, at eleven or twelve years of age, I went to the Cumberland Mountain Climbing School with the rest of my troop. I really hadn’t wanted to do it, but Dad was something of an outdoorsman, having backpacked extensively in the Smokies, and since Troop 283 was doing this, and Dad was one of the adult leaders, well, there you go.

It was not a positive experience for me — on my first pitch, I was halfway up a slab — maybe 30 feet or so — when I realized I was halfway up a slab. I freaked out and froze. All I knew is that I wanted to be back at the bottom. My dad said later that I likely could have walked up the face had I not panicked — I didn’t see that as an option. They wouldn’t give me the slack on the rope to go back down, and I was told that if necessary, I could be dragged the rest of the way. I eventually finished the pitch, and that was the last slope I encountered that weekend. I watched the other kids and adults climb and listened to the theory of rappelling and prusiking, but was not going to put myself in that position again. Of course, I felt like I let Dad down, but he never said anything about it other than “You probably could have done fine. But it’s just not for you. And that’s okay.” I certainly agreed with the second sentence. But while I know Dad meant all three sentences, I still wonder about the third one.

But I maintained an academic interest in the subject, and when I was in high school, I found a book Dad had checked out from the Boone County library, about the first generation of big wall climbers in Yosemite. I read about guys like Royal Robbins, Warren Harding, and Yvon Chouinard, and phrases like “turswiry cap” (a short skull cap, worn by mountaineers who were invariably described as “terse, wiry leaders”) became part of the family lexicon.

As it happens, my colleague David Rachels went out to Yosemite a couple of weeks ago. I asked him if he was going to free solo El Capitan. He demurred, but went on to mention a documentary he had watched on Netflix, called Valley Uprising, about the climbers. I mentioned Robbins and Harding, and he said they were the first generation guys, but that the documentary also talked about the subsequent practitioners of the sport, and that it included some pretty vertiginous photography. I made a mental note of it, and got around to watching it this evening.

It’s an interesting movie, and pretty well done, but one of the things that struck me was the outlaw ethos the climbers seem to share. Apparently there has always been tension between the climbers and the “civilian” visitors to the park, and there are several episodes late in the film that deal with the cat-and-mouse games between the later generations of climbers and the park authorities, particularly as climbers have begun to add activities like highlining and BASE jumping to their repertoires. And I’m sure there are very good reasons for the restrictions the Park Service has imposed on the climbers, but I have to admit that my sympathies in the matter are with the folks who are willing to risk their lives in order to do the things they choose to do. (In fact, a prominent figure in the movie, Dean Potter, died in a wingsuit accident a year after the film came out.)

And that in turn led me to think about an article I read at Reason earlier today. Lately we’ve seen a rash of stories about busybodies who insist on raising the hue and cry for such antisocial activities as outdoor grilling, water or lemonade sales, and similar heinous activities that while basically harmless, may violate a local ordinance about permits or the like. (I may be a bit biased, as I remember the police in Lexington, KY threatening to confiscate my band’s gear for disturbing the peace when we were practicing on a Sunday afternoon.) As the article notes, we seem determined to become a “nation of narcs.”

There always have been Mrs. Grundys out there, and I suppose there always will be. Still, I think I’ll keep cheering for the harmless outlaws, from the BASE jumpers to the lemonade entrepreneurs to the guys making music in their garages. But I’ll pass on the climbing, thanks.

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Poetry Corner: “It’s a Living” Edition

Last night, a former student of mine was talking on the Book of Faces about the fact (which she described as shameful) that teachers here in South Carolina don’t get paid a great deal. I mentioned that Mrs. M makes a significant amount more than I do, and that although I’ve been here for 15 years and have reached full rank, I still make less than $50K. My student was shocked, and then asked me why I still work here. I replied:

Well, there are several reasons. 1) The cost of living in [Mondoville] is very low. [Mrs. M] and I can live pretty well on not a lot of money. 2) There are many more folks w/ Ph.D.s out there than there are openings. Supply>>>Demand=low pay for English profs as a category. But even so, [Mondoville College] is one of the lowest-paying schools in the country. 3) My approach to literature isn’t especially fashionable, and even if it were, when you teach 4 classes/semester, it’s hard to find time to do the scholarly work that interests other schools’ hiring committees. (Some folks do manage it, however. More power to them.) 4) As my colleague David Rachels observed this afternoon, there are three categories of faculty hires in the humanities these days: Entry-level, Superstars, and Administrators. I’m overqualified for the first, underqualified for the second, and have no desire for the third. 5) [Mrs. M] has accumulated a significant number of years in SC schools. If we left SC, she’d basically have to start over for retirement and such.

But…

I like what I do, and I like doing it for you guys — the kids who come through [Mondoville]. I think I do some good here that I might not be able to do somewhere else. And when it’s all said and done, I know there are a hell of a lot of folks who never get the chance to do something they love like I do.

Now having said that, if another school in SC (or just across the state line so that [Mrs. M] could still work in SC) were to offer me a gig, we’d have to think about it hard. But I don’t anticipate that happening, so I’ve traded financial rewards for spiritual ones. I wouldn’t recommend it for a lot of people, but as I said, we get by. In the meantime, you could encourage other folks to donate to the college, and then maybe we could get by better. 🙂

In fact, I realize that doing what I do is a luxury of sorts — an opportunity cost that I pay. There are other things I can do that might be more financially remunerative. Fortunately, Mrs. M and I are willing to accept the trade-off. And last night, as I was taking the garbage to the curb, I remembered a poem that struck me as appropriate, so let’s turn to Poetry Corner once again, and to one of my favorites, Edwin Arlington Robinson.

Cliff Klingenhagen

Cliff Klingenhagen had me in to dine
With him one day; and after soup and meat,
And all the other things there were to eat,
Cliff took two glasses and filled one with wine
And one with wormwood. Then, without a sign
For me to choose at all, he took the draught
Of bitterness himself, and lightly quaffed
It off, and said the other one was mine.
And when I asked him what the deuce he meant
By doing that, he only looked at me
And smiled, and said it was a way of his.
And though I know the fellow, I have spent
Long time a-wondering when I shall be
As happy as Cliff Klingenhagen is.

 

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Losing A Great One

I just found out that Harlan Ellison has died. He marked his 84th birthday a month ago. Ellison was one of my favorite writers, and his work earned the respect and admiration of his peers. As much as anyone, he was responsible for dragging speculative fiction out of the critical ghetto and into the realm of Literature. He was — and is — one of the writers who inspired me to do what I do, and I’m grateful for that.

Harlan

His life was the sort of thing that spawned legends, for good or ill, but was marked by a ferocious integrity (or an integral ferocity) that he brought to everything he did, from marching at Selma to walking away from a high-paying Twilight Zone gig. His commitment to his vision and to the creator’s freedom sets a frighteningly high bar, but it’s one I try to keep in mind as I work.

When I finished BGW, I thanked the writers who have guided me into the dark country where I choose to work — Lawrence Block, Harlan, and Jim Thompson. I made sure to send copies to Larry and to Harlan, but I don’t know if Ellison ever read it, or even ever saw it. But that’s OK; I acknowledged the debt, and I try to pay it in my own small way when I sit at the keyboard.

He frequently said that he woke up angry every morning, and went to bed angrier each night. I hope he rests easily now — either in the nowhere he expected, or better, with the mother, and especially the father, he missed for so much of his life. And I hope they have Hydrox and old radio shows there.

Goodbye, Harlan. You were a man in full. Thanks for the stories — including the one you lived.

Posted in Broken Glass Waltzes, Culture, Literature, Why I Do What I Do | 1 Comment

Lunch Downtown

It occurred to me last night that in about three weeks, it’ll have been 20 years since I got out of the magazine business. Well, that’s not entirely accurate — I freelanced every so often while I was doing my Ph.D., and was grateful for the work, but it was no longer my regular bit.

I worked on the very edge of Downtown Cincinnati proper, on Broadway between E. 7th and 8th, where Gilbert Avenue begins, across the street from the building that once housed the Cincinnati Times-Star. The company for which I worked isn’t based there anymore — they relocated to the burbs some years ago. But I worked downtown, and when my veal-fattening pen had a window, I would occasionally see Larry Flynt’s bodyguard pushing him around in his gold-plated wheelchair — there was a Hustler store a few blocks away.

I didn’t make a great deal of cash at ST — I started at $400 a week in 1992, and when I left six years later, I was making about $500 a week, but it was enough for us to get by while Mrs. M earned her degree. Well, most of the time, anyway; my folks bailed us out on a credit card debt once, and brought us groceries on a few occasions. As you might guess, we weren’t living the high life.

I usually brown-bagged my lunch — either leftovers from the previous night or a sandwich and chips. But every so often, I might walk to one of the local fast-food joints or chili parlors and get lunch there. In particular, there was a hole-in-the-wall Chinese place  a block or two away, where I’d occasionally get spicy beef fried rice and an eggroll for five bucks.

But my dad also worked downtown, and occasionally he’d treat me to lunch. We basically worked on opposite sides of the area, so we’d generally meet in the middle somewhere. However, one time he got me to walk all the way across downtown to the Findlay Market area of town, at the corner of Liberty and Central. I’ve heard that the area has become a bit gentrified since those days, but 20-plus years ago, it was mainly known as the starting point for the parade every Reds’ Opening Day and as a place where trouble wasn’t hard to find. The neighborhood was so grungy in the early ’90s that my band at the time could afford to rent practice space there, in the vault of an old warehouse. (If you’ve read Broken Glass Waltzes, it’s where Kenny’s band The Selekt practices.) Even in the early Oughts, my brother got busted there after a crack run with a friend went wrong. Dad and I went to pick him up when he got his R.O.R. — although I hadn’t worked at the magazine in years, we still parked in the company lot, a block or two from the Justice Center. It was that violation that got him his first dose of State time, in Ohio.

So what justified this particular jaunt? It was a fast-food burger joint. But once upon a time, its owners — including erstwhile Kentucky governor John Y. Brown — thought it might be the cornerstone of an empire.

olloes

It’s called Ollie’s Trolley, and while Brown and his co-investors once had big dreams for it, there are now only three in operation, in Louisville (at 978 S. 3rd), in DC (at 12th and E), and in Cincinnati. The first time I ate there was with Dad, but over the course of time, I’d try to swing by on the way to practice (picking up an extra order of fries for the vegetarian guitarist), or if I was just in that part of town. It was worth the risk of coming back late from my lunch hour — the burgers and fries were wonderfully spiced and delicious, and from what I hear, they remain so.

But I hadn’t thought about Ollie’s in years, until a former Mondoville colleague sent me a link to an essay in online magazine The Bitter Southerner that talks about the rise and fall of these remarkable eateries. It’s worth your time — and if you’re ever near one of Ollie’s locations, it’s worth your time as well.

A tip of the Mondo Mortarboard to Kristi Pope Key.

Posted in Broken Glass Waltzes, Culture, Family | 1 Comment

Choosing a Float to Ride in the Parade of Horribles

It’s hard to keep track of who we’re supposed to shun these days. Potential customers boycott businesses. Businesses boycott potential customers. Artist X has committed Misdeed Y — fire him, replace her, cast the past work into the cultural oubliette. (Note: none of this is to say that people don’t have the right to choose these actions. But as always, there are gaps between what people can do and what they should do.)

This morning, a friend of mine on the Book of Faces mentioned that a lot of people are struggling about the prospect of reading Junot Diaz’s work. While I’m aware Mr. Diaz writes, and that apparently he has behaved badly towards women, that’s really about the extent of my knowledge. So this is what I had to say about the larger case:

Ben Jonson straight-up murdered somebody, but got off with a manslaughter charge and a thumb-branding because he knew Latin. Volpone, however, remains one of the greatest moral comedies in English.

Byron was a profligate, and Shelley essentially drove his first wife to suicide. Still, Don Juan is brilliant, as is “To the West Wind.” Ezra Pound was a full-on Fascist and traitor, but he was also one of the most important poets of the 20th C. More recently, consider the case of Ted Hughes.

I don’t really have a dog in the Diaz fight — I’ve not read him, and he’s not someone I’ve thought of as someone I need to read. But the whole “moral high ground” issue leaves me puzzled. After all, I’ve never read a crappy book because I thought the author had a beautiful soul.

That last line, of course, I lifted from Harlan Ellison. But as I think about this a little more, I find myself with a question or two. In our current day, one of the values our culture extols is diversity. That some groups have been excluded from our cultural conversation because of issues like sex, ethnicity, sexual orientation, or other distinguishing characteristics seems a given, and fair game for discussion at least since Virginia Woolf invented Judith Shakespeare. And there seems to be a consensus these days that members of these heretofore marginalized groups deserve to be brought into the light and into the conversation. In consequence, writers and artists are sometimes seen not merely as individuals, but as representative of some group’s experience or experiences. (I suspect this is grossly unfair — while William Shakespeare, Ted Bundy, Pope John Paul II, and I all fit under the heading of white men, I’m pretty sure that the differences in our lives far outweigh the similarities. Which of us is or was representative? Likewise for any other group of people where n>1.)

But if we accept that an author or artist’s work is somehow valuable in whole or part because of who the artist is (which after all, is what the concept of identity means — it’s who or what someone or something is), then it seems to me that the idea of judging a work by that author or artist’s personal behavior (He’s a creep, therefore we shouldn’t read his books/see his movies/buy his music) is merely an extension of that idea, and perhaps a reasonable one if we buy the initial premise.

As it happens, and as I said in the Facebook comment earlier, I don’t agree with that position. But I can see how people get there.

But even as I say this, I think of the ramifications. As usual, the Calvinism of my background pops up — we’re all sinners; we’re all depraved; all have sinned and fallen short of the Glory of God. As a minister once told me, “On the ladder of perfection, we are all on the bottom rung.” I am certain that I have done damnable things in my life — just like everyone else. Which of those things invalidate my work? Which ones invalidate yours?

Posted in Culture, Literature | 2 Comments

Sunday Potpourri: Merry Blockmas Edition

So the weather folks tell us that today’s high in Mondoville will be around 102, with a heat index somewhere near 110. Fortunately, the A/C in my office is set to about 3 degrees Kelvin (the average temperature of the universe, I’m told) and I have the fan running. So other than some dude from a Lovecraft story wanting my recliner, things are okay, and in a little bit, I’ll get to work on the term’s final half-week. But meanwhile…

***

Let’s start by wishing a happy birthday to friend of the blog (and of the blogger) Lawrence Block, who has hit what he calls his Phileas Fogg year. He continues to think, charm, and work — a new adventure of Matt Scudder will be coming our way in pretty short order, and he has other irons in the fire as well, one of which involves Your Genial Host.

How to celebrate? May I suggest reading a good book, and maybe treating yourself to some well done french fries? Happy birthday, LB — I’m glad you’re here, and I’m honored and astonished to count you as a friend.

***

Did the blood donation thing again yesterday, and everything went smoothly enough, but as I was waiting for my turn, I noticed a young guy — I’d put him early 20s — sitting across from me. He was wearing a necklace with a pendant that looked like a guitar pick, so I asked him what kind of guitar he played. He told me, and we talked a little about his band, which had a gig last night in a town about 15 minutes from Mondoville. They’re predominantly a cover band, doing mainly classic rock, but with occasional 60s and dance numbers sprinkled in.

I pointed out that after giving blood, we’re discouraged from strenuous activity for the next 24 hours or so. “You can make someone else carry your amp,” I told him. He laughed, and said he’d just use his other arm. At about that point I was called in for my pre-screening, so that ended the conversation, but it reminded me that I’ve really missed playing since the demise of the Berries last summer — it’ll have been a year in August — and I hope to get back behind the kit soon.

***

On the writing front, I’m happy to mention that I’ll be one of a number of writers at the first-ever Mystery in the Midlands conference, on Saturday, 28 July at St. Paul’s Lutheran Church in downtown Real City (Columbia, SC). It’s sponsored by the Southeast Chapter of MWA and the Palmetto Chapter of Sisters in Crime, and the $25 registration includes lunch, along with plenty of great discussions for writers and readers alike.

Mystery in the Midlands

The conference with the sharpest logo going…

Elaine Viets is the keynote speaker, and she’ll also be on my panel, along with Robert Mangeot, Karen McCullough, and Claire Count. We’ll be talking about short stories, but there will be a wide range of topics during the day, along with signings, a silent auction (benefiting “My First Books”, an affiliate of Dolly Parton’s Imagination Library that will get kids new books every month until they turn five) and other coolness.

As I said, it’s all for a mere $25 — such a deal! If you’re interested, you can register here. And who knows? If you like your music loud and fast, maybe we can get together afterwards at one of my favorite dives.

***

Well, that school stuff still needs doing, so I’d best get to it. But let’s wrap it up with some music, huh? Denmark’s Raveonettes have taken their affection for the Jesus and Mary Chain, mixed in some noirish vibes, and built a solid career that now spans eight albums. This track is from their second album, Pretty In Black, and it’s really the song that turned me on to their work. Maybe you’ll like it as well. This is “Love in a Trashcan.”

See you soon, and stay cool!

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