Wednesday, July 04, 2018

Happy 4th of July!

Jean Leon Gerome Ferris, "Betsy Ross 1777."
Wikipedia, public domain image.
Shown: General Washington with child at left, Robert Morris,
George and Betsy Ross. His name? Ferris's father was a portrait painter
who was an admirer of Jean-Léon Gérôme's artistry.
 The son, Jean Leon Gerome Ferris (1863-1930), is best known
for a series of 78 paintings drawn from American history,
The Pageant of a Nation.
About the Declaration there is a finality that is exceedingly restful. It is often asserted that the world has made a great deal of progress since 1776, that we have had new thoughts and new experiences which have given us a great advance over the people of that day, and that we may therefore very well discard their conclusions for something more modern. But that reasoning can not be applied to this great charter. If all men are created equal, that is final. If they are endowed with inalienable rights, that is final. If governments derive their just powers from the consent of the governed, that is final. No advance, no progress can be made beyond these propositions. If anyone wishes to deny their truth or their soundness, the only direction in which he can proceed historically is not forward, but backward toward the time when there was no equality, no rights of the individual, no rule of the people. Those who wish to proceed in that direction can not lay claim to progress. They are reactionary. Their ideas are not more modern, but more ancient, than those of the Revolutionary fathers.  --Calvin Coolidge, from a speech on the 150th anniversary of The Declaration of Independence at

Monday, July 02, 2018

Empire of Jargon

Anton Chekhov
The title of doctor, nurse, technician all disappeared, and we all became providers. All those patients in our waiting room suddenly became consumers or clients. My grandfather ran a grocery store and had a lot of customers, and my father was a lawyer and had a lot of clients. None of those customers or clients would come to see me as their doctor with their illnesses today if I were a provider. The use of the terminology of “providers” and “customers” lowers all health care staff to the lowest common denominator and demeans the concerns of my patients.
When I sit in my examining room across the desk from my patient I face a human being who has come to see me as a doctor because they’re in search of the treatment of a real illness or concern. --Sidney Goldstein, M. D.
These issues are not unique to doctors, alas; administration burgeons in many places (universities and hospitals leading the way), and administrators are prone to an only-too-understandable postmodern confusion about what is meaningful and who is doing the essential work. This interesting tendency allows them to put administrators first, to eliminate meeting spaces that once belonged to doctors, to increase demands for paperwork so that there is less time for face-to-face communication between doctor and patient, etc. As a poet and novelist married to a physician, I see many changes in how medicine is practiced but also detect parallel changes in my own realm. In mine, the canon of great literature is abolished, all writing is "product" on a "platform," the strength of the writing is no longer uppermost in the minds of publishers, and the idea of a publisher supporting a writer's ongoing work is increasingly absent. In both fields, tradition and the opportunity for plain old human warmth continue to be on the wane.

Monday, June 25, 2018

The Wilder Flap

My husband's maternal grandmother and her parents were half Akwesasne Mohawk and half French Canadian. Nevertheless, Michael's North Country Gram found it in her to complain about tourists who were "so damn French they can't speak English!" It didn't slow her much. Gram was the most talkative woman I have ever known, and the most opinionated, and the quickest to complain to town officials about what she did not approve. She was the most lively person in a clan divided between the reservation and the nearby town, and I still think of her often.

Although Michael has never in any way attempted to use a thread of native ancestry for gain, he has rather enjoyed the idea that he might be related to Kateri Tekakwitha. Come winter, the Roman Catholic saint used to chop a hole in the Raquette River and plunge into the icy waters. Now that's mortifying the flesh in the morning. Now that'll startle the Jesuits!

Human beings of all stripes were tougher back then, it seems. When Mohawks chewed off the fingertips of Isaac Jogues, he sailed back to the Old World to have what was left of his fingers blessed by the pope, so that he could administer the Eucharist. Then he sailed back to the New World because he wasn't done carrying the gospel to the Iroquois. They eventually killed him, of course. Those who chewed and those who were chewed in those times seem considerably more robust and earthy than we expect. The Association of Library Service to Children would probably say that their "legacy is complex" and "not universally embraced." They might like to clean up history and de-access any book touching on those topics because history is so dratted bloody and messy and unjust, and people in various eras have opinions shaped by their own times, culture, and experience.

The latest literary flap is the removal of the name of Laura Ingalls Wilder from the Laura Ingalls Wilder Award by The Association of Library Service to Children board. You might suspect that the new name would be simply Award. But no. The new name is nice and bland: Children’s Literature Legacy Award. This is somewhat surprising because the ALSC appears to be uneasy about the legacy of the past, which is invariably complex and includes thoughts different from and often less acceptable than our own, but all right.

Putting aside any immediate hot-blooded reactions flying around the internets, what are the compelling issues rising from this action? Which are interesting tendencies or problems, whether you agree or whether you disagree with the decision? 1. We are judging the past by our present. Let's try flipping that upside down for a change and see what we learn. 2. The current times will look just as strange and wrong (perhaps even stranger and more ridiculous and wrong--who knows?) to the future as Wilder (i.e. the past) looked to a bunch of librarians determined to do the right thing by children. This is obvious and unavoidable, alas. 3. Jettisoning history and knowledge of how people used to see the world has been tried in the Soviet Union, China, Cambodia, and various other places. It has not proved to be a healthful idea. 4. The bestseller list has often made it extraordinarily clear to us that the "universally embraced" book is not very good. 5. I have noticed that recent college graduates seem to know a minuscule amount of history, including literary history. It seems that English majors can now graduate without knowledge of Shakespeare, Milton, Chaucer, and various other essential writers. Young writers wielding the English language, young writers of all colors and creeds, have a need to stand and dance and frolic on the shoulders of giants, even when they are a.) dead, b.) white, and c.) males. To say nay on this point is to undermine and harm young writers. Words beget words. Great words beget great words. Young writers will take and reject as needed--even rejection is a spur to new words. 6. The fashionable hyper-insistence on saying nothing that could possibly construed as offensive is leading to the destruction of fiction, particularly historical fiction. 7. One of the pleasures of reading older fiction is the dance between past and present. Times change. People change. The difference between times challenges us and is good for us to navigate. 8. Academia is in love with the power of jargon and the altering of names in order to change essentials. 9. A dire need to listen and learn from one another is growing increasingly more obvious. Let's do that. With civility and love for one another.