Tuesday, March 3, 2020

The Magic and Power of the Public Library

“Without libraries, what have we? We have no past and no future.”
          Ray Bradbury, writer
A society - any society - is defined as a set of mutual benefits and duties embodied most visibly in public institutions: public schools, public libraries, public transportation, public hospitals, public parks, public museums, public recreation, public universities, and so on
Robert Reich-historian, sociologist, former US Secretary of Labor
  I am a library guy. People who know me and/or read this newsletter know that books, libraries, museums and such are things that have been big part of my life since my childhood and that they have helped me become the person I am today. I got my first Philadelphia Free Library card when I was in 2nd grade, and over sixty years later I still own, have, and use one. When my wife and I retired in 2015 she re-opened a public-school library at the Kelly School in Germantown, and I still volunteer there. So libraries matter to me, and especially public ones. Public libraries, to me are one of the best expressions of a civilization and a culture, for in theory, they open up the world to all of its citizens and offer the opportunity for each of them to become something and someone they probably could not be otherwise.
  Public libraries were where I first discovered many authors and musicians that I have come to love and think of as life-long friends. I would read the names of writers, musicians and songwriters in newspapers, magazines, on book jackets, or on LP’s. I would then go to the library to read them or hear them, and a new love affair would start. That continues today. And maps, art history, poetry, history-whatever I became interested in the library was there with materials and librarians who helped me. They have been quiet mainstays of my life.

  I mention this now because one of my favorite institutions, the New York Public Library, turns 125 years old this year. Since I first visited Manhattan some 50 years ago I have regularly visited branches of that library, especially the flagship branch on 5th Avenue next to Bryant Park. Built at a time when New York was striving to become a world class city, it is a massive, beautifully designed building that celebrates learning, ideas, and possibility through its layout and design. The rooms are huge and feature powerfully ornate high ceilings, wonderful painting and architectural design, and lots of space; space that invites hundreds of people to sit, learn, study, dream, and more.
The 125th anniversary is being commemorated with lots of special programs and events that are documented on the library’s website: https://www.nypl.org
  I will visit the space a number of times this year to observe some of the special activities. I travel to New York four or five times a year, and I love spending time at that magnificent building. Its design dramatically emphasizes the power of the public library and stands as an ode to learning and to dreaming. It is an example of our civilization at its best, and I am so glad to have access to it, both in NYC and in public libraries everywhere in this country. The possibilities abound.

(Here is a link to one of my favorite NY Public Library web features:   https://www.nypl.org/voices/blogs/blog-channels/library-stories  )
And just in case you were wondering: https://www.good.is/most-checked-out-book-snowy-day

Friday, February 7, 2020

Valentine's Day and the Power of Symbol and Story

(Next Friday is Valentine’s Day, one of the most popular holidays in our culture. The Dukes have a gig that night, and that got me to thinking again about the beloved symbol of that day and the persistence that symbol has had throughout history. I remembered an old newsletter I had written some 4 years ago about that symbol, and I thought I would re-run it with some minor alterations)
 STORY AND SYMBOL: WHAT IT MEANS TO BE HUMAN                                                
“We are human; that means we are symbol making beings, and that means symbols can move us much more than facts.”
                  Anonymous history teacher
Symbols are the imaginative signposts of life.”     Margot Asquith
“In most cases, a good story connected to a strong symbol will last much longer and have more effect than any collection of mere facts”
        Mac George Bundy, advisor to Presidents Kennedy and Johnson                                                                                         
   Next week we celebrate Valentine’s Day, a day dedicated to the idea of demonstrating and expressing true and romantic love. As in any culturally significant observance there are expectations: rites, behaviors, and symbols that mark the occasion and make it meaningful. We are expected tell people we care deeply about that we love and adore them, to give cards called “valentines” to those special people, to play special music, to have special romantic meals, and to spend special “romantic times” with that special someone. Cartoon and candy hearts are seen everywhere, and the day is supposed to be all about the expression of love and togetherness. It is thought of as a warm and feel good day.
   Of course, we live in a capitalistic and highly commercialized civilization, so there is always an economic interest in any popular cultural observance. I have a friend who says he refuses to celebrate any “Hallmark holidays,” as he sees the commercialization of holidays as having triumphed over the actual meaning of a given “holy day.” Valentine’s Day can certainly be looked at that way; Americans spend more money on Valentine’s Day than on any other single holiday except Christmas. According to the business websites, we spent over $21 billion dollars on the holiday in 2019, more than on Father’s and Mother’s Day combined. The cards, the chocolate, and the flowers all add up. But to have reached that economic point, Valentine’s Day had to first be accepted as an important cultural idea. It needed to be embraced. And like any other strong cultural occasion, this day had to be wrapped in both story and symbol.
  The most accepted story about Valentine’s Day traces its origins to a Roman priest by the name of Valentine. In the late third century ACE the Roman emperor Claudius was engaged in a series of unpopular and costly military campaigns, and he was having a hard time getting men to join the Roman armies. Claudius believed that Roman men were unwilling to join the army because of their strong attachment to their wives and families, so he summarily banned all marriages and engagements in Rome. Valentine defied Claudius and continued to perform marriages for young lovers in secret. When what Valentine was doing was discovered, Claudius had him beheaded on February 14, probably in the year 278 A.C.E. He was later made a saint, became a martyr for the Catholic Church, and became associated with romantic love and marriage. Supposedly he wrote notes to people while in prison, signing them, “From your Valentine,” Thus a story and a tradition was born.
   Historians know that there really was a St. Valentine. But historians also know that there were at least three saints who were named Valentine. The Catholic Encyclopedia lists three martyrs with that name, and all are connected to a date in February. While that may seem strange to us, it is really not that surprising. Valentine, meaning, “having valor, righteousness, and strength,” was not that uncommon a name for Roman boys at the time. Just as happens now, parents then often gave children names that meant something. Historians also know that at that time there was a big February celebration in Rome called the Feast of Lupercalia. It was a pre-Roman pastoral festival dedicated to health, cleansing, renewal, and fertility. As a part of the occasion, the names of single Roman women were put into a box. Single men randomly picked a name out of the box and they were then allowed to romance the woman whose name they had drawn. When Christianity became the state religion of Rome many of these ancient Roman festivals were either outlawed or converted into Christian fetes. In 496 ACE Pope Gelasius decided to put an end to the Feast of Lupercalia; he declared that February 14 would thereafter be celebrated as St Valentine’s Day, giving the day of his martyrdom a new meaning. People were to exchange simple gifts with loved ones such as grain, messages and flowers. The story of Saint Valentine sacrificing his life for love became a widespread and popular one, and he and the date of February 14 became forever associated with gift giving in the name of romance and love.
   Eventually the story of Valentine’s devotion to true love became joined to the one thing all great stories need: a symbol. The heart has been important as a symbol since the time of the ancient Egyptians. They saw it as the most important organ of the body. This was the place in the body where wisdom, emotions, personality and more were all joined. They also believed that it was an important vehicle through which gods spoke to humans. Yes, they knew about the chambers of the heart and that blood circulated through the heart. But that circulation of blood was not the most important job of the heart to them; its supposed link to all things emotional, spiritual, and intellectual was.
    Greek and Roman cultures drew heavily from Egypt, so the heart was important to them as well. It was associated with emotions such as love, and by the 5th century BCE symbols on coins and in writings depicted the heart looking somewhat as it does on our Valentine’s Day cards: a fat rounded ”V” with two joined curves at the top. Some historians say that particular shape was chosen because it looked like the seed pod of a plant called “silphium’, a plant used as a medicine and as a contraceptive in the ancient world. Others say it came about as an attempt by early graphic designers to represent what the heart looked like in early medical texts. Regardless, by the time of the Renaissance that shape had become a symbol of love throughout Europe. And as Europeans went to other continents, they naturally took their symbols with them. That heart shape became associated with love in most parts of the world. This heart now abounds on all those valentine cards, in the design of boxes of chocolate, in TV commercials, and all over just about anything connected with love. The story had found its symbol, and the two would be forever linked.
   The use of that heart as a symbol for love shows us just how powerful and persistent a given symbol can be even when it contradicts fact and truth. In the 1640’s William Harvey put forth the notion that the heart was a muscle, and that its primary role was to keep blood circulating in our bodies. By the middle of the 18th century that had become commonly accepted medical knowledge, and by the mid-20th century was being widely taught in junior high school biology classes. We all know this fact. Yet we still associate the heart with love. We know that emotions are generated in the brain-we now even know that certain specific things can trigger a specific emotion in a particular region of the brain. But our cultural knowledge and common ways of talking regularly ignores our factual knowledge. We say, “I’m heartbroken,” when we are disappointed in love. Or we say, “My heart is heavy with loss” when we acknowledge the death of a loved one. We place our hands over our heart when we say the Pledge of Allegiance. Our "hearts are lifted,” when we feel our mood dramatically improve, and are “downhearted” when the opposite happens. We still talk and think as if all these emotional things are connected to that muscle that keeps our blood flowing despite our knowing the facts. We do not say, “My brain is lifted when I am happy,” or, “It is with a heavy brain that I bring you this sad news.”  And we definitely do not know “a place on Lonely Street called “Brainbreak Hotel.”  It is the “heart” we relentlessly talk about in such situations. And more knowledge or more education will not change that. We have our story and we have our symbols, damnit, and we’re sticking to them.
    And that is true in just about all of our celebrations and rituals. We can always see this link between story and symbol playing out. As humans we need that interaction between the two; that is where our emotions get touched, where our memories come alive, and where we can join together with other people. A good story with a good symbol helps us make sense of the world, and it also move us, whether it is on the political front, in movies, in art, in literature, in romance, or whatever. We create stories and symbols, and the joining of them is one of the things that mark us as “human”-that strange animal that uses these things to try to interpret the world. Yes, we are also rational, and the rational side of our brain gets us through a lot and helps us greatly. Our rationality has helped us figure out important things about the universe, solve problems, create impressive inventions, design social and political systems, and much, much more. But we cannot or should not overlook how much we still depend on story and symbol to find our place in the world. If they can be linked to fact, it is so much the better. But even if they can’t, we still make regular use of them in figuring out the world and navigating this thing called life. We have to use the two of them; we have to. After all, we are human, and this is what humans do.

Wednesday, January 22, 2020

The Great American Dust Bowl

 “…history is that old woman
    Sitting in a doorstep
    eating lemons”  
                      Le Roi Jones
  I don’t know exactly when I fell in love with history, but it has been a major interest of mine for decades. I do remember memorizing the Presidents AND Vice-Presidents of the United States in order in third grade and knowing the start and end dates of a ton of wars. I was a reader and super-curious; I asked a lot of, “How “and “Why” questions that drove my parents and teachers crazy.  So it seems inevitable that I would love and later teach US and World History.

 By junior high I was beyond the dates and famous people. I was looking for connections and cause and effect that linked events. I was growing in the depth of my questions and of my reading,  And then, somewhere in high school, what history meant really hit me: HIS- STORY. STORY! That was what made it all come together for me. I became interested in the interactions between people and history. Yes, big events and theories were important. Major players on the historical arena mattered. But what really drew me in were the stories. How did big events affect common people? How did common people affect events? What did it mean to be a ‘worker” at a certain time and in a certain place? What was it like to be a 12-year-old girl in a certain part of the world at a certain time? What do farmers really do?? I needed to know those stories and more.

I say all of this because I am thoroughly engrossed in a wonderfully written and moving book called, The Worst Hard Time; The Untold Story of Those Who Survived the Great American Dust Bowl.” Written by journalist Timothy Egan, it is an in-depth look at the people who stayed in the Great Plains even as nature seemed to turn on the human species. I knew a little about the Dust Bowl and I knew some things about the Great Depression: I have read several historical books and historical novels about that time period.  Many of us who were “folkies” in the 60’s are familiar with the songs and stories about the traveling hoboes of the Depression: Woody Guthrie wrote many great songs about “Okies” and families always on the road and desperately looking for a place to work and to settle. Many of us are also familiar with the book and the film, The Grapes of Wrath. All of those were largely about people who left the Dust Bowl and wandered. Egan’s work, though, is about those who stayed behind. The ones who tried to live through the Dust Bowl. I always meant to see Ken Burns’ film, “The Dust Bowl,” but I never got around to it. I do know now that I will see it as soon as I finish this book.

 The power and beauty of this book for me is that it looks at more than just the historical events and science of what led to the dust storms that devastated an area larger than the state of Pennsylvania: an area that stretched from half of Kansas to parts of Colorado, New Mexico, Oklahoma, and 1/3 of Texas. Egan tells the stories of the people in that area at that time. People who stayed throughout the storms and what their lives were like. He gives detailed looks at individual people of different ages and backgrounds and what it was like to live in a sod house or an underground dugout. Or what it was like to shake someone’s hand and be knocked down by the static electricity contained within the dust. What it meant to plant a crop of wheat and have no rain for two years. How some families had to rotate the days of the week on which each of their children could eat in an attempt to make their meager food supplies last. How towns had to deal with invasions of hundreds of rabbits, grasshoppers, tarantulas and black widow spiders. What it was like to take a breath and have your throat fill with tiny particles of dust.  And what it was like when the dust repeatedly flew so heavily that it blotted out the sun.

 The Plains had a surprising mix of people, and Egan also gives us backstories of the different people there and how they got to the Plains. Why so many German-Russians came from the Volga River area across thousands of miles to settle. How Jews wound up in the Oklahoma panhandle. How the Homestead Acts of the mid 1800’s led  to a flood of people of all types-Welsh, Irish, African-American and more, trying to find work or make a claim and get rich planting wheat during a “wheat boom” that suddenly went bust. And what about the Naive Americans who had settled it first? Egan ties all of this together in a way that is involving and compelling. He transports us there, and we don’t just read about it. We feel it through and through. He takes a part of our history that most would rather forget and brings it back to life. The book has plenty to teach us, especially in light of our now near desperate climate crisis. Maybe, just maybe, we can learn something from it in time to help us reverse our own environmental disaster.
(Here is a link to  Ken Burns’ PBS film, The Dust Bowl. Timothy Egan was a consultant:

Wednesday, January 15, 2020

Toni and Ernest: Two Who Mattered

Remembering Two Who Mattered So Much
One of the things people do just after the start of a new year is look back at the year just passed and the events that had an impact on us as a nation,  members of a group or groups, and as individuals. It is a necessary attempt, I believe, to “sum up;" to do that human thing of trying to make sense of whatever has  happened: and make it make “sense.” We acknowledge certain things as ‘important’ or “vital,” and construct some sort of narrative. We need to put things in some sort of order and try to find meaning from doing that. This is one of the things that makes us human.
For me, this act often reminds me of the effects certain people  have had on my life- how what they said, sang, wrote, played and/or stood for spoke to me and influenced me. I know Americans like to think of themselves as self-motivated and self-made, but I know that so much of who I am, how I think, and what I do I owe to others.  People who encouraged me, guided me, provided an inspiration, gave me a new idea or new way of looking at things, and helped me see things in a different or clearer way. In 2019 I had the opportunity to think back on two particular people who played such roles in my life: the writers Ernest J. Gaines and Toni Morrison.  I never got to meet them, and I heard them read live only one time each. But the impact they both had and have on my thinking, reading, looking at the world, and sense of what it means and meant to be an African-American in this country and in this time is immeasurable.

  I came upon these writers in my early and mid-20’s-a time that is often the time of a quest for identity, self-knowledge, and exploration for so many of us.  And it was a time-the 60’s into the late 70’s- when openly questioning narratives we were handed was supported by much of the culture. As I mentioned in my November 13th newsletter, written shortly after Gaines had died, I stumbled onto him via John Oliver’s great book, Interviews with Black Writers. I had not yet read him or many other Black Writers whose lives and works were not rooted in the urban arena with which I was familiar. But Gaines’ love of language and his upbringing, his sense of place, and his connection to Russian writers and to Faulkner drew me in. He was intriguing. And his themes and insights, as I started to read him, were startling in their power and importance.  Stated and implied, his characters represented and illustrated different ideas about color, history, family, manhood and more, and they gave me tons of things to mull over for the next half century of my life. I began to understand and appreciate more fully my family’s Southern background and the way that past formed such a large and powerful part of this country’s history and culture. And as I was interacting with, meeting and learning from so many Southern bluesmen at that time, it was serendipitous.

   Likewise, I came to Toni Morrison’s writing indirectly. She edited, The Black Book, that marvelous wide-ranging scrapbook of Black life both here and worldwide. That book exposed me to a lot of little-known tidbits of history, both big picture and small, and gave me tons of things to research and think about. I was also impressed that a major publishing company put all of the money and resources into a book about African-American life and had African-Americans write and edit it. And one of those editors, Toni Morrison, had a job as a full-time editor at this publishing company! This was 1974, after all, and it was a major development at that time. So when I saw a novel written by this same Toni Morrison, I just had to read it. Sula, her second novel, immediately grabbed me with its description of the thoughts and life of this sad but amazing and often infuriating woman who, because she had no art, became quite dangerous. Compelling, dramatically phrased, full of feeling and insight, Ms. Morrison’s prose cut into me like a Sonny Boy Williamson harp riff; intense, deep, and lovingly bringing me almost to the point of tears. Her way of depicting life in a small-town Ohio miles removed from my urban Philadelphia also widened my understanding of a whole other aspect of Black life and experience. Like Gaines’ Louisiana, this was literally new landscape for me, and it helped my appreciation and understanding of another segment of Black life and American life; my world was getting larger. So I joyously read more, including Song of Solomon, to me her greatest work. With its mix of magic, poetry, religion, identity, use of names, family relations, and pictures of different struggles to make meaning of life in this world, this is one of the most beautifully written and wonderfully complex books I have ever read. Thinking of some quotes and situations in that book still moves me today.

   But the beauty and power of the writings of these two authors is so much more than just the socio-political. Their prose is magical, capable of conveying moments of wonder, insight, thoughtfulness, and beauty at the same time  it is bringing their characters or a situation into focus. They are first and foremost WRITERS: people who create quiet miracles with the English language in ways that stick with a person and have him re-reading certain passages again and again:

   “There is a loneliness that can be rocked. Arms crossed, knees drawn up, holding, holding on, this motion, unlike a ship’s, smooths and contains the rocker. It’s an inside kind — wrapped tight like skin. Then there is the loneliness that roams. No rocking can hold it down. It is alive. On its own. A dry and spreading thing that makes the sound of one’s own feet going seem to come from a far-off place.” 
                                                         Toni Morrison-Beloved
It came from a piece of old wood that he found in the yard somewhere. That's what we all are, Jefferson, all of us on this earth, a piece of drifting wood, until we--each one of us, individually--decide to become something else.,,”
                                                          Ernest J. Gaines-A Lesson Before Dying

  I am fortunate to have had the works of these two authorial “guiding lights” in my life. It is fitting, I think, that they both died in the same year and within months of each other. For they each came into my life in rapid succession and gave me much to drink in and enjoy, learn from, marvel at, and they both deepened my sense of myself, the world and the places where they interact. Thank you, Brave Authors. Thank you for the pleasure, surprise, beauty and knowledge  your words gave me. 

 (Here are links to my newsletters after the deaths of each of these authors)
Ernest Gaines