The Coach

I have been a car nut for many years. In America this is a common enough enthusiasm, but I think I came by it in a somewhat unusual way.  In the first place, I developed my interest later than most boys do, later than those who are going to develop an interest, that is. At the outset, I actually resisted cars and driving. When I took Driver Education my sophomore year, I would rather have forgone the pleasure. I did poorly in the course, and I drove little and unwillingly for nearly a year after that. In the second place, when I finally did become interested, it was primarily in old and odd cars, long before I paid much attention to the new and the glitzy.

Consider, for example, my first car. In September 1957, my dad found a 1926 Ford for sale at a price that was right and brought it home. It was nobody’s idea of practical transportation, a toy, but my dad had the family car on the road all week so I drove the old Ford a surprising number of miles. I like to brag that I am probably the only person of my generation who can claim to have learned to drive in a Model T. Sometime during the two or three years I owned the Ford and ministered unto its various mechanical infirmities, I was bitten by the bug.

I think, though, I had been “primed” some ten years earlier by the first car, an old one even then, that ever impressed me. I don’t mean the first car I remember — that distinction belongs to our green 1941 Hudson — but the first one that really impressed me.

In first and second grades I attended a private school in a large Midwestern city. The Academy, located as it was on Summit Avenue, was considered to be the city’s best, to offer advantages that no other school did. One of the main advantages was school-provided transportation for first and second graders who lived more than a mile and a half away. And that was an important advantage, for my dad (even then) had the family car on the road all week, and between our house and The Academy lay Selby Avenue, then a main arterial.

The transportation provided was in the form of The Coach. It was a Packard limousine, the kind with the extra set of folding seats rearward facing in the backseat area and a partition with roll-up window between passenger compartment and driver’s compartment. The rear seats were done with a gray ribbed wool cloth of some sort, the front with leather. I remember the inside best, its smells of hot oil and old grease in summer, of wet wool and damp dust in winter. The car must have pre-dated defrosters, for a plastic frost-shield glued to the inside if the windshield and a small fan bolted to the wood-grained art-deco dash provided all the view to the outside that the driver had in the coldest weather. The chauffeur was a small man, or else the steering wheel and floor-mounted gearshift were enormous; I think the latter.

I can’t remember its outward appearance well enough to be certain of model or year. It must certainly have been either a Super 8 or a 12. I think it was a 1937 or 1938. I know that it was “Brewster” green, a shade so dark as to appear almost black, but with deep, deep color in full sunlight. It had side mount spares.

We lived in an upstairs apartment then, and in the morning I would stand in the cold and dark at the bottom of the stairs looking around the edge of the lace curtains that always smelled of the city’s coal smoke.  Pretty soon The Coach would glide up, its big headlights shining yellow in the new snow.  Then off through the dark city, brick, cobblestone, and deep ice-ruts rumbling somewhere underneath the big car. Between home and school, the sun would rise and break through the winter haze,  the loud orange light ringing off the red brick walls, the black slate and green copper roofs of the “failed monuments” of Summit Avenue, glaring from the blank windows of houses arrayed up and down the river hills, saturating with Kodachrome fire the iron of ornate street lamps and the icy tracery of bare trees. Sometimes in the middle of High Bridge, fog would obscure both banks, and with no trusses or cables overhead for reference, the car would seem suspended in space for a few moments. And on the coldest of mornings, there was nothing to see outside, only the frost feathers that covered all the glass of the car save for the one small hole the chauffeur peered through, sitting rigid in his grey uniform and white gloves.

And maybe twice a winter, The Coach would come in the afternoon and carry us down the long treacherous chute of Ramsey Hill to Municipal Auditorium for a matinee performance of the St. Paul Symphony. I remember on one such afternoon the thick spring snow like an explosion of feathers, The Coach waiting at the curb, the snow melting and turning to steam on that long hood that always seemed to stretch out there in perfect perspective to the vanishing point of some picture-road. Mothers brought family cars to help with the transportation on such occasions, but I always ran for The Coach. What Buick or Chrysler could compare?

It was an old car even when I knew it, so that when I got my Model T years later, old cars already had a sort of romance for me. I didn’t know anything about cars when I was in first grade, but I knew class when I saw it. The Coach was an old car then, a relic from the world of Summit Avenue, White Bear Country Club, and F. Scott Fitzgerald, not long in his grave. It was the first car, old or new, ever to impress me.

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Latins: Computer Science in Schools

Earlier this week, 2-17-2014, to be exact, I heard a piece on NPR, “A Push to Learn Computer Science Learning, Even at an Early Age,”  The import of the article laments that Computer Science is paid scant attention in the nation’s schools. This is not a matter of just putting computers in every school, or even giving every student an iPad. A spokesperson for the Computer Science Association says that “too many parents and administrators conflate gaming and basic point-and-click literacy with computer science — the principles and practices of computing and coding.” “’I think that they just don’t understand that having access to a computer isn’t the same as learning computer science any more than having a Bunsen burner in the cupboard is the same as learning chemistry,’” she says.

This report cites, as an example, how few students nationwide take the Advanced Placement test in Computer Science. “The ‘guesstimate’ is that only 5 to 10 percent of schools teach computer science, based largely on data on students who take the in computer science annually. The real percentage may be lower. Nobody tracks the figures nationally.” A linked article, “Why Programming Teaches So Much More Than Technical Skills,” praises the benefits of teaching programming. Not least among these is Systems Thinking, for example: “Whether writing code to lead a player through a game or a robot up a pyramid, the programming process requires an understanding of how possible inputs and outcomes effect one another.”  After all, “… computer programming is a study of languages more than of technology or mechanics. And command of those languages allows programmers to control the functionality of anything that is driven by a computer.”

To me, this is richly ironic. Let me explain why. In the early 1970s, I taught English at Payette High School in Idaho. A colleague and friend one summer participated in a National Science Foundation institute, The Man-Made World, at the University of Idaho. The institute consisted of three courses: an introduction to engineering concepts; an introduction to computer logic; and basic programming (FORTRAN).  Primary purposes were to promote a new course of the same name for high school students and to prepare science teachers to teach it. Out of curiosity, I signed up the following summer, and can attest that it was a firm and fully-packed few weeks, but then, I was the only humanities-type there.

Jim Johnson, my colleague, taught Chemistry, Physics, and related subjects at PHS. Now, with a new course in his repertoire, he offered TMMW as a science elective. The programming in FORTRAN proved an engaging and popular, if frustrating part of the course.

In 1972, our little school did not have any computer of any sort. At that time, there were the big mainframes and the PDP-8 (which used Basic as its programming language), and IBM smart terminals. If we could have gotten a grant to buy one of those, we would have thought we’d died and gone to Heaven. The personal computer was still some years off. We didn’t even have a card-punch machine.

Our students wrote their programs on coding sheets. We sent them by post to the EE Department at U of I, where they were punched and run on the university’s big IBM 380 mainframe. We got our printouts and punched cards back by post. If it hadn’t run successfully, we de-bugged the program (or hoped we did), re-wrote it, and sent it back by post. We spent hours writing a simple program to do an operation that today could be entered into an EXCEL spreadsheet in minutes. It was a painfully slow process, but the best we could do. Surprisingly, the kids didn’t lose patience.     All this seems remarkably stone-age, but it was years ahead of where most schools were then.  And these NPR articles make me wonder if we weren’t years ahead of where most schools are even today. Now, for the irony…

We had a Superintendent who thought of himself as very progressive, new-wave, cutting-edge, a real paradigm shifter – you get the idea. He was a student advocate who would protect students from us dastardly teachers. This is the guy who loved to show that horrid short movie, Cipher in the Snow. After young Cliff has gasped his last, after it turned out that none of his teachers knew him well enough to write his obituary, the Superintendent would turn on the lights and mount his virtual pulpit. “See! Can’t you teachers see what you do to your students every day and in every way?  Oh, if only you teachers could find it in your hard hearts to care, even a little!” On and on. It was as if he were running for office or trying for an Oscar.

He fancied himself a forward thinker who was going to revamp the curriculum for the third quarter of the Twentieth Century, something we teachers lacked the ambition or wit to do. He would drag us kicking and screaming. First, he would tell us, we need to get the LATINS out of education. To him, a Latin was anything outmoded, useless, irrelevant. And what was his poster-child Latin, his idea of a perfectly irrelevant course?  Why computer programming, of course! Ironic, is it not?  And it is instructive, I think, concerning Reformism and Reformists, their motives and methods.

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Math Requirements

Some time ago, long enough that the link has been lost, a high school friend in South Dakota sent me an interesting link to a guest editorial in a Watertown, South Dakota paper.   The author, Fred Deutsch, a school board member from Watertown,  discusses South Dakota’s new graduation requirements.

According to new legislation, beginning with 2010’s incoming freshmen, each student will be required to complete at least three units of math: Algebra I and II and Geometry. The board may waive these course requirements in lieu of other courses of equal or greater rigor, if I understand correctly. The idea is “a single curriculum designed to prepare South Dakota students for college… The current changes adopted by the state board eliminates [sic] the ‘basic’ route to graduation as well as increases the academic rigor of the new route.”

I applaud – in principle – as I applaud anything that contributes to the continuous improvement of our nation’s public schools. But I have serious reservations, philosophically and practically, about school “reform” as it too often plays today. Deutsch expresses reservations that largely parallel my own: “I have mixed emotions about the changes.  Improving rigor is good.  Requiring all students to stay in school to age 18 is good. Putting the two together probably isn’t.” my friend, who sent me the link, puts it less kindly: “These newly-mandated requirements make my ass tired, just reading about them.  All of a sudden, all these ignorant mutts (like me) are going to be able to handle 2 yrs of algebra, physics, chemistry, etc?  What planet are these assholes on?”

I think I am more optimistic – in principle, anyway. What matters are the practicalities of the proposition, how things are done. “The devil is in the details … where the rubber meets the road.” I am pessimistic on the other hand, because the “reform” preached by Politicians, Pundits, Polemicists, and Professors Who Should Know Better is too often of the “one size fits all” variety. NCLB (No Child Left Behind) and more recently Race to the Top are prime examples. But kids, and for that matter schools, are not all the same. None of this is as simple as we are led to believe.

Let’s look at the math requirement, for example. Is the idea to teach more math to more students? Or is to teach it more rigorously? Most would agree, correctly or not, that if more students are taking more math, it must be somehow dumbed down. Conversely, more rigor implies that less-able students are culled along the way. Mr. Deutsch seems to suggest that we can’t have it both ways. And we probably can’t, at least the way math has been traditionally taught. I don’t see a lot of difference from when I was in high school, more than 50 years ago. Over the years, I have put this question to numerous math teachers, and usually they just shrug, and say “Well, not everyone has the mental horsepower to do math.” Indeed, it seems that there are two kinds of students: those who “get” math, and those who don’t. And each year, the number of those who “get” the next, more advanced course grows smaller.

Must it necessarily be this way? Are there other approaches to math curriculum? That is the essential question, the elephant in the room. Unfortunately, Reformers seem not much interested in such trivial details as elephants.

I must say at this point that, like my friend, I was less than a stellar math student, but not for lack of trying. Over 50 years later, the thought of being marched into the blazing guns of Algebra 2, having barely passed Algebra 1, makes me queasy in the pit of my stomach. I relate my brief career in math and further thoughts on the teaching of math in an essay from several years ago. See “Math” in From the Files.

Like so many “reforms,” it is a noble idea; it sounds good; no reasonable person could possibly disagree. Ah, but those troublesome details. How will this be done? Did the Legislators think the whole thought?

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LeRoy Hanson’s basement apartment was  a block from campus.  You  climbed a half-flight of steps from the street, entered the side door of the trim grey bungalow, and descended into another world, not quite what our proper Lutheran college probably had in mind for us.

It was a basement — no, a cellar without pretensions — hence “the hole.” Rooms were divided by board partitions that had once been painted institutional green. Over the years, however, black stains had soaked through the paint; any or all of the rooms might have been coal-bins at some time. Additional partitions had been provided by blankets nailed to ceiling joists — the shower and the octopus-like furnace had been thus draped for modesty.  The linoleum on the concrete floor had been worn to scraps and trod with grime until it was all one dingy color.

The small, high windows let in just enough light to make the place seem gloomier by day than by night. The living-room’s window was south-facing, and on bright winter days, its shaft of sun, made visible by dust motes and cigarette smoke, would trace a rectangle of light across the floor from west to east as the day progressed.

The inhabitants were all bachelors, Norwegian farmer and otherwise, so housekeeping was a sometime thing. Furniture, when struck with the hand, gave off billows of dust. Books, magazines, sheet music, and compositions reached the angle of repose on every surface and began to cascade onto the floor. The quart jars that served as ashtrays were generally emptied only when they became intractable smudges. A plant once sprouted from the kitchen wall behind the trash can. It lived for some time and grew to surprising height, spindly, sickly, and pale. It was photographed, painted, and written about. The curious came from all over campus, and perhaps beyond to see this marvel.  We named it Le Fleur de Mal.

I hope I have not presented a picture of unremitting squalor. Had we been asked, we might have admitted that there was a certain Dostoevskian gloom about the place, however, and I think we reveled in it.

None of this explains what made Hanson’s Hole the most important place in my undergraduate education. After all, crummy, substandard, overpriced little apartments are an enterprise that springs up around every campus, large or small.

But this crummy little cellar apartment was an institution, and unique of its kind, due in large measure to the people who lived there and who frequented the place.

LeRoy Hanson was older than the rest of us by several years. His brothers and sisters had all married and gone before he was born. So he got to stay home and work the farm. When his mother died, he sold the machinery, rented out the land, and enrolled at Augustana. He was 32.

He was a quiet man who had read and thought a great deal during his life of isolation on his little farm, near his little town, in his little church. He cultivated conversation but spoke little. Summers, he disappeared for weeks at a time into the Badlands, but during the academic term, he held court in his apartment. The Hole was probably the closest thing to Gertrude Stein’s salon that Sioux Falls ever knew. I am sure that was LeRoy’s intention.

His roommates were nearly as individualistic as he was, at least the ones who lasted. There was his cousin, Mark Gulickson, and Sam Wang who came from Hong Kong as a pre-seminary student, but within a semester changed his major to art. The last I heard of him, he was teaching photography at Clemson University. Mark and Sam both vied for the favor of tall, slim Sigrid Running, with the long, straight brown hair and enormous eyes of a blue so pale they seemed colorless grey. Mark followed her to Europe the summer after graduation and followed her all over the continent on his decrepit motorcycle that ate a valve every time he came close to catching up.

And there were those of us who did not live there, but frequented. Charlie Pedersen, guitarist and lutenist who lived in his car for a month in Berkeley because he had been accepted to an Andres Segovia workshop but had no money for lodging.  Suave, urbane, consummately hip Jerry Aistrup, who knew Sam Francis and Robert Creely and Neal Cassady,  who could lecture on art and jazz by the hour,  who slowly orbited the country in his VW bus — New York, Sioux Falls, San Francisco, Sioux Falls, etc. The sisters Kinney, social work majors  from Baltimore who spoke a barely comprehensible neighborhood  dialect that sounded like lowland Scots with a barrier island drawl. Ratliff, who taught me more about the craft of poetry than anyone else ever has. Mary Overdahl, who followed Ratliff to San Francisco — but that was later when I was living in Reno. Ron Janssen, who introduced me to Pound’s Cantos. I recently came across one of his books: translations of Can Xue’s stories, Dialogues in Paradise. Bob Nelson, “Bobby Buddha,” who made his living playing poker and ghost writing research papers out of his head.

I think we all regarded ourselves as Boswells to Hanson’s Samuel Johnson.

The phonograph records in the apple crates: Joan Baez and Bob Dylan — the complete canons to that point; Respighi, Prokofiev, Gershwin; Bream playing Bach; poetry readings, Ferlinghetti with jazz accompaniment and Rexroth’s lament for Dylan Thomas.

The pictures on the walls: Andre Gide, casting a sidelong glance, peering slyly from the wall behind LeRoy’s Morris chair. Ezra Pound looking down from the ceiling. Art by lots of artists. Sam’s predominated  — photos,  oils, prints, and especially his ink-drawings over watercolor wash. There was one in particular — two people on a park bench, beneath a streetlamp, beneath a towering elm, all done in not more than a dozen strokes.

Shelves that grew heavier every autumn with agates and petrified wood. Plant presses. Shotguns, fishing tackle, and guitars in the corners.

Games that we played: pick a poem at random from The Norton Anthology, read it aloud, and see who can first identify it. Eventually, we had to find other anthologies with other selections. We tried the same thing with music, but the record supply was a real limitation. Nevertheless, at one time I got to know my Brandenburg Concertos pretty well.

It seems that for so many college students, academic pursuits are one thing, social activities are something unrelated. But if Hanson’s Hole was the scene of an occasional riotous party, it was always a place where art and literature and ideas were discussed. Small talk could not stay small for long in that crowd of raffish intellectuals and those of us who aspired to be intellectuals. It was a crummy apartment in a cellar, gloomy, musty, and dark. But at least as much as Augustana’s classrooms, at least as much as the library, it was to me, at that time in my life, a place of genuine enlightenment.

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Time Machines

I came across this poem just now. It is an old favorite:

And here is the poet himself reading it aloud:

You will notice the misprint in line 9. It struck me as wrong, and Stafford’s reading is the way I remember it. “Some year” makes much more sense. A good poem is so closely wrought that even a small change can make a real difference.

On that note, I recalled a story by Ray Bradbury:

To me, this is Bradbury at his best, although it is no way science fiction. Magical realism, maybe, but even that is a stretch.

Try getting clear through either one, reading it aloud. Come on, just try.

And, while the note still holds, a great read: In the Woods by Tana French. When I read it last year, it knocked me off my chair in a way that whodunits seldom do. And I read it at more or less the same time that I read Carlos Ruiz Zafon’s The Shadow of the Wind, so I was in quite a state for awhile.

These all seem to resonate with each other. Each involves some kind of “time machine.

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Lost Houses

There are houses out there somewhere.                                                                                  They    are out there, those houses.

We knew them once but we lost them.                                                                                         We   lived in them once, but they lost us.                                                                                       All these years later, they are still out there.

We moved on and never came back.                                                                                     They        are   back there somewhere, lost in time.                                                                           We can’t get back there.

We tried to stand still, but time and the houses moved on,                                                        Slid  out from under us and moved on.                                                                                     They   are out there somewhere, lost in possibility.                                                                    They are gone. We can’t catch them.

They stand out there alone, winter grass tall around them.                                                There   used to be roads to them, but the roads have moved on.                                             The roads have gone away, faded to tracks in tall winter grass.

It is day where they were, but day moved on                                                                                 Or    they moved on and left day behind.                                                                                 Houses fade in the late light.                                                                                                        Night fades to black, winter fades to white.                                                                         Memory fades to lost.

They stand alone now, out there somewhere, ruined.                                                            Roofs fade with the light, grow thin and leak.                                                                        Plaster falls to floor, roof falls to attic, attic to parlor, parlor to cellar.                               Fading houses fall, windows break, linoleum curls.                                                                  Lost houses fade as memory fades.

The trees are there, too, those trees, winter grass tall around them.                             Summer has moved on and summer leaves and wind that rustles the leaves.                    Bare trees creep up the winter sky,

Mold creeps up damp walls in empty houses.                                                                          Trees creep up the last orange dusk in the west.                                                                       They creep up the sky to the moon. Trees craze the moon’s pristine face.                            The crazed moon wanes, night by night as time slides.

The houses have burned, some of them, maybe.                                                                      Their charred skeletons obtrude between us and the waning moon.                                     Day fades to night, moon wanes to gone.

They are still out there somewhere, those houses.                                                                      We lived in them once before time moved on.                                                                             We must move on until we find those houses.                                                                             We must find them somehow, before light fails.                                                                             We won’t find them as they were. They will never be as they were.                                Perhaps they never were.

We must find those houses, their lost possibilities.                                                            Perhaps we can rest there, however briefly, before we move on.

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Jack Zasadil

Jack was right!

On New Year’s Day, I heard a story on NPR about the Crazy Horse Monument in the Black Hills. I have been aware of this project since, as a child, I began to be aware of things beyond my back yard. What South Dakotan isn’t? But one part of the story in particular caught my attention:

For years the family followed their late father’s model exactly. But Monique Ziolkowski, the sculptor’s daughter, says the seams and cracks in the rock pose new challenges.

And then the zinger that really got my attention:

The changes include more rock left in place to support the outstretched arm and the horse’s head. Teams of engineers and geologists carefully monitor each blast and help plot the way forward.

Jack was right!

So, who was Jack Zasadil?  Let me back up to how I came to know about him and ultimately know him.

A college friend worked construction summers on a missile silo near Hermosa, South Dakota in the late 1950s and early 1960s. He was an avid rock hound and a devotee of the Fairburn agate in particular. I am sure this is how he got to know Jack who ran a rock shop as one of his businesses. His establishment was the old sandstone bank building on the northwest corner of the old main intersection. He lived next door, immediately to the east, in the rock-faced cinder-block “house that Jack built.” You can see both buildings on Google Earth’s street view, looking not much different now than they did in 1965. His other business was building violins – fiddles. At one time he also did most of the stringed-instrument repair in the Rapid City area. He was a busy man.

I taught and lived in another small town at the edge of the Black Hills during the 1965-66 school year.  Being within an hour’s drive of Hermosa, I decided one Saturday to make Jack’s acquaintance, having heard so much about him. Perhaps, I had already been introduced to him previously. I don’t remember. That afternoon, I learned most of what little I know about violin making.  Jack gave me the “cook’s tour” of his shop in the old bank building. By this time, he had sold the rock business and was “fiddles only.” He had severe arthritis in his hands that interfered with the delicate work that his craft required. The cold water used in cutting and polishing rocks made the arthritis worse. Faced with a choice between violins and rocks, the rocks had to go.

There were racks of instruments, some complete, most in various stages of completion. All had an unusual feature that was his trademark and distinguished a Zasadil fiddle. Instead of a scroll, each neck ended in a little gargoyle face. I think I spotted one once on Austin City Limits. I had never realized what precise work instrument making is. A violin’s back, for example, is a complex shape that varies all over in thickness. I saw how Jack laid out a back in a one-centimeter grid.  Each intersection had its correct thickness. As he scraped the back to its final shape, he was constantly measuring at each intersection with a machinist’s micrometer. Over the years, he had taken on three apprentices. “The first one was good. The second one was very good. The most recent was almost as good as I am, and that’s damned good.” Much of this came back to me several years ago when one of my students undertook (successfully) to build a violin for her Senior Project.

One morning in the spring of 1966, I opened the Rapid City Journal to a front page picture of a pair of cowboy boots. The face of the wearer was hidden by a music stand. The boots, the story explained, belonged to Jack Zasadil of Hermosa, member of the newly formed Black Hills Symphony Orchestra.  Although he had played music for most of his life, only recently, at the age of 65 had he learned to read music for the express purpose of joining the BHSO.

Jack said he was born in Austria, records say 1901. He came to America shortly after cessation of Great War hostilities.  He had learned his craft in the Vienna guild. He worked for a while in a violin factory in Cleveland and then headed west and ended up in the Black Hills. Among other occupations, he was a guide and outfitter. His most illustrious client was Calvin Coolidge, who was an avid fly fisherman. During the 1930s, his steadiest employment was working for Gutzon Borglum on Mt. Rushmore. It was here that he met Korczak Ziolkowski who later undertook his own project, the Crazy Horse Monument.

Jack told of his ongoing debate with Ziolkowski concerning the structural soundness of Crazy Horse’s arm, which spans a considerable distance from shoulder to where it is supported by the horse’s blowing mane. “I keep telling him that the granite is too old, too rotten, too full of fissures to support itself over that distance. Sooner or later, it will fall down. But what do I know?”  And that is why, when I heard the NPR story, the first thing that popped into my head was “Jack was right!” about the arm, anyway. It sounds as if, after all these years, the family has decided to alter the design in such a way as to leave more stone under the arm for greater structural integrity.

Jack died in October, 1966, not long after I had left the area. Some years later, my friend bought “the house that Jack built” and lived there until recently.

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Audience, Film Maker, Movie

A friend recently sent me this link:

The subject of the correspondence was Jack Reacher, a current Tom Cruise vehicle. Of course, there is more to this link than that. Kristine Kathryn Rusch is a novelist, writing under several noms de plume in multiple genres. My friend has, over the years, worn multiple literary hats as novelist, editor, and publisher. As I read the article, I perceived more at issue than Tom Cruise’s stature and I replied substantially as follows (with some light editing).

Interesting review/essay. I gather that the Jack Reacher character is a very large man, whereas Tom Cruise is not, and many Reacher fans have difficulty reconciling the two. I have not read any of the Reacher novels, nor has this movie has not been high on my to-be-seen list (I will probably see it this summer on our big family camp-out; we all usually bring a load of action movies, some good, some not so good). I am not a Tom Cruise fan, although Rain Man and Minority Report stand out in my mind as having been excellent. Because I have not read the novels, I have no pre-conceptions of the character. I have no problems with “little and pissed-off.” I rather dote on tough chicks, realistic and fantastic (Mattie Ross, Ree Dolly, Katniss Everdeen, What’s-her-name in Whip It, Arya Stark, or for that matter, Hannah, River Tam, Buffy – you get the idea, little and pissed-off is ok).

I recently saw The Hobbit and have no quarrel with it. I re-read the book in preparation. Of course it is not the book, nor should a thoughtful viewer expect it to be. For one thing, book and movie are two different media, and as a wise professor from north of the border once wrote, “The medium is the message.”  As Rusch points out, being a slavish reproduction of the book can actually be a fault in a movie. I enter in evidence the PBS rendition of The Scarlet Letter (1979). On the other hand, you cannot stray so far as to give it a happy ending (1995), because then it ceases to be The Scarlet Letter and would do better with a different title.

For another thing, it has been nine years since The Return of the King (2003). In that interval, the audience has changed. In the audience of 2012 is a sizeable group who have neither read the book nor seen the LoTR trilogy. That makes a difference. That nine-year interval not only provides room for new material that overlaps with LoTR and ties the new movie to the old, but is probably necessary if the movie is to make any kind of sense to the viewer who is not familiar with the trilogy. One of Rusch’s statements in particular explains a lot: “…slavishly faithful to the spirit of the book, if not the book itself. The additions—and the only changes are additions—mostly come from the indices and appendixes and documents that Tolkien himself wrote to help himself with the book.”

A lot of what Rusch says about audience puts me in mind of Louise Rosenblatt’s The Reader, The Text, The Poem (1978). Although Rosenblatt is usually credited with “reader-response” theory, this term seems dismissive, somehow. She seems to have preferred the term “transactional theory.”  The writer conceives an idea, but his idea is not the “poem” (or novel, or screenplay, or whatever you will). It exists only in his head. There is no transaction here.  He writes. He operates upon his idea, his mental image. He shapes it into words, an intellectual construct. Now we have a text – ink on paper. This is the first step in the transaction, but the text is not the poem. The text is a medium. We need a reader .The reader operates on the text, those inky marks on paper and decodes them into words. From the words he constructs meaning. The circuit is complete. A text has become the poem. This is the transaction. The poem is, at both ends, a construct. Reading is a creative act, as is writing, which is why it always seemed to me natural to teach them together.

Ideally, the meaning the writer constructed and committed to the text and the meaning the reader constructs from the text bear a strong resemblance to each other, but it is not always so. The problem may be that the writer didn’t get it across, and/or that the reader just didn’t get it. There are all sorts of things that can get in between.

The essential dilemma is that the writer doesn’t know each and every one of his readers, or even any one of them. Rather, he must infer an audience. Hopefully, the writer’s inferred audience and the actual audience will resemble each other. A good writer knows (learns to accurately infer) his audience.  The reader likely does not know the writer, but must infer him from his construction of meaning in the text.

Writer and reader negotiate meaning with each other through the medium of the text. Further, the writer and the reader both bring their own experiences, attitudes, and past reading to the negotiating table, some of it relevant, some of it not. All this informs the writing/reading.  Does this mean that the text can mean anything?  Of course not. There is writerly craft, and readerly craft, and the reasonable reading of a text. An informed reader and an uninformed reader are two different animals.

Rosenblatt may have been thinking primarily of poetry and fiction too. But the same principles seem to me to apply to writing for stage and screen as well. Therefore, it must be a daunting business to have millions of dollars riding on the correct inference of an audience of millions of individuals. I think that Jackson and his writers, Walsh, Boyens, del Toro, et al. managed it quite well. Reacher?  I don’t know. Having neither read the books nor seen the movie, I am not sufficiently informed to have an intelligent opinion.

Posted in Cinematic, Literary | Comments Off on Audience, Film Maker, Movie

Two Blogs of Note

I have recently come across two blogs that are noteworthy and that I recommend.

The first is Diane Ravitch’s Blog:  Diane Ravitch is probably best known for Death and Life of the Great American School System, a book which I recommend to anyone who is interested in public education. She is an education historian. As Assistant Secretary of Education under President George H. W. Bush, she was an early architect of the school reform movement and an early advocate of such reform favorites as school choice, vouchers, and lots of testing.  More recently, she has reconsidered her position on much Reformist ideology. She is no less a champion of progress and improvement in public education, but she has distanced herself from the Reformist franchise and has become an outspoken critic of it. She now seems to believe that the dialog on education needs more reality and reason, less reliance on standard Reformist ideology.

The other is Teacher Under Construction, , by Rutgers undergraduate and aspiring teacher Stephanie Rivera. Here we are looking at education issues from the perspective of a newbie, albeit an uncommonly thoughtful and articulate newbie.

Please check them out. I think you will find them informative and thought-provoking, entertaining as well.

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The Power of Allusion

When I was an undergraduate, I was a real hep cat, and I read Old Possum.

Now, many years later, I am convinced the moon has indeed lost her memory,

And I am still shaking this damned dead geranium.

Posted in Poems | Comments Off on The Power of Allusion