Sep 30, 2009

SCHERZO on SNOB APPEAL, or Banjo Meandering

Like a little town, any school’s world is a corral, and those within are cattle mooing at or about each other—old beef and young beef. If you are a cow, you can’t see beyond the corral, even if you were out there once, in another life, or yesterday. If you’ve forgotten how to be a free-range cow, you’ll never re-learn.

About schools with real or imagined prestige: How many places outside Wall Street and the Mayo Clinic elevate a pedigree to such dubiously high status?

Well, I guess I do it too. (Therefore, it must not be entirely irrational or elitist . . . ). I’ve conceded to myself that Harvard does pronounce and produce something that Bowling Green State University does not, and my closest friends and I went to the Bowling Greens of the world.

Mind you, none of that means I like these facts about the world or myself. In fact, I’ve gone through periods of collecting coffee mugs, T-shirts, and the like from out-of-the-way places with decidedly un-blue blood: Chadron State, Bloomsburg, Minot State, Centre College (spelling noted). I was 20,000 leagues into reverse elitism.

A year or so ago, I was on the Yale campus, and even as an old fart, I was intimidated. What 18-year-old thinks that he or she belongs at such a place? Is entitled to such a place? Will contribute to such a place? Will not foul the air of such a place? Will not leave such a place all puffed about nothing (or something--puffed is puffed)?

Why don’t those freshmen flee to Morehead State? What Yale professor fails to see through the pretense and pedantry and accomplishment of such a place, where the very stones in the buildings pronounce Pretense, Pedantry, Self-Congratulation. And achievement. And life of the mind.

Oh, the donkeys I have known from the Ivies and their ilk.
Oh, the dingbats I have known from Swampside State and Foothills U.

Recently, my primary care physician referred me to a dermatologist (for a minor problem). The new guy had a Ph.D. as well as an M.D. from, let’s say Cal Tech and Johns Hopkins. It mattered. My doctor's recommendation mattered more, but Dr. Newbie's pedigree also mattered, and I hate that. If it weren’t my body, I’d have wanted him to fail. But of course, it was my body.

Sep 28, 2009


Which Way Is Up?

GPA for The Informant: 4.0


Based on a true story, Matt Damon’s new movie, The Informant, is a winner. Although any hope for a viable Hero-Nerd turns out to be built on shifting sand, every role is well-acted, and the pacing is perfect.

For this movie, I’m bothered by “comedy” as a label, which seems to be floating around out there. Rightly or wrongly, when I hear comedy, I think fluff, in spite of all the exceptions. In any case, this is no lightweight film; mostly likely, none of the superb comedies are.

Yes, some of protagonist Mark Whitacre’s (Matt Damon’s) quirky or pathological thinking is amusing, along with the twists in plot created by his mental machinations. But The Informant conveys a substantive tension between humor and an important, convincing dark side—in both the character of Whitacre and the corporate culture in which he finds and loses himself.

More importantly, thinking of The Informant as a comedy might lead us to minimize some of the disturbing questions it plops on our plates, in just the right doses. Writer Scott Burns and director Steven Soderbergh skillfully invite us listen to the darkness and well as the humor.

Can a guy as likable as Whitacre be seriously disturbed? Whose darker side is more menacing, his or his corporation’s? What is more dangerous, more frightening: a predictably corrupt (corporate) culture or a brilliant, driven, delusional oddball within it? Isn’t it true that we expect or even accept that large institutions will be driven by greed and corruption--and aren't oddballs innocents, every single one?

When does someone’s imagination bleed into a kind of fantasy life so consuming that it's genuinely worrisome to caring onlookers? Can fantasy become a series of lies so large that they fill and define the character, who's not even sure they are lies? Or is he? Maybe we and the other characters are the only ones unsure about who is deceiving whom about what.

When does a character’s lying become such an automatic part of him that we feel a need for the correct psychiatric diagnosis? Personality disorder? Borderline personality? We're not dealing with psychotic delusions, so what’s the prognosis?

When does a code of ethics become so fanciful that we lose respect for it—and feel sure our hero should know better too? When do we stop pulling for a guy, even if he’s an underdog? Did he stop being the underdog, the Hero-Nerd? At what point? Does that mean we're pulling for bad guys? Or there are no good guys?

Who else has so thoroughly fooled me recently? Was Whitacre that good or was I a simpleton? Don’t we want our eccentric colleagues, neighbors, friends, who seem harmless, to remain . . . harmless? Shouldn’t they stay true to what we thought they were?

There’s a lot of see-sawing and betrayal in The Informant. If you come away thinking it was all for laughs, one more slick Hollywood affair, a safe date, a cake walk for Matt Damon, then you and I didn’t see the same thing and aren’t asking the same questions.

Sep 23, 2009

Poem for a Day: "Autumn Begins in Martins Ferry, Ohio" by James Wright

Friday night lights: high school football players “gallop terribly” against each other, both the arty, abstract version (or is it just a bad photo?) and plain old family album realism.

You can find James Wright’s poem at

I’ll try to make this the last Wright poem for a long while. But it is now officially autumn, and I did see part of a high school game last Friday. Moreover, I grew up in or near towns like Martins Ferry on the Ohio River—often as not, steel and coal towns.

An obvious question arises: can serious art center on football or other sports?

Before you offer your final answer, the answer you must stand by for the rest of your life, you might want to watch the documentary film, Go, Tigers, which centers on another Ohio team, the Massillon High Tigers of 1999. Massillon’s is a legendary program, like those in Pennsylvania or Odessa, Texas. I think Go, Tigers succeeds in the way any serious work about sports must succeed: it makes itself about more than the sport itself—sport as metaphor, sport as vehicle, sport as revelation of character, sport as sociology, politics, even art. Maybe I could argue that this film and this poem are also about England, India, and China--anywhere the children of industrial centers, large or small, try to find their way.

If you hate organized sports, especially at the high school level, Go, Tigers should both challenge and confirm your thinking. So too might “Autumn Begins in Martins Ferry, Ohio,” and it’s a lot shorter and easier to get to.

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Sep 18, 2009

Poem for a Day: "Blackberry Eating" by Galway Kinnell

Once I heard the comment, “Poetry is where our wildness is.” So . . . not in war, then? Not in skydiving? Or even golf?

But that guy was talking about babies babbling in their cribs, their fascination with their own voices and sounds. “Look what I can do.” Or, “What was that? Oh, that was me, making noise.”

Old or new, some poems make more than others of the babble, the music, in language. Be sure to read this one aloud—slowly. If you dare, lie on the floor, on your back, and play with your toes.

As the poem’s speaker eats berries (or are they poems?), you might hear his primitive, sensuous babbling, replete with short a and bl sounds—until the sibilance breaks in toward the end and declares war, only to lose quickly, surrendering again to bl and short a. This whole business is much wilder than skydiving and causes fewer casualties than war.

Sep 17, 2009

Poem for a Day: "The One Girl at the Boys Party" by Sharon Olds

Before summer is so long gone that we forget what it felt
like . . .

It seems that a lot of parents don’t want to think about certain aspects of their offspring, their issue--that strange lawyer word. Their reluctance certainly includes the subject of their children’s sexuality.

Sharon Olds’ poetry doesn’t shy away from much, and I don't think she’s backing down from a delicate subject here. But her humor and the mathematics motif neutralize tensions in ways that keep Olds in acceptable, proper territory. Don’t they?

a wild multiplying . . . drops sparkling and falling . . . the power of a thousand . . .

To read the poem, copy and paste or click on one of the links below. I'm sorry to say the site works inconsistently. If you have trouble, you could simply google the poem title and see what happens.

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Sep 12, 2009

Poem of the day: James Wright's "A Blessing"

For James Wright’s “A Blessing,” copy and paste:

Although I like cheering for the little guy, I want to plug the website for Poetry magazine, which is no underdog. The site also includes some good commentary about a variety of poems and poets.

“A Blessing” is one Wright’s best known works. I like his comfort with content that some serious thinkers might deem sentimental or relentlessly optimistic. But are those fair conclusions?

Notice how Wright softens some major assertions by cloaking them within four lines in the middle of the poem (from “They ripple” to . . . “no loneliness like theirs”), rather than closing the poem with didactic proclamations, as those lines might feel if they came at the end.

Also notice the paradox: love and loneliness are a pair. There’s no debate or explanation; they just belong together, a couple. If the mental process in these lines is that complex and subtle, can we rightly call the lines or the whole poem sentimental—that is, saccharine and simplistic, as opposed to being respectably restrained in thought and language?

In a similar vein, watch out for that hurdle into the final two lines. Are they OK? How did Wright get there? Epiphany is the most likely explanation, but does that justify or explain this particular leap? Should the poem justify or explain the leap more than it does?

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Sep 8, 2009

Beauty as Utility

Which perspective is the right one?

Among the words I've loved, here’s a thought from Professor Ralph Williams at the University of Michigan. I don't have the statement in print, so I’m paraphrasing, but this is close:

“We talk about setting virtue against evil; maybe it’s time to set beauty against evil.”

Maybe one implication is that humans are more likely to agree upon what is beautiful—and its sanctity—than what is good, moral, ethical, legal, and such.

“The Waking” by Theodore Roethke

I’m a little worn out after the last couple of posts, and I’m busy with readying myself to return to teaching any day now, depending on strike negotiations. Therefore, I’m going to try something I’ve been meaning to do here from time to time—post links to poems that I've found valuable. (I wish I could simply paste the poems into Banjo52, but I’m too wary of copyright issues for that).

In these rancorous times, I’ll try to keep the selections somewhat upbeat, or soothing, or at least interesting enough in language or thought to act as counterpoints to the blaring of hate-mongers out there. No promises, however; I am not a robot.

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Sep 7, 2009


I just saw a middle-aged fat-cat-capitalist dawg driving down this leafy street. With his seat reclined, his right arm draped across the back of the passenger’s seat, his head tilted back as if to offer his chin to the gods, daring them to punch him . . . he had that familiar driving posture that proclaims, “I am somebody. Move over.”

I thought again about the facts of what we do when driving a car—piloting a few tons of metal, steering a weapon, mastering a robot.

Robots. In 2009 we already have foreign objects in our bodies: knees, hips, stents, metal plates, other people’s organs, mammals’ organs. What a lot of Self we are. Sometimes my Self weighs me down. But more often it’s all those other Selfs out there, wanting equal time.

Last Saturday in the hotel coffee shop, I once again met The Bacon Boys, my vegetarian breakfast group. Except for their fuddy-duddy New Cynicism about the astonishing will of the barnacle, his sexual strategies, and his design for survival (July 26, 2009), The Bacon Boys are pretty open-minded and well informed concerning science, so our conversations often drift to oddities of the human body, or geology, or the universe—a body trying to be as important as our own.

Saturday Oscar and Olivier chewed on dandelion stems and waited for their food. They are twins, slender red-heads, who at 42 could almost be our children. In fact, they are the children of M.I.T. physics profs who named them for Oscar Delaurentis and Laurence Olivier, in the hope that they’d abjure science and become something in the art world. Instead . . . well, we don’t know what they do, and we don’t press for answers.

You could say the twins contribute nothing, though inattentive silence is contribution of a kind. Slim Tim politely filibustered for their membership because his parents and theirs were close friends back in Cambridge, and how do you say no to Slim Tim?

Our founder and leader, Viggy, has called the twins our legacies. He’s also called them The Silencers—their blank stares can silence even Two-Stent Viggy, who, by his own admission is too ornery to have a healthy heart.

Last Saturday, he was serving up the latest info on computerized eyeballs. I envisioned hard-boiled eggs with miniature iPhones inserted in the dry yolks.

“I’m telling you, Banjo” said Viggy, “we’re just days away from body parts grown in the lab. Am I right, Tim?”

Slim Tim, who works in a pharmaceutical lab, had also heard about this organ business and was happy to agree. “Some day we’ll just stop in at Rite-Aid.”

“Why not?” said Viggy.

“In our lifetimes?” I asked.

“Why not?” said Viggy.

“A body-part garden,” I said. (I hadn’t slept well; I was cross). “Will tomatoes grow there too?"

Viggy said, "Is that your best shot, Fungus-Face?”

“Am not.”

“Are too.”

“Takes one to know one, bouncer off rubber, sticker on glue.”


“Indefatigable narcissist.”

“Ontological nil. Unstrung banjo.”

“Plumber’s Helper—Wait! No! . . . Rotted Plumber’s Helper . . . Discarded oil can thingy.”

“You can’t think of the word, can you, you terminal zed. You can’t even come up with ‘dipstick.’ You are one skull full of air, boy.”

“Terminal zed is redundant.”

Slim Tim, having heard “fungus,” and wanting peace, started a narrative of his own about some spore that piggy-backs an ant and magically seizes the ant’s mind. The spore tells the ant where to go. The destination is a particular leaf 25 millimeters off the ground—precisely 25 millimeters. The plant is poison to the ant, yet he clings to it till his death in order to serve the spore that has somehow seized his mind and become his god.

After thinking about some kinds of religion, I thought of limousine drivers carrying CEOs toward their construction sites for new skyscrapers. The dirt and debris were full of bodies—ant cadavers. And Jimmy Hoffa.

I looked to Oscar and Olivier and said, “Hey guys. That ant? The limo?—What do you think—Lincoln or Mercedes?”

Blank stares. Viggy looked annoyed.

“Oscar,” I said, “how much of your body would you replace, in the name of survival?”

When you say “in the name of survival,” you know you sound deep, even if you’re talking to Oscar and Olivier. I paused for a moment, waiting to be absorbed.

Then I went on, looking at the twins, but speaking to Viggy and Tim—artful misdirection. “Let’s say the brain is sacrosanct—we know Viggy’s is. Especially compared to—oh, let's say a spleen. Without the brain, the robot named You keels over.” (That may or may not be true, given advances in computers. But they were letting me get away with it).

“Is every body part negotiable?” I went on. “In order to sidestep death, would you replace one fleshy item after another until you amounted to an original brain driving a piecemeal contraption down the avenue? Where’s the Self?”

I paused. I was getting into tender territory for Viggy. But I couldn’t stop. “Olivier, remember how Viggy said that wherever else your Self might be, it has to be in your brain? Well, you’ve got your brain, so what’s the problem?”

Olivier stared at me. Oscar squirted ketchup into his spoon.

“Oscar!” Viggy hissed. “This is a nice place! Behave.”

Oscar set the ketchup in the middle of the table. Olivier picked it up.

I said to everyone, but I suppose to Viggy in particuar, “You see yourself en route to copulation with that hot little Cookie Kindred, the blonde titanium floozy who’s being assembled just for you three miles down the road? Self claps its hands, says yummie.”

I looked up, expecting to be challenged. Nothing. Slim Tim put lemon in his coffee. The twins now chewed on their stems, which were now dry. Olivier dunked his stem in the ketchup on Oscar’s spoon.

Viggy said, “Oscar! You’re not in a cornield!”

I pressed on. “So your brain’s cradled in some metal palm thingy at the top of you—is that your head? Or just your top? Your apex, your zenith, your summit? It’s riding high up there. Would it feel the loss of anything important, once it’s accustomed to its new servants? Shiny metal and new leather sacs like little footballs? Your good old brain goes on giving orders—left, right, go, stop, go pee.”

Still nothing from the twins. Olivier was about to fall asleep with the dandelion stem in his nose. Oscar stared off in the way that sometimes made Viggy say, “Oscar, dammit, are you back to that virtual stalking thing you do? This is a nice place. I’m not gonna tell you again.”

Oscar’s eyes fell upon his napkin, and he fiddled with it. I'm pretty sure he was grinning, but with his face down, I wasn't sure.

“In this Old-Brain-New-Parts world," I went on, "where do you find your new Self? Or was it in your elbow all along? Would the You in you mourn the pleasures of your old six-pack bundle of youth?”

Long ago, Viggy had trained the silver-haired brow over his right eye to rise and curl into a snarl. Upon command. It stops adversaries in their tracks. The eyebrow was up. And it pointed at me, not the twins.

Yet I pressed on, a profile in courage. “Would robotified pleasures match the bliss of your apish raptures in days of old? Your primitive bliss? Your body a mobile, throbbing pack of hot
juice . . . .”

“Jeeeesus,” Viggy said. “Are you about finished?”

“I wasn’t . . . “

“Does anybody know what the hell Banjo’s talking about? Is there somebody here who agrees with Banjo that he’s some born-again poem. Oscar. . . ? Oscar!”

Slim Tim grinned. He liked that. He’s the nicest atheist you ever saw. He’s a good audience for Viggy.

Oscar and Olivier stared at their chewed stems, as if to wonder what had become of them, all chomped, dried and dented like that.

I was smelling defeat—or at least I was getting tired, which is the same thing. So I shifted gears. “Have you heard about the chimpanzee and the bonobo?”

“Banjo . . .” It was Slim Tim, a gentle voice, a voice that was a hand on the forearm. “Banjo, remember where the hotel’s washing machines are?”


“Banjo,” said Tim, “it’s time for a nap. Go down to the alcove by the washing machines. The thump-thump will put you to sleep.”

“Okee dokee,” I said. “Thump-thump good.”

I might have resisted if it were Viggy making me leave, but not Slim Tim. “But . . . Tim?” I said.


“What do you think other breakfast clubs talk about?”

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End note: -

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Sep 5, 2009

COWBIRD, WARBLER, POLITICS, and the Labor of Labor Day



Intelligence is amoral; so is deception. Everything political is personal (Gloria Steinem). Remember good old George Goebel’s refrain?—“Well, I’ll be a dirty bird.”

A recent Nova Now program included a segment on the brown-headed cowbird, which/whom we all love to hate because the female lays her eggs, one at a time, by means of 10-second sneak-deposits, in the nests of other birds.

This tricks the host birds (we’ll say “warbler” here, to stick with the Nova show, though cowbirds exploit other species, too). The foster-parent warblers hatch, feed, and nurture cowbird chicks. Often the warbler young starve, or are at least malnourished, and their numbers decline.

Maybe to prevent the corny likes of me from becoming overly anthropocentric about the antics and ethics of the bird world, Nova Now took a light–hearted approach to the subject, calling the cowbirds the mafia of the avian world, and so on. Mama Cowbird becomes Tina Soprano. After dropping off her bundle of joy at the foster home, she stands guard from about 50 feet away, checking on the warbler nest to make sure the cowbird chick receives proper attention from its surrogate parents.

Scientists performed the experiment of removing the cowbird egg from the warbler nest and making the entrance hole to the nest too small for a cowbird to enter. But Tina Soprano consistently got her head in far enough to poke the warbler eggs into runny yolks. The pattern has all the appearance of revenge and enforcement by a cowbird mafia. Raise my chicks or else.

You can watch the show here:

It’s feel-good Science-Lite for folks like me, though I wonder what the evolutionary advantage is for cowbirds. I’d guess the strategy means more viable chicks than any couple could raise on their own.

But Nova doesn’t go into that. It might upset the Intelligent Design folks, at least those who refuse to let their children hear their president’s encouragement to stay in school, work hard and succeed. Go figure; I thought that Work Hard and Prosper biz was a right-wing mantra. And surely it was a similar culture of parents who accepted such talks from Reagan and George H.W. Bush.

Maybe they now think the president is a cowbird, coming like the Pied Piper of Berkeley to steal their golden babes away and waltz them over Engels Hill.

Or maybe it's the right-wingers who want to be sneaky cowbirds; they have cowbird-envy. But they can't pass the entrance exam. Maybe they want to be sure their children don’t get smart either. If you have enough guns, you don’t need brains. “Clean your shotgun, Ralphie. Here comes another damned cowbird.”

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Lovers' Lane