One wonders…

I don’t just dislike mice and rats but am terrified of them. TERRIFIED. I refuse to see movies starring mice; cooking, singing, or protecting Narnia, they are rodents, and I can’t bear them.

I’m so terrified of them that during a particularly horrible battle with them, I simply left town. Actually, I left the state. At first I simply went to New York and stayed in a friend’s apartment. But the second time I needed more than 15 miles between me and the mousehouse my apartment had become. I figured 200 miles would do it so went and spent four days in Will’s hometown, staying with his father and stepmother…because everyone knows there are no mice in the Amherst woods.

So you can imagine my horror when, as I was leaving a lovely morning visit over coffee with a colleague, I saw a GIANT inflatable rat floating in front of the Talbot’s in Upper Montclair. I looked at Jon and said, “You see that too, right? RIGHT?!?!? I’m not having a horrible flashback.” He saw it too. I was half-kidding when I asked the question, but I really did have a moment of OMG (more like WTF, but I’m trying to be polite)! And I couldn’t look in that direction again, even when it was necessary for driving (I just closed my eyes, prayed no SUV would hit me, and floored it).

And it now I’ve realized that the rat is on the same block as a favorite sandwich shop, and I’m hungry, which reminds me of a couple of particularly bad nights when I couldn’t get to my kitchen because I hear the little bastards crawling all over everything.

One wonders who thought this was a good idea? Or if Jon and I are BOTH having flashbacks. And one wonders why the hell the thing is in front of Talbot’s. Is it part of their end-of-season sale?


One wonders…

One Matt’s Blog Resolutions

Making resolutions in real life never made much sense to me, though I certainly have some goals I’m anxious to reach (visions of completed screenplays and book proposals dance through my head), but I thought it would be fun to note some of the meanderings I hope to post in 2009. I foresee more blogs about gender and race, though politics will be in the mix too (the GOP and it’s hilariously painful struggle with race and racism probably deserves its own special sub-blog!). I want to write about:

  • Men and apologies
  • Michelle Obama and Clare Huxtable
  • Why the military is a socialist institution
  • Why men might just be smarter than women
  • The Oscars and its treatment of women
  • Universal health care
  • Tyler Perry

And if my current weight loss continues (since July, I’m down about 20 pounds and counting), I’m sure I’ll be writing about sundresses and dating at some point.

I hope 2009 brings you peace, prosperity, and enough joy to balance out the inevitable struggles and setbacks that spring up along the way. I hope those things for myself too!

I also hope you’ll keep reading and commenting on what we write here.

Apropos of absolutely nothing, I’ll leave you with what might be my favorite YouTube video of the year. It’s only 30 seconds long, but it can take me from tears to laughter in 14 seconds flat. Maybe I can relate it to the importance of universal health care in 2009. Enjoy!

One Matt’s Blog Resolutions

Poems and Pastry

I am very lucky to work with a few people I love. That’s right. Love. Maybe it’s weird to some people to have their colleagues tell them they love them from time to time (and to say it back), but with my circle of friends, it’s perfectly natural. Mary Richards loved her co-workers. Why can’t I?

Since we’re professors, we’re not all “in” on the same days, so it was a treat for me to pop by Jim’s office last week and to find the extra chair in his office unoccupied. I plopped down without waiting for an invitation, complained about one of my more challenging classes while Jim sang the praises of his students. After a few minutes of this, he asked if he could read me a poem he’d taught in class that day. For some reason, this made me feel as if I needed to be eating something, so I took out the pastry (homemade cherry danish) I’d bought on my way to school and waited…

The First Time I Robbed Tiffany’s by Norman Stock

The first time I robbed Tiffany’s it was raining, and it was dark, and the wind was blowing. It was like the first time I had sex. The same kind of weather, the same kind of feeling. Me and the girl in the car. Just like me and the cop in the car, after he arrested me outside the store in the rain. I promised myself I would do better next time. Just like I promised the girl. Just like I promised the cop. It felt like it always felt, me and the cop, me and the girl, me and the rain, and the wind and the darkness, and the robbery I never committed, the sex I never had, the girl I never knew, the feel I never copped, and the rain the rain the rain was all I knew and all I will ever know.

How could you not love a colleague who reads that kind of poem to you, chuckling along the way?

Poems and Pastry

re:The Seduction of Civility: Virtue or Vice?

I prefer to think of the debate Will and I have between persuasion and punching as the difference between chess and checkers, short term vs. long term thinking. For me, the “gotcha” moments never seem to lead to change. Sure, it’s nice to be right, but what’s the point? Gay people still can’t get married.

The first thing to note is that Huckabee and Stewart have a kind of contract between them. Huckabee agrees to appear on “The Daily Show” and get pushed around a bit in front of lefty college types, and Jon Stewart agrees not to be a dick. This leads to the second important contract, the one Stewart has with his future guests. He knows that future guests will be watching, and if the deck is weighted too heavily against them, he’ll only be able to get guests who agree with him to appear on the show, and what’s the point of that? Then he’s just a funny guy making funny jokes with other people who already share his point of view.

More important than either of these contracts, however, is what is at stake for these straight, white men in their debate about the civil rights of another group. After all, Stewart knows he can’t change Huckabee’s mind, and Huckabee knows his position will not be accepted by Stewart or his fans. So what’s the point of the debate? What is the teachable moment?

The term “teachable moment” isn’t simply a metaphor for me. Most of the time when I’m engaged in a heated discussion about a topic like gay marriage or issues about race or gender, the conversation takes place in front of other people. They might be students, colleagues, friends, or guests at a party. So whatever “honey” I might use is less about persuading the person in front of me, whose mind is already made up, and more about the other people in the room. I want to “teach” them my view point, and I know I can’t do that if I’m annihilating my opponent. And, trust me, I can, but then the other guy becomes the underdog, and even if people want to agree with me, they will sympathize with him because they all know the experience of feeling beat up on, and the conversation later that night or the next day won’t be about who was right or who was wrong but who was reasonable and who behaved like a tool.

That’s what I think Stewart was up to last night. He wasn’t interested in the audience in the studio or changing Huckabee’s mind or calling him out as a homophobe. He was thinking of how this would play on the internet and he knows that most people will key into two or three things like:

  • The moment Stewart points out to Huckabee that religion is for more of a choice than sexuality
  • The moment Stewart asks Huckabee, “When did you decide to be heterosexual?”
  • The handshake at the end

Those two comments are the kind of statements people can repeat when they get into their own debates on the issue, and the handshake at the end models civilized discourse, which is essential if not always as efficient as we would like.

Stewart could have pushed harder and dismantled Huckabee, and he almost does. Near the end of the segment, Stewart begins to theorize about sexuality, and you can tell that Huckabee isn’t smart enough to really understand what he’s saying. Stewart knows this too, pulls back, and shakes his hand, forcing Huckabee to accept that Stewart gets the final word and gesturing to everyone that he is reasonable and so should be considered reasonably.

Had he called Huckabee a homophobe at the end of the segment, that would have been the lasting moment, the headline dominating the blogs. Stewart might have won in the moment had he called Huckabee what he so clearly is, but Huckabee would win the night and the next day and the day after that.

I’m of the opinion that we need to be careful when we label people and their ideas. Even when we’re right, I think the moment a label is applied is the moment the conversation ends.

It’s slow, frustrating work, and as a black woman who had to learn quickly the best way to debate issues of race with people who could hurt my career, I can say that it’s exhausting and maddening, but I know, first hand, that it’s a strategy that works.

There is a time to be bad, to call out power, grab it by the balls and not let go until you get what you want, but you have to do that with the people who can actually change things. Huckabee is not that guy, and punching him in the face in the name of honor while satisfying would not have been particularly strategic.

re:The Seduction of Civility: Virtue or Vice?

The Seduction of Civility: Virtue or Vice?

Tricia and I have an ongoing debate about how best to address folks with whom we passionately disagree. In person and in prose, Tricia is always looking for “teachable moments” (when conflict can lead to enlightenment), whereas I am usually looking for “gotcha moments” (when the other side makes an obviously flawed or disingenuous point).

We usually talk about this within the context of “persuasiveness”. Tricia argues that you can persuade more flies with honey than with vinegar and I grumble that you can persuade the most with a flyswatter. Trouble is, neither of us are right.

At least on some level, especially about the most important (“hot button” or complicated) issues, no one can convince anyone of anything. Ask a Christian about God’s existence, a neo-con about Iraq’s WMD, or a liberal about Bush’s accomplishments, and you will get the exact answer you were expecting… and there is no argument nor evidence you could produce to elicit a different one.

If persuasion, then, is not an obtainable goal of “animated conversation” – what is? I submit it is honor.

The other night Jon Stewart sat down with Mike Huckabee, former governor of Arkansas, former GOP Presidential candidate, former Baptist pastor, and current opponent of gay marriage. These are two articulate and affable men who engaged in an articulate, affable conversation … about other people’s civil rights and basic humanity being denied. Finally, Jon Stewart shook Huckabee’s hand and thanked him for the conversation.

Polite, well-mannered, gentlemanly. But wouldn’t the more honorable ending have been a punch in the face? To be fair, Stewart also said, “Listen, this is just wrong.” He was very clear in his honorable position, but I would argue, too civil in his presentation.

If we can’t do any good in such conversations (Huckabee at one point said, “I don’t think we’re going to come to terms on this.”), doesn’t that mean that the only thing we can do is… well, bad?

Others have written about what I call the Myth of Objectivity. Ariana Huffington calls it “Equal Time for Lies” in her latest book, Marty Kaplan credits it with the downfall of newspapers, and Fox News lovingly refers to it as “Fair and Balanced”. But, those critiques are really about journalism.  My concern centers on discussions where each person’s views are known going in.

Maybe it is no co-incidence that Jon Stewart was also the one who brought down CNN’s “Crossfire” by saying all that yelling was “hurting America”. And, of course, he was right. I’m not advocating screaming at people, no matter what clap-trap they spew (not only does yelling never work, it’s terribly tacky). What I am suggesting is that sometimes politely disagreeing actually hurts your cause, if not your case.

When the other guy says “the earth is flat” or “gay is a choice” or “Obama wasn’t born on American soil,” the smart thing to do is to engage them point by point, gently but firmly persuading them to the truth. But the honorable thing to do is say, “You, sir, are a fool (or bigot or liar) and I will not pretend that your views are rational, revelatory, or respectable (always argue in alliteration when you can).”  And then debunk their argument bit by bit (with facts and sources) until they admit what they really think underneath their polite talking points.

Now, some will say that name calling is never constructive, but I’m not sure that’s always true.  Calling someone “stupid” or “four-eyes” is not the same as calling them a “liar” or a “bigot.”  At the end of their conversation, Huckabee clarified that not everyone who is against gay marriage is a homophobe and Stewart politely agreed.  What self-respecting host would go around calling his guests names?

But, someone who is against gay marriage is a homophobe.  A politician who says that Iraq was behind 9/11 is a liar.  People who think that Obama is or was secretly a Muslim are wrong.  It may not be polite to call them out, it may not even be helpful in the short-term, but it is honorable.

All people are created equal, but all ideas are not.

The answer can’t be to not have the conversation.  I’m not suggesting that everyone just retreat to their corners and never engage outside their own bubbles.  But, when opposing views clash, truth cannot give way to manners, nor truth to perspective, nor honor to civility.  And Jon Stewart was tougher on Huckabee than anyone else not on a cable news show would have been.

Maybe that’s what I’m really upset about. That this week’s most aggressive opponent of bigotry never let the conversation get uncomfortable and, in the end, smiled politely and shook the other guy’s hand.

The Seduction of Civility: Virtue or Vice?

Remebering Ruby Agatha

This past Saturday was my grandmother’s birthday, so it was fitting that I was in New York enjoying The Brooklyn Conservatory Community Orchestra with guest soloist soprano Kristina Henry. My friend Sarah, who plays viola, invited me to attend, and since I have a soft spot for artistic events that feature my friends, I decided to battle the Bridge and Tunnel crowd on a Saturday night and head out to Park Slope.

I’m so glad I did.

Kristina Henry

The concert took place in the St. Saviour High School’s gymnasium. St. Saviour was founded in 1917 as a college prep school for women. Somehow that seemed ideal for the feel of the evening, that and the first snow fall of the season. The school fits so easily into the row of Brownstones that I missed it at first. Now if you think a concert in a high school gym sounds hokey, it wasn’t. The venue leant a coziness to the evening. And when Ms. Henry joined the orchestra of more 70 members to perform two of Verdi’s most challenging arias (“Caro Nome” from Rigoletto and “Ah fors e lui” from La Traviata), the gymnasium felt like a concert hall, but here everyone had orchestra seats.

I was skimming the lyrics when Ms. Henry burst (that’s the word for it) into song, so, for a moment, I heard her before I looked up and saw this beautiful black woman wooing the audience. I confess that for a millisecond I felt surprise when I saw Ms. Henry, but then I chuckled at my own assumptions, especially my assumptions. I shouldn’t have been at all surprised to look up and see a black woman singing Verdi. As I said to my father when I told him about the concert, in my imagination ALL sopranos are black. Leontyne Price, Kathleen Battle, and Denyce Graves: all sopranos. All black.

Before anyone accuses of me of being a black radical, let me explain. The reason I’m more likely to think of Denyce Graves than Beverly Sills when I think of sopranos has everything to do with my grandmother, Ruby Agatha. She was born in 1911 in British Guyana. I’m not sure when she moved to New York, but I do know she graduated from George Washington High School, lived in the building where Fats Waller played the piano, and married my grandfather–the only man on the planet who meets my definition of perfection. She was a soprano. In my imagination she was THE soprano and a genuine diva. At her funeral, people remembered her for many things, but everyone seemed to talk about how she trilled her r’s and her amazing collection of hats. She told me once that she gave four recitals in her life, never mentioning that one of them was at Carnegie Recital Hall, on Easter Sunday in 1950. Tickets were $1.20 and 1.80 including tax. She sang Bach, Schubert, Beethoven, and Verdi and concluded the program with a series of folk songs.

My grandmother fit every image you have a diva—stylish, imposing, larger-than-life, and stunningly beautiful. She was a kind but not cuddly grandmother, and I always knew that she adored me. One day in church when she heard me singing harmony (I’m an alto), she beamed at me,and I felt I’d arrived. It is a fond memory because, unlike my other cousins, I didn’t grow up seeing her all the time. As an Air Force brat I was overseas more than I was in the states, so trips to New York to see my father’s family were infrequent, but when I did visit I knew I would go to church and sing, have a little culinary trip with my grandfather (he introduced me to Nathan’s hot dogs), and hang out with my cousins, all but one of whom were older and so much cooler than I could ever hope to be.

So when I think of sopranos, I think of my grandmother. When I went to see Kathleen Battle perform a Christmas concert, I thought of my grandmother. In grad school, I splurged on a ticket to see Denyce Graves sing Carmen at Tanglewood. A children’s choir performed with her; they were sitting too high to actually see her, but one little girl, a little black girl in pigtails, couldn’t help herself and kept leaning over to get a better view. I understood the impulse. And I thought of Ruby. I saw Denyce Graves again. That time I was with Will’s mother Jane, who made me grin with surprise when it turned out she knew all the words to the African freedom songs the audience was asked to sing with Graves and the orchestra. My grandmother would have scolded me for being surprised. After all, if she learned to sing in Italian and performed folk songs, there is no reason why Jane shouldn’t know African freedom songs.

I’m sure my grandmother would have loved Ms. Henry, who took to the small platform set up for her in a ruby red dress, swaying her hips, laughing during her runs, and flirting with the audience, at one point giving a red rose to a man in the front row. Her voice coach was sitting behind me, and he called “Brava Diva” when she finished, proudly telling me on his way out that she was only 26 and was going to be great.

This is not to the say that the evening’s performance was perfect. An unfortunate series of moments for the horn section in the third movement of Beethoven’s “The Erocia” caused me to blurt out, “oh dear,” which, in turn, prompted an unfortunate series of giggles in yours truly. My lack of control was not helped at all when Sarah’s husband poked me in the side and then started laughing. I thought of my grandmother then too. She was not, as far as I know, prone to giggles, but I think she would have forgiven me mine–especially since I wasn’t laughing at the soprano.

Ruby Agatha Pryme Matthew
Ruby Agatha Pryme Matthew
Remebering Ruby Agatha