Tuesday, May 31, 2011

DeKalb -- Memorial Day

I drive west on 88 from Chicago. The city recedes and fields open up the landscape. Many of them stand flooded with today's heavy rain. The suns slips down through cloud banks it colors spectacularly. By the time I turn off the freeway onto Annie Glidden road it is dark.

If a quiet dinner in Rosita's Mexican Restaurant, served by a fresh-faced blonde girl, with a couple of young farm families to either side of me, doesn't complete the dramatic change of venue from Boston's cosmopolitan splendors, the freight trains that rumble through my motel room every ten minutes throughout the night remind me that I am no longer looking down on the Charles River from the 29th floor of the Westin Hotel at Copley Place.

 Monday morning I drive around a town much smaller in reality than it had been in my imagination. When a police car blocks my way, I get out to watch DeKalb's Memorial Day parade. First comes a swarm of rumbling Harleys, ridden, I gather, by veterans of wars past and present, streaming large American and black POW flags. One pot-bellied rider puffs on a big cigar.

People on the curbs stand respectfully and then applaud warmly as four Marines march past bearing American, Illinois, POW, and Marine flags.

There follow elderly members of the VFW in scrappy pieces of uniforms, each clutching handfuls of little American flags on sticks that they hand to children on the sides of the street. Before they are past, the girl sitting in front of me has three flags. Several younger veterans come next. One twenty-year-old in camo limps by. A couple of boys not long out of high-school pass, not in uniform but still in the parade. They look bewildered.

Then squealing bagpipes and rattling drums and burley men in kilts and one man with a ceremonial ax: The Firefighters Highland Guard. Fire trucks, new and antique. An ambulance. The orange and black uniformed DeKalb High School band dances past, playing a jazzy tune. They call themselves "The Barbs!"

More uniforms: Girl Scouts Troop 705. Cub Scout Pack 193. Methodist and Catholic Boy Scout troops. The Middle School Marching Band. The DeKalb County Sheriff K-9 Unit.

Middle America, I think, small-town America, conservative America honoring its soldiers and raising its children to be soldiers.

Too many uniforms for my taste; but I stand respectfully, taking photos and writing in my notebook assiduously enough that a man passing on the sidewalk stops and winks and says: my name's James Dean -- for your newspaper account. I wink back and write another note.

Around the corner comes another American flag, carried by a man in his 60's without a uniform. Behind him two women carry a banner stretched between them that reads DEKALB INTERFAITH NETWORK FOR PEACE AND JUSTICE: WE MOURN THEIR LOSS.

A bearded man walks behind the banner, beating solemnly on a drum muffled by a cloth and whistling "When Johnny Comes Marching Home" as a dirge. Somewhere close to 40 people follow, bearing a linked set of photos and names of Illinois servicemen and women who have died in current wars.

There is absolute silence on the sidewalks.

My jaw hangs loose. Stereotypes of smalltown, middle America flee my brain like lemmings. I'll be damned! I say. I'll be damned!

The last of the interfaith group passes by, followed by one last police car, and the parade is over.

A man next to me folds up his chair and explains to his daughter, his voice tense with the surprised silence that still reigns on the street: The ones who were first in the parade, they fought so those people could march.

I drive to the Ellwood House, thinking I will tour the mansion of the barbed-wire baron before my noon appointment with local historian Steven Bigolin. It turns out that the parade has ended there too. From the front porch, a VFW dignitary directs the proceedings: music from the "Barbs" -- a jazzy "God Bless America," music from the Highland Guard -- a plaintive "How Great Thou Art," a gunfire salute by the VFW honor guard, a heart-wrenching "Taps" played by echoing trumpets. After a string of "I would be remiss's" -- remiss not to mention Captain . . . , remiss not to mention the mayors executive assistant . . . , etc., we applaud and that's that. Except, of course, for the Cub Scouts who are directed to gather in the rear of the mansion to meet the VFW Commander who wants to thank them personally for having placed flags on the graves of veterans.

Barbed wire, Steven Bigolin explains as he leads me through the town barbed wire made famous, had to be shipped west.

That explains the freight trains in the night.

And the tracks cutting across DeKalb's main street, The Lincoln Highway.

Mr. Bigolin shows me barbed-wire sites high and low: the houses of Glidden and Ellwood and the parking lot the Lutheran church laid out after destroying Haish's house; the original barns and factories for manufacturing the device that made all three men rich; and the burial places of
the barbed-wire barons (the men who did the work in the factories have no such monuments; but Haish did, Mr. Bigolin says, deliver a turkey to each of them every Christmas):

First the self-aggrandizing Ellwood mausoleum --
Then the self-advertising Glidden resting place --

And finally the self-memorializing Haish memorial --

. . . not to mention the Glidden Crossroads shopping center, Glidden Campus Floral, the Barb City Manor, Barbed City Upholstery, the Haish Memorial Library, the Hyrum Ellwood House, the Haish Carriage House, and so on and so on.

There's a final note for Memorial Day:

Jacob Haish manufactured his last barbed wire in 1916, Mr. Bigolin tells me. Haish received reports on how the wire was being used in WWI and refused to produce barbed wire for that purpose.

Thursday, May 26, 2011

Art from the Americas: Boston Museum of Fine Arts

The figurine, maybe 6 inches tall, is of a naked standing man. His clenched hands are raised, his head turned slightly to the side and to the back. Two odd sharp points stick out from his chest.

The note below the little man reads as follows:

Guatemala AD 600-750

"The ritualized torture of war captives was part of a complex set of beliefs about the importance of sacrifice in matters both earthly and cosmic. This figurine's raised arms, clenched hands, and bared teeth all convey his scream of pain. The figurine is also a whistle; the blow hole is his anus."

We continue to tour the Art of the Americas wing. There are multiple elaborate rooms recreated from mansions of the wealthiest Bostonians. And then portraits of the wealthiest and most powerful people.

The museum, despite its other wonders, for whatever complex personal psychological reasons, becomes a house of horrors for me today.

I loathe the anthropologist's theoretical distance ("a complex set of beliefs"), coupled with the art historian's understanding of how the fine art object "conveys" pain. I loathe the worship of things collected by people who took advantage of economic conditions before, during, and after the American revolution.

Tuesday, May 24, 2011

Barbed-Wire Research in Boston

Lyn and I have been working for two days now in the Harvard's Baker Business Library.

We have collected hundreds of images of trade cards, barbed-wire journals, trade catalogues, and so on.

The photos I've taken with a digital camera are protected, for research only, so I won't post any of them here.

But the archives of the American Steel & Wire company are so full of good things that I' wanted to post at least one image.

As you can see, the image of choice is a wonderful section of marbled endpaper. The book is a leatherbound accounting book that lists, month by month in 1884-5, the manufacture and sales of Glidden barbed wire. The numbers are in the millions of tons. But for me the true beauty of this book is in the endpapers.

Thursday, May 19, 2011

Language and Death

"Do you need to go potty?"
Lyn was talking to Blue, well before it was reasonable to get up.
"Go potty?" she asked again; and Blue shook his head to flap his big ears, which means yes.

Go potty. What an idiotic way of saying what ought to be said simply, directly, organically.

Growing up, my mother's version of this was "do you need to have a bee emm?"

I couldn't spell, so I didn't understand that bee emm wasn't the word shit. B and M, it turned out, were the first letters of the words "bowel movement." When I finally realized that, I was disgusted. There's something wrong with a culture that can't say shit.

When I explain that to Lyn she ignores me.

"Go potty?"

I go back to sleep.

In college, or perhaps even in high school, I swore to use authentic language. Real language. Language that reeked and burped. Abstract euphemisms be damned.

That's still with me, as the morning's irritation testifies.

Later in the day my son Joe calls. I had been expecting the bad news. Born with trisomy 18, his daughter Alayna had been battling infection and seizures and breathing problems and a weak heart for her entire short life. Things had been especially bad for the last couple of weeks as doctors and nurses at Primary Children's Hospital in Salt Lake had done what they could for her.

Now she's dead. Or now she has passed, someone says.

I don't much like the word "passed"; but it is Nate, also my son, who says it and I don't much care what word he uses. His voice is soft with grief and I understand what he's feeling.

Over the course of the day there are other conversations about Alayna. They teach me something I should have known before.

The fact of shared language far outweighs the nature of that language.

As the day ends, I'm so grateful for the familiar voices and the shared sadness that the words "passed" or "what a blessing" or "she's off to a better place" or "my condolences" sound in my ears just as sweetly as they they were meant.

Since we can't say all that death means, since our words simply are not enough in the face of death, it's far better to say something, anything, than not to speak.

Tuesday, May 10, 2011

B. Traven, The Death Ship, Das Totenschiff

I've finished reading The Death Ship and The Bridge in the Jungle,  novels by the mysterious B. Traven.

Ken Sanders (proprietor of Salt Lake's artistic and intellectual center -- Ken Sanders Rare Books) recommended The Death Ship the last time I was in his store. Editions of Traven are one of his specialties, along with books by Ed Abbey and any number of other pricey books.

Ken said that he and Charles Bowden (see my review of Bowden's Dreamland in an earlier post) have an ongoing argument about which is Traven's best book. Ken thinks it is The Death Ship. Chuck thinks it is The Bridge in the Jungle.

Before reading these two books, I had only read The Treasure of the Sierre Madre.

After reading The Death Ship, I'm thoroughly enamored of B. Traven and his sarcastic narrator, a man without a state, without a passport, without sailor's papers, who has to work as a coal drag on a death ship, the only kind of ship that will take on a sailor without papers.

His work is perilous, exhausting, poorly paid. His sarcasm is aimed at exploitative capitalism.  His sympathies are with immigrants and working people:

"Why passports? Why immigration restriction? Why not let human beings go where they wish to go. . . .? Human beings must be kept under control. . . . For what reason? . . . Expanding markets and making large profits are a religion. It is the oldest religion perhaps, for it has the best-trained priests, and it has the most beautiful churches; yes, sir."

The descriptions of pride in work well done, even in the context of danger and exploitation, resonate in my memory of work on drilling rigs. The smart mouth and disrespect of authority echo in my mind as well.

There's also the mystery of the book, of the actual paperback copy Ken found for me after I rejected the fine $50 edition he first showed me. I paid $6 for a book marked $5 after it originally sold for $1.25 (click on the image to the right to expand it). It's well worn. It had been read before I got it. The pages are coming unglued. The back and covers are stained by dirty hands. Feels just right for a coal shoveler in a death ship.

Who read it before I did?

Who held it?

What did they think? Feel?

As for The Bridge in the Jungle, its wry narrator is a gringo who works in the Mexican jungle. He happens on a village next to an oil-field bridge over a river. During the couple of days he stays there, he attends a dance, or what would be a dance if the musicians would show up. In the dark, waiting for the musicians, a boy falls from the bridge (at fault are the shoes his brother has just brought him from Texas, where he works in an oil field; they keep him from feeling the bridge with his bare feet) and dies. The drawing of the cover shows the boy's head with a paper crown made for him as they are dressing him for burial.

Almost the entire novel takes place during that one night. The narrator's descriptions of people and their customs are detailed and rooted in contrasts between civilized and native cultures. In scope, focusing on that single event, it feels more like a novella than a novel.

I like it very much. And although I admire Chuck Bowden's taste in books (I recently readBaxter's amazing Paris Trout on his recommendation), I'm siding with Ken on this one. The Death Ship, at least for me, is the more powerful work.

And who was this enigma B. Traven? The Wikepedia article on him and his work starts this way:

B. Traven (February, 1882? – March 26, 1969?) was the pen name of a German novelist, whose real name, nationality, date and place of birth and details of biography are all subject to dispute. A rare certainty is that B. Traven lived much of his life in Mexico, where the majority of his fiction is also set—including his best-known work, The Treasure of the Sierra Madre (1927), which was adapted as the Academy Award nominated film of the same name in 1948.
Virtually every detail of Traven's life has been disputed and hotly debated. There were many hypotheses on the true identity of B. Traven, some of them wildly fantastic. Most agree, that Traven was Ret Marut, a German stage actor and anarchist, who supposedly left Europe for Mexico around 1924. There are also reasons to believe that Marut/Traven's real name was Otto Feige and that he was born in Schwiebus in Brandenburg, modern day Świebodzin in Poland. B. Traven in Mexico is also connected with Berick Traven Torsvan and Hal Croves, both of whom appeared and acted in different periods of the writer's life. Both, however, denied being Traven and claimed that they were his literary agents only, representing him in contacts with his publishers.
B. Traven is the author of twelve novels, one book of reportage and several short stories, in which the sensational and adventure subjects combine with a critical attitude towards capitalism, betraying the socialist and even anarchist sympathies of the writer. B. Traven's best known works include the novels The Death Shipfrom 1926 and The Treasure of the Sierra Madre from 1927, in 1948 filmed by John Huston, and the so-called Jungle Novels, also known as the Caoba cyclus (from the Spanish word caoba, meaning mahogany), a group of six novels (including The CarretaGovernment), published in the years 1930-1939, set among Mexican Indians just before and during the Mexican Revolution in the early 20th century. B. Traven's novels and short stories became very popular as early as the interwar period and retained this popularity after the war; they were also translated into many languages. Most of B. Traven's books were published in German first and their English editions appeared later; nevertheless the author always claimed that the English versions were the original ones and that the German versions were only their translations. This claim is not taken seriously.

Wednesday, May 4, 2011

Literary Barbed Wire

What is there about barbed wire that makes it so interesting to writers from Steinbeck to Evenson, from Davis to Proulx?

That's the question Lyn and I are pursuing this week as we write a conference paper for the American Literature Association conference in Boston later this month.

Photo from a couple of months ago, just down the hill from our house in Woodland Hills. Quotation from The Grapes of Wrath:

“I says to myself, ‘What’s gnawin’ you? Is it the screwin’?’ An’ I says, ‘No, it’s the sin.’ An’ I says, ‘Why is it that when a fella ought to be just about mule-ass proof against sin, an’ all full up of Jesus, why is it that’s the time a fella gets fingerin’ his pants buttons?’” He laid two fingers down in his palm in rhythm, as though he gently placed each word there side by side. “I says, ‘Maybe it ain’t a sin. Maybe it’s just the way folks is. Maybe we been whippin’ the hell out of ourselves for nothin’.’ An’ I thought how some sisters took to beatin’ theirselves with a three-foot shag of bobwire. An’ I thought how maybe they liked to hurt themselves, an’ maybe I liked to hurt myself.”

The fact that barbed wire is dangerous is exactly what makes it useful, useful even and especially for people who want to hurt themselves and others.

The serene beauty of the photo is enhanced, or rather exacerbated, by the fact of the pointed barbs.

Sunday, May 1, 2011

More Thoughts on UVU Graduation

I've received strong responses to the previous post, pretty well divided between agreement and disagreement. The disagreements are especially welcome, since they highlight important points.

There are two basic complaints:

1. That any speaker for graduation, whether he be the Mormon businessman or whether she be Mother Teresa, would naturally speak from personal experience and that shouldn't be offensive to the audience. Even if Muhammad himself were to speak, wrote one reader, I wouldn't be offended.

2. That I have misrepresented Mr. Gay's speech.

Here's the problem, at least for me, most basically:

If a prominent outsider were to come challenge the majority of us at UVU with his or her thoughts, it would be good for us.

But I'm not convinced that a graduation ceremony is the right place for that.

If Michael Moore, for instance, had been the speaker, and if he had politicized our graduation, it would have take away from the broad sense that all of us, even with our differences, are celebrating our graduations -- all of our graduations.

So I'm all for Michael Moore or Robert Gay or George Bush or Bill Clinton speaking on campus for the School of Business or for the History/Political Science Department. We ought to welcome challenge from many sides.

In this case, it was not a prominent outsider, but an insider who spoke and whose examples, like the testimony meeting example and the African mission-president examples, were drawn from the experiences of the majority.

There's no problem with that in many university settings. If my brother in law, who is a millionaire businessman and now a general authority of the LDS church were to speak about his experiences in either realm to an audience of religious studies and/or business students, it would be a wonderful experience.

But graduation is for all of us, not just for Mormons and not just for capitalists.

My mother taught elementary school in Utah Valley and, despite the legal separation of church and state, started her class with prayer until she retired. I asked her what the children thought and felt who weren't religious, or who weren't Christian, or who weren't Mormon like most of the students. That's not my problem, she said. We're the majority and the minority should not tell us what to do.

I obviously disagree. How the majority treats the minority is a good sign of whether a society will be a civil society.

If Mr. Gay had thought more carefully about his audience, or if he had cared about those in the audience who weren't religious or who were religious in a different way, he would have showed them more respect by giving a less religiously partisan, less politically partisan speech.

As for misrepresenting the speech, I wrote nothing that he didn't actually say. He did denounce Harvard liberals. He did denounce abortion, drawing applause as in a political rally. He did say that if we knew Africa we knew what would happen to the little boy when he went home without money. He did say Africans didn't know the value of service but that they learned it when they went with the Eagle Scout. He did warn us against the evils of a secular society.

And yes, he did say lots of decent things I didn't mention. In that sense, I misrepresented the speech. I also referred to his tears and to him as a simpering millionaire. Those were probably cheap shots; but they grew out of the knowledge that with Mitt Romney and others at Bain Capital Mr. Gay engaged in a particularly odious kind of capitalism, one which produces nothing (no energy, no buildings, no vegetables, no clothing, etc.) but profits. Just one example from the Boston Globe:

Bain Capital put $5 million into its purchase of American Pad & Paper and quickly began charging management and other fees. It also made payments to investors. In all, Bain and its investors reaped more than $100 million even though Ampad went into bankruptcy, workers lost jobs, and stockholders were left with worthless shares. [And creditors got less than 50 cents on the dollar.]