Sunday, January 31, 2010

Reading Journal: Citizens of London

Lynne Olson, Citizens of London (Random House 2010). Available February 2, 2010. I received my copy (the Canadian edition) through the LibraryThing Early Reviewers program.

In January 1945, my father-in-law, Pfc. John Shaw of the 84th Infantry Division, was in an Army hospital in Cirencester, England, recuperating from wounds received in the Battle of the Bulge. In a letter to his family back in Ohio, he wrote:
The village is about like all the rest of the English towns—a magnificent cathedral right in the center. It is very charming, I thin, although there’s no excitement—not that I’m seeking excitement. All the rest of the infantry guys stand around the corners, yelling, whistling, and making lewd remarks at the gals, and there’s plenty of them. The English must have a wonderful impression of the average American GI. Somehow, though, I can’t seem to have a good time, no matter what I do. I want to be in a quiet place; I love to listen and watch the civilians going about their business. I have all the respect and admiration in the world for them. They’re so sturdy and cheerful and friendly! So warm-hearted, and yet they seem to emotionless. They refuse to get excited or wrought up about anything.
My father-in-law was one of hundreds of thousands of Americans to pass through England during World War II. The Americans included GIs, military brass, journalists, and diplomats—all of them brought together with the British in a successful, and often tumultuous, alliance against Nazi Germany. The story of those Americans, and of that alliance, is brilliantly and beautifully told by Lynne Olson in her new book Citizens of London.

At the heart of the book are Edward R. Murrow, the American journalist who arrived to broadcast from London in 1939, and John Gilbert Winant, the United States ambassador. Both Murrow and Winant remained in London for the duration of the war, sharing in the danger and deprivation that Londoners faced during the Blitz, and becoming beloved figures in Britain who worked tirelessly to promote understanding and friendship between Britain and America. The book also follows the wartime career of Averell Harriman, Roosevelt’s Lend-Lease representative in Britain—a less admirable figure than Winant, but still a crucial player in the success of the Anglo-American alliance. The book is the story of that alliance—from its uncertain beginnings before America entered the war to the tensions that arose between the two countries over the shape of the post-war world—told through the stories of the people who lived it on the ground in London.

Olson is an engaging writer, who skillfully weaves together the diplomatic, military, and personal threads of her story to create a multidimensional picture of wartime London. She brings out the paradoxical character of the British people—stoic, undemonstrative, and suprisingly generous—that my father-in-law noticed on the streets of Cirencester:
Like other American reporters, Murrow was struck by the calmness, fortitude, and ironic humor exhibited by Londoners during these days and nights of terror. He enjoyed repeating to his friends the question that one city resident put to him at the height ot the Luftwaffe assault: “Do you think we’re really brave—or just lacking in imagination?” As Eric Sevareid observed, “This is what he loved about the British. They were steady. They didn’t panic, didn’t get emotional.”
Olson also brings out all the tensions that arose between the two proud and often mutually suspicous allies—especially between Roosevelt and Churchill, and between the top military brass from the two countries who shared the responsibility of running the war. The egos of men like Patton and Montgomery, British chief of staff Allan Brooke and U.S. air force chief “Hap” Arnold, were often massive obstacles to the success of the alliance. But as Olson shows, the supreme commander, General Eisenhower, was firmly committed to close cooperation between the allies, and like Murrow and Winant worked tirelessly to promote the special relationship between Britain and America.

Olson does a great service especially in resurrecting the reputation of Winant—a shy, soft-spoken idealist who emerges as one of the great forgotten men of history. Winant was a former history teacher, and a progressive Republican whose hero was Abraham Lincoln. In the spring of 1941, as London was being battered by German air raids and America was still reluctant to enter the war, Winant invoked Lincoln in a speech to the British people. Olson writes:
....Winant noted that, across the street from Parliament and Westminster Abbey, a statue of his hero, Abraham Lincoln, still stood. “As an American,” Winant said, “I am proud that Lincoln was there in all that wreckage as a friend and sentinel...and a reminder that in [his own] great battle for freedom, he waited quietly for support for those things for which he lived and died.”
Citizens of London is the best and most moving general audience history book I’ve read since Doris Kearns Goodwin’s Team of Rivals. Like Goodwin’s book, it’s a story of often bitter rivals who had to find a way to work together to achieve success in war. Like Goodwin’s book, it’s impeccably researched and beautifully written. Like Goodwin’s book, it should reach a wide and receptive audience.


Last night, between the haggis and the headache, I enjoyed the traditional Burns Night festivities and a whiskey tasting with about forty other people at the home of some Carleton friends. The guests were a mix of professors and IT people, all of whom came prepared to step up to the mic and read a Burns poem. (Clara and I actually read a letter Burns wrote to his friend Mrs. Riddell, apologizing for getting roaring drunk at her house.) Most of the professors read from pieces of paper or from old books of poetry, but one after the other the IT people stood up and read from their iPhones. It was an interesting mix of tradition and technology: reading the words of an eighteenth-century poet from a 21st-century handheld device.

It's always great to see poetry reaching new audiences and new technologies.

On Tuesday, I spent the afternoon at ARTech charter school, helping to judge the Poetry Out Loud competition. Seventeen students, most of the them ninth graders, took turns at the microphone, reciting the poems they had memorized. The audience of students who packed the big room at ARTech listened in rapt attention, and at the end of each recitation enthusiastically cheered their fellow students.

One of the girls, a frightened-looking ninth grader, had to take a moment to collect herself before she reluctantly stepped up to the microphone. Her poem was Mark Strand's "Keeping Things Whole." Her voice began to flow quietly into the mic, and in an instant she was transformed. The poem—the words of a seventy-five year old male poet—seemed to belong to her, as it this were exactly what she needed to say, as if she were what the poet had written. I had the feeling that I was experiencing something brief and beautiful and entirely new, like a butterfly just emerging from its chrysalis and moving its wings for the first time.
We all have reasons
for moving.
I move
to keep things whole.
The audience erupted into applause, and as she left the stage, the air moved in to fill the space where she stood.

Tuesday, January 26, 2010


"The best song ever written explaining supply and demand graphs." (Song by Will Hardy)

Thursday, January 7, 2010

Biopsy: "Six Feet Under"

My brother-in-law, Jason Mittell, is a media scholar at Middlebury College, specializing in television.  Last month, on his JustTV blog, Jason put together three separate lists of the best television shows of the decade 2000-2009.  His top two shows of the decade, Lost and The Wire, are shows I haven't watched.  In fact, I watch so little television that of his 35 or so best shows, I've watched the complete series of only three: Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Angel and Firefly.  This makes it seem as if I am less a fan of television as a medium than I am of Joss Whedon as an auteur.  But on New Year's Day, I started watching (at a rate of an episode a night) the first season of Six Feet Under, which originally aired on HBO from 2001 to 2005, and it looks as if Joss has company.  

In his retrospective of the "aughts," Jason writes of Six Feet Under: "I vacillate between thinking that this show is over- and under-rated; it certainly wasn’t as subversive, deep and profound as it often seemed to think it was. But it also was groundbreaking in its integration of black humor and drama, its treatment of adult subject matter like death, drugs, and sex in new ways for serial television, and its presentation of arguably the most mature and compelling gay relationship ever seen on American television."  I'm only six episodes into the series, but I would like to go on record with a few of the reasons why I think it will take its place on my own list of "the best of the aughts." 

1.  The Creator.  Alan Ball, the creator of Six Feet Under, wrote the screenplay for one of my favorite films of the decade prior to the "aughts," American Beauty (1999).  I found that film breathtaking, and remember extravagantly comparing it to Euripides and Ibsen.  You can see the hand of the writer of American Beauty in Six Feet Under, in its awareness of the fragile beauty of life, the contingent nature of happiness, the curious blend of light and dark, mature sophistication and innocent vulnerability.  

2.  The Dark Humor.  I loved Buffy the Vampire Slayer because of the brilliantly successful mixture of drama and comedy, of seriousness and humor, of darkness and light.  In both Buffy and  Six Feet Under, death features prominently, along with the accoutrements of death—cemeteries, caskets, dead bodies.  In both shows, the dead speak to the living, and the inevitability—the omnipresence—of death contrasts with the fugitive beauties and pleasures of life.  It's interesting that, after the fifth and final season of Six Feet Under, Ball went on to create a new vampire show, True Blood.  

3.  The Ensemble.  The triad of Whedon shows that I mentioned above had strong ensemble casts in which each character was a distinct and interesting individual, right down to the mannerisms and patterns of speech.  One of the reasons that I found The West Wing tiresome was that all the characters seemed like avatars for Aaron Sorkin, like well-tailored machines for generating clever dialogue.  After the first episode of Six Feet Under, I already had a sense of the distinct personalities of the Fisher family, and I was already invested in them. 
4.  The Theme Music.  A brilliant minimalist earworm that beautifully sets the tone for the series.  I should add that I love how the show begins, after the theme music, with a nod to television formula, and then bends that formula: like Law & Order, each episode starts with a death, but instead of following the implications of that death through the legal system, it makes the aftermath of that death the context for an exploration of the psyches and relationships of the Fisher family.    

5.  The Gay Couple.  David and Keith are a compelling couple.   After the first few episodes, both their attraction to each other and the conflicts in their relationship already feel real and complex, as does their religion.  It's fascinating and moving to watch David struggle with being both gay and an essentially conservative, church-going, middle-class family man.  

6.  The Cute Red-Head.  Lauren Ambrose, Alyson Hannigan, Jayma Mays.  The reason color television was invented.    

I'll be back with a postmortem after fifty-seven more episodes. 

Tuesday, January 5, 2010

A Forum on Education Funding

About 75 people gathered in the big room at ARTech charter school on Tuesday, January 5, for an evening of conversation with State Senator Kevin Dahle and State Representative David Bly. The main topic of the evening was education funding, and the impact on Minnesota public schools, and charter schools in particular, of the state budget crisis and the 27.5% holdback of state general education funds.

What is the 27% Holdback?

By statute, 10% of state per pupil education funding is held back from public schools in the state of Minnesota until after final enrollment figures are available for the school year. The money is generally paid to the schools in the first half of the following school year. This year, in an effort to address the state budget shortfall without raising taxes, Gov. Pawlenty increased the holdback to 27%. This means that 27% of the amount that schools have budgeted, and to which they are entitled according to the per pupil funding formula, is held back—payment to the schools is deferred.

This has put charter schools into a bind. Because 27% of their general education funding is being held back, schools are finding it necessary to secure loans in order to meet their expenses—to pay teachers. The interest payments then have to be included the school’s general education budget. In effect, funds that should have gone into the classroom are going into interest payments to banks—if, that is, the schools can secure loans at a time when banks are tightening credit.

The Impact of Charter Schools

The evening at ARTech was moderated by ARTech school board chair Joe Pahr, who also teaches at the school, and began with testimonials from parents and students about the importance of charter schools. All of those who spoke stressed the importance of the sense of community that charter schools create. Bo Aylin, a parent of two children at Prairie Creek, spoke of the “nurturing community” that charter schools create, in which fostering a love of learning is a priority. Jan Rowher, an ARTech parent, stressed the importance of a small school community that provides students with options and that recognizes individual learning styles. Amelia Schmelzer, an extremely poised and articulate ninth-grader from ARTech, described her school as being “like a big family gathering every day.” ARTech, she said, is a diverse and dynamic school community that prepares its students to live in a diverse and dynamic world.

The Fiscal Realities

Both legislators expressed their strong support for charter schools. The hard reality is that the state budget is facing a projected $5 billion shortfall in the next biennium. To this point, the stategy of Gov. Pawlenty has been to make cuts and accounting shifts, rather than to raise additional revenue.

Rep. Bly pointed out that this crisis has been brewing for some time. A decade ago, under Gov. Ventura, the primary responsibility for funding public education was shifted from local taxpayers to the state, but no permanent mechanism for funding the shift was enacted, creating a $1 billion “hole” in education funding. This was easier to fill at a time of state budget surpluses, as there were at the time. It has become impossible to fill in an recession.

Both Dahle and Bly stressed that the budget crisis cannot be addressed with spending cuts alone.

“We need more revenue,” Sen. Dahle said.

He argued that it has begun to reach the point at which the cuts will be more painful than the effects of raising taxes. He said that even with additional revenue, more cuts will be necessary. Without additional revenue, more jobs will be lost—especially teaching jobs.

Rep. Bly said that a bonding bill to stimulate job creation would be part of the coming legislative session. But with no end to the fiscal crisis in sight, and with Gov. Pawlenty holding firm in his refusal to raise taxes, Bly predicted that “this is probably going to be one of the most difficult sessions” in recent memory.

A Call to Action

Both Sen. Dahle and Rep. Bly stressed the importance of contacting legislators and mobilizing grassroots support for action on the issue of education funding. Concerned citizens need to “speak up,” Bly said, and let the legislature and the governor know that there’s support for raising taxes to fund services, like public education, that benefit the entire community.

New Poem: "Phrasebook"

My poem " Phrasebook " has been published online in Ergon: Greek/American Arts and Letters .