e-mail me at billdeg@umich.edu


scattered thoughts from the road

I've been a rather lazy blogger for the past week or so. Spent four days in Youngstown, and then four more in Detroit. The two constants: spending time with family and enjoying the finest Arabic food the midwestern U.S. has to offer. Fifteen miles or so east of Youngstown, Mary's serves up middle-eastern favorites to working-class residents of New Castle, Pennsylvania, on their lunchbreaks. Everything on the menu pleases, but I recommend the marinated chicken. I also recommend going with as big a group as possible so you can sample lots of different dishes. Owned and operated by a quirky Syrian family, including a patriarch circulating among customers, munching on a humongous cucumber. Inspired, my folks and I went home and rolled a huge batch of stuffed grape leaves.

And, of course, while in Detroit, choose from the dozens of Arabic diners on Warren Avenue (two short miles from my new job!)...Cedarland is clearly the best, in my not-so-humple opinion, but check out other recommendations in the above linked story, including Al-Ameer's, site of my first date with Nicole. Here's another interesting article that captures the non-academic (specifically culinary) reasons why I can't wait to start work next month. Don't get me wrong, the job provides challenging teaching opportunities and close proximity to resources in working-class culture and rhetorics, but a good shawarma sandwich was another prime motivation for the move.

While not eating dolmas, we managed to find a house in greater motown. Small but cute, and walking distance to downtown Royal Oak, where Bloc Party is playing a show with the Kills opening. September 13...I'm there. Anyway, I wanted to live in Detroit proper, and the Royal Oak thing is giving me a bit of liberal guilt, but in the end Detroit 1) ended up being a bit of a hike to N's new job, 2) has really high city taxes that sort of nullify the cheaper housing prices, and 3) scared us with stories of cutting back on various public services like fire ("the local station shut down, so wait fifteen extra minutes for a truck from two neighborhoods over"), police, etc. At least--and this is the voice of me rationalizing--R.O. offers greater racial diversity and cultural possibilities than the average s-s-s-s-suburb (see, I can say it). Loads of places to grab a cup of coffee and read, plus the Main Art Theatre, a tasty gelato place, general motown atmosphere, and did I mention a Bloc Party show in like six weeks?! All in walking distance.

Alright, back to Youngstown (hey, I said this would be scattered). While in Y-town, my buddy Lew and I drove up to Cleveland for some pasta e fagioli in Little Italy, and then an Indians game at Jacob's Field. And then, driving from Youngstown to Hamilton, I experienced a stretch of highway north of Columbus where three a.m. stations were carrying Rush Limbaugh's radio program. Yes, the drive gets boring and, yes, I like to track such things. I didn't realize he still had a show, and out of masochistic curiosity managed to listen for about ten minutes. He had GOP Senator Rick Santorum on defending himself against critiques of an editorial Santorum wrote in 2002, in which he argued that the liberal ethos of Boston created an environment that fostered the Catholic Church's abuse scandal. Santorum wrote:
[I]t is no surprise that Boston, a seat of academic, political and cultural liberalism in America, lies at the center of the storm.
Santorum falls short of claiming direct causation between 'liberal identity' and 'pedophile' but on Limbaugh's show stood by his claim of correlation. I was in dissertation mode three years ago when Santorum published his screed and missed any attention it may have garnered, but--as I heard the story last week--couldn't help but think about the religious right's claims that gay people caused September 11. It's Ted Kennedy's fault that Boston priests abused children? Really? And Santorum's claims are NOT completely out-of-step with sentiment I've heard over and over in SW Ohio: the country will be less moral with a liberal in the white house. Never mind that the number of abortions decreased during the two Clinton terms and increased again during the past five years. I know good and smart people who occupy all points on the political spectrum, but I optimistically see a time in future decades when our culture looks back with shame on the current regime's alignment with hatefulness, vengefulness, intolerance, and disregard for rights and liberties. Just as I hope we progress to a place where Ashcroft is remembered for the Joseph McCarthy he truly is, I also hope we get to a place where the Rick Santorums and Pat Buchanans are remembered as the Charles Coughlins that they truly are: using religion as a mask for regressive and self-serving political ideology.


Charlie and the Chocolate Factory

After seeing the re-make last night, Nicole and I christened a new term for creepy: "Johnny Depp Wonka." If you see a guy hanging out in an alley wearing a trench coat, you might comment to your mates, "Whoa, that's kind of Johnny Depp Wonka." If you're talking about your old college roommate, the phone rings, and it's him/her, you could say, "I was just talking about you...how Johnny Depp Wonka that you would call today."

We were having a conversation in the car about the two Wonkas. Not the two films, but the two cinematic versions of the character. In the original, Gene Wilder Wonka (GWW) had his creepy moments. Sure, everybody talks about that boat ride--obviously inspired by repeated listenings of Pink Floyd's "The Piper at the Gates of Dawn"--as being the pinnacle of GWW's freakiness. But for me, GWW creeps me out the most during the frame where he's got this vacant look on his face, silent, staring through the cogs of the Everlasting Gobstopper machine. Also when he gets that same look on his face and half-heartedly protests Violet's chewing of the gum that ends up turning her into a human blueberry: "No, little girl, you musn't."

(spoiler alert...don't read on if you don't wish to know anything about the new version)

But Johnny Depp Wonka is a different animal altogether. First of all, completely unlikable. A misanthrope. And, most strikingly, a deep aversion to traditional family life and familial structures defines Johnny Depp Wonka. In early scenes, he's visibly bothered by the parent-child relationships--and *not merely* because of the lousy parenting skills on disply (though that's certainly part of his aversion). Not only is he disgusted that Veruca's dad spoils her, he's disgusted that the two are connected to one another. In several scenes (and Johnny Depp brilliantly plays up these moments), Johnny Depp Wonka avoids physical contact with the kids or their parents. He's repelled by the very notion of nuclear family.

Late in the film (stop reading now if you don't want anything spoiled), Wonka tries to lure Charlie to leave his parents behind and come live with him at the factory. Until Charlie declines, it never occurs to him that Charlie would rather stay with his family. He looks at Charlie's parents and grandparents in disgust, partly because of their abject poverty, but mostly because of the absurdity of the parent-child bond. Sunken cheeks, bleached-out skin, costume, visible insecurity. The Michael Jackson comparisons are obvious (an abused child who grows into an adult constructing his own larger-than-life playworld that he invites children--but not their parents--into), but I swear Depp looks, talks, and acts more like the lovechild of the Food Network's Rachel Ray and The White Stripes's Jack White.

In short, the creepiness of the Wonka character is at a fever pitch. And on one level, the film could be seen as a meditation on the life of Michael Jackson.

Visually, the sequences inside the chocolate factory are absolutely stunning. As striking and different as anything Tim Burton has done. The oompa loompas are campy performance-vamps, whose musical numbers are part broadway, part Kraftwerk. This is the coolest musical work of Danny Elfman's career; he comes full circle from his days with Oingo Boingo (several of the Oompa Loompa songs really could be Oingo Boingo, or even Devo, songs!). And Freddie Highmore is a knock-out as Charlie. What a great actor...this makes me want to rent Neverland just to see this kid's performance. Many kid actors are clearly just on the screen because of how cute they are. Highmore looks like a real kid. For all of Depp's highjinks, Highmore keeps pace and is often the most talented actor on the screen. And there's a priceless scene with squirrles that I would have loved even more if I were still 10 years old. Many little kids (and/or maybe their parents), though, will probably NOT like the scene.

The only mis-step, in my opinion, is Johnny Depp Wonka's backstory. I liked how creepy he is in the present and the Freudian narrative was already there without actually narrating it explicitly. This version is more faithful to Dahl's novel, which as a kid I loved as much as I did the Gene Wilder film (still have the grey hardcover edition I read four or five times). This is what family movies should look like.


new summer lifestyle; new summer tunes

Got done teaching my summer class last week, and I find myself with a little more room to breathe. Write for an hour first thing each day, followed by a visit to the YMCA, followed by errands and chores, followed by some work on the two very different articles I'm working on right now (one a comparative critique of the two state-of-the-university addresses given by Miami's president and the Miami-Hamilton campus's director, looking at how the two differ in their constructions of economies of higher ed, the other a piece about a chapbook of poems my great-grandfather, a farmer, published during the Depression). Both articles are rooted in similar kinds of (con)textual analysis, and I'm re-reading Sonja Foss's awesome work on rhetorical criticism, while thinking of ways to incorporate Lukacs on history and class consciousness, which I use in virtually everything I write.

So I'm taking time for new tunes, too, while cruising around Butler County (only one more month in Ohio!) in the ole Taurus. Recommended: Kanye West's "Diamonds from Sierra Leone" with the cool James Bond sample. Gotta be the best song of 2005. Also liking: Sleater-Kinney's "Entertain," Missy Elliott's "Lose Control," The Bad Plus's cover of "Smells Like Teen Spirit," and "Chewing Gum" by Annie). Everybody make time for good summer music. That fall semester's starting before you know it.


and you thought people were critical of you...

Poor Roger Ebert. Maybe the best-known film critic in the world, and folks won't cut him a break. In the latest installment of Movie Answer Man (Ebert's q-and-a session on his website), one Michael L. Stoianoff, of Anchorage, Alaska, challenges Ebert:
The animated feature "Madagascar" has two illogical scenes where the male lion gets kicked from the front between his back legs and doubles over like a man kicked in the testicles.

Problem: A male lion, like all cats, has his testicles located on his back side, and there is no way they could be kicked by standing in front of the lion, who is "rampant" on his hind legs. I suspect that you noticed this error, but were too politically correct, or lacked the cojones, to point this out in your review of the movie.
Everybody's a critic.


teaching as replication

Last week I finished up my second summer co-teaching a graduate course called 'The Teaching of Writing' for my local Writing Project site. The Writing Project is an initiative that reaches out to K-12 language arts teachers, providing continuing education and graduate credit and supporting best practices in the teaching of writing. The key to Writing Project philosophy is the notion that teachers of writing should be writers. Hence, the course is one part writing pedagogy and two parts writing workshop. Easily one of the most rewarding teaching experiences of my nine years in the classroom.

Obviously I'm on board with the whole teachers-as-writers component of the program. I'm struck by how expressivist the Project is. I don't disagree per se with the Elbow-informed nature of instruction. Expressivism (emphasis on writing-as-self-discovery) is not necessarily what guides my teaching of first-year college students, but for the Writing Project audience (teachers coming to recognize how their own experiences with language might shape how they teach), journal writing and memory-to-insight pieces are remarkably productive.

Still, I wonder if the project limits what it means to be "a writer." I worry that the teachers in my class left the workshop with a monolithic idea of "writer" (person who discovers authentic voice by writing poems and narratives in a journal), instead of seeing a "writer" as one of various types of multivalent agents moving in and out of various discourse communities. I mean, I spent time during the four-week talking about rhetoric and civic engagement and affect and so forth, but the primary emphasis was clearly on expressivism.

Since class got out last week, I've been thinking about how Writing Project alum tend to hope above all else that their students will find their voices and recognize the value of (again, a particular version of...) the writing life. Not necessarily a bad thing--and this line of thinking leads to some great teachers (I wish I had English teachers as a kid who loved language as much as these dedicated pedagogues). But the rub, for me, is that replication is the goal. Write about yourself and your life experiences, just like me. But this is no less true of other pedagogies. Become proficient in ideological critique, just like me. Understand writing as a rhetorical act, just like me. Engage social issues through public debate fora, just like me. Teaching as replication.

Wednesday miscelany

Working my way through Reading Lolita in Tehran. Normally I'm not big on the Oprah-sanctioned booklist, but Nicole picked this up at the library and I thought I'd have a look. In six weeks I begin teaching at a university that serves a significant Muslim population and thought the book might prove insightful. But I'm finding more connections with reflecting on teaching in *SW Ohio* for the past three years. It's a slow read, but I'll certainly blog more on this when I finish the book.

Really Rovey

Last year, heavily involved in the local Kerry-Edwards campaign team, I blogged on an almost daily basis about national and local politics. Disheartened and a bit scared after the election, I mostly switched gears and drove elsewhere on this blog. But the Karl Rove business is pulling me back in...

Anybody at all interested in knowing more about the man who is the senior advisor to Bushie on domestic matters should read Bush's Brain, an account of Rove's influence on the president. No matter what your politics, the fundamental truth here is that Karl Rove is not a leader, he's a political operative. Not a politician himself, but rather a strategist. As such he's spent his career trying to win. He should not be in the West Wing.

I'll avoid the litany of Karl Rove transgressions over the years (read the book--it's as shocking as it is fascinating)--transgressions that date back to his days as a ruthless College Republican--and just offer the reminder that Rove orchestrated the smear campaign against John McCain in 2000 (polling in the deep South about whether folks would support a Republican vet with illegitmate black children, an untrue "hypothetical" that played on a most insidious racism) that probably stole McCain's momentum. He's bad news. I can't believe the level at which the president and press secretary are floundering as they try to manage this crisis. Nor can I believe the general public ignoring the possibility that Rove may have endangered two lives--all for political retribution.


Non-Academic Stuff I Read During Summer Vacation #6

What better way to celebrate Fourth of July weekend than enjoying the newest novel from the best living fiction writer in the U.S. of A.? Elmore Leonard provides a logical link between his early work (pretty traditional Westerns) and later work (the crime stories, most of which take place in contemporary Detroit) in the brand-spanking-new book The Hot Kid. Quirky criminals and equally quirky cops pursue their respective, beloved crafts and generally tease each other in the universe of The Hot Kid, but Leonard's setting just happens to be the plains of Oklahoma during the 20s and 30s. This might be my favorite Leonard novel.

Leonard uses two narrative hooks that work particularly well. First, he paints two protagonists with similar trajectories: both sons of Okies who hit it big in the oil boom of the early 20th Century who had life-altering experiences at fifteen years of age--experiences that leave each boy with an affinity for shooting people. Carlos becomes a famous lawman and Jack becomes an infamous criminal. In terms of the plot, they are foils. In terms of character, they both serve as reflections on the violent, masculine culture in which they come of age. The other narrative hook I loved was the pulpy 'true crime' reporter, Tony, who follows the adventures of Jack and Carlos and frequently writes about their exploits. In the midst of a gun battle, Tony will pull out his reporter's notebook and readers see what he's scribbling. I love the image of a writer in the middle of such chaos capturing the scene, and I love seeing action unfold via Tony's scribblings.

But most of all, this is just a great story of gun molls, shoot-outs, gambling and drinking, and prohibition-era criminals. God bless America!