e-mail me at billdeg@umich.edu


live from Arizona...

The sun valley has really spoiled us so far. Temps hover in the mid-70s and the sun shines. I have no idea what kind of mess Detroit is in...snow? ice? sub-zero temps? I've got no clue. Last night Mark's parents watched their kids so our hosts Mark and AJ and Nicole and I could go out. We ate at a very cool fondue place in Tempe. We must have spent nearly three hours there, eating, drinking, chatting. We were going to take a walk on Mill Avenue, the Arizona State University strip, but a huge meal left us all feeling lazy. Instead, we came home, made a fire, and sat under the dessert sky until well after midnight. Excellent trip so far. Having great friends in the state always gives us good reason to visit, and keeps me from getting too regretful about leaving Arizona after grad school. On today's schedule, some hiking and possibly some reading too.


sour grapes and class manipulation

For the first time since the presidential race began, Barack Obama has begun to get attacked. Until now, Bill Clinton has been the only prominent voice lobbing ad hominems in Obama's direction. Now I scan a.m. talk radio during my commute and hear the scorn of pundits who loathe the thought of an activist or community organizer in the White House. Those words--"activist" and "community organizer"--are said with abhorrence and a dramatic pause afterward, as if the criticisms are self-evident. The McCain camp now impugns Obama for being a gifted orator, as if speaking well signifies poor character.

A noteworthy anti-Obama tirade took place in my hometown--Youngstown, Ohio--the other night (see here and here). Introducing Hillary Clinton, Machinist Union President Thomas Buffenbarger launched bizarre personal attacks on Clinton's rival and actively encouraged the crowd to boo not only Obama but also Obama's supporters. So insulted is the Clinton camp by Obama's refusal to canonize Bill Clinton's legacy, they let surrogates resort to name-calling. So sour are the grapes as Obama pulls into the lead, they risk splintering the party's base.

What did Buffenbarger say about Obama? With the same disgust in his voice that the right-wing radio hosts use when they call Obama a "community organizer," Buffenbarger questioned why anyone would want "the editor of Harvard Law Review" as their president. Because, I guess, you don't want someone smart in the White House? Or you don't want someone with a law degree from the ivy league? Such anti-intellectualism seems bizarre in the context of a Hillary Clinton--who is not only smart, but also in posession of a J.D. from Yale--rally. Buffenbarger also said:
The Barack show is playing to rave reviews sold out at college campus after college campus. Standing room only crowds to hear his silver-tounged orations. Hope, change, yes we can? Give me a break! I’ve got news for all the latte-drinking, Prius-driving, Birkenstock-wearing, trust fund babies crowding in to hear him speak. This guy won’t last a round against the Republican attack machine. He’s a poet, not a fighter.
Um, I don't drink lattes, drive a Prius, wear sandals, or have a trust fund, and I back Obama. Discrediting a candidate for being elite is an old, and often effective, trick of course. Our current president--a third-generation millionaire and ivy league legacy admit--successfully played this game of class manipulation first against Al Gore, and then against John Kerry.

What bothers me is that Buffenbarger perpetuates an anemic, limited-and-limiting stereotype of the working class and organized labor: they all distrust lawyers, environmentalists, peace activists, and people who drink lattes. A union president should know better than to make such generalizations. When I was volunteering on the Kerry campaign in Ohio four years ago, I went to events at union halls that had coffee stations with choices that put the university's coffee stand to shame! My father-in-law (a janitor who was active in his union for decades) is the person who encouraged my wife to become a lawyer. Does Buffenbarger really think he or his rank-and-file benefit from divisive rhetoric and the reproduction of stereotypes?


tacos and nostalgia

In two days, Nicole and I leave for our first vacation in a long time. We'll spend my spring break in sunny Arizona, and take quick trips to Mexico and southern California. Visiting the southwest sounds attractive right now primarily because 1) we can't wait to visit our friends Mark and AJ and Hung and Ann, and 2) we've had NO RELIEF from icy sidewalks and single-digit temps in motown.

But food is a close number three in terms of Arizona's appeal. When I think about the four years I lived in Tucson, I get nostalgic (and hungry) for the many Mexican restaurants that dot the city. July, 1998, I moved to Tucson to start the Ph.D program at Arizona. I got there the day the WPA conference--held in Tucson that year--began. During the weeks leading up to the conference (and my 2,000-mile trek), a discussion on the wpa listserv centered on where to get the best Mexican food in town. So I got there with a pretty good list of resources!

South Tucson in particular boasts countless mom-and-pop restaurants and tortillerias. Homemade tortillas of south Tucson? Nothing better. My favorite place by far is El Torero. The proverbial hole in the wall. Except at El Torero, the hole is covered with an enormous stuffed swordfish, apopos, best I can tell, of nothing. Yes, a huge swordfish hangs on the wall. If the place wasn't pink, it would be hard to find. Tucked on quiet 26th Street, the joint always looks like it's closed. I remember eating lunch there with Bob Connors (and, as I recall, a motley assortment of our faculty and grad students) the day he visited our writing program, a few months before his untimely death. I remember my graduation party there, the night before commencement, the surreal experience of my parents and my dissertation committee around the same table. I remember taking my pal Mark there for lunch; he had never eaten at El Torero before and when his wife later told him that she had on several occasions, he was pissed off at her for never having shared its joys.

What to eat at El Torero. The topopo (a huge salad shaped like a volcano)? One of the dishes they top with mole sauce? Naah, go for the tacos and save the fancy stuff for Mi Nidito or one of the joints back in the university district. Tacos at El Torero forego the ground beef in favor of thin slices of bistek, the always fresh taste of queso fresco, and shredded cabbage. If I ever visit Arizona and don't go back to El Torero, do me a favor and slap me.

Moving across the country by myself was a challenge--especially moving to a city whose hot climate, bilingualism, and residents perpetually clad in sandals marked it as completely unfamiliar. Taking a grad seminar in community literacy and service learning (taught by Tilly Warnock: best. teacher. ever) during my first term served as a nice intro to Tucson life. So did being in the know about El Torero.

Arizona, here we come.


happy talk

I've been thinking a lot about what makes people happy. In my basic writing class last month, we read Paul Clemens' book Made In Detroit and, by the end, most of the students had concluded that Clemens lacked happiness. How else to explain his search for meaning? Why else would he wrestle with the meaning of his fiance's brutal attack and his dad getting carjacked? Yes, they said, of course these events affected Clemens emotionally, but why in the world--aside from his pervasive lack of happiness--would he approach these issues intellectually?

Writers lack the ability to "move on," many in the class concluded; writers like Clemens fail to "simplify" (one student used this term and it really resonated for others) their lives. We had a great discussion about how reflection, analysis, critique, and knowledge always have the potential to upset us and keep us from feelings of gratification. Knowing why McDonald's tastes so good. Knowing why that CD costs 8.99 instead of 14.99.

And yet I'm aware that much of my contribution to that discussion assumed the secular-liberal-academic values so rarely questioned in the world of campuses, English Departments, letters, etc. 'Knowledge comes from disinterested, rational thought.' 'The human condition is complex and cries out for nuanced, sophisticated explanations.' 'A life of books is the best life of all.' 'As a culture, as Neil Postman famously opined, we're amusing ourselves to death.'

These are not necessarily values for which I wish to cheerlead. I don't know for certain that a life of books is the best possible life. I love to read novels, as time allows. I love Naomi Shihab Nye's poetry. Reading Georg Lukacs's History and Class Consciousness in grad school changed the way I look at the world. But my connection to these books is rooted in pleasure, not in some kind of exalted "life of books," and I don't think I'm alone in that respect. How is my connection to books (including "idea books") different than my connection to punk rock or the tv show "Lost" (given that all of the above are rooted in pleasure)? How is a connection to the stuff Postman critiques different than a connection to "good fiction"? I know a lot of English professors who seem to be "amusing themselves to death" on the New York Review of Books.

I challenged much of what my basic writers had to say (simplify! don't overthink it!), but I hope I did so in a fashion that made clear that we have a wide variety of value systems that might undergird how we make sense of the world. The secular-liberal-academic way(s) of understanding the world--adopt a disinterested, analytical stance--has not cornered the market. (And of course I don't mean to turn secularism, liberalism, or academe into fixed monoliths--there are many different versions of all three ideologies.) Most of my students take either Christianity or Islam very seriously and their identities as Christians or Muslims are more significant in their lives than their identities as academics. And yes, these two identity markers DO butt up against one another with some frequency.

All of these thoughts came to a head for me today as I read several reviews of Susan Jacoby's new book "The Age of American Unreason," reviewed in both the Times and Salon.com. Jacoby's book is another in a long-ass, usually quite popular line of critiques of our mythically dumbed-down-and-declining-right-now-as-we-speak culture. From the Salon review:
The chief manifestations of this newly virulent irrationality are the rise of fundamentalist religion and the flourishing of junk science and other forms of what Jacoby calls "junk thought." The mentally enfeebled American public can now be easily manipulated by flimsy symbolism, whether it's George W. Bush's bumbling, accented speaking style (labeling him as a "regular guy" despite his highly privileged background) or the successful campaign by right-wing ideologues to smear liberals as snooty "elites." Unable to grasp even the basic principles of statistics or the scientific method, Americans gullibly buy into a cornucopia of bogus notions, from recovered memory syndrome to intelligent design to the anti-vaccination movement.
And while I'm sure Jacoby makes some compelling points, for me her credibility is damaged by the implication that "junk thought" is new. To be fair, I have not read her book; perhaps the reviews are misrepresenting her argument. Self-help books and demagogue politicians have long histories. Over a century ago, PT Barnum scammed boatloads of the "suckers" he said were born every minute. Why the claims of newness?

I'll save the critiques of Jacoby until I've read the book. But in truth, I probably won't, because I have little interest in analyses of these issues that fail to account for the multiple value systems--all of them socially constructed (itself, I'll admit, a notion informed by a pomo-light version of secular-liberalism!), situated, ideologically bound. It's all a little too Allan Bloom. A little too much like the "where have all the bookstores gone?" conversation before faculty meetings.

Both reviews of the book suggest that Jacoby blames religious fundamentalism and partisan political ideology for the alleged decline in smarts. And while I find much to fear in the rise of fundamentalism in particular, I'm not convinced that fundamentalism or partisanship are any guiltier than other value systems for shutting down independent thought. A fundamentalist is told what to think about, say, gay marriage. A loyal republican is told what to think about gun control. But a loyal academic faces the pressures of groupthink, too (try bringing up "America's Next Top Model" at a faculty meeting).

That's why Sharon Crowley's "Toward a Civil Disourse" is such an interesting book, because she deconstructs liberalism and fundamentalism with equal gusto. And, to return to my own students, one of the useful things about Made in Detroit is that Clemens walks us through the inadequacy of BOTH his family's laissez faire attitude toward race in the city AND the body of African-American literature he falls in love with in college. Neither provides a framework that can adequately explain his own lived experience. And so he wrestles. And so he considers various perspectives. And he writes. And perhaps ends up a little bit unhappy.


yo vivo

The tenure file is done, save some final editing. Some of last term's service learning students and I are working on some promotional materials for our community partner. Those two facts explain why the blog has been quiet for a few days.

But I am alive and life is good. I've been working out every morning before work. Nicole and I celebrated Valentine's Day last evening with dinner down the street at Sweet Lorraine's, a place I had always avoided because it seemed kind of pretentious. But their menu pulls from interesting sources (a little French, a little cajun, a little British pub, etc.) and the tuna nicoise salad was very good. Eight days until "spring" break begins (our academic calendar is bizarre) and Nicole and I leave for a week in Arizona. Goodbye, snow. Final reason why life is good: The Dirtbombs have a new disc coming out and are playing a record-release show this weekend in Detroit. Today's Free Press gives the band some well-deserved love. Can't wait for the show.

In less decadent, bougie news, our church hosts Cass Community's roving homeless shelter next week. Preparations are underway--another reason for the blog's recent silence--for what is always a powerful experience. 55 homeless men and women (of the estimated 18,000 homeless in Detroit) will stay in the church next week, so that will occupy most evenings, especially Saturday when we're cooking a humongous spaghetti dinner. The annual event is always an important reminder, frankly, of what a deeply f***ed up culture we live in.


lies lies lies

The Kwame Kilpatrick scandal continues to dominate conversations in Detroit. Yesterday the mayor's attorney Sharon McPhail read a statement--full text available here--that argued the media ("they own the printing presses," she said scornfully) has told only one side of the story and that "the city" does not have an opportunity to be heard. McPhail said these words in a statement that was carried live on most local television and news radio stations (I listened on my way home from work). When Kwame Kilpatrick wanted to make a statement of his own, local tv stations all carried it, allowing the mayor to dictate the rules: I'll talk in my church, side by side with my wife, etc.

Referring to the sealed court records that local media brought a lawsuit in order to access, McPhail said: "It is important to note that none of the documents involved the so-called text messages that have been the subject of such fevered media coverage in recent days." She also said: "In fact, no secret deals exist or have ever existed."

Local media won that lawsuit despite the city's vigorous appeals (story here). According to the Free Press,
The most important document is a nine-page confidential agreement that the mayor and city lawyers had tried for months to keep secret. The document, signed by Kilpatrick, his then-chief of staff Christine Beatty and lawyer Mike Stefani, who represented three police officers in a whistle-blower lawsuit against the city, pledged to keep text messages between Kilpatrick and Beatty secret.
How can McPhail's statement be understood as anything but a series of lies? Will she be held accountable? Probably not. Unlike the mayor, at least she wasn't under oath while lying. Will *he* be held accountable? It's starting to look like he might. The city's strategy now seems to be to drag things out in the hopes that public outrage will diminish. I hope it does not.


lost, sick, weathered

First things first. Tonight LOST follows up last week's satisfying season premiere with a new episode to obsess over. As usual, EW has a great pre-episode article that doesn't give away any secrets but reviews pieces of LOST mythology that pertain to tonight's episode. The article also features an interview with Jorge "Hurley" Garcia. (If you're keeping score, Hurley happens to be my favorite castaway now that Charlie's moved on to that big Driveshaft gig in the sky.)

Today I've lost my voice. No, I don't mean I have writer's block. I mean my throat is beyond hoarse to the point that I can only speak in a whisper. The odd part is that, other than the hoarseness, I'm fine. In fact, I worked out this morning before coming to the office. I've had a mild cold the past two days that I think I've fought off with oranges, tea with honey from my sister's bees, and many glasses of water. But the throat problem remains.

Probably fortuitous, then, that the Michigan Campus Compact (a service learning organization) conference in Mt. Pleasant has been canceled. I was scheduled to give a presentation tomorrow morning on our service learning efforts at UM-Dearborn...and getting to Central Michigan U. for the presentation would have entailed leaving home at 5:30 a.m. Today I'm conferencing one-on-one with Comp 99 students most of the afternoon and tonight Nicole and I have a Berkley Democrats meeting, so I wouldn't mind sleeping past 5:30 tomorrow.

Listening to: SSM: Break Your Arm for Evolution
Reading: Composition 099 first drafts
Watching: duh, LOST (tonight, that is)
Awaiting: the return of my voice


fiction watch, part two

Alice Sebold's The Almost Moon received awful reviews upon its release a few months back. See, for instance, the scathing NYTimes piece which calls the novel "emotionally and intellectually incoherent" as well as "banal" and "ludicrous" (the obligatory words of a negative review in the Times), all before getting to this one-two punch:
There’s no plot in this novel. It’s all free disassociation. “The Almost Moon” is really like one very long MySpace page. Sebold isn’t imagining people and events; she’s just making stuff up as she goes along...The real shame is that “Reading Alice Sebold” isn’t listed in the “Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders.” After you’ve finished this insult to the lumber industry, your health care provider won’t cover your search for a cure.
Ouch. Critic Lee Siegel sounds like he wanted to start some kind of literary version of a Biggie-Tupac beef. Alas no such beef transpired. And the Times' fighting words didn't scare me off, either, as I finally got around to reading Sebold's poorly received third book.

Sebold once again begins a book with an act of graphic violence. Her memoir Lucky (an unflinching work of non-fiction that I've taught several times) begins with a painstaking, nearly unreadable account of her rape. Her debut novel Lovely Bones--whose nearly universal accolades partially explain critics' vitriol for her new book--starts out with the rape and murder of the fourteen-year-old protagonist.

In the first chapter (actually the first sentence) of The Almost Moon, the middle-aged, troubled, narcissist Helen smothers her elderly mother to death. This is Sebold's trope. Dispense with the gory and the graphic and then get down to business. Sebold is interested not so much in trauma as much as trauma's aftermath. The little girl at the center of Lovely Bones watches from heaven as her own gruesome death impacts her classmates, her family, her neighborhood, and her killer. In Lucky , she narrates the two decades during which she and her loved ones cycled recursively and chaotically through various stages of grief regarding her rape.

The Almost Moon has a much more surreal feel than her earlier books. Much more surreal, even, than a little girl looking down from heaven. Helen does one inconceivable, absurd act after the other. Many of these acts, including seducing her best friend's son, appear gratuitous and pulpy and over-the-top, and I can see why critics may not have approved. This doesn't seem like the work of a well-respected MFA graduate and Oprah guest. The present action careens wildly.

Meanwhile, Helen flashes back to key moments in her relationship with her mother, offering a not-so-subtle (nothing in this novel is subtle) psychoanalytic rationale for the scene-one matricide. I won't give away what transpires in these explanatory sequences, as they form the emotional center (!) of the paradoxically center-less book.

As with Sebold's other books, readers burn through The Almost Moon quickly. I read it in two sittings, which is unlike me. I suspect even the most vitriolic critics fell victim to the novel's poisonous readability. I loved the gonzo present action and thought that Helen's madness made sense. The novel--narrated by Helen herself--is mad because Helen is mad, despite her steely moments. I admire how Sebold finds Helen's voice and then allows her to speak no matter how blue her disassociative notions sound to us.

The flashbacks were a bit heavy-handed in their facilitation of Sebold's metaphors (Helen is a nude model because, you see, number one she's angry at her mom for giving her a body complex, and, number two, she's naked before us on the page...get it?). Like I said, subtlety is no where to be found here. The book is flawed and struggles to match the unabashed, total pathos of Lovely Bones. But it's a novel that sticks to its vision and voice.