e-mail me at billdeg@umich.edu


A Post-Lebanon Post

I'm definitely crashing. Summer teaching began a few days after we got back from the Middle East, leaving no time for sadness or anything else. Now that the summer term has ended, the funk has begun. Beirut, I miss you. AUB campus, I miss you. Snack Faisal, I miss you and your zatar pies. Two-dollar bus to Saida, I miss you. Justicia friends, AUB friends, and Nissrine, I miss you. The rush and the difficulty of living abroad, I miss you. Hiking in the mountains, I miss you. Walking on the Corniche, I miss you. Tiny cups of coffee, I miss you. Little old mustachioed men who sell coffee, I miss you.



Patti Smith's new memoir Just Kids reminds me a bit of Bob Dylan's pseudo-autobiography Chronicles because Smith, like Dylan, transcends the "celebrity autobiography" genre so beautifully. Just Kids is a prose-poem to her lean early years in New York City, a love-letter to her lifelong friend Robert Mapplethorpe, and an argument that art saves lives and makes lives. In case you don't know, Patti Smith is a writer, photographer, and musician best known for the punk rock records she made in the late 1970s. But anyone with even a passing interest in art, music, New York City, and/or la vie boheme ought to read Just Kids which is such a deeply humane piece of work, an artist's memoir that somehow NEVER slips into pretentiousness. So glad I've finally gotten around to reading this.


Who Are The People In Your Neighborhood?

Almost every morning, I've been taking a walk through Berkley, Michigan, where I live. In addition to a handful of "No Soliciting" signs and one that proclaims "Support Israel" (how much more support can we possibly give?), my favorite frontyard message has got to be "Fair Warning: We Have Dogs." I like the simple, declarative syntax, but also the tone, which suggests We don't give a shit if our dogs hurt you and we sincerely hope this sign shields us from any resulting litigation.

People love their property in my 'hood. Not just their houses, but the land too. They spray chemicals on their lawns, use who knows how many gallons of water not on edible plants but rather on grass, and use these edger things to make shallow pits along "their" parts of the sidewalk. Many prefer their grass to be the color of a football field, or the Brady Brunch backyard. A couple across the street once put down some type of sod only to call the company right back to take up the rolls of grass and lay down another type.

Not having grown up in suburbia, a lot of the aesthetic and lifestyle preferences are lost on me. In fact, things like the edgers completely mystify me. I want to make some kind of link between the obsession with the lawns and the disinterest in socializing with others in the neighborhood, but I suppose I am just as much at fault for the fact that I only know the people who live in the two houses on either side of me and the guy whose backyard butts up against my backyard. All perfectly nice people. But I don't know anybody else on the block. I knew more people who lived on my block in Beirut, and I didn't even speak the same language as many of them. Of course I could make more of an effort too but I just wonder at what point the conversation will turn to the subject of grass.


We're Gonna Need a Bigger Saj

At lost last, we fired up the saj last night. Thank goodness our nephew Tony--who happened to be visiting Lebanon when we bought the saj--talked me into the larger size. Can one's saj ever be too large? No.

This dome-shaped cooking surface, shown above in my sister's garage, connects to a gas tank like a bbq and is used for cooking bread. In Lebanon, the saj is essential to the street food scene. There it's used to make manoushe (a pizza of sorts usually topped with either zaatar and olive oil or cheese) or a thinner flat bread that's topped with most anything: meats, veggies, you name it. We had much fun last night, and enjoyed some tasty khobz, made in my sister's kitchen aid (I want one), and then done on the saj with swiss chard, zaatar, olives, and much, much more.

Strong Verbs

As I read student work this morning, I find myself urging students to use stronger verbs. "Construct sentences around present-tense action verbs," I write in the margins. Action verbs represent the aspect of "good writing" I spend the most time teaching all the while seeing only a fair amount of change in drafts of papers. I wonder if the action verb plays a lesser role than I imagine in contemporary discourse and the genres, electronic and otherwise, that students encounter on a daily basis. Do lessons on the "action verb" represent an old-school (outmoded), Strunk & White mentality? I ask not because I feel any less affinity for crisp verbs but rather because I get the sense that the written language that fills the days of my students (presumably with lots of "is" and "was") effectively trumps the language I advocate. And perhaps that means these particular lessons may not connect to the realities of the contemporary world. On the other hand, maybe the real world, not me, needs to change.


Kills Show

On Saturday, I had the pleasure of rocking out to a live show by The Kills, one of my favorite bands. If you don't know the band, well then you should. A male-female duo with an arsenal of drum machines and a whole lot of swagger, The Kills are hard to classify. Dance-punk? Close enough. You should also know that their singer Alison Mosshart (who also fronts the Jack White band Dead Weather) likes to prowl around the stage staring down audience members. So seeing them live is quite the experience. Judging by Saturday's concert, Mosshart seems to have mellowed a bit. Maybe being in a more popular band with Jack White does that to a person. I've seen The Kills a few times before and at past shows she really had the intimidation in full effect. Less so on Saturday.

Having said that, the music itself was just as intense as before, despite some minor sound glitches. They played much of their newest album "Blood Pressures" (their best, says I) and a few old favorites like Fried My Little Brains. One thing that comes through in their live shows is their ability to be noisy and aggressive without sacrificing melody. The comparisons with the White Stripes (two band members! no bass! Captain Beefheart covers!) never made much sense, but as they embrace the drum machine and sound effects more and more, they continue to push at the boundaries of what "garage rock" can mean. Fun. Thanks to my nephew Tony for hosting me in Columbus and letting me crash on his sofa. 37 years young and I can still sleep on a piece of furniture trash-picked from a sorority lawn.


Eleanor Josaitis

Detroit lost a legend this morning. Eleanor Josaitis, the great civil rights activist and co-founder of Focus:HOPE, died at age 79. Most Detroiters know Focus:HOPE as a high-tech training center where disadvantaged men and women receive not only vo-tech certification but also (in partnership with various local universities) engineering degrees. But the place remains a multi-purpose service center that works toward justice--and never shies away from using words like "justice."

Fr. Art McGovern, my ethics professor back during my undergrad years, brought Josaitis to class to speak about her work and Fr. McGovern also took students to various Focus:HOPE events. Those were galvanizing experiences. When I edited the campus features magazine, I put Josaitis on the cover of my first issue. The Detroit riots inspired Josaitis to move from the suburbs to the city (her mother tried to sue her for custody of her children after Josaitis moved to Detroit) and dedicate her life to racial and economic justice. Racists sent her hate mail. She called those notes "love letters." A couple years ago I heard her speak and she read excerpts from those love letters like they were badges of honor.


Free Friday

I'm pretty sure this is the first "at home" Friday since I got back to the U.S. Cedar Point with the nephews. Youngstown for last weekend's family get-together. Lunch meeting on campus. Always something happening on Fridays...until today. So I got up bright and early and cleaned the kitchen, then went outside and worked on the front lawn. Having not grown up in the suburbs, the whole 'manicure your lawn' pretty much eludes me and consequently our grass is less green, less uniform, and less edged than most houses on our block. Oh well. But I succumbed a bit and did some weeding (the sidewalk cracks in front of our house must be the most fertile soil ever), watering, and general, well, manicuring. I have some school-related e-mailing and c-tooling to do and then I think I'll tackle the garage.


Malcolm McLaren - Fans (1984)

I've had this on heavy i-tunes rotation. I came across Malcolm McLaren's solo album "Fans" on vinyl at a little shop in Hamtramck a few years back. Best known as the manager of the Sex Pistols, McLaren (RIP) combines opera and hip hop on the record. It's campy, odd, and you can dance to it. I had never heard of the record before and was happy to make the discovery.


The Limits of 'Access'

I'm becoming re-accustomed to teaching at a U.S. commuter university after teaching "traditional" students in Lebanon for a year. I have two summer classes and I like getting to know the students and learning about their interests through their writing. Students with families and full-time jobs, as well as transfer students, are heavily represented in these two classes. In Lebanon, success at university was the number one priority of my students, who largely focused on doing their families proud by making good grades and preparing for a profession like medicine.

At UM-Dearborn, earning a living and caring for one's family often take priority over school--for obvious, good reasons. Campuses like mine that market themselves as accessible and flexible have made accommodations: more summer classes, more online classes, more evening and weekend classes, easier transfer process. While I fully support these moves toward accessibility, I also think that students learn more and learn better when university work takes a more central role in their lives. Taking eighteen credit hours while working two jobs is admirable, and necessary for some students. For some students, though, this type of lifestyle leads to the need to miss a few classes, come late to a few more, and miss out on the time to reflect and make new knowledge part of their consciousness.

I hesitate to say this because I in no way want to imply that I don't like working with our student body or that I regret my post-Fulbright re-entry into the UM-Dearborn community. Nor do I mean to put the students in Lebanon (nor "traditional" American students) on a pedestal. And I hope I'm not (only) speaking from a place of ego and insult (you mean taking care of your sick daughter is more important than this article I've given you?). I just wonder if we do enough to balance the moves toward access with a fostering of certain core academic habits, some of which demand that we slow down, take time, and make time to think.