Wednesday, December 30, 2009

Past tense

In which we see Ms. Bradstreet try to digest an unexpected flavor

The Maria Chronicles, #33

Maria looks with regret at the substantial remainder of the fried ice cream on her
plate. She's not sorry she ordered it -- any dietary resolutions will not kick in until after the new year -- only that after the black bean soup and the excellent fajitas (not to mention the pair of margaritas), she simply has no more room in her stomach. Who knew there was good Mexican food to be found in Dobbs Ferry. The best part will be the short trip home.

It's been a pleasant evening. Besides filling each other in on their respective childhoods and marriages (Jack, she's learned, has a daughter in Washington and a brother in Oregon; she's explained that her parents met in Texas when her father was stationed in Fort Hood), they've had a substantial discussion about the the avowed purpose of this dinner, Ted and Nancy Sizer's The Students are Watching. Maria has never quite gotten her mind around the way the Sizers turn morality into a series of verbs: "modeling," "sorting, "bluffing," and her favorite, "shoving," the idea that prodding students to move outside their comfort zone can -- sometimes -- be the right thing to do. It's not that she rejects these ideas; quite the contrary. There's a strangeness to them that she finds alluring. It's hard for her to explain, and she never quite gets Jack to understand. But he listened attentively, and that was good.

"So you never told me about the origins of your career," Jack says after taking a sip of his coffee. "I mean you told me how you became a teacher, but not why you became one."

Maria takes a sip of her own. "Well, I could tell you, accurately, that pretending to be a teacher was one of my favorite activities as a child, because I wanted to be like my mother. It's funny that I somehow never pretended to be a newspaperman like my dad, given that I felt so much like him. Maybe it's because I wanted her approval. Anyway, after college, I just couldn't see myself going into corporate America like a lot of my friends did, among them my best friend Janice. It was a kind of like a process of elimination: the thing I had the least trouble imagining. The work I did at the Catholic school in Newton was fine, but no great revelation. When I got into the Ed school at Harvard, I felt like I had finally found my calling. It really boosted my confidence."

"Funny. Getting into Harvard, Harvard College I mean, really hurt my confidence. I went around feeling like a fraud for a long time."

"That's too bad."

"Well, maybe not. The flip side is that I tended to think a lot of other people there were frauds, too. It made me a bit jaded, but also less likely to be intimidated."

Maria is not sure what to say about that.

"The operative words there are 'less likely.' At my best, though, I have a healthy respect for authentically talented people."

"Are you at your best now?" She smiles at him.

"Are you telling me that you're authentically talented?"

"Jack Casey is that you?" A large, burly man has suddenly steps up from behind Jack. "You old devil! What are you doing here?"

"Hey, Mack," Jack says, and Maria catches the faintest whiff of distaste in his voice (or so she hopes). "Mack McDonaugh, this is Maria Bradstreet. Maria, this is Mack. We used to work together at Bear Stearns."

"Hey Maria," Mack extends his burly, albeit well-manicured, hand and looks at her briefly before focusing his gaze again on Jack. "So what the hell have you been doing with yourself lately? Did you give up the loft?"

"Yeah, I gave it up. I live out here now."

"No shit. I just came up here to meet an old college buddy of mine and was headed toward the bar when I saw you. So what are you doing these days?"

"Oh well, you know. A little of this and a little of that. Actually, I've been moving into high school teaching."

"High school teaching? No way! Are you shittin' me?"

"No, no. I really am. I mean, I don't know if I'll stick with it, but I'm giving it a try."

"Well now, I've heard everything. High school teaching. I surprised they let you near those kids." Mack chuckles at the thought. "But listen, have you heard from Ray Odierno since the collapse?"

"No, like I said, I've been laying pretty low."

"I imagine you have." He smiles conspiratorially. "Well listen: Just last week I was talking with Ray, who's now at Wachovia. He was telling me that they've totally overhauled the refi department down there and he says there are some tremendous opportunities. . . ."

Maria is initially repelled by this interruption, but suddenly finds she's grateful for it. "Jack, I'll be right back," she says, getting up and getting a nod of acknowledgment from him, even as Mack talks away. She sees a sign for "Senoras" behind her and makes a beeline for the bathroom, where she locks herself into a stall and pees. What the hell is she getting herself into? Even if she didn't have doubts about Jack in terms of his association with people like Mack -- which she does -- Maria was edging dangerously close toward flirting with the man ("are you at your best now?" Please.) Maria leaves the stall and washes her hands, splashing cold water on her face. She wishes there was somebody she could talk to now. She's tempted to call Jen Abruzzi, but as much as she likes her new colleague, she's not sure their friendship has reached this level of intimacy. Felicia would probably be weirded out by the thought of her mother on a date. Evan wouldn't, but could she really confide in him? Fuck it, she thinks and dials (clearly these margaritas have gone to her head). But Evan doesn't answer his phone. Thank God. She steps back from the sink and rests her head back on the cool bathroom tile. Slow down, Maria. Deep breaths. This is not a big deal. You've got your car; you're not trapped; you can play out the string. Get back out there.

Maria exits the bathroom and heads back to the table. When she does, she sees it's vacant, though it's clear that the bill has come and that Jack has paid it. She looks up and sees him holding her coat. Apparently Jack's beat her to beating a hasty exit. She'd be offended by his rudeness if she wasn't so eager to leave as well. As they head out the door, Maria sees Mack, who waves broadly to her and Jack.

"I'm sorry, Maria," Jack says when they're safely outside in the chilly but refreshing late December air. "But Mack has a way of taking over a room, and if we stayed I would have been chained to my chair recounting old war stories."

"Sure. I understand."

"So look, would you like to get a cappacino? There's a terrific Italian cafe down the street."

"No, I don't think so, Jack. It's been a really fun evening. But I think I need to get home now." Maria has decided a direct approach is best.

Jack purses his lip and nods, disappointed. "I understand. Well look, let me walk you to your car."

"No need. It's right here." Maria points to her Prius, only one car up the street. If Jack knows what's good for him, he won't hold her up. She looks up at him. "Jack, this has been a really nice evening. A very nice evening." Should she offer to help pay for dinner?

"Maria, I want you to know how much I appreciate this. These kinds of things are not easy. They're scary. Believe me, I know."

Yes, Maria thinks, that's good. "Well, I had a good time. Really."

"I hope that means we can do it again."

"I hope so too."


"So look, will I see you at school after the break?"

"Yes. I think I'm subbing that first week back. A couple of precalculus classes."

"Great. So I'll see you then." Maria gets in her car. Jack stands there, a grim smile, as she starts it. I don't know, Jack Casey, she thinks as she makes a U-turn out of her parking space and heads home to her waiting apartment. I just don't know.

Monday, December 28, 2009

Western Air

Or why George Clooney is really John Wayne -- and why Up in the Air suggests a collective lack of political imagination

The locus of its settings may be American Airline terminals and Hilton hotels, but make no mistake: Up in the Air is a Western, and George Clooney is John Wayne (or, given his looks, maybe Alan Ladd in Shane). Like the quintessential Western hero, Clooney's Ryan Bingham is a loner who -- at the outset at least -- is content
that way. Paradoxically, the very sense of mastery he exhibits as he enters a new environment marks him as an outsider. He's a hired gun for a private company that terminates employees on behalf of clients too timid to pull the trigger themselves: Bingham comes to town and fires at close range. And yet he's got an undeniable, if perverse, sense of charm. Indeed, like many a Western hero, we find ourselves rooting for him, even as we recognize that he is operating outside any conventional sense of law or even justice.

Naturally, there are complications. Some of those complications are female, and take the
form of challenges to the hero's sense of moral order, an order which we may initially think he lacks but which becomes clear to us as the story proceeds. (Part of what makes this movie a modern western in the way in which the females act against, and are not simply subject to, that moral order -- and as such are potential villains as well as victims.) Bingham learns that his boss has hired a hot young maverick who wants the company to cut its travel budget and instead conduct firings by video from the company's home office in Omaha. Bingham makes compelling objections to this approach, which results in him reluctantly taking on the role as mentor for an upstart he regards with distaste. Which makes sense, since surrogate fathers are staples of Westerns.

I don't want to give away too much of the plot here except to say that in the broadest sense this is a movie that begins with a protagonist who chooses a life because it represents the fullest sense of freedom as he understands it (here connoted by the metaphor of the empty backpack) yet finds unexpectedly finds himself in that life out of a sense of necessity, and even duty. Bingham returns to his childhood home in northern Wisconsin -- one of the striking aspects of Up in the Air is that for all the screen time occupied by national franchises, it has a remarkably rooted sense of place in the Midwest -- and as it turns out, he has a redemptive role to play there. But as happy as he is go home, it's utterly evident that while he may be in that world, he's long since ceased to be of it. And can't be.

It's often the case that the movies that make the deepest impact on us are those that have an unexpected inevitability -- endings that we didn't see coming but which make perfect sense as we see them in retrospect. Up in the Air had that quality for me. But I found myself coming out of the movie disturbed by the surprising potency of the film's conservatism, something I didn't quite, but perhaps should have, expected from writer/director Jason Reitman, who preserved so much of the cheekiness of his source material in his film versions of Christopher Buckley's 1994 novel Thank You for Smoking (2005) and Diablo Cody's screenplay for Juno (2007). Like those movies, Up in the Air, based on Walter Kirn's 2002 novel, has a light comic touch, and a satiric stance toward those who who take abstractions of any kind too seriously. All of Reitman's movies show us protagonists whose libertarian instincts get reined in. But they all also betray a strong sense of skepticism about liberal solutions, whether government regulation (Thank You for Smoking) or abortion (Juno). Reitman's vision, while undeniably appealing in its earthy realism, also implicitly accepts, if not endorses, the status quo. Which is what most Westerns do. To put it more plainly: this is not a movie in which political solutions, collective action, or even seeing seeing the chief beneficiaries of others' misery get their comeuppance ever gets discussed, much less depicted.

It's not hard to see why: such an approach would strike most audiences as stilted, preachy, unrealistic. But if we really want to understand why it is that banks get bailed out and corporate executives get obscene bonuses while ordinary people lose their jobs and their homes, this movie points toward an answer. We seem to have a difficult time imagining a plausible alternative. As long as that's true, the only balm we're likely to get for our wounds is the illusion of George Clooney jetting into our lives to spend a few hours with us over the weekend before he takes off into the sunset.

Note: This blog post owes much to the durable influence of film scholar Robert Ray's "Thematic Paradigm," and his argument that many American films are in effect "disguised Westerns." See A Certain Tendency in the Hollywood Cinema, 1930-1980 (Princeton University Press, 1985).

Friday, December 25, 2009

Jim is observing Christmas. One of his favorite gifts that he received this year is June Skinner Sawyers's new coffee table book, Bruce Springsteen: Halfway to Heaven & Just a Mile Out of Hell.
Besides an exceptionally rich array of photographs spanning Springsteen's entire career (from 22 different collections -- clearing them must have been an immense task), the book functions as a brief, elegant, and yet comprehensive biography of Springsteen from his earliest days through his Working on a Dream tour. Of particular note are the many sidebars, which contextualize Springsteen's career in terms of well-known literal and figurative landmarks as well as literary figures like Stephen Crane (another famous Asbury Park denizen) and John Steinbeck. Sawyers, author of Tougher than the Rest (2006), a collection of mini-essays on Springsteen songs, and Racing in the Street (2004), an anthology of writings on Springsteen, is a superb tour guide. Halfway to Heaven is a terrific keepsake the for the dedicated fan as well as a fine introduction for anyone wondering what the fuss is all about. Published by Metro Books under a licensing agreement with Barnes & Noble, you're more apt to get your hands on it there than anywhere else.

In this time of rest, reflection, and savored blessings, Jim would like to thank the many friends -- some personally known to him, some not -- from around the world who took the time to visit American History Now in 2009. This blog represents an ongoing experiment in a time of tremendous upheaval for all with a stake in the fate of the written word and its intensifying orientation toward, and evolution within, the World Wide Web. Thanks to all of you who stopped in to read about Felix, Maria, and other subjects, and thanks to the engineers at Google who made blogging an idiot-proof proposition. Whatever the future may hold for a corporation that has engendered anxieties from citizen and competitor alike, it only seems fair to express thanks to a company which has created immense new possibilities and empowered individuals for self-expression and communication.

Merry Christmas to all, and to all a good night (and weekend).

Wednesday, December 23, 2009

A home for the holidays

In which wee see Ms. Bradstreet dozing in time

The Maria Chronicles, #32

Maria is dozing on the couch opposite the Christmas tree. She can hear the sink running; her daughter Felicia is washing the last dinner dishes. She can hear the football game her son is watching on the TV behind her, his socks sticking out over the ottoman, where he's perched. A bottle of wine from the case her friend Janice has sent her sits empty.

Maria feels more content than she has in memory, certainly since she moved to New York. The sense of depression that set down over her once the divorce decree became final was like a streak of dismal weather she couldn't shake off. That was Thanksgiving, which she spent alone. Felicia was always planning on coming for Christmas; with Evan you never know. Apparently things with his girlfriend are on the rocks. He came and he came alone. Maria is grateful that he suppressed his own sorrows. Once he saw that she lacked a tree, he and Felicia went to get one, trimming it in a somewhat improvised way. He made a nice dinner. They had talked about going to the movies, and they still might, but Maria is happy to just lie there.

She thinks about her students. There's Willie, telling a funny story over dinner. There's Kenny tinkering with a new piece of software. She imagines Peter texting with Ali. Vanessa no doubt is shopping online. Her school sits silent and empty. It has the last few days; it will for the next week.

Derek Clark. Where is Derek? She's not sure she's ever seen him smile. Maria would like to make him her project in the coming year.

Ten years ago her kids were teens, sleeping late on Christmas morning and scheming to see their friends. Twenty years ago they were up at the crack of dawn to see what Santa brought. They were a real family then. Ten years from now, God willing, she'll be a grandmother. Maria will be almost sixty. Retirement on the horizon.

She thinks of Jack Casey, surely with his daughter now. They'll be thinking about their lost wife and mother. Jack is clearly trying to move on. Maybe Maria should too. But right now, there's a joy in stillness.

She senses Felicia nearby. Through half-closed eyes she sees her pick up the empty wine bottle. "Should we open another one?" she asks her brother. "Nah," he replies. "I gotta drive back to the hotel. I guess Mom's too tired to go to the movie."

"No I'm not," Maria says through her eyes remain closed.

"Oh you're not, are you?" asks Evan, clearly amused.

"Let me just sit here for another minute," Maria says. Is this what happiness is, she wonders? "All right then," she says, opening them to see the apartment in pristine condition. "Let's go."

Monday, December 21, 2009

Watching students watch

In which we see Ms. Bradstreet do some serious reading

The Maria Chronicles, # 31

Maria is listening to Jack Casey -- the man who she until recently referred to in her own mind as "Cuff Man," for the way he wears his sleeves partly folded up -- over lunch at an otherwise unoccupied table in the cafeteria. Well, so
rt of listening, anyway. Jack has been pontificating over the course of the last few minutes, trying to explain the degree to which Ted Sizer, the man whose book they agreed to meet and discuss, might or might not be considered a realist. Maria is regretting that this conversation is happening, a conversation in full view of her students and colleagues, which she thought made it safe: this could not, in any meaningful sense, be considered a "date." Thank God they're not in some restaurant where Maria would feel pinned to her chair, pining for an excuse to hide in the women's room. She is troubled, however, to see her student Derek Clark staring at her from the crowded table in which he sits, curiously alone. This rattles her.

"Wouldn't you agree?" Jack is eyeing her curiously, seeking a reaction.

"Uh. Yes. I mean sorry. I got distracted there for a moment."

"Well that's a relief," he says, smiling.

"Excuse me?"

"Well, for a minute there, you were agreeing that tangerines make for excellent shovels. I realized I had lost you, and wanted to see how badly by posing a nonsensical question. I like Gertrude Stein."

Maria's face registers a reaction somewhere between confusion and disgust. How big a jerk is this guy?

Jack is laughing now. "Oh my God, that expression is priceless," he says. "Forgive me, Maria. This is not a joke at your expense. Actually, it's a joke at mine. I realized that I was talking at you -- a vice of mine, though one I usually hold in check -- and wanted to break out of the hole I dug myself into. I was trying too hard to impress you." He looks away, and then suddenly gazes right at her and Maria sees a tint of regret, maybe even defeat, in those grayish-blue eyes. "And I guess I've made an impression, all right." He tosses his napkin onto his tray. Lunch is over; she can escape to a discussion of the Compromise of 1850.

But it somehow seems too mean. Maria looks across the room again, and sees that Derek is still stealing a look at her, even as a boy now sitting next to him makes some remark that seems to call for a response. He knows what's happening. This somehow seems to embolden her in a weirdly defiant way. "The students are watching," she says aloud, more to herself than Jack.

"Watching what? What is it that they're seeing?"

"No, I mean the book. It's another Sizer book. One he wrote with his wife -- The Students Are Watching."

"I don't know that one," Jack says. "Is it good?"

"I really like it. I read it, I dunno, maybe ten years ago, but never unpacked it when I moved here." She looks back at him.

She can see he's got questions that he wisely decides not to ask. There's a shift. "Well, I'm game," he says, a bounce returning to his voice. "Should we read that one next?"

There's such charm in his hope that she can't bear to shoot him down. "All right," she says neutrally.

"Great!" A pause. "You know, I myself recently moved to Dobbs Ferry. Not exactly the upper west side, but we've got some terrific restaurants. You like Mexican food? There's a place I took my daughter to last week when she was in town that I really like."

Now it's Maria who has questions. No wedding ring. But that doesn't mean he isn't married.

"My wife died of ovarian cancer three years ago," Jack says. "That's why I left my job. Not right away -- I probably should have quit before she died, not after. But that's why I left -- just in the nick of time, as it turned out. Got lucky with that, anyway. It's why I'm here."

Derek is getting up to leave, carrying his tray toward the kitchen. He's not looking at her. Jesus, Maria thinks. Suddenly this is happening very quickly.

"Maybe we should just meet here for lunch," Jack is saying. "After the holiday break? You can let me know."

"I like Mexican food."

"Bueno!" He's beaming now. "Tell you what: How about you dig me up that copy of the book -- I'll be here again on Monday; you can leave it in the main office -- and I'll get you dinner. Next Sunday sound good? That weekend after Christmas?"

No; she'll get a new one, Maria thinks. She'll order it, express delivery, on Amazon after class, which she suddenly realizes starts in three minutes. "Sounds good. She points at the clock. Gotta run."

"Oh sure. Thanks, Maria. This was fun."

Maria's not sure she agrees. Hell, she's not sure of anything. Except the Compromise of 1850. Thank God for that.

Friday, December 18, 2009

A good year for the Boss

2009 caps a remarkably productive decade for Springsteen

One of the distinguishing characteristics of Bruce Springsteen's career is that he's always thought in terms of producing an extended body of work. Yet for for him, as for anyone whose career has been marked by a sense of longevity, he's had his peaks and valleys. Any summary of his work would note that he burst into public consciousness in 1975 by releasing Born to Run and appearing simultaneously on the covers of Time and Newsweek; he reached the pinnacle of his fame in 1984 with the release Born in the USA and his (unwelcome) invocation by Ronald Reagan in the presidential campaign of that year. Conversely, legal troubles with his manager impeded his career for much for the years following Born to Run; most observers believe his work of the early nineties (see Human Touch and Lucky Town, though I regard the latter as underrated) is relatively undistinguished. It's in this context I say that 2009 was a banner year in Springsteenland. If it doesn't represent a professional summit, the year was nevertheless a period of remarkable productivity and public esteem. Moreover, in a profession in which youth has always celebrated and premature endings are almost proverbial, Springsteen has demonstrated a capacity for creativity that affirms and inspires those who seek a rich and full life, even if they have not been blessed with the scope of his talents.

Springsteen's year began, as it did for so many of us, on a note of hope, with the election of Barack Obama. It took decades for Springsteen to move from a cautiously abstention from public issues to active involvement in contemporary politics; he made his first endorsement for president in 1984 by performing on behalf of John Kerry's ill-starred campaign. So it was all the more satisfying in 2008 to support a winner -- one who joked when he ran for president because it was the next best thing to being The Boss -- and that Obama returned Springsteen's esteem by having Springsteen play a prominent role at his inaugural celebration con
cert. He rendered a memorable version of "The Rising" (a signature song at Obama rallies) with a gospel choir, and used his musical platform to honor Pete Seeger, with whom he sang a rousing version of "This Land is Your Land."

Later than month, Springsteen released his fifteenth studio album of new material, Working on a Dream. No one would consider it Springsteen's best work -- I myself prefer Magic, released in late 2007 -- but the record is a testament to Springsteen's productivity and the capstone of a remarkable decade that saw the release of a live album (Live in New York City in 2000), a multi-volu
me greatest hits collection (The Essential Bruce Springsteen in 2003) and four studio albums (The Rising in 2002, Devils and Dust in 2005, Magic in 2007, and Working in 2009). The new album, more upbeat in tone than any Springsteen album in many years, featured a catchy title song, a reflective meditation on love and aging in "Kingdom of Days," and a surprise return to the almost-10 minute epics of Springsteen's early days in "Outlaw Pete," a rock & roll western. (See my blog post about it.) Given the perfectionism that almost derailed Born to Run in '75 and delayed many albums in the years since, Springsteen's willingness to disgorge (though surely not empty) his vaults represents a remarkable evolution in his working style in what might be termed his long Indian Summer.

In February, Springsteen and the E Street Band performed at the Super Bowl in Tampa for a 12-minute set that consisted of "Tenth Avenue Freezeout," "Born to Run," "Working on a Dream," and "Glory Days. "I want you to put the chicken fingers down and turn your television set all the way up!" he told the crowd. Given the enormity of audience and the brevity of time, a Super Bowl gig is more a form of cultural ratification for the acts that play than an opportunity to really ply their craft. But for Springsteen, whose work has always been rooted in a (large) sense of community, the honor, no less than the venue, was surely welcome.

In April, Springsteen and the band kicked off a seven-month tour to support Working on a Dream, merely months after the end of the Magic tour. These Working shows, which included farewell concerts at Giants stadium, were quickly followed by the 25th anniversary Rock & Roll Hall of Fame Concerts in late October.

In effect, the year ended where it began: with Barack Obama. Springsteen went to the White House as an honoree at the Kennedy Center, along with Robert DeNiro, Mel Brooks, Dave Brubeck, and Grace Bumbry. Musical tributes for this lifetime achievement award included included a John Mellencamp version of "Born in the USA," Melissa Etheridge performing "Born to Run," and Sting singing "The Rising." Famed violinist Itzhak Perlman, of all people, paid an insightful compliment to Springsteen:
“He gives his audience what it wants, but he also lets them know what they want and helps teach them to want more,” Perlman said. The show will be broadcast by CBS on December 29.

While 2009 might have been a triumph in Springsteen's public life, there were indications of trouble in his personal life. In April he was named in a divorce suit, and was forced to make some relatively tight-lipped affirmations of his marriage -- not for the first time in recent years. (For more on this, and currents of infidelity in Springsteen and Patti Scailfa's music, see what was by far my most popular blog post.) For Springsteen no less than the rest of us, the gears of public and private life don't necessarily synchronize. There are times when that may be inevitable, and times when it may be a good thing.

On the whole, though, it appears that Springsteen has many blessings to count in 2009.
"We worked really hard for our music to be part of American life and our fans' lives," he said at the Kennedy Center Honors ceremony. "So [the award is] an acknowledgment that you've kind of threaded your way into the culture in a certain way. It's satisfying."

Happy old year, Mr. Springsteen. And many happy returns.

Wednesday, December 16, 2009

Mexican menu

In which we see Ms. Bradstreet get a lesson in Yankee imperialism

The Maria Chronicles, # 30

Maria is lecturing on the Mexican War. Last week, she described the the rebellion of Texas, the "Oregon Question" and its resolution with Great Britain, and the class discussed John O'Sullivan's famous article "Manifest Destiny." Today she's outlined the outbreak of the war on the disputed Texas-Mexico border, the military campaigns (very little on this, not her favorite subject), and the occupation of Mexico City. She intends for the class to discuss an assigned excerpt from a Mexican textbook on the war, a neat little piece of curriculum she translated herself.

But first, a little detour (she's going to have to hurry to get those textbooks in). Though it's not really a major part of the ultimate resolution of the conflict, Maria has always been intrigued by the "All Mexico" movement, in which some politicians advocated absorbing the entire nation into the United States. What she's found interesting is the strong opposition to this idea, because it came from seemingly opposite sides: Northerners, especially those in New England, who opposed the war and were even more opposed to the seemingly inevitable expansion of slavery that would result; and some members of the plantation elite, like John Calhoun, who recoiled at absorbing large numbers of brown people into the nation. As she will soon explain, the Mexican War brought long-simmering sectional tensions into the open. But in this odd moment, abolitionists and racists found themselves on the same side. A good opportunity to illustrate the maxim that politics can make for strange bedfellows.

Peter raises his hand, and Maria acknowledges him. "I don't see why we just didn't take the whole thing. I mean we already occupied the country. Why give half of it back?"

Maria thought she had just answered exactly that question. But since Willie has raised her hand, perhaps she can do the job for her. "Because that isn't how we've done things," she says. "Mexico was already a big, developed country. It would be too hard for the Mexicans to adapt."

Not exactly how Maria would have put it, but all right. Unfortunately, there are now at least three sets of hands in the air. Reluctantly, she acknowledges Kenny.

"I disagree with Willie," he says. "America has always been a place where people adapt. I don't see why the Mexicans could not become successful Americans just like the immigrants did."

"Well, Kenny, you know Chicanos like to say: they didn't cross the border. The border crossed them."

"What's a Chicano?" Mia asks.

"A Mexican American." Maria's expecting this to somehow resolve the conversation, and she's just about to describe how Mexicans were deprived of their rights and property through subversion of the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo, but hands persist. Vanessa's now seems even more urgent. Maria nods to her. "I agree with Willie," she says. "You gotta think about the cost. Would it really be worth it?"

"Yeah," Ali jumps in. "There would probably be resistance. Like Iraq or Afghanistan. The Mexicans might not accept American occupation. There would be guerrilla war."

This is a good point. But Maria is dismayed that Ali seems to be looking at this through the lens of the occupier.

The pretense of hands is now gone. Kenny: "I still think the Mexicans should get the chance. Look at California today. It's incredibly rich and powerful. Maybe the rest of the Mexico could have turned out that way." Now there's a chorus of cacophony.

What a group of little imperialists! The one quarter of Maria that is Mexican would like to give this gringos a verbal lashing. But she restrains herself. "Okay okay," she yells above the din, which quickly subsides. "You're raising some very good points. But let's a have a look at the reading now and discuss what the Mexicans themselves have said about the Mexican War. How would your characterize their view?"

All hands come down. Then the dutiful Willie raises hers. "Well, they viewed the whole thing as a naked power grab," she begin, going on to quote the textbook: "The acquisition is not going to erase the blot of iniquity which has been written into the pages of U.S. history."

These kids have no idea, she thinks to herself as Willie reads on. They still think the United States runs the world. They're in for a rude awakening. But that's not my job, thank God. That's a lesson they're going to learn down the road. Outside the classroom. She hopes to be long gone by then.

Monday, December 14, 2009


In which we see Ms. Bradstreet grapple with a gift

The Maria Chronicles, # 29

Maria, sitting in bed with her laptop beside her, has just finished reading Theodore R. Sizer's 2004 book The Red Pencil, which she found in her mailbox last week inscribed by Jack Casey -- the man whom she has been calling "Cuff Man" -- with a simple message "To Maria, as promised. Jack." In fact, Jack had made no such promise; he had merely asked her if she had read the book during a brief encounter at the library two weeks earlier, and then said he owed her a copy after sitting with her and Jen eight days ago. The book appeared the next day. Maria reacted as if it were radioactive, leaving it untouched over the weekend. She finally concluded that she had to take the book out, and began reading it a few days before. It was while she was doing so that her colleague Penny Perez noted that Sizer had just passed away. Somehow, this had never come up when Maria had discussed his work with Jack and Jen. this made Maria sad, but also allowed her to concentrate on what the book was actually saying. Now that she was done, she flipped back over the pages, not quite ready to part with it.

In the preface to The Red Pencil, Sizer describes his old high school Latin teacher, who terrorized him with a sea of red ink with which Sizer's translations were graded. In noting that the routines he had endured 60 years ago had not changed much, Sizer pithily described the reality of Maria's own daily life, as well is that of her students:

Most of it is not only recognizable; it is still fully accepted and honored today as a representation of what we call secondary school: a class of 20 or so adolescents gathered by age into grades to learn together a subject both for its content and the skills embedded in that content taught by a single teacher who is responsible for delivering that material, assigning homework, and assessing each student's performance in a uniform manner, all this proceeding in sequential blocks of time of 40 to 60 minutes each in a specialized school building primarily made up of a succession of identical rooms that are used for six hours for fewer than half the days in a year . . . This is what school is.

Maria is struck by the way the italicized words distill the American education experience to its essence. That distillation is not particularly flattering. It begs the question as to what the American education experience actually should be. This is, of course, a question Sizer dedicated his career to answering. But Maria particularly likes the concise formulation on page 63: "Clarify what the student is expected to show (that is, know and use) in order to receive (say) a high school diploma. Insist, assist, and cajole every young person to work toward this target as attentively as possible." Regardless of whether American schools generally ever could or would do this, it's something that Maria knows she needs to work harder at -- reverse engineering her curriculum so that she has a clear idea of what she wants her students to know how to do and a pedagogy that helps them get there. It sounds disarmingly simple, and yet is exhaustingly complicated. Sizer seemed to know this, and yet insisted on it, just like a good teacher would. Maria closes the book and stares at the cover, so rich in color. She wishes she could have met Ted Sizer, and remembers that Jack said he once had, or, at any rate, had once seen him speak.

Jack. What is she going to do about him? There's something presumptuous about the man -- starting a conversation with her in the library, acting as if he knew her in the cafeteria, sending along this book. She's not sure she likes him. Even if she does, she got the distinct impression at lunch last week that Jen likes him at least as much as she does. The only thing Maria feels less inclined to do than start a new relationship is to compete with another woman for man, especially a woman she's come to regard as a friend. The whole thing turns her stomach. It's so, well, high school.

But Maria is embarrassed that she hasn't acknowledged the gift, and her refusal thus far to do so will only make matters more awkward when she runs into him again, as she inevitably will. Sure, he's a substitute teacher, but she knows he's been around a lot, and will likely remain so. She wonders if he has a school email address. She decides to dash off an email to jcasey, in the manner of faculty addresses at the school. If, in the event that he doesn't have one, at least she can say that she tried and thus have an excuse for not having made more of an effort. Maria begins typing and tries not to think too hard.


Many thanks for sending along
The Red Pencil, which I liked very much. It was a gracious gesture. Perhaps we can talk about it some time. Best, Maria.

Maria is re-reading the blurbs on the back cover of the book when her laptop pings. She clicks open the envelope and an email from jcasey:

Hey Maria. Glad you liked the Sizer book. Let's talk about it. Shall we say lunch in the cafeteria on Thursday? Same time as last time? I'll be there. Jack.

"Oh shit," Maria says out loud.

Friday, December 11, 2009

An economy of Clay

In which we see Ms. Bradstreeet wear a Whig

The Maria Chronicles, #28

"OK, kids, today I want to talk about shoes."

"Shoes?" Olivia asks. "Why shoes?"

"Flats, p
umps, or high heels"? Tess asks playfully.

"None of the above," Maria answers. "We're talking about basic nineteenth century shoes. Farmer shoes. Shoes for hired hands. Slaves, maybe."

"Oh, that's boring," Tess says, waving her hand. She's not entirely serious.

"We'll see," Maria says, who is. Her eyes scan the room. She locks in on Peter. "Here we have Peter," she says, walking over to him, hand extended as if he's an exhibit. "Peter is a shoemaker." He nods with mock gravity. "Peter, how long have you been making shoes here in Connecticut?"

"Oh, I
guess about twenty years," he answers, picking up the rhythm here nicely.

"You see, kids, Peter is a real veteran. For a long time he made shoes all by himself. By hand. Nowadays, though, he has people working for him. Journeymen shoemakers, some hired hands. He can make more shoes than ever before. And he can sell them further than ever before, too. As far south as New Jersey. Even Delaware. Peter's mighty proud to consider himself a manufacturer. With a real factory."

smiles and nods, as if he's savoring applause.

"But life isn't entirely a bowl of cherries for Peter."

"Bowl of cherries?" Mia asks. "What do you mean, bowl of cherries?"

"You've never heard that expression?" Maria asks in response, incredulous. "Let's just say he has complications. We'll call those complications Italian. The Italians -- particularly Milan -- also make shoes. Good shoes. Very good shoes that they sell all over the world, including the United States, New York in particular, where they come in through Brooklyn. That's bad enough for Peter. But what's even worse is that because the Italians have been at it for a while, they can make their shoes not only better than Peter's shoes, but cheaper. Pete's shoes sell for $2 a pair, which is, in let's say 1830 terms, a lot of money. But the Italians sell theirs for $1 a pair."

o what can Peter do?" Vanessa asks.

"Not much," Maria replies. "But I can help. My name is Henry Clay. I'm a U.S. senator from the great state of Kentucky, and I'm a member of the Whig Party. And I have a plan."

"That's funny," Tess says. "You don't look like Henry Clay."

"Appearances can be deceiving, Tess. Anyway, here's my plan to help Peter. We slap a $2 tax on Italian shoes. That means they'll now cost $3, while Peter's cost $2. So Peter's shoes will be cheaper. Not necessarily better -- yet -- but cheaper. I figure that if we give Pete time he'll catch up with the Italians and soon his shoes may well be better. Then he'll be able to sell them all over the country, even down South. Who knows, maybe someday he'll be able to export his shoes to the Italians! Whaddya say, kids: is this a good idea?"

"Well, it's a good idea for Peter," Vanessa says.

"Right. But that's not really the reason why I'm suggesting this plan, part of what I call 'The American Plan.' No offense Peter." (He dips his head and holds up his hand to indicate none taken.) "You see, kids, we all know that the United States is still, economically speaking, a small, we
ak country. We import a lot of what we need in terms of capital to launch big projects like railroads, and in terms of finished goods like shoes and textiles. We sell lots of stuff like cotton and wheat, but that's not as profitable as shirts and shoes. But if we made more of that stuff ourselves -- if those of us up North bought more Southern cotton and sold more Northern shoes down South -- we'd all benefit. The country would become stronger and more self-sufficient. Plus we could use some of that revenue from the sales of Italian shoes -- let's face it, there are always going to be people who like Italian shoes -- to build roads and canals and other projects that would make it easier to move and sell all kinds of goods. The cotton and the shirts. Both directions. That's also part of my American Plan. Actually, that's my American Dream: One I hope to take to the White House someday."

Maria pauses. "So I'll ask you again: what do you think of my plan, my American Plan?"

There's a pause. Good.

"Dylan, what do you think?" Maria thinks she can ask him unsolicited, because he seems attentive.

"I dunno," he says. "I mean, sure. Why not?"

"You won't mind paying extra for those shoes?"

"No. There are good reasons. It's ok with me."

"I agree," says Kenny. "It's, like, a good investment for the country."

No one follows up. "So we're agreed, then? We're going to vote to place that $2 tariff on the Italian shoes? And maybe, while we're at it, tariffs on shirts, and guns and farm equipment?"

No response. Derek is looking out the window. Again.

"And maybe while we're at it we should add some agricultural products, too. Like wine. Sugar. Coffee."

"Well, wait a second," Kenny says. "I mean I can see stuff like the shoes. But will it help to put taxes on stuff that isnt, what's the word . . . . "


"Right. Manufactured. I mean, what's the benefit of taxing sugar? We don't make sugar, do we?"

"No, not at this point. But if we tax it we can use the money for the roads and bridges and stuff like that."

"Yeah, but what about the other countries?" Ali interjects. "Won't they get mad about us taxing that stuff?"

"What stuff? Like the shoes? Who cares? Once, thanks to Peter here, we're able to produce our own, we won't need them anymore. We can tell the Italians to go to hell." Some smiles at this.

"No, I mean the sugar and coffee and that stuff," Ali responds. "Won't they do the same to us?"

Maria pauses. "Well, maybe you're right. Let's drop the tariffs on sugar, coffee and wine. I like Italian reds. But we can keep the tariff on the shoes and the manufactured goods, right?"

Vanessa jumps back in. "I've been thinking about that. Here's the thing: I kinda just want to buy shoes at a low price. I'm not sure I want to pay to help Peter become self-sufficient."

"What," Maria says scornfully, "are you from South Carolina or something?"


"South Carolina. You sound like my colleague in the Senate, John Calhoun. We used to be pals, but we've drifted."

"Oh, right," Kenny says. "You're Henry Clay."

"Calhoun hates tariffs," Maria continues. "As far as he's concerned, all tariffs are bad tarriffs. He wants low prices. He doesn't want tariffs to be placed on things he buys, and he doesn't want tariffs on things he sells. The most important thing is keeping prices down."

"Sounds like John Calhoun shops at Wal-Mart," Tess says.

Maria turns and smiles at her. "Exactly. Low prices. To get low prices, you need low tariffs."

"Then I'm for that," Vanessa says.

"And low wages."


"Very low wages. The less you have to pay your workers, the less you can charge for your products and still make a profit. That's why Calhoun likes slavery."

"Ouch," says Tess.

"Ms. Bradstreet, can I ask you a question?" It's Willie. Surprisingly, she's been silent all day. She's wearing an impish smile, though, and it makes Maria smile too.

"Those shoes you're wearing. Where did they come from?"

Maria chuckles silently. She knows where this is going. "These are Merrells. I got them online."

"OK, but do you know where they were manufactured?"

Maria looks down at her brown glides, and then back at Willie. "No, I don't."

"Really. So we don't know what kinds of tarriff or wages went into them. Ms. Bradstreet, it seems to me that you didn't do your homework."

"Nice, Willie!" says Vanessa, and the rest of the class laughs.

"You're right, Willie," Maria concedes when the laughter subsides. "Let me get back to you on that tomorrow."

But Maria forgets.

Wednesday, December 9, 2009

Just a slice

In which we see Ms. Bradstreet size up a substitute teacher

The Maria Chronicles, # 27

Maria emerges from the salad bar having succumbed to the appeal of the pumpkin pie now on her tray and looks for a place to sit. She sees Jen Abruzzi at the far end of the cafeteria, waving her over. Maria can't see who's sitting opposite her until she puts the tray down beside him. And then Maria feels a knot in her solar plexus.

It's Cuff Man. The person she's seen around the school occasionally wearing slacks and a white shirt with the sleeves rolled up. Like they are today. Cuff Man.

"Hey Maria," Jen says brightly. "Do you know Jack Casey? He's a substitute math teacher."

"We've m
et," Jack says, extending his hand. "Maria, right?"

"Yes. Maria. Hello." Maria catches Jen's lingering looking at her.

"I met Maria at the library last time I subbed for Wayne Stanislakis. We had a little conversation about Ted Sizer's work."

"I'm a big fan," Jen says. "I read it in graduate school. Horace's Compromise and The Shopping Mall High School."

"Yes, but
Sizer didn't write Shopping Mall. That was another guy, Arthur Powell. He was a colleague of Sizer's at Harvard. That's actually an excellent book, too. Both of them remain remarkably relevant 25 years later."

"Well aren't you the expert," Jen says, amused in a slightly flirtatious way.

"Well, I read it relatively recently."

"Jack was telling me that he's new to teaching," Jen tells Maria.

Maria hears herself ask, "What were you doing before this?"

"Investment banking," Jack answers. "I was allied with the forces of darkness at Bear Stearns. I got out just before the firm imploded. Decided it was a wake-up call."

Glib, Maria thinks.

"Why teaching?" Jen asks.

"It was always something I was interested in. My mother was a kindergarten teacher; my dad taught science. I always thought what I wanted was to make a lot of money. But when I did, I realized it wasn't enough."

"So now
you're teaching?" That comes out a little harsher than Maria intends. She doesn't see a wedding band.

Jack doesn't seem to notice her chilliness. "After a fashion. I'm not certified, and I don't think I could stand what I know about Ed schools. So in terms of getting a job, that leaves private school teaching. Actually, I spend a lot of my time these days doing some volunteer work for Prep for Prep. I sub where I can for as long as I can, which I figure is a way of learning the lay of the land. Maybe at some point I'll be able to sort it all out."

"Fascinating," Jen says. "But with your business experience, it sounds like you might make a good administrator."

"Maybe. But I will confess that I love the classroom."

a's student Ali approaches the table. She's annoyed; she doesn't like to have her lunch interrupted, and is particularly unwilling to have it interrupted now. But Ali never makes eye contact with Maria. Instead, she's surprised to realize it's Jack he wants.

Jack stands up. "Ali. Glad you made it. Let's go over there and we can review the homework." He looks at Jen and then Maria. "Excuse me, ladies. I had a prior appointment with Ali here. But I very much enjoyed our conversation."

I'm no lady, Maria thinks.

"Take care, Jack," Jen says. "Nice to talk with you."

"This was fun," he says to Jen. "Maria, I believe I owe you a copy of Sizer's The Red Pencil. I'll get that to you at some point." But before Maria can respond -- before she can object -- he's gone.

Jen looks at Maria and raises her eyebrows. "Well," she says. "That was interesting."

Monday, December 7, 2009

Their There

In James Atlas's anthology How They See Us: Meditations on America, foreign observers register their charm, alarm, and disappointment with the United States

As more than
one writer in this anthology of essays notes, there's something ethnocentric, if not clinically narcissistic, about asking a group of distinguished writers to be a "they" with their gaze on "America," itself an egocentric term when applied solely to the United States. James Atlas, the distinguished writer who both edited this volume and published it for his imprint Atlas & Co., acknowledges as much in his introduction to the collection. What he doesn't say, but surely believes, is that while such a title might be geopolitically incorrect, it's surely a good marketing strategy for domestic consumption. A little hucksterism is nothing if not the -- no, make that an -- American Way.

Not surprisingly, the twenty-one pieces that comprise this compact book defy generalization. Written in what is now the decade-long shadow of 9/11, they express admiration, affection, bemusement, disappointment, exasperation, and fury at the United States, sometimes within the same e
ssay. At one end of the spectrum, Chinese immigrant Da Chen conveys the considered gratitude of the immigrant that one rarely hears anymore; at the other, Canadian Leila Nadir, whose family emigrated from Iraq, excoriates the United States for wreaking far more havoc on the world than Saddam Hussein ever did (or could). Many of the pieces express sorrow for the tragic loss of American life in the terror attacks of September 11. But those that do also lament what they consider the misguided U.S. response to those attacks, and incredulity, if not contempt, for an unstated, but nevertheless unmistakable, assumption on the part of a great many Americans that the approximately 3,000 lives lost justify the killings of some huge multiple of that number of Iraqis, Afghans, or anyone else who gets in the way. In the crude calculus of the Yanqui, American lives are evidently worth more than others.

Others voices project in more unexpected directions. Pakistani writer Uzma Aslam Khan complains that Americans are so quick in their multiculturalism to identify themselves as victims that t
hey crudely conflate their own historical experience with those they oppress. Nigerian writer Chris Abani makes an Tocquevillian observation that while Nigerians and Americans share a heritage as British colonial subjects, the former tend to reject their Western heritage while Americans pine for Oedipal approval from a European parent who withholds approval from the self-indulgent child (in no small measure because it is comprised of heirs who left an old world for a new one). British writer Terry Eagleton illustrates the difference between Irish and American mythology with a hilarious anecdote about a fiddling contest. Most of the writers in the book have studied or worked in the United States, and are able to comment on it with a sense of intimacy and authority.

To some degree, it's what isn't in the book that's as revealing as what is. Relatively few of these writers have much to say about U.S. politics and governance -- there are no paeans here to the Declaration of Independence, no analyses of the Constitution, no assessments of the strengths, weaknesses, or differences (or lack thereof) between the major political parties. Nor is much said about the American economy. That its productive prowess is no longer a subject of awe is perhaps to be expected, but its voracious appetite for credit elicits little expression of alarm or distaste, either. To a great extent, this is surely because the contributors to the book are mostly writers, many of them creative writers, and their primary interest in the United States is cultural. But even this obvious intellectual orientation has a surprising dimension in that the conversation is typically more about pop culture than literary or other artistic currents. (Though when Russian writer Victor Erofeyev is asked what he likes most about America, his answer, grounded in the nation's vast resources, is "Vermeer.") Moreover, while one might expect that figures like Marilyn Monroe would loom large as emblems of the American Century at its zenith, as she does for Mexican poet and novelist Carmen Boullosa, names like Michael Jordan or Bruce Springsteen -- who are more "Edwardian" symbols than the "Victorian" Monroe -- pop up frequently.

This, in an important sense, is the message of the book: Empires come, and empires go, but culture is forever. The American Dream is not a home in suburbs that will vanish no less surely than an Algonquin longhouse in the Eastern woodlands. It's Rock & Roll that's here to stay. It will be in a foreign museum someday.

A museum of what is the question. In the end -- an end that may come sooner rather than later -- is not one that "we" in the United States who will say."They," or their heirs, anyway, will decide. Given the ill will that the United States has engendered for some time now, combined with the reality that no human beings anywhere are angels, we can only hope that God will have have mercy on us. We can't really expect it from anyone else.

On a related note: Following my recent essay on "The Cosmpolitan Dilemma" for the History News Network, I received a copy of the Fall, 2009 issue of The Hedgehog Review, published by the Advanced Studies in Culture at the University of Virginia, on "The Cosmpolitan Predicament." There are fine essays in the journal by figures ranging from Seyla Benhabib to William McNeill, as well as a revealing interview with Kwame Anthony Appiah and a very useful omnibus review of recent books in the field by Johann Neem. Definitely worth a look.

Friday, December 4, 2009

The Good Don't Always Die Young: A Note on Billy Joel

The Piano Man as a musical historian

When I tuned in Sunday night to watch the HBO broadcast of the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame's 25th anniversary concerts held at Madison Square Garden in October -- which I assume will be rebroadcast periodically, and which in any case is available on demand -- it was to see Bruce Springsteen perform. I was happy to see any number of other artists, along with some truly marvelous pairings, like Ray Davies of the Kinks singing "You Really Got Me" with Metallica. (I had just played Davies's "Lola" in my "U.S. History Since 1940" class that morning to illustrate a closeted gay experience, and I just loved seeing him up there with presumably heterosexual James Hetfield & Co., though there's always been a fascinating queer thread running through some varieties of heavy metal.) Mick Jagger teamed up thrillingly with Fergie and U2 to sing "Gimme Shelter," and Jagger did an improbably good duo with Bono on U2's "Stuck in a Moment You Can't Get Out Of." The Rock & Roll Hall of Fame, both the museum and concerts, are great with these kinds of pinging influences.

So is Springsteen. Over the course of his set, he brought out Sam Moore, Darlene Love, and John Fogerty. But for the climax of this series, he announced an unscheduled guest whose identity became clear as Springsteen described him. "Long Island is about to meet New Jersey on the neutral ground of New York City," he said, and out came Billy Joel.

It was a disconcerting sight. Joel, who has kept a relatively low profile since his semi-retirement from pop music in 1993, looked older, heavier and balder than when I last saw him: He looked like a veteran high school history teacher. His performance was just fine; Springsteen shared singing duties with Joel on "New York State of Mind," and Joel returned the favor with "Born to Run." Once the song began, I looked forward to seeing him sing like Springsteen -- I consider Joel the best mimic of the rock era -- and he was pitch perfect. Which was a little disappointing: I was sort of hoping he would be a bit more playful, to tease Springsteen by exaggerating his grandiose romanticism. But Joel was oddly muted. Though they are almost exact contemporaries -- Springsteen is a mere three months younger than Joel -- The Boss is still touring regularly and leaping into the crowd mosh-pit style. Joel's gait was distinctly middle-aged.

Indeed, Joel's profile in popular culture has faded with surprising speed. Though the Recording Industry Association of America lists him as the sixth best-selling recording artist and third best-selling solo artist, he lacks the profile of peers like Elton John (with whom Joel occasionally tours, and who remains a consummate entertainer). Actually, in terms of critical reputation, Joel never had much of a profile to begin with -- he's never enjoyed the kind of esteem that Springsteen, for example, received from the very beginning.

To some extent, Joel himself is to blame for this. Notorious for his defensiveness and pugnacity, he and rock critics have long sustained mutual disdain (see, for example, Ron Rosenbaum's recent rant in Slate, and Joel's response to a New Zealand writer last year). And he's got a snottiness that shows up in songs like "Big Shot" and "My Life." Perhaps the best (or, more accurately, worst) example of these two traits converging is his 1980 album Glass Houses, and specifically his hit single "It's Still Rock & Roll to Me," which explicitly attacks the rage for punk rock in a way that makes him sound prematurely old-fashioned.

Joel's real problem, however, is that he was born too late. Many of his most famous songs, like "New York State of Mind,"
"Just the Way You Are," and "She's Always a Woman," are closer to the spirit of George Gershwin and Cole Porter than Elvis Presley or Bob Dylan. He was a piano man in the age of electric guitar. Again, Elton John, like Jerry Lee Lewis before him, had the charisma to overcome this problem. But Joel was always a lousy rock star.

All this said, Joel has a strength that I believe has never been fully appreciated: an extraordinary grasp of American history, musical and otherwise. Sometimes this takes the form of capturing the spirit of a time with exceptional clarity. Has anyone, for example, captured postwar suburban ennui with the deadly accuracy Joel does in "Captain Jack?" Or the intimacy of old friends remembering the faded Grease scenario of "Scenes from an Italian Restaurant?" In other cases, he writes songs of tremendous historical resonance. "The Entertainer" captures the often frantic anxiety of the would-be star that spans the careers of Sinatra to Swift. "Allentown" is a masterpiece in simultaneously depicting the passing the of the Greatest Generation in the Rustbelt, and the economic displacement of their children, during the wrenching downturn of the early Reagan years. (As such, the song has a fresh relevance.) Joel can also reflect compellingly on an individual's life span, whether in the reflectively embraced nostalgia of "Keeping the Faith," or his meditation on old age, "Vienna."

But it's in his musical allusions that Joel's historical consciousness is most fully realized. Probably the best example is his 1983 album An Innocent Man, whose string of hits -- "Tell Her About it," "Uptown Girl," "The Longest Time," and others -- is a gallery of tributes to Motown, the Four Seasons, and classic doo-wop. I never get tired of hearing his last big hit, "River of Dreams" (1993), which always strikes me as a perfect fusion of gospel and pop. Underrated as a singer and a pianist -- I've seen him in venues where he explains how pop songs work with stunning insight and affection -- he has shown himself to be a student in the truest sense of the term.

In recent years, Joel has written and performed classical music, with an occasional foray into live performance (which, according to his website, he will apparently resume next year). There's no reason to think a big commercial comeback is in the offing. But if Billy Joel was a stock, I'd go long on him. In terms of appreciation for his body of work, I strongly suspect the best is yet to come.

Wednesday, December 2, 2009

Banking on Hamilton

In which we see Ms. Bradstreet play with the U.S. economy

The Maria Chronicles, #26

The play has been distributed, the parts assigned, and now the class is ready to go. Maria flicks the lights to indicate it's time to begin, and starts reading her own part as the narrator who will set the stage for what follows:

Today on American History Now, we’re at a post office in Medford, Massachusetts. It’s the summer of 1790, and a group of Revolutionary War veterans have gathered, as they often do on summer afternoons while waiting for the harvest. Some of them actually come to read newspapers, but mostly they gather to relax and exchange stories, since it’s cheaper to hang out here than at the local tavern, where the ale is expensive and their wives tend to keep track of expenses.

Today is a little unusual because a stranger has come to town. He’s a man calling himself Al the Banker. He has been discussing politics with the men, who are up to date with the issues from their reading and discussions. A debate is raging in the new Congress over the nation’s financial policy and the way it intersects with veterans’ issues. As everyone knows, many war vets have been promised payments for their service in the war for independence. And, as everyone also knows, these men have not been paid – and there’s no knowing if (when?) they’ll ever be. That’s why some of these vets have been selling their pension certificates, at a fraction of their face value, to speculators. One group of leaders, led by Secretary of Treasury Alexander Hamilton, asserts the pensions should be paid in full. Another group or faction, under U.S. Representative James Madison of Virginia, says the government cannot—and should not—reward those exploiting the service of others. The Hamilton faction contends that such speculators actually serve the cash-strapped vets by offering them hard cash when they need it, and in any case are essential for the development of a strong American economy. The Madison faction replies that a strong American economy will not depend on such people, but rather the productive capacity of the nation’s farmers. This is a debate that has grown increasingly spirited – and, some might say, acrimonious.

That’s why the arrival of Al the Banker is such a novelty here in Medford. Suddenly, it seems, national politics has arrived on the post office doorstep. Some of those who have been listening to Al the Banker make his pitch have been intrigued; others repelled. But everyone is very interested in the proceedings, which continue and get renewed every time someone enters the post office. Let’s listen in as Nathaniel Ballard becomes the latest person to enter and receive Al the Banker’s pitch.

Al: Well, now, who do we have here?

Nathaniel: Name’s Nathaniel. Nathaniel Ballard.

Al: Very good indeed, Mr. Ballard. I see the insignia on your coat. And tell me -- where did you serve?

Nathaniel: I fought with Benjamin Lincoln. Was at Yorktown for the surrender in ’81.

Al: Excellent! (Change of tone indicates change of subject. Slightly conspiratorial): Mr. Ballard, the nation has been in your debt—and I mean that literally—since the time you enlisted in the army. Promises have been made, promises of payment for your service to our country. But you and I both know that even with the best of intentions, the U.S. government is struggling these days, and well, let’s face it: You have real doubts you’re ever going to see that money. Am I right?

Nathaniel (warily): That’s right.

Al: Well, Mr. Ballard, I’m here to help. My name is Al the Banker. I happen to know that you are in line to receive $100 for the U.S. treasury. But as likely as not you’re going to get nothing. That’s why, right here, right now, I’m prepared to give you $10 in cold hard cash (sounds of bills/coins). You sign that paperwork over to me and I’ll give you the money. Immediately.

Nathaniel (flatly): Is that right.

Al: Now let me be clear, Mr. Ballard, lest you think this is some kind of mendacious scheme that I am perpetrating here. I’m not making you this offer wholly out of a sense of altruism. I’m offering you this buyout of the government’s debt to you because it’s my hope that someday, somewhere down the line, I’ll get that $10 and more. If our Treasury Secretary, Mr. Alexander Hamilton, has his way, I stand to make a tidy profit. But we don’t know right now if he will get his way, or when. I could end up with that whole $100. Or I could end up with nothing. I’m asking you to take a chance, but I’m taking a chance, too.

Evan Baker (pipes in): Where are you getting the money?

Al: Well hello, sir. (offers his hand, which Evan takes half-heartedly.) Al the Banker here. And yourself.?

Evan: Name’s Evan. Evan Baker. Live in Medford now. But I’m from Maine. Down East country.

Al: Delighted to make your acquaintance, Mr. Evan Baker. The short answer to your question is that I’m borrowing it. From London. There are people over there who believe in the value of what I’m doing. That’s the wonderful thing about free markets of the kind we now have in these new United States: People get to make choices. (Addresses Ballard): So what do you say? Would you like that $10 now? Buy your pretty little wife a dress? Maybe get yourself a new horse?

Nathaniel: I don’t know. I need to think about this.

Al: Fair enough. I’ve checked out of the Mason’s Arms – lovely inn you have there – and will be leaving in two hours. Would hate to see you miss your chance, Mr. Ballard.

Thomas Baxter: Ten dollars is a lot of money, Nathaniel. Not enough to turn you into a gentleman, but certainly make your life a bit better.

Al: There you go, Mr. Ballard. A voice of reason. And you Mr . . . .

Thomas: Thomas Baxter. I’m a journeyman in the smithy across the way.

Al: Are you a veteran holding a pension certificate, Mr. Baxter?

Thomas: Yessir.

Al: And so may I infer that you would like to avail yourself of this offer?

Thomas: Yessir.

Al: Excellent! I have the paperwork right here. Let’s fill it out right now and then I’ll walk over to your shop or house and pick up that certificate.

(Sounds of paper pushing. Improvise language as Thomas signs on the dotted line.)

Joe Allgrant: Mr. Banker, I’d be obliged to enter into this proposition.

Al: That’s wonderful. Excuse me, Mr. Baxter as I take a copy of this document here for Mr. . . .

Joe: Allgrant. Joe Allgrant. Own me a small farm over in Somerville.

Ezekiel: You people are fools. Don’t you recognize a rascal when you see one?

Joe: I been sittin’ on my certificate for years, Ezekiel. What’s the point? We’re never going to see any of that money.

Ezekiel. Bankers are evil. Don’t care if they say they’re from London or from Boston. They’re all from hell, far as I’m concerned.

Al: The gentleman here is unpersuaded as to the value of my proposition. Fair enough. Mr. Baxter and Mr. Allgrant are aboard. As I prepare to take my leave, I’ll ask you, Mr. Baker, as to your disposition. Would you like to sell your certificate?

Evan: I will sell my certificate. For $25.

Al: Oh dear. I’m afraid I’m not in a position to accept such an offer, Mr. Baker.

Evan: Well, $20 then.

Al: You drive a hard bargain, Mr. Baker. I’m afraid I can only offer you $15.

Baker (pauses. Then, uncertainly): Well all right then.

Joe: I want $15!

Thomas: I want $25!

Al: I’m afraid that’s not possible, Mr. Allgrant, or Mr. Baxter. Our paperwork has already been filled out. You can of course refuse to turn over your certificates, but there can be no renegotiation of the terms.

Thomas: Well I’ll be damned! You are one slick operator, Al the Banker.

Al: Be that as it may. Mr. Ballard, you are the only one here whose stance is unresolved.

Nathaniel: Well, I . . . I

The voice of Mary Ballard is heard in the distance.

Mary: Nathaniel! Nathaniel! Are you in that godforsaken saloon again?

Nathaniel (shouts out the door): No, Mary. I’m here with the boys at the post office.

Mary (entering): Well now that’s a relief. For a minute there I thought you were actually doing something productive with the chickens!

Evan (deferentially): Good Day, Mary.

Joe, Thomas: Good Day, Mrs. Ballard.

Ezekiel: Wonderful to see you, Mary.

Mary: Oh stop lying, Ezekiel. You haven’t been happy to see since I caught you with Hannah Tillings behind the church fourteen years ago.

Nathaniel (trying to mollify her): Now, Mary. We were just discussing business with Al, a banker from out of town.

Mary: Just what we need! A bunch of country bumpkins matching wits with a city swell. Let me guess: He’s offering you boys the deal of a lifetime.

Joe: Well, as a matter of fact he is, Mary. I’m about to get me ten dollars in hard cash today.

Mary: I didn’t think your soul was worth ten dollars, Joe.

Evan: You’re quite the jester, Mary. Actually, Joe was selling his pension certificate for the ten dollars. I myself finagled fifteen. We’re never going to see a full redemption from this government.

Mary: No, Evan, I reckon you won’t.

Nathaniel: You think I should try and sell mine then, darlin’?

Mary: Certainly not!

Nathaniel: Why not? Do you think Al the Banker is a devious businessman?

Mary: Not more than any other businessman. But you boys are in over your heads. You can be sure that whatever proposition this man offers you is going to be less than you might get for yourselves.

Al: Madam, I’ve made clear already to these gentlemen that I am in fact counting on using my connections to realize gains that they will never be in a position to pursue. But the something they get will still be more than the nothing they now have.

Mary: Be that as it may, sir, my husband will not be participating.

Al: And why is that, Madam?

Mary: Because he has some chickens to slaughter. And if he doesn’t get home to do it, then he’s going to pay a price that can’t be measured in gold coins. Now let’s get out of here, Nathaniel!

Nathaniel (defeated): So long, boys.

Evan, Joe, Thomas, Ezekiel: G’bye, Nathaniel. (The Ballards depart.)

Al: Well, I can see Mr. Ballard is married to a formidable woman.

Ezekiel: You don’t know the half of it, Mr. Al the Banker. Mary Ballard makes the best strawberry jam in Middlesex County. She’s begun to jar and sell it to general stores. Made over $400 last year alone. John Hancock himself loves the stuff. So does vice-president Adams.

Al: Where do the Ballards live?

Joe: Over near Winthrop. You can get there through the Fells.

Al: What a fortunate coincidence. I have to head that way myself. Come, Mr. Baxter and Allgrant. Let us get those certificates. Then I can pay a visit to the Ballard homestead on my way out of town. (They leave.)

Thomas: So, Ezekiel, what do you think is going to happen? Will Hamilton succeed in getting full redemption on those bonds?

Ezekiel: Of course. The rich always figure out a way to come out ahead. C’mon, Thomas. I’ll buy you ale at the tavern. I figure my pension certificate is good as gold.