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Location: Stevens Point, Wisconsin, United States

Thursday, August 28, 2008

Abortion rights

Obama was asked "when does life begin?" He replied that he could not answer with specificity. He should hire a philosopher. It's easy an easy question to answer. Life does not begin at conception. A living, developing embryo requires a living mother. Life does not begin, it continues. But reactionary opposition to voluntary abortion insists that a "new life" begins at conception. Of course it does. Induced abortion, like every miscarriage, ends a potential human life. It's true that a woman's ability to choose to abort a pregnancy means she has life-and-death power. But we give that power to men all the time. Even ignorant and mendacious men like George W. Bush. So what fuels the rage over women having the power of life-and-death? Fears about death. The fact that each of us must give up our lives constitutes the deepest human anxiety. For human beings alone are aware of their own inevitable deaths. Thus everything that openly addresses the fact of death triggers this anxiety. People want to pretend that somehow we can individually persist. But we can't. We die and we're replaced. Just like the leaves on the trees. Choosing whether to have a baby dramatizes this process. Hence the rage...

Monday, August 25, 2008

Woody Allen v. Jane Austen

I once mentioned to a young woman who was working for me at the time that Allen Woodrow Koenigsberg (aka Woody Allen) and I are the same age. "Yes, but he's a genius," she said. Point taken. But artists need people to appreciate their work, and I've been a fan of his films since before Bananas. So we, Jane and I, made a special trip yesterday to see Vicky Cristina Barcelona. (Not on our bikes; the photo was taken during a climb through "les Dentelles" in Provence.) "More of a chick flick than I'd expected from him," was Jane's assessment. I think so, too, and for the same reason that period movies based on Jane Austen's novels have been popular since Ang Lee's Sense and Sensibility. In ...Barcelona, Allen gives Rebecca Hall's character "Vicky" the sort of speeches he used to give his own characters in movies like Annie Hall: appeals to the rational and logical, like the sister with "sense" in Austen. Scarlett Johansson's "Cristina" is the sensuous one of the two friends who go to live and study in Barcelona one summer. There they both meet and are serially seduced by Javier Bardem's character, a handsome and engaging painter. Thus is framed the contest over choosing between the predictable (Vicky's businessman fiance back in New York) and the passionate (the sexually-charged and emotionally volatile artist). Patricia Clarkson's dissatisfied-wife character (after 20-plus years with another self-involved businessman) offers a caution: choosing the safe path will leave you regretting your life. I'm leaving out a subplot involving Bardem's petulant and explosive ex-wife, played by Penelope Cruz. The subplot is cautionary, as well: a life of sensual indulgence also has its regrettable aspects, some of them near-fatal. This modern form of this story of a romantic/rational dichotomy is over two centuries old, yet still attracts artists and engages audiences. In fact there's no such dichotomy. What's called "romantic" is nothing more than the projection of one's desires upon another. There is no doubt that dissatisfaction is the rule in long relationships. The dissatisfaction is caused, however, by the collision between projected fantasies and the actual person opposite you. Men are as prone--perhaps more so--to preferring fantasies over the complex character of the other. All of us are inclined to cling to the imaginary. Allen ends the film on an interesting note, suggesting "Cristina" is "certain only of what she does not want." Personally, I regard "wants" as the problem, not the solution...

Friday, August 08, 2008

Reliving history


I was teaching in Munich in the fall of 1973. One of the things I enjoyed there in Germany, though, was listening late at night, European time, to broadcasts from the U.S. about the congressional revelations of criminal conspiracy by the Nixon administration and the administration's desperate attempts to cover it up. You see, back then I still hoped that the turmoil of the 60s would issue in some transformation of American politics. The corruption of Nixon's regime looked like it might be that longed-for turning point. He resigned. on this date, less than a year later. The Vietnam war did end in another year. And then there was Carter, who's pieties were no match for the reaction that was underway. That reaction to the 60s triumphed in Reagan's election and has shaped our politics ever since. So Nixon's corruption and incompetence was a turning-point after all. After JFK's assassination the political promise of his leadership began gradually to decay; but after Nixon the decay just accelerated, drowning Carter's efforts and hurtling downwards through the excesses and greed of the Reagan years, continued by the hapless Bush 41. Clinton revived those old 60s ideals, only to squander his prospects in the kind of self-indulgence that seemed to vindicate the rage against the 60s still nursed by reactionaries like Dick Cheney. Clinton's weakness returned those reactionaries to power and they've used it to perpetrate malefaction on a scale that makes Nixon's seem mere misdemeanors. It's tempting to think that now, a full generation later, this is at last a real turning-point. But I've been wrong before...

Wednesday, August 06, 2008

Playing and learning

For most of the forty plus years I've lived and taught here I've listened to small children practicing outside in the summer on tiny violins the Mozart melody we know as "Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star". They were students attending "Suzuki Week" (as we locals called the actually two-week summer camp), named for Shinichi Suzuki's method of teaching music. The beginners are known as "Twinklers" and their music constituted my entire knowledge of the work of the American Suzuki Institute, headquartered here on our campus of the University of Wisconsin. Until this year. Last week my granddaughter Addison came to practice and perform on her cello. She's been at it a year, together with her dad, my son Dan, and has reached Book Two. Now I've been to three of her solo and choir recitals. Besides being charmed by her playing and that of her cohort, I discovered that musical training has the admirable side-effect of teaching respect and appreciation. In mixed audiences of parents and numerous children as young as two I saw no fidgeting and heard no whispering during the recitals and concerts. I recalled an occasion during my undergraduate study when my poetry professor declared it a virtue of learning to read and write poems that you could then appreciate the work of others. So I found it, and so it appears, too, to apply to learning to play music. This is clearly a quality missing in those who insist upon classifying the arts as "extra-curricular", and then cutting their funding.