Thursday, January 31, 2013

the art of reviewing

Side note: it's a testament to the reigning power of art and of stories that I spent all of Monday in mourning for Sybil, a character on Sunday night's Downton Abbey.

Here's a little gem on the art of reviewing by Charlie Baxter: Owl Criticism. In a time where you can scroll down to see reviews on nearly any book on Amazon, Baxter (in his characteristic dry humor) pokes fun at just what these reviewers are basing their ideas on. Everyone's got an opinion, but that doesn't mean you need to listen to them.

Tuesday, January 22, 2013

Inaugural poems

I'm celebrating the fact that President Obama chose to have a poet at both of his inaugurations. In the spirit of poems that unite us as a country and cry out for civil rights at the same time, here's Langston Hughes' powerful anthem "Let America Be America Again," originally found at

Let America Be America Again
by Langston Hughes

Let America be America again.
Let it be the dream it used to be.
Let it be the pioneer on the plain
Seeking a home where he himself is free.

(America never was America to me.)

Let America be the dream the dreamers dreamed—
Let it be that great strong land of love
Where never kings connive nor tyrants scheme
That any man be crushed by one above.

(It never was America to me.)

O, let my land be a land where Liberty
Is crowned with no false patriotic wreath,
But opportunity is real, and life is free,
Equality is in the air we breathe.

(There's never been equality for me,
Nor freedom in this "homeland of the free.")

Say, who are you that mumbles in the dark? 
And who are you that draws your veil across the stars?

I am the poor white, fooled and pushed apart,
I am the Negro bearing slavery's scars.
I am the red man driven from the land,
I am the immigrant clutching the hope I seek—
And finding only the same old stupid plan
Of dog eat dog, of mighty crush the weak.

I am the young man, full of strength and hope,
Tangled in that ancient endless chain
Of profit, power, gain, of grab the land!
Of grab the gold! Of grab the ways of satisfying need!
Of work the men! Of take the pay!
Of owning everything for one's own greed!

I am the farmer, bondsman to the soil.
I am the worker sold to the machine.
I am the Negro, servant to you all.
I am the people, humble, hungry, mean—
Hungry yet today despite the dream.
Beaten yet today—O, Pioneers!
I am the man who never got ahead,
The poorest worker bartered through the years.

Yet I'm the one who dreamt our basic dream
In the Old World while still a serf of kings,
Who dreamt a dream so strong, so brave, so true,
That even yet its mighty daring sings
In every brick and stone, in every furrow turned
That's made America the land it has become.
O, I'm the man who sailed those early seas
In search of what I meant to be my home—
For I'm the one who left dark Ireland's shore,
And Poland's plain, and England's grassy lea,
And torn from Black Africa's strand I came
To build a "homeland of the free."

The free?

Who said the free?  Not me?
Surely not me?  The millions on relief today?
The millions shot down when we strike?
The millions who have nothing for our pay?
For all the dreams we've dreamed
And all the songs we've sung
And all the hopes we've held
And all the flags we've hung,
The millions who have nothing for our pay—
Except the dream that's almost dead today.

O, let America be America again—
The land that never has been yet—
And yet must be—the land where every man is free.
The land that's mine—the poor man's, Indian's, Negro's, ME—
Who made America,
Whose sweat and blood, whose faith and pain,
Whose hand at the foundry, whose plow in the rain,
Must bring back our mighty dream again.

Sure, call me any ugly name you choose—
The steel of freedom does not stain.
From those who live like leeches on the people's lives,
We must take back our land again,

O, yes,
I say it plain,
America never was America to me,
And yet I swear this oath—
America will be!

Out of the rack and ruin of our gangster death,
The rape and rot of graft, and stealth, and lies,
We, the people, must redeem
The land, the mines, the plants, the rivers.
The mountains and the endless plain—
All, all the stretch of these great green states—
And make America again!

© 2013, Academy of American Poets. All Rights Reserved.

Friday, January 18, 2013

How Movies Teach Manhood

When I taught composition, I did a unit on gender, and we looked specifically at the ideals of gender that movies and TV implied. If I were teaching right now, I would use this talk to spark the conversation.

Thursday, January 17, 2013

Nerds Volunteer!

In the spirit of National Volunteer Day coming up, I thought I'd post this fabulous volunteer opportunity. Everyone thinks of Habitat for Humanity or visiting a senior center when they think of doing a day of volunteering (at least I do), but here's one for nerds that meets a real need, as well:

The Nerdery Overnight Website Challenge

Volunteers of web-building pros form teams and show up for 24 hours of pro-bono website revamping for nonprofits who need help making their good work available to the digital world. I'm rooting for Minneapolis' Park Avenue Youth and Family Services to get picked!

Monday, January 14, 2013

resolving to give up resolutions

Still thinking about this wonderful talk on Giving up New Year's Resolutions by Prof. Jamie Smith, given at Mars Hill Church on the last Sunday of 2012. He comments that North American Christians consider resolutions to be an act of individual heroism. (by my resolve alone, I will be better...) We place a high value on knowing lots of stuff (ie. the way to be a better Christian is to learn more) and tend to neglect the powerful importance of habit. Being kind, generous, patient, and loving, he says, is not a matter of learning more about it or trying hard, but of making this actions a habit.

A thoughtful sermon. Enjoy!

Friday, January 11, 2013

A life of no regrets? I don't think so

Next week, I am giving a quick talk / poetry reading on "Sparking the Imagination." It's interesting that I keep seeing the vital role of imagination in things I never would have connected it to. Exploration (see last week's post), and now, in this TED talk by Kathryn Schulz: regret.

We would not have regret if we could not imagine a different outcome. In this short talk, peppered with humor, Schulz argues that regret has some good things to teach us (so give yourself a break).

Monday, January 7, 2013

Downton Abbey

I love Downton Abbey. Love it. Though I have to say I felt a bit of disappointment during last night's US opening of season three. First, the "upstairs" characters seem to have become, in this script, caricatures of themselves. Lady Mary has gone back to being stiff and tied to tradition, assumedly so that her character has somewhere to grow again. Everyone seemed to be insisting in their lines that "this is what I stand for"--no one more heavy-handedly than the American mother-in-law. I'd be curious to know how her character played in Britain. Perhaps because I am American, her comments about being less tied to tradition sounded normal to me and made the other characters look stodgy. It was as though reality was creeping in...which of course it is in 1920.

Which brings me to point number two. The stakes are higher than ever, with Downton Abbey itself on the line, but they don't feel high. I assume--again, American viewpoint--that at some point they will have to sell Downton. Too ridiculously huge to upkeep. Perhaps if there was more focus on the jobs that would be lost (which they may well do later on), then I would feel it. The loss of Cora's fortune and the two other fortunes that various characters hope might save them seem so off-the-stage to me. That said, what else but an inheritance would be a proper source of income for the aristocracy? And the earning of said money no doubt feels far away for most of them, too. As it is, Matthew's surprise inheritance feels engineered just to cause strife.

I do really like how housekeeper Mrs. Hughes' fate seems tied to the house. She may have cancer, but it will be months until she knows for certain. They may lose the house, but not yet...

With so many story lines wrapping up and others pulling less emotional weight than last year, I think part of me was really worried there would be two episodes and done. But no, there are another 6 to go on the books, so I can rest assured that more is to come. And I will, despite my complaints, be hanging on every word.

It is so much fun to see how the nation has been swept up in this series. Apparently, the first lady got her copy of season three early.

Friday, January 4, 2013

Is the desire to explore genetic?

In this month's feature article, the National Geographic suggests that a cluster of genes may be responsible for our desire to explore. Apparently, there is a common variant of a gene (DRD4-7R, if you want to know) that often pops up in studies of those who are exploring and pushing boundaries. It's possible that that gene, coupled with the right physical ability, tools, resources, and--here's what I love as a writer--imagination leads us not only to wonder what's around the river bend, but to go there. I love this important linkage with science, imagination, and wonder.

Read the article "Restless Genes" here.

Wednesday, January 2, 2013

It's alive! Alive!

Hobbit Movie Characters wallpaper In the course of watching The Hobbit this past week and re-watching The Hunger Games, I heard myself using the phrase "bringing the book to life." It's a common phrase, but the idea behind that is troublesome. What, were they dead before? Dormant? Movies add visuals and audio to books, overlaying the vision of a round of screenwriters, directors, producers, and actors. The books become multimedia; they breathe in a different way. But if they did not have a life of their own in the first place, no one would have chosen if for a movie.

I will talk of books adapted into films, but I resolve in 2013 not to so diminish the act of writing as to call the film versions "brought to life."