Archive for November, 2011

“This is America; if the people are true to themselves, no room for force is necessary in this contest.”

I mentioned finding the speech General Theodore Harvey Barrett made to the National Farmers’ Alliance in 1887. I don’t have all of the historical context, but this passage seems eerily prescient and applicable, and I offer it as my last post before Thanksgiving:

Back of all this machinery which penetrates every corner of the continent — nay, every quarter of the globe, sit a few men in numbers, constantly growing less — who directs its operations. They are men of power. In their offices are key-boards, and from the keys wires have been strung into all the habitable zones and under all the oceans. By a touch of the keys they may influence the fortunes for good or evil, of vast numbers of people on more continents than one.

No men, however honest or capable they may be, ought to be entrusted by a free people with such tremendous power.

Nor can a people who, under such circumstances, quietly submit to the abuses which have been heaped upon the people of many sections of the country for the last few years, long remain free. The machinery of a great republic and all the forms of freedom may for a time remain; but unless the people look well to the future, the substance will have gone out to return no more. In this changing civilization… let not the people be deceived, it is liberty that is at stake. The institutions which our fathers made are able to protect the people in this new crisis if they shall be able to resist that corruption, degarding influence which whispers its serpent hiss into the ears of every many whom it desires to control. This is America; if the people are true to themselves, no room for force is necessary in this contest. They can lawfully combat and tramp beneath their feet this last, and if unchecked, soon to become to greatest, most perfect, most dangerous system of centralized power that civilization has yet produced. The father would have no kings — no House of Lords — they said in so many words “There shall be no nobility.” In the hands of the great body of people they left the political power… It is for this generation to complete the work.

– General Theodore H. Barrett, Address delivered before the National Farmers’ Alliance at its Seventh Annual Meeting Held in Minneapolis, Minnesota, Tuesday, October 4th, 1887.


In which the footnote to history perhaps gets its own body paragraph

There are times when people question why I have a blog. Particularly in the early days, my wife wavered from not understanding why anybody would ever have one to actively resenting the existence of the entire medium from time to time. Some fellow academics have (correctly) warned that you have to be very careful about what you post lest a journal down the road decide that you’re the person they’re going to take a hard line on with respect to how “previously published” is defined. Particularly in those moments when I feel burdened by a lack of time to put up posts, there are times when it just seems it would be better to take it down. Then, at other times, I realize that it’s very useful as a way of developing writing discipline, a way of spitballing certain kinds of ideas (even if it’s best to not fully develop them here), and that even if I’m not Rod Dreher and can just put up five 3,000 word essays a day before I’ve even finished my first cup of coffee, there’s a utility to keeping it up, even if I do so irregularly.

Then, every so often, there are other things that happen that make me glad that I have the blog.

Earlier this week, I got an e-mail from one Michael Kukowski, who had come across my earlier post on my great-great-grandfather, General Theodore H. Barrett. He believed he was in possession of a letter written by Theodore, dated 22 July 1871 from Fort Arbuckle, “Indian Territory” (now Oklahoma). The letter is requesting equipment for the effort of the initial survey of the Territory, making the document a witness, as Michael put it, to “the literal birth of Oklahoma”.

Initially, however, it seemed like perhaps there had been a mistake. The letter was actually signed “T. H.”, not Theodore, and a timeline to Oklahoma history that Michael pointed me to referenced the survey work being done by Thomas Barrett, not Theodore. A quick Google search did turn up mentions of “Theodore Barrett” as the surveyor, but it was enough to generate questions. I had also never heard of Theodore doing any surveying, so I wasn’t quite sure what to do with all of this.

So, like the good historian I aspire to be, it was time to check my sources. As it happens, I have in my possession a scan of a different letter that we know was written by Theodore in 1889, so there was a handwriting sample against which Michael’s letter could be compared. I also knew that I had seen a fairly extensive obituary for Theodore at some point, but since my dad, uh, appropriatedall of the stuff his aunt Frances sent me all those years ago (“What are you doing with that? She must have meant to send that to me, not you. Why would she send it to you? I’d like it back, please.”), I didn’t have recourse to it. I started to see if there might be an electronic version of it anywhere, and curiously, I came up with — of all things — an listing for a publication called “Gen. Theo. H. Barrett: Address Delivered before the National Farmer’s Alliance At It’s Seventh Annual Meeting Held at Minneapolis, Minnesota, Tuesday, October 4th, 1887”, AKA “Address to the American People”, published in an undated (but no earlier than 1900) “memorial edition” by the Morris Tribune of Morris, Minnesota. I remembered this being referenced in Frances’ materials, and it seemed like it might be worthwhile to track down. Amazon listed it as, surprise of surprises, “Presently unavailable”, but it occurred to me that if Amazon listed it, maybe WorldCat might be able to find it, in which case I might be able to get it via interlibrary loan.

WorldCat listed two libraries in the world that have a copy: The Minnesota Historical Society Library, and — wait, what? — yes, no kidding, Indiana University.

Two libraries in the whole world. Sometimes, I tell you, it’s just clear to me that there are no accidents.

Within 24 hours, I had IU’s copy of the booklet in my hands. I appear to be the first person to have ever checked it out. It was just waiting for me.

The pamphlet is prefaced with a biographical sketch of Theodore, and it contains the following helpful information:

[Barrett] taught school for a short time and at the age of 19 [~1854] went to Wheeling, Virginia, where he engaged at surveying. He came to the then territory of Minnesota in 1856, and engaged in the practice of his profession, surveying, until 1862… [Following the Civil War,] General Barrett was mustered out of the service on the 19th day of January 1866 at which time he was brevetted Brigadier-General of the United States Volunteers, to take rank from March 13, 1865. After he was mustered out of the service he returned to Minnesota, and was for several years engaged in surveying the Government lands in Minnesota, Dakota, Canada, Oklahoma, Texas and the Indian Territory (emphasis mine).

So, there you have it. The other part of the happy ending is that Michael sent me a scan of his letter, and the handwriting on the two letters matched. So, yes, no question it’s the same Theodore. My great-great-grandfather invented Oklahoma.

The address is actually a fascinating little document on several levels. I plan on scanning it before returning it to the library, and I’m also really curious to contact the Morris Tribune (which still runs) to see if they have either any archival copies or any documents related to its publication. There seems to be a particular historical circumstance that he’s responding to in his speech, and I don’t feel like I know enough about what it is, but much of what he says seems applicable to present circumstances. I will perhaps more to say about that later.

In any event, while I’m definitely not a Civil War historian or an American historian by any means, I’m still a historian, and there’s part of me that is curious to see if there’s enough here for an article, particularly given the raw deal the history books have given Theodore when they do see fit to make mention of him. Michael wants to put the letter in a museum, possibly in Barrett, MN, and while I don’t know that they’ll have the right kind of facility for it, it would be great if it could wind up there. We’ll see.

In any event — these are the kinds of things that make me glad I write a blog. Thanks very much, Michael!

Facebook and digital bumper stickers

I have no idea who Demetri Martin is, except that my godson Lucas often quotes the following from him: “A lot of people don’t like bumper stickers. I don’t mind bumper stickers. To me a bumper sticker is a shortcut. It’s like a little sign that says ‘Hey, let’s never hang out.'”

Things that people post on Facebook can be like bumper stickers, except they can be a lot longer, and they can be intended to be seen by a key group of people whom they know will get that warm and fuzzy feeling in their stomach that one gets when one hears a clever soundbite that they agree with. Or both.

Here are a couple of recent examples — “recent” meaning “having shown up a lot over the last several months/years, and it’s only in the last week that I’ve finally hit the last straw with them”:

Exhibit A: “You can safely assume that you’ve created God in your own image when it turns out that God hates all the same people you do.” – Anne Lamott

I’m not the world’s biggest Anne Lamott fan, and I find this particular gem to be really annoying with its oh-so-cleverly-stated, but still intellectually dishonest, tone. On the other hand, I assume God loves Anne Lamott, so I guess at least on that point, I pass her cute little test. Still, the “Very Liberal And You Know It Because I Put the Word ‘Very’ In Front of It on Facebook” crowd can’t help but rah-rah this whenever it shows up, and the cycle seems to take about a week.

Yeah, yeah, fine, I’m uncharacteristically grumpy. I’m about to turn 35; I guess it happens. Rassafrassafrickfrackindamnkidsgetoffmylawn. Let me clarify a couple of things.

First — I find that, for my own sanity, Anne Lamott is best treated as what we might call devotional satire. Satire is great, love satire, but it seems to me that with most satire, if you’re not the target audience then you’re just the target, and I’m acutely aware when I encounter Lamott’s writings that I am not the target audience.

Second — I actually don’t disagree with what I see as the broader point here; I just don’t find that Lamott has put it in a terribly constructive way. It’s intellectually dishonest because it’s pointing the finger at people who point the finger to show them why pointing the finger is wrong (language I borrow from anti-death penalty slogans — “Why do we kill people who kill people in order to show that killing people is wrong?”). That said, it’s a kind of intellectually dishonesty that’s fairly common to satire, so perhaps what bothers me about it is a feature and not a bug, and again, I’m just not part of the target audience.

So, thought experiment time. Let’s take somebody like, say, Frederica Mathewes-Green, or to take it several hundreds of steps further, Ann Coulter, and let’s say that she comes up with a pithy, digestible quote that goes something like this: “You can safely assume that you’ve created God in your own image when it turns out that God approves of everything you do.” This would be a problematic statement, right? It would be smug, cloying, and it would smack of trying to generate a spiritual fist-pump from everybody who already agrees with you as well as pointing the finger at everybody who doesn’t, not-so-subtly (explicitly, really) accusing them of bad faith.

And I think you’d be right to think that. I’d have the same problem with such a statement. To me, there’s a bigger picture here that can be stated constructively (and maybe even catechetically): God, when we follow Him, will challenge our comfort zones. That’s a great thing to be reminded of; I sure need reminders of that, constantly. As stated by Lamott and hypothetical-Mathewes-Coulter, however, it’s put in a manner that’s intended to provoke self-righteous indignation against Everybody Who’s Like That. And it seems to me, from what I have encountered of Lamott’s work, that she probably would howl at my hypothetical reversal. So, yes, while I need reminders of the broader point, I do not seek them from Anne Lamott as a rule. She’s no St. John Chrysostom, as far as I’m concerned.

At least, that’s how I see it, which, to get back to my first point, maybe just all underscores that — say it with me — I am not part of the target audience for Anne Lamott.

If that makes me a grump who’s just wrong about this, well, fine, but just so you know it’s not just squishy lefty nonsense that bugs me but also let’s-have-Glenn-Beck-rewrite-history right-wing crap, there’s also this:

Exhibit B: “‘Should we look to kings and princes to put right the inequalities between rich and poor? Should we require soldiers to come and seize the rich person’s gold and distribute it among his destitute neighbors? Should we beg the emperor to impose a tax on the rich so great that it reduces them to the level of the poor and then to share the proceeds of that tax among everyone? Equality imposed by force would achieve nothing, and do much harm. Those who combined both cruel hearts and sharp minds would soon find ways of making themselves rich again. Worse still, the rich whose gold was taken away would feel bitter and resentful; while the poor who received the gold form the hands of soldiers would feel no gratitude, because no generosity would have prompted the gift. Far from bringing moral benefit to society, it would actually do moral harm. Material justice cannot be accomplished by compulsion, a change of heart will not follow. The only way to achieve true justice is to change people’s hearts first – and then they will joyfully share their wealth.’ St. John Chrysostom on the poor from On Living Simply XLIII.”

First of all, I’d like to point out that I included the attribution as part of the quote. That’s key here.

There are several problems with this. One, there is no Chrysostom homily called “On Living Simply XLIII”. On Living Simply is a collection of what are supposedly Chrysostom quotes edited by somebody named Robert Van de Weyer, and this is passage #43 in that volume. Unfortunately, Van de Weyer has not actually sourced these passages in any way that would actually tell anybody where he got them.

Now, I am not accusing Van de Weyer of making anything up. I have no evidence that he made anything up. I’m going to assume that he got the quote in a manner similar to how everybody is getting it from him (and this XKCD cartoon is perhaps relevant to the discussion). However, I do know two things:

1) Catherine Roth didn’t include anything vaguely like this reference in her compilation of Chrysostom’s greatest hits on the topic, On Wealth and Poverty. Now, that in and of itself could just be evidence that she didn’t include it, not that it doesn’t exist. Proving a negative is always really difficult.

2) Still, Thesaurus Linguae Graecae is text-complete for Chrysostom, and searching the corpus on various key Greek words that the English version of the passage suggests should be there comes up with nothing that looks anything like this. Gotta be careful with TLG, because as I’ve found out, searching on Chrysostom can for some reason trip their “He could be illicitly downloading all of our ancient Greek texts!” sensor, but I spent a good hour or so poking around for something that could even be loosely translated like this, and there’s nothing.

On a conceptual level, though — this “Chrysostom” claims that the wealthy will “feel bitter and resentful” as part of the argument against taxes. Well, here’s something I’m reasonably certain from sourced quotations that St. John Chrysostom did say:

…God says, “The earth has brought forth her increase, and you have not brought forth your tithes; but the theft of the poor is in your houses.” Since you have not given the accustomed offerings, He says, you have stolen the goods of the poor. He says this to show the rich that they hold the goods of the poor even if they have inherited them from their fathers or no matter how they have gathered their wealth. And elsewhere the Scripture says: “Deprive not the poor of his living.” To deprive is to take what belongs to another; for it is called deprivation when we take and keep what belongs to others. By this we are taught that when we do not show mercy, we will be punished just like those who steal. (Chrysostom, Sermon II on Lazarus and the Rich Man, trans. Roth)

Yeah, I can’t really say that I buy that Chrysostom actually cares about whether or not the wealthy will “feel bitter and resentful”.

“Well, I don’t care who actually said it, it’s still right,” I’ve heard a couple of people say to this. It actually matters quite a bit whether or not Chrysostom said it, and I think we all know this and why. Chrysostom is being given as the authority for something that looks like a remarkably specific policy position that is quite relevant to the present day. If he in fact said this, it carries a lot of a particular kind of weight; if he can’t be accurately cited as the source, then it doesn’t carry the same weight. One may still agree with it, but it doesn’t have the same kind of authority behind it.

Now, what I’m not saying is, “So, of course, Marx is how we deal with this.” All I’m saying is that, until Van de Weyer (or somebody) actually cites a source that can be checked, it is irresponsible to attribute this passage to Chrysostom. It may well be an ideological position that some find attractive, and it may well be what some convicted Christians believe is the “Christian position” and thus would love to have support for from the words of the Golden Mouth, but as of this moment, the matter of whether or not he actually said it is pretty sketchy. Whether or not I myself agree with the content of the passage is not relevant; the point is responsible attribution of texts, and I have yet to see that Van de Weyer has done so.

So bottom line for the evening is that Anne Lamott is no St. John Chrysostom, and as presented by Van de Weyer, Chrysostom’s no Chrysostom either. So can we pick some other bumper sticker-style pithy and clever quotes for our Facebook walls, please? Damnkidsgetoffmylawn.

“William Adams regrets the interruption and inconvenience his daughter’s post has caused to the Aransas County, Texas community.”

I mostly blog for myself, given my whole two regular readers, so I don’t generally feel a need to rush to comment on public events. This whole mess has been making the rounds for the last week and a half or so, and while I’ve had a pretty good idea that I have something to say about it, I’ve not felt compelled to churn it out for immediate consumption. I will warn you ahead of time: yes, I normally keep the blog within the PG-13 range (or tamer). Given the subject matter, and some of what I have to say about it, you may well want to consider this a post that ventures into R territory in spots. You have been warned. I will also say I have been deliberately vague about a lot of things with respect to my own circumstances because I don’t want to accuse any specific person of any specific thing; please don’t ask me for details because I won’t give them to you.

I am reticent to identify as a victim of abuse. At the very least, I certainly can’t be said to have been physically abused. I acknowledge having received some overly negative treatment at the hands of certain parties while I was growing up, but it’s very difficult for me on several levels to call this treatment “abuse”. There are people who are rather eager to apply that label on my behalf, and I always refuse to stand for it when it comes up. My priest once made the comment, after my having discussed some of my personal history with him, that while he doesn’t know if I can really be said to have been abused, certainly what I went through was abusive. I don’t know what I think about that distinction, but suffice it to say that there was a lot of complicated stuff going on in various contexts throughout the course of my childhood, and shit tended to roll downhill, intentionally or not. Something I was told more than once was, usually tinged with regret, “This has nothing to do with you, Richard. Unfortunately, the dog bites the cat bites the rat.” Much of what happened tended to be emotional and/or intellectual in nature; let’s say that there was a rather strong center of authority that enjoyed a hegemony of hyper-rational mental aggression clothed in the language of concern and expressed as either relentless rage, mocking without mercy, or simply cold disinterest (that was really active, overbearing interest). The inevitable results of shame, guilt, self-hatred, and alienation would often be pointed out by third parties, and this would be received with all hostility, usually generating more of the same behavior. The party in question would never, ever, under any circumstances, admit the possibility they might be wrong; the behavior was always justified by the lack of an alternative if they were to be concerned with the result — “Am I just supposed to not care?” The only way that a mistake might be admitted to was if, in fact, this party had been talked into softening their stance. Then, and only then, would they admit error, and it was the error of not having stuck to their guns in the first place or, as it was put from time to time, that this party simply “wasn’t a big enough asshole about it”. In other words, the only error was in not adhering to the principle of their own infallibility. “I thought I made a mistake, but I was wrong.”

I’ll also say that, while I have had a lot of hard stuff to work through as a result of this behavior and its consequences for many people I care about (not just me), I have never liked the idea of this behavior being characterized as “abuse”, and it’s because I have always tried to assume the best of intentions for the party in question. Maybe they’re right, that in certain positions of authority the choices are pretty binary, that if you don’t have complete control you do not have the luxury to give a fuck, as the figure of authority it is in fact your job to be the asshole about it, and if anybody thinks less of you for it, fuck them and the horse they rode in on. So, as a Christian whose charge is to forgive seventy times seven, maybe it’s incumbent on me to assume that however I might have experienced this, that, or the other thing, this party had the best of intentions for me, and circumstances beyond everybody’s control (which did in fact exist, I must acknowledge) just didn’t allow for that to be expressed positively or pleasantly. Had the world not been going to hell for the circle of people my family moved in while I was growing up, interactions with this particular party could have been a lot different; it just wasn’t meant to be, and that’s my cross to bear.

I have, let me tell you, spent much of my adult life dealing (badly) with the severe cognitive dissonance of trying to keep that spin on things going. I still largely believe it. However, I find that, in my adult life, I have absolutely no patience for people whom I perceive as unabashedly intellectually (or spiritually) aggressive and having that as a modus operandi for backing people into corners and in general forcing people to smell their feces because they can’t stammer out a reasonable enough counterargument as to why they shouldn’t. This can manifest itself in a number of ways, overtly or not; there was the person who announced a few years ago that, if they were friends with you on Facebook, they reserved the right to ask you to take down content from your wall that they saw as “not glorifying the Lord”, and if they asked you three times and you didn’t do it, they would un-friend you (apparently following a biblical model). The reason given was that Facebook friendship implied an endorsement on their part of anything you posted publicly, and so anything they judged as “not glorifying the Lord” not taken down while they were friends with you left them complicit with your sin. I just stopped talking to this person altogether for presuming that they were qualified to judge the contents of the world’s Facebook walls; they didn’t last long on Facebook to begin with, I haven’t spoken to this person in about six years, and have no plans to change that. I don’t like confrontations — I don’t even really like looking people in the eye most of the time. Yes, as a commenter took me to task on somewhat recently, I’ve got a somewhat paradoxical and hypocritical thing about humility in how people express themselves. Being intellectually, emotionally, or spiritually pushed around is something I’m going to try to pre-empt in how I express things, and it will make me very cross when people ignore the pre-emption attempt and go heavy-handed anyway. There is a certain kind of person who immediately zeroes in on what they perceive as weakness in somebody else and does everything they can to attack it; I do not have pleasant relationships with such people, as a rule. (Such people can pop up under very inconvenient circumstances, too, such as being my boss or being somebody whose house I have to live at for an extended period of time. Nightmares, all of them.)

So then there’s this video of a judge and his daughter, and his three page response to the resulting publicity (you can get to it from the article I linked to). This line is a real gem: “William Adams regrets the interruption and inconvenience his daughter’s post has caused to the Aransas County, Texas community.” In other words — nope, no way did I make a mistake in beating a girl with a belt for seven minutes straight (or in that being a regular occurrence), although I apparently didn’t hit her hard or frequently enough for her to learn something by it. Well, after my own personal experiences, that one line tells me everything I need to know about this man, and it makes me mourn for him and his family. I mourn for him because the way he has been shaped means that any self-reflection or admission of error must, can only, be an attack on his authority. I either am allowed to care to the point of this extreme of an action, or I don’t have the luxury to be interested.

But surely someone who has had to rely as much on their own knowledge, education, judgment, and self-confidence as a judge does can be permitted the benefit of the doubt? Their discernment is law, quite literally, and that must as a courtesy be extended to the walls of their home and not just their legal chambers, right? Whew. Maybe not.

I can’t really comment on the daughter or the mother too much without having to get more specific than I want to be about my own circumstances, but I will say this — my assumption is that the daughter knew exactly what would happen, it’s exactly what she wanted, and she was waiting for the time at which her very carefully-crafted weapon (because that’s exactly what the video is and what it was always meant to be) would have the most impact. I don’t have a clue what her motives are (although I find the judge’s presumption about her motives to be a crass and desperate attempt to move focus away from his own actions), but I assume that there’s nothing from him in particular that she wants, because she must know now that she will never get it. There is something bigger than the beatings going on; as an adult, she could have just walked away from any relationship with him, but this is irrevocable, and she knows it. If I wanted to make sure that I never had anything ever to do with the particular party I reference above, I would give names and dates and places and specifics and quotes, lots and lots of quotes. But I don’t. I do not presently have an active relationship with this particular party, but I maintain the hope one might eventually be re-established. If I really didn’t give a rat’s ass about it, I’d have no problem dragging them publicly and particularly through the mud. So I assume some similar calculus must have gone through this young woman’s head. I can’t really say that I blame her. As to the mother… well, parents have complex reasons for either putting up a fight or hanging back that I can’t yet begin to understand. Alliances in families where abuse is a reality strike me as fluid things, dependent on circumstances and positioned to maximize survival rather than comfort. Maybe it’s a Nurembergian “just following orders” scenario, but I really doubt it.

Pray for the strong that they always know the limits of their strength. Pray for the weak that they may be constantly shown mercy and deference by the strong. Pray for the wounded that they may be healed. Pray for those inflicting wounds that they may be reconciled to those they’ve injured. Pray that those who err can admit their mistake in a truly healing and non self-serving way. Pray for us all that we may see another way besides action and reaction, injury and retribution, hurt and revenge.

Husbands, fathers, and All My Sons

Over the summer I saw a local production of Arthur Miller’s All My Sons. I’d never seen it before, but I was familiar enough with the premise, and familiar enough with Arthur Miller’s overall dramatic sensibility and style to know I wasn’t exactly in for a Whedonesque light-hearted romp. I had a small role and was also in the chorus for Indiana University’s first production of William Bolcom’s setting of A View From the Bridge back in 2005 (I say “first” because IU just revived it, which I have to say surprises me a bit), and Death of a Salesman is near and dear to my heart in a lot of ways. My junior year of high school, a neighboring high school’s theatre department did a wonderful production of it with now-working actor Chad Afanador as Willy Loman. (Chad, I’ll mention, shared my very first theatrical endeavor, Wellington Elementary’s 1984/5 production of You’re a Good Man, Charlie Brown, in which he was Linus and I was Charlie Brown; he also was with me on my first trip to Indiana, when I tagged along with his high school to the International Thespian Society’s 1993 Festival at Ball State University.) Chad was so good that I dragged my parents to it the second weekend; at intermission, I got a taste of certain disconnects to come because they insisted we leave. “He’s too believable for it to be the least bit enjoyable,” they said.

Anyway, All My Sons was, predictably, thought-provoking (perhaps, for some, a euphemism for “depressing”); its commentary on the failure of the American Dream is well-trodden ground, but I wonder how much its setting obscures what the play has to say for contemporary audiences who might not be clear whether to take it as a period piece or as a present-day work. It’s a key plot point, for example, that a conversation needed to happen in person because “you can’t prove a phone call”, which sounds bizarre to me, and I’m part of a generation that still remembers things like land lines and operators — I can’t imagine how it must clang against the ears for somebody who grew up with cell phones being the norm. That wasn’t a problem for this production, however, because I was the youngest person in the audience by probably twenty years; it was mostly a blue-hair crowd, and it was a small one at that. It was really too bad; war profiteering is hardly an irrelevant issue in our time, and it seems like the kind of thing a contemporary audience should eat up. Maybe not in southern Indiana.

More intriguing and immediate to me, however, was the issue of fatherhood. Joe Keller is a man, in wanting to be a good father, makes choices that turn him into a bad father — and when his choices threaten to spill over onto his son, he has only one way to atone so that his son’s honor is preserved. This is also an issue for Willy Loman, and in a more abstract way, for Eddie Carbone as well. Joe’s tragic flaw, it seems, is that he’s a great businessman, but he’s a great businessman who can’t see that the businessman’s instinct of self-preservation has much greater consequences when lives are on the line. A businessman who makes business decisions that inconvenience his competitors and/or his customers is ruthless, maybe, but when he makes those decisions and they cost lives, then he’s a murderer — and when it’s wartime and those decisions cost his country lives, he’s a traitor and a murderer. In a way, Joe — again, like Willy Loman — does only what he knows how to do; he can’t figure out how to adapt to the different circumstances of wartime. In not being able to adapt, he is also not able to the father he clearly wants and tries to be.

We have a lot of images of fathers in our world that are problematic, literally and figuratively. From Darth Vader to clergy abuse scandals, father figures are almost de facto untrustworthy, unlovable, unreliable, to be viewed with suspicion and fear. For myself, it is anxiety looking both forward and back; looking forward, I am perhaps within a year of being a father myself, and this is not a matter of small concern for me. Looking back — well, what perhaps would be least inappropriate for me to say is that the number of times we had to move while I was growing up, combined with financial difficulties, my parents moving away when I was 17 (quite literally the day after I graduated high school), their divorce being fresh when Megan and I were married — leading to another series of relocations on both of their parts — and my educational and career choices have all contributed to familial relationships that are complicated. I’ve seen for myself Joe Keller’s attitude of “dollars and cents, nickels and dimes,” the belief that as long as a businessman is making the decisions he thinks are best for his business, then he should be seen as above reproach regardless of any other factors, and I’ve seen that perspective ensure that there’s nothing left for, or for that matter of, the family of the person who thinks that way.

Is it realistic to think that a father can pass on a legacy worth having to his family in this age? I don’t mean a material inheritance necessarily, but what about a way of life? A set of values? An identity? A memory? Or do things just change too fast nowadays for who a father is to mean anything to the next generation? Even taking up the idea of a material inheritance for the moment — I have one friend whose parents, still married, live in the house they bought in the early 1970s, and I have a neighbor who inherited the house he grew up in when his mother passed away, but these seem like outliers to me. I also just happened to read Conan Doyle’s “The Hound of the Baskervilles” recently, and Henry Baskerville’s conviction that “[h]ouse, land, and dollars must go together” strikes me as a perspective that just doesn’t work in the present day. Even factoring out tax laws, that just doesn’t seem to be how the world works at this point.

Is being a good father in 1947 (when All My Sons premiered) the same thing as being a good father in 2011? What about being a good husband? I’ve been married almost eleven years, long enough that I’ve seen friends’ marriages break up, including a few that I never, ever thought would, and a couple that are truly tragic with respect to the human frailty involved. We’ve survived, but I can’t pretend to have any particular expert knowledge about how it works, and I’m still figuring out how I can come anywhere close to being either the husband I want to be or that my wife wishes I could be, but thankfully Flesh of My Flesh has buckets of grace to spare.

Never mind on that gift idea…

I know there were about a hundred of you planning on getting me Diane H. Touliatos-Miles’ Descriptive Catalog of the Musical Manuscript Collection of the National Library of Greece for my upcoming 35th birthday, as I had earlier suggested. You’re going to have to come up with another idea, however, since I was able to buy Ashgate’s display copy at the Byzantine Studies Conference for $50. Fr. John Behr’s book is still up for grabs, though.

Unlikely realities

Something that occasionally can seem like lazy historiography to me is when scholars call something “unlikely” to explain why they think it probably didn’t happen. It’s a way to argue with something that may show up in a primary source without necessarily having to reason your way through the disagreement; oh, well, such-and-such gives X account of this event but that’s “unlikely”, so we’ll assume it didn’t happen.

Here’s the thing. At the risk of getting all Dr. Manhattan on both of my regular readers, “unlikely” things happen all the time. I am an extraordinarily unlikely occurrence, given who my parents are, their personalities, their respective stations in life when they met, etc. It’s highly unlikely that my randomly going to a party one night while nearing emotional rock bottom should result, six years later, in me getting married to a person I met there (principally as somebody another friend of mine had a crush on). It’s highly unlikely that a college choir director deciding she was going plan a European tour should start a chain of events that would result in a conversion to Orthodox Christianity nine years later. And yet, these things defiantly happen nonetheless with callous disregard to whether or not a historian will later believe that they did.

A couple of other fairly unlikely things have happened to me in the last two or three weeks: for example, Megan and I, along with our godchildren Matt and Erin and our dear friend Anna, attended Lyric Opera of Chicago’s recent production of Tales of Hoffman. Not necessarily unlikely in and of itself (but since the last time we went to the Lyric was 9 years ago for Bryn Terfel’s Sweeney Todd, certainly not a regular occurrence), but consider the following: Hoffman was supposed to be produced at my first undergraduate institution, Western Washington University, my freshman year. WWU had put on a production of La Boheme a couple of years previous that had received national attention, was developing something of a reputation for being a good undergrad program for people who wanted to do opera, and Hoffman was going to be the big followup that would prove that Boheme wasn’t a fluke. Well — as the story was told to me in dribs and drabs from a few different people — political, economic, and practical concerns meant that this didn’t happen. Hoffman was nonetheless on my radar for the first time, and in short order the 1989 recording with Placido Domingo was the very first opera recording I ever owned. That disc featured people I’d never heard of before like Edita Gruberova and James Morris, and I played it over and over again.

Somebody who was in my freshman class was a soprano and cellist named Erin Wall. She was in 8am Music Theory with me the very first day of classes, we were in the same voice studio, and she was one of a group of Canadian students who were in Western’s music department for voice. She had a nice, full voice at a time when there were a lot of soubrettes hanging around; the last time I heard her during my time there was when she was one of the Flower Girls in The Marriage of Figaro in 1996, but after I dropped out I believe she got to do the title role in Susannah. Over the years I found out she was having quite the meteoric rise; she was a finalist for Canada in the Cardiff Singer of the World, she was part of Lyric Opera of Chicago’s young artist program, and then she started to get really busy.

A few months after leaving Western in ’97 I went to work for a Major Software Company and, shall we say, did a reasonable impersonation of a tester for a few years while trying to get to the next step as a singer. One of the things I tested had to do with web browsing, and one day I happened upon a student website for a soprano at Rice University named Anna Christy. There wasn’t anything particularly distinctive about the website, but I always remembered that I had hit it, particularly when I started seeing her name in Opera News a few years later as somebody who would be singing at Wolf Trap and so on.

Fall of 2003, after just starting at IU, I was flown back to Seattle to sing as the tenor soloist for a concert of Bach cantatas with the Seattle Symphony, John Harbison conducting. It was the biggest professional thing I ever got to do, and except for the check, it was a real waste for me and for the Seattle Symphony people. I was cast in a role at IU that I was removed from over this; the Seattle contract had been signed months ago, and I was to be gone the second to last week before opening. I didn’t even know I was up for anything in this particular show, and I explained my situation as soon as I found out I was cast. “Take it up with the stage director when staging rehearsals start,” I was told. Well, as soon as the stage manager said at the first staging rehearsal, “We’re not excusing anybody for any reason from any rehearsals,” I knew I had a problem, and sure enough, I was kicked out. (This was, of course, considered to be my fault from the standpoint of the opera administration, but never mind that now.) Not only that, but as soon as I got off the plane in Seattle, I came down with probably the worst sore throat I’ve ever had in my life, and my ability to phonate, still reasonable at the first rehearsal, was in tatters by the concerts. It was the first (well, only) time I’d ever been on a gig like this, I had no idea whom to talk to or what to do, and while I managed to sort of scrape by in the concerts — well, funny thing, the Seattle Symphony folks never called me again. (My voice teacher in Seattle, who had sent Seattle Symphony my way in the first place, said that from what he had heard it wasn’t exactly a “He’ll never sing in this town again” kind of thing, but that I was remembered as somebody who had problems, and he’d have to specifically arrange an audition for me down the road when the time came. Needless to say, the time never came, and thank God.)

Anyway, the bass in the solo quartet was one Christian Van Horn, who had just won the Met auditions. I doubt he would have any memory of who I am, and if he did remember me I doubt he’d remember me well, given the circumstances, but he was a tough guy to forget — physically and vocally imposing, to say the least.

My second year at IU, a mezzo-soprano named Jamie Barton started her Masters. She distinguished herself quickly in operas like La Cenerentola, but she was also a frequent guest at Chez Barrett, back in the day when I used to host large gatherings of IU voice people over nachos on a weekly basis. (Hey, that’s how I made friends when I first moved here — I fed people.) She won the Mets a few years ago, and since then, she’s been one popular mezzo.

So Chicago’s Hoffman featured James Morris (from that first recording) as the four villains, Erin Wall as Antonia, Anna Christy as Olympia, Christian Van Horn as Crespel, and Jamie Barton as Antonia’s Mother. (As well as Matthew Polenzani as Hoffman, whom I had last heard ten years ago in Seattle as Almaviva in Barber of Seville.) And with me in the audience — what an unlikely confluence of people and circumstances! If I took a time machine back to that first day of freshman year in September of 1994 and told the 19 year old Erin what would be happening in seventeen years, she’d laugh in my face, I’m sure. (The set looking like it was reproduced from a Chris Van Allsburg book was also pretty unlikely. Fascinating looking at times, but unlikely.)

The second unlikely thing to occur was a week ago today. I’ve written here and there about my lifelong fascination with Batman; well, as I had known for some time, Michael Uslan, the Executive Producer of the Batman films starting with the 1989 Tim Burton effort — and really the guy without whom a modern Batman on screen doesn’t happen — was an IU alumnus. He’s spoken on campus a few times since I’ve been here, but I’d never been able to go, so when I heard that there would be a screening of The Dark Knight in the new IU Cinema facility with Michael Uslan introducing the film, I made it a point to clear my calendar for the day and to order a copy of his memoir, The Boy Who Loved Batmanin time for the screening. As it happened, he gave a lecture in the afternoon in addition to the screening, and I was able to go to both. There is a brief account of the day here (hmmm — “RRB”, familiar initials, aren’t they?) so I’ll just say that the guy is one hell of an inspirational speaker, to say nothing of one hell of a self-promoter; he’s basically a comic book geek who has figured out how to make being so respectable, lucrative, and attractive. He was incredibly generous with his time at both the lecture and the screening; he kept answering questions until he was hooked off the stage, and during the book signing he talked to everybody.

So, chain of events — I find a book called Collecting Comic Books by Marcia Leiter at the Redmond Library in 1985, and my life is forever changed. Four years later on 23 June 1989, Batman introduces me to a way of thinking about movies that cares who’s in them, who directs them, who writes them, who designs the sets, who writes the music, and so on. I had been a Star Wars kid and then some, but I couldn’t have told you who George Lucas was. After the summer of 1989, though, damn skippy I cared who Tim Burton was and what else he had done and was going to do, who Danny Elfman was and what kind of music he did (followed by an obsession with Oingo Boingo for awhile), who Sam Hamm was and why it seemed he never wrote another movie anybody cared about, who Jon Peters was and why a former hairstylist was suddenly one of the most powerful producers in Hollywood, etc. At the very least, without Danny Elfman’s score, my interest in classical music probably doesn’t happen. (And then there’s something about a girl in high school that gets me starting to take voice lessons, but that’s somewhat beside the point at present.) Anyway, I then go to Indiana University in 2003 for music, which just happens to be Uslan’s beloved alma mater, leading to last week’s events. Again — how incredibly unlikely!

No historian will ever care about any of these things, I’m certain. If one were to ever to try to reconstruct these chains of events and concurrences of people and places and things, surely it would strain credibility. This doesn’t mean we have to interpret all of these things teleologically, necessarily, but it also means that just dismissing them is not really reflecting on how life works and how things play out.

Richard’s Twitter

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