Sunday, April 2, 2017

What's the Point of Art?

What’s the point of art, anyway? Maybe that seems a funny question when the arts play such a large role in our local economy. Huge, when you include the decorative arts. Antiques, and such, you know.

But, separate from the dollar benefit, the idea of art itself remains prickly for many non-artists. Maybe it smacks of self-indulgence. Or of elites in snooty museums drinking wine and nibbling canapes.

We do like art for our children. As the public schools minimize or eliminate funding for arts education, local groups step up to provide equipment, instruction, encouragement. Every year, organizations like the Round Top-Carmine Educational Foundation, ARTS (Art for Rural Texas), Texas Women for the Arts, Unity Theater in Brenham, the Round Top Library and others, renew these commitments.

Why do they think it’s important? What does art bring to a child’s life? In my opinion, much the same thing it brings to ours.

There are a lot of timeworn descriptions: self-expression; teamwork; the honing of senses, as the mind opens to the world it inhabits; eye-hand coordination, development of verbal ability, fun. All valuable to human beings of any age.

For adults, though, art opens the door to fuller communication. The kind that can move heart to heart, gut to gut. Most artists I know long for that.

But communication implies a recipient. An audience. And that’s where the marketplace comes in. Will they buy a ticket to our concert or play? Buy my watercolor or sculpture or necklace? Buy my story, my book?

Sometimes they will.

And if they don’t, why should we care? Sure, we value being known as an arts rich community. That reputation brings visitors here, to shop in our stores and eat in our restaurants. We thrill to the performances, the music and plays, concerts and exhibits that enliven our weekends.

And yet superlative local organizations such as Festival Hill at Round Top, Fayetteville Chamber Music, ARTS and others have to scramble constantly for donations and grants.

Many of us shrug that off. Somehow, we’ve got the notion that the marketplace makes good decisions about what deserves support, and what doesn’t. That popularity alone is the yardstick.

But how do you measure the value of art to a community’s soul? How do you experience the richness of human life if all you can see, hear, smell and touch is what “most people” want to pay for? Most people love potato chips powdered in flavor enhancers. How about if those were all you had to eat?

That’s why non-profit groups, private foundations, individual donors give time and money to keep alive what the marketplace overlooks.

Donor fatigue, volunteer fatigue, are real factors, however, in a community as small as ours. That’s why many of the groups feel such gratitude for the grants they receive from the Texas Commission on the Arts, itself under pressure from shrinking state budgets. The TCA, in turn, receives 10% of its annual funding from the National Endowment for the Arts, presently on the budgetary chopping block.

As those factors indicate, some people don’t think the arts deserve taxpayer support. Yet we’re benefitting so greatly from the activity of the arts, here in Fayette County. Benefitting personally, economically, emotionally.

Did you sell snacks to a student from Festival Hill last summer. Did you attend the annual Fourth of July concert in its superb concert hall?

Do you enjoy the programs and exhibits sponsored by ARTS for Rural Texas, out of Fayetteville? The variety of children’s programming is remarkable for any rural area.

Are you proud that your child can play a musical instrument, participating in a rich local tradition?

Is your B&B booked by people who’ve come here to hear music, see or buy art and antiques?

How about the houses you sell to new buyers, or build for them, because people are attracted to the art and culture we offer in addition to lovely scenery and fine neighbors.

By my calculation the Texas Commission on the Arts will lose $964,100 if NEA funding stops. Our local organizations (counting Round Top, LaGrange, Fayetteville and nearby Brenham) have received a total of $53,244 from the TCA so far in fiscal 2017. Not much, yet crucial to their survival. Will they lose all of it?

To replace that funding, it will take 1,064 new donors at $50 a pop every year. Spread between several organizations and committed in advance so budgets can be set up, teachers contracted with.
Can we count on you?

Thursday, March 2, 2017

You Know This Guy

You know him from TV or film, if not from high school. He was skinny or too fat. He wore his pants too high, and his shirt buttoned almost to his chin. He wrote for the school paper, joined the electronics club.

He didn’t run for class office, or try out for debate.

His impressionable years were highly politicized. Shocking assassinations in the recent past. Marches, clashes with police. The Vietnam war dragged on.

He noticed, however, that beneath all the chaos, all the noise, lay a framework of laws and rules most people accepted. Even the protesters used it to give their arguments ground to push against. Or ideals to invoke.

So he majored in political science. Studied what others found boring. The mechanics of democracy. Party structure, party rules. How people got elected and rose to power.

Computers made everything visible, voting patterns, party affiliations. Easy to correlate with a host of demographic details, age, sex, employment figures in the relevant districts, etc. The tools of marketing transferred well to the job of electing candidates. Easy to isolate your target audience, and then provide the ideas they would respond to.

That way, you’d control the candidate, too—supplying his words, telling him where to say them. You’d have real power without needing to be popular.

Power to change the rules, themselves. Change district boundaries so the opposition loses representatives. So their supporters’ votes no longer count.

Power to restrict voting hours and locations. Limit the numbers of machines in opposition precincts. Require picture ID’s that work a hardship on the elderly, poor people, some minorities and on married women who change their names.

The data showed that fewer voters helped his party win.

Intimidation had its place, too. The threat that voting somehow would make your political views public, thus harming your business, affecting your job. Despite recent changes to the primary election rules, we still don’t declare party preference to register in Texas. But we do declare it, in public, to get a primary ballot. That small distinction can be enough to induce hesitation. Shrink turnout.

After that, what’s left?  One more set of rules, the logical next step for the policy wonks and political operatives: Change the U.S. Constitution itself. The ultimate Framework. The ground we stand on.

Thirty-four states need to request an Article V convention. And Governor Abbott has made approving the request an emergency priority this year. (See his State of the State address.)

Wait a minute.

Did you or I vote for that? Did we ever tell Abbott we wanted that? Where’d he get the idea?

From the Texas GOP platform, that’s where, playground of far right true believers and activists. (Have you even read it?) This arcane arena of party rules and pronouncements is where our Nerd is most at home.

When someone can’t win an honest battle of ideas—when he’s given up on appeals to informed reason—all that’s left are these structural tricks. Deflating the football, juicing the bat, dog or horse. Gaming the system. Because our political Nerd of the high pants, drunk on the game of power, will try to win by any means.  

We tell our kids not to cheat, but all around them are the spoils of cheating adults.

For every political operative who emerges from the back room—as Stephen Miller and Karl Rove have—there are a thousand others whose names we will never know.

But our children will eat the tainted fruit of their labor.

Friday, February 10, 2017

Created Equal

I've seen memes and comments on Facebook the past few days saying that “The Women’s March doesn’t speak for me.”

To be sure about that, though, you need to know what the March was saying. I think it was very simple. The marchers were asking for respect, equality, safety and freedom.

They were doing it peacefully, too. (Those references you hear from Conservatists about violence refer to the previous day, Inauguration Day, demonstrations that were unconnected to the Women's March.)

“I have equality,” said one of my Facebook correspondents. “Why can’t we (women) just be happy to be what we are and stop trying to be something we aren’t?” she said.

Men, she meant. An old stereotype, and false.

Feminism has been draped with a lot of confusing descriptions. Underlying all of them, however, is the desire for treatment that confirms equality. Respect for a woman’s self, mind and body. In law and society.

Equality is an absolute. You can’t be partially equal.

So keep it simple. Whatever one’s social position in American culture, if you’re female, you’re less. Paid less, respected less. Objectified more.

And the usual source of disrespect, the focus of demeaning, unwanted attention, is a woman’s reproductive equipment.

A male candidate for president brags on tape about groping women’s genitalia. The very part of a person we warn our children that strangers must not touch.

When someone grabs you in that way without invitation, it’s a crime.

“Men talk like that.” Some women said.

But even when it is “only talk,” it assumes dominance. He assumes he has a right to humiliate you, to hulk over you, and know that there is nothing you can do about it physically. The only thing preventing rape, broken bones or death is the man’s good will and self-control. (And, if we are lucky, an effective judicial system.)

Many women reacted viscerally to the taped conversation and to the body language candidate Trump expressed in the second debate. Remember how he loomed over Secretary Clinton, invaded her space with his size and weight? A tactic, no doubt.

But it reminded many women of personal experience. It reminded them of unwanted fondling in the workplace or from strangers. Of catcalls on the sidewalk. Of verbal abuse, punches, and yes, rapes.

The frequency of personal invasion is shocking. At work, in school, in social situations, even at home, among the women I call my friends, not one has escaped it.

If you want to know why there are so many people upset and disturbed about our new president, this is one reason.

The issue is power, of course. The human drive to power over others. 

Power is the basic American currency. A show of power, real or pretended, is required. Football enables viewers to bask in the glow of hyper-masculine strength, just by watching. Open carry laws bring that feeling into the supermarket and café.

Human beings need to feel powerful to varying degrees. It’s a part of competence, maturity, mental health. Where it goes wrong is when it becomes a matter of controlling other autonomous individuals.

The need to control others can be ugly. Can lead us to dark actions.

That may be why most of us don’t want to examine it too closely. Introspection is not popular in a Republican White House. Both Bushes, as well as Trump have admitted to steering well clear of the process. They can’t take the risk of discovering the measure of their own weakness.

But without introspection, many important things can escape notice. And Power has a way of dismissing what it fails to notice.

The Women’s March made dismissal more difficult. It brought the attention of the world to bear on how our new government intends to exercise its power. It puts millions of faces on the people our government’s actions will affect, for good or ill.

That’s why the women marched, all races, colors, creeds, national heritage; all varieties of gender and orientation and age. Peacefully, worldwide. They were saying women’s equality, human equality, matters. Don’t forget that. Don’t overlook or dismiss it. Don’t destroy it.

And the men who understand the stakes marched with us. Even my 95-year-old husband who couldn’t walk far. He was there, with me, supporting equality.

Why? I asked. Because I think of myself as a fair-minded person, he said.

It’s as simple as that.

(A version of this appeared in the Feb. 2, 2017 Fayette County Record.)

Thursday, January 26, 2017

Who Are These Elites?

We hear the term a lot lately. “The elites.”

In sports, elite is a compliment. In travel, it’s a perk. In politics, it’s poison.

Particularly in the recent election. The electoral college, which is tilted away from the dominance of city-dwellers, shows a substantial vote “against the elites.” Although the beneficiary is himself a billionaire.

Apparently, money alone isn’t enough to make you “elite.”

What is?

There has always been an elite in this country. Boston Brahmins, New York’s “Old 400” families. The Roosevelts, Teddy, FDR and Eleanor. The east coast intelligentsia. Wall Street bankers.

The elite gets blurred with issues of class—the upper class of birth and the upper middle class of meritocracy. The latter includes smart people who write successful books, publish the news, who set and administer policy, who run corporations and things, in general.

This election added a new meaning to the term.

No longer is elite status an aspiration to work toward and celebrate in a child’s achievement. Now it expresses the parents’ alienation.

We think “the elites” look down on us.

If they do, the reason is education.

For generations, Americans have believed in education as the path to upward mobility. Public education. Higher education. Community education. Something more than job training. Gradually, that has slipped away.

Why does it matter? Because a rounded education gives us a lot more than job skills.

Such as, a fuller understanding of where we come from, how we fit into the story of our village, town, state and nation. How those stories fit into the story of the world.

No story is more fragile.

My ancestors came from Scotland, France and Germany. The American story that brought them together is an invention of the human mind.

We like to think it descended in pure form from our Founding Fathers, “the elite” of their time, as we imagine it. But in truth the story of America is altered continually, by every generation.

By every individual family that pulls away from community, by every schoolroom (public, private or home) that gives in to the seduction of propaganda when choosing texts to study.

It’s altered by every vote we cast.

The narrow definition of “the elites” as people who “don’t get it,” who “look down on us,” is a product of perception distorted by hidden purpose. Very gradually it has risen to supplant the dream of our parents and grandparents for better lives defined by something more than the size of a television set or waist.

We don’t even know it is happening because we don’t have the education to decode it.

The father of modern advertising, a German named Goebbels, taught us that power can be gained by inventing an alternative “truth,” then repeating and repeating it. Imagine if he’d had the tools of social media and the internet to do that with.

We vote from our gut, not our minds. We vote by feelings created by the information we take in. From media, community, church and friends. From personal experience.

And all of it can be manipulated by one elite we didn’t notice.

The cynical elite who hovered behind the scenes in this past election, but whom we are coming to know all too well.

The popularizers of the alt-right, neo-Nazi fringe: Steve Bannon and Breitbart News.

And the billionaire outliers slated for Trump’s cabinet. Former Goldman Sachs traders, hedge fund managers, contrarian ideologues and more generals than most military juntas boast.

We spoiled children have set fire to our homeland without even a cave to run to.


Thursday, December 15, 2016

Thanks Must Be Given

After an election like the one we just endured, Thanksgiving—with its focus on what’s good—can’t come soon enough. Here’s a list of some things I’m thankful for this year, in addition to my dear family:

Autumn. At last. Narcissus bulbs, emboldened by the receptivity of Texas voters, have been trying to bloom in my garden. Not yet, fellas. Not till January, at least.
BBQ turkey at Truth Barbecue outside Brenham, piled high on a bun and anointed with cole slaw and sauce. Love that word, Truth.

Books. H is for Hawk, by Helen MacDonald; A Writer’s Diary, by Virginia Woolf; Our Souls at Night, by Kent Haruf; All the Light We Cannot See, by Anthony Doerr.
Cell phone coverage, when and if you have it;

Our churches, source of necessary consolation to so many. And the wonderful Wandke organ in Round Top’s Bethlehem Lutheran Church, soon to be 150 years old.
Festival Hill, year-round. A source of pride as well as beauty in our world. Music is the surest form of time travel.

Football season winding down. Soon the sound of helmets and shoulder pads colliding will fade. Young bones and brains will be relatively safe for another year.
Handicap parking. The whole Americans with Disabilities Act, in fact. What a hassle going anywhere would be without it. Remember: climbing stairs and curbs before ramps, public lavatories without a railing to grip, and with stalls too small for a wheelchair? HEB or Lowe’s would be impossible if we had to walk from the far recesses of the parking lot, too. I’m thankful to whoever accomplished that beneficial change. Congress, you say? Signed into law by President George H.W. Bush? Yep.

Innocence. A rare commodity and getting more so. I see it in the littlest children, three and four-year-olds, before the internet can climb into their minds. I see it in dogs, the way they wholly inhabit their true selves. What is more beautiful than a dog doing the work he was intended to do? We should protect and cherish innocence wherever we find it.
Onion rings at JW’s Steakhouse in Carmine. Mmm.

People who come to book signings.
Pulled pork sandwiches at Teague’s Tavern. The tavern itself, a welcome addition to the Round Top menu.

Poems. The Poem-a-day from Comes in email. Always interesting, often elevating.
The Constitutional right of citizen protest. Let’s make sure we squash any attempts to shut it down.

Rain when we need it, and sunshine when we don’t.
The resilience of German and Czech heritage in our area ensured by heritage societies, museums and organizations such as the Round Top Schützen Verein. Traditions live.

Respect for the good intentions of others, even if you loathe the political decisions they make.
Restaurants that serve fish: grilled snapper and sautéed veggies at Royer’s; butterflied grilled trout and salmon at JW’s in Carmine; Teague’s butter glazed salmon, too. Thanks, guys!

The rich array of Texas crafts at the Copper Shade Tree. And the sprouting of so many shops in Henkel Square Market, the advent of French Antiques in old Von Minden store, liquid solace and conviviality at Prost, music at the Stone Cellar, etc., etc.
Our schools, the teachers inside them, the parents and community volunteers who enhance them, the students who work hard to learn, to think, to understand.

Winedale Historical Complex, grounding visitors in the craftsmanship of our ancestors, for whom it was a necessity not a hobby. Compared to the urban creep in which we increasingly live, Winedale’s hand wrought construction and painted interior decoration by our German immigrant forebears feels like a soothing cloth on a fevered brow. And it is not commercial, so it survives on our good will and donations alone.
And because it is the holiday season: pie whereever it may be found. Coconut meringue at JW's, pecan at Royer's, your mom's and your own favorite. Mine is pumpkin, made with molasses and a splash of bourbon. But not this year. This year I'm dieting.

Friday, November 25, 2016

A Changin' Time

The harvest of our post-literate society: the Nobel Prize for Literature goes to a songwriter. I’m talking about Bob Dylan, bard of the Baby Boomers, of which I am one.

I call our world post-literate because, although most of us can read and write, the dopamine zap of visual images is obliterating our capacity for complex thought.

Instead of reading, we watch: videos, films, selfies, panoramic phone shots of wherever we or our friends happen to be. We smile at close-ups of our cats, our dogs. We indulge the latest heartstring tweak of manufactured sentiment.

It’s all so easy and quick.

Songs—even the best songs—are easy to understand, compared with poetry. The music helps the lyrics land with force and, sometimes, stick.

Literature, however, is hard. Literature requires effort from the reader, and mental effort is difficult. Few are willing to try. A lot of us tasted Ethan Frome in high school and declared, “nevermore.”

That’s one reason literature has become associated with elitist intellectuals, in opposition to which the Nobel Prize committee chose an icon of pop culture.

Our society embraces the easy emotions of pop culture, even when it includes social criticism. Set to music, the flattest, most awkward lyrics can energize, manipulate the mood.

Poets, though, spend their lives struggling to express human complexity in words alone. Mostly without monetary reward, they evoke the heights and depths of the human experience. And although Dylan’s words, free of music, can qualify as a kind of poetry, they are in no way close to the highest literary achievement.

We can dissolve this reality into the post-literate brain-soup of our personal “likes”, but the standard remains.

The fact is, we need standards of excellence. We have a soul-need for goals to yearn toward, to admire in bald stupefaction when others attain them. That need isn’t merely a desire for entertainment and distraction, the easy fixes of our time. Songwriters require a Dylan to rise toward; poets need a Heaney, or Brodsky.

Standards motivate. Without them, why run a marathon when 5k will do?  Why do baseball teams dream of beating the Yankees? Where sports are concerned, the reality is obvious. Young men will brain themselves for a Super Bowl ring.

In the world of words, however, standards are under siege.

Yes, we are reading, but what are we reading? Texts from friends. Bloviating blogs, in dire need of editing. Headlines designed to juice us up. And when we click through, we find that the headline was a come-on, failing to fulfill its promise of outrage, or titillation. But the damage has been done. We will remember the come-on, and the disappointing content will become another cup of brain soup.

Advertising is becoming our nation’s great creative achievement. From the moment we get up until we turn out the light at night, we’re being sold something. From the cereal box to the toothpaste container to the medicine we take.

We can no longer tell the difference between life and selling. Heck, we no longer even notice.

We’re sold politics just like acid reducers. You and I are sliced and diced into categories of remarkable specificity via data mining. Ever finer differences between us are isolated and bombarded. “Targeted,” is the word, for good reason.

We no longer know how to dig past the surface of a sales pitch for product or candidate to understand the bias, or the agenda, that squeezed it forth. We latch onto conspiracy theories invented by people we hope are seeing more deeply, more truly. We can’t even see through that.

Because the post-literate mind looks for the easy thing to understand. The generality. The simplified answer. It celebrates that Bob Dylan has been awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature. It accepts that Donald Trump is running for president. It ignores how the vulgarity of celebrity culture spills off the tabloid racks into our living rooms, into our election dialogue, sullying our children’s innocence.

Celebrity culture is so easy.

The culture of excellence rewards the effort it requires. The Nobel is awarded to elite physicists, biologists, doctors, and so on. The concept of an elite in the sciences is fine. It is only in the language of words which everyone uses to some extent (so much easier than math, after all) that elitism is sneered at.

Definitely, the path to greatness should be open to all talent, but the pinnacle must be there to strive toward.

The way we’re going in this post-literate society is to lop off the pinnacle, lower the standard, give everybody the award.

Render human striving meaningless.

Friday, October 7, 2016

Taking Politics Personally

For some time now this campaign has felt like a personal assault.

Ladies, do you enjoy being called a hag and worse? Much worse? You’re a year away from 70, say—sick—and you go to an important event looking, well, definitely not your best. And some younger man calls you a hag. When you’re the virtual double of his mother or grandmother at that age. Others call you the b-word and describe the various painful punishments they’d like to inflict on your disgusting flesh.

Am I the only one who finds it upsetting to see, revealed through the lens of politics, what younger men really think about me? They don’t say it to my face, of course. Most women over 60 don’t have actual faces. We’ve gone invisible under the magic cloak of menopause.

One of us isn’t invisible, though, and she’s running for president.

Is her most unforgiveable offense the fact that she has made the men look at her? Forced them to accept she might become the most powerful person in the world?

Truth is, the biggest threat to the power of white men isn’t brown immigrants, or African Americans, or refugees from Syria.

It’s women.

1972 was the tipping point. Title IX passed. The first issue of Ms. Magazine hit the newsstands with depictions of the Click Moment. Awareness of male entitlements gave birth to a new generation of feminists.

Household duties became contentious. The workplace, the career path, the universities, teemed with competent women. Women who had always done better in school and who would work for 30% less salary, if not by choice.

Suddenly wives didn’t stay at home doing the laundry, planning meals. They took jobs in post offices, stores, banks. White men’s lives came under pressure. Still are.

Why wouldn’t men resent that?

But it doesn’t explain female hostility to Hillary Clinton.

Does her success imply we’ve made the wrong choices? Do we see her as a reproach for what we value in our families, in our lives? Do we think she’s an atheistic threat to the world, this woman who exemplifies Methodist values of service right down to her bones? Who has met for years with a Congressional prayer group in Washington? Raised her daughter successfully despite everything?

She did sneer at baking cookies one time (it was a metaphor, of course, for that life of the 50’s we had left behind). She did stay with her needy husband after his public humiliation. Was it the public part we can’t forgive her for? Jackie stayed with Jack, whose transgressions remained secret for years. So have many other First Ladies stayed with philandering husbands.

Or was it that from the beginning she had let us see her desire for public service, her self-respect, her belief in her own abilities? Her ambition? That she had let us see these things openly because she and her husband thought they were a plus. Whipped cream on the sundae. Lagniappe.

It does look a little naïve, now. And the Clintons may have been naïve, at first. They were embraced by nobody when they came to Washington in 1992. These Arkansas outsiders. These centrist Democrats who appealed to a country that always votes centrist for president. (Up to now, at least. We’ll have to wait to see if that holds.)

Most threatened of all were Republicans. As the party hurtled rightward, consolidating its Southern Strategy base, it risked losing the “moderates” that had kept it a contender for the presidency. Cue the conservative chattering classes, the think tanks, the deep pockets of far right moguls. Bury the bumpkins was the call, and they’ve been trying ever since.

With so much “smoke” around the Clintons there has to be fire, right? Except that no one can find anything real to corroborate any of it. In forty years, a handful of mistakes, a little hubris, a little arrogance of intellect, but nothing illegal. Nothing serious. Nothing to warrant the focused outpouring of hate we’ve been seeing for over a year.

That hatred targets her person, her body, her manner of speaking, her life. The Twitter feeds and Facebook comments urge tortures, imprisonment, ghastly consequences for her daring. They smear this grandmother who’s running for president.

They do it grossly in the alt-right and Limbaugh universe, and cleverly in the so-called “liberal” press—with insinuating adjectives that point up the peculiarity of a woman aspiring to the top position in government, the leadership of our country. A woman as Commander in Chief. Imagine. Who does she think she is?

As I said earlier, I take a lot of this personally. I think many older women do. Or will, once they’re inside the voting booth.