Tuesday, July 18, 2017

Turtle in Paradise by Jennifer Holm

Source of book: Audiobook from the library

This book is one in our series of not-particularly-systematic quest to read a lot of Newbery Award winners and honorable mentions. This book falls into the second category, named as an honor book for 2011. 

Author Jennifer Holm based the book loosely on the stories her great- grandmother told her of growing up on Key West during the Great Depression. Some of the characters are based on various relatives, and some of the incidents come from the stories. Not all, though, as the book has more of a narrative arc and drama than the originals. The buried treasure incident, for example, came from tales told by the Key West denizens (the “Conchs.”)

The basic gist is this: “Turtle” (we never learn her real name - or that of most of the other characters) is an eleven-year-old girl who is sent by her mother to live with her aunt and uncle in Key West. As we learn, this is just one twist in the hard life that Turtle’s mother has had. She got pregnant by a boy in Key West, was disowned by her rather vicious mother, and left, never to return. About all she can get for work is that of live-in housekeeper for rich people - and her latest employer will not permit children, so off Turtle goes. (This was pretty common in that day, actually. And it remains common in low income and immigrant communities. The idea that communities care for each other is one of the things that has been largely lost in middle class white suburbia…)

Turtle’s arrival comes as a shock to her Aunt Minnie - who didn’t receive the letter, because the local postal service misdirected it. But, she finds room for Turtle. Along with her aunt and uncle (who is mostly away working on the highway - one of the WPA projects), there are a bunch of boy cousins, and other local urchins. Turtle has to find a way to fit in, and find her place in Key West.

The book is full of local flavor - Holm draws on a universe of friends and family for help in getting the details of the past right. I was drooling at different points when the food was described. Particularly the tropical fruit. Other things were less attractive. Holm is up front that the Depression caused the economy of the Keys to collapse - and most residents were on aid in the 1930s. Rum running was a significant source of income, and everyone looked the other way. Financial hardship affected nearly everyone, and bootstraps weren’t enough.

Holm also writes complex characters. Turtle has to learn to be vulnerable - her hard life has led her to be cynical - and admittedly even within the story, she is given ample cause. Her cousins respond to her like you would expect real kids to. Nobody likes being displaced, and “Beans” is no exception. Aunt Minnie is stressed out already, so she alternates between compassion and irritation, like most of us would in a similar circumstance. There are few if any true villains, and no angels either. Just humans.

One of the more striking elements of the book is the group of boys that Beans heads. They are known as the “Diaper Gang.” Because they have made a business of assisting harried parents with their babies. They show up, swaddle the babies, and drag them around town in a wagon until they sleep. Or at least for a while so that the parents can have a break. The boys are actually quite good at it, and (amusingly) are unwilling to let a girl join them, because, well, girls aren’t as good at that sort of thing. (Holm apparently isn’t giving a modern gloss to this - the idea came from one of her great-grandmother’s tales. It is a reminder that the division of men’s and women’s work hasn’t always fallen along the same lines everywhere or at every time.) There isn’t money in this business, though - nobody has that to spare. However, the boys are given candy for their trouble.

The book is recommended for ages 8 to 12, which is probably about right. In my case, my 6 year old enjoyed it. And my older girls did too, in large part because of the humor, which takes the edge off what would otherwise be a tale of hardship and betrayal as much as it is of love and family. I also think this book succeeds at two of the main goals of fiction: it transports the reader to an unfamiliar time and place, and it encourages empathy for those in other circumstances.

The audiobook was narrated by Becca Battoe, who apparently was on Scrubs at one point. She is a pleasant enough reader - I have no complaints about her part of the recording. I was a bit irritated by the gaps between certain paragraphs. This is obviously a sound engineering issue, as I’m sure the book wasn’t read in a single take. A minor fault, but one amplified by the nature of listening to a CD in a vehicle: you can’t tell if there is a natural gap or if the CD has skipped. On the other hand, the relative volume levels were well balanced.

Tuesday, July 11, 2017

Reading the Rocks by Marcia Bjornerud

Source of book: Borrowed from the library

This is an unusual book for the reason that I recommended it to someone else before I read it myself, which is not how I usually do things. However, that friend said she liked it, so I figured I would have to go read it.

Bjornerud is a professor of geology at Lawrence University, so she knows her stuff, but also has a rather poetic writing style. I was expecting a more systematic study of the subject, but won’t complain about the way she approached the topic, other than to say that the book makes more sense if you have at least had a grade school course on earth science.

A little background on this may be helpful. I was homeschooled from second grade onward, in an era when homeschooling went from fringe to mainstream. When I started, curriculum wasn’t easy to obtain - if I recall, even the mainstays of religious homeschooling curriculum now had to be purchased on the gray market. Now, of course, pretty much anything used in public or private schools can be readily found in homeschool-specific versions. And between the internet and the wonders of capitalism, there is so much out there, much of it free. (For example, Phil Plait’s wonderful Crash Course Astronomy videos.) But it was not always so. About all we had was A Beka and PBS.

So anyway, because of what was available and my family’s religious beliefs, the curriculum had a lot of gaps. While my dad wasn’t a young earther, that was (and is) the dominant belief in Evangelical circles, and A Beka definitely fell into that category. And not just by claiming evolution was an atheist conspiracy, but by ignoring or glossing over much of geology, because that led to some uncomfortable places for their theology.

I didn’t particularly suffer from this deficit, though, because I was (and am) a voracious reader, which my parents encouraged. I probably knew more about science in general than most kids my age, and our regular trips to geologically interesting places gave me field experience as well. To be clear, I got a solid academic education. However, I do know that many homeschooled kids do not get this kind of background, and at least in my experience, science and math tend to be weak points for many. (To be fair, science and math are weak subjects for Americans in general, compared to the rest of the first world.)

Despite the YEC propaganda in the culture I grew up in, I don’t think I ever bought into the idea of a young earth. The problem was, there was just too much overwhelming evidence all around. I live in California, which, like most of the western US, has a lot of exposed rocks. And it has earthquakes. And huge mountains. In fact, in geological terms, our mountains are fairly young, which means the way they were formed is rather apparent to the eye, if you know what to look for.

I have lived within about 50 miles of the San Andreas Fault for most of my life. And that fault has created features in the landscape which tell stories. There is Vasquez Rocks, famous for its use in film, which was a favorite destination when I was a kid. There, the layers of breccia and conglomerate are tilted and cracked from the pressures of the fault, and contain fossils from the past.

At various places along the fault, like at the Carrizo Plain National Monument, you can see where hills and creek beds and rock formations have become displaced by the movement of the fault.

Wallace Creek at Carrizo Plain NM in 2014. 
The kids are literally standing on the fault, which displaced the stream bed about 600 feet. 
Crazy dry that drought year - this year, everything was covered in flowers - so many you could literally see it from space.

Even driving interstate 5 north from Los Angeles, you can see where the hills on each side are quite different.

However, the two most interesting features have to be Pinnacles National Park and Point Reyes. In each case, entire rock formations are displaced by hundreds of miles. In the case of Pinnacles, the rest of the extinct volcano is located far south. In the case of Point Reyes, the whole peninsula was moved up the state over time, and it clearly was just stuck on the side there.

And then there are the other western places of geological interest: Zion, Bryce, the Grand Canyon, Lassen, and so many more. All these rocks tell stories of their origin, and those stories do not fit with a young earth. This much was obvious even to teenaged me.

Back to Reading the Rocks. The strong point of this book is in the explanations of how we read them. Contrary to the Evangelical conspiracy theories of my youth, geology isn’t just a made-up explanation to exclude the divine. Rather, there are known processes by which things happen. Plate tectonics are responsible for more than you would realize, radiometric dating does indeed indicate the dates on many rocks, and the fossil record does indeed tell of a history of life very different from our own age. As Hutton put it, “The ruins of an older world are visible in the present structure of our planet.”

Probably the chapter that had the most material that I didn’t already know was the one focusing on the role of water in geological processes, particularly subduction. Pretty fascinating stuff.

Also of particular interest was the chilling account of mass extinctions of the past (including a period when the earth got chilled.) It is frightening to me how cavalier many people are about climate, thinking that there is no risk. The underlying dynamics have been understood for hundreds of years, and we can see from the past that bad things can accelerate. But I guess that goes along with a general hostility toward science in this country, and a tendency to make everything into a partisan issue. (Yeah, I actually remember when Republicans were in favor of conservation and someone like Nixon could found the EPA without half the country thinking it was a Commie conspiracy…)

I also appreciated the way that the author worked in the history of how geological ideas and techniques were developed. It really helps to know how people reached conclusions, not just what they discovered.

Anyway, there is a lot to like in this book. Bjornerud writes well, and keeps the topic interesting and memorable. I will definitely continue to recommend this book.

Just one final thought to end it. Early in the book, the author notes that geology can be intimidating, because of the language, much of which originated before geologists had our modern understanding. Thus, the terms are often anachronistic and misleading.

But nomenclatures outlive the systems that spawned them, and over time the technical vocabulary of geology has become an idiosyncratic melange of anachronisms, synonyms, and some genuinely useful terms.

And, in a move that warms my heart, she then quotes from Mark Twain’s autobiography about the riverboat mate whose reading consisted solely of Lyell’s Geology.

All he wanted out of those great words was the energy they stirred up in his roustabouts. In times of emergency he would let fly a volcanic irruption of the old regular orthodox profanity mixed up with and seasoned all through with imposing geological terms, then formally charge his roustabouts with being Old Silurian Invertebrates out of the Incandescent Anisodactylous Post-Pliocene Period and damn the whole gang in a body to perdition.

Sunday, July 9, 2017

If/Then (The Empty Space 2017)

I am reasonably certain that this is the most modern musical - or indeed stage production -  I have seen. It premiered on Broadway in 2014, and featured Idina Menzel, fresh off of Frozen, in the lead role.

There were two reasons I decided to see this with my lovely bride, Amanda, who shares my love for live theater. First, The Empty Space has proven to put on solid and imaginative productions that have never disappointed me. (And the fact that they do so with low ticket prices and small budgets is even more amazing.) The second is, I recognized several of the lead actors and figured they would be great in anything. My reasoning proved to be correct, and we enjoyed a fine performance.

If/Then is a musical, which presents some challenges at a venue like The Empty Space. Because of the small size, live music isn’t really an option. (Unless you mean a guy with a guitar. Even a piano would be a tight fit.) So canned music was the only real option for a score like this. And then, there is the other challenge of the venue. Microphones and speakers would be overkill, and preventing feedback would be a nightmare. (And how do you do effective monitors in a theater with the audience on three sides?) While I’m sure enough lucre would solve these challenges, six figures of technological magic doesn’t fit with the Empty Space ethic.

So, two speakers at the front of the room for the soundtrack, reasonable volume levels, and actors that had to have real vocal projection. And stay on pitch despite challenging acoustics. As a musician, I know how this is. You are out there naked. And the cast delivered.

The plot of If/Then is roughly as follows (a few spoilers are in the review, but I have attempted to keep them to a minimum.) Elizabeth is 39, and fresh off a failed marriage. She moves back to New York City (of course, right?) to start a new chapter in her life. In the park, she meets up with two old friends from her college days: Kate, a bubbly and spontaneous kindergarten teacher with plans to get Elizabeth to loosen up as “Liz” and find true love; and Lucas, an introverted housing activist who hopes to enlist the reliable “Beth” in his cause to better the city. Elizabeth is then presented with the choice of two paths. Does she go with Kate? Or with Lucas? At that point, the play splits into two parallel stories, each telling of the result of one path.

The two stories are intertwined throughout, so one must be alert to follow each one as the actors switch back and forth. Between the book itself and the specifics of this production, I felt the stories were not difficult to follow.

In the Lucas plot, Beth gets a call from Steven, a former beau, who is now a bigwig in the NYC planning department. She scores a job, and builds a successful career in which she brings together the needs of both developers and tenants. In the Kate plot, Liz has a chance meeting with Josh, a doctor and soldier just returned from duty, and she finds true love. I don’t consider that much of a spoiler, because it is in the promotional material for the play, and because this all happens in the first four songs. Where the stories go from there is interesting, because everything is intertwined. Elizabeth’s decisions don’t just affect her arc of the story, but they make for real differences in what happens in the lives of the others.

Obviously, a key theme of If/Then is our own questions of what might have been. Whether you go with John Greenleaf Whittier:

For all sad words of tongue and pen,
The saddest are these, 'It might have been'.

Or Frost:

Two roads diverged in a yellow wood,
And sorry I could not travel both
And be one traveler, long I stood
And looked down one as far as I could
To where it bent in the undergrowth;

Then took the other, as just as fair,
And having perhaps the better claim,
Because it was grassy and wanted wear;
Though as for that the passing there
Had worn them really about the same,

And both that morning equally lay
In leaves no step had trodden black.
Oh, I kept the first for another day!
Yet knowing how way leads on to way,
I doubted if I should ever come back.

I shall be telling this with a sigh
Somewhere ages and ages hence:
Two roads diverged in a wood, and I—
I took the one less traveled by,
And that has made all the difference.

Either way, the sentiment is one that haunts us. Frost points out that way leads on to way, and wish as we might, we never can come back to those same crossroads and try again. The chance to explore two paths in this play is interesting for that reason. (Elizabeth herself says she thinks about what the future would be with each choice - she is, shall we say, a bit neurotic…)

But the flip side of this is the truth that every choice means embracing something - and giving something else up. And then life messes with you anyway. Whatever Liz chooses, life happens to her. On the one hand, she does have the ability to determine some of her destiny. Her choices do have consequences. On the other, plenty of things she does not intend to happen do. Fate and the Lady will have their way.

In fact, there is a song about this. Kate is very much on the side of “fate controls our destiny” while Elizabeth is pure rationality (which is why she doesn’t always handle fate very well). Among other lines in “It’s a Sign,” is one where a cast member notes that today a pigeon shit on his head - it must be a sign!

A few other songs really stood out as well written. In a number that alone is a reason why this musical isn’t really for kids, “What the Fuck?” is Elizabeth (in both of the stories) trying to figure out both what happened and particularly why she did something kind of crazy. As a scream into the void railing against the fates and one’s own weakness, it’s a good song. And it was quite well performed by Nancee Steiger.

Speaking of great performances, Steiger also killed it in “I Hate You.” To say too much more would be to give away some of the plot, but suffice it to say that it too has a bit of the rage against the fates and Elizabeth’s poor coping with feelings of powerlessness.

I’ll mention a few other memorable lines. In both stories, Elizabeth has a sequence of really awful (and hilarious) dates. After one with an insufferable investment banker, she remarks to Kate, “Not even to repopulate the earth…”

Another comes later, from Lucas (who is an interesting character: Elizabeth’s choices influence whether he ever comes to terms with his sexuality) during an awkward surprise birthday party. Lucas says something she doesn’t want to hear, and she responses: “Lucas, you’re drunk.” “That doesn’t mean I’m wrong!”

I do want to say a few words about the cast.

Nancee Steiger in the lead role as Elizabeth/Liz/Beth was fantastic. She previously had a major role in The Glass Menagerie in which she was convincing as the mentally damaged sister Laura. While I knew from that play that she had real acting chops, I was not aware that she could sing. And sing she can. I found her numbers to be filled with emotion, and not just overt passion, but the feelings you find in quiet moments, when she dropped her voice almost, but not quite, to the level where you had to strain to hear. (That’s a skill, and I was impressed.) As in the Williams play, she fully inhabited her character, and made her believable and resonant. My only reservation is that she can’t possibly be old enough to be 39. I can see why she got the part, though. She was the right choice despite her youth. 

 Nancee Steiger as Elizabeth/Liz/Beth

I was also interested in seeing Justin Thompson in the role of Lucas. Earlier this year, he stole the show as Mercutio in Romeo and Juliet. This was a bit of a different character from the ribald and profane jokester - Lucas can be a clown, but he is also deadly serious. Thompson’s acting in this one was likewise memorable and well done. His one weakness is that he lacks the vocal skills of the other leads - he was good enough, but couldn’t match Steiger in their scenes together. His portrayal of Lucas was otherwise excellent, so this is a very minor quibble. 

 Bethany Lahammer (Kate) and Justin Thompson (Lucas)

Speaking of Romeo and Juliet, Nick Ono followed up his turn as Romeo with a supporting role as Josh in this one. He too sings quite well, and held his own in the duets. After a Romeo which was perhaps a bit over the top (though this is a matter of taste - his interpretation was quite defensible), it was interesting to see him in a more serious role, as the faithful, kind, and introverted Josh, who isn’t always sure what to do with Liz and her analytic and OCD approach to things. In a modern (and rather feminist) play, it is often hard to sell the romance as the desirable choice. In this case, Ono made a solid sell. As much as one wants to see Beth set the world on fire with her work, one also wants to see her with Josh, because he is a great catch. 

 Nancee Steiger (Elizabeth) and Nick Ono (Josh) I love the shirt. 
"If you've got it, haunt it."

Finally, let me mention Bethany Lahammer as Kate. I am sure I have seen her in other productions, but I can’t remember exactly where. I thought she had an outstanding voice, and portrayed her character well. It was always a thrill to see her in a scene.

The rest of the cast were good. The supporting parts were well played, and the bit players generally fine. A few issues with pitch here and there (sorry, musicians know) but considering the acoustical challenges, I have no right to complain.

One word on the staging. I never cease to be impressed by what The Empty Space can do with such a small area. It is located in an older strip mall. The “stage” is smaller than my living room, there is no true backstage (it doubles as a lobby, art gallery, and concession area) and whatever furniture starts on stage pretty much has to end there, because there is nowhere else for it to go. The ceiling is low, so lighting is challenging and curtains are pretty much impossible. So sets must be creative and versatile. 

In this case, the set was truly minimalist. There were two rolling walls that fit just right in the side entrances. They doubled as everything from actual walls, stages, stairs, and a bed. There were three rolling frames which resembled taller versions of those luggage frames you see at hotels. And there were basic institutional padded chairs. And a side table. And that was it. From these, one had doors, subway trains, an airplane, park benches, a bar, a rooftop, and more. And every step of the changes were done by the cast. I find this sort of thing thrilling to watch and I love the creativity that goes into designing sets like this. Veteran director and actor Ron Warren and Vocal Director Michelle Weingarden-Bandes are credited for the set design, and my hat is off to them.

My final thoughts are this: the themes of this play really resonated with me. I too tend to wonder what might have been had different choices been made. In my particular case, I can see two very different courses that are or might have been. Had my parents not gotten involved in the Patriarchy movement, I may well have avoided a lot of unnecessary stress and conflict from my teens onward. And I wonder if our relationship might have been closer now. On the other hand, I can trace the connections easily that led to my meeting my wife, and I would suffer any of the pain over again to get her, because she is the best thing that fate and choices have brought me. So of course I ask “What if?”

And on the other hand, my wife to a degree faced the choice Elizabeth did. She met me when she was very young, when she really did not expect she would ever marry, and with plans for a career. Five children later, there is no doubt she has a different life than she once intended. As, if I am honest, she has sacrificed more for me than I for her. (A wife and kids and a chance to make music was my dream. And a cat. Can’t forget the cat.) My goal, therefore, is to do my best to make sure that her choice of me does not require any more of a sacrifice than necessary. I encouraged and supported her in finishing her nursing degree, and have done my best to cheer her on in her career. Once the kids are grown, I hope to support her in pursuing some of her deferred dreams as well. Road leads on to road, and you can never go back. But you can always make the best of the roads you are on.

If/Then runs Fridays and Saturdays through July 22. If you are a local, this is a great show - and check out the other shows The Empty Space has planned. I may see you there.

Friday, July 7, 2017

Letter to Lord Byron by W. H. Auden

Source of book: I own this - my wife found a copy of the complete Auden in hardback for my 40th birthday.

Apparently, it has been an entire six years since I sat down and read some Auden - it seems impossible, but I read Paid on Both Sides and his early poems (1927-1932) back in 2011. That was before I started this blog, and was just writing notes in Facebook about what I was reading. That review is linked above in its re-formated blog version.

I had originally intended to read The Age of Anxiety, but I confess I wasn’t able to get into it, and decided to find another option. If nothing else, the last year has been one of anxiety for me, in significant part caused by the re-emergence of open Nazis in our society and their embrace by my former political party and many of my faith tradition. Anyway, it was a bit much, so I set it aside for a later time.

Instead, I took the simplest approach and picked up where I left off last time. Having read the two earliest sections in the book, I read the next, which happened to be the rather long poem, Letter to Lord Byron.

This poem came at an interesting juncture in Auden’s life. He had had an epiphany in Berlin in 1928, in which he realized he desired to be a poet. Lacking a reputation or sufficient funds to live as an idle gentleman, he took the usual route at the time of getting a job teaching at an English public school. (This is what we Americans would call a private school...those silly Brits…) After a few years of this - and some success for his poems, plays, collaborations, and prose - he set off on trips to Iceland, then China, with the intent to write about his trips. After this, he would settle down in the United States, writing and teaching at various universities. 

 Auden in 1939

Letter to Lord Byron was written in 1936, between the two trips. The poem is a commentary on modern (for then) life, informing Byron of the changes and how he and Auden would be perceived in each era. Auden takes the time to talk about contemporary writers and fads and ideas, generally in a nostalgic vein. The final section of the poem contains a good deal of autobiographical information: Audent tells of his time at school, his epiphany in Berlin, his years of teaching, and his trip to Iceland. Both the commentary and the autobiography are fascinating, quite witty, and full of delightful use of the language.

The poem has a form rather unusual for its time: Rhyme Royal. The stanzas have seven lines, with the rhyme scheme of ABABBCC, with iambic pentameter as the meter. Chaucer used the form in several of the Canterbury Tales, as well as in a few other poems. The form was popular for a while - Spenser used it -  but went out of fashion by Elizabethan times. However Shakespeare resurrected it for The Rape of Lucrece. It pretty much fell into disuse, with only a few poets giving it an occasional turn. Wordsworth wrote one, but it really is this poem by Auden that can be said to be the most memorable use of the form in the last few hundred years.

Auden starts off by apologising for bothering Byron, but notes that he just read Don Juan on the boat to Iceland, and liked it, so maybe Byron will do him the favor of reading his letter. He also asks pardon for using Rhyme Royal rather than Ottava Rima, but says at least his will be cheery.

He also mentions that he debated who to write to. He considered writing to Jane Austen, but he felt intimidated writing to a novelist - he was a mere poet. On the other hand, Auden had no fear of shocking old Jane:

You could not shock her more that she shocks me;
Beside her Joyce seems innocent as grass.
It makes me most uncomfortable to see
An English spinster of the middle class
Describe the amorous effect of “brass”,
Reveal so frankly and with such sobriety
The economic basis of society.

The whole tone of the poem is as tongue in cheek as this. Later, he describes his project of writing a travel book, which is sure to irritate his publisher with its digressions - even as he notes that digressions are indeed traditional in the genre. At that point, he has already rhymed “point” and “joint,” and needs one more for his “B” rhyme. Uh oh.

But now I’ve got uncomfortable suspicions,
I’m going to put their patience out of joint.
Though it’s in keeping with the best traditions
For Travel Books to wander from the point
(There is no other rhyme except anoint),
The well may charge me with - I’ve no defences -
Obtaining money under false pretences.

As many a poetic soul has done, Auden bemoans the problems of modernity - particularly compared with the fairytale. No longer can one go out and fight the dragon with sword. Instead, the mundane problems of poverty and macroeconomics and bureaucracy. Auden realizes, however, that the dragons have never gone away.

Against the ogre, dragon, what you will;
His many shapes and names all turn us pale,
For he’s immortal, and to-day he still
Swinges the horror of his scaley tail.
Sometimes he seems to sleep, but will not fail
In every age to rear up to defend
Each dying force of history to the end.

Milton beheld him on the English throne,
And Bunyan sitting in the Papal chair;
The hermits fought him in their caves alone,
At the first Empire he was also there,
Dangling his Pax Romana in the air:
He comes in dreams at puberty to man,
To scare him back to childhood if he can.

Banker or landlord, booking-clerk or Pope,
Whenever he’s lost faith in choice and thought,
When a man sees the future without hope,
Whenever he endorses Hobbes’ report
“The life of man is nasty, brutish, short,”
The dragon rises from his garden border
And promises to set up law and order.

It’s not too hard to see what Auden is thinking of here. Hitler had come to power in Germany a few short years prior, and to many, including Winston Churchill, the looming world war was already seeming increasingly inevitable. Auden goes on to paraphrase Tacitus:

He that in Athens murdered Socrates,
And Plato then seduced, prepares to make
A desolation and to call it peace…

And this is what tyrants do. It was also hard not to see the present in this, with multitudes losing hope, and embracing one promising a return to the glorious (and fictitious) past, and set up law and order against the “others.” And authoritarianism rises again, making a desert and calling it peace.

I love the last lines in the first stanza above:

In every age to rear up to defend
Each dying force of history to the end.

This really is a significant part of what attracts people both to demagogues like Le Toupee and to religious hucksters like Bill Gothard. Change - particularly change that addresses the injustices of history - is uncomfortable for a lot of people, and in our nation today, there are many who really, really want to return to a time when women and brown people knew their place. And both Trump and Gothard appeal to that in different but similar ways with their toxic visions of masculinity and power and their demonizing of non-whites and their cultures. Auden tends to be perceptive in his writing, and there is a lot in this poem that fingers some uncomfortable truths.

I also was intrigued by a passage in the autobiographical section. Auden speaks of his days in school during World War One. He notes that pretty much all the able bodied and able minded men were sent off to war, leaving the schools to be taught by the elderly - and by those who weren’t exactly fit for duty.

However, he mentions one eccentric character, who he gives the pseudonym “Reginald.” This teacher apparently departed from the acceptable curriculum intended to edify and instead telling scandalous tales of the outside world.

“Half a lunatic, half a knave.” No doubt
A holy terror to the staff at tea;
A good headmaster must have soon found out
Your moral character was all at sea;
I question if you’d got a pass degree:
But little children bless your kind that knocks
Away the edifying stumbling blocks.

Like Auden, I am a divergent thinker, and have never been able to just do what everyone else wants. So I can readily bring to mind several people in the category of this teacher (including a sunday school teacher or two who treated us like adults, not little kids…) Judging from how many of us who spent time in cultic groups specifically calculated to enforce rigid cultural and political conformity turned out later, much of this “edification” has turned out to be real stumbling blocks to us later. Thank god for the ones who kicked them away.

A few stanzas later, Auden adds this:

I hate the modern trick, to tell the truth,
Of straightening out the kinks in the young mind,
Our passion for the tender plant of youth,
Our hatred for weeds of any kind.
Slogans are bad: the best that I can find
Is this: “Let each child have that’s in our care
As much neurosis as the child can bear.”

I smile at that line every time.

Auden finishes by contemning “Normality” as being the source of no less than murder, committed in the name of conformity. Auden would know. As a gay man, he lived in an era when his sort were rather routinely murdered or imprisoned.

But I do think Auden had one thing wrong about this. It isn’t a “modern trick” at all. (He probably knew this, but poetry and hyperbole go hand in glove.) Rather, it is that same timeless “Dragon” he describes earlier, the forces of conformity - and the obverse: hatred of the “other.” The two are, of course, inseparable. Likewise, much of what we see in our modern reactionary waves are driven by that desperate determination to defend the dying forces of history to the very bitter end.

What I probably like the most about this poem is that it contains gems like these in what is mostly a humorous and wry poem. There is nothing of despair in it, more a gentle laugh at the expense of folies of all this. Things would, in time, become deadly, deadly serious. Millions would lose their lives. But we must also laugh in the midst, or we would go mad. My hope is that, like the dying forces of nationalistic imperialism that gripped Germany in the 1930s, our own moment may too meet its demise with the next generation. Auden was a youngish man on the cusp of the World War, and his generation in Europe was the key to rejecting the poisonous ideas of the Nineteenth Century and building what has been a remarkably peaceable and stable Europe after literally centuries of nearly endless fighting. My own generation and my children’s generation have a lot of work to do to undo the damage of the last few years. But I believe it can be done.