December 20, 2008

An old holiday favorite

What would the holiday season be without favorite reruns? In that spirit, Goat Rope is pleased to once again feature a 2006 contribution by boxer and official Goat Rope Farm film critic Sandor Sege (pronounced Shandor Shegg-AY).

Once again, we must remind our readers that Mr. Sege sustained a head injury whilst crashing into a wall chasing a squeaky toy. As a result, he sometimes transposes the plots of the films he discusses. (His fondness for holiday libations is doesn't help). Nevertheless, we are convinced that his insights into the world of cinema more than compensate for this regrettable shortcoming.

It is our hope that these weekend features will help to elevate the level of public discourse and promote a greater appreciation of both the humanities and the animalities.


OK, so this is like everybody's all time favorite Christmas movie. It's about this Jimmy Stewart guy, except he's pretending to be someone else. That's acting, which sometimes happens in movies.

After he loses a bunch of money and thinks he messed up his whole life, he thinks about killing himself. But just before he throws himself into the river, this big twister comes and picks up his house and drops it on a witch. Only her feet are sticking out. And these little people are real happy about it.

Glenda the Good Witch tells Jimmy/the other guy that he needs to go see the Wizard to figure it all out with this angel named Toto who wants to get his wings.

Toto kind of looks like a squeaky toy to me.

So anyway he takes off on the Yellow Brick Road and is joined by some hobbits, an elf and a dwarf. They have to fight off a lot of orcs and trolls, which is kind of cool.

Moomus and Doodus say I look like a cave troll...

So anyway, they finally get to the wizard and destroy the ring. And when the bell rings, Jimmy gets his wings and goes back to Kansas.

And here's the thing: he could have got there all along.

The cinematography is outstanding. This is a technical film critic thing, but it's like in these old movies they take a bunch of pictures and show them quickly so it looks like people are moving around. So it looks like there are people moving around.

They say if you play Pink Floyd's The Wall while watching this movie you get real confused and depressed.

I think that's only true if you run out of popcorn.


December 19, 2008

Talking poetry at the Head Start center

For about eight years, I taught pre-GED classes in Head Start centers in southern West Virginia. Most of those who attended were mothers of young children in the program, although it was open to anyone who was interested. Some were on public assistance and most if not all were living in or near poverty.

In a bit of a strange turn, I found that I enjoyed teaching math although I was pretty bad at it. In fact, it was only in my second year of teaching that I finally figured out how to do ratio and proportion problems: cross multiply and divide.

(I think the students thought I was playing dumb to make them look good but that was not the case.)

And while I've done a lot of writing, I found that subject much harder to teach. At least math at that level had rules, whereas it always seemed to me that writing had infinite possibilities.

One thing I did make an effort to do was not just stick to the GED study books but to bring in at least some major works of literature for students to read and discuss. As noted in earlier posts this week, I believe that the humanities can be especially important for disadvantaged people.

Among the things we'd read aloud and discuss were poetry by Emily Dickinson, Langston Hughes, and William Blake, stories by Poe (I once even tortured them with Hawthorne's "Young Goodman Brown") and works like the Declaration of Independence and speeches by Lincoln.

Of all the things I brought in, selections from Blake's Songs of Innocence and of Experience seemed to have the deepest impact. Some would cry over the chimney sweeper poems or make the political connections from "London." One very young mother in a tough situation seemed to find in "The Sick Rose" an inspiration for a proto-feminist awakening.

Something really powerful happens when people who haven't had the opportunity get a chance to read, reflect, think and talk about ideas. I would argue that it's even profoundly political in the broad sense.

THE AGE OF PONZI. Here's Krugman's latest.

BAILOUT MESS. In this piece, David Sirota argues that we've been had and suggests things to do about it.

CAPITALISM ON THE BRAIN. Here's an item about how unregulated capitalism short circuits the moral sense. My favorite part is a quote by the great primatologist Frans B.M. de Waal: "You need to indoctrinate empathy out of people in order to arrive at extreme capitalist positions."

A PEACE OFFENSIVE, if it happens, might look like this.



December 18, 2008

How I read my way through the last economic depression

The theme at Goat Rope lately is hard times and how to get through them. The series began a week ago Monday. If you feel so inclined, please click on earlier posts. You'll also find links and comments about current events.

As I mentioned before, the 1980s hit West Virginia really hard, with massive layoffs and high unemployment. And the cavalry was not on the way. I remember it as a time of poverty as I scrambled to provide for two young children.

When hard times hit, of course you have to try to get yourself out of them. I looked for more and better work and scrambled to finish a degree. But you also have to stay alive in the meantime, physically and otherwise.

For me, reading was a kind of salvation. For some reason, I stumbled upon The Story of Civilization, a massive 11 volume popularized version of world history by Will and Ariel Durant. It was far from academic history and contained any number of howlers that would drive sticklers up the wall. But it was engagingly written and was a constant companion for many months during work breaks, sleepless nights and stolen moments.

The Durants would include discussions of literary classics in their rambles through history and I made a list and went back and read as many as I could.

All of which is to say that I made it through the Reagan era with the help of Homer, Hesiod, Aeschylus, Euripides, Sophocles, Plato, Herodotus, Thucydides, Shakespeare, and the like.

As poor as I was and as hopeless as the times seemed, I still remember the awe I felt on finishing Plato's Republic, the Oresteia of Aeschylus, and several of Shakespeare's tragedies and histories that I'd missed. That experience took me out, however briefly, from the grind and gave me a chance to think and reflect--and not to feel like a hunted animal.

There are some things you do that seem to take the life force out of you and leave you less than you were before, like zoning out in front of a television or playing video games during all your free time. But there are other kinds of things that seem to build you up. It could be a course of study, some physical discipline or learning an art or skill. These take effort and discipline but they can richly reward the time and trouble.

In my case, it helped me both to endure and eventually escape dire poverty--and left me with the will to do something about it when I had the chance.

R.I.P. the Bush administration's "ownership society."

WHAT A DIFFERENCE UNIVERSAL HEALTH CARE MAKES. In another op-ed, economist Dean Baker points out that if General Motors was a Canadian company, it wouldn't be in need of a bailout.

HERE WE GO AGAIN. Welfare rolls are increasing for the first time since it was "reformed" in 1996.

MORE BAD WV NEWS. Century Aluminum in Ravenswood may close.


December 17, 2008

Getting through

The theme lately at Goat Rope is hard times and how to get through them. The last two posts were about poverty and the role of education, broadly conceived, in helping people escape it. Yesterday's post was about a program that provides economically disadvantaged people with college level classes in the humanities.

As fate would have it, the humanities helped me get though the economic depression that hit West Virginia in the 1980s. It was baaaad. I was working at a low wage job and picking up any extra work on the side and trying to provide for two young children. At times, it seemed like there was no way out.

As mentioned in the last two posts, being in poverty sometimes feels like being a hunted animal. The writer Earl Shorris called it, accurately in my opinion, a "surround of force."

It would have been nice if we had an administration at the time that cared about working class and poor people, but that wasn't on the menu. There was no social movement waiting in the wings to come to the rescue.

One thing you have to do in a situation like that is just Get Through Time while you're waiting for conditions to change or opportunities to occur. And there are some ways of getting through time that can make you stronger and other ways that make you weaker.

One thing that saved me was starting an ambitious reading program of my own on work breaks and lunch hours and other stolen moments. It didn't put any extra cash in my pocket at the time but it enriched me and gave me a chance to think and reflect when I couldn't do much else. And over time, it was an investment well worth the effort.

About which more tomorrow.



December 16, 2008

Time to reflect

Socrates, courtesy of wikipedia.

Yesterday's post was about a description of poverty developed by the writer Earl Shorris. He called it a "surround of force," which keeps poor people on the defensive, dealing with one crisis after another with little or no opportunity to reflect.

That's pretty much what it was like for me.

Shorris also developed a novel approach to dealing with the problem that seemed to work for many of the people who had the chance to try it. It involved, of all things, studying the humanities and reading and talking about the classics. As he put it,

The humanities are a foundation for getting along in the world, for thinking, for learning to reflect on the world instead of just reacting to whatever force is turned against you. I think the humanities are one of the ways to become political...

Shorris makes his case in two books, New American Blues: A Journey Through Poverty to Democracy and Riches for the Poor: The Clemente Course in the Humanities.

No doubt there are politically (self) righteous advocates for the poor who have never been there who think this was a silly or useless approach. I will waste no words refuting them except to say that when one is in a miserable situation, there is really nothing so rare and welcome as the chance to think and reflect. Oh yeah, and this: nothing is too good for the working class, bub.

It's no substitute for other ways of fighting poverty but I think it has merits.

Shorris developed what came to be the Bard College Clemente Course in the Humanities. According to their website, the program

grew out of the disturbing fact that in our society many low-income residents have limited access to college education and no opportunity to study the humanities. The Clemente Course provides college level instruction in the humanities, with the award of college credits, to economically and educationally disadvantaged individuals at no cost and in an accessible and welcoming community setting. Participants study four disciplines: literature, art history, moral philosophy, and American history. Like their more affluent contemporaries, students explore great works of fiction, poetry, drama, painting, sculpture, architecture, and philosophy, while learning also about the events and ideals that define America as a nation. The course also offers instruction in writing and critical thinking, while the seminar style of the classes and dialectical investigation encourage an appreciation for reasoned dialogue.

One person who went through the program described its effects:

This class has given me something that I thought was lost forever, and that is the will power to reach my dreams.

I never had the chance to participate in or observe the course, but I found my own way toward that conclusion by both living in and working with people who live in poverty. More on that tomorrow.

DEFICITS, DEFICITS, WE GOT DEFICITS. Here's Nobel Prize-winning economist Joseph Stiglitz on some of them.

OWN TO RENT. Here's some interesting news on the housing crisis.

SEE YOU IN COURT. Mountain State Justice, a public interest law firm, plans to sue the WV Medicaid program over changes to the plan which may limit services to children.

THE COMET MAY HAVE BEEN FRAMED. Some scientists are now blaming volcanic eruptions for the extinction of dinosaurs.


December 15, 2008

A surround of force

Being poor is sometimes like being hunted. Image courtesy of wikipedia.

There is a wealth of writings about poverty. I've scanned a good bit of them, but the one analysis that spoke most clearly to me was that of Earl Shorris in his 1997 book, New American Blues: A Journey Through Poverty to Democracy.

In preparing to write the book, Shorris traveled around the country and spoke with many people dealing with poverty. His description of the reality of poverty as people live it rang true to my own experience of it and seemed to fit the experiences of people I knew who had endured it.

Shorris called it "a surround of force." As he put it,

The poor, those who lose in the game of modern society, are thrust into a surround of force. Inside the surround, they experience anomie: panic is limitless action within a surround, but the surround ruthlessly limits the freedom of its objects by enclosing them.

Think of an animal being hunted. Another way of putting it might be to say that when you're poor, you're always on the defensive. It's one damn thing after another, generally not good. It keeps you always reacting and often deprives you of the opportunity to step back and reflect.

A line of Bruce Springsteen's comes to mind from "Born in the USA:"

You end up like a dog that's been beat too much 'Til you spend half your life just covering up.

When you feel like that dog, it's hard to be a citizen taking an active part in the life of the polis.

Shorris also came up with a novel approach to breaking that pattern through education which also rang true to my experience.

More on that tomorrow...

SPEAKING OF HARD TIMES, some states are running out of funds to pay unemployment benefits.

MISTAKES WERE MADE, according to an unpublished federal history of reconstruction efforts in Iraq.

BEYOND A CERTAIN POINT, more might not be better.

UNION WOMEN earn more than their unorganized counterparts, a new study reports.

COMMON GROUND. Here's a suggested policy agenda many Americans agree upon, by way of Yes! Magazine.