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Posts Tagged ‘teachers’

The Landlord from Ioway: James Alan McPherson, 1943–2016

August 10, 2016 | by

Photo by Tom Langdon.

Photo by Tom Langdon.

Although I didn’t yet know of his dying, I was thinking of James McPherson in the hours afterward, as I listened to President Obama’s speech at the Democratic National Convention. I wanted very much for him to explain how these two lodestars of our current political life, Obama and Trump, could exist in the same galaxy. Years ago, at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, I had witnessed Jim’s unerring ability to find the pulse of the weakest story. Similarly, during the reigns of Reagan and Bush the First, he had listened intently to the whispering of a far right wing not easily heard in the din of that era’s culture war. I knew I had neither Jim’s wisdom nor imagination, and the night of the convention I could only sense that he again, in a way that most of us could not, would understand the spiritual impoverishment that drove this most incredible of political narratives.

I had to content myself with remembering the rumble of his laughter, the way it could start from the tips of his splayed feet and rise up to his fraying straw cap. I thought, too, of the hesitations in the murmur of his hushed voice, the result perhaps of a stutter long mastered, or the refusal to speak anything other than the truth—his truth perhaps, but a truth that many of his students learned to rely on. Read More »

Ulysses S. Grant Repaired My Parents’ Dryer

August 3, 2016 | by

Revisited is a series in which writers look back on a work of art they first encountered long ago.

He’s always watching.

In 1974, when they were honeymooning in Atlanta, my parents bought a portrait of Ulysses S. Grant—not the one pictured above, but something close enough. They spent fifty bucks on it: cash they’d won on a bet with my grandfather, wagering that Nixon would not see out his term.

The painting hung above our fireplace in northeast Ohio when I was a girl. It matters only peripherally that Grant was an actual man who lived and died in the nineteenth century; who was the eighteenth president of the United States; and who, as commanding general of the United States Army, led the Union Army to victory over the Confederacy in the Civil War. What matters is how single-minded I found his gaze, his eyes staring down at me—to say nothing of the distinguished crinkle of the eyebrows above them, those bright buttons on his jacket, that thick beard and head of hair, sculpted like cake frosting. Read More »

I Kissed the Rod

November 20, 2015 | by

Beneath its old-fashioned exterior, Ernest Raymond’s Tell England (1922) radiates transgression.

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I really think I like Radley better than anyone else in the world. I simply loved being whacked by him.

This extraordinary confession comes in the first chapter of Ernest Raymond’s 1922 novel, Tell England. It is offered in the dormitory after lights-out, whispered to the schoolboy narrator, Ray, by his friend Doe. Radley is their teacher, a tall, strict, athletic history master. You’d be hard-pressed to find a school story, or indeed a school, that didn’t go in for hero-worship, but Doe’s ardor overruns even that cup. Unlike Alec Waugh’s contemporaneous The Loom of Youth, which sought to expose the sexual and emotional realities of life in a boys’ school, Tell England is an old-fashioned, innocent, fundamentally Edwardian school story, a strange place to find such an extravagant declaration.

Raymond wrote more than sixty novels, but his most popular by far was this, his first. Though panned by critics, it was reprinted fourteen times in 1922, became a movie in 1931, and by 1939 had sold 300,000 copies. Today, though, Tell England is largely forgotten. From its psychological and sexual cluelessness to its glorification of military sacrifice, the novel can feel tediously dated. It’s an odd hybrid, half public-school novel, half paean to World War I. It includes all the trappings of the classic school story: athletics, classical learning, chivalry, Anglican Christianity, romantic friendship, and, of course, corporal punishment. Like most school stories, it is a narrative of character development. After its young hero enters the school at the bottom, he learns the ways of its world, undergoes trials, and grows into a leader. Read More »

Amusing Myself: An Interview with Bob Neuwirth

October 6, 2014 | by

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Photo: Larry Bercow

In Just Kids, Patti Smith calls the painter and singer-songwriter Bob Neuwirth “a catalyst for action,” and she should know—it was Neuwirth, “trusted confidant to many of the great minds of his generation,” who urged her to write her first song. In a recent interview with Smith, Neil Young said that Neuwirth is “almost a Biblical figure … It’s just amazing that this guy has been shadowing through all these artistic communities.”

Down the decades, Neuwirth, now seventy-five, has made the scene in Cambridge, Massachusetts, Berkeley, Paris, Nashville, Santa Monica, and Austin, stopping in at the fabled festivals of Newport, Monterey, and Woodstock and associating along the way with Janis Joplin, Lou Reed, the Coen Brothers, Brice Marden, T Bone Burnett, Joan Baez, Shel Silverstein, Elvis Costello, Sam Shepard, Kris Kristofferson, Larry Poons, The Band, and The Band’s former front man, Bob Dylan. In Chronicles: Volume One, Dylan recalled the decades when he and Neuwirth were especially close: “Like Kerouac had immortalized Neal Cassady in On the Road, somebody should have immortalized Neuwirth … If ever there was a renaissance man leaping in and out of things, he would have to be it.”

For someone on the receiving end of such high praise from the famous, though, Neuwirth has a rather low view of fame itself. “Being famous is a full-time job,” he told me over lunch recently in the West Village. “You can get more done being anonymous. I know how people can get famous, but they have to want to do that … It has to tickle the G-spot of their minds, because being anonymous is so much more powerful. You can get so much more done if you’re not worried about fame and fortune. You can get a lot done.”

Since he came out of Akron, Ohio, in the early sixties, Neuwirth has focused primarily on painting, but he’s equally as well known for his music. He cowrote Joplin’s song “Mercedes Benz”; put out five mostly excellent solo records (including Last Day on Earth, a collaboration with John Cale); appeared as Dylan’s running buddy in D.A. Pennebaker’s 1967 documentary, Don’t Look Back; had his songs recorded by the likes of Jerry Lee Lewis, Roger McGuinn, and Peter Case; and worked with everyone from the Welsh filmmaker Sara Sugarman to rockabilly legend Rosie Flores.

Later this month, Neuwirth and his small band will join the journalist David Felton for “Stories and Songs” at Manhattan’s Dixon Place on October 15 and at McCabe’s Guitar Shop in Santa Monica on October 19. We spoke about these upcoming shows, among many other diversions.

What can the audience expect from “Stories and Songs”?

I’m interested in the living-room, intimate atmosphere of it. The whole point is, what happens when somebody shows up in a performance space without a preset agenda and has to bring something to the table, much in the way Keith Jarrett approaches a concert in which he doesn’t know what the first note is going to be? It’s almost unbelievable to hear his Koln Concert and think that Jarrett just cleared his mind before he walked onto that stage—it’s sublime. That’s our ideal. It’s 95 percent improv—aside from a couple of anchor songs, touchstones that I can rely on if things get too hideous.

Has that backfired? Do you ever get scorched by embarrassment?

Daily. On or off the stage. I’m scorched by embarrassment every time I look in the mirror. Especially when I’m trying on a bathing suit. Read More »

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The Savage

March 14, 2014 | by

The last of five vignettes.

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Postcard of Zola, 1899.

I was teaching a class which I believe was called “Dramatic Theory” but which, more accurately, if more dauntingly, might have been called “On the Nature of Group Perception,” the study in which the dramatist is actually engaged.

The university had engaged me to show up two days each year for four years. In the second year of our compact I made a pre-appearance request of the English or dramatic department or whomever I was to traipse in under the auspices of.

I suggested they, if they wished, were free to judge the applicants for the limited space in the class according to grades, entrance quizzes, or any other criteria, if they, on determining the lucky winners, would then disqualify them, and assign the spaces at random to anyone else at all.

“Or just give me the ne’er-do-wells,” I asked.

I was saddened, but not surprised, to find, on my arrival, that the university had taken my request as a witticism, and chose for admittance only those students with high grade averages and correct demeanors. Read More »

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