On the Question of 70-Year-Old Men

There is no doubt about it. President Donald Trump’s latest tweets have rightly triggered a firestorm of disgust and angry responses. The personal attacks on MSNBC reporters Joe Scarborough and Mika Brzezinski have revealed a level of meanness and misogyny even Trump’s most craven defenders find impossible to ignore, with the exception of his White House press team, whose jobs, of course, depend on continuing to justify whatever he says. Thus, we have deputy press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders reminding us that, when Trump feels attacked (read “criticized”), he feels compelled to “fight fire with fire.” The problem is that he typically goes off the rails with comments of little substance or truth that would cause most other people to be fired and led out of their office by security. But he is, after all, the President. The people hired him. Or at least, that portion of the public voting in the right places to comprise a majority of the Electoral College even as he lost the popular vote by roughly three million.

My focus in this essay, however, is different from all that, although connected to it. I do not intend to reprise Trump’s acid tweets or analyze or parse or dissect them. My target is certain members of the television punditocracy who should know better and are insulting senior citizens in the process of criticizing Donald Trump. The fact that Trump is their target does not blind me to the ignorance of one statement some reporters have repeated so often I have not kept track of exactly who has said it or how often: “Donald Trump is a 70-year-old man, and 70-year-old men don’t change.”

Poppycock. This is a lazy excuse for failing to take a closer look at the real problem in his case. It is also a display of ageism that should not go unchallenged, certainly not any more than Trump’s misogyny. It is an expression of bias that needs to stop.

Slicing the cake at my APA retirement party, May 31. Not that was I about to disappear to a Florida golf course. Photos by Jean Schwab

I will reveal a personal stake in this debate. In little less than two and a half years, I will be one of those 70-year-old men. At 67, it is not just that I feel very little in common with Trump’s world view. It is that I know in my gut that I remain capable of change, that I have core principles that I hope will not change, and that I have one fundamental quality that Trump appears to lack—that of spiritual, moral, and intellectual curiosity. I approach 70 in the humble knowledge that I do not know everything, have never known everything that matters, and that I never will know everything that matters. I also approach 70 in the certainty that my thirst for new knowledge must remain until my last breath, barring any mental deterioration that might forestall such curiosity. I recall a friend of mine, who had read a biography of former U.S. Supreme Court Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes, telling me of book, Honorable Justice (by Sheldon M. Novick). Although the passage does not appear in that book, he noted a story in which newly inaugurated President Franklin Roosevelt is visiting the retired 92-year-old man and finds him reading Plato.

“Why do you read Plato, Mr. Justice?” Roosevelt asks.

“To improve my mind,” Holmes responds.

Which gets us to the problem of the current President. It is commonly said that he does not spend much time reading. Reading is one activity that informs learning, and learning inspires change, and therein lies the problem. We have a President who is so certain of his own superiority, who, on the wings of inherited wealth, has spent so little time being challenged on his core beliefs, that he has not acquired the habit of intellectual curiosity. This is the only trait that truly explains his poorly informed intransigence on climate change, immigration, election fraud, and numerous other issues where his depth of knowledge often appears paper-thin. It also explains his intense, narcissistic preoccupation with personal image reflected in comments about other nations laughing at “us,” and in his perceived need to strike back at anyone who merely disagrees with him, however honest and honorable that person’s disagreement may be.

To what can we attribute this sad state of affairs? Clearly, not just to Trump himself. After all, despite the distortions in popular will wrought by the Electoral College, no one can win the Electoral College without being at least close to a plurality of the popular vote. No one with a weak base of voter support can even hope to win the nomination of either major party in the United States. Inevitably, we must look at the nature of the support that launched Trump into the White House.

There can be little doubt that some of that support involved a level of dislike or dissatisfaction with Hillary Clinton that allowed voters to overlook the manifold shortcomings of Donald Trump, although polls surely indicate that many are now reassessing that comparison. Let’s be honest. Clinton had her own baggage and an imperious style that turned off a large part of the electorate. She could have spent far more time with blue-collar voters in the Midwest but chose not to. Whether Sen. Bernie Sanders could have beaten Trump, we will never know. History does not afford us the luxury of testing such scenarios. Sanders did not win the nomination, and there is little more to be said. Better luck next time.

Colleague Richard Roths (right), still stirring the waters and challenging conventions in his own retirement, alongside Benjamin and Rebecca Leitschuh, former students (of both of us) and co-workers (of mine), at my APA retirement party.

What I want to emphasize, however, is that Trump’s lack of intellectual curiosity, and his remarkable ability to tune into similar qualities among people very unlike him—the working-class voters worried about job security—reflects a sullen streak in American culture that has long glorified ignorance. Mind you, I am not saying that white working-class voters all fall into this category. I emerged from that environment. My father was a truck mechanic. I have met and known many union members and leaders with much more generous and positive attitudes. (I am married to a Chicago Teachers Union activist.) I am speaking of a particular tendency that can be found anywhere but tends to assert itself in uncertain economic times and under certain cultural circumstances, such as those highlighted by J.D. Vance in Hillbilly Elegy.

There is a cultural tug-of-war within America that is as old as America. It is between the intellectual innovators and their curiosity and all the changes they have wrought that have launched this nation to international leadership in technology, literature, and science, and those who willingly disparage the value of education, knowledge, and curiosity, whether out of jealousy or resentment or stubbornness. There is an element of social class attached to it, but more often it transcends class. Sometimes, aspects of both traits can be found in the same person. For all his innovative genius in science and politics, Thomas Jefferson remained a racist to his dying day. On the other hand, another “70-year-old man,” his contemporary George Washington, rose above his heritage long enough at the end of his life to free his slaves, upon his wife’s death, in his will, believing that the institution of slavery would need to wither away. Jefferson did no such thing.

So, we fight this war within ourselves at times, and as we do, we need to acknowledge it in order to overcome it, so that our biases are not petrified in old age. Trump seems to have chosen the opposite course. Unfortunately, he won election by tapping into an anti-intellectual streak in American politics that runs rampant across age groups, although we can hope that the worst biases are dying off among the young. But beware of the mental calcification that can start at an early age.

Deene Alongi, to my right, will begin managing speaking tours for me this fall. I may have a few things to say!

Seventy-year-old men and women can readily change. Having retired from APA just a month ago, I am rapidly acquiring new routines, setting new goals for the coming years, and trying to think new thoughts. Like Holmes, I cannot wait to read books new and old, and I want to remain intellectually challenged. I hope everyone following this blog has similar aspirations. It is the only way we will keep our nation, and indeed the entire world, moving forward and confronting challenges in a positive way.

And I don’t want to hear one more ignorant reporter talk about how “70-year-old men don’t change.” To them, I say, look inside yourself and ask why you are saying such a thing. Is it because you anticipate being stubborn like Trump when you reach his age? Perhaps you have some biases of your own to overcome.

Beware: From now on, I may start recording reporters’ names when I watch the TV news and hear comments about old men not changing. And I will call them out when they repeat their ageist slurs.

 

Jim Schwab

When Words Lose Meaning

This is not going to be a polite blog post. It is going to be blunt and brief. Politeness serves a purpose in life, but mostly when engaging with other people of honest intentions but different perspectives, in an effort to keep discussion civil and respectful. It is not an effective tool in dealing with prevarication, obfuscation, and deflection.

Those are the tools of the current President of the United States, and I feel sorry for those who are so enamored of the narcissist named Donald Trump that they have become incapable of seeing this reality. But I am just stubborn and old-fashioned enough to believe there is such a thing as truth. Most of us may struggle to various degrees with the challenge of discerning it, but it does exist. And many of us also are at least aware when someone is trying to obscure it rather than illuminate it.

Let us consider the case of a presidential candidate who has only recently acknowledged, as President, the reality of Russian interference in the U.S. elections through fake news and hacking of e-mails, among other activities intended to destabilize democracy, using a set of tactics they appear poised to repeat in other nations. Trump, who last year refused to admit such things were happening, and whose campaign is under investigation for possible collusion with Russia, now has the effrontery to tweet that then President Obama did “NOTHING about Russia after being notified by the CIA of meddling” and that Obama “didn’t ‘choke,’ he colluded or obstructed.” And somehow, although it was Hillary Clinton who was the target of Russian interference, Obama did this to help her.

Look—as a parent and grandparent, I know a dodge when I see one. What parent of multiple children has not heard in some form the “He did it too” defense as a means of deflecting blame? I almost have to wonder about the parenting skills of those mature voters who fail to recognize this game for what it is. It almost does not matter what Barack Obama, Hillary Clinton, or anyone else ever actually did or failed to do; the only real point is to deflect attention in order to avoid accepting responsibility. To the extent that we allow elected officials to play this game, we voters are essentially like ineffective, overindulgent parents who fail to call their children to account. I say this without regard to party or philosophy, even though I am targeting Trump as the current deflector extraordinaire. And I am focusing on Trump because, instead of taking the presidency seriously, he is elevating this ruse to dangerous new levels.

This requires serious linguistic deconstruction to grasp what is happening. Trump as a candidate denied and ignored Russian interference even as he sarcastically urged the Russians to hack some more. (Sean Spicer now says he was joking). How is this now the focus of alleged collusion and obstruction by Obama? If Obama is guilty of anything, in the eyes of most rational and experienced observers, it is perhaps of being too cautious to warn the public until October. And even then, when Obama or other administration officials mentioned it, they were greeted with jeers and skepticism by the Trump campaign. More importantly, note the misuse of the word “obstructed.” In the context of the current investigations being led by Special Counsel Robert Mueller, obstruction is a legal term that refers to efforts to impede the administration of justice. In the Trump context of the recent tweet, suddenly it refers to hesitancy or inaction at a time when officials were still trying to determine the proper course of action in response to an attack on the American electoral process that Trump was insisting was not even happening. In the absence of any criminal investigation at the time, how does official inaction, to whatever extent Obama’s reluctance to go public can be characterized as such, become obstruction? Obstruction of what? And how does one collude by failing to act more quickly against an identified enemy whom Trump does not even perceive as such?

If this were an isolated instance of such an assault upon the meaning of words, I might not be writing this essay. But any astute observer, including many worried Republicans, knows by now that this is a persistent pattern—the rule of Trump, not eethe exception. Words are turned inside out, stripped of all normal meaning, deprived of context. James Comey should worry about tapes, while the White House spends weeks refusing to acknowledge tapes exist before finally deciding to say they don’t, and now we are to believe this was merely a ploy to keep Comey honest. A ploy, that is, by a president who has yet to establish his own credibility with anyone but his core followers. The president who would protect Medicare, Medicaid, and Social Security seems woefully unaware of the contents of the Republican health care legislation, gleefully tweeting that he wants a Senate bill with “heart,” even as it starts from a premise of depriving millions of Americans of accessible health insurance through a bill that whose content was secret until only a week ago. But who cares about details when you can spend your time bashing Obama? Why spoil the fun?

Buckle your seat belts. Barring impeachment or resignation, this steady erosion of the essential meaning of words in the English language will almost assuredly continue for at least another three and a half years. The upside is that, if our democracy and constitutional system can survive this trial, it can quite possibly survive nearly anything. Keep your BS detectors fully charged and operative.

 

Jim Schwab

Words That Move America

Chicago, a city that has spawned at least its fair share of writers and attracted many more, has spawned a national museum dedicated to people who propagate the written word. The American Writers Museum (AWM) opened May 16 at 180 N. Michigan Avenue, situated amid a dense ecosystem of museums, parks, and other cultural attractions that make living in Chicago such a stimulating experience. Let me just state the basic premise up front: If you live in Chicago, or you are visiting, and you care about or have any curiosity about literature, this is worth a visit. It is not a huge museum, at least not now, and you need not worry that it will take all day. You can spend all day, but you can get a great deal out of it in two or three hours if you wish.

Literature, in the context of AWM, does not only mean fiction or poetry. One point that was immediately obvious to me during a visit last week was that the museum takes a broad view of both “writers” and what constitutes “writing.” Communication comes in many forms, and the museum seeks to explore how those forms change in response to numerous changing conditions in American society. AWM President Carey Cranston reinforced that point with me during a brief walk-through when I arrived, before turning me loose to make my own assessments of the exhibits. Thus, in the various displays one can encounter Charles M. Schulz, the author of the “Peanuts” comic strip, which made points about life, love, and laughter just as surely as Jane Jacobs, discussing the status of urban planning in the 1960s in The Death and Life of Great American Cities and Jean Toomer in Cane, an intriguing mix of fiction techniques that shed life on African-American life in the early 20th century. Creativity is not bounded by genre. It helps define genre.

Hold that thought for a minute while I explore with you the big question that drove me to visit in the first place. It is obvious enough how some other museums dedicated to natural history (Field Museum, e.g.) or technology and science (Chicago Museum of Science and Industry, or the Smithsonian Air and Space Museum in Washington, D.C.) make their subject visual and sometimes even tactile with displays of dinosaur skeletons or space capsules, accompanied by videos that help patrons relive the experience of exploring the moon. How does one take the words of poems, novels, memoirs, and other types of written expression and make them come alive in an institutional setting? After all, any library can create a display of the ten best novelists by simply stacking the books along a display counter to draw attention. As readers, we engage with these works by buying or borrowing the books and, well, reading them. So, what makes an American Writers Museum a vivid encounter with its subject matter?

One answer lies in the timeline that greets you just to the right of the front desk after you enter. Running from 1490 to the present, it is not, as Cranston noted to me, a display of the best writers America has ever seen, but instead provides an emblematic display that allows you to see the relationship of major themes in American history to the writing American authors have produced. The United States of America, an independent nation for only half of that time and a maze of Spanish, French, Dutch, Russian, and British colonies as well as native societies at various times before and since, is rich in historical themes that have inspired literary responses. The vastness of a continent new to Europeans . . . . the interaction of cultures . . . . Civil War and its aftermath . . . . the struggle for civil rights . . . . the fight for dignity and identity for American Indians . . . . immigration and the assimilation of new peoples and cultures . . . . industrialization and its impact on a formerly agrarian nation . . . . America’s emergence on the world stage. One could go on, and one could navigate the endless subthemes and nuances of each topic, which is precisely what American writers, whatever their origins and perspectives, have done for more than five centuries.

Opposite the timeline, and complementing it, is a wall with the names of prominent writers on small boards built in that one can turn for additional information. Many, though not all, feature short videos one can launch with a finger touch that illustrate important points. I played with one for Ray Bradbury, one of my own favorites dating back to high school. The video quotes part of Fahrenheit 451 while showing a pile of books being consumed by fire. Alongside Bradbury’s name is a theme, in his case, Dystopian Literature; this occurs with each writer to help show the range of genre that American literature has produced, how it has responded to both contemporary and larger issues, seeking to excite the visitor’s imagination. Whether intentional or not, it excited mine simply by introducing me to writers previously unfamiliar to me, which is saying a lot. There are American writers of whose work any of us may know little or nothing but who have the potential to stir our thoughts and prod our consciences. That has always been the mission of good writing.

Near all that is a current, periodically changing exhibit, the Meijer Exhibit Gallery, which demonstrates some of the most potent creativity the museum has on display. Its first exhibit displays the work of poet W.S. Merwin, about whom I confess I knew nothing, but who is now a source of fascination for me. The small room one enters for “Palm: All Awake in the Darkness,” features a haunting 12-minute video with no human presence except for the soft voice-over of narrators reading from Merwin’s work dealing with the complex and problematic relationship of humanity and nature. The video features the view from inside a cabin in the Maui rainforest, redolent with the sounds of birds and insects and the abundance of life beneath the forest canopy. You may stand or sit on a simple bench and contemplate this immersive adventure into the mind of a poet. Merwin, now 89, has produced more than 50 volumes of poetry, according to the brochure that complements the exhibit, which discusses writer Gregory Bateson’s concept of an “ecology of ideas,” the network of impressions and perspectives that form our conscious and subconscious minds. Since the late 1970s, Merwin has lived in Hawaii on an old pineapple plantation he has restored to its natural state.

As a Lutheran, I found one other thing haunting. Merwin is a practicing Buddhist, and the brochure contains a typewritten, hand-edited draft of a poem called “Place.” It begins:

On the last day of the world

I would want to plant a tree

Curiously, for years, I have known that Martin Luther is reputed to have said, “If I knew the world would end tomorrow, I would plant a tree.” The 500th anniversary of the Reformation is upon us, and I know these two men came from very different places to express the same thought. But if a 16th-century religious reformer and a 20tt-century Buddhist poet can reach the same conclusion about the resilience of our commitment to the earth and the stubbornness of faith, perhaps there is hope for us all, after all.

AWM will be sponsoring events in a modest meeting room that features another challenging exhibit, “The Mind of a Writer,” which explores the connections between writer and audience. Professional writers clearly cannot earn a living without an audience, and the practical questions are both how to define and shape that audience and how to reach that audience. The “reach” forces us to explore the role of technology and institutions in facilitating those connections, which clearly have evolved over time. Displays make us think about the evolution of the book shop, starting with the Moravian Book Shop, launched in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania, in 1745, largely to import religious publications, but continuing into such modern innovations as Oprah’s Book Club, using the medium of television to connect viewers with writers; bookstore chains such as the now defunct Borders; and Amazon, allowing people to order books through the Internet. Of course, writers have also used periodicals, which in their heyday relied very much on the efficiency of the U.S. Postal Service, as well as other media. Playwrights do not expect people to read their writing, but to hear it on stage. Screenwriters reach people through televised performances of their scripts, and so on. All of that got me wondering whether AWM missed a beat by not discussing the Internet not only as a mechanism for selling printed works but as a medium in itself for digital publishing. After all, the very premise of my visit was to review the museum not in print but online, by blogging. Maybe I missed it, but where was the discussion of blogging as one of the most modern innovations in audience creation? Anyone out there? Judging from the list of subscribers on my admin site, it would seem there are thousands. In the aggregate, probably hundreds of millions. It’s a brave new world. But I suspect it may not be long before AWM addresses this phenomenon.

Just beyond this area is a section where you can sit at an old-fashioned typewriter and play. The staff each day places sheets of paper in a tray with the opening lines or fragments of famous quotes. Your job: start pecking away to fill in the blanks with your own thoughts about how the quote should end. For writers like me who are almost preternaturally oriented to the computer screen, it is slightly disconcerting to hit keys that sometimes skip, but the experience is indisputably tactile, though arguably less so than perhaps using a quill pen. In any event, there is a wall with clips. You are invited to hang up your work when you are done. I did not get around to asking what the staff does with these at the end of each day. Maybe you should ask when you visit.

I hope you are more dexterously agile than I appear to be with one other exhibit that allows you to move any of a number of drifting images across a screen for a surprise exploration of an individual writer’s work. One of several lines of inquiry allows you to hear a short oral reading, but I had trouble triggering that feature because my index finger seemed not to hit the precise part of that line that activated the recording, at least not on the first try. I found myself a little frustrated, but a generation that has become adept at using its thumbs to tap out smartphone messages may be more adept in this respect. I was never very skilled with video games, either. We all have our limitations.

There are other features, including one on Jack Kerouac that includes the “scroll manuscript” he pasted together for On the Road, and a room on Chicago writers, since the museum lives here. I am sure there will be more in the future. The museum leaders appear to have built out their infrastructure of sponsors and board members, and if you’d like to know more, you can visit the website. That is not my mission here. As an active American writer, I hope I’m offering you reasons to visit the museum itself.

 

Jim Schwab

Voters Beware

Labor Day has passed in America, and that traditionally means presidential candidates launch their campaigns in earnest, though it is hard to say in reality when that transition occurred in 2016, if not immediately after the Republic and Democratic conventions. I cannot recall any respite, although it is clear that Donald Trump, the Republican nominee, has struggled to solidify the management of his race to the White House. He is, of the course, the newcomer, and Hillary Clinton has had time to practice this routine.

I have no great desire in this blog post to pontificate on the merits of the two candidates. It is clear enough that neither will enter the Oval Office unscarred and flawless, so it behooves voters to make some clear-headed determinations of just who they think is actually better, or even if they prefer to give the nod to a third-party candidate like Gary Johnson or Jill Stein. For the record, I will not kid anyone: I think Hillary Clinton has been far more serious and steady in her approach to the campaign, even if she is utterly human and far from perfect. But I can understand why many voters are uneasy or dissatisfied with their choices, though I also think that in a democracy, an imperfect choice is far better than none at all. Our republic has survived numerous mediocre presidencies, and some candidates who seemed less convincing at the outset in fact became some of our greatest, while others entered office with great expectations and produced great disappointment. I have read dozens of presidential biographies over the years. I know. There have been no saints in the White House, but there surely have been some heroes.

With that in mind, I want to bring to readers’ attention a solid piece of writing by a Pulitzer Prize-winning investigative reporter, David Cay Johnston. His book, The Making of Donald Trump, follows the candidate’s family and career across three generations, concentrating, of course, on Donald Trump as an adult, a businessman, and most recently a politician. If someone really wants to be fully aware of what he or she is getting in Trump as a presidential candidate, this is essential reading.

There are and will be numerous other books as a result of this unusual and unorthodox campaign. Many are and will be mediocre, no matter which candidate they profile, or whether they cover both or the campaign generally, because so often such books are either whole-hearted advocacies of one cause or another, or are hatchet jobs directed at opponents, or aim to fire up supporters with broad platitudes. I do not generally waste my time on them. Serious investigative journalism, however, is another matter because people of Johnston’s caliber respect facts, know how to ferret them out even when candidates prefer to bury them, and insist on the truth.

Johnston does all the above. We learn that Trump University has little to do with Trump personally but a great deal to do with ripping people off. Johnston details that the Trump Foundation made a donation to the campaign of Florida Attorney General Pam Bondi, which raises instant questions of illegality (foundations are not allowed to donate to campaigns) and propriety (Bondi was pondering whether Florida should join a suit against Trump University and declined). We learn that Trump has retained business associates with ties to organized crime. And these are but the beginning. There may be explanations for some of these situations, but I have not heard them. What I have seen on numerous interview shows on CNN, MSNBC, and other formats is a line of Trump surrogates regularly trying to deflect attention from these questions by pointing to some allegations against Clinton. That may seem like an effective tactic, but it is becoming transparently evasive, to the point where just yesterday I watched one of them, Boris Epshteyn, try to speak over another guest to drown out what he did not want to hear. Such behavior has taken political crudeness to new levels, even though we have all seen some of this before.

Johnston, in concluding his modest tome, says that he wrote about Trump mostly because he was introduced to him more than 25 years ago as a New Jersey reporter covering development in Atlantic City, where Trump was building a casino. Had he been in Arkansas instead, he notes, he might have written instead about Clinton. If I find a book of similar investigative quality that explores Hillary Clinton’s career, I will share it with readers because this campaign is important. But what is curious about Johnston’s conclusion is that he also reaches for a moral tone that sometimes escapes investigative reporters, who can become cynical over time, although the best invariably retain a strong commitment to unveiling the truth. But few would ring up this paragraph near the end of such a book:

Trump says he does not see any reason to seek divine forgiveness because he has done nothing wrong in his entire life, an oft-made observation so at odds with the most basic teachings of Jesus that I am at a loss to explain any religious leader embracing him. Trump’s own words are aggressively antithetical to the teachings of the New Testament. His understanding of the one Old Testament phrase he knows is warped at best. Now factor in his statements denigrating communion—“I drink my little wine, eat my little cracker”—and his fumbling pronunciation of Paul’s second letter to the believers in Corinth, and weigh them against his claim that he reads the Bible more than anyone else. These are signs of a deceiver.

He goes on to say that both Trump and Sen. Bernie Sanders “tapped into a frustration I have chronicled for decades,” and concludes that neither has the skill to address problems of inequality, and that while Clinton has both the skills and a history “on behalf of the less fortunate,” it may not be her top priority.

His afterword is dated July 4, 2016. The book has not been out for long.

 

Jim Schwab

Daydreaming on a Sunday Afternoon

 

Take me out to the ballpark. This is Wrigley Field, but I'll go to the Cell too.

Take me out to the ballpark. This is Wrigley Field, but I’ll go to the Cell too.

Have you ever tried to visualize yourself in a prominent, visible role other than whatever you do for a living? Can you see yourself accepting a Grammy, say, or racing across the goal line with a touchdown pass? Most of us at some point have some fantasy about our lives. Such fantasies are largely harmless things. They inspire us to aspire without making us delusional.

Sometime last night before the stroke of midnight in Chicago, some one of you became the 12,000th subscriber to this blog. I mention the point only because, as this audience grows, so grow the odds that someone out there can relate to what I am saying in a blog post like this, when I grow tired of discussing politics or public policy and just itch to let my imagination roam. I know I’m not the only one, as John Lennon once sang.

Several circumstances have converged to inspire this rumination. One is that I have needed to spend time this weekend on some serious technical writing in order to catch up on work I promised to do, some of which was forestalled Friday by family business. I want to break out of the rut. A second fact is that I have joined nearly the whole city of Chicago in pensively following the almost inconceivable set of daily triumphs this spring that have given our generally luckless baseball city the two best teams in Major League Baseball—at least so far, knock on wood, and may I not jinx either one by speaking too soon. When I’ve had the chance, I have watched both Jake Arrieta of the Cubs and Chris Sale of the White Sox as they have mowed down opposing hitters and built enviable records on the mound. I mean, between them, they have a 15-0 record this season and a combined ERA of about 1.0.

Why do I care? Back to the rumination—they are living a fantasy that I am only beginning to understand, now that I am far too old to hope to achieve anything like it. In fact, I am old enough to be their father. When I was their age, I was only beginning to overcome the intimidation in facing pitchers wrought by the fact that I needed thick glasses by the time I was ten, a story I rendered in my very first blog post on this site about four years ago. I did not understand how people threw curve balls at 90 miles per hour, and I certainly did not understand how anyone swung the bat fast enough to hit such pitches. Having never learned the rapid reactions that allow people even to face such pitchers, let alone hit home runs against them, I could only stand there dumbfounded as the ball whizzed past. It did not matter whether I swung. I was nearly 40 before I started to play competent intramural softball. By that age, most professional athletes have seen their best days and are on the way to retirement.

But that is not really my point. It was about then that my cognitive assets began to kick into gear, at least with regard to some sports, to notice from observation just how these athletes managed to do what they do. I started to follow the path of the ball closely, and the arc of the bat, and other central elements of professional baseball. I have come to realize what kind of arm or reflexes it takes to perform at that level. Even if I was never capable of realizing a daydream of launching a ball out of the park—and believe me, I never was—I at least began to realize how they did it, and the strategies behind the confrontation of hitter and pitcher. Because I have a better grasp of what is happening, I enjoy the game now more than I ever have in the past. I appreciate what Arrieta and Sale do in a way I never could before. I have become a student of the game.

That gets me to my real point. Well, sort of. We can be students of many things in our lives and benefit from it all, somehow. At the end of 2013, an exceedingly hectic year in which I racked up 23 business trips connected with my position at the American Planning Association, two more connected with teaching at the University of Iowa, plus some personal travel, I knew that something had to change. I had not gotten to my fitness club for weeks at a time, and I was wearing down. So I switched clubs to XSport Fitness and signed up to work with a personal trainer, having decided the additional expense would be more than compensated with renewed stamina and physical discipline. Then I had to wait about two months before I could start because, on New Year’s Day 2014 at a Barnes & Noble store, I pinched a shoulder nerve by carelessly tossing an overly heavy laptop bag on my left shoulder as I prepared to leave. That reinforced the logic of why I needed such training in the first place.

Mike Caldwell, trainer at XSport Fitness

Mike Caldwell, trainer at XSport Fitness

I have worked since then and made great strides in personal fitness, including, recently, a string of 150-second planks. More important, however, is what I have been learning through the trainer, Michael Caldwell, with whom I regularly discuss why I am doing what he asks me to do. I am thus gaining both intellectually, with a better understanding of physical fitness technique, and physically, by pursuing higher goals over time—and steadily achieving them. It is an important lesson in perseverance. I realize just how much work professional athletes must perform to condition themselves, no matter what natural talents they begin with. Fitness does not just happen.

It is not, however, as if I had never learned perseverance before. I have merely changed the setting or, to put it another way, added a new setting to those that were already familiar. And what I have learned in life is that loving what we do is what makes perseverance seem worthwhile and endurable. For athletes, it is literally the love of the game—that is not merely a phrase—and when that goes away, it is surely time to retire and find something else to do.

Two nights ago, Friday the 13th, my wife and I attended The King and I at the Lyric Opera of Chicago. We both loved the show. Jean, whose father was at one point in his life a music instructor, loves such musicals and enjoyed every minute of it. I mention it because I have never, in my entire life, tried to envision myself as one of the performers for such a show. I have never imagined that I have the kind of voice that it would take to impress a large audience, and my gift for music is marginal at best. For this, I was and will remain merely a spectator, a member of the consuming public. I cannot imagine myself enjoying the process of developing the necessary talent. It is not part of my rumination. I might add that, having purchased the tickets as a Mother’s Day gift, I should have anticipated that Friday the 13th would be a night in which, after the show, we would have to race five blocks through a downpour to the Blue Line to go home, getting soaked even with a raincoat and umbrella between us. (Forget the taxi line at the Lyric; it was hopeless.) I have never daydreamed about becoming a meteorologist either, not even a handsomely paid one on television. Not my thing. But I digress.

Any savvy reader will grasp by now that I am writing this article because I did find my calling, and I did persevere in developing my skills, however convoluted the path I may have taken in life. As early as the third grade, I was attempting to write science fiction stories. I dreamed of publishing them, although today I am glad that those early manuscripts have mercifully disappeared, their pages rotting in some landfill in northern Ohio. The love of writing took many forms over the years, but it has never left me. In high school, I used my electives to include one-semester courses in both journalism and creative writing. I was a co-founder of the Brecksville High School Writers Club. I began college as an English major, switching to political science only as I became drawn to the turmoil of the 1960s and the elusive prospect of somehow changing the world. I wrote for the student newspaper, sometimes well, sometimes poorly. Later I wrote a handful of op-eds for the Plain Dealer in Cleveland, and then I moved to Iowa, and continued to write and publish there. I found my way into graduate school at the University of Iowa, and not satisfied simply to get a master’s degree in urban and regional planning, I prolonged my academic efforts by adding a second master’s in journalism. Then came a fateful day when I had to decide on a master’s project in journalism, and I decided that if I had to do such a project, it ought to become a book. Three years after graduation, it emerged between two covers from the University of Illinois Press as Raising Less Corn and More Hell, an oral history of the 1980s Midwest farm credit crisis. At 38 years old, I finally found myself being reviewed in the New York Times. I had envisioned myself as a published author and cared so much about learning the craft that I never noticed just how much perseverance, how much sweat, how many wrong turns turned around I had poured into this and other projects to reach this plateau. Only in looking back do I realize the level of effort I sustained.

Like Arrieta and Sale, though certainly not with their level of fame, I loved my game and was passionate about succeeding.

The great thing about writing is that, at 66, although my energy may flag more than it did 30 years ago, I can keep going. I will not wear out my arm on the keyboard. Studs Terkel published his last book at the ripe age of 94. I can keep getting smarter about my craft without worrying about its physical toll, at least for the foreseeable future. As for that other degree? It built on my background in political science, in a way, and more importantly, it gave me something truly substantive to write about. I didn’t just want to write. I had something to say. I had another passion.

If you are one of my young readers, find your dream. Persevere with it. Trust me, it is worth it. And if you are older, well, hang in there. Life can still be beautiful if you have a purpose.

IMG_0104By the way, as for that mention of Mother’s Day: By the time I finished graduate school, I had met my wife, and we got married. I learned about passion and purpose from her too. She is retired now, but her passion was teaching. And she was happy last week. At a luncheon for its retirees, the Chicago Teachers Union gave her a lifetime achievement award for her activism. I have seldom seen her more pleased.

 

Jim Schwab

 

Salute to Studs

 

Studs Terkel, Nelson Algren, Mike Royko, and a "woman friend no one has identified. Photo provided by Richard Bales, given to him by Algren's "first bibliographer."

Studs Terkel, Nelson Algren, Mike Royko, and a “woman friend no one has identified.” Photo provided by Richard Bales, given to him by Algren’s first bibliographer, Ken McCollum.

I’ve been holding on to this piece for a week. It’s not that I wrote it and then sat on it, but that I am writing it now based on an A&E feature I encountered in the Chicago Tribune last Sunday. I didn’t actually finish reading the article until today. My real reason for delay is that I spent the week going to work, participating in seven job interviews for a new position at APA, trying to finish work on a manuscript, all while slipping not so quietly into a diagnosis by Friday of acute bronchitis. In short, at the end of each day I had no energy to write anything. So thank the antibiotics and the inhaler. I’m on the mend, but still less than robust and vigorous. But I can get this done.

The article, “Studs forever,” by Rick Kogan, a long-time WGN radio host and journalistic observer of the cultural scene, tells the story of a remarkable and worthy effort by a team of relatively young archivists led by Tony Macaluso at WFMT-FM, which long hosted the Studs Terkel Show, to digitize some 5,600 recorded radio shows that Studs Terkel left the Chicago History Museum after his death in 2008, at age 96, after decades on the air on WFMT-FM in Chicago. Terkel led an amazing life, leading an early television show in the 1950s, hosting his hour-long interviews on a daily basis, and producing 18 books, mostly of oral history, but also some remarkably literate commentary on music, the arts, and other topics. In 1985, he won a Pulitzer Prize for The Good War, his oral history of World War II. He was both an activist and a Renaissance man. When he wasn’t busy with all that, he appeared in the occasional movie, such as Eight Men Out, the dramatization of the 1919 Chicago Black Sox World Series scandal. Studs’s intellect covered the waterfront.

The article notes that only 400 of those hours of tapes are digitized so far. You can find them at www.studsterkel.org, and more will be coming, but additional resources are needed for such a gargantuan task. What is being saved for public consumption is a treasure trove of insights solicited by Terkel, in his unique interviewing style, from some of the leading lights of his time: Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr., Bob Dylan, Jacques Cousteau, Cesar Chavez, James Baldwin, Gwendolyn Brooks, Mike Royko (one of his closest friends), Bill McKibben, and who knows how many others prominent in their day. The interviews are more than just routine; they are the probings of a very curious, passionate mind, drawing the best from his subjects. They are lively elucidations of topics that remain vital: the role of art in the modern world, civil rights, free speech, racial justice, and the environment.

I say all this because I feel I owe Studs Terkel a great deal myself. He shaped how I saw my job as a writer and interviewer—not that I ever matched his skill and prolific nature—just that I learned.

Sometime in early 1984, maybe late 1983, I’m not sure, I showed up in the office of my adviser for the Journalism master’s program at the University of Iowa, John Erickson, to discuss my master’s project. At the time, I was the only person in the entire university with the oddball aim of getting two master’s degrees simultaneously in Journalism and Urban and Regional Planning, both of which were completed in 1985. The Midwest farm credit crisis was beginning to manifest itself substantially by then, and I told Professor Erickson that I wanted to produce and publish an oral history of the farm crisis. Erickson, aware unlike me that no one in the program’s history had yet turned a master’s project into a published book, never batted an eye. He suggested some resources on oral history and interviewing techniques and encouraged me to get to work. Lacking Amazon in those days, I visited Prairie Lights Books and placed a special order for the recommended reading, which showed up about two weeks later. And I got busy.

Along the way, I discovered this trailblazer in oral history named Studs Terkel and began reading his books: Working; Hard Times; and Division Street: America. I could not put them down. They remain classics, in my opinion, part of the American literary canon. And I learned both the value of asking the right questions in an interview and the art of shaping that interview into an engaging piece of literature. Aided by that inspiration, I turned that master’s degree into a book: Raising Less Corn and More Hell: Midwestern Farmers Speak Out (University of Illinois Press). But that was not until 1988, three years after I left Iowa, after Erickson and others on the comps committee told me my first 140 pages were enough, you’re graduated, do the rest later, and after my planning background helped me turn much of the same material plus other research into a consulting study for the Iowa General Assembly. But that is another story, involving another professor, John Fuller, in the School of Urban and Regional Planning, who was then employing me as a graduate research assistant. It was also in the course of my travels in conducting dozens of interviews that I met my future wife, Jean, in Omaha.

Image from Wikimedia (https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Studs_Terkel_-_1979-1.jpg) By New photo (ebay) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

That would be enough to give Studs an honored place in my memories, but after my second book (Deeper Shades of Green: The Rise of Blue Collar and Minority Environmentalism, Sierra Club Books, 1994) was released, he invited me onto his show. In view of the unquestionable prominence of so many other Studs Terkel guests, this was for me a huge honor. When someone with his track record and guest list, such as it was by 1995, brings you to his radio show, someone like me, a minor author at the time, is likely to feel this is a golden opportunity. And it was.

Studs, I learned, would not take me or my book any less seriously than any of his other guests. I was part of numerous radio and television interviews about both books, so I know how most interviewers work, and Studs was nothing like them. My book sat there alongside him, well thumbed, with post-it notes hanging from numerous pages, making clear he had read it thoroughly and knew what he wanted to ask. No one needed to give him cues; he had marked it up, backwards and forwards. I was impressed. I felt I had joined his pantheon, worthy or not. I responded in kind. I don’t know; I may have been good or I may have been mediocre. It’s twenty years ago now. But I was there.

About two years later, I began a two-year stint as the president of the Society of Midland Authors, of which Studs Terkel was long a member (as is Rick Kogan). SMA was another group that had honored him for his contributions. The radio show was ultimately not the only time I met him, but certainly the most important occasion.

So now I realize the scope of the legacy of which I became for one day an infinitesimal part, but one treated that day by Studs as just as important as every other guest, because that was his way. On the way out of the studio, he insisted on giving me an autographed copy of Race. He was as genial as they come, a great human being—with that probing mind that seemed to know no limits. This is one archive that deserves to live on.

It will take a while to complete the museum’s project, which benefited initially from a $60,000 grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities, but will probably need more before it is done. Kogan notes that you can also find videos at www.mediaburn.org.

 

Jim Schwab

Business of Changing the World

Last night I watched the CNN documentary, Steve Jobs: The Man in the Machine. It told me much that I already knew, namely, that Jobs was a problematic figure with both a dark side and a light side, a man of genius with deep human flaws, but someone who clearly changed the world, at least on a technological level. We relate to computers and telephones today in ways that were almost unimaginable 30 or 40 years ago. At the same time, the movie filled in some gaps in my knowledge and made me aware of some aspects of his tragically shortened career that were less clear to me before.

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But that is not the most important part of my reaction to the story. In fact, I had this blog post in mind well before seeing the movie in part because it simply reinforced a thought that has been with me for some time: that the shape of our choices is dictated to some extent by the timing of our lives and the circumstances in which we grow into adulthood. Many of us can still change a great deal as our life moves on, but those initial choices in high school and college, in our teens and early twenties, predetermine a great deal of what follows.

I have not yet read the Walter Isaacson biography of Jobs, though it sits on my shelf waiting for me, so I was intrigued to learn that Jobs graduated from high school in 1972, just four years behind me. But he died in 2011, and I am still here, his life ending early at 56 years of age as a result of complications from pancreatic cancer. Four years does not seem like a long time in a full life, but at that formative age, for baby boomers following the Sixties, it made all the difference in the world. It may have been one of the most dramatic periods in modern American history.

I entered college in the fall of 1968. In April of that year, as I was completing my senior year of high school, Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., was assassinated in Memphis. We barely recovered from that shock when Sen. Robert F. Kennedy, a leading candidate for the Democratic nomination for president, was also assassinated in a hotel in Los Angeles after winning the California primary. Before the summer was over, the Democratic convention in Chicago was disrupted by major protests that were suppressed with major police violence. It was a rather traumatic introduction to four years of higher education and was followed by numerous protests. I attended college in downtown Cleveland, and watched or participated in civil rights, antiwar, and environmental demonstrations.

I mention this because, in the many years since then, especially more recently, I have wondered if I might have benefited from taking some business courses in order better to understand some of the more progressive business phenomena that have evolved on the American landscape. There are now green businesses focused on renewable energy, food businesses catering to new tastes for healthier foods, and environmental businesses focused on cleaning up rather than despoiling the environment. When I was a student in Cleveland, however, the businesses I knew best seemed like an extensive monolith of status quo enterprises, defending the despoliation of the environment, resistant to equal opportunity, with the corner offices almost an unrelenting parade of conservative, aging white men. I may have been a young white man myself, but I most definitely wanted to live a more interesting, purposeful life than those white men.

And so I studied literature at first, then switched to political science, in a quest to change the world, and eventually, by the early 1980s, returned to school to obtain graduate degrees in journalism and urban and regional planning. I did survive three undergraduate electives in economics, which were reinforced by planning-related economics classes at the master’s level, but that is not the same as classes in marketing and accounting and business management. As I said, as I have watched a new generation of business enterprises take new approaches to engaging with the world, I have wondered whether I might have benefited from learning more about entrepreneurship and business principles. But it was not to be because the influences that bore down on me made that less appealing when it might have been more feasible. I wanted to change the world in what I deemed a positive way, and the businesses that might have employed me in Cleveland at the time did not seem like the way to achieve that. Nonetheless, I did work in the business world for several years before moving to Iowa to take the helm of a small public interest nonprofit organization, only after which I pursued graduate school.

It was only as I was completing that graduate education that many of these new enterprises—and Apple Computer, which was a provocative and sometimes perplexing blend of both old and new ideas about how to run a business—burst onto the scene. Meanwhile, I was acquiring a whole new set of skills that implanted me firmly in the public sector, although I have spent most of my subsequent career in a nonprofit professional association. Along the way, I learned that a strong entrepreneurial spirit is a powerful ally even in the nonprofit world. They too must find ways to attract money. In my case, we most often do that in a highly competitive environment, developing proposals for grants and contracts that require significant innovative thinking—the very sort of thing that would probably serve me equally well as a consultant because, in effect, that is to some extent what I have become. I am in a service business, but I have had and enjoyed opportunities to change the world in ways that matter. Small ways, perhaps, compared to the impact of someone like Jobs, but appreciable. I have helped alter the prevailing thinking about the ways in which planners can contribute to the reduction of losses of lives and property from natural disasters. That does not seem like a small thing when I think about it very hard.

My sense of entrepreneurship was enhanced by the fact that I also was writing for a living, sometimes enhancing my income from working as a planner with book royalties and article fees and honoraria for speaking. I learned some marketing because I had to learn how to hone my message and sell books. It’s not nearly as easy as it may seem. In fact, the publishing business can be downright brutal, but I learned to survive.

In the end, my takeaway is that it matters less whether one ends up working in the private sector, nonprofit sector, or public sector, or anywhere else, for that matter, and much more what we ultimately do with the skills we acquire. Entrepreneurship is as much an attitude as a skill, and what we sell matters as much as how well we sell it, but what matters more is why we want to do what we do and the satisfaction we derive from doing it well. Looking back, I have no regrets about the skills and knowledge I developed or about my accomplishments in life. They have not made me a billionaire like Jobs, but the psychic rewards have been high. I took the hand that life dealt me during a volatile stretch of history and used it to make a difference. I will not ask for more.

 

Jim Schwab

A Century of Midwest Literature

Robert Loerzel, immediate past president of SMA, helps introduce the day's events. He was preceded by current SMA president Meg Tebo.

Robert Loerzel, immediate past president of SMA, helps introduce the day’s events. He was preceded by current SMA president Meg Tebo.

Yesterday (May 2), a modest crowd celebrated 100 years of the Society of Midland Authors with speakers, panel discussions, and readings of authors past at the end of Society of Midland Authors Week, as declared by the Chicago City Council. Unfortunately, the event had to compete with the National Football League (NFL) draft ceremonies just a couple of blocks away in Grant Park, a contingency not foreseen when it was originally planned. While the NFL undoubtedly generates a stupendous sum of revenue even in the process of tagging star college players for professional opportunities, I would humbly argue that the literature of those celebrated at the University Center conference facility on State St. has done more to help define Chicago’s image than football ever will. Professional football shouts its presence from the skyboxes of Soldier Field. The novels, poems, and nonfiction narratives of Chicago and Midwestern writers insinuate their way into our consciousness slowly but pervasively and persuasively, like rainwater percolating into soil. Mind you, I do not dislike sports and spent Friday afternoon at a Wrigley Field rooftop party. But my understanding of real life was never altered nearly so much by a football game as by a really good book. And a few of those books were even about major sports figures.

With that in mind, I am going to divide this article into two parts. In the first, I will describe the centennial itself, which was preceded the night before by SMA’s annual book awards banquet at the Cliff Dwellers Club, which has long offered a home for many literary events, especially including those of SMA. In the second, I will describe my own small role in helping kick off the centennial as the first reader of a past author, poet Vachel Lindsay. I deliberately, several months earlier, asked the rest of SMA’s board of directors to “send me to Heaven” by letting me perform Lindsay’s art. They accommodated me, and I was grateful. The effort was part of a segment of the program in which past presidents of the society chose past SMA members and Midwestern authors whose works they would read, at short intervals between the invited speakers.

The Program

Many people save the best for last, but the best may have come first in some ways. That is saying a good deal because the program lasted from 10 a.m. until nearly 5 p.m.

The Gettysburg panel in action.

The Gettysburg panel in action: From left, Peck, Burke, and Knorowski.

Carla Knorowski, CEO of the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library Foundation, in Springfield, Illinois, led the first panel discussion by describing her work as the editor of Gettysburg Replies: The World Responds to Abraham Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address. The foundation asked potential contributors to write essays of 272 words, the precise length of the manuscript of the famous speech that is on display in the Lincoln Library. Their essays could discuss Lincoln, the Civil War, or any other aspect of the speech’s meaning that touched their souls, as long as they matched Lincoln’s brevity. The library further challenged them to submit their work in longhand, though surely many used the word count features of their computers to guarantee the length before committing their prose to cursive writing. But many found the cursive exercise humbling in an era in which such skills have been lost to many in the younger generation. Lincoln had no such advantage except that he chose the length, which established his unique ability to say so much in so few words. Lincoln was, the panelists said, a Midwestern literary genius in his own right. In the end, Knorowski and her team at the foundation had to choose the best 100 of more than 1,000 submitted essays, some of which arrived as poems, most as essays, and which included as authors every living ex-president, one Holocaust survivor, and numerous others whose observations are well worth the price of the book, which was on sale in the back of the hall.

After her opening presentation, Knorowski was followed by two of those essayists, Chicago Alderman Edward Burke, an author in his own right, who spoke later of Chicago’s storied literary history, and Graham A. Peck, associate professor of history at St. Xavier University in Chicago. Burke noted the political machinations of the Republican convention in the Wigwam in Chicago in May 1860 that made it possible to nominate a lesser known regional leader, Lincoln, in the face of strong national support for William Seward of New York. Without those machinations, of course, the nation would never have elected Lincoln nor grown to respect and love this unique political figure. Peck, on the other hand, noted from his essay that “wisdom, restraint, and self-sacrifice were in characteristically short supply” in Lincoln’s time, but that the true reason for celebrating Lincoln’s words are “with us still: the tentative, incomplete, and unrealized human commitment to freedom, which binds us equally profoundly today, and calls out insistently, everywhere, for a new birth in service of human dignity.”

Haki Madhubuti, who was also founder of Third World Press.

Haki Madhubuti, who was also founder of Third World Press.

Such comments raise the question of exactly how we perceive that commitment in 2015. If a later presentation by 73-year-old poet Haki Madhubuti seemed at times halting, at times even stumbling, there was no doubt he was speaking with conviction and concern about the fate of young African-Americans amid the turmoil of recent events, notably the very recent controversy over the death of Freddie Gray in the custody of the Baltimore police. Asked if he had any hope after his seemingly grim presentation of the state of the black community, Madhubuti stated forthrightly that he saw it in young people of all races who had not been corrupted by the racism of America’s past.

Rounding out the morning was Rick Kogan, journalist and SMA member, who recounted much of the colorful history of Chicago literature and journalism, and said of the future of the written word, “I am hopeful but scared at the same time.”

In addition to the oration of Ald. Burke, the afternoon consisted of three panels involving reporters (Steve Bogira and Jonathan Eig), children’s authors (Blue Balliett and Ilene Cooper), and novelists Christine Sneed, Carol Anshaw, and Rosellen Brown. But surely, due to a conflict that took me to Chuck E. Cheese for a granddaughter’s fifth birthday, I missed the treat of the day. On my way out, I personally excused myself to Dr. Martin Marty, a long-time professor of the history of religion at the University of Chicago, and the prolific author of at least 40 books (but who’s counting?), some of which have won literary awards. I quietly explained my circumstance as he sat in the back of the room, awaiting his turn, and with typical gracious humility as a fellow grandfather, he assured me the birthday was more important. So I asked him later what he had spoken about, and I got this third-person response, which made me laugh hard enough that I have decided to reproduce it in its entirety, with his permission:

Martin Marty, long-time member of the Society and happy possessor of a “lifetime” achievement award, used his twenty-one minutes to introduce readers to a non-existent figure, Franz Bibfeldt. He is available, amply, by the Google route; there are thousands of references to him, and he has many devotees around the world, despite his handicap: he doesn’t exist. Marty explained his light-hearted approach to demonstrate how the world of academic theology does not always take itself too seriously.

Bibfeldt was an invention of Marty in 1951, on the eve of his graduation from theological school and preparation to enter Christian ministry. It was a satire on eccentrics and eccentricities in “the system,” but when the hoax was exposed, not all of the exposed took kindly to it, and they wanted Marty punished. He had been scheduled to his first call to London, and that was canceled. The seminary dean had to follow disciplines, but Marty appealed to the seminary President, a kindly soul who said that instead of London MEM would be assigned to assist a senior minister of note, to be his mentor. It turned out to be Grace Lutheran in River Forest, whose call stipulated that the pastor assistant had to work on a doctorate. That is how, after a couple of years, Marty wound up at the University of Chicago to which, after ten years in pastoral ministry, he returned for a 35-year teaching career. Marty claimed to have made good on his observation that this non-existent person had greater influence on his career than anyone else.

Franz Bibfeldt? Many articles online detail his theology and fame. In a world where too many theologians and other scholars take themselves too seriously, and define things too sharply, Bibfeldt wanted to please everyone. Some would call him “wishy-washy,” but Marty & Co. treat him as someone who agreed with everyone. He knew the famous book by philosopher Soren Kiekegaard; it was called Either/Or. Bibfeldt wrote Both/And, and when criticism came, he wrote Either/Or and/or Both/And.

The book The Unrelieved Paradox has just come out in a second edition from Eerdmans. The final essay in the new edition was by Jean-Luc Marion, a fan of Bibfeldt, who flew from the Sorbonne to Chicago and back again, to deliver the annual Bibfeldt Lecture, held, of course, on April Fool’s Day.

All of which serves appropriately to prove Lincoln’s alleged observation that God must have had a sense of humor.

Kindly submitted in earnest honesty,

Jim Schwab

The Readings

Several of us throughout the day provided readings of former Midland Authors. As I noted above, I would have begged for the honor of presenting SMA founding father Vachel Lindsay, but I did not have to. The rest of the board and officers agreed almost as fast as I offered. I would also note, before going further, that SMA had founding mothers as well, among them Harriet Monroe and Edna Ferber. The list of those who saw fit to found this organization in 1915 is virtually a Who’s Who of Midwestern literary lights of the time.

But Vachel is a particular challenge for a modern presenter. A forerunner of today’s performance poets, his work was rhythmic, often accompanied by musical instruments, and so highly susceptible to public presentation that Lindsay became known for his “Poems for Bread,” which involved his bartering a reading of his work to some farm family in Illinois in exchange for a bed for the night and breakfast in the morning. His work was so close to the working-class fiber of the Midwest that long-time Socialist leader and presidential candidate Eugene Debs was a big fan. How do I know? Bernard Brommel, former SMA president and author, and long-time professor of speech and communications at Northeastern Illinois University, who wrote a book about Debs, told me so.

So how to get this right? I chose two poems by Lindsay, short enough to stay within my allotted five minutes while providing sharply contrasting views of the influence of religion in his life and career. First was “The Unpardonable Sin,” which I used as prelude to a blog post last fall. It is an angry anti-war poem written in the midst of World War One. Second was a celebratory poem, “General William Booth Enters Into Heaven,” meant to honor the founder of the Salvation Army after his death. The first could simply be recited, but required entering into the mood of its creation. The second took a little more: a search of the Internet to find renditions of “The Blood of the Lamb,” the tune to which it was set, to get the rhythm and tone right. Soon enough, I discovered a podcast of a recording of the song by none other than Woody Guthrie, in many ways a contemporary of Lindsay. That gave me the best possible sense of the underlying performance style that I could acquire.

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That said, the second poem is designed for musical accompaniment by banjos, flute, and tambourines. I had none of these available for this modest performance, so I asked the audience to clap in rhythm when I raised my arms, and to stop when I lowered them for the softer stanzas. I am pleased to say that they accommodated me warmly, including Ald. Burke.

With that in mind, I provide links below to the two poems in their entirety for the edification and enjoyment of this blog’s readers. I enjoyed myself thoroughly; I hope you will too.

The Unpardonable Sin

General William Booth Enters into Heaven

Lindsay’s work is available in various reprinted editions, some of which I have read in their entirety. I acquired my Vachel Lindsay addiction in a high school creative writing class in the late 1960s. I have never submitted to rehab for this happy addiction, so rehab has done nothing for me.

P.S.: If this article inspires you to support the Society of Midland Authors, their website allows you to buy some great swag in the form of shirts, keychains, mugs, and tote bags. And you thought I was above this sort of appeal? 🙂

Jim Schwab

“We are all Steven Sotloff”

In view of American journalist Steven Sotloff’s fate—beheading at the hands of the Islamic State rebels who now control much of Syria—this is a rather dramatic statement. It came from Bruce Shapiro, executive director of the Dart Center for Journalism and Trauma at the Columbia University Journalism School in New York. He was speaking over lunch at a workshop, “Disasters and Extreme Weather,” at the annual conference of the Society of Environmental Journalists, at the Hilton Riverside in New Orleans. His speech lay between my lunch and the panel on which I myself spoke, the first of the afternoon, which was intended to provide a toolkit of ideas for freelance and other writers covering disasters.

The point was, in part, that Steven Sotloff, however dramatic his fate, was not the first, nor would he be the last, journalist to suffer trauma or even death as a result of his work. In fact, he was the second journalist in a matter of weeks to suffer beheading by the Islamic State, following an earlier incident involving James Foley, who had already survived captivity in Libya. In typical, grisly fashion, the Islamic State terrorists had recorded and broadcast on the Internet the murders of both men. They are not seeking admiration; they seek fear.

Reaction to such trauma was the theme of Shapiro’s bold presentation. We have not always understood such reactions; in fact, says Shapiro, what understanding we do now possess is relatively recent, largely an outgrowth of the Vietnam War, after which many thousands of veterans began to suffer the impacts of post-traumatic stress disorder, or PTSD. Our understanding of what we used to call “shell shock” was once so poor that only our sense of humanity, and not psychological knowledge, produced the adverse reaction in World War II when Gen. Patton slapped a shaken soldier in the hospital in Italy and called him a coward.

After Vietnam, Shapiro says, “psychologists began to notice something. Clinicians realized they were on to something new.” Patients were suffering not from the awkward childhood memories that were long the focus of Freudian analysis, but from “memories that were too big to contain.” Resulting from severe trauma in wars and disasters and from torture, these memories “intruded on the daily lives” of their victims. The Dart Center, he said, is “working on representative survivors,” who may have survived torture under dictatorial Latin American regimes, as well as combat in Vietnam or wars in the Middle East. In 1980, he noted, the American Psychiatric Association finally decided to recognize PTSD, and the term has become common parlance since then, even if not everyone grasps what it really is or its practical implications. But it goes a long way toward explaining the persistence of homeless veterans, or those who withdraw into solitary life in the woods.

“We need to understand these changes to be innovative, effective journalists,” Shapiro told the crowd. We need meaningful coverage before, during, and after disasters. People store these overlarge memories in different ways, but the bottom line is that effective responses to danger, based on inherited mechanisms of fight or flight, become “maladaptive when we’re safe.” Thus, the Vietnam veteran who is easily rattled by fireworks or loud responses that trigger learned mechanisms for reacting to enemy fire. Once stored in the body’s defenses, these reactions are hard to unlearn.

But Shapiro was not discussing this with reporters simply to make them better observers of the phenomena he described. He told them bluntly that they, too, could become victims of trauma through their work in covering disasters. Hence, the headline quote of this article. Journalists have long learned to “suck it up,” he said, but in fact that may be the wrong approach entirely, however tough or macho it may sound. The myth was that, if you could not handle it, maybe you were in the wrong profession.

Shapiro instead outlined what he considered “three basic mechanisms of significance for our work as reporters”:

1)      Intrusion. This is the unwanted presence of memories that are not going away. Intrusive memory overwhelms the mind’s memory.

2)      Biomechanical. This is hyperarousal, the inability to focus. Those suffering from it have great difficulty establishing trust and become angry. They live permanently on the “fight or flight” threshold.

3)      Numbness. Eventually, some victims avoid interaction with other humans that may arouse problems. They sink into withdrawal from society.

These impacts are not mutually exclusive; in fact, Shapiro noted the possibility of victims being “whipsawed between impacts.” This is of particular importance for journalists because, he said, “We rely on our ability to concentrate and ability to build trusting relationships as journalists. We all know journalists who are casualties.” Trauma and personal injury are of particular significance for environmental journalists because of the subject matter they routinely cover. “Psychological trauma is measurably worse when there is human agency involved,” he noted. “When human technology plays a significant role in disaster, there are more enduring problems for more people. The failures of leadership in Katrina were so profound.” Hurricane Katrina, he noted, was “interwoven with violence and urban poverty.”

Shapiro made one important point about connecting with traumatized victims of disaster, even if one must also, as a reporter seeking to reveal truth, sometimes discount some of what one hears. Instead of “pulling at heartstrings” or asking detailed or pointed questions, why not just ask, “What happened to you?” Then let the story spill out as the victim wishes to tell it.

Journalists, he asserted, need to think about themselves as well as their subjects. They can, among other things, suffer from “vicarious trauma” in covering the disasters that have befallen others. Environmental journalists often find themselves reporting on “abuses of power, the trauma of losing power and status.” People fall victim to the whim of violent actors and corrupt politicians, and “when abuses of power are involved, all those injuries become worse. Nowhere more important than on the ground of environmental issues and climate change amplified by official abuses.”

“Avoiding the subject of trauma for journalists is actively destructive,” he concluded.

The answer: Stay connected with others and believe in what you are doing. “Ethical journalism practice in the face of trauma protects us,” he told the audience. He concluded by quoting Rachel Carson, the renowned author of Silent Spring, who wrote, “Who has made the decision that sets in motion this wave of poison?”

Shapiro did not say this, but I have to wonder: Is it also possible that positive religious belief, that is, faith in a loving God, is also part of the remedy? Clearly, it is possible to have a religion of hatred, or Steven Sotloff might still be alive, but that is not a religion of healing and spirituality. Reporters sometimes like to think they are above that sort of faith, but in the face of trauma, might they be missing an ingredient for survival? I like to think there is a greater purpose in what we do. And I have seen more than a few disasters myself.

 

Jim Schwab