The Square Circuit

Academia, parenthood, living in a bankrupt city, and what I read in the process.

Friday, September 30, 2005

down by law

As I write, I'm boring my wife with an old favorite movie of mine, Jarmusch's DOWN BY LAW. If you aren't familiar with it, it's an extremely slow-moving black-and-white film from 1986 about three losers--a DJ (Tom Waits), a pimp (John Lurie), and an Italian (a pre-Robin Williamized Roberto Benigni)--who get put into the Orleans Parish Prison and break out. It's typical early Jarmusch: extremely dry in its humor, influenced by Godard but much less serious (except in the view of the author of the article on the Geocities link above). Benigni is hilarious without mugging for the camera, as he began egregiously to do with JOHNNY STECCHINO. I ordered the film from Netflix because I remember it as a great New Orleans movie: I was never able to visit New Orleans without thinking about the film, which was never the case with the more commercial NOLA films (ANGEL HEART, A STREETCAR NAMED DESIRE, even UNDERCOVER BLUES). The use of music is sparing but great: I love the intro shots, drive-by views of NOLA houses to Tom Waits' masterpiece "Jockey Full Of Bourbon," more than any other part of the film. It's very cheaply made, and especially in some of the early scenes (esp. the one between Ellen Barkin and Tom Waits) the sound is tinny and terrible. I loved it back in high school for reasons I couldn't articulate then. Today, I think that love came from the discovery that professionalism didn't have to be the telos of films. It has a DIY aesthetic to it that I already really appreciated in music and literature but that I'd never experienced in films.

The Criterion Collection now issues its version of this classic.

Tuesday, September 27, 2005


Eric Schlosser's lecture (in the Drue Heinz Lectures series) Monday night wasn't brilliant but it was pretty damn good. He spoke on the plight of workers in America's meat-packing houses, repeating much of what he said in FAST FOOD NATION but adding a bunch of material comparing our time to Upton Sinclair's (the centennial of THE JUNGLE comes in February) and, frankly, taking the Reagan-Bush-Bush II administrations to task for being worse than the Republicans of the early part of the twentieth century. As part of our "learning community" (several freshman classes linked together) we took all of our frosh to the lecture--they read FAST FOOD NATION last week--but I was disappointed in their response. Sleeping. Text-messaging. Oy. Then today they told me he was just too "complainy." Well, maybe.

Sunday, September 25, 2005

Sept. 24 march 1

Sept. 24 march 1
Originally uploaded by Mantooth.
It was a big march, a little disorganized (took us 2 hours from the time it was supposed to start until we actually started 'marching'), co-opted excessively by ANSWER, whom I think are somewhat duplicitous about their real ideology (good article about this here, and too much all over the place, but it was great to see so many people out.

The media coverage of the march was predictably vague. Nobody is willing to run estimates of attendance at a Washington march anymore (after the Million Man March in 1995, when the organizers HAD to have a million men there and the parks authorities estimated 400,000 and were then vilified as racist, nobody will do this). The TIMES wouldn't give a figure, saying only "vast numbers," and WASHINGTON POST quoted the D.C. police chief as saying that it seemed to him at least 150,000; the organizing groups were talking 300,000. The TV news, cowed into meaninglessness by their paralyzing fear of being called liberal, gave equal coverage to the march and to the "counter-protest," which drew 200 people. Fox News said "thousands" were there. At least CNN noted that only 400 were at the pro-war rally held today on the mall.

worst president ever

worst president ever
Originally uploaded by Mantooth.
The press coverage (see entry above) has emphasized that the message of the march was much more unified and focused than at marches over the past few years (which have spread their message over everything from Palestine to global warming to the war). This march was very much on-message: End the war, and Bush is a lying crook. These signs were pretty typical. Even I thought the pretzel-themed signs ("Give the Pretzel Another Chance") might have gone too far.

boy at march

boy at march
Originally uploaded by Mantooth.
It was his second march (the first was the March for Women's Lives in April 2004). Not as big as that one, but it didn't matter. What did matter (for him) was that this year he's mobile and so not entirely willing to spend hours in the stroller. Thank God for 99 cent packages of plastic dinosaurs.

no child left behind

no child left behind
Originally uploaded by Mantooth.
All of the entrances to the Department of Education in Washington, D.C. now have these fake-ass "little red schoolhouses" with insipid ersatz childlike writing on them saying "No Child Left Behind". What a great use of government funds: for Bush administration PR props. At least the schools don't need money.

Thursday, September 22, 2005

stop the war march

Off to Washington tomorrow for the End the War march. Should be a good time, and if not at least it's a free Steve Earle concert. Pictures to come.

Tuesday, September 20, 2005


Picture 3
Originally uploaded by Mantooth.
I try to like the Huffington Post even though I think Arianna is a self-promoting diva of the worst kind. But spelling the same word two different ways in one headline? Seriously, people. A little proofreading.

(This has now been corrected, but it was up for HOURS today.)

fast food nation

I'm teaching Eric Schlosser's book FAST FOOD NATION to my freshmen this week and am a little concerned about how they'll respond. If you haven't read it, it's just a great book. Essentially, it argues that the fast-food industry has turned us into a "fast-food nation," in which the techniques of assembly-line mass production and relentless economization demanded by fast food companies have had, and continue to have, an almost incalculably harmful effect on American society. Schlosser includes breezy arguments about such topics as suburbanization, the freeway system, the decline of unions, OSHA, environmental depredation, corporate farming, food safety, children's health, and the plight of McDonald's franchisees to argue that the fast-foodization of America is bad and, because its momentum is so all-consuming and because it drives the economy at almost every level, will be close to impossible to stop. His chapter on working conditions in an Iowa Beef Processors slaughterhouse is stomach-turning.

So my concerns aren't that my students won't agree with Schlosser, or won't surrender to the power of his argument. My concern is that they'll take one of three pretty typical stances of 18-year-olds when confronted by these kinds of arguments:
• pure fatalism. "That's the way it's going to be, so we better just accept it. Whattaya gonna do?"
• cynical blame-the-victimism. "People who work in slaughterhouses have a choice. If they don't want to, they should go to college. And if illegal immigrants are working those jobs and don't like it, they can go back to Mexico."
• wide-eyed credulity. "Everything that Schlosser says is right!"

My problem is that although it's a great book, it's incredibly unfair at points, substituting correlation for causation and relying on the nastiness of the subject-matter (again: slaughterhouses, E. coli, etc.) to create a sense of revulsion that he wants us to feel about the corporations involved. Singled out for special opprobrium is Iowa Beef Processors, whose callous disregard for worker safety is quite shocking. But these anecdotes aren't sufficient to necessitate the sweeping condemnation of an industry--and a "fast-food nation"--that Schlosser suggests his argument proves. I want my students to see that.

Schlosser is a very personable guy, a journalist for THE ATLANTIC, and is coming to speak in Pittsburgh as part of the Drue Heinz Lectures on Monday. (My class is going.) He's also agreed to meet with a big group of area students beforehand (we're going to that, too). He gives a good interview, as you can check out here and here and here. And if you haven't read the book, do: it's a great piece of muckraking.

Sunday, September 18, 2005

audience-based reasons

The cover story in today's NEW YORK TIMES MAGAZINE is one of the best, most concrete examples of the rhetorical concept of audience-based reasons I've ever seen. James Traub, the author, explains how the rock star Bono has been able to achieve such success in having his political and social desires heard and heeded by so many politicians, both in the U.S. and in Europe. The simple answer, as Aristotle could have told us, is that Bono has leveraged his particular kind of credibility (his massive celebrity that gets doors opened for him) into meetings with policymakers who ordinarily wouldn't want to talk about African debt relief. Then, when meeting with these politicians, he's able to come up with reasons and appeals to them that work with their own values: to conservative Christians like Jesse Helms and President Bush, he uses Bible verses exhorting Christians to work on behalf of the poor. I'd use this text in class if it weren't so long.

potty reading

potty reading
Originally uploaded by Mantooth.
He now asks to sit on the potty, and knows he has to drop his pants. It's not clear whether or not he understands what it's for (besides finding a quiet place to read).

tot trot

tot trot
Originally uploaded by Mantooth.
Pittsburgh Citiparks sponsors the Great Race (next weekend) and also the Junior Great Race/Tot Trot/Diaper Dash the weekend before. The boy entered the Tot Trot and finished first. As did everyone else.

pirates:reds nap

pirates:reds nap
Originally uploaded by Mantooth.
Exhausted from his 50-yard dash, he sat out the first inning of today's Pirates-Reds game.

Wednesday, September 14, 2005

online teaching

How effective is Blackboard, the educational technology, for teaching writing? I know that it can work extremely well in content-driven classes, but what about in classes where the subject-matter is a skill: writing? (I know, I know, the content/skills dichotomy in pedagogy isn't really accurate or representative, but let's just use it for now.) I'm thinking about trying it, and the wife encourages me not to just use it halfway but to really use it to its fullest (lest learning Blackboard become another piece of busy work for my students). Has anyone used technology to teach writing to freshmen? how? how well does it work? What are its advantages? What are its drawbacks?

Tuesday, September 13, 2005

balls and strikes

In his introductory statement to the Senate Judiciary Committee, Supreme Court Chief Justice nominee John Roberts used a baseball metaphor to explain how he sees his role as a judge. He's an "umpire." As he put it in Monday's opening statement:

"Judges and justices are servants of the law, not the other way around. Judges are like umpires. Umpires don't make the rules; they apply them. The role of an umpire and a judge is critical. They make sure everybody plays by the rules. But it is a limited role. Nobody ever went to a ball game to see the umpire... I will remember that it's my job to call balls and strikes and not to pitch or bat."

It's an appealing metaphor, one we like to hear. He's not going to be involved in the game; he's a disinterested observer. But last night I caught a repeat telecast of the "Justice Sunday 2: May God Save This Honorable Court!" program put on by the Family Research Council (the hour-long, evangelical-aimed telecast meant to support Roberts' nomination and to generally put forth a conservative Christian take on the Supreme Court) and I heard that same metaphor used by Tony Perkins, the FRC's leader:

"MR. PERKINS: Now how many baseball fans do we have here tonight? (Applause.) Well, you know, I thought I might use a baseball analogy to illustrate what the Court has done to our Constitution. I mean, I used to be a big fan of the Big Red Machine when I was a kid, and I remember Johnny Bench behind the plate with the umpire over his shoulder calling the strikes when they were within the bounds of the plate within the zone. But you know, if a pitch was to the right or to the left, it was no good. It was a ball.

You know what the Court has done is that they have -- when it comes to the social issues of our day, they've expanded the plate so that when the Court wants to take in the issue - (laughter) - of abortion - I mean, think about it. The Court has expanded the Constitution to include the right to kill unborn children. They've expanded the plate so that they can find this right to homosexual sodomy. What they've done is they've taken what the Constitution gave the legislature the right to say is a wild pitch and they've called it a strike.

But at the same time, when it comes to our religious freedoms, what they've done is they've taken this plate and they've made it even smaller, and they've said our children don't have a right to pray. And they said, when it comes to marriage, they're trying to redefine the institution of marriage. And it gets harder and harder to get a strike. Friends, there's a lot at stake in this debate - our religious freedoms, the future of this country. This is one we cannot pass up."

Perkins even had two prop home plates--one giant one for the sodomites and one little one, pieces of which he broke off, for "us" and "our children."

In his political campaigns, Pres. Bush has often relied on coded language, terms that evangelicals will understand as referring to their priorities but that non-evangelicals don't see as being ideologically inflected. Terms like "culture of life," "wonder-working power," and the reference to Dred Scott in the 2004 debate signal ideas to a particular discourse community that others outside wouldn't recognize.

So: is this what Roberts is doing? Is this umpire/balls and strikes comment a shout out to the Family Research Council?

Interestingly, today Sen. Biden took on Roberts' use of the balls-and-strikes metaphor, but he didn't seem to be aware of its use by the religious right.

new lit mags

Sunday's NY Times Magazine ran, in addition to an extremely well-thought-out, well-argued article about the state of the 'war on terror', a profile of the editors of two current literary magazines, THE BELIEVER and n+1. I'm familiar with THE BELIEVER (I link to it over on the left) and like it very much. Although it's a product of the Dave Eggers/MCSWEENEY'S crowd, it's managed to avoid the fascination with forced whimsy and childlike/childishness that has characterized the magazine. (The MCSWEENEY'S web site is updated daily; it's often really funny but like The Onion the jokes are limited and can get repetitive.) THE BELIEVER takes recent books seriously but saves its long pieces for untimely topics, long (4000 words or more) explorations of a topic, often only partly literary, that the author finds interesting. Nick Hornby writes a column that's moderately entertaining, much like his books since HIGH FIDELITY. I think, though, my favorite parts of the magazine are the design and the illustrations.

n+1, on the other hand, I've never seen. Only three issues exist, making me wonder why and how they're already getting NY TIMES coverage, but that's the way the NYC media tends to work. n+1 appears to be an intellectual journal rather than a strictly literary magazine. The editors allude to all the right journals and precursors—PARTISAN REVIEW, Dwight Macdonald, DISSENT, Philip Rahv, POLITICS, etc.—but also seem to have a sense of humor and appreciation for pop culture that Macdonald, Kristol, Rahv/Philips, etc., lacked.

Friday, September 09, 2005

Bog People!

The Bog People exhibit at the Carnegie Museum in Oakland is worth a trip, but maybe not worth the $15 they charge for non-members. It's a cute show, clearly taken wholly from some French or Canadian museum (the placards are all in French and English), and there is a lot of interesting background on peat bogs, soggy Europe in the 1600s, etc. There's a little too much conflation of the actual Bog People! remains (2000 years old) with Belgian and Dutch artifacts from the 1600s without context--life in Leyden was quite different in 1600 than it was in 56 AD--but there's good stuff. It's not great for very little kids, and it's a little scary, but kids 5 and up should enjoy it.

I never mind a trip to the Carnegie, either. It's one of those all-in-one Victorian-era museums, reflecting that era's belief (similar to ours) that all forms of cultural expression were of essentially equivalent value. Art, anthropology, dusty polar-bear dioramas, it's all the same. My favorite place in the Carnegie is the long hallway with all of the bird exhibits--across the hall are are several display cases with, of all things, old pocketwatches. Again, it's very Victorian: we're going to collect and exhibit everything because it's all significant and related, but because the museum has moved forward they no longer make those connections explicit. The Metropolitan Museum and American Museum of Natural History in NYC are similar, but more interesting are the urban museums that do the same things: the Field Museum in Chicago, the British Museum, etc.

Thursday, September 08, 2005

Bring Them Home Now! Tour

Cindy Sheehan and the rest of the Bring Them Home Now tour will be in Pittsburgh on Sunday, Sept. 11, 2005 for a demonstration and march. The event will start at 4:30pm on Flagstaff Hill in Schenley Park and culminate in a march to the Soldiers and Sailors Monument in Oakland at 7pm. For more information, check out Pittsburgh End The War or the Pittsburgh Independent Media Center.

The Bring Them Home Now tour (currently running on three tracks: north, central, and south) will end on Sept. 24 in Washington, D.C. at the United for Peace and Justice march on the National Mall. The Thomas Merton Center will be sending two buses to the march (leaving Saturday morning and returning that night); tickets cost $30. To buy a ticket, click here.

Wednesday, September 07, 2005

people who don't get it, pt. 2

Senator Santorum clarifies his earlier call for punishment for those who would not--or could not--leave New Orleans voluntarily.

Tuesday, September 06, 2005

black metal

Monday, September 05, 2005

after the bike ride

after the bike ride
Originally uploaded by Mantooth.
45 minutes later, after a meltdown (the helmet got annoying, the water bottle leaked) and a nap. He looks like he's emerging from the JFK-Bangkok flight.

before the bike ride

before the bike ride
Originally uploaded by Mantooth.
Preparing for a ride in the bike trailer on a beautiful Labor Day at the lake. Equipped, ready to go.

that grandma who says embarrassing things

EDITOR AND PUBLISHER has this entry from the "no, no matter what happens, they're not going to get it" file:

"Accompanying her husband, former President George H.W.Bush, on a tour of hurricane relief centers in Houston, Barbara Bush said today, referring to the poor who had lost everything back home and evacuated, "This is working very well for them."

The former First Lady's remarks were aired this evening on National Public Radio's "Marketplace" program.

In a segment at the top of the show on the surge of evacuees to the Texas city, Barbara Bush said: "Almost everyone I’ve talked to says we're going to move to Houston."

"And so many of the people in the arena here, you know, were underprivileged anyway, so this--this (she chuckles slightly) is working very well for them." "

starve the beast

As Grover Norquist, Ronald Reagan, Dick Cheney, George W. Bush, and the rest of the free-market anti-government folks say. Starve the beast (government) of taxes, and it'll naturally shrink, stop trying to do so much. "Government is not the solution to the problem. Government is the problem," Ronald Reagan asserted in his First Inaugural Address. These guys have been so good for so long at convincing the public that government is bad, even a Democrat--Clinton--proclaimed in his 1995 State of the Union that "The era of big government is over."

Wow. What a difference a hurricane makes. Now, all of a sudden, people are realizing that maybe the government does have an important place in the life of a nation. An old joke runs that the ten scariest words in the English language are "We're the federal government, and we're here to help you." Do you think that the folks in the New Orleans Convention Center or Superdome or Biloxi waterfront think that? The Norquisties are hiding, and Bush continues to stress that the government and 'the private sector' and 'faith-based groups' work together to alleviate the disaster of Katrina, but is there anyone around today that isn't rethinking the demonization of the government?

Stephen Elliott, in today's Salon puts it nicely this way:

"The disaster, it seems to me, is the failure of a philosophy. A philosophy of small government, tax cuts, deficits, and privatization. The federal government should have arrived sooner but the federal government was doing other things."

I wonder if small-government warrior Trent Lott's going to take any Federal money to rebuilt his house?

At least they're staying the course in one respect: Halliburton's got the New Orleans cleanup contract from the Feds.

Saturday, September 03, 2005

NOLA refugee

Heard today from a former employee, a good poet/journalist who's been teaching gut writing courses at UNO, and who escaped New Orleans last week. She writes:

"I believe Dubya has transcended even his greatest stupidity/arrogance/sociopathic hard wiring.

Amazing that I just had to listen to someone actually try and blame Nagin for not single-handedly "fixing" a federal disaster.

Dubya vs. Nagin

(Click on the audio link if you haven't heard this already - this, blogs and are the only sources I've heard worth a damn)."

In worse NOLA news, musician Alex Chilton (Box Tops/Big Star/eponym of Replacements song) is apparently missing.

Friday, September 02, 2005

vacation home

Some people wonder if Pres. Bush lacks an "empathy gene," an ability to understand others' feelings. That might be true; it's not for me to say. But no one can say that Bush can't see the real tragedy of a terrible situation, and nobody can deny his fundamental optimism. From his press conference today:

"The good news is -- and it's hard for some to see it now -- that out of this chaos is going to come a fantastic Gulf Coast, like it was before. Out of the rubbles of Trent Lott's house -- he's lost his entire house -- there's going to be a fantastic house. And I'm looking forward to sitting on the porch."

Trent Lott's house was destroyed? Oh the humanity!

But he's going to rebuild? This truly is a wonderful country. God Bless America.

Ten years ago, who would have thought that after a national tragedy we'd be nostalgic for the warm, inspiring leadership of Rudolph Giuliani?

Thursday, September 01, 2005

New Orleans

Nothing anyone can really say that can capture it. Not even the pictures are doing it justice. The idea that an entire American city would have to be evacuated and left empty for months... inconceivable. I keep thinking back to last fall, when the wife and the boy and I spent a week there. I heard on NPR two nights ago that looters were hitting the Walgreen's at Felicity and St. Charles: that was the Walgreen's where I bought Pedialyte for the boy when he had his first ear infection.

They need money down there, in New Orleans and Gulfport and Biloxi. Give some of it to the Red Cross, Catholic Charities, the United Way, or somewhere else. If you're living in Texas, consider housing someone for a while. Info on this at Free Republic (right-wingers doing selfless things with their time and assets), Craigslist New Orleans (this may be the most amazing page I've ever seen on the web), and other places.