Sunday, January 29, 2006

It's a Small World

Sometimes chance encounters bring many of us into contact with very unlikely people. Today I'm watching a CBS's Sunday Morning piece on Rosanne Cash, daughter of Johnny Cash and June Carter Cash. It made me remember when, incredibly, I once spoke with Johnny Cash on the phone.

It was purely coincidental. I happened to be in my agent's office on Wabash Avenue one morning when he got a call from Johnny's current agent from Nashville. Johnny had an upcoming engagement in town at a club my agent represented, and they were working out arrangements. Apparently the other agent put Johnny on the phone to talk with my agent, and while he was on, my agent said to me, "Want to say hello to Johnny Cash?" "Sure," I said, and took the receiver. "Hi, Johnny," I said. "Hey there, buddy," he returned in that low, smooth baritone of his. Surreal. Serendipity.

Another time I had a late-night gin and tonic with an ex-President of the BBC and his wife after he spoke at my small-town college, and I've spoken at various times and places with quite a few celebrities since then, quite by chance. But probably my most unlikely encounter was when I took a personally posed picture of Lech Walesa, the anticommunist labor leader and former President of Poland, who stopped his exit from a speech at my university to pose for a snapshot with our campus priest, with our priest's camera. Surreal. Serendipity.

Someone wrote a few years ago that there are no more than six degrees of separation among everyone on earth. I believe it.

Sunday, January 22, 2006

The Pedagogical Muse

Normalcy--or what passes for normalcy to me--seems to be settling in now, heading toward the end of January. The classes I teach have begun: two art appreciation sections and an intro to lit, and feel solid, promising. I've already had several good student discussions and look forward to many more. And the material always stimulates me anew. No matter how often I repeat the studies, the visual and literary works always yield more and fresh discoveries and interpretations. It's why I love to teach even after thirty-eight years or so.

I tried staying out of the classroom last spring seeking my muse, and she was more mum than ever. She speaks in whispers, my muse does, and only stirs faintly my innermost thoughts. But she speaks more frequently, I think, when I teach than when I do not.

I am very fortunate to be able to retire and still stay active doing part-time what I most enjoy: working with art, literature, and ideas and discussing them with others. It makes the dearth of my own ideas and output more tolerable. Some of us were not meant to create, but to study and appreciate what others make. I'll always wish I was the author my students last read, but I have a great pleasure in bringing them into the discovery of things their real author suggested, as well. It's not a bad consolation prize to be the teacher rather than the author. In fact, its rewards are probably greater in many cases, truth be told.

Wednesday, January 11, 2006

Right On, Ruskin!

One of my favorite men of letters, Nineteenth Century art historian and social critic John Ruskin, wrote in Letter 5 of Fors Clavigera (1871) that two small English hamlets, Buxton and Bakewell, nestled in a valley "divine as the Vale of Tempe, you might have seen the Gods there morning and evening--Apollo and all the sweet Muses of the light--walking in fair procession on the lawns of it and to and fro among the pinnacles of its crags." at some distance apart.

Oblivious to the valley's beauty, however, and seeking cash from new enterprise, the two hamlets built a railroad through it, blasting thousands of tons of shale into its lovely stream, Ruskin writes, but enabling "every fool in Buxton to be at Bakewell in half an hour, and every fool in Bakewell at Buxton, which [they] thought of as a lucrative process of exchange--you Fools Everywhere."

And in the same letter, referring to the recent expansion of telegraph lines, he scoffs at his countrymen for "knotting a copper wire from London to Bombay and flashing a message along it and back.... But what was the message, and what the answer? Is India the better for what she replied? If not, you have only wasted an all-round-the-world's length of copper wire. If you had, perchance, two words of common sense to say, though you had taken wearisome time and trouble to send them,...[it] would have been worth the carriage, and more. But you have not anything like so much as that to say, either to India or to any other place."

In configuring my latest pride and joy, a new media edition computer, I am reminded of Ruskin's remarks. It has doubled my processor speed and tripled my storage space, enabled me to plug in all kinds of peripherals and display media files in amazing new ways. But when it comes down to it, it can't really do anything my previous clunkers couldn't do at all. It just does them faster and slicker. Like the citizens of Buxton and Bakewell, I was seduced by the siren of Technology, by the assumption that bigger, faster, and more, would somehow mean better.

It makes me wonder if all our cellphones and cable networks, satellites and iPods, internet phones and accumulated communications advances of the past century have done us one bit of good, if we still cannot muster "two words of common sense" to say to one another. As I sit here writing on my laptop, I note my icons for AIM, for Googletalk, and for Skype--all vying for my choice to carry my immortal words to my distant friends and family--and notice that with improved bandwidth and audio, some are adding video in their latest editions so that we can not only hear each other say nothing sensible but see each other doing it as well. And that passes, in our time, for progress.

Don't get me wrong. I'm not against advancements in technology. I just think it's foolish to equate them with advances in civilization, which can only come when the human element catches up, when our sense of common humanity catches up with our technical ingenuity. If and when we get more "common sense" to say, more wisdom, more tolerance and concern for each other, we'll be able to say it fast enough, and begin to justify the development of whatever means we use to say it.

Sunday, January 01, 2006

We Need A Time Out

Happy New Year, everyone! It's important to mark the cycles of our lives--meaningless, perhaps, but important nonetheless.

It is said that one never steps into the same river twice. That's very true. And anniversaries, though occuring on the same day each annum, are each unique. They mark the yardsticks of our lives indeed.

So another year has passed, one of increased violence in both the weather and the affairs of men. May the new year temper both and bring peace on earth and in the skies alike. I think we could all use a year of "R and R"--a Time Out-- before we must face more challenges to our resolve and spirit.