'/> Uncommon Hours: May 2011
Blogging on culture, politics, and the environment since 2008.

Sunday, May 29, 2011

'Your Memorial Day weekend'

'Your Memorial Day weekend'
by Bob Sommer

A few minutes of TV news tells you all you need to know for “your Memorial Day weekend”—travel tips, barbeque tips, weather forecasts. Then follows the sign-off with a maudlin voiceover accompanied by low-angle shots of headstones. “Taps” plays in the background as the visual fades to a fluttering flag, which instantly gives way to a brassy commercial for beer or trucks or toothpaste.

Memorial Day became a fixture to round out a three-day weekend when the National Holiday Act became law in 1971. Previously it was commemorated on May 30th. Some feared that just what happened would happen, as the day got smothered in ketchup and sunscreen.

The 2002 VFW Memorial Day address noted, “Changing the date merely to create three-day weekends has undermined the very meaning of the day. No doubt, this has contributed greatly to the general public's nonchalant observance of Memorial Day.”

Efforts in both the House and Senate to restore Memorial Day to a fixed date have failed. It’s not difficult to understand why. Just imagine the lost revenues. There’s too much money to be made. Summertime unofficially kicks off this weekend. Swimsuit sales would plummet if Memorial Day went back to May 30th. If that sounds cynical, recall that candy companies successfully lobbied to move daylight savings so Halloween candy sales would get a boost.

“A foolish consistency,” said Ralph Waldo Emerson, “is the hobgoblin of little minds.” How we regard Memorial Day is nothing if not foolishly consistent. Over 6,000 American service members have lost their lives in Iraq and Afghanistan during the past decade while America shopped and amused itself into a stupor. War is lttle more than a distant cloud on the horizon for most, though it’s always there. A generation of children has reached middle-school age with no living memory of America not being at war.

But they’re also growing up with a sense that war doesn’t matter because it affects so few of them. Just one-half of one percent of Americans carry the burden of these wars. We obsess over politicians’ sex lives, the president’s birth certificate, the newest phone gadgets, and the imminent Rapture, but how many can cite the number of American casualties from Iraq and Afganistan, or even find those countries on a map?

And our military casualties are just part of the story of these wars. Conservative estimates put civilian casualties in Iraq at nearly 1 million, while in Afghanistan over 48,000 lives have been lost, including NATO and Afghan soldiers, civilians, journalists, aid-workers, and contractors, as well as the more than 1,500 American service members who’ve died there.

Meditating too much on Memorial Day may be hazardous to war. We might begin to wonder why the men and women we’re honoring from these recent wars had to die, whether the wars in which they fought were just and the sacrifices they were asked to make justified. We might ponder war’s meaning and its consequences. Better to unfurl the beach umbrella and stoke up the coals. Wipe away a tear as the fluttering TV flag fades to commercial. It’s a three-day weekend.

Bob Sommer blogs at Uncommon Hours.

Saturday, May 21, 2011

Court TV

My Day Not in Court
Bob Sommer

A clean, well-lighted place. You’d have to say that about the jury waiting room at the Federal Courthouse. Lots of daylight from the broad windows. Free coffee in the kitchen. Seating for a large group neatly arranged in rows. Over in the corner a cluster of reading chairs and lamps. I decided to claim a chair before the place filled up. I’d heard that waiting was often the biggest part of jury duty. I’d brought a book. I was ready.

Unlike many, I looked forward to jury duty. Well, maybe that’s not fair. Others do too, I’m sure. Maybe days like the one ahead just wring the enthusiasm out of you. This was my first time. Close to a hundred people were to report, and I was the first one there. Our pool would last for a month. Every Friday we’d call a phone number and find out if we had to report on the following Monday. This was our first day.

A couple of techs were working on the projection system, which I assumed would show an orientation video. At the moment a morning talk show filled the huge screen in front of the room. Loudly too, but the techs were checking things out, plugging in plugs, doing whatever they did. The TV talkers jabbered on.

People drifted into the waiting room. The woman in charge told us nothing would happen for a while, so I settled into a chair and opened my book. The techs were gone, but the TV stayed on. Loud, chattering, insipid.

Later we watched a video. Several sitting and retired U.S. Supreme Court justices described the importance of our role in the judicial system. A brief orientation followed. We got a brochure. I was ready. Call me up to court. I will be impartial, engaged; I will serve Justice.

But Justice didn’t need me yet, and now the big screen flipped back to network TV. “The Price is Right” was on. People wore costumes and screamed hysterically when they were chosen; they cried when they won furniture, computers, a car. The volume was loud and reading difficult. A few other jurors had brought books or newspapers too. Some visited and got acquainted. Still others watched TV—perhaps regretting they didn’t have books.

Our pool was divided into two groups for different trials starting that day. One group was soon chosen to go upstairs, while mine had to wait. “The Young and the Restless” came on now. Some in the forgot-their-books group seemed familiar with the TV story. I just knew I was getting older and restless as morning became noon. Surely we’d get called after lunch.

But alas, all that awaited us back in the waiting room was “The Bold and the Beautiful.” Actors paused heavily between lines and exchanged foreboding glances. Melodrama and bad acting filled the room. I was two-thirds through my book. Still no sign of action.

The soap opera gave way to a talk show. A group of women discussed whether they preferred spontaneous or planned sex. Planned sex won out because that way the women could make sure their men showered. Also, the Superbowl had just been played that weekend. The show’s special guests were the child actors who played little Darth Vaders in everyone’s favorite TV commercial.

The forgot-their-books folks had by now broken off into small groups to enjoy the program. They found the little Darth Vaders as adorable as the talk show hosts did.

Other jurors-in-waiting poured over sections of newspapers they probably never read, while one or two had brought office paperwork. Cell phones, mercifully, were not permitted here, though this was for security reasons and not to improve the ambience.

By the time “Let’s Make a Deal” came on I was worried I’d finish my book before the day was out. I recalled this show from when I had measles as a kid. Imagine that—still on TV! I wondered whatever happened to Monty Hall.

“Ellen” filled the big screen late in the afternoon. The woman-in-charge’s phone now rang a couple of times, and it appeared that something was happening. She was up and down at her desk. I moved up closer so I could hear over Ellen.

A judge soon entered the room in robes. She stepped in front of the screen filled by Ellen’s very large face and began talking, but Ellen’s chatter swallowed up whatever she was saying. Abruptly the sound went off but not the visual, and now the judge, who seemed a little dazed, realized that a TV show was on the screen behind her, indeed, that she was blocking the view. She stepped aside so everyone could still watch TV as she spoke.

The defendants had pled out, she said. That was thanks to us, she added, because we were here, ready to serve the court. She looked spent. It had been a long day upstairs. The case was a big one—drug dealers, multiple charges and defendants. Sounded exciting. The judge gave us the credit for not having to go to trial. The jury was working even when it wasn’t working—just watching TV.

I’d finished my book just before the judge arrived—Neil Postman’s Amusing Ourselves to Death: Public Discourse in the Age of Show Business. I recommend it, though you might want to find a quieter place to read. It was hard to concentrate as I waited to serve Justice.

Bob Sommer blogs at Uncommon Hours.

Monday, May 16, 2011

'A funeral pyre for American thought': The Decline of Reading and Who Benefits from It

The stacks at Prospero's Books
Photo by Bob Sommer

‘A funeral pyre for American thought’:
The Decline of Reading and Who Benefits from It
by Bob Sommer

Victory Gin

“Read! Reading is the most important thing you can do.

This was former Poet Laureate Ted Kooser responding to the question of what advice he would offer aspiring poets.

He sat onstage in a wingback chair following a reading at the University of Kansas, looking somewhat as if he was about to introduce Masterpiece Theater. He’s a congenial man with thick hands and, I discovered later, a surprisingly firm grip. His demeanor is easy and calm, like his poems, but also like his poems, there was a sharpness and clarity in his comments, and in this one, you could even say, a subtle barb. He conducts many writing workshops, so doubtless he had good reason for thinking aspiring poets needed to be told to read, which, apparently, some do.

Consider another instance.

A provocative column in The Huffington Post last summer by literary critic Anis Shivani, entitled “The 15 Most Overrated Contemporary American Writers,” inspired over 1,700 comments.(1) Carrion eaters swarmed. Fresh carcasses littered the digital Serengeti plains. Shivani’s prey included such major literary figures as John Ashbery, Junot Diaz, Jhumpa Lahiri, and Amy Tan. His critical judgments don’t much concern us here, but the comments posted by people who admit to having little or no acquaintance with these writers do.

Here’s an unvarnished, unedited sampling:

I've only heard of two, though I never read them.
So happy to say I haven't read anything from these writers, not even heard of them, ever. Which makes me wonder, how come they are they overrated?
Haven't read any of these writers but love the 'hit-job' style of the article.
Can`t judge, I have not read most of them, Jhumpa I don`t read, she is good but always so sad and depressing , I don`t need that. We don`t need a fiction to be sad and depressed …
Never heard of any of them.
Never heard of any of these writers except Amy Tan (who I've not read), but then, I don't travel in those circles.
I don't read much, I admit. But I have read Jhumpa Lahiri's books―all of them and must ask who is Shivani to pass judgment on her ?
Never heard of any of them or any of their books.
The only one I've heard of is Amy Tan.
Funny, I've never heard of any of these people, and I read novels every day.
I have never read any of these writers, well, one, Amy Tan many years ago and was not terribly impressed—now, thanks to your entertaining article I have no intention or desire to read any of them.
When I was in college, not having done the reading was generally a good reason to keep your mouth shut in class. You’d also slouch low to avoid the professor’s gaze. But here, well … whatever. Several commentors simply announce, without gloss, that they’ve never heard of these writers, as if this free-standing fact had significance: Never heard of them so they can’t matter. A couple liked Shivani’s snarky style, his “hit job,” as one put it. What’s more entertaining than malice? Well, public executions maybe. None of these people, nor many others besides, wonder or care if the body of work by these writers deserves more scrutiny than Shivani’s dismissive blurbs. Similar remarks fill the numbing forty-odd pages that follow the article. Some commentors are happy to accept Shivani’s judgment rather than read the books themselves. Shivani may be right or he may not. They’ll never know.

Sunday, May 8, 2011

A Mother's Day Poem

On Mother’s Day
Bob Sommer

For Heather
May 8, 2011

               Motherhood is optimism in the extreme,
                      hope that won’t be extinguished,
                      stubborn faith,
                      unlimited compassion.
                And love,
                                   always love.

                Motherhood is memory fulfilled,
                      like the migrations of birds and whales,
                      who find their way
                      over continents and through oceans,
                Not knowing why―
                                   or asking
                      ―but only that this is their path, their way.

                And that arrival completes the memory
                       in flutterings and chirpings,
                       in submarine pleasures of return,
                       in ancient knowledge that needs neither
                                     history nor language.

                 Memory lives in motherhood,
                       unfading, unstained,
                       like the clarity of cloudless full-moon nights,
                       resonant with quiet life,
                       with meaning in the immanent stillness.

                  Motherhood is always with you―
                        and with it: constant and reliable memory,
                        unbound to the physics of time,
                        its truth in stories,
                        in images no photo ever captures,
                        in a shiver, a motion, a sound,
                        in a garden plaque or the visit of a hummingbird.

                    Memories are life,
                         we still live them and live into them.
                          They complete us,
                                          and motherhood completes you.

                        (c) Copyright Bob Sommer 2011. All rights reserved.