Showing posts with label Melville. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Melville. Show all posts

Monday, April 21, 2014

Nikil Saval's "Cubed: A Secret History of the Workplace": Book Review

How did Bartleby the Scrivener spawn Dilbert, and why does their "unnatural" office space compel over sixty percent of Americans to labor there, often in tasks divorced from farm or field so much that the work seems invisible, and its productions intangible? One wonders, if in a "cubicle farm", why employees in an electronic era must be corralled in this interior labyrinth. Despite networks and smartphones, many must commute. They may enter open-form layouts, replacing flimsy grey partitions, but raising walls of chat; we see headphones advertised now not for jet flight but during 9-to-5 when one must work next to ten others.

Nikil Saval asks many of the same questions I've had since my workplace--that term itself telling of the collective nature of the setting, separated from factory floor, unions, and solidarity to foster office politics, surveillance, and self-improvement-- "rightsized" a few years ago to half of its former layout. Once I shared an office with a colleague behind a wooden door; now we sit in cubicles. While our supervisors kept their doors, our employer mandates, all the same, an "open door policy". Given such scenarios repeat for hundreds of millions, it sparked my curiosity. The same day I mulled over that policy, I learned about Cubed: A Secret History of the Workplace, by this Philadelphia-based editor of n+1. The book began as a 2006 article in that publication on the origins of the office. Saval expands this topic by synthesizing sociology, literature, architecture, and cinema.

I remain unconvinced by that come-hither subtitle. This secret history lacks the salacious rumors of Procopius' Byzantine courtiers or the gothic menace of Donna Tartt's novel. Less gripping than efficiently told, as may be expected from its subject matter, Saval's history credits a more stolid literary forebear. For, clerks marked the arrival of a new type of mass-employed common man. Bartleby's odd situation, when offices themselves seemed a novelty in mid-nineteenth-century Manhattan, transformed tedious if cleaner manual labor for clerks, who, at first like Melville's protagonist and his colleagues remained largely male, and often derided for their foppish fashion and snobbery. They fought back against the system once in old Manhattan, so as to purportedly get off at 8 p.m., to attend debating societies or to frequent the lending library before it closed. Saval notes how their status, as salaried, meant that they spent long hours (if often with not much to do) earning their keep, and how this cut them off from the laboring masses, resigned to hourly wages or piecework.

Time management, by the 1920s, had long put paid to the leisurely pace of Bartleby. Adding machines, typewriters, bells, and bosses accelerated the working day. Railroad dispersion necessitated the division of corporations into stratified departments. The "company ladder" loomed. Specialization required that tasks were aided by telecommunication and divided into vast spaces filled with desks, similar to the factory floors, for both demanded "labor-saving" machinery, which led only to more products and then more memos, more invoices, more letters, and more calls for harried salaried staff.

"Taylorism" dominated as rational, "scientific management". Bureaucracy enabled  women, who by 1920 comprised half of the ranks under the hierarchy Taylorism required, to take on the perceived or practical advantages of clerical work. This led to many disadvantages of disparity, as when male bosses took advantage by their own office politics, and the scheming secretary on the rise led to a  provocative archetype promoted in Depression-era stories and films. Predictably, "white-collar" wages stagnated once "unskilled" jobs were associated with "white-blouse" stereotypes. Meanwhile, regimentation for all meant that desks lined up, bosses carried stopwatches, and the sole "restroom" might be a few flights up, near executives who sat in their suites behind doors, glass or wooden. On the open floor, as supervisors scanned the ranked as they filed, "time would not be given, but stolen".

Air conditioning, skyscrapers, file cabinets, Dictaphones, stenography, skylights, adjustable chairs: the innovations applied to this workplace may endure or fade, but as Saval narrates, "what passed for workers' welfare could with a little imagination be seen as social control". The words "system", "order", and "efficiency" proved to managers that the monotony of office work preserved its appeal. The less that salaried staff had to worry about on the job, went the rationale, the less fuss they made.

The "office zombies" of King Vidor's film The Crowd (1928) in its splendid opening scene characterize the postwar predicament for many in New York City or Chicago by then. The camera directs one's gaze up the side of the Art Deco exterior, with column after column of windows. It enters one, hovers above "a waste and empty sea of desks", and then lowers itself among countless clerks all filling in ledgers. Down below, more leave the farms, to join the commuting, urban herd.

Social backlash then, as Saval notes, would return against the "hard-hat" workers in the 1970s. It urged many to deride the white-collar man as a not only a conformist but a racist drone. But in the 1920s as later, unions could not gain traction within most office ranks. Pink or white collar, the salaried employees refused to see their plight as akin to that of their waged, blue-collar neighbors. Distancing by class, if not always economic differences in salaried income, ensured that solidarity did not supplant supposed self-improvement. Saval applies German sociological theory, drawn upon for C. Wright Mills' 1951 study White Collar, to critique what turned out for many leftists a persistent but in Saval's opinion too facile a link between lower-middle-class clerical workers and reactionary politics. The switchboard operators, message boys, and the typing pools became scapegoats for lack of ambition, and their cadre represented to the elite a shorthand for stagnation and subordination.

Could paper pushers or the steno staff revolt? It seemed doubtful, but fearing unions and Marxists, a "pop Freudianism" soothed managers. Their staffs feared not losing their jobs, as blue-collar workers did, but not getting credit for a job well done. "The way to counter the threat, the managers decided, was to design better offices." These "human relations" specialists favored environments conducive to cooperation rather than competition, to advance harmony. This led to more glass, alongside the steel. We see its results in Ayn Rand's Fountainhead and in Mad Men's Sterling Cooper advertising agency.

These postwar paeans to Cold War affluence, however, lord over cities. These towers and the cold, empty (or packed) streets below, for many postwar aspirants discouraged rather than encouraged affection. Suburban office parks answered the need for more space, and more of a lateral rather than vertical presence as corporations led or followed the flight from the skyscraper. AT&T's Bell Labs in New Jersey pioneered the long corridor: this is where, subsequent management gurus suggested, ideas might be generated as colleagues passed each other many times daily. Yet, the totality of the corporate presence, epitomized even in the better-designed structures that sprawled, discouraged others in the 1950s. Lonely Crowds, Power Elites, Hidden Persuaders, and Organization Men in Gray Flannel Suits (to combine a few popular works of that era's social criticism), connoted a "soft totalitarianism" as advertisers and bosses colluded to lock up Americans in conforming cages.

A generation after The Crowd, The Apartment (1960) depicts the power of "gigantism". Consolidation eliminated small business and the individual's ambitions, unless to score a coveted bathroom key. IBM's dress code matched its punch-card mentality, and its uniformity that it trumpeted as the future. Such firms countered with a PR campaign assuring "more opportunities for better work". As always, many welcomed the security of the corporation, the amenities of the office, and the steady salary. Justifying itself to the public, free enterprise generated a bland, safe jargon.

Safety might spawn seduction, if not secure secrets. Helen Gurley Brown's Sex and the Single Girl (1962) and Sex and the Office (1964) beckoned working-class secretaries to snatch small joys during or after work, "through strategies of small subversion". Marriage need not be the goal, and staying single did not condemn a gal from climbing up the ladder at work in her own way, on her own time.

But closed doors and executive suites remained the domain of few in the office space. Jacques Tati's Playtime (1967) portrays in a futuristic but ramshackle Paris the cubes in which many of us now work. In 1958, furniture maker Herman Miller furthered through ergonomics Robert Propst's Action Office, defined as "a mind-oriented living space" functioning as "a place for transacting abstractions".  Theory-Y, advanced by Douglas McKenzie in 1960, pushed the ideal of Abraham Maslow's self-actualization into the realm of desks and chairs: by propelling bodies eager for direction, individual and corporate needs were better met. Peter Drucker appealed as a management guru, reaching out to anxious if compliant "knowledge workers". "For businessmen who read no philosophy, Drucker was their philosopher." Such theorists, for a restless generation of managers seeking to boost productivity while streamlining movement, spurred the open-plan. Workstations fostered innovation, but installation led to cubicles, perpetuating what were invented as temporary partitions. Saval confirms the trade-off: the sounds of typing and phones could never be silenced by carpeting or sound screens. Introspection and concentration capitulated to interactive communication.

Two decades after Propst's proposals, his humanistic vision of a flexible set-up at work had led to its opposite, as Tati had envisioned. By the end of the 1970s, "that beige, dishonest decade", conversion to cubicles and open-space confined as many workers as feasible in as small a blueprint as possible. While not mentioned by Saval, "positive" psychologist Martin Seligman has diagnosed "learned helplessness" as a symptom of this human filing system. Voice mail spews and depression deepens as  "technical support" on hold wears customers down, as corporate environments brutalize. Those staffing such situations suffer too. Diversifying workers did not lead to diversifying workplaces. Office work was rationalized, requiring fewer specialized skills. But higher levels of education were required. Those frustrated as their ambitions met with drudgery blamed themselves (and the system) for their stagnation. They may have escaped the factories and farms, but similar tedium awaited them.

The trend exalting whimsical post-modern rather than glass-and-steel modernism for the skyscrapers of the 1980s mattered little to those who rode the elevators. Corporations increasingly did not need so many cubicles. Worried executives and pressured middle managers made bestsellers out of business books. But Japanese Theory-Z failed. Manufacturing was automated or offshored. White-collar "post-industrial" work, promised as security by Drucker, faltered. Meaner, leaner downsizing followed.

Even the cubicles shrank, between a fourth and half, between the mid-1980s and the 1990s. Some were built by prisoners, who at night might return to their own fabricated stalls. Apple's workers refused them, and they were removed. IBM kept reducing them; employees reasoned this was meant to increase their miserable conditions such that nobody would want to show up anymore, and thus the savings on office space would reward their employer. Saval observes how cubicles make workers close enough to "create serious social annoyances, but dividing them so they didn't actually feel that they were working together". No wonder satire rebounded with Dilbert then and Office Space soon.

Did the PC advance the liberation that the Action Office predicted? Keystrokes monitored, errors subtracted, talking tallied: this depersonalized routine deadened many who sought to save their clerical jobs as automation created fewer positions but more apathy along the digitized assembly-line. Administrative assistants, renamed, arguably enjoyed less status than secretaries, who by their relationships with their bosses might gain some autonomy and respect. By contrast, the predictable data entry into electronic devices allowed supervisors to monitor this labor by a detached process.

9-to-5 (1980), produced by Jane Fonda, took much of its farcical plot from real testimony, although Saval avers it may not have helped advance the battle against sex discrimination. Eight years later, anticipating a move away from the typing pool, Working Girl shows a young woman scheming to replace her female banker-manager, using the "knowledge worker" skills that reward her "gumption".
Neither film revolts against the system. One suggests ending sexism might lead to a happy workplace; the other replaces one ambitious, conniving woman with another in a coveted position.

Before the start-up crash, fantasies continued. The paperless office and the non-territorial workspace emerged as paradigms sought by disgruntled designers. Telecommuting met with skepticism as managers feared losing control over their workers. Silicon Valley, on the other hand, since the 1980s issues "utopian prognostications" about the workplace of the libertarian, decentralized future. Their cubicles, started in the 1960s, stood for a rebellion against hierarchy and an installation of equality. But soon, as IBM epitomized, this structure embedded conformity. Apple and Microsoft turned to more closed offices, as workers opted to stay home to work as the noise interfered in their cubicles.

The mid-1990s embodied the dot.com as counterculture, one praising the company as the place to be, not only to work. The New Economy, as Chiat Day's giddy Frank Gehry-designed but confusingly paperless (for an advertising agency, after all) building boasted, generated for Type-A types a "simultaneously lackadaisical and profoundly intense pace, which kept people essentially confined to one place for hours on end". Mobility or freedom, on the other hand, diminish, despite Aeron chairs. The appeal of an airy domain where one can flee, free of the hubbub, no matter the job or site layout, persists. Lately, I pass on my way home from work a freeway billboard depicting a woman who celebrates her promotion by shopping for a new dress: "I got an office with a door," she exclaims.

Timed for the stock market's fall, 1999's Office Space sends up the dead-end jobs at "a grey tech company". The series The Office and novels by Ed Park (Personal Days) and Joshua Ferris (And Then We Came to the End) sustain this dark vision since that cult film appeared. Saval explains that these targeted "the unholy expectation of the modern workplace, which asked for dedication and commitment, offering none in return". Beyond the cubicle, ubiquitous big-box retailers and chain diners betray the same homogenized failure. For a few, Saval shows, disenchantment with corporate life led to another go around. TBWA/Chiat Day redesigned a bold campus for its staff after 1997. Their virtual office failed. They replaced it, but to Saval that still feels like Disneyland. The "cheerful haphazardness" of Google's headquarters perplexes him, but at least you can take your dog to work.

As the 2012 decision at Yahoo ordering workers to come to the office rather than work at home has demonstrated, the changing technologies that energize Silicon Valleys and Alleys alter the workplace. The "cloud" may puff up the temp economy even more; the Dutch insurance firm Interpolis models a second option, which gives employees more power over whether they want to come to an office to work at a variety of spaces (they only have a locker), or stay at home for part of their workweek. Mobile phones connect employees, no matter where they choose to work. Still, as Saval listens to a Marx-quoting manager, he realizes what one may call "trust" based on "activity-based working" may for workers translate as tacit "consent" to what a boss intends to implement to get all of the jobs done: the way the supervisor wants them to happen, regardless of the preferences of those assigned to tasks.

Saval's skepticism serves his investigation well. He keeps a wary eye on boosters from the business bestseller shelf, and he looks around where he is guided to check out the claims by managers and designers as tested against his own experience. He visits with Professor Richard Greenwald in Brooklyn, who champions the freedom while admitting the worry in contract work by freelancers. Fewer companies take on more workers, but a "frayed safety net" extends where no stability endures.

Open-source firm GitHub claims to be a non-managed, bossless office; like Interpolis, it breaks up its space into many configurations. Yet over seven out of every ten of its employees work at home. Many may come to the place once or twice a month, so the "serendipitous encounters" the designers hope to encourage by its innovative architecture may not happen much at all.  Co-working shared spaces suggest another alternative, not beholden or built for one company, and this may lead, Saval reasons, to more rewarding "creative collisions" with other workers outside one's firm or field.

Autonomy persists as the worker's ideal. Promised by many managers and parroted by many gurus, its actual presence appears to diminish from a typical, however high-tech, work site. Freelancers and contingent laborers, after all, may possess a degree of freedom not given to the salaried permanent staffer, but the uncertainty of living from one elusive paycheck to the next creates its own confines One may long to leave the cubicle as once one escaped the typing pool, but a corner office may not reward today's toiler who wants to make his or her workplace more than a location to log in or sit at.
(In shorter form to Amazon US 3-4-14; 4/8/14 without hyperlinks, to an excerpt and an interview with the author, in slightly edited form at PopMatters)

Friday, January 3, 2014

Nathaniel Philbrick's "Why Read Moby-Dick?": Book Review

Here's 28 brief essays, not an extended critique, taking on the relevance and verve of this challenging epic. It's very accessible, and easily perused in a couple of hours. Therefore, it provides enough insight to better an article or chapter in another, less expansive source, but it's more cogent and less daunting than a tome for specialists, certainly.

Highlights for me included Nathaniel Philbrick touching on Herman Melville's importuning a seemingly cautious Nathaniel Hawthorne early on as his conversations shifted Melville's composition and aims for the whaling yarn. Philbrick credits the New England man as "the figure that moved" Melville "to take Shakespeare's lead and dive into the darkness. Just as Ahab co-opted the 'Pequod,' Melville used Hawthorne's fiction only as it served its own purposes. Philbrick seems to regard Melville as annoying Hawthorne, manipulating him somewhat for his own ends.

Speaking of Ahab, Philbrick reminds us that the captain needs such as Fedallah as a necessary co-conspirator, and the author reminds us that no villain can act alone. In fact, he also notes how Ahab has his sensitive side, as Chapter 132. "The Symphony" shows Ahab regretting most of his adult life spent at sea, apart from his family. Meanwhile, Starbuck tries to talk him out of the pursuit, but he is rebuffed. Philbrick directs us to Fedallah, waiting in the shadow.

Philbrick makes a sensible case for the novel's weight and balance. "By the last third of the novel, we know all there is to know about the anatomy of the whale and the specifics of killing a whale; we have also come to appreciate the whale's awe-inspiring mystery and beauty. As a consequence, Melville is free to describe the final clash between Ahab and Moby-Dick with the unapologetic specificity required to make an otherwise improbable and overwrought confrontation seem astonishingly real." That's as pithy a rationale as any for Philbrick's title.

I read this immediately after finishing Nicholas Delbanco's 2005 "Melville: His World and Work" (also reviewed by me); Philbrick credits this for his own take. Both critics agree about the Fugitive Slave Act and debates over slavery as influencing the novel, and this interpretation focuses on the injustices, and the tensions, aboard the "Pequod" and its real counterparts. This may not convince all readers of either book. (By the way, Delbanco's substantial but approachable book is only a small amount more than Philbrick's which is packaged nicely as a stocking-stuffer but a fraction of that biography in length or depth.) However, the larger and more direct issue of relevance finds Nathaniel Philbrick alluding to his earlier book on another inspiration for Melville, the tragedy of the "Essex," which Philbrick integrates as logical context for "Moby-Dick."

Near the end, Philbrick recounts how Melville's family, after his death, found taped in his writing desk a motto from Schiller: "Keep fresh the dreams of thy youth." His chronicler figures this served as a reminder of Melville's stance, "neither believer nor infidel," but judging both carefully, as both a romantic and a realist. That "redemptive mixture of skepticism and hope, this genial stoicism in the face of a short, ridiculous, and irrational life, is why I read 'Moby-Dick."'' Amazon US 11-23-13

Wednesday, January 1, 2014

Nicholas Delbanco's "Melville: His World and Work": Book Review

Given we know much less than expected about Herman Melville's life, outside of the hints in his own fictional and poetic creations, Nicholas Delbanco's narrative offers a welcome critical biography. He shows us how the works and the man intertwined, and with it, through a life begun in 1819 and ending up in 1991, that dramatic shift from an America with family memories during the Revolutionary War into one with clattering trains and tall buildings accelerating into our own metropolitan rush and clang. A professor at Yale, Andrew Delbanco skillfully argues for Melville as balanced between Whitman's "New York bluster" and his friend Hawthorne's "New England gravity", and as in his increasingly sophisticated and erudite works, how their author learned in New York City, 1847-50, to tell tales that balanced between Romantic-tinged evocations of savagery and the wild, and those which examined the "Enlightenment emissary" sent from the West on a civilizing mission of exploitation and awe.

While naturally "Moby-Dick" is associated most with Melville, and certainly the opening colophons (echoing that novel's own appearance) and pop culture references ("The Sopranos" and Osama bin Ladin, Mad magazine and Ken Kesey, Leslie Fiedler and Samuel Beckett, Joseph Conrad and Albert Camus) that bring us into this study emphasize this well, Delbanco peppers these pages with citations from the whole oeuvre, so we can judge how Melville revealed himself, or hid, within. With most of his manuscripts and correspondence apparently lost, any biography needs to look beyond the standard sources, but Delbanco blends those extant smoothly into his own depiction of 19th century America.

We need reminding that as with "Huck Finn" very little we choose to perpetuate today from that era (outside the classroom) permeates wider consciousness. Melville broke through the barrier (copyright played a role in pumping up English authors instead, as Dickens found on his tour here) in his times limiting American authors who sought a wider audience. Delbanco credits him with figuring out how to "express American ideas and sentiments through European forms". He matured from the exaggerated tease of tropical delights in "Typee" and the more business-minded exchanges of Polynesian beauties in "Omoo". These were successes, but Melville grew impatient with the formula.

He used his seafaring experience, "borrowed" what needed fleshing out from his reading (Delbanco finds it increasingly lofty as he lived in lower Manhattan in the late 1840s and incorporated a "democratic imagination--both in substance and style"), and he listened, this critic avers, to the clanging tone and the typically bustling rhythm of the "oceanic city" where he (it is often forgotten) was born and died.

Delbanco notes that the preparation of "Moby-Dick" and a love-hate relation with the city lured Melville to his brother and his relatives to settle for a productive stint in Pittsfield, Massachusetts, in the Berkshires, but still, that epic began in a port and near a harbor. That novel's like browsing and walking down a city street: it's unpredictable. Delbanco compares a walker in New York to a reader, needing "high alertness" combined with "willed insouciance" to fend off sly appeals from the margins. Delbanco compares too that fantastical take on lotus-land, "Mardi" and the 135 chapters of "Moby-Dick" with a similar sprawl to the bills posted on municipal walls, one over the other, full of arresting slogans and advertising come-ons; out of a verbal melange, in "Moby"'s chapters and its clauses, that at-first straightforward whaling yarn began to warp into something odd, unanticipated.

Much of it to Delbanco "reads like a transcription of a patient under analysis moving from bravado to depletion", but the novel taps Melville's "bipolar" swing between "public jesting" and "private brooding", and reveals the untapped imagery and manic associations that consumed its composition.

Troubles followed for Melville, as Delbanco gives a lot of space (and we can argue over how much is needed for the psychoanalytical approach he and others take for "Pierre" in light or shadow of its author's purported sexual preferences). "Bartleby" found Melville recovered, finally able to record how ordinary Manhattanites sounded, and that story's appeal to the confounding tension of a radical protest against a rapacious capitalist system and a conservative acknowledgment that in tradition, stability, and intimacy lay hope, kept its own ambiguities vivid. But, stung by criticism, Melville seems to have by the early 1850s started what Delbanco discerns as Melville's uneasy transformation of his "genius" into touches of his "madness".

Weariness dominated his sensibility. In his mid-thirties, he seemed worn-out. "And then the darkness closed in."

Delbanco handles this period with as much attention as the height of Melville's fame, carefully analyzing the writings and other contexts to provide as full a picture as a relatively brisk single volume aimed at a general audience can contain. He keeps the narrative over 330 pages of text vivid, but he avoids moralizing or sentimentality.

Despite the best bits Delbanco gleans, "Clarel" as Holy Land epic is not Melville's return to form. That return did come sporadically: the tension between radical challenge to the social order and conservative compassion and traditional stability in "Bartleby" finds Melville integrating how real people talk. "Benito Cereno" improves on "White-Jacket" by using a naval setting to deepen a moral dilemma, and widening the scope to take on the issue of racism and slavery.

Concluding, "Billy Budd" shows in the late 1880s his steady, if by now streamlined and simplified, style. It emerged slowly, Delbanco tells, "as if he could not bear to let it go". As a "eulogy for the hopes of his youth", it returns to the youthful outlook of "Redburn" and "White-Jacket". But, as labor unrest contended against corporate brutality in Melville's final years, that novella proves the fragility of culture, pitted against the pressures of the law allied with political control. Delbanco judges that Melville shows himself in this last story a "reformed, if not repentant, Romantic".

This fine study fits a necessary niche. It's neither too brief nor too detailed for the curious reader who, perhaps having read some Melville or coming for the first time to him, wants an overview of his life and times. While some earnest Freudian analysis cited or concocted within may stretch the bounds of credulity when it comes to certain critics trying to discern hints of Melville's sexual preferences, and while the treatment of the congressional disputes over slavery digresses a bit, generally this is well-documented without wallowing in professorial jargon or score-settling, Delbanco's 2005 book, for me, proved the companion I needed when I wanted an accessible introduction to why Melville endures nearly two centuries after his birth in the early decades of this vexed United States. (11-23-13 Amazon US)

Wednesday, December 25, 2013

John G. Rodwan's "Holidays & Other Disasters": Book Review


Combining personal experiences with cultural critique, blending historical analysis with a coming-of-age memoir, this collection of chapters reveals a scholar’s eye for nuance and an essayist’s knack for insight. This eclectic book examines holidays, both religious and secular, from a perspective of an “anti-theist.” Adopting Christopher Hitchens’ term, John G. Rodwan claims allegiance to not merely denying supernatural belief passively but actively confronting its suppositions.  He thoughtfully critiques a less examined aspect of embedded, mandated, and communal commemorations within American life. Race, ethnicity, occupation, territory, class, school, sectarianism, team, music, patriotism, and parades, after all, characterize many public rituals, as well as denominational celebrations.

Within a short space, Mr. Rodwan roams widely. He begins with a preface praising, from his French visit, the joy of uncorking the first Beaujolais nouveau of the season as the type of personal routine he fervently supports. This differs from ceremonial convention tellingly. “What I like about my not-quite-holiday—personal meaningfulness, deliberateness, secularity, voluntariness and perhaps even an air of cosmopolitanism—highlights what I dislike about many actually existing holidays—impersonal blandness, unthinking conformity, piety, required or expected participation, and stultifying parochialism.” He can imbibe a holiday spirit without being a Scrooge, he assures us, and he carries on with conviviality and cheer. His book confronts the complacencies of observance by contrasting the stories which, in his life or that of those more famous, express freethinking challenges. Instead of following patriotic tradition, social convention, or religious ritual for its own sake, Mr. Rodwan champions choice. 

Martin Luther King Day, belief as expressed in popular music, Salman Rushdie’s fatwa declared on Valentine’s Day, and doubts expressed by a Jesuit priest at his high school and within the literature he had assigned comprise the first essays. Listing these topics conveys their thematic range. During a nimble romp around literary expressions of unbelief, after navigating the many inconsistencies within the Gospels themselves, he nods to Easter’s symbols, appropriated from pagan fertility practices. 

Contrasting the Christian claims of triumph over mortality through a resurrected body and soul with those of hope for rebirth and renewal grounded in the cycle of life rather than a liturgical round, Mr. Rodwan surmises chocolate eggs may symbolize a truer lesson for our offspring. Tearing off the shiny foil, biting into the sweetness, a crumbly shell gives way to nothing inside. “Reproduction via material parents—physical fathers and non-virginal mothers—offers the most genuine hope for victory over death.” This epitomizes his scrutiny of symbols for what they reveal to the careful observer, and his rejection of “narrative ways” by which believers “evade their fears.”  The Bible survives, he surmises, in part from its being passed on by so many faithful, uncritical believers, for devoted generations on end.

Returning to a theme in his earlier essay collection, Mr. Rodwan shifts into an examination of the confidence-man. He uses a few passages gleaned from Herman Melville’s fiction (if much too rapidly given the depth of such intricate sources) to touch on conflicts between faith and charity. He then segues (each of fifteen main chapters gets an interlude) into the tenuous connections often asserted that boxing matches of a particular era embody that time’s mores. The connections with holidays or disasters grow maybe too subtle, but sports continues with baseball season’s opening day as a ritual many flock to fulfill, as played off against Mr. Rodwan’s boredom with that national pastime. 

Still, as when he juxtaposes a scene not from the opening chapter of Don DeLillo’s Underworld (set at the New York Giants’ Polo Grounds), but Mao II (set at Yankee Stadium), where Moonies by the thousands enter into a arranged mass wedding, to show the allegiance of fans to players procured by calculating owners as leaders, Mr. Rodwan’s literary and cultural connections display wit and verve. 

As a native of Detroit, Mr. Rodwan’s continued concern with race and class continues with a survey of the Overground Railroad, the Great Migration of blacks from the South to the North’s factories in the past century. Jack Johnson’s boxing defeat of The Great White Hope, Jim Jeffries, attests to another kind of commemoration, the realization that Independence Day and that match’s win on that day both inched equality closer to the reach of more of America’s millions than before the Emancipation Proclamation. Other clashes--between European immigrants, nativist workers, bosses, and hired thugs--peppered Labor Day’s rise and fall as a marker of rights claimed for those in factories and on farms. 

With one-hundred-and-ten numbered boxes, Mr. Rodwan tallies his possessions as he and his wife move from New York City, as it happens exactly eight years after 9/11. He considers the “coarsening and dulling effect over time” which that city exacts from its residents. Despite the cultural enrichment and the culinary delights, he reasons that relocation was always an option in his peripatetic career. He looks at the memorial services, political cant, and spiritual humbug around 9/11. His apt perch as a resident but not a native, enhanced by his skepticism about platitudes and parades, provides us with an appropriate platform to study the reactions to Patriot Day, shutting out the sound bites and slogans.

He moves all around the country, too. Detroit’s infamous Devil’s Night and other Halloweens, Evacuation Day as a now-forgotten party to cheer the rout of the British in 1783 from New York City, Thanksgiving, and finally, inevitably, Christmas occupy the remaining holiday-centered considerations. He cautions against those who, in the name of Yuletide cheer, spread and keep viable as a sacred Christmas that which they as secular enablers sustain, against their own atheistic values and actions. 

He shares advice about the wisdom of whether to join in at other people’s fervently celebrated holy days. Beauty, Mr. Rodwan avers, needs no belief system to affirm it. Wonder and awe exist free of a deity or a supernatural presence. Love needs no commandment. “Submission to an invented higher power can discourage rather than promote curiosity.” Contemplation and reflection may thrive separated from an obligation towards fealty to a higher power. As with the arrival of another year’s fresh Beaujolais, vital traditions may thrive. People may convene, unbidden by Scriptural imperatives. 

Appending a wish-list of those he’d like to see remembered and how particular dates embedded in our national or sacred calendar might be reconsidered in a secular response, Mr. Rodwan concludes with a reiteration of the need for freedom to be extended beyond the often unacknowledged or unchallenged religious affirmations so much a part of public discourse. After all, “freedom from compulsion” remains an expression of liberty afforded to those of no higher belief as well as to all sorts of believers. His excursion might meander, across the nation and its history as well as in his lifelong struggles against God. Yet Holidays & Other Disasters, as its title promises, delivers a wry, sharp look at ritual and routine. (New York Journal of Books 11-8-13)

Friday, November 15, 2013

Ag taistil go dtí Stáit Nua Eabhrac

Chuaigh muid go dtí Colaiste na Bhaird a cur cuairt ár mhac níos óige le linn an dhá tseachtaine seo caite. Bíonn Niall i gcónaí ina Stáit Nua Eabhrac ina gcolaiste, ag imeall an Abhainn Hudson. Go deimhin, tá séisean ábalta fheiceáil an abhainn mór in aice leis an ionad álainn seo.

Bhí muid ag taistil chun freastal an deireadh na seachtaine do theaghlaigh ansin. Chuala Léna agus mise ceantannaí agus mion-rangaí. Shiúl muid ar fud an champais (agus reilig phictiúr anseo) íomlán an duilleoigaí an fhomhair.

Ith muid leis Niall, fós. Tá béilí ar "The Local" agus "Terrapin" i Rhinebeck ag an dá blasta. Cócaráithe Léna bia "ar bhaile" leis comhábhair úra ón margadh feirmeoirí freisin; is maith leo é ag ith Niall agus cúig na chairde air.

D'imigh muid go bPittsfield i Massachusetts a foghlaim faoi Herman Melville ar An Athenaeum ansuid agus an músaem go aisteach agus taitneamhach i gcathair beag sin. Tháinig muid go baile na Melville, atá ainmnithe "Arrowhead," go raibh dúnta. Mar sin féin, shíul muid ag timpeall a cluain agus coillte; bhreathnaigh muid an h-iomaire "Greylock" chomh míol mór-cruthach atá spreag, b'fhéidir, an cruth na Moby-Dick.

In aice-láimhe, i Lenox, chuairt muid an "An Mhóta," an Ard-Mhéara na Edith Wharton. Go fírinne, tá sí an-mhór. Ar ndóigh, bhuail muid leis ár chara Jerome ina suíomh ina chineál céanna i tSaratoga Springs dhá lá ina dhiaidh sin, mbealach chun na Fraincis Ceanada.

Traveling to New York State.

We went to Bard College to visit our younger son during the past two weeks. Niall's living in New York State at college, on the edge of the Hudson River. In fact, he himself is able to see the great river near this lovely location.

We traveled to attend a weekend for families there. Layne and I heard speakers and mini-classes. We walked around the campus (and graveyard pictured here) full of leaves in autumn.

We ate with Niall, too. Meals at "The Local" and "Terrapin" in Rhinebeck were both delicious. Layne cooked a meal "at home" with fresh ingredients from farmers' markets also; Niall and his five friends liked it. 

We went off to Pittsfield, Massachusetts to learn about Herman Melville at the Athenaeum over there and the museum strange and interesting in that small city. We arrived at the home of Melville, which is called "Arrowhead," but it was closed. All the same, we walked around the meadow and woods; we viewed the whale-shaped "Greylock" ridge which inspired, perhaps, the design of Moby-Dick.

Nearby, in Lenox, we went to "The Mount," the mansion of Edith Wharton. Certainly, it's very grand. Of course, we met with our friend Jerome in a similar setting in Saratoga Springs two days later, on our way to French Canada.

Sunday, September 23, 2012

John Kelly's "The Graves Are Walking": Book Review


Telling the tale of how over a million Irish starved and withered to their deaths while another two million emigrated from an already hard-pressed rural population of eight million demands steady control of facts amid so much emotion. Earlier generations relied on Cecil Woodham-Smith’s The Great Hunger (1964) for this, full of data as well as narrative; I recommend a less-known popular history, Thomas Gallagher’s Paddy’s Lament (1982) as a more compact presentation. The 150th commemoration of the Famine, or An Gorta Mór as Woodham-Smith’s title is rendered from the Irish language, generated new scholarship, some of it revisionist arguing against the nationalist propaganda which since John Mitchel’s The Last Conquest of Ireland (Perhaps) in 1861 had tilted Irish and their descendants across the post-Famine diaspora to curse a genocidal Crown and a heartless Britain when that kingdom was mentioned. 

Science historian John Kelly comes to this daunting task of conveying in four-hundred pages of text a complicated explanation of the origins of the Famine; its impacts as it spread along two major periods from 1845 to around 1850 in worsening patterns; its entanglement within British principles of charity, Divine Providence, public works, poorhouses, workhouses, legal wrangling, and bungled relief; its effects as the native Irish fled to Liverpool, Canada, and New York City; and if too briefly its resonance for the Land War movements later in the century. He conveys an impressive study of the firsthand accounts, the government reports, and the secondary scholarship within a well-paced, judicious presentation of what too often has been distorted by Irish propaganda—itself marshaled to fend off enduring and cruel British stereotypes of a feckless people.

Mr. Kelly intersperses sharply etched vignettes throughout his text; these play off the volume’s period illustrations of wretched squalor and pompous comfort well. (It lacks, all the same, an index and timeline.) He stresses a European context for widespread crop failure. Contrast this with what in many Irish-authored Famine accounts has remained a parochial blight rather than a continental disaster. Rain pummeled Europe and spread the deadly fungus westward to the islands in the North Atlantic. Comfortable with paraphrasing economic theory and climatic studies, Mr. Kelly early links the humble potato, relied upon far too heavily for its easy cultivation and cheap nutrients, to “the violent odor of decay” that became rapidly its telling smell, for years near the middle of the nineteenth century.

This Victorian era also promoted thrift, diligence, and the notion of a Divine Providence angry at indolent and “papist” Irish who, like their Scots highland predecessors, might better be used as workers elsewhere, their Celtic homeland put to large-scale farming or cleared for grazing to feed the needs of the British Empire. Potatoes were so affordable, so filling, and so simple to cultivate that this left the native Irish with all too abundant an amount of free time to drink, saunter, and procreate. This angered their perceived betters, who governed them from the Big House overseeing the farms, or from the estates in England whose rents were extracted by absentee landlords from such cartoonish, lumpish, simian throwbacks. To their credit, as Mr. Kelly shows, some overseers intervened to try to save their tenants. Many gentry despaired of the decline in rent payers, while others looked forward to a cleansing of the land of its less dedicated inhabitants. 

This practical insistence -- coupled with a relentless exegesis that as a “Visitation of Providence,” the Famine was not a natural disaster but a God’s punishment “for violating His laws on food tariffs” -- shows how the British contentions over the Corn Law and relief of the poor by tax reforms delayed sufficient assistance. This lack doomed many Irish, by the end of 1846, to an early grave or exile’s boat.

Scenes of devastation caught the attention of the London press early; Camus, Conrad, Beckett, Boccaccio, Joyce, and especially Melville’s Liverpool docks shown in his novel Redburn (1849) all gain appropriate context placed by Mr. Kelly alongside the eerie desolation and physical annihilation that appeared to clear life and leave only corpses from many sodden, stinking, howling landscapes. Shallow graves filled and emptied, as packs prowled and feverish bodies, dead or dying, sprawled in dark cabins. Mr. Kelly sums this all up in one of many finely penned passages: “In areas devastated by the blight, the familiar scenes of deep scarcity reappeared: men standing in early-morning fields, sucking the blood from the neck of a living cow, seaweed on the boil; grass-stained mouths and hands; women running an anxious hand over a sleeping child to see if she still breathed.” 

These images found verbal and visual illustration for many readers abroad. This is where Mr. Kelly’s analysis sharpens: he provides necessary context for how the British responded and why. Their “relief policy was never deliberately genocidal, but its effects often were.” This careful distinction applies to the chronology he sets out. What in 1845 began that summer as a tragic harvest worsened after the fumbled and hesitant relief given far too few among far too many afflicted failed. Eighteen months on, the stubborn British moral that God’s hand dealt the improvident Irish natives a blow they deserved for their poverty and superstition contended with those imperial ministers who reckoned that “salutary” change might improve the plight of a people deficient in “initiative, industriousness, and self-reliance.” Meanwhile, who merited handouts as bodies filled mass graves or were dismembered by rats and dogs was far too long debated in Westminster. 

The London Times editorialized: “There are times when something like harshness is the greatest humanity.” Tough love, it appeared for many British lords and landlord, would teach their Irish rent payers timely lessons. Social engineering meant that relief policies could be implemented, and religious principles might align with economic reform. So reasoned, if after long bickering, a few in London.

Queen Victoria in January 1847 spoke of “the dearth of provisions” in her nation’s oldest colony. This spurred “the first celebrity-heavy international charity event” sponsored quasi-officially by a Crown suspicious of public funding when the private sector could raise, by today’s equivalents, about $250 million in relief. 

The Irish, however, could not wait for modernization schemes. Mr. Kelly reminds us how Ireland then compared to Haiti, Somalia, or the Congo now. While Mao and Stalin perpetrated deadlier famines and heavier casualties, the impact of the Famine hit the small island harder, for it lacked enough people or enough alternative resources to sustain the force of mass deaths and social collapse. A battered Ireland lost three million of her people in a few years, even as grain continued, for a while, to be exported while more was imported. The trouble was, as Mr. Kelly shows perhaps too subtly, that the two exchanges of foodstuffs did not synchronize. This followed a second summer, in 1846, with rotting crops, leading to the disastrous year of “Black ‘47” when deaths soared still higher.

That spring, public works—roads to nowhere, hills decapitated, holes filled in—stopped so the Poor Law could start and Alexis Soyer’s Soup #1 (splendidly described in its preparation) could be doled out at kitchens. This shift cut off aid to any small farmer eking out a living on more than a quarter acre. This cut off many already on the edge of starvation. This caused pestilence, scurvy, and disease to exponentially accelerate. This pushed many millions to flee to the ports. The landlords and Crown often hastened their exit, envisioning the success of their social model. Too much charity meant that the victims would rely on it.

Yet, as Liverpool found its conniving, greedy, portside con artists overwhelmed by the often illiterate and often Irish-monoglot emigrants who filled its docks and flophouses, and as London faced a thousand new immigrants a day to sleep in its parks, the Crown’s strategy backfired. Many newcomers were too poor to afford Canadian or American passage. Those who did may have regretted it. 

Grosse Isle lingers ominously in Irish Canada for its precipitous mortality rate; this embarkation station found itself the terminus for what would be 20,000 dead Irishmen, women and children in the dismal summer of 1847. That humid season felled many unused to the drastic weather and weakened further by infested environs after a horrid sea crossing. Down the Atlantic seaboard, nearly half of those arriving in New York City in 1848 were Irish; a few years later, over a fifth of all Gothamites were Hibernian-born. Tammany Hall, “Dagger John” Hughes, and the scams perpetrated on the hapless immigrants, throughout the fourteenth and fifteenth chapters here, gain splendid summary and elegant elaboration. It’s a familiar storyline to those immersed in Irish American study, but Mr. Kelly’s deft control of when to pause and gawk and where to glide by makes for a streamlined, moving, and smoothly conducted tour.

Similarly, his conclusion taking us back to a changed homeland telescopes the failure of the brief 1848 Young Ireland rebellion, the decline of the “Liberator” Daniel O’Connell, Fenians, and Land League reform attempts of the later century understandable for a general readership. The Famine’s legacy led to landlords evicting more tenants. The “poor rate” rose by 1000% between 1847 and 1851.

That latter year, my family’s ancestral farmhouse was rebuilt. I learned from The Graves Are Walking that the Catholic diocese in which it crumbles (as a ruin today) declined in population by 10-17% in a few months of the Famine. I know that the county today has about a fifth of the people who lived there pre-Famine. I also recall how my great-grandfather left that county to agitate in London in 1898 for land reform as part of a local delegation. My family lore has it he was “found drowned in the Thames, in mysterious circumstances”—another reason why I closed Mr. Kelly’s impressive narrative history reminded of why so many Irish, abroad or back home, possess such long memories after such hard times. (New York Journal of Books: Review 8-21-12; see also my take on Tim Pat Coogan's new "The Famine Plot")

Friday, June 8, 2007





My Son the Starbuck(s) Scholar

Niall came with me (and then we treated my dad for-- in South OC-- a rare find, lunch at a non-corporate, family-owned restaurant chosen by him and not my wife after a preliminary visit to Chowhound! Commercial break-- shameless plug: visit her site Manifeasto via my link, and bug her to post more) to hear a presentation by the student end-of-term fourth team for the course Technology, Culture & Society on Starbucks.

The four seniors analyzed the cultural, psychological, environmental, and business impacts of this quintessentially boho (to use it in the David Brooks neo-con sense) sign of hipster commodification. Well, that's how the chattering classes would put it. One of these fellow scribes, Michael Hoover of Seminole CC (in Florida, surprise), wrote for the socialist (formerly communist as I recall pre-fall Berlin Wall) Monthly Review a concise overview of this earnest Seattle corporation. http://mrzine.monthlyreview.org/hoover270705.html

Now there are 7600 stores. (By comparison, McD's has 30,000, half of those abroad; local faves In n' Out "quality you can taste" have in the two hundreds, let's say novenas that the heiress' granddaughter does not franchise its Double-Doubles all over creation). Trader Joe's, now caught up in its own imperial phase, sold out to a German conglomerate, and Tesco's is counterinvading soon with its Fresh and Easy mini-stores to battle TJ's on its home turf!

As with In n' Out's fresh products and Christian ethos that blessedly leads to fair wages, worker benefits, and satisfied customers-- even Eric Schlosser admits if you have to eat a burger after reading his "Fast Food Nation," they'd be the reluctant choice of the best by far of a much worse (feed)lot-- not to mention Starbucks' insistence upon its sustainable policies and CAFE standards and full-page ads insisting against unseen foes its unassailable ecological virtue and morality as pure as its Ethos brand water, now we have Tesco's following with recyclable packaging, natural lighting, and chilled rather than frozen products for sale.

Hoover's skeptical about this puffery at Starbucks. Reminds me of when you have a law that all employees working 40 hours get such and such, you make a cut-off for the majority as wage slaves clocking in at 37. Not to forget the sudden promotion of managers to avoid unionizing those hapless enemies who find themselves suddenly given supervisorial duties over some underling, thus earning enmity of those downtrodden toilers and their supposed betters living large as the 2% of our nation are apparently who have the cash to blow on $600 bottles of $30 liquor and hire a woman to lie naked on a table adorned with sushi (which is extra). A report on a new hotel in San Diego with stripper's poles, fur cuffs, and see-through showers next to ample beds targets the suits who philander and party like its 1999 still, news to you and me, I assume if you're stuck home as I am Friday night typing this.

We beaten-down, indebted products of a liberal education gravitate now to an activism that shows itself at the checkout line more often than the protest march. In the image above, those waving placards (snapped for the MR site) that "Starbucks chose Israel, we choose [unintelligible other place" and that care for children presumably means no fraps for toddlers are in the non-silent minority but outnumbered by those who'd rather look cool. Of course, the Consumer Whore sticker symbolizes the crux.

Being seen cradling and sipping and blowing over a literary allusion, if now cropped and no longer buxom, let alone with aureoles, nipples or curves, the double- flippered siren of Starbucks graces a far simpler logo. She has been downsized and censored to meet the demands of the moral police from both left and right, I suppose. Holding a cup with that tastefully natural-textured paper ring denotes sensitivity. The fact you pay more for a cup o' suds or smoke rather than a McD's percolated spout or Dunkin' Donuts downmarket dribble connotes a class distinction.

A Mexican student commented how in Guadalajara the Starbucks had valet parking and the drinks were twice the US price; McD's there is a dress-up spot where a couple of Big Macs and a drink or two of the soda fountain type'd set you back equal to US $20. A Puerto Rican student told how there vanilla beans and whipped cream were extra or unavailable. In Durango, a third commented, they charge more for a McDonald's burger that does not meet the usual assembly line prep, or lack of such. Apropos, the McDonalds' manager in our class commented on his employers' summer campaigns for teen coffee drinkers, cold blended drinks, redesigned labels, softer store colors, breakfast confections, and tastier than the competition's black coffee. McDonalds opposes frou-frou foam, microwaved croissants, and promises no new Macca (first OBE of the week's blog-- see below for his pop successor) CD laded out to the goateed and tattooed across the street! How sick will the impecunious non-union "partners" be of the Cute One's croon? Or the patrons, encouraged as they are to hang out and blog and wifi and sip and as the new billboards urge us, to "Meet Me at Starbucks."

I heard Bono on NPR today, purveyor of his own combo of fashion and conscience with the RED label. Post-Wall fall, U2 achieved what few musicians could: they reclaimed a decade after they hit the charts the top of critical and popular acclaim. My attitude towards our market economy is resignation rather than enthusiasm. I admire such PR, and he plays into the "counter-cultural" zeitgeist that Michael Hoover analyzes in his Monthly Review piece, which although obviously on the left side makes its points clearly and fairly. He cites David Brooks and Thomas Frank fairly. (I also critiqued on Amazon Frank's "What's Wrong With Kansas?" but received an enormous amount of negative ratings for having the temerity to give a mixed review for his lack of in-depth analysis as opposed to Overland Park suburban summer anecdote. Please look my comments up on a search engine and restore my good name in the other Seattle behemoth's standings.)

Frank and Brooks represent despite their differences the dominant current criticism of our capitalist juggernaut. The resistance to The System comes not so much from a practical alternative as an admission that we have to keep the brakes on the Hummer now and then or risk obliteration. Beyond that, I lack faith in the dictatorship of the proletariat, the withering away of the state, the messianic era of Schneerson or Moschiachs of any name, or the ecotopian recovery of innocence. Unless, as James Tiptree, Jr. (sic) mused in a memorably grim fable, a demonic doctor on a mission of mercy jet-sets for a month and wipes us all out in 28 days by a chain of contagion from his wonder pathogen of doom, so as to save Gaia or Peggy Suicide.

Julian Cope represents this attempt at reclaiming this ancient wisdom. See his Head Heritage site. Bono, on the other hand, unlike his former contemporary in the post-punk early New Wave British (sic) era, opts for the corridors of power and National Public Radio. Usually I avoid the mealy-mouthed tones, but the classical station bored me. This morning, he talked sensibly and with knowing self-deprecation in just the right amount, about the G-7 conference. Again our fearless leaders debate what the rest of the world should do to clean up our mess. WTO redux, protests galore. As it should be, but like the placards above (a typical shot from such media as MR; their rivals would also earn my rebuke as anyone does who reduces complex issues to bumptious slogans and bumper stickers) and the recently announced British academic union's boycott of the Zionist entity as the Worst Nation Ever, the myopia of certain self-labelled progressives in ignoring Darfur, the Congo, Rwanda, Bosnia, Cambodia, East Timor, or China by comparison reveals marked lack of acuity. Or at least scale of perceived atrocities.

Back to a more experienced if as self-absorbed public activist, Bono does possess a winning sense of his own incongruity on the diplomatic stage. His doppelganger (and more recently band editor- biographer) Neil McCormick in his memoir "Killing Bono" (see my Amazon review) documents firsthand so well how U2 stays ahead of the fickle curve for two decades. I'm not even a real fan of the band, but I recognize their ability to extrapolate from the present curve's direction and chart where their advance should turn. Like Gordie Howe with the puck, they do not look at where the puck is at, but where it will be next. Their savvy, for me, makes Mick J look the jowly if buff dinosaur he is and Macca the predictably well-meaning but often sappy pop dittyist he always returned to being best (in a manner of singing/speaking/being).

I guess I begrudge (great Irish pastime) U2 for semi-morally jumpstarting the Irish musical and cultural and economic scenes although I do wish dear dirty Dublin was less frenetically eurotrashed, overrun, and trafficked. Signs of a thriving capitalism but also of a dangerous hubris. Do we need another cellphoned, gridlocked, packaged, and relentlessly retailed down into the hinterlands that fill up with malls, tracts, cement, asphalt, and bulldozed farmlands? A million and a half people filling up Meath, down to Wicklow, back past Fingal near to Newry? Tara's threatened by the motorway to speed more commuters-- see my earlier "Save Tara" post two months ago. Perhaps Julian Cope prayed to the right Peggy of his 1992 vision; a recent dig found another ancient monument directly in the way of the motorway immediately after excavations commenced; may the eternal curse of Macha resound further south on evil hordes who caused and began this destruction of our ancient legacy.

Back to a more immediate voice resounding from Ireland on the radio, I admit that I recognized that a Dubliner was speaking. This even though I did not know it was Bono for a long time into the interview I wandered into. I impressed myself if not captive Niall with this dialectal identification!

A third of all Irish, and a third of los chilangos irlandeses by now Litvaks or Nigerians or Chinese perhaps, now in el districto federal, but it's telling, as we discuss on globalization in an Irish perspective, that the accent is creeping more into the mid-Atlantic softening and elongating of the Anglo-American drawl elided by so many of Bono's own ilk and those who followed his success into the roaring Tigger that U2 helped themselves fund and goad along the past two decades. As for Paul Hewson, no brogue, steady soft regional tone similar to many Brits, but the lilt and the rhythm distinguishes our second OBE of this week's blog to be straight outta Ballymun-- home of our blog's recent "Irish Heritage" cover girl as our very recent First Communicant.

The late Bewley's in Dublin was founded in the middle of the 19c by Quakers, one of the rare Christian groups with a social conscience during the Famine. Coffee and other Third World stimulants we First Worlders crave, as in Elizabeth Kuti's recent play "The Sugar Wife," carry fraught connotations of exploitation that its importers and purveyors must overcome or ignore. Lessons for those of us who idolize the marketplace too. By consuming so much coffee, sugar, tea, cocaine, marijuana, Chinese electronics, Bangladeshi-sewn cotton clothing, Polish-outsourced tech support, migrant-labor processed ground beef, what are we doing to accelerate these habits? Ireland's an intriguing cause-and-effect as both software producer and hirer of immigrants to feed its voracious demands pent up after centuries of suppression.

Much as I suspect big business, at least the firms I have been discussing above try now to divert, or better, finally begin to lessen, the tide of destruction all of our greed has unleashed. Shade grown plantations. How that noun contends against its modifiers. Fair-trade. Workers loaned money and equipment by the corporation. Students asked if this was liberation or indentured servitude. Who owned the land if the farmers reneged on their loan from Howard Schultz? Could the shade-growers trade fairly elsewhere, or were they locked into serving Starbucks? The company pays 75% more than the (probably very low) standard rate for coffee, to its credit. If another buyer offered to match the Seattleites, would the farmers have a sustainable choice? Questions we did not have answers to, and good food for thought. Goats ate beans, got frisky, farmer noticed this, ate beans, got frisky. Port of Mocha, near Mecca. Arabian blends. Traders met and drank. Dinner was in mid-day, but as work filled the hours of budding capitalists, the time got pushed back further in the day. A few decades or reigns later, dinner blurred into supper. The workday for London's predecessors to Wall Street extended all day. Got frisky. Coffee fueled colonialism.

In 1999 at the WTO protests in Seattle, fewer vendors of the black bean roasted with clear water, but there must be hundreds of coffehouses in its birthplace, I wonder? This image from the site above is of Seattle's finest protecting the outpost of hipsterati against trustafarians. The other image's a classic illustration of a "Classics Illustrated" Moby Dick, as my son answered a presenter's inevitable question: "Does anyone know how the store got its name?" I raised my hand, only since none of the students had, but so did my boy! And he was right: S. served the crew coffee, as first mate.

I have only been in one twice, once to get Leo a drink with a $5 gift card I was given by a publishers rep after I had lobbied for adoption of a textbook when such actions were still possible before my own institution's standardization and the unfortunate "chain store mentality" of limiting our own textbooks to one book mandated for the whole system occurred. The second time was wretched. My dear spouse got us hopelessly lost and going the wrong way on the 10 on a 100-degree plus day, into the heat of the Inland Empire where it was 108 last July one day after we had seen my dad and had already been on the road hours on end. We staggered off the San Berdoo Freeway into oven-temperature Chino and entered merciful air-conditioning. I think I had a vanilla frappucino, according to my son's masterful recollection, but all I recall was froth and sugar and sweetness. The calories, we found later when examining its content, were enormous. I wonder, vs. McDonald's, if it's worse than their chemically-laden vanilla shake?