A Mind That Suits
What doesn't kill me, makes me laugh... usually.
Sunday, August 10, 2003 :::
Chrestomathy Three. Americans, Dumb About Languages...The Enemies of Learning...Self-Important Reporters...BAD Educational Philosophy...Murder in the Vatican...June Carter Cash, RIP...
It's Not That Hard, Folks. A Mind That Suits has been reminded recently of that truly odd feature of American culture: our inability to function in other languages. As it happens, A Mind That Suits is perfectly content reading three foreign languages and one dead one, and has never shared in that aspect of American-ness. This is partly due to family influence, and partly due to natural inclination. But he knows that one can indeed learn another language, and most Americans find it beyond imagining.
The easiest explanation is probably the proper one: we are an isolated nation. We do not have to speak another language, and most other groups of people live too close to someone else to have that luxury. The Swiss are the obvious example: they have four languages. Apparently, it is quite common for each person to speak his own language in a meeting and get a response in another language. They understand each other, but cannot speak all four languages. Moroccans seem to function the same way: just to live, they have to speak, or at least understand, their own local Arabic, the classic Arabic of the Qur'an, and French. A Mind That Suits is surrounded by native Spanish speakers who fully understand what the Gringos are saying but cannot themselves speak English. (His own Spanish is close to the reverse of that.)
Learning another language is hard, no question. A Mind That Suits teaches English to foreigners, and they do not find it easy. Yet they persevere, and achieve some level of fluency. A Mind That Suits even taught himself Italian a few years ago, and is now quite comfortable communicating freely in that language. It helps that Italians are almost uniformly amazed that anyone has learned Italian. The French are not so forgiving.
(Americans were, of course, presented with a language problem with the recent huge Hispanic immigration. A Mind That Suits should note that he is convinced the moment when Spanish should have been the part of any young person's education may be passing: as always happens to immigrants to any country, the dominant culture is winning and the children of Latin American immigrants tend to speak English better than they speak Spanish. This is entirely natural, but those students should be encouraged to study their parents' beautiful language as a foreign language. How much better we would be at dealing with the world if our grandparents and great-grandparents had ensured that their own languages were preserved within their families.)
Americans have somehow turned isolation into an insurmountable psychological block. It's not just that they don't know any foreign languages, it is that they think it is an amazing thing that anyone speaks any other language. But it isn't. For many years, America was represented in many of the world's troublespots by a remarkable man named Vernon Walters. He had, as he himself once recounted to an annoying congressmen, left home at 13 because his family could not support him, learned 7 languages, and risen to be a general in "the mightiest army the world has ever known." His last government job was as US Ambassador to the UN. During his confirmation hearing, Sen. Joe Biden greeted him warmly, and frankly expressed his awe of the general's ability with languages. Gen.Walters responded, with typical self-deprecation, "In Europe, that could get you concierge in a hotel." He was right.
What makes this all so funny is that English is itself one of the hardest languages human beings have ever come up with. On the recognized scale of difficulty used by linguists, English is at the highest level. All languages pose their difficulties for foreigners, but we go over the top. We have a vocabulary that is twice the size of the next largest, difficult syntax, and a mind-numbingly complicated verb system. One word can function freely as a noun or a verb, which in most languages is an impossibility, and some can even be used as adjectives and adverbs as well. And we prize clarity above all else in writing, so there is precious little room for error.
Professors capitalize on their students' fear and awe of foreign languages, frankly, by lying, and saying that such-and-such a language "says it so much better." (They don't mean the original version of a great author; that is always true. They mean the other language is better, which is silly.) It makes the teachers feel superior, and prevents the kids from getting restless and asking questions. One wants to draw students into a feeling of joy and mystery as they learn, but there are better ways. As Americans really do stink at learning languages, it would probably be better if professors started by extolling the beauty and difficulty of English, so that the students are attracted to learning, and recognize the wealth in their own culture, as well.
But There Are Enemies of Learning Anything, Not Just Languages. The Journal recently ran an appreciation of Ray Bradbury, the fantasy writer best know for his one piece of science fiction, Fehrenheit 451. The name, of course, is the termperature at which paper burns, and it describes a society in which reading has been banned. He said he did not write it to predict the future, but to prevent it. He also feels he may have failed, pointing to the disaster of American education. One of the major issues that no one wishes to confront squarely is that the schools are dominated by people who think any kind of real learning is "irrelevant," leaving students trapped with an inability to function in the real world. And our universities are dominated by philosophies such as deconstructionism and phony multiculturalism, which reduce real cultural difference to trivia.
The French have been real pioneers in this kind of education, and it is worth looking at the consequences for French society. When Chirac first came to power, the French rioted--as they have recently--over Chirac's feeble attempts to lessen the cost of government. Fishermen in Northwestern France torched an ancient city hall, burning documents from as far back as 600 years ago. So much for the European reverence for history. About the same time, it was revealed, through comparative testing, that the bottom 40% of French society was the worst educated in the entire developed world, as opposed to their upper classes, which are the most educated. That was because the French upper classes want the French lower classes to be slaves.
Why People Find Reporters Annoying. In a worthwhile discussion of the Jayson Blair scandal at the New York Times, longtime WSJ Washington Bureau Chief Al Hunt recounts the story of how Woodward and Bernstein worked the Watergate story and "brilliantly turned this second-rate burglary into the story of the century." Story of the century? A Mind That Suits disagrees, rather strongly. Nearly all of the mass murder committed by the totalitarian socialist regimes of the 20th Century was conducted behind closed doors, and it took determined and brave reporters like Malcolm Muggeridge to reveal the horror of these crimes. Watergate isn't even on the charts.
How Not To Teach Kids About Life. An admiring story in the Post told of how such topical, therapeutic plays as Bang, Bang, You're Dead (about school violence) are crowding out such hardy perennials as Bye, Bye, Birdie and Arsenic and Old Lace in high school productions. The reaction of A Mind That Suits might be described as exasperated awe: he has seen it before, and yet he is still amazed at the imcomprehension of some "educators." If one assumes that all children are alike and are concerned about the same things, you relieve yourself of a huge part of your responsibilities, and you miss seeing the actual human beings you are teaching. In this instance, you are also ignoring a huge body of evidence from psychology that reinforces the common sense notion that the best way to get through some traumas is to focus beyond them.
"Beyond." That is the magic word. Teenagers need no one to encourage them to blow their problems out of proportion. Indeed, if you expose them to other times, other literature, if you give them the chance to play someone other than an American high schooler, you give them the opportunity to choose for themselves how they will get through these problems. You also draw them out of themselves. They will not remain 16-years-old forever,much as the more therapeutic kind of teacher wants them to. Educators must speak to the adult who is forming inside the child.
A Mind That Suits saw a production of Arsenic and Old Lace last year put on by the legendary drama program at DC's Gonzaga College High School. As the audience was filing in, the adults were reminiscing about the parts they had played when they were in High School. (A Mind That Suits himself played Dr. Einstein, apparently effecting a killer imitation of Peter Lorre, whom he had at that point never seen.) What struck A Mind That Suits this time was the incredible range of urban life and old-fashioned psychoses that were crammed into one of the funniest plots ever devised. The production was superb, and will no doubt be remembered as a highpoint by the kids involved. One doubts that Bang, Bang, You're Dead will provide such memories.
The one notable thing was that one of the minor characters, a police officer of limited intelligence, was played by a Southern boy, who looked exactly like the Southern kid who played the same character in the production where A Mind That Suits performed so admirably. Why do Northerners equate being Southern with stupidity?
Now I've Heard Everything. Well, actually, A Mind That Suits has had to think that a lot over the years, so maybe he hasn't heard everything. But he was forced to think it again in poking around a little further on the Swiss Guard, the subject of a recent papal ceremony. Conspiracy theories about a recent, very private Vatican tragedy are simply astounding.
Readers may remember that several years ago the Commander of the Guard and his wife were found shot to death in an apparent murder/suicide by a young Guardsman. It has been a long time since people were routinely offed in the Vatican, and that was when the Vatican thought of itself, or at least acted as if it thought of itself, primarily as a military power and conspired with the Ottoman Sultan against other Christian rulers. These days, it's pretty unusual.
Initial reports said that the young man (23 at the time) was upset over not receiving a promotion. "What promotion?" A Mind That Suits must ask, as there are only 6 officers over 100 very young privates, who almost invariably leave after two years. The Vatican spokesman announced that the young man had sent a letter to his parents which "explained" why he did it, but the family has not released the letter and murder still seems a rather extreme reaction to most anything the Swiss Guard encounters.
There is no real mystery: an autopsy revealed a cyst on his brain, and that is quite a sufficient explanation. It also explains why all three bodies lay in state together in the Vatican and the Pope himself prayed over them, something which probably could not have happened if it were simple suicide, a mortal sin in Catholic doctrine. Insanity is an exculpatory debility, according to the same Catholic teaching.
But simple explanations are not enough for many people, and two theories have cropped up. Both, of course, involve a second gunman, and one wonders how a bureaucracy that cannot even keep the Pope's medical records secret could hush this up, but anyway...
The first was predictable: a gay writer in Italy had, conveniently, just written a book which, he said, was based on extensive interviews with a gay couple within the Vatican. He announced that the Guard commander and the Guardsman were the two guys in the book. A Mind That Suits has seen enough of life to admit that it is entirely plausible, but the writer damages his case by advising us now to "look for a second gunman." Vatican murder to hush up a gay romance? They didn't shoot Rembert Weakland, the Archbishop who used diocesan funds as hush money for an ex-lover. They fired him, and Guardsmen are much easier to get rid of: they all have to re-up every two years. Perhaps he means it was a gay love triangle, with the third man committing three murders. That is also certainly possible, but one thinks of the Irish gay writer who claims that he was in a bathhouse when someone had a heart attack. A priest suddenly appeared in the mist to administer last rites and then slipped off before the cops and reporters could catch him there, or so the writer said. Entirely within the realm of possibility, but way too convenient.
The really wild rumor said the men died as a result of a power struggle between some Vatican faction and Opus Dei, the much maligned movement approved of by John Paul II. John Paul approves nearly all of the new popular movements for increased piety and good works, so not too much should be made of that. However, Opus Dei members do indeed sometimes present themselves as the shock troops and guardians of orthodoxy, and this has caused some problems. A Mind That Suits has an entirely admirable young friend who is in Opus Dei, so has long since come to the conclusion that the movement itself is pretty much what it portrays itself as being, a movement for personal piety and good works. News stories and some other personal encounters have also led him to believe that individual local Opus Dei groups have demonstrated the failings common to all groups, bringing unwarranted suspicion over everyone else.
So now we have this rumor that Opus Dei sought to take over the Vatican in part by...knocking off a pair of decorous young tour guides. Logically, this leaves us with two possibilities: either the conspiracy theorists are seriously disconnected from reality and Opus Dei is no threat, or we now know why Opus Dei has been so singularly unsuccessful in taking over the world. A Mind That Suits is inclined toward the former possibility.
We Lose A Great One, and The World is a Sadder Place.
This morning brings the sad news of the unexpected passing of June Carter Cash, wife, of course, to Johnny Cash, and the most talented heir to the Carter Family musical tradition.
When I say "unexpected," I mean before the announcements started coming last week about complications following heart surgery.They reassure you that heart surgery is now routine, but as Dana Carvey can tell you, this is not true.
I mean, before that, the family must have know she was ailing, and we did not. That seems only natural, because in person she was gracious and unassuming, despite having once been one of the most popular singers in the United States. More than that, her husband's famed addictions and consequent health problems have been, as is everything about him, much larger than life and drew attention away from her heart troubles. That was probably the way she wanted it.
She was certainly loyal to him, the Man in Black, and the ride cannot have been easy. She had her own career when they got married, but Johnny and June were a combination that Americans simply fell in love with. In the late 1960's, and in the early 1970's, there was no one bigger in country music. They once drew 200,000 people or more to a free concert at the end of an Evangelical youth gathering in 1972.
But if there was anyone with whom you had to take the rough with the smooth, it is certainly John R. Cash. His recurrent problems with addiction to various things, and an erratic musical output, led their career together to sink down until they were almost forgotten. It's not like she didn't know what she was getting: he had already been temporarily banned from the Grand Ol' Opry for kicking out the stage lights at the Ryman Auditorium. Indeed, she wrote the lines, "I fell into a Burning Ring of Fire. I went down, down, down, and the flames went higher," exactly about falling in love with him, five years before they married. But she proved more than equal to the task. He wrote the line, "You make it very, very easy to be true...Because your mine, I walk the line" before they met, but he told her he knew they would marry the first time he saw her on-stage. He credits her determination with saving him from his ampthetimine addiction.
Their talent took them to the very top, but they didn't stay there. That's typical of musical stars, but in this case it was a great loss for us. Country music probably would not have zigged and zagged so close to irrelevance over the last 25 years if Johnny and June had been the anchor on the traditional end of things.
She was quite accepting and clear-headed about the reality of life. You can say, "She had to be," but most of us are not, and she was. The first time I saw them together live, in the early 1990's, they were at the bottom of their popularity. In truth, they were playing what was little more than a glorified corner bar. June joked that someone had run into her on the street and called her "Loretta." She corrected the lady, "No, I'm June Cash. I used to be famous, I used to be somebody."
"Used to be." Right then, that was true, in the sense she meant, but, oh, was that a wonderful show.
Not all of it, to be honest. It took Johnny a while to join the rest of us. He didn't look out of it, just not that interested, and neither did the band. June had this "squaw dance" thing she would do, bending over and pulling up one leg when she was about to let loose, and by the time I saw her do it live, she had put on a few pounds. For about half a second, I thought, "oh-oh," but then she delivered that first snarl and I thought, "This is what I came for."
In this, she was like her mother, the great Mother Maybelle Carter. Maybelle played a decisive role in creating the Carter sound in the late 1920's and early 1930's, through her guitar work. She invented something called the "Carter Family Scratch." You'd recognize it if your heard it, and you've heard it in a lot of country songs. When she got too old to play the guitar, she switched to the auto-harp, the last person, perhaps, to be famous for playing it. And then one night she made one mistake during a song on her son-in-law's TV show, and she retired. Carters do not make mistakes on stage.
At this concert, Johnny woke up in time for the small set they did together. "Jackson," "If I Were A Carpenter," a handful of others. That was when she joked about having been famous, and about how age had brought on "'fluid build-up.'That's what the old folks back home called it." (That's an old euphemism for extra poundage.) And together they joked about their daughters' famous marital problems. ("We've got six daughters and 14 ex-sons-in-law," or something like that.) I have rarely seen an older couple look so completely at ease with each other.
The Carter Family was famous for their religious music as much as anything else, but June never hid the fact that their private lives were a little out there, just like Johnny's. Her mother's cousin Sarah divorced husband A.P. in the late 1930's or early '40's, though they and Maybelle would sporadically go out on tour after that. They never really caught on again until the folk revival, when they found a career playing college campuses and folk festivals in the 1950's.
But they didn't really get along all that well. No, sir, they didn't get on that well at all. And the tension seems to have affected their children. Certainly, publicly, the two branches of the First Family of Country Music have stayed far apart. In fact, June and her cousin Janette did not perform together until just last year, on Kindred Spirits,the wonderful tribute to Johnny organized by one of those ex-sons-in-law, Marty Stuart. (Give it a listen at the website, or, better yet, buy it.)
June and her sisters did perform together, with Mother Maybelle beginning in 1942, and later also as a separate group, the Carter Sisters. Their own stuff in the 1960's bowed toward the modern, "country-politan" sound which has plagued Nashville since the late 1950's, but with their mother it was stictly the old stuff. At the show I saw, the Carter Sisters were reunited, and they did what they did best, the old stuff.
They also still obviously didn't get along that well. Helen, a spare, upright woman, seemed like a nervous type who was very concerned about the Carter family legacy. In fact, she had a second career giving lectures on college campuses. The results of Anita's fondness for love, fried foods, and other delectables was on, shall we say, ample display, and she had an air of not caring what anyone thought. Gentle, tough June was clearly the glue. Helen, for her part, was a master of the Carter Family Scratch and Anita was quite a singer, and the songs that they had learned literally at their mother's knee never sounded so achingly beautiful. Helen passed away in 1998, Anita in 1999, and now June is gone.
Shortly after that show, of course, many of the most influential members of rock's pantheon, including U2 and Rick Rubin, gave Johnny a leg up, and he went from barely remembered cult figure to dominance once again in a few short years. The voice is failing, but he has done much of his best work in the last decade, culminating in a chilling cover of the Nine Inch Nails' "Hurt," about regrets. The video is a masterpiece, and it features June, who saw him through all his regrets.
She also lived to see him named the "Greatest Man in Country Music" by Country Music Television. That was a few months ago.
We have all marveled at his endurance and his new triumphs, given his health problems. We didn't know about hers.
Johnny's resurgence did bring her back to the limelight, and to the love of the public. She even won a Grammy for her own Rick Rubin-sponsored album, Press On. And it has a song called, "I Used To Be Somebody."
I saw them together three times, and, honestly, June was the better performer at the end of their careers. Johnny has that mythic something, true enough, but June was better overall. After that first show, I could hardly wait to see her. My enthusiasm led, as enthusiasm can, to one mortifying moment. At the Warner Theatre in Washington, she did a brief set, and then she announced that she was leaving after one more song. I clapped, but was too shy to shout "Stay, June," which is what I meant. She hesitated, because it clearly came across that someone was wanted her to go. I was crushed. She was a trooper. There's no question she heard me, but the last song she did was great. I shouted "June, June," as loudly as I could when she left, and when she came back for the end of the show, and so did everyone else. Maybe she got the impression that one person's rudeness had inspired everyone else to show their affection, maybe I inspired her to prove her lone critic wrong by wowing them with the last song, but I felt terrible.
I always meant to write her a note explaining it, but I am truly irresponsible in that way. Another opportunity came my way, and I laid a plan to make amends. I was front and center at DC's legendary 9:30 Club, in its new, less grungy home. I knew that Johnny always gives out harmonicas after singing the "Rock Island Line," and I intended to get one. I got two, because this drunk guy spent the first half of the concert trying to climb over me to get to Johnny, and Johnny took pity on me and gave me both of the ones he uses. (I gave one to my friend behind me, who had been slapped in the face by the drunk guy's long, dirty hair.)
The other moment I had been waiting for came during June's solo set, when she bent over to pick up some flowers someone had laid there. I said, just loud enough for her to hear, "Love you, June. You're the best." I don't know if she actually blushed, but she glanced down, smiled sweetly, and said, "Thank you." A healing word, but oh, how I wish I had sent that note.
The news this morning reminded me that an old acquaintance has just been diagnosed with cancer so advanced that little can be done. She had watched her health and gone in for regular check ups, but this grew fast. We have had our disagreements, in which I have almost always felt wronged, but I have to get her a note in the next week.
I am sure that dear June had worse things happen to her in her professional career, and I am sure that I have wronged other people more seriously and let them pass away without reconciling to them. But it is such a waste to leave things lying like that. Make peace with others while you can, because life is too short.
There is another moment I remember from that last concert at the 9:30 Club. She said she wanted to close with her favorite of their songs together. She and Johnny held hands as they sang about what would happen if one of them went first. "I'll meet you on the far banks of the Jordan. I'll be sitting drawing pictures in the sand." The end of the chorus escaped me until Kathy Cash ended her post to the on-line fan forum: "And when I see you coming, I will rise up with a shout, and come running through the shallow waters...reaching for your hand."
June Carter Cash--Valerie June Carter Cash, as Johnny's website reminds us this morning--lived a very long life, and left us a wonderful legacy of music. She was a loving, gracious person, and I got to sit about 10 feet from the Carter Sisters on their last tour, and I got to tell June I loved her, and how sad the world seems this rainy morning.
::: posted by A Mind That Suits at 4:53 PM