Archive for May, 2012

Talking like a real human

May 29th, 2012

This guy has my vote.  He so totally gets it.  Try to imagine Mitt Romney, or for that matter ANY national Republican, speaking with this degree of humanity, honesty, openness, compassion, understanding, and wisdom.

Gaudeamus Igitur, Baby

May 23rd, 2012

This past weekend I enjoyed the spectacle and ritual of a friend’s graduation from a doctorate program – her “hooding,” as they call it.  Instead of the usual recorded “Pomp and Circumstance” blared through an overtaxed PA system, a live bagpipe trio led the processional, which made it far more invigorating.  The pipers were dressed in red regalia and marched at the head of the faculty, whose gowns were accented with the cheery colors of a tulip garden.  All those colorful medieval-style robes!  Each of the newly minted doctors of philosophy and education wore three velvet stripes on the sleeves of her gown to distinguish her from the lesser scholars and, crossing the stage to receive her diploma, knelt before a functionary who draped around her neck a bright and decorative hood, kind of like a baby sling worn backwards.

The speeches were mercifully short.  Two stand out in my memory.  The first was an invocation, of sorts, by an elderly mathematician who, perhaps motivated by determination to dispel the common notion of his discipline as dry and inhuman, spoke in a pastiche of the flowery diction associated with nineteeenth century translations of troubadour poetry.  He began with math-based metaphors and proceeded from there to ransack the catalogue of commencement cliches.  Young lives blossomed.  Talents burgeoned.  Inspiration took wing.  The high point for me was one sentence which contained the words “verily,” “perchance,” and “pixels.”  It might be thought that I am mocking him.  Not a bit.  His speech was utterly appropriate to the occasion, a quasi-liturgical invocation of the ancient and enduring themes of this rite of passage, and despite whatever lack of literary merit those of us in the audience who care about such things might have detected, the tone he struck, the solemnly joyful mashup of archaic and modern, though bizarre, could not have been more apt.  Okay, I’ll admit that it did bug me later when a friend praised this speech for its “poetic” quality.  I am that much of a prig and snob, and I am personally wounded by our culture’s universal incomprehension of my chosen art form.  But upon reflection I have to admit that she was right, if by “poetic” you mean the use of metaphor to depict the heart’s reality.  At this time, in this place, he nailed it.

The featured commencement speaker was former Vermont Governor, former Ambassador to Switzerland, former Deputy Secretary of Education – my, how the titles roll on! Flower of Umbria, Imperator of the Three Realms, Defender of the Faith, Thane of Cawdor, Votary and Adept of the Sacred Three-Fold Divagation – and Fightin’ Liberal Madeleine Kunin.  She, too, struck time-honored themes, principally “make the world a better place,” but in words that seemed prosy and pallid compared to the mathematician’s linguistic abandon.  Still, urging students to engage in political activism, she contributed an epigram that I will remember a long time.    Perhaps it gained impact because it came from this elegant, rather patrician, and highly artful wielder of power, who has sat at the highest tables:

If you’re not at the table
you’re on the menu.

Charles Cheeryble Speaks

May 13th, 2012

“Parents who never showed their love, complain of want of natural affection in their children – children who never showed their duty, complain of want of natural feeling in their parents – law-makers who find both so miserable that their affections have never had enough of life’s sun to develop them, are loud in their moralizings over parents and children too, and cry that the very ties of nature are disregarded.  Natural affections and instincts, my dear sir, are the most beautiful of the Almighty’s works, but like other beautiful works of His, they must be reared and fostered, or it is as natural that they should be wholly obscured, and that new feelings should usurp their place, as it is that the sweetest productions of the earth, left untended, should be choked with weeds and briars.  I wish we could be brought to consider this, and remembering natural obligations a little more at the right time, talk about them a little less at the wrong time.”

– Charles Cheeryble, speaking on behalf of Charles Dickens, in Nicholas Nickleby

Arraignment Day

May 5th, 2012

See him slouch
by the rail, there,
the Assistant State’s Attorney,
head like a doughy balloon

loosely tethered
by his tie of bright autumn leaves.
Facing us,
he leans against the rail,

arms braced behind him
as if to keep from toppling
into that void
where later the judge will float

above the court officers;
he describes the process
to us in our motley
as if we should be bored,

rushing through it,
avoiding eye contact,
almost visibly fearful.
I, his colleague,

later will be admonished
not to sully the dignity
of the State we represent
by standing among the summonsed

and the cheap suits
assigned to defend them.
I wait to walk beyond the rail
to the accuser’s desk

until she whom I accuse is called,
then silently attend the litany
of accusation and plea,
of “waiver” of “the rules,”

until it is my moment
to demand “the usual conditions”
for her freedom (her lawyer
explains them) and then add “and

a witness having been threatened”
(suddenly only air-conditioning
hums in the room) “special condition 14”
(the judge explains it.)