Mercy

Yes, I was feeling cranky about Facebook the other day.  I’m not taking anything back, but of course it’s not the whole story.  The other night I had a brief exchange with the guy who sold me the Takamine that I’ve travelled around the world with.  It was 25 years ago and I haven’t seen him or talked with him since, but FB let's me see some of what he's up to.  I was gratified to be able to tell him a bit of what that guitar's meant to me.  No doubt social media brings out the worst in people, but then it enables moments like that.  What a gift!  It’s what Zuck imagined it could be.

Lynn’s not on Facebook.  Marian and I try to remember to let her know when we see something from a friend or a family member that we think she ought to know.  Or something cute or funny we think she’d get a kick out of.

It’s those connections, those cute and funny moments that are helpful now.  But you have to choose to lean into them, rather than going the other way.

Everybody’s on edge.  Hair triggers.  I had a colleague once who was very good at many things, and because of that, she was very impatient with people.  They rarely measured up to her standards.  And when something went wrong, the main thing she wanted to know was who to blame.  Who was the deserving target of her anger. 

A lot of the internet is like that now.  But I’m trying to stay away  from the anger button.  I don’t think it’s good for me. 

I’m not saying there’s not plenty to be angry about.  The President let the country down badly.  If you’re just now tuning in, maybe you can accept that “nobody could have imagined this.”  But that’s if you don’t know that his administration was running simulations through most of 2019 imagining exactly this.  We could go on.

Raging at him and his supporters on Facebook isn’t going to help me get through it, though.  Maybe that’s just me.  I don’t know what kinds of catharsis other people need. 

I bought a t-shirt from Mary Gauthier.  It says “Mercy Now”, the title of one of her greatest songs.

The song ends this way:

Yeah, we all could use a little mercy now

I know we don't deserve it but we need it anyhow

We hang in the balance dangle 'tween hell and hallowed ground

And every single one of us could use some mercy now

Every single one of us could use some mercy now

Every single one of us could use some mercy now

I’m trying to keep my hand away from the anger button.  Mercy, now.


Sing

I’d just been playing Angel From Montgomery on guitar when I got the news that John Prine was in critical condition with Covid-19.  Thankfully, the news is a little better now.  The most recent word from his wife is that he’s stable.  This is good. The world needs more John Prine songs.  Wouldn’t you love to hear his funny but deeply moving version of coronavirus blues?  I can’t wait.

It’s no coincidence that I was playing that song at that time.  It’s one of the about five songs I can make my way through these days so whenever I pick up the guitar for a music therapy session (which I try to do several times a week), I give it a try.  Still having trouble with the F chord, but the rest doesn’t come out too badly.

Just like everybody else who’s picked up an acoustic guitar in the last fifty years, I’ve been playing it for just about my entire musical life.  You don’t ask a guitar player if they know it.  Of course they know it.  At every Bearded Pigs gig it was the song we started the first set with.  When Ranger Dave and I played at the Venice Café as The Prairie Dogs it was a highlight, and I loved listening to his elegant lead lines during the instrumental break, particularly when we went into the chorus (the way he handled that F chord).  I was at a remote mountain resort in Korea, leading a workshop for a bunch of bright young librarians, Banquet 001and somebody found a guitar so I could play after dinner one night.  I did three songs and of course that was one of them.  I told the story of it first, so that my translator could relay it in Korean before I played, but I’m sure that many of them already knew it, too.

People have been posting their own versions of it lately, even before we heard he was sick.  TomCat put one up on Facebook a couple of days before.  I played along on harmonica while I watched and listened.  (He put up a nice rendition of Paradise as well).  Now, of course, there’s been a flood of them.  What can musicians do in hard times, but play and sing? 

Social distancing is tough on performing artists.  And while I’m not a sports fan I’ll say I was completely sympathetic to LeBron saying that he wasn’t going to play if the league was going to try to continue the season in empty arenas.  Asinine idea.  The fans are where the power comes from.

So musicians and actors and dancers, professional and amateur, are posting themselves from home.  Paul Simon put up an achingly beautiful American Tune.  I saw that he’s now put up The Boxer but I haven’t had the courage to watch it yet.  I’ll cry.*  Dolly Parton is reading bedtime stories for children.  Trent Reznor just released two Nine Inch Nails albums for free download.  Families who are quarantined together are posting amateur theatricals.  Museums are mounting online exhibits, with narrated walk-throughs of the blockbuster shows they’ve spent years curating, that now hang in empty halls.  The late night comics are doing their shows from home.  There’s I So Lounging w/ Amanda Shires every afternoon at 5. 

The internet is stressed.  I see reports from people using Zoom for conferencing that sometimes it’s flaking out on them.  I’m getting occasional DNS errors, but nothing too disruptive.  For a long time now it’s been hard to imagine what our daily lives would be like without that technology.  I try, occasionally, to tell Josie what it was like and she can’t wrap her 15 year old mind around it.  Now we’re seeing what a lifeline it truly is.

I see there’s a petition asking the networks to quit broadcasting the daily coronavirus briefings.  Too little new and useful information and too much misinformation that then needs to walked back.  I’m thinking, “But nobody is required to watch.”  Spend too much time with coronavirus news and you’ll ratchet your anxiety up to unhealthy levels. 

Dylan’s utterly astonishing Murder Most Foul tells us that music is the essential balm the nation needs in desperate times.  Now is when we need the arts more than ever.  See what your favorites are doing.  Find some news ones.  If you can spare it, send a contribution.  Buy a tour shirt for the tour that got cancelled.  And join in.  Paint a picture and put it up.  Write a short story.  Sing.

 

(*Just watched it now as I was getting ready to post this.  Yep.  I cried.  It was good.)


For the sake of argument

There was an argument about keeping libraries open.  Kids who didn’t have computers at home could do their schoolwork.  People could use the computers to look for jobs or apply for unemployment.  This led to arguments about putting library workers at risk.  And whether you could apply for unemployment or do your schoolwork on a cell phone.  Which led to arguments about whether everybody has a cell phone. Or almost everybody.  But was it a smart phone?  And what about wi-fi?  And haven’t you heard about the digital divide?  And then it got insulting.  As it does.  Pretty soon people are throwing things.

This was all on Facebook, of course.  I’m trying to include Facebook in my social distancing regime – no more than six minutes, once or twice a day. But it’s tough.  It’s like the comment threads in the New York Times.  I tell myself not to look, but then I can’t help it.  Predictable and unilluminating, but so unsatisfyingly addictive.  ("If only Bernie..." "How could anybody have voted for..." "You libtards will never learn..."  "Just wait until November..." "No open borders..." "But... her emails!")  For years we’ve been using “virus” to describe how things move through the internet.  Now we discover how apt the metaphor is.  Insidious infection of the mind.  Symptoms include: Inventing spurious arguments to fling balefully at people we’ve never met, but who have opinions that are different from our own.  Imagining monsters because of one thoughtless remark, weapons at the ready.  Squabbling over who owes what to whom, which of us are the righteous and who are despicable.

I put the phone down and pick up the book I’ve been trying to read.  Don Quixote.  I left off just as the beautiful Dorotea is telling her #metoo story.  Distrustful at first of Don Fernando’s passionate promises of marriage and everlasting bliss, she argues with herself, finally persuades herself that he’s telling the truth and it’ll be a match she never would have imagined possible.  She gives herself to him.  Next thing you know, having satisfied his passion, he’s gone off to marry Lucinda, who then threatens to kill herself at the altar because she’s still in love with Cardenio.  Cardenio, not realizing her devotion, thinks he’s been betrayed and has been wailing out his misfortunes and misery.  Then, at the urging of the priest and the barber (hang in there with me), Dorotea pretends to be the Princess Micomiconia in order to trick Quixote into going back home, once he’s eviscerated the wineskin that he believes is the giant who’s been threatening her.  Wine all over the floor, Don Quixote triumphant.

I haven’t read Quixote since college.  The only reason I picked it up a week or so ago is that I'd been writing about some of the books that have been totems for me.  I mean the actual individual physical volumes that have come my way through the years, that have meaning for me as the objects they are as much as for the words they contain.  This one is a 1947 edition that I found in a used bookstore in Milwaukee many years ago.  Illustrated by Salvador Dali.  I even remembered where it was among the greatly disordered bookshelves that line half the walls of our house.  Browsed the marvelous drawings and colored plates and decided to give it a read.

I’ve been spending an hour or two a day with it (when I can pull myself from the screens).  It’s so weirdly contemporary.  I can’t decide if I’m encouraged by that (civilization has survived the loss of its illusions before) or just depressed (have we learned nothing in 400 years?). 

It’s not all that different from Facebook.  The tilting at windmills.  Fantasizing wineskins into lascivious giants.  Alternate facts.  Characters trapped in their delusions.  And then getting into fights that resolve nothing and leave the protagonists with aching heads.  Whose truth will prevail?  Is that a princess or a peasant?  A warrior or a fool?  At least there’s not a comment thread.

 


As things shift

As retired introverts, Lynn and I have made a lifestyle out of social distancing.  So our days' routines haven't changed much.  Even though we're both in the house, we're scarcely within six feet of each other until suppertime anyway.  I'm mostly in my study.  I go down to fix my lunch about the time she takes Jemma for a walk.  By the time she fixes something for herself, I'm heading back upstairs.  We've been doing this for years.  Only come evening, after whichever of us has made dinner, do we sit within reach of each other and have our first long conversations of the day.  That much feels normal.

But there are fewer reasons to leave the house now.  No physical therapy appointments, no trips to the pool.  No book club for Lynn.  My follow-up visit from cataract surgery was considered essential so I went for that, having my temperature taken by the masked people at the door to the clinic, filling out the form that testified that I didn't have a sore throat or a bad cough and hadn't been hanging out with anybody who'd been exposed.  As far as I know.

Afterwards, I stopped at the grocery store, where one of the staff was wiping down the handles of the shopping carts before every use.  The place was busy, but not crowded.  There were some stretches of empty shelves -- bread, frozen entrées, jars of pasta sauce.  A trio of middle-aged women were partially blocking the end of one aisle, chattering away.  Miss Manners suggests that one might say, in a commiserating tone, "It is hard to stay six feet apart, isn't it?"  The staff are as friendly and helpful as ever, looking only slightly haunted.

What I’m missing most are the weekly family dinners with Marian and Josie.  They'd just come back from a big Cheer competition two weeks ago, when all of the seriousness hit Alabama.   We thought it best to limit contact for a bit.  We're all still symptom free, though, so maybe we can have them over some time soon.

Since we're not doing our usual weekly restaurant trip, I had dinner delivered to them a few nights ago and did the same for us last night.  I've been tipping about 40%.  I worry about the people in the restaurant and bar business.  The margins are so small, the savings non-existent.  Our favorite pub decided not to do curbside, so I bought a bunch of gift certificates, hoping it'll help them bridge to re-opening.  Amanda Shires is doing a daily live show from the barn she shares with Jason Isbell.   She uses the occasion to raise money for MusiCares, so I made a contribution there.  I'm trying to donate a little something somewhere every couple of days.  The need is overwhelming.

Grocery clerks are now considered essential. It took this for us to realize that? Does this mean we're going to restructure the economy so that they get a living wage?  Sick leave?  Health benefits?  I'm not optimistic. 

Solnit has an essay in the NYT asking what kind of country we’ll make as we work our way out of this.  She writes about past crises and the changes they wrought.  Will we become more authoritarian or more humane?   There are strong impulses pulling in each direction.  Do we go with fear or compassion?


Grover's Basement

“I’ve got some guitar players coming over tomorrow afternoon.  I’d love it if you could join us,” said the message from Grover.  I thought, “I used to be a guitar player.”  I breathed dread, but I’d disappoint myself if I didn’t go.

I left my walker in the upper hall.  Held on to the rail, steadied myself with Bobk, the Ukrainian cane, gingerly made my way to the basement.  Buzz was working out the chords to a Django Reinhardt tune.  Jazz manouche.  Swing.  Joe was playing clean melody lines over the rhythm that Buzz set up.  They paused while Grover introduced us.  “Scott’s a guitar player -- although I don’t know if you still play much…”. “Just a bit,” I said.  I had a couple of Josie picks in my pocket.  “But I brought some harmonicas.”  I gave the thirty second explanation of how the short circuit in my spinal cord had messed up my hands.  They’d just seen what it’s done to my legs.

I sat across from Buzz.  Watched, listened.  Grover’d moved in four houses down when he married the widow Doreen.  I’d met him a year before, at the wedding reception.  We’d talked briefly about guitars and maybe getting together sometime, but it hadn’t happened.  Then, a couple of weeks earlier, Doreen invited us to go see him play at Joe’s Pizza.   He did some James Taylor, a Billy Joel song.  Some Jim Croce.  Hank Williams with a few jazzy flourishes.  Other than The Weight  and one or two others, they weren’t songs that I’d played, but they might’ve been.  Lynn said that his setlist intersected ours.  He sang in a smooth, comfortable tenor.  I went to his basement expecting more like that.  Songs I was familiar with.  Guitar players who did the kind of stuff I knew.  It wasn’t like that.

Grover picked another tune from Buzz’s fat book of jazz guitar.  They worked out more chords.  Lots of chords.  Chords with 9ths and 13ths and flatted 5ths.  Diminished and augmented chords.  Chords I knew about, but had never attempted to play.  My genres were “three chords and the truth.”  I was decent at fingerpicking, but I’d never improvised lead or played the jazzy tunes where each beat takes a different chord.  They were comparing different fingerings and moving rapidly up and down the necks of their guitars.  I could follow what they were talking about, but I had nothing to contribute.

We were going around the circle and it was my turn to call the next tune.  I said I’d pass for a bit and listen.  I liked what they were doing, but I couldn’t see a place for me in it.  I wondered how long I should stay before making a graceful exit.  But when it came back round to Grover he picked It’s A Wonderful World.  That was familiar so I tried singing it.  The key fit. “Can we run through that one again?”  I sang stronger, starting to feel a little confidence.  Buzz went into Ain’t Misbehavin',  and I picked up a harmonica and found some space for it.  Nothing fancy, but it worked.  When we were done, the others grinned and nodded encouragingly.

When the turn came back to me, Grover asked if I was ready to pick one.  “Okay, but I’ll have to go in a different direction.  More along the lines of what you were doing at the pizza joint.”  “Sixties and seventies?” Grover asked.  “Sure.  Let’s try something simple.  Neil Young’s Helpless?”  Grover nodded and explained to Buzz who Neil Young was.  Buzz is 87.  I picked the tempo.  Joe played lead.  Buzz found some fancy chord variations.  I sang, played some harmonica.

Joe did a jazzy instrumental version of a Beatles tune.  Buzz went back to Django and I fit a bit more harmonica.  We did some Billie Holliday.  Grover backed me while I sang Angel From Montgomery and my slow, dark version of All Along The Watchtower.  He noticed that I’d rewritten some of the lines.  I shrugged.  “Dylan changes it every time he sings it.  I just made some updates.”

Here’s the thing.  Even at my best as a guitar player, I’d never have been able to keep up with them.  I’d’ve gone over, seen what they were doing, been completely intimidated, never even taken my guitar out of the case, never gone back, and felt miserable about the whole thing.  But Boutch had given me his harmonica and said, “You may not be able to play guitar again, but don’t ever stop playing music.”  Josie had given me the guitar picks with her picture on 'em to push me to keep struggling with the Telecaster.  So up in my study I strum rough chords and sing, finding ways to compensate for my weakened diaphragm.  I record those rough chords into GarageBand and play harmonica.  Boutch died, so I’m obligated.  The Josie picks obligate me, too.

We tried more songs I didn’t know, or barely knew, and finding harmonica lines was exhilarating.  I was way outside my comfort zone and it was good.

Django Reinhardt Django had only two good fingers on his left hand, the others badly damaged in a fire when he was eighteen.  So he invented a new way of playing jazz guitar that has influenced every player since.  When 493px-Pierre-Auguste_Renoir_036Renoir’s hands became so arthritic that he couldn’t hold his brushes, his assistants tied them on and he created the late, burnished paintings, full of joy and grace and light.  When Wilma Rudolph was five and stricken with polio, the doctors said she probably wouldn’t ever walk without the leg brace.  Her mother said she would.  Rudolph said, “I chose to believe my mother Rudolph,” and won three Olympic gold medals in track at the age of twenty.

I’m not quite willing to say that my sense of gratitude extends to the fact of my transverse myelitis.  And yet.  And yet.  Without it, I would’ve left Grover’s basement feeling intimidated and embarrassed and I wouldn’t have gone back.  This is better.

Django played.  Renoir painted.  Wilma Rudolph ran.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 


The Virtues of a Tiny Desk

(A version of this piece appeared a few days ago in the email newsletter Mad About Music.  The editor rearranged the order of paragraphs, so I'm posting it here in the way it was intended.)

The intimacy of NPR’s Tiny Desk pressures the musicians in a way that can be revelatory.  Lyle Lovett is endearingly nervous and twitchy as he cracks jokes and tries to deflect your attention to Luke Bulla, the young fiddle player he’s brought with him.  Dolores O’Riordan is joyful, singing with abandon as if she’s on an arena stage in front of thousands or maybe just at home, twirling in her living room.  When someone off camera asks for “Zombie” she’s happy to comply, but only if they can bring her a guitar so she can play the signature lick.  The rest of the Cranberries are somber and brilliant, eyes never leaving their live wire.  

Josh Ritter’s eyes are shut tight as he sings the passion, frustration and fear of lost hope he feels for his country.  “Was it all just a dream?”  Jason Isbell plays biting lead guitar on one side of him as Amanda Shires fiddles angrily on the other.  Amanda wears a t-shirt with a Leonard Cohen line: “Dance me to the end of love.”

Who the musicians bring with them colors the story.  John Prine’s full band never quite gets liftoff,  too uncomfortably cramped in the small space.  Annie Clark, on the other hand, confounds expectations, appearing with just an acoustic guitar.  She’s St. Vincent as urban cool in a red beret, houndstooth suit, and big dark glasses.  With an Elvis twist to her lip she reveals the ache in “New York” in a version just as complete as the radically produced album original.  It shines. She knows exactly how to fit her art into that room.

The story goes that Bob Boilen, NPR’s musical guru, went to a club with a friend one night and was annoyed that they couldn’t hear the singer over the crowd. So they invited her to come to the studio and play at Bob’s desk.   Over the past eleven years, he and his team have recorded hundreds of these little miracles.  Three or four songs each, fifteen minutes to half an hour.  Tower of Power, Erykah Badu, Mac Miller, Wu-Tang Clan, Ravi Coltrane.  Taylor Swift, Robert Glasper, Thundercat, Yo-Yo Ma, Rhiannon Giddens.  Boilen’s desk may be tiny, but he has very big ears.

 

 


Thoughts and Prayers

Apparently the New York Times was relying on interns to handle headline writing duties over the Labor Day weekend.  Surely only an over-enthusiastic youngster fresh out of journalism school could have written, with a straight face, "Texas Shooting Brings New Urgency to Gun Debate in Congress."  

But no, I shouldn't poke fun at the hapless headline wrangler.  The writer of the piece has been at the NYT for 20 years, on a variety of beats, now covering Congress.  In her first paragraph she says the latest spree (latest as of last Sunday; there may be another by the time I get this posted) "has intensified pressure on congressional Republicans ... giving fresh urgency to [the] debate..."  Really?  You'd think she'd know better.

By mid-week it was clear that the Republicans were barricading themselves behind the mental health misdirection and the only urgency the President was feeling was to convince people that Alabama was too in the path of the hurricane.  Just look at this official map I have right here...

That left it to the CEO of Walmart to take a few tentative steps towards possibly reducing the odds of future massacres on his turf.  I particularly like the part about, "Would you please not be waving your gun around while you're shopping in our stores?  It makes the other customers nervous."  It's hard to tell the good guy with the gun from the bad guy with the gun until the shooting starts.

As a country, we decided after Sandy Hook that between the consequences of doing something substantive and the consequences of doing nothing, the murder of twenty children was the more bearable.  If the latest deaths are creating any urgency among the majority of Congresspeople it's for how quickly they can get the issue to recede once again.

Beto O'Rourke has been refreshingly forthright about what needs to be done -- when a reporter asked how he would address fears about the government banning and confiscating assault weapons he said, "I want to be very clear, that that's exactly what we're going to do."  But this is an America that considers the murder of children by assault weapon to be an acceptable price for...  for what, exactly?

That's what's hard for me to figure out.  What is being protected by squelching any moves towards background checks or bans on particularly brutal weapons?  What is so sacred here that we just have to put up with all these murders?  It can't just be "protecting the 2nd amendment."  Even the Supreme Court decision upholding the individual right to a handgun admits that gun ownership can be regulated.  And even the most conservative of legislators will opine that they could support reasonable and sensible regulations.  It's just every actual draft of proposed legislation that they feel compelled to oppose.  Something more visceral and alogical is at work here.

In These Truths Jill Lepore makes the brilliant point that gun control and abortion have become the signature issues of our time.  One of them represents freedom and one of them represents murder.  Which is which depends on which end of the political spectrum you occupy.

Sure, the NRA money neatly massages the cravenness and personal ambition of politicians.  But the emotional uproar around the issue is much bigger than that.  Maybe Congressman Crenshaw is being cynical and disingenuous when he says he's opposed to universal background checks because they would prevent him from lending his handgun to a friend who wanted to borrow it for protection while traveling.  But for plenty of his constituents he's speaking their truth.

"Fresh urgency?"  Hardly.  A mere seven more Texas funerals isn't going to change a thing.

 


There Is Only This Life

My Dad rejected the notion that he was “battling” cancer.  He was pragmatic.  If it was a fight, it wasn’t one he could win.  But he wouldn’t let himself be beat, either.  I asked my Mom once, during that last year, after the doctor told us the surgery hadn’t been successful, how they managed.  She said, “We figured out there’s only now and not now.  If now is being a good day, we don’t think about not now.”

Seems that once a week or so, someone will post in the Facebook/Transverse Myelitis group, “I miss my old life.”  “Every day,” someone agrees.  “This isn’t the life I envisioned for myself,” someone else chimes in.  No, I suppose not.

I’m sympathetic to a point.  I get the sense of loss.  The things that I loved most to do with my body I can’t do anymore.  Getting my body to do those things it still can is a painful struggle, filled with frustrations, every day.

But my “old life” had struggles, too.  And which “old life” am I supposed to be mourning?  Sixteen year old me spending the summer in my small town with my bare feet and my long hair and my cigarettes and marijuana and guitar playing in the park and girls as curious and frightened and hungry about sex as I was?  That was a wonderful old life.  But I properly grew past it and while I cherish the memories of it (and the luck that helped me survive it), I don’t miss it.  Or was it the life I lived in DC, learning my trade, hanging out with the artists, being in love with my wife, exploring the museums, writing a poem each morning before putting on a jacket and tie and taking the bus to work?  That was a great life, too.  Left it behind decades ago.  Surely it’s not the life when that marriage crumbled and what I thought was secure turned out to be illusion and I had to confront my own hubris and arrogance and blindness in excruciating detail.  I’m a better man for having made my way through, but please don’t make me live that old life again!

When you were envisioning the life that you’re not living after all, did it include the depredations of age?  The untimely deaths of friends or family?  The inevitable disappointments that nestle themselves snugly alongside the joys and victories of even a successful career or a job you did well and loved?  Or did you think your destiny was to be free of tragedy and sorrow?

Or do you just mean the “old life” you had on the day before the short circuit in your spinal cord rattled and rearranged your life plans, as if you could’ve continued living the life of that day for decades to come, as if the daily movement that makes each past day an unrecoverable old life had magically come to a halt?

There is no “old life.”  There is only this life.  Maybe I just never envisioned that it could be this good. When I was a boy the future terrified me.  Maybe it’s the power of low expectations that makes my daily pleasures feel so undeservedly rich.  If you’re taking time every day to miss your old life might you also be missing what’s glorious in the only one you’ve actually got?

I know it’s not fair of me to question what it takes for anyone to make their way through the world.  People use the FB posts to vent and get emotional support.  We each have our own cross to bear, or so I’ve been told.  The cross that Jesus bore up Calvary carried the weight of all the sins of the world.  He was God and still it nearly broke him.  Eloi Eloi lama sabachthani.  We puny mortals have only our own sins to carry and that’s still too much for many.  Anyone who manages to walk their path carrying their sins and not doing too much damage to the people around them deserves admiration and applause, no matter what they might’ve leaned on for help.

I’m not a Christian, although I was raised Catholic.  By the time I reached my early teens I’d judged the God of Christianity too limited for my allegiance.  I never found faith, although I like the idea of it.  I respect it, but I’ve never missed it.  I don’t believe God has a plan.  I don’t believe everything happens for a reason.  I don’t believe I was put here for a purpose.

I’m a human, though.  And humans need purpose.  We need meaning.  We need connection.  We need respect and we need love.  We need to give it just as much as we need to receive it.  For me, it turns out that the daily work of becoming the best human I can places me where I need to be.  The way of Lao Tzu.  I see the interconnected now-ness of the world the way the mystics among the Lakota do.  I keep a slip of paper on my desk that says, “When you believe the stones are sacred, you’re careful about where you put your feet.”

I’m not at war with transverse myelitis.  That’s not my battle.  I don’t expect to beat it.  I don’t need to.  But I won’t be beat by it, either.  And spending each day missing a life that was never guaranteed to me in the first place feels like trembling at the edge of defeat.

Chop the wood.  Carry water.  Walk the path.  Make every step the very best step, even if it takes a cane and a walker and a wheelchair to get me there.  Behind me the long winding trail of my footprints, plenty of them crooked or wayward.  Some have been pretty damn fine.  Ahead, only more path, farther into the shimmery distance than I can see.  That suits me.  Maybe it’s meaningless.  It’s kinda glorious all the same.


Neurology Update

Annual check-up with Dr. B, the neurologist.  No surprises.  As expected, his exam showed slight improvements in strength and sensitivity.  Nothing dramatic, but that’s okay.  I’ve been telling people that at the rate I’m improving I expect to be completely recovered by the time I’m 150 yrs old.

I’m thankful every day that I’m being treated at UAB, where there's one of the very few clinics in the country that specializes in Transverse Myelitis.  There’s a Facebook group for TM patients that I dip into and so many of those folks are floundering.  They’re dealing with neurologists who’ve never seen the condition, don’t know how to diagnose it, don’t know how to explain what it is or what their options are.  I worry about them all the time and wonder if there isn’t more that I can do to help.

Dr. B reinforces that exercise and physical therapy are absolutely critical.  As he told me years ago, his goal was to keep me from getting worse, not to make me better.  That is, his objective was to clear up the inflammation that was destroying the myelin in my spinal cord.  He can’t repair the damage that’s been done.  Improvement is up to me and that means daily exercise to keep the muscles healthy and to retrain the nervous system to find new pathways around the damaged parts.  There is no guarantee that daily exercise will enable me to walk more easily in the future.  It is guaranteed that lack of exercise will make sure that I don’t.  Yes, it is painful and frustrating and tiring every day.  But the alternative is unacceptable.

He says that about 85% of his patients respond well to the initial five days of heavy dose steroids.  The inflammation clears up and they recover all or most of their function within 12 months.  Then there’s those like me, where the inflammation hangs on.  By the time the year of Cytoxan infusions finally knocked out the inflammation, the damage to my spinal cord was pretty severe.

That being the case, I’m doing quite well.  I can walk very short distances with a cane, and as much as a 100 yards or so with a walker.  I have limited use of my hands – can’t manage buttons, for example, but I can tie my shoes.  My guitar playing has improved considerably (thanks largely to the magical Josie guitar picks) and I’ve been laying down crude rhythm tracks into GarageBand that I'm adding vocal and harmonica tracks to.

I can stand long enough to do my half of the cooking, but I have to be very careful with knives because I won’t feel it if I cut myself.  Pain is constant from the neck down, worst in my hands, hips and thighs – it averages out to about a 5 on the 10 point scale.  I don’t take anything for the pain, preferring not to deal with the medication side effects.  I'm pretty good at putting my focus elsewhere.  I take 60mg of baclofen a day to help manage spasticity although I am still extremely stiff and have a variety of twitches and tremors.  (The nighttime myoclonus in my right arm sometimes results in my knocking Lynn on the head).  I sleep 9-10 hours a night, but fatigue is a constant.  While it doesn’t limit what I can do, it greatly limits how much I can do.

And I’m very happy with my life.  This is somewhat of a puzzle.  Depression is one of the most common and severe complications of the disease and that certainly makes sense to me.  It’s definitely reflected in the anguished posts from so many in the FB/TM group.  But except for two days in the first year, when my symptoms got dramatically worse, I haven’t had to struggle with depression.  I occasionally have bad, grumpy days, but they seem to me to be of the normal variety and almost never are occasioned by my various physical frailties.  Why is that?  How did I get to be so lucky?

Certainly I have tremendous advantages.  I’m financially secure.  I’m emotionally sustained by the three generations of women who run my life (Lynn, Marian, Josie) and the love of my siblings and my friends scattered across the globe.  With retirement, the daily stress of being responsible for and to people in my workplace is gone, but I still keep a hand in professionally with my work on the Metadata2020 project and my ATG column.  Today I signed on to help develop an MLA course on scholarly communication.  And now I’m able to spend time on developing the writing projects that I’ve only been able to imagine getting at for years. 

I think of Job’s trials, Satan stripping him of all his possessions and even of his family, in order to test his faith.  I'm not a Christian, but would I be able to maintain that Job-like equanimity in the face of the disease if it weren’t for those advantages?  What I have to bear seems slight compared to all that I still have. 

The emotion that washes me most often is gratitude.  I can't explain it.  So I'm even grateful for that.


facts and opinions

(Published in Against The Grain, v.30,#5)

How good do you think you are at distinguishing between statements of fact and statements expressing opinions?

The Pew Research Center issued a report last June studying that very question.(1)  How well could a sample of Americans distinguish a series of factual statements (whether or not they believed them to be true) from a series of opinion statements (whether or not they agreed with them)?  What factors might be at play in affecting one’s ability to make those determinations correctly?

The results weren’t surprising.  They used five fact statements, five opinion statements and two “borderline” statements, drawn from current topics in the news and found that only 26% labelled all five fact statements correctly and only 36% were right with the five opinion statements.  Sizable percentages (28% and 22%) got them all wrong.

The study defined statements as being “factual” if they were capable of being proved or disproved by objective evidence and “opinion” as something “that reflects the beliefs and values of whoever expressed it.”  Note that they weren’t asking if the respondents thought the factual statements were true, only if they were capable of being proved or disproved.

That so many of us can’t readily distinguish statements expressing facts from those of opinion is certainly one of the reasons our political discourse is so toxic.  The oft quoted remark from Moynihan is that you’re entitled to your own opinions but not your own facts.  So what happens to discussion when most of us can’t tell the difference?

The report was in the back of my mind when I followed a thread on ACRL’s SCHOLCOMM discussion list in July.  Robin Sinn had posted expressing concern (annoyance? outrage?) at Taylor & Francis referring to their option for making an article freely available in a hybrid journal as “gold open access.”(2)  Her assumption (as clarified in a later post in the thread) had been that “gold open access” referred at the journal level, not the article level and that T&F was therefore misusing the term (presumably for nefarious purposes).  Over the next two days, most of the comments supported the notion that “gold open access” could be applied to individual articles as well as to journals, and examples were given of other such usage besides T&F’s.  Comments came from a variety of people including librarians, a T&F rep and others who’ve been deeply involved in scholarly communication discussions and debates over the years.  Sinn appeared to accept that consensus view.

Then Jean-Claude Guédon weighed in: “Gold open access (not open access as a stand-alone _expression_, but gold open access) refers to journals, and exclusively to journals. … On the other hand an open access article in a hybrid journal is simply an open access article, and that is not - repeat NOT - gold open access.”(3)  That ended the discussion.

So is Guédon stating what he believes to be a fact or is he expressing an opinion?  I’ll leave you to ponder that for a bit, but I’ll come back to it.

Consider some of the other statements that show up in scholarly communication discourse:

“…the profit margins of many academic publishers are simply not defensible…”(4)  In this case, the quote is from a comment made by Pamela Benjamin to a post on The Scholarly Kitchen, but it’s easy enough to find other versions of the sentiment.  Is it a fact statement or an opinion statement?  Keep in mind that the Pew categories don’t require fact statements to be true – at issue is whether there is sufficient objective evidence to prove or disprove them.  Opinion statements are reflections of beliefs and values.  I don’t want to ascribe to Benjamin views she may not hold, but on the face of it, you could interpret the statement as either fact or opinion.  As fact, however, it is simply untrue – that is, those margins certainly can be defended, which is all “defensible” means.  Whether one accepts those defenses becomes a matter of opinion.  Read as an opinion statement, it appears to be saying something like, “Because of the values that I hold regarding scholarly communication, I will not accept any justification offered for those profit margins.  I consider them to be antithetical to my values.”  The distinction matters because if the person making the statement believes it to be a fact, when it is actually an opinion, and the person they’re talking to treats it simply as a fact rather than addressing the values inherent in the opinion, then they’re talking past each other rather than to each other.  Indeed, that’s what happens in that particular comment thread and the discussion ends, having gone nowhere.

There’s a similar phrase that one hears often – that the increases in journal prices are “unsustainable.”  This phrase is used in two ways – it may be referring to a local situation, meaning, “In my library, given my budget, I can’t afford these price increases and I’m going to have to cancel stuff I’d rather keep.”  But here I’m interested in how it’s used globally, when the claim, in effect, is that the whole subscription-based system is going to collapse because of these “unsustainable” price increases.  This is an example of the third type of statement referred to in the Pew study – the “borderline”. 

Borderline statements may be based in objective evidence (the factual element) but have vague or predictive language that makes them hard to prove definitively (the opinion element).  This is the case with statements predicting the global unsustainability of the subscription model.  I’ve been hearing dire warnings about the unsustainability of the current system for decades.  And yet, despite budget cuts, academic libraries continue to operate; despite mergers and acquisitions, the scholarly publishing industry remains robust; and despite decades of open access activism, the subscription model remains dominant.  Does this mean the system will never implode and completely collapse? No.  But the uncertainty makes it impossible to classify the statement as purely factual.

A similar situation pertains to the debates about embargoes when posting OA copies of journal articles in repositories.  Those arguing for embargoes claim that without them publishers would be exposed to an unacceptable financial risk.  Those arguing for the elimination of embargoes claim that there is no evidence that current embargoes have resulted in significant cancellations.  This is a fact statement which, at present, appears to be true.  But it does not lead inexorably to the conclusion that elimination of embargoes will not result in significant cancellations or even that six month embargoes won’t result in significant cancellations in the future as the volume of material available under those conditions expands.  When the people making the statements believe they’re making strictly factual statements, they are once again talking past each other.

So, back to Guédon and his insistence that “gold open access” refers to journals only.  Is he making a statement of fact or expressing an opinion?  If it’s a fact, then it should be verifiable by objective evidence.  But what counts as objective evidence in determining the meanings of words?  Grammarians have endlessly debated the purpose of dictionaries – are they to describe the way that language is actually used or to proscribe the way that it ought to be used?  If it’s the latter, who gets to decide?

If anyone can claim the right to be the authority on the terminology of open access it would be Jean-Claude Guédon.  One of the original participants in the BOAI declaration, he has written voluminously and persuasively for many years.  If your inclinations are toward the proscriptive camp of grammarians, Guédon’s pronouncement may be sufficiently definitive.  Personally, however, I’ve always favored the descriptive side and if you look at how the term is actually used,  for many people “gold open access” quite comfortably describes an article where the version of record is made immediately available upon publication.  Guédon wants the usage to be less ambiguous, and in the abstract I agree with him.  But in actual practice I don’t think we’re there yet.

So I’d be inclined to label Guédon’s pronouncement borderline – possibly subject to verification by objective evidence, but thwarted by the ambiguity in what counts as objective evidence.

One of the more fascinating findings of the Pew study is that one is more inclined to judge an opinion statement incorrectly as factual if one agrees with the opinion expressed.  In other words, to use one of the previous examples, if your values lead you to the judgment that corporations should not be producing large profit margins from publishing activities, you’re more likely to incorrectly classify the opinion statement “large margins are indefensible” as a fact statement.  If Guédon’s definition comports with your own, you’re inclined to take it as fact.

The Pew study was concentrated on statements in the news and there are no doubt limits to how far one can extend its findings into the debates and discussions around scholarly communication.  But it’s a useful exercise nonetheless.  Much of the smoke and heat generated by scholcomm debates is driven by people taking their opinions as facts.  They attempt to convince others with appeals to objective evidence when careful discussion of the values we hold and the implications of those values might be more productive.  It’s easy to assume that others must share our values because they’re so evidently true that they don’t require much discussion.  Aren’t they? 

Sorting our way through the opportunities and perils of the flux of scholarly communication in the digital age is important.  We’ll do a better job of making sense of it all and making decisions that are in the best interests of society if we pay close attention to the differences among the statements that we make.  I believe that’s a fact.  I think.

Endnotes

1. Pew Research Center. “Distinguishing Between Factual and Opinion Statements in the News.” June, 2018. http://assets.pewresearch.org/wp-content/uploads/sites/13/2018/06/07161621/PJ_2018.06.18_fact-opinion_FINAL.pdf

2. Sinn, Robin. “[SCHOLCOMM] Taylor & Francis and their ‘gold OA’ definition.” scholcomm@lists.ala.org. July 12, 2018.

3. Guédon, Jean-Claude. “Re: [SCHOLCOMM] Taylor & Francis and their ‘gold OA’ definition.” scholcomm@lists.ala.org. July 14, 2018.

4. Benjamin, Pamela. “Comment on: Anderson, Kent. ‘The Core vs. the Crowd — Why Barriers to Entry May Help Restore Trust.’” The Scholarly Kitchen. July 2, 2018. https://scholarlykitchen.sspnet.org/2018/07/02/the-core-vs-the-crowd-why-barriers-to-entry-may-help-restore-trust/#comments