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

 

 


Ready Player One

If I could only keep one, I'd take the novel. But I'm a book guy at heart.  I wouldn't begrudge someone taking the movie to their own desert island.

We watched it a few months ago.  Liked it quite a bit.  Weeks later, Lynn read it.  Very good, she told me.  But "it's very different from the movie."  So I read it and had great fun.  (My favorite throwaway line was the bit about the "geezers" Cory Doctorow and Wil Wheaton, still getting re-elected to keep fighting the good fight).  It had been long enough since I'd seen the movie that the details had faded, so I wasn't making comparisons.  I took the book on its own terms.

It's an Easter basket of unexpected toys and games, a Hallowe'en sack of delights, all familiar but popping up new.  It's been years since I spent a lot of time playing video games, but I could almost feel my fingers flexing as I turned the pages.  I wanted to go back and play every one of those old games, watch every one of those eighties movies.

I finished it midweek and we watched the movie again just a couple of days later.  The specifics of the book's version were still sharp.  I thought the changes the moviemakers made were absolutely fine.  I didn't miss anything that was taken out.  The movie's so engaging and well paced, there wasn't time for that.  I liked the fact that the challenges were different.  Not that I liked them better than the ones in the book, just that it was fun to have more of them.  Of course they were much more visual.  The big dance scene was more vivid on film than the swirly version I'd cooked up on my own.  The book's a little darker, the movie a little sweeter.  The movie compresses the love story, but that was okay.  They only had so much time to play with.

There's something fundamentally askew in trying to judge whether any book or movie is the better version.  They're such different ways of telling stories.  Least likely to be effective is a film that hews too closely to the arc and incidents of the novel, or a novelization that does little more than recount the settings and episodes of the movie.  If comparisons must be made, it should be to compare the book to other books and the film to other films.  How effective are they at using the tools of their craft to transport the reader or the viewer?  To give them an effective experience.

The ingredients of the Ready Player One book and movie are different, but the dish is recognizably the same.  I'll grate pecorino-romano instead of parmagiano-reggiano to sprinkle on tonight's bolognese.  Last time I used bucatini pasta instead of tonight's pappardelle.  I'll bring up a bottle of Brunello di Montalcino instead of an Amarone.  And don't get me started on the meats in the sauce, which vary every time I make it.  There are good reasons for all of those variations but they all result in the same dish.  Sure, you might prefer one variation over another.  But it's silly to say that one is "better" than the other if you're suggesting anything more than personal taste.

When Josie was small, e-books and e-readers were climbing their first big wave and there were endless arguments over which was "better" and how soon e-books were going to eliminate print.  In those days, she was a big fan of The Monster at the End of This Book, in both its print and iPad versions.  Somedays she'd go for one, some days the other.  Different experiences.  She'd've been horrified if I'd told her she could only pick one.

Those debates have settled down now, although they haven't quite disappeared.  And while I may happily substitute grana padano for the pecorino in Josie's beloved cacio e pepe if that's what I've got on hand, I have to be careful who to tell that to if I want to avoid a lecture on the only right way.  (And alright, yes, I'm the guy who declares there's no such thing as a "vodka martini" -- there are just vodka drinks served in a martini glass!  But I'm joking. The grievance vein in my temple isn't pulsing.)

Where does that come from?  That seemingly irresistible impulse that so many have to declare that their preference isn't just preference, it's the only correct thing.  Is it people being so insecure about their own taste that they need to declare that all other versions of taste are inferior?  Or is shouting about it just one more way the internet helps people be thoughtless?

If I were only allowed one version of Ready Player One, I'd pick the book.  But that's me.  I wonder which version of The Monster at the End of This Book Josie would've picked if she'd had to.  So lucky to live in a world in which she doesn't.  She'd've bawled.

 


"Put Hope Away"

It’s usually one of the last things I hear before heading into bed at night.  I’ll be sitting at the antique rolltop, sorting out my pills for the next day, dropping them into the appropriate compartments of my Mad Hatter pillbox, and Lynn will be calling, in her sing-song encouraging voice, “Put Hope away…!”

I grimace and shake my head because it seems all too appropriate for the political times we find ourselves in.  Thankfully, she isn’t talking to me.  She’s talking to Jemma, the golden retriever.  It’s part of their nightly routine, as Lynn coaxes Jemma to put the day’s toys back in the toybox.  “Jemma, get red ring.  Put red ring away.  Good Jemma dog!  Now put green ball away.  Put green ball away.  Good dog!  Now put Hope away…”

A plush white rabbit.  A Christmas gift for Jemma that arrived with a silver medallion around the neck that said “Hope.”  Not long after, word came that the Trump whisperer was leaving her job at the White House.  So we now refer to the bunny as Hope Hicks.  “Put Hope Hicks away…”  She’s just landed a job as chief communications officer for New Fox.

There was a despairing column in the NYT a few days ago, “How Do I Explain Justice Kavanaugh to My Daughters?”  Jennifer Weiner feels crushed by the vicious reactions of Kavanaugh’s supporters.  Blasey Ford bravely testified and it didn’t matter.  Weiner writes,

Our girls will learn to police their clothes, their words, their drinking, their behavior, their choices, because they’ve been watching, and what they’ve seen is this: If you get hurt, it’s probably your fault, and if you tell, probably no one will believe you, and even if people do, probably nothing will happen.

But maybe our daughters are smarter than that.  Perhaps they’ve seen more than that. 

The chances of Kavanaugh not being confirmed were ever miniscule to none.  Nothing short of a convictable offense was going to change that.  But it is far from true that nothing happened.  Young women were watching all of that, too.

They saw the floodgates of stories open.  Women who’d locked up their own stories for years and decades discovered they could finally find it in themselves to testify, too.  They found empathy and support.  Some called them heroes.

Monica Hesse wrote a brilliant column explaining why so many women hadn’t, and haven’t, told their fathers about their own assaults and many fathers were rattled by those revelations.  They struggled and questioned and thought and re-thought their own behavior.

Young women saw that they’re not alone and the voices proclaiming, “It’s not your fault,” echoed loud and long.  Young men questioned their own behavior and wondered about the kinds of men they want to be and how to become them.  Discussion shifted from the privileged power dynamics in the workplace to the conditions that give rise to men behaving that way in the first place.

People looked for better ways to talk about what happens.  Catharine MacKinnon wrote:

Culturally, it is still said “women allege” or “claim” they were sexually assaulted. Those accused “deny” what was alleged. What if survivors “report” sexual violation and the accused “alleges” or “claims” it did not occur, or occur as reported?

And looking at the bigger picture, there's this, from Reshma Saujani, founder of Girls Who Code:

...the girls of this generation are as passionate and unapologetic about what matters to them as any in history. They display a sense of moral clarity, an instinct for inclusiveness, and a commitment to making the world a better place for people of all ages and genders. The rest of us should follow their lead.

Times Up isn’t going to eradicate workplace harassment, but it is giving people the tools, psychological and practical, to resist and to fight back.  The walls of the patriarchy didn’t come tumbling down on the strength of Dr. Ford’s testimony.  But more cracks appeared.  Young people watching saw all of that, too.  One woman came to DC and told her truth to the Senate.  Millions watched.  Sure, Kavanaugh was confirmed.  But so much else happened as well.

On any given night, weary of the tumult and anger and bitter frustrations of the day, we put Hope away.  Every morning, full of energy and glee, Jemma shakes her loose again.


Veracity

How about a presumption of veracity? 

What does it mean to "believe women"?  Start by believing they're telling the truth.  That they, too, are "innocent" -- innocent of deceit or misjudgment.   The presumption that they're telling the truth should be exactly as strong as the presumption of innocence we give the accused.

Reasonable doubt.  Is the story of the person proclaiming their innocence true?  We start with the presumption that it is, and we hold to that presumption until the weight of evidence carries us to the point where we can no longer believe what we started out believing.

If we apply that same standard to a presumption of veracity, instead of just one story, now we have two.  Only one of the stories can be true, but now we have to weigh them equally. 

In the case of Blasey Ford and Kavanaugh, what evidence do we have?  Their histories, the testimony of people who know them, bits of documentation (her therapist's notes, his calendars).  The psychology of trauma and memory.  The motivations that might move them to tell their differing stories.  All of it counts.

To disbelieve Blasey Ford requires concluding, beyond a reasonable doubt, that either the assault never happened or she is mistaken about the perpetrator.   The gaps about time and place in her story are explained by the psychology of trauma.  The delay in telling anyone about it is, we know, quite typical in cases of assault.  None of this is sufficient to conclude, beyond a reasonable doubt, that her story isn't true.  

Kavanaugh's story is weaker.  The testimony of people who knew him, the record of the bar fight when he was at Yale, the physiology of alcohol induced blackouts, all indicate that the picture he presents of himself as a young man isn't accurate.   But this still isn't enough to judge him guilty beyond a reasonable doubt. (Not "innocent," remember.  Just not guilty.)

So the "beyond a reasonable doubt" standard isn't going to help us if we apply it equally.  But we don't need to hold this as the standard.  This isn't a criminal trial and his story isn't the only one that matters.  We're not facing a question of imposing criminal penalties. We don't need to conclude that he's guilty of that particular assault beyond a reasonable doubt.  We need to decide if all of the facts that we have create sufficient doubt about his character to appoint him to a seat on the Supreme Court.

Whose story seems less likely?  Everyone needs to come to their own conclusion, but if "believe women" is going to mean something seriously, if we're going to correct the state of affairs in which the woman's story is automatically cast in a shadow of doubt, with all of the life ruination and miscarriages of justice that's caused, we need something like the presumption of veracity to correct the balance.  We'll still need to struggle with how to apply it in case after case.  But in this case, I doubt the man. I believe the woman.  

 

 


Sidewalks and Stories

Story is hard.  Lynn and I end up having a version of this conversation every year at the Sidewalk Film Festival.  So often, if the movies fail to satisfy, whether they be narrative features or documentaries, it's because the story doesn't cohere.  If the story is compelling, we can overlook other flaws.  But if the story isn't sharp, no amount of cinematic excellence can make up for it. This year's films made that point multiple times in multiple ways.  

The challenge for the documentarian is different from that of the filmmaker trying to compose a fiction (whatever the source material might be).  Michelangelo believed that the statue was in the stone and his job was to discover it -- "I saw the angel in the marble and carved until I set him free."  Real lives are messy and complicated and there are many stories between birth and death, most of which don't have clear beginnings, middles and ends.  The documentarian has to figure out which story is most amenable to being told and then be ruthless in the carving in order to free that story in a way that's satisfying to the audience.  These stories will only ever be partial truths.

Sometimes the story that the director thinks they're going to tell turns out to be very different from the one that emerges during filming.  Real life events aren't beholden to whatever script the director has in mind.  Some of the best documentaries we've seen have been the result of those shifts and a filmmaker canny enough to follow the story they didn't realize was going to be there.  (This was the case with Gip, which won Sidewalk's audience choice for documentary in 2016).  Sometimes the story that the director pursues turns out to be even richer than he or she might have imagined. 

Near the beginning of White Tide: The Legend of Culebra one of the participants explains the difference between a northern and a southern fairy tale.  "The northern fairy tale starts out, Once upon a time..., the Southern fairy tale begins, You're not going to believe this shit!"  The story told in this very Southern tale is mostly true.  But since the director, Theo Love, came on the scene after all of the events had concluded, he didn't have much as-it-unfolds film to work with.  He solves the problem by recreating the crucial scenes using the real life protagonist, Rodney Hyden, and a crew of accomplished actors.  Hyden is a very effective collaborator, willing to show himself at his most foolish.  Love radically pushes the boundaries of documentary filmmaking to tell a story that's true and satisfyingly unbelievable.  Rodney Hyden may not be an angel, but he emerges at the end with at least a bit of a wobbly halo.

There are no angels in the fictional Hot Summer Nights.  There are some good performances, a love of movies, a technically accomplished crew, but in the end, no story worth telling.  Elijah Bynum mines a few decades worth of teen coming of age movies and noir films about drug deals gone bad to string together a series of clichés that form something much less than their sources.  Lynn was ready to leave two-thirds of the way through, but by then I was in trainwreck fascination mode -- I needed to see how Bynum was going to get out of the mess he'd made.  Not well, as it unsurprisingly turns out.  One of the three main characters is killed, the other two hit the road, never to be seen or heard from again, but living on in the trite myths of the useless narrator.  We've seen this kind of thing at Sidewalk many times before -- movies that bring together a lot of talent, that are visually rich, have good acting, are put together by people who've immersed themselves in the lore of cinema, but are lacking the key element. 

The creator of Union on the other hand, has way too much story to deal with and, despite years of trying, hasn't yet managed to create a satisfying movie out of it.  Spurred by the legend of Joan of Arc, Whitney Hamilton discovered that over 400 women, disguised as men, fought on either side of the Civil War.  She wrote a play, then a novel, and then a series of films, the latest of which is Union, all trying to tell their story through the tale of one such woman -- how she came to make those choices and how it affected her and the people who connect with her life.  It's a marvelous concept and there's much that's marvelous in the movie.  But we were baffled by it.  All through the first quarter I was uncertain if I was just missing connections among the characters, or if those connections weren't being made clear.  To my relief, when we talked about it afterwards, Lynn said she'd experienced the same thing.  The next day, in line for another film, we talked to some people who'd also been at Union and, not only had they felt the same way, they said that was the main topic of conversation on the shuttle bus they'd been on afterwards.  It wasn't just us.

Lynn did some investigating and discovered the multiplicity of works Hamilton has created so far.  After we got home, we watched an earlier film, My Brother's War, hoping that it would provide some answers, some continuity.  It did some, but there are still huge gaps.  Where did the young boy, Harrison, come from, for example?  Perhaps it's all clear in Hamilton's mind, since she's been living with these characters for so long, but she hasn't made it clear to her audience.  It's the danger of being writer, producer, director, editor and star.  There's nobody to push back in the service of the material.  It might help her to enlist the aid of one of those ruthless sharp-eyed documentarians.

"Story" doesn't have to imply linear chronological plot.  I loved Cloud Atlas (book and movie), thought Arrival and Shutter Island were brilliant.  I like stories that are complex and twisty and multi-layered and surprising.  Take Damselwhich also played at Sidewalk this year.  I loved it when I saw it and in retrospect I find myself loving it even more.  Call it a fable.  The opening shot, of two men sitting in what looks like a 19th century version of a bus shelter in the middle of a Monument Valley-esque wilderness waiting for a stagecoach, establishes firmly that this will not be a conventional narrative.  Don't waste time wondering how they got there or how long they've been waiting.  If you do, you're missing the point.

By the time Penelope and Butterscotch (the miniature horse) disappear in their rowboat into the fog of the mysterious sea, a wonderful story has been told, of a damsel whose only distress is caused by the men who are trying to rescue her or, in the end, be rescued by her.  It's puzzling and quirky and a little confusing and completely satisfying.

I think of Lynn and I as naive movie-goers.  We're not cinema buffs by any means.  But we're old, so just by default we've seen a lot of movies.  The ones we come back to, the ones we hope to find every year at Sidewalk, have great acting and cinematography and editing and music and all those things, but mostly they have great stories.  Well told tales with beginnings and middles and ends -- not necessarily in that order.