Saturday, February 21, 2009

Nast never apologized for his monkeys
(And why this guy needs to)

I've been asked what I think about the current cartoon controversy, which I'm not going to describe here for fear of attracting a lot of Googlers. It has become a magnet for some really unacceptable and unproductive trollery.

Here's what I think: It was unintentional. And it was racist, not in the intent of the cartoonist, but in his utter cloth-eared insensitivity to the symbols he used. A sin of omission, not of commission. But a sin of omission still calls for a real apology, not a half-hearted pro forma statement, and certainly not one that ends with a self-promoting stab at one's critics.

If I back into your car, it may have been because I hate foreign cars and wanted to smash the fender on one, or it may have been because I didn't look in my rearview mirror.

If the former, no apology is needed. I did as I intended.

Thomas Nast routinely depicted the Irish as ape-like creatures. In the cartoon above, an "Irish Catholic Invader," complete with hobnailed boots, revolutionary lapel pin, gun in belt and bottle in back pocket, dictates terms to (Democratic) candidate Horace Greeley, while the priest listens in to make sure he gets it right and a proud Saxon lad stands fast to protect (Protestant) religion in the schools. And in the Nast cartoon here, an Irish monkey girl clings to her rosary beads and waves a nationalist flag while she and her little monkey-children friends kick the (King James) Bible around the school playground.

Despicable, but boy-jayzus, didn't Thomas Nast say what he meant and then stick to his guns? I can hate his work and still admire both his artistry and his tenacity.

But this fellow in New York didn't mean to be offensive. He's like the driver who didn't look in his rearview mirror.

Only the fellow in the car likely understands that drivers are supposed to look in their rearview mirrors. He's going to apologize, not for his bad intentions, but for his mistake. He's not likely to say, "I'm sorry if you feel I damaged your car. Except that I'd like to add, to all the people who have criticized my driving in the past, that I don't care what any of you think of it now."

Professional commentators have an obligation to understand the tools of their work, and, for a political cartoonist, symbols matter. And symbols can take on different connotations depending on the factors surrounding them.

Example: You could draw a cartoon showing the governors lining up outside the White House to get stimulus money for their states, and hang a pawnbroker's three-ball symbol over the portico, suggesting that the governors were desperate enough to give up things or ... however you felt it captured the issue. And whatever the merit of that commentary, there would be nothing offensive about it.

Unless, instead of Barack Obama, the president were Joe Lieberman, in which case you or one of your editors should be bright enough to say, "Oh, wait, no, let's re-think this ..."

And you need to do that because people will misinterpret your intentions and because they will be offended and distracted by something you didn't mean. If your intention is to make a statement, then you don't want that statement derailed by what people will see instead. This applies any time you put something in a cartoon or an editorial that could make it misfire, even if it were only a matter of confusing readers rather than offending them. But especially if it were a matter of offending them for no good reason.

When the internal system fails, when something like this gets through the checks-and-balances and is published and draws fire, you need to man-up and take your licks. You don't apologize for your intentions, because they weren't evil.

You apologize for your carelessness. You don't apologize for the fact that the guy values his car. You apologize for not looking in the rearview mirror, or for misjudging the distance. You apologize because you screwed up.

Here's how a man handles unintentional offense, from Joe Klein's 1980 biography, "Woody Guthrie: A Life." It's about Woody's early career hosting and performing on a radio show in Los Angeles:

On October 20, 1937, Woody received a letter from a listener that read in part, "You were getting along quite well in your program this evening until you announced your 'Nigger Blues.' I am a Negro, a young Negro in college, and I certainly resented your remark. No person ... of any intelligence uses that word over the radio today." Woody was mortified. It was a word he'd used casually all his life. It was a word he'd used lightly, jokingly, without ever quite realizing its full implications. He took to the air immediately with an apology. He read the letter aloud, promised not to use the word again, and ripped all the "nigger" songs out of his book.

By the way, I often counsel people who are thinking about writing letters to the editor (or to anyone else for that matter) that a soft, hurt tone is more effective than harsh anger. But those of us with words like "editor" in our titles are supposed to be able to stick our egos in our back pockets and deal with people even when they are too angry to address us in that soft, hurt tone.

We're paid to exercise good judgment, both in what we put in the paper and in how we handle the response to it.

Monday, February 16, 2009

A previously unpublished memoir

``I am mortal,'' Scrooge remonstrated, ``and liable to fall.''
``Bear but a touch of my hand there,'' said the Spirit, laying it upon his heart,
``and you shall be upheld in more than this!''

I was only there by the merest of chances. I had been back to campus many times, but rarely while school was in session, and never for a football game. The Air Force game was hardly the most crucial game of the season, but I had lived in Colorado Springs for more than a decade, so I chose the Air Force game.

And I still would not have known to be there, but, because we have several college interns in our newsroom, I picked up a copy of The Observer to bring them an example of another college's newspaper.

Then, as I sat in my motel room Friday night, I leafed through it and came across an article: First Friday would be playing at the Senior Bar Saturday night, the reunion of a band that hadn't played in public in 20 years.

I called my friend Mike, who lives in La Porte. There was no question about whether we would go. First Friday was playing. We had to be there.

And so, Saturday night, we stood, Mike and me and Chuck and Lou and John and the people who had come back with the band, and there was our music again, there was our band again. There we were again, like old times.

It is not enough to say that First Friday was our band. It was our band, playing our music. This was not the cotton-candy golden oldies that have taken over the airwaves, certainly not the Top 40 ersatz-R&B they dragged back for "The Big Chill."

This was Cream and Spirit and the Yardbirds, music with depth and challenge, with screaming guitar solos and hammering organ riffs and driving percussion, demanding songs no lounge lizard or garage band would dare touch. This was Sixties music the way Artie Shaw is like Kay Kyser, the way Ella Fitzgerald is like the Andrews Sisters. This was the music that mattered.

It was music and it was more. It was the singular sound of a particular band that existed at a particular time and vanished with only the vaguest traces: One test album, pressed in limited quantities, my copy now so scratched and worn it barely plays at all. Nothing else: A recording contract fell through, the band broke up, the members graduated and were scattered across the country, 20 years ago.

So were we all, scattered across the country, leading our adult lives, until this October night when we were in the new Senior Bar, and there was First Friday, and it could have been the upstairs of the old Student Center, or the Coffeehouse at St. Mary's or even the front lobby of O'Shaugnessy, where I first heard them play.

There they were, and we were 19 and 20 again, rocking and flailing our air-guitars, frantically grabbing for notes while Norm stood impassively picking them out for real, fast and clean and like 20 years had never happened. It wasn't just nostalgia, either: First Friday really was that good, even now.

They really were: Out on the floor, the students who had filtered in out of curiosity, to see the old folks' funky old band, had become believers and were exuberantly dancing, alive and with the energy of 19 and 20.

I stood and watched them and it was 1969 again and my waist was thin and my hair was thick, I was full of dreams and visions of life. I was in love with almost everyone, I was free of wisdom and caution and strings and weights. The music was playing and I was young and there was no time, no space, no world but the music, and life stretched out before my young eyes in all its infinite promise.

And out on the floor, I saw one tall, dark, lovely girl dancing, smiling a smile that could only be smiled by a face unlined with years and unwrinkled by disappointment, and, as she danced, I thought of other girls, other times.

I thought of a beautiful blonde friend, twisting and swimming and hitchhiking the old dances on the sidewalk in front of Sorin Hall to the music of First Friday, laughing and twirling and flying across the concrete, dancing for sheer joy , her long, straight yellow hair and the brown fringe on her leather coat spinning out in the sunlight of a football Saturday, and nothing more than her joy was needed for that moment to stay forever in my mind.

And I thought of an evening before Christmas break, the snow falling on the steps outside LeMans, and a friend with her dark hair tied back with a hank of thick, red yarn, the collar of her wool navy jacket turned up, a single flake of snow on her eyelashes, our breath steaming in the cold air under the porch light as we exchanged a kiss not for love but for friendship and for the holidays.

And I thought of an almost-lover one summer, who could hold me but could not love me, and whom I could not keep, because she had to help the farm workers and had no time for love. I called her my Maud Gonne and told her I would be her silly Willie Yeats and would write for her and keep a candle, but she disappeared into the scene, the ever-present scene, and she never turned up again, leaving only a memory of her intense caring, and of her eyes, a light amber I have never seen since and would die to see again.

And as I watched and dreamt and traveled in my heart, the girl turned and gestured in my direction to join her on the dance floor.

Forgive me, spirits. Forgive me.

I looked behind me.

Before I even turned back, I knew I had just betrayed all those young girls, all those young dreams. I had forgotten youth and joy and music. I had lost my faith.

I had looked behind me.

In that fatal moment, I was again 40 and graying and balding and paunchy and standing flat-footed among a group of middle-aged men and women, watching children dance. And I saw a girl, a young, beautiful girl, her dark eyes still locked on mine, pointing at me, "Yes, you!" and pointing again at the dance floor in front of her, and I could not join her.

I feared she would tell me she was some friend's daughter. I feared that I would sweat and strain and look foolish. I feared that she would say to her friends, "You should have been there! All these really old people were dancing and everything!"

And so I stood, like poor, sad, frightened Ebenezer Scrooge watching Fezziwig's party, seeing the shadows of what I had once had, and what I had let slip away.

And the beautiful young girl, who only wanted to dance, finally gave up and turned away, and went on dancing alone, to the music, to our music, to the music that was mine.

I took my coat from the back of a chair and walked out into the night. I was 800 miles from home, and had to be back by Monday morning.

Thursday, February 12, 2009

Don't play the cords of fame

It's supposed to be flattering and fun when "your" breed wins at Westminster, but I can't summon much enthusiasm over the Best of Group award that went to Ch. Cordmaker Field of Dreams this week. I had pulis (Yeah, yeah, the Hungarian plural is "pulik." That's how these problems get started.) before the dog show snots got hold of them.

It was 1971, and we'd been married about five months when Kathy's dog, Mordechai, ran out into traffic and was hit. We still had the dog I'd brought to the marriage, but decided we liked having two. Besides, my dog, Taylor, a small, black beagle mix, had done a nice job of training Morty and we knew he'd train a new pup, too.

We found Szabo in southwestern Michigan. I'd heard of pulis but had never seen one. The mother was on hand and was a delightful dog, a first-generation American. Most pulis in those days weren't long off the boat, imported for the most part by homesick Hungarians.

The puli is a small sheepherding dog that was apparently brought into Eastern Europe by the Magyars and is believed to be related to the Tibetan Terrier. I am told that the word "puli"comes from a Sanskrit word applied to any herding dog. They are extremely bright, nimble dogs whose signature move is to cross the herd on the backs of the sheep like a lumberjack going log-to-log across the river during a drive. They also are known for leaping on the back of a runaway, riding him until he's tired and then getting off and bringing him back to the flock.

As soon as we had a puli, we started hearing stories about them.

A construction worker acquaintance went looking for work in Ann Arbor, but his puli disappeared almost as soon as they arrived. He spent his time up there looking for Happy and returned to South Bend broken-hearted. A few days later, Happy showed up on the doorstep, having traveled the 175 miles to a place they'd only lived a few months.

A couple told of going to pick out their puppy in a pen behind a shed. The old Hungarian farmer warned that the mother was protective, so he went in first, put a ladder up against the shed and said something in Hungarian upon which the dog ran up the ladder, which he then removed so they could play with the pups while Mom watched from above. When they had made their choice, they left the pen, he replaced the ladder and she ran back down it.

The first thing we found with Szabo was that Taylor wasn't going to do a lot of training with him. Taylor started giving him the lecture -- "This is where we pee. This is my bowl." -- and it was clear that Szabo was blowing him off. For one thing, when Taylor would play tug-of-war with us, the puppy would come up and join in from the other end, jerking on his tail, which was really disconcerting since you can't bite a puppy -- especially one you can't catch -- and it's tough to lose your dignity when you are supposed to be Lead Dog.

But they worked out a good relationship where Taylor got to be Lead Dog and Szabo let him be, because he didn't really much care, until the day about two years later when an irritable Taylor growled at toddler Jed and then snapped at Kathy, whereupon Szabo delivered a beatdown that was frightening not because he was furious but just the opposite: For the coldness of it. It was clearly a punishment, a lesson and an establishment of how dogs were to behave and who was now in charge. And, no, Taylor never repeated his folly.

That episode aside, Szabo was the jolliest dog I've ever known, and had a sense of humor that Taylor couldn't fathom. Not only would he allow himself to be dressed up, but he seemed to get the joke. We added a second, then a third, puli to the family, but Szabo was the legendary presence, and, years later, Jed observed, "The thing about Szabo was, when we played monkeys? Szabo was a monkey!"

He was also willing to follow the boys up the ladder and down the slide at the park, and pretend to be a baby going to sleep so that Jed could be the Daddy playing his guitar at cribside. He played football with them and they had to keep a soccer ball on the ground when playing with him because he would "head" an airborne ball and we were afraid he'd damage his nose.

Szabo was the finest, brightest, best dog I've ever known, and I've known some good dogs.

So what about Westminster?

Well, when we got Szabo, there were two types of coats acceptable in the breed: The wavy and the curly. Either one was going to mat if you didn't keep them brushed, and we never did, assuming that the Hungarian shepherds of old did not spend their evenings brushing their dogs but, rather, lined them up once a year with the sheep and sheared them.

The book we bought, "How To Raise And Train Your Puli," even happened to have a pair of wavy-haired pulis on the cover, champions who would never make champion today.

Here's what the breed standard says:
The dense, weather resistant coat is profuse on all parts of the body. The outer coat is wavy or curly, but never silky. The undercoat is soft, woolly and dense. The coat clumps together easily, and if allowed to develop naturally, will form cords in the adult. The cords are woolly, varying in shape and thickness, either flat or round, depending on the texture of the coat and the balance of undercoat to outer coat. The Puli may be shown either corded or brushed. It is essential that the proper double coat with correct texture always be apparent. With age the coat can become quite long, even reaching to the ground; however, only enough length to properly evaluate quality and texture is considered necessary so as not to penalize the younger or working specimens.

And here's what wins in the show ring -- nice long cords to the floor. And, as the owner of Ch. Cordmaker Field of Dreams told reporters this week, the cords do not form naturally but must be trained.

Meanwhile, the pulis I've known have often been overprotective. We had to be very vigilant at the park because they would not tolerate strange dogs approaching us, and, while Szabo played cheerfully with the boys and their friends, we had another male they had to put inside during rough games because he wouldn't have understood. The fact is, the dogs aren't many generations away from their days among the sheep, and they still have a strong impulse to guard their flock.

With a good, stable dog, you can socialize and train to a point where that instinct is not a distraction. But that's assuming you've bred for temperament and not for some odd, irrelevant feature like the ability to produce a corded coat.

The lovely corded handbags I've run into since Szabo's days have been snappish and unpleasant, and I'm sorry to see a modern puli win anything, since it only encourages irresponsible breeding.

Maybe if I didn't still miss Szabo so much, some 25 years later, I wouldn't feel so strongly about it.

Saturday, February 07, 2009


I'm next up in the express lane at the grocery store, when this fellow comes up and places on the belt behind my things some celery, a few apples, something in a can and a plastic tray with a nice piece of salmon under plastic wrap. The guy at the head of the line had asked for cigarettes, so there's a pause while the cashier calls for a manager to get the packet out of the lockup.

For a moment, I think the fellow behind me is starting to strike up a conversation, but quickly realize he's on his cell phone. "Hi. They have some good salmon. Should I pick some up?" Pause. "I thought we could have it tonight."

Just as I'm wondering (A) why he has to ask permission to buy a $6 piece of fish? (he's not dressed like it's going to kill the family budget) and (B) why he's asking now?, the cigarettes come and the cashier begins scanning my stuff.

I swipe my card, we complete the transaction, and, as she's handing me my receipt, I see her give that slightly annoyed, "Where'd he go?" cashier glance.

Sure enough, the guy behind me has disappeared. The celery, the fruit, the stuff in a can, still there. No salmon.

I suppose we all have our ways of keeping the peace at home, but I am left wondering how long you have to be married before the "gee, I'd better ask the little lady" reflex kicks in while you're at the fish counter rather than just as you're about to seal your doom.