Who Loves Libraries?

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IMG_1106I do! This photo was taken at the Missouri River Regional Library in Jefferson City recently, where I was participating in an author event. My college friend Wade Park showed up, much to my delight!

I’ve done events of all types at libraries all over the state, and elsewhere. A library is one of a community’s greatest resources, a place open to all, where knowledge, entertainment, and connection is free and cherished. I’m an unabashed fan of libraries, and anyone who knows about my upbringing can say I got it honestly. My mother, a long-time librarian, instilled that love in me from a very early age. I remember going to the Fredericktown library when I was a kid and loading up on books that were WAY over my age range. The checkout clerks passed a glance, then sighed, then checked them out for me. (They did, however, tell me that only grownups could check out the art prints that I had under my arm.)

I can hardly begin to list the libraries I have visited as part of my book efforts. Some of the bigger ones have nice speaker budgets, and I always appreciate being invited to talk where there’s a check at the end. But many of the little libraries are scratching by with no spare money at all; I usually give a talk at those libraries for free, or for gas money. Libraries have given me so much over the years that I consider myself in a permanent state of debt to them. Plus, when I visit a library there’s always a chance that an old friend will appear!

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Modern-Day Debtor’s Prison

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Debtors

Tony Messenger has been running a mesmerizing series of columns in the St. Louis Post-Dispatch about the criminal justice system in rural Missouri. The latest column appeared on Friday, and they are all worth careful reading.

The columns document how counties and judicial circuits around the state have turned their criminal justice systems into revenue-generating operations. A number of mechanisms have arisen to do this: Imposing high and ever-escalating court costs for probationers, requiring costly drug tests run by a private company, and incredibly enough, charging prisoners rent for the time they spend in jail.

The cumulative effect of all these tactics is that poor people — who are, of course, disproportionately represented in the criminal justice system — are serving as a new revenue stream for cash-strapped counties across the state. A dumb kid who messes up and runs afoul of the law gets pulled into “the system,” as it is so rightly called, and instead of simply serving his 30 days or whatever and putting the offense behind him, becomes a never-ending source of income for his county.

 

One can’t entirely blame the counties for this situation. Their tax bases are uncertain, especially in areas of the state with declining population (and thus sales taxes). They can’t keep raising property taxes, and in many cases have been finagled into giving property tax abatements to some of their biggest propertyholders by the promise of jobs in the future. (Boone County, where I live, has done that several times over the past few years, abating property taxes for companies that promise to locate in the county and bring new jobs.) So they look anywhere they can to make up the shortfall. Unfortunately, private companies that promise a fee for “services” like probation monitoring, drug testing, jail phone management, and the like offer a temptation that counties find hard to resist. And the disenfranchised end up bearing the cost. The subject of the most recent Messenger article is now homeless on the streets of Kansas City, not because he failed to complete his jail sentence, but because he couldn’t keep up with the mounting court costs that accumulated as a result.

We like to imagine debtor’s prisons as a long-ago horror from a novel by Dickens. Unfortunately, we seem to have re-created them in a new, corporatized, form. Any time you mix the workings of the criminal justice system and the profit motive, you are asking for abuse.

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A Fascinating Resource

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This year marks the 200th anniversary of Henry Rowe Schoolcraft’s trip through the Missouri and Arkansas Ozarks, which resulted in the earliest systematic recorded documentation of the people and places of the region. Schoolcraft’s journal has been used by historians and scholars to understand the early landscape and culture of the Ozarks, although his attitude toward the inhabitants was condescending and his understanding of nature was limited.

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The exact route of Schoolcraft’s travels has also been a subject of interest. Milton Rafferty, the dean of Ozarks geographers, devoted years to the subject, and his efforts culminated in a map published in Rude Pursuits and Rugged Peaksthe reprint of Schoolcraft’s journal he annotated and edited.

Now, thanks to the amazing work of Curtis Copeland, the GIS/Mapping Coordinator for the city of Branson, Rafferty’s map has been refined and improved. Using a complicated layering of digital information, Copeland has produced a scalable, multiple-level interactive map of Schoolcraft’s route. He previewed this map at the recent meeting of the Missouri Archaeological Society that occurred this weekend, and as an attendee of the concurrent Ozarks Studies Conference I got to see it in action. It’s a wonderful piece of work!

The map is free and available to the public at this site. If you’re anything like me, you’ll find it endlessly fascinating. With the enthusiastic reception his presentation received at the conference, I have no doubt that this resource will continue to be refined and added to as the years go by. Take a look . . . but be prepared to lose a few hours.

Making Poetry Matter

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I’ve been meditating for the past couple of weeks on a recent article in The Atlantic entitled “How Poetry Came to Matter Again.” If you didn’t see it yet, that’s ok. The article is a breezy lope through a half dozen contemporary poets, and it quotes only tiny snatches of their poetry, so it’s really quite impossible to tell from the piece whether their work is any good. From the slender supporting evidence of the article, the way a poet “matters” is by obtaining grants, being appointed to university positions, getting on award lists, and developing a large YouTube following.

Of course, those grants, positions, and awards have been with us for quite some time. These poets “matter,” in contrast to the poets of previous generations, the author tells us approvingly, because “They are immigrants and refugees from China, El Salvador, Haiti, Iran, Jamaica, Korea, Vietnam. They are black men and an Oglala Sioux woman. They are queer as well as straight and choose their personal pronouns with care.” In other words, they are poets who matter because of their identity.

I don’t feel any need to critique the nonsensical assertions of the article (I’ve been choosing my personal pronouns with care for years!), and I don’t know the work of the poets mentioned in it; for all I know, some of them could be quite fine, although the tidbits quoted in the article are uneven. It does trouble me, though, that a magazine which purports to be a champion of culture would give itself over to such shallow assertions. Even The Atlantic feels a need to prove its cutting-edge bona fides, I suppose.

The way that a poem matters – a poet matters – a school of poetry matters – is by actually mattering, across generations and across cultures, by being repeated and quoted in new contexts, spoken by others and taken to heart. Do these poets and poems matter? I don’t know, and no one else does yet, either. For now, I’m going to try to keep my eye on the page and not on the CV entries. Emily Dickinson didn’t have much of a resume, as I recall.

Thoreau

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Thoreau cover

Henry David Thoreau was my first literary hero. We had a hammock in our yard, and in summers I would lie in the hammock and read my ninety-five-cent copy of Walden and Other Writings (yes, that’s an image of it, now some forty-plus years old, complete with duct tape holding it together). In the winters I would move inside and read it while I perched over the furnace grate, the waves of superheated air wafting up around me as I readied myself for the inevitable farmhouse chill once we had shut our bedroom doors.

I only got about half of it, of course. A kid of fifteen will miss most of the dry humor, skip through much of the close and precise description, and fail to appreciate the vast range of references that are dropped into every paragraph with such ease. But I did get Thoreau’s immense and uncompromising individualism and his insistence on the primacy of his own conscience. Over the years, I’ve returned to Thoreau again and again, understanding him a little bit more each time, appreciating his formidable intellect and powers of observation. People look at me in disbelief when I say Thoreau is a funny author, but honestly, I always get a laugh when I read Walden.

So I was eager to read Laura Dassow Walls’ new biography of Thoreau, and it did not disappoint. Walls’ biography is subtitled “A Life,” and it does indeed focus on the life of Thoreau, rather than his philosophy or literary work, although those intellectual matters do figure into the book since they were central to Thoreau’s life. But we are constantly reminded of Thoreau as a living person, an individual with friends, detractors, passions, and faults, and reminded that far from being the solitary hermit of Walden Pond familiar from popular myth, Thoreau lived a vibrant and engaged life, full of aspiration and struggle. He loved many people and was loved by many.

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Thoreau remains one of my literary heroes. The bicentennial of his birth was last month, and it’s hard to think of many other American writers who remain so essential and relevant, or who will remain so two hundred years after their birth.

The Film Version

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I recently re-posted an article from The Daily Beast on my Facebook page, and it ended up generating a lot of discussion. Essentially, the article is the latest in a series of pieces by authors with Missouri ties, lamenting the portrayal of the state in movies and TV. I’ve contributed my own bit to this discussion, and in my Facebook post I was likewise sympathetic to the author’s complaint.

But my friend Scott Miller, himself a St. Louis-based author with a series of novels set in that city, took a different view. He commented on my post that Missouri as a setting, like all settings, gets exaggerated and simplified for effect, and we should (basically) quit whining about that. He’s got a point: Works of fiction are, after all, works of fiction, and most people get that. We don’t expect to encounter a thousand-year-old vampire when we visit New Orleans or louche murderers when we visit Miami, even though prominent fictional works might suggest such. Still, I can’t avoid wondering what kind of image is being presented of my home state and whether the accumulation of rednecks and meth-heads has an eventual impact.

Still, it would help if my fellow Missourians would quit living into that stereotype, especially those in the limelight. I rant occasionally about our legislature, which seems determined to out-idiot the other idiotic legislatures around the country from time to time, passing laws that allow people to carry guns basically anywhere they please without a minute’s training and protecting us from mythical United Nations interference. I suspect that such actions in the news contribute as much or more to people’s perceptions as the occasional movie or TV show, which tend to be set in fictional towns like Ebbing or Wind Gap and are typically not even filmed in the state.

But here’s an interesting thought experiment: If you could wave your hand and create a movie or TV show set in Missouri, one that conveyed an authentic sense of the state, what would it involve? I have a few ideas. I’d love to see a show that engages with present-day St. Louis – the way that King of the Hill and White Palace did for the time periods they dealt with. There’s such drama in the present condition of the city. And I think of all the Missourians who would make interesting biopics, like Scott Joplin, Walt Disney, or Kate Chopin. But to get the “authentic” Missouri, I think you’d have to mix city and country, past and present. The contradictions of the state can’t be captured in a simple story.

What do you imagine the ideal “Missouri” show to be?

Branson

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Say “Ozarks” to someone from another part of the country, and a likely response will be. “Oh, sure, I’ve heard of it. Branson.”

Whether you love it or hate it, Branson is the face of the Ozarks to much of the rest of the world, and it has been so pretty much ever since The Shepherd of the Hills.

Branson is mourning right now, after the appalling tragedy on Table Rock Lake in which seventeen people died. The investigation into the cause of the sinking is just beginning, but the inevitable procession of recriminations, lawsuits, settlements, and pain stretches clearly before us.

Branson’s mourning is for the drowning victims, of course, but it is also mourning for itself; an accident like this breaks the veneer of Branson. The religiosity, the patriotism, the ensemble entertainment, all combine to assure tourists that Branson is, above all things, safe. Nothing upsetting or untoward will ever happen to you in Branson. And now this has happened. Nervous statements by residents in news stories combine grief toward the victims with apprehension about the incident’s effect on future bookings.

The Branson economic ecosystem has always been fragile, as illustrated by this recent NPR story about the troubles of those who perform the many necessary services required by this tourist town, the hotel housekeepers, lawn maintenance workers, restaurant servers, and such. A town that depends on large numbers of visitors from distant cities, who come in search of a bucolic myth, is always one incident away from a crippling blow. Let’s just hope that Branson finds its feet again before this accident brings a disastrous ripple effect of shutdowns and layoffs onto those least able to weather them.

Patriotic Songs – 5

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I’ll admit to being an unabashed fan of “America the Beautiful” and a proponent of the idea that it should replace “The Star-Spangled Banner” as our national anthem.

It’s singable, for one thing. Ordinary people can carry the tune without having to strain, or resort to the kind of godawful screeching we sometimes hear nonmusical people engage in when they attempt the national anthem. For this we have to thank Samuel Ward, the composer, an experienced musician and organist for the Grace Episcopal Church in Newark, who clearly knew how to build a tune that could be managed by ordinary folks while still building drama. Sadly, Ward never got to experience the success of “America the Beautiful”; the tune he wrote in 1882 was not matched with the lyrics until 1910, seven years after his death.

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Samuel A. Ward

The poem that was to become known as “America the Beautiful” was written by Katharine Lee Bates, and it first appeared in The Congregationalist, a denominational magazine, in 1895 under the title “Pikes Peak.” It was written in the summer of 1893, after Bates, a professor of English at Wellesley College, had traveled by train to Colorado Springs for a summer teaching job and then ridden with friends to the top of Pikes Peak. On her train trip, Bates had stopped at the Columbian Exposition in Chicago (thus the “alabaster cities”) and had, of course, seen amber waves of grain and purple mountains’ majesty, among other things. The poem was reprinted in the Boston Evening Transcript in 1904, a music publisher matched it with Ward’s tune in 1910, and the rest is history.

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Katharine Lee Bates

Bates kept reworking the poem after its initial publication, smoothing out lines and looking for better images (that fruited plain was initially an “enameled” plain, a line that truly goes “clunk” with that extra syllable squished in). But the essential structure of the four verses remained the same.

The first verse celebrates America’s beauty, and that’s the one we sing most often. But I think most of us are aware of the other verses, even if we can’t quite remember them. The second verse celebrates its founding ideals, the third verse honors its military heroes, and the fourth verse looks forward to the future. But what I especially like about this song is that none of those verses is unthinking or simply self-glorifying. Each of those ideals is presented in a moral framework. For example, in the second verse, the “pilgrim feet” that “a thoroughfare for freedom beat across the wilderness” are celebrated, but then Bates reminds us that freedom shouldn’t be unlimited: “Confirm thy soul in self-control, / Thy liberty in law.” And the military victories of the third verse are good as long as “all success be nobleness / And ev’ry gain divine” – in other words, for liberation and self-defense, not for glory or conquest.

“America the Beautiful” is a great patriotic song, proud but not boastful, celebratory but not unquestioning. There are a lot of great versions out there; many people like Ray Charles’ soul rendition, and although I’ve never been a huge Ray Charles fan, who am I to say they’re wrong? That’s America for you.

 

 

Films!

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The Tivoli Theatre in St. Louis recently hosted an Ozark Streams Film Festival! I was unable to attend, but was impressed by the list of films.

Luckily for us non-attendees, the festival organizers have posted links to all the films on their website. I plan to watch all of them, one by one, whenever I feel the need for some Scenic Rivers relaxation but can’t get away for a float trip.

 

Father’s Day 2018

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“It might come in handy one day” was my father’s motto. A child of the Depression, he abhorred wastefulness of every sort. One of his favorite recreations was to go to a farm auction on a Saturday and buy the boxes of junk that sell at the end for a quarter or fifty cents, then root through them at home to see what kind of useful tidbits could be uncovered. Our barn and basement were troves of odd and interesting things, picked up somewhere, salvaged from someone else’s castoff. He routinely brought home discarded dynamite wire after a blast at the quarry, and I can’t enumerate how many projects I’ve done that were held together by those brightly-colored strands.

I have inherited, to some extent, his fondness for accumulating the potentially practical. I can’t pass a lost bolt in the road without picking it up. So when I was commissioned to build a screen for our gas meter a while back, I went to my dad’s playbook: scrap lumber, leftover paint, and a piece of latticework inherited from the previous owner that had been leaning against the shed for at least eight years.

Meter screen

Tipping my metaphorical hat to my dad on this Father’s Day, 2018.