Friday, April 29, 2005

Scott Simon At the Dollar Tree

Scott Simon used to be my favorite broadcast journalist. I always made sure to hear his analysis of the news with Daniel Schorr, followed by Simon's own personal essay. I still listen to Weekend Edition Saturday, but my enthusiasm for Simon has cooled after he publicly supported Bush's invasion of Iraq and attacked Michael Moore in the Wall Street Journal. Moore's methods are sometimes flawed, but he's no Joe McCarthy. McCarthy used lies and innuendo to destroy the careers of countless State Department officials, while Moore goes overboard in pointing out aspects of Bush's policy that the "respectable" media were afraid to touch. (The news media were exaggerating the threat of the American Communists long before "Tail Gunner Joe" began waving his "lists" of Communists. And to my knowledge, Moore has never destroyed anyone's career.) But while doing some shopping at the local Dollar Tree, I was reminded of Simon at his best. His book, Home and Away: Memoir of a Fan (2000) was on the shelf, and I bought a hardback copy for a dollar. I'm no sports fan, but Simon's memoir gives me insight into fandom. By framing his autobiography in relation to Chicago sports Simon endears himself to his readers--even nonfans like me. I used the memoir as a model for my own reminiscences of growing up as a railfan (possibly to be seen in an upcoming issue of Classic Trains). If you're in a Dollar Tree, look for Home and Away. It's definitely worth a buck.

Tuesday, April 19, 2005

The Poetry Racket

Those of you who are on my e-mail list may recognize this as an updated recycling of letters from July and September of 2004. Hey, I needed to get something out for National Poetry Month.

A few months ago, while wasting time surfing the web, I was distracted by a pop-up inviting me to test my poetry IQ. I took the quiz, which included writing a short poem. I was happy to see that I got 11 out of 11 right in the quiz. About a week later, I received a letter from that my poem was a semi-finalist for their contest. I had looked at poems on the website by other people named Wylder (none of whom I knew). They were dreadful. Maybe my amateur effort had some chance among such competitors.

But when the mailing went on to offer me a book containing my poem for the low price of $49.95, I began to wonder. Is this like the old "We're Looking for People Who Like to Write" scam of the 1960s? Later I received a chance to get a trophy for my poem--all for another nominal fee of $120 or so. It turns out that everyone who submits a poem is a semi-finalist, and the only people who get the poetry collections are those who shell out the fifty bucks. Quite a few people have been taken in by the scam. It's too bad that this organization uses such a marketing scheme, because its website has some wonderful features. Anyway, here's my "semi-finalist" poem, as printed on the website:

Aboard the Lake Shore Limited

Rolling north along the Hudson

past Tarrytown, where Washington Irving

penned his tales.

And Sing Sing Prison, where the state

Wreaked its vengeance on the Rosenburgs

Fifty-one years before.

Just past Croton

the ruin of Bannerman's Castle appears--

And for a few minutes I'm in

the Scottish Highlands.

Until I see the Bear Mountain Bridge

Where Kerouac was caught in the rain

And gave up his "stupid hearthside idea

to follow the one great line

across America."

As I watch from the window, following

the line north and west,

to home and love.

Stephen Crews Wylder

(Sorry about the double-spacing. My knowledge of HTML is minimal)

The poem has a geographical problem--Bear Mountain Bridge is actually south of Bannerman’s Castle. But if Shakespeare can add a seacoast to landlocked Bohemia, a little relocation of landmarks seems in keeping with tradition.

I’ll conclude with a reminder of that poetry, like politics, ain’t beanbag. Last year, when I was suffering from depression, I took solace in poetry. One poem in particular helped me preserve what was left of my mental health:

On What Planet

Uniformly over the whole countryside
The warm air flows imperceptibly seaward;
The autumn haze drifts in deep bands
Over the pale water;
White egrets stand in the blue marshes;
Tamalpais, Diablo, St. Helena
Float in the air.
Climbing on the cliffs of Hunter's Hill
We look out over fifty miles of sinuous
Interpenetration of mountains and sea.
Leading up a twisted chimney,
Just as my eyes rise to the level
Of a small cave, two white owls
Fly out, silent, close to my face.
They hover, confused in the sunlight,
And disappear into the recesses of the cliff.
All day I have been watching a new climber,
A young girl with ash blond hair
She climbs, slowly, precisely,
With unwasted grace.
While I am coiling the ropes,
Watching the spectacular sunset,
She turns to me and says, quietly,
"It must be beautiful, the sunset,
On Saturn, with the rings and all the moons."

-Kenneth Rexroth

Friday, April 15, 2005

The problem with

Every town has its seamy aspects--places, people, and happenings the Chamber of Commerce would rather you didn‘t know about. Exposing the seamy side of our towns and cities is a worthy journalistic tradition. Lincoln Steffens’ classic, The Shame of the Cities, comes to mind. His 1904 study of corruption and decay in major American cities put the blame where it belonged--at the top: “In all cities, the better classes… are the sources of corruption, but they are so rarely pursued and caught that we do not fully realize whence the trouble comes."

Another classic from the same era, How the Other Half Lives by Jacob Riis, is a photographic essay documenting the plight of New York’s tenement dwellers. Riis, like Steffens, faults the rich and powerful for the appalling situation.

Elkhart, Indiana, a town I called home for fifteen years (and to which I’m trying to return), has its seamy side. I would welcome anyone who seeks to expose the corruption, poverty, and blight of “The City With A Heart.” But such an exposé needs to have a heart as well.

Some of is in the tradition of Steffens and Riis. The photo essay on Accra-Pac--pictures of the factory accompanied by excerpts from an “executive summary” of a fatal explosion at the plant--clearly makes the point that things were not as they should have been.

But the “residential” section of the site takes an entirely different viewpoint. The photo essay, “The Ghetto,” has no empathy with Elkhart’s poor. The snide caption, “How much crack is a drier worth?” accompanies a photo showing clothes hung out to dry outside a public housing unit. A picture of a public housing parking lot carries the caption, “The Suburban is stolen.”

“Historical Elkhart” is really just a comment on urban blight--history doesn’t have much to do with it. And the webmaster doesn’t take on absentee landlords, but the poor. “Fires started by smoking crack have been on the rise in recent years,” reads a caption under a picture of a fire-damaged house.

The legend, “There's something to be said about painting your house the color of cotton candy,” accompanies a photo of a bright yellow house. Perhaps the webmaster prefers the look-alike beige McMansions taking up Indiana farmland .

And the website never mentions the right-wing silliness of the Elkhart County Commissioners. Their resolution calling on the United States to withdraw from the United Nations (passed after closed meetings with members of the John Birch Society) made the county a laughingstock.

Simply to say, “Elkhart, Indiana is the worst city, county, and place in the United States” isn’t enough. Maybe you have to love the place to make effective criticism. But if, is to be more than a series of snide comments, it needs to go after the people in power--not the poor and powerless.