Here Are Two Tickets To A Concert; The Date Is…

St Burchardi Church; image courtesy of atlasobscura.com

It all seemed so simple. For our weekly Zoom get-together with friends, one woman suggested a discussion of a rather quirky event she’d read about in The New York Times: an organ recital of a work by American composer John Cage

But is it 2 hours with an intermission? No. Perhaps, since John Cage was known for his innovations, it would take place over a day or two? Nope. 

This concert is scheduled to run, non-stop, until 2640. And as offbeat as Cage was known to be, that decision wasn’t made until years after his death in 1992, at age 79. But some cursory research on Cage persuaded me that the idea would have tickled him greatly.

Picture a conclave attended by serious people with expertise in composing, musicology, philosophy, and the organ itself. They met in Trossingen, in Southern Germany, in 1998. What was on their minds?

The Times explains:

“They developed the idea of a performance calibrated to the life expectancy of an organ. The first modern keyboard organ is thought to have been built in Halberstadt in 1361, 639 years before the turn of the 21st century—so they decided the performance would last for 639 years.”

And Then They Made It Happen

The location is the St. Burchardi church in that very town—Halberstadt in eastern Germany. The recital began on September 5, 2001—marking Cage’s 89th birthday. I’m not sure if there’s numerology involved in that commencement date—more likely it just took them three years to put all the details together. 

And the really big deal that occasioned the Times’s coverage was that—for the 14th time since the concert began, there was a single sound change—as per the composer’s instructions.

Yup—that change is actually written into the score. Cage had originally composed the piece for the piano, with the instruction that the tempo should be “as slow as possible.” When he reworked it for the organ two years later, the tempo instruction became “Organ2/ASLSP” (As SLow aS Possible).

Organ2/ASLSP at St. Burchardi Church, Halberstadt. Picture: PA

But the Times article notes that the change “raised questions.”

“On piano, the sound fades after the key is hit; on the organ, notes can be held indefinitely. Or can they? What about when the organist needs to eat, or go to the bathroom? Or dies?” 

All valid questions one never considers in relation to a concert. But perhaps you’ve been thinking about that: 639 years is a long time to go without a bathroom break…

In that case, you’ll be relieved to know that the organ’s sounds originate from pipes receiving air blown from a compressor in the basement of the church; the pipes are worked by pedals—and the pedals are weighted by sandbags. The change in sound occurs via the number of pipes that are added or removed.

A Bit About John Cage

John Milton Cage Jr. Image courtesy of commons.wikimedia.org

Many people consider John Cage a leading figure in 20th Century music. One of his best-known compositions, from 1952, was titled 4’33”: musicians enter, are seated on the stage, and remain silent for that length of time.

Would you like to see an orchestra playing 4’33”? Here’s a link.

According to Cage, the audience wasn’t hearing silence; they were instead submerged in the non-musical sounds that surrounded them.

Whether this piece is music or not is beyond my ken, but it became both popular and—as you may have guessed—controversial, as it went against certain basic assumptions people held not only about music, but about “the broader aesthetics of art and performance.” I’m quoting Wikipedia here, which I’ve never done before, but it seems reasonable.

And the quotation below fits into Cage’s stated philosophy that sounds were something distinct from the composer.

“When I hear what we call music, it seems to me that someone is talking. And talking about his feelings, or about his ideas of relationships. But when I hear traffic, the sound of traffic—here on Sixth Avenue, for instance—I don’t have the feeling that anyone is talking. 

“I have the feeling that sound is acting. And I love the activity of sound … I don’t need sound to talk to me.”  

But he apparently needed sound to resonate at whatever speed was in his head. And this is how we got to the point that the folks in Halberstadt were adding and removing organ pipes to fulfill Cage’s requirement in his score. The first performance lasted for 29 minutes. A more recent one was 71 minutes long. (That information came from another source: Universes.art)

So this recital, held in the middle of a pandemic, attracted a small crowd of mask-wearing listeners. The organizers limited the crowd size because of COVID-19 but placed a screen outside so others could attend.

Writes the Times:

“…the idea that the performance would make it to 2640 was radically optimistic: That will require hangovers between generations, and it will take effort and money. And that seems even more unlikely now, as the pandemic makes us realize life’s fragility, and the threat of climate change puts human survival in question.”

Nevertheless, the show went on. 

“At 3 pm, the composer Julian Lembke and the soprano Johanna Vargas, both wearing white gloves, lowered two new pipes onto the body of the organ, which sounded a G sharp and an E. These created a new, seven-note chord, together with the five notes that have been sounding since October 2013: C, D flat, D sharp, A sharp and E.”

According to Lembke, the change brought “a new softness” and denser sound to the chord.

If you access the Times article online, you can actually hear the chord. Or if you’d like to hear the next chord change in person, you can visit St. Burchardi on February 5, 2022. (Date from Axios)

Though the event has brought tens of thousands of visitors to a town whose population is aging, the mayor, Andreas Henke, said most of the people who live there either don’t know anything about the music or call it “that cacophony.” But he welcomes Cage’s recitals for bringing a measure of fame to Halberstadt.

In an effort to raise the much-needed funds to keep the recital going (it’s run by volunteers), the organizers offer private donors plaques that are displayed in the church and specify the year of their choosing.

One couple purchased the year 2580, in celebration of their 600th wedding anniversary. I imagine that would be quite the party! How do they decide when to order the cake?

Some Philosophical Questions

Mayor Henke said the recitals raise “philosophical questions about how we confront time. We are all so consumed by our daily working lives. This forces us to stand back and slow down.”

Essentially, the continuation of what has become a musical ritual can be viewed as a paean to optimism.

“It is very special to be a part of an art project that will connect generations and last for generations,” Henke said, adding that “his great hope” is that it will continue until 2640.

I will acknowledge that when my friend suggested this story as a topic of discussion, I responded that though it wouldn’t have been my first choice, or even my 368th, I would be interested in seeing where our discussion took us. We had a very nice, thoughtful discussion. 

Now, further pondering this piece as I write in the shadow of COVID-19 and the ravages of climate change, I find myself heavily invested in the hope that this recital—or, indeed, any piece of art or creative work—can continue to capture people’s imaginations so that they’ll want to be a part of it in the future. 

And that’s a future for which we shall all have to work much harder today—if we are to ensure it will actually be there in 2640 and beyond.

I look forward to hearing your reactions.

Annie

Continue reading “Here Are Two Tickets To A Concert; The Date Is…”

First, Let Me Apologize for My Lunkheadedness…

The Roll Call of the States Reaches Rhode Island

I realize that lots of people avoid talking about politics in these dreadfully polarized times.

But, political junkie that I am, I failed to realize that some of you don’t even want to read about politics—not in the newspapers, not on the Internet, and not on this blog. (Oh, my!)

So it will be hard for you to understand how elated I was after watching the full four days of the Democratic Convention. And how disappointed I was to learn that even committed voters didn’t watch most of it.

I’ll take a wild leap and state that I think many of the 70% of us who say we think our country is going in the wrong direction would feel much more optimistic about our future if you’d heard some of the truly inspiring speakers and watched the roll call of the states that showed slices of Americana many of us never see (including Rhode Island’s famous calamari, pictured above—who knew?). 

You may well have been impressed, as I was, by viewing the plethora of non-political people making the case that this country needs to end its chaos and hate mongering, stop the rising deaths from coronavirus by a national plan to control the virus, and begin rebuilding the economy by electing Biden-Harris.

Know who nominated Biden? Not some hotshot politician, but New York Times security guard Jacquelyn Brittany, who had escorted him to an editorial board meeting at the Times during the campaign and blurted out “I love you!” (He didn’t gain the Times’s endorsement, but he sure had hers.) Sorry for my sappiness, but I thought that was just a delightful touch.

And you’ve probably heard about 13-year-old Brayden Harrington, whom Biden had met during the primaries on a rope line in New Hampshire. Brayden, a stutterer, said Biden’s pep talk with him changed his life. (Biden has spoken openly about the childhood affliction that still affects him on occasion.)

The speech this courageous young man made, while stuttering here and there, was an uplifting tribute both to him and to the compassionate leader who took a few minutes to talk with him and asked his father if it was OK to get his phone number. (Biden said he’s in touch with about 20 kids who stutter.)

That’s just a flavor of the heartwarming, distinctly real, distinctly American, and–ironically–distinctly apolitical feel of this convention. And it’s mind-stretching to think that the people who created it all and meshed and paced diverse people and videos so well had to put something together that had never been done before. Their success bodes well, I felt, for the smoothness and professionalism that the Biden team would bring to the White House.

I had concluded quite a while ago that although Biden wasn’t my first choice, his experience as VP, successfully handling two pandemics (H1N1 and Ebola) and the near economic meltdown that Obama and he had to address as soon as they took office, made him uniquely qualified for the major problems our country now faces. 

When I researched my post about the women heads of state who’d had the greatest success in curbing the pandemic, it all came down to leadership. And leadership meant listening carefully to the scientists, acting promptly, speaking truthfully to their people, and expressing compassion for their plight.

I strongly believe the US would have been one of the world’s leaders, rather than among its worst failures, if Biden had been President when the virus struck.

So even if you hate politics, I fervently hope you won’t sit this one out. Voting should be a piece of cake; in the US today it’s more like a triathlon of mazes, hurdles, and stamina-defying long lines. The deliberate sabotage of postal service will require more workarounds. But part of the Trump effort is to persuade you that your vote won’t count. Many thousands of people are now at work to ensure that’s not the case. But we must do our part.

In other words, we’ll need every citizen who thinks this country is on the wrong track to make the determination to vote and stick to it. Right now, of course, you must check to see that you’re registered before your state’s deadline.

More than 550,000 mail-in ballots were not counted during the primaries. The reasons were lack of a signature, signature different from what was on record, or late arrival. Make sure if you vote by mail that none of those problems negates your vote—and talk to everyone you know who’s voting by mail to ensure they also do so properly. 

Here’s an NPR interview and article about those problems; it includes a state-by-state listing of the numbers of uncounted ballots. 

And here’s New York Times columnist Frank Bruni explaining that with all the structural and human-made problems, we’ll need a landslide just to ensure Biden wins.

My fellow blogger Joseph Urban, aka The Old Liberal, who taught government/civics for many years, has put together a valuable voters guide in the blog post below. It’s relatively brief, but full of useful information.

https://josephurban.wordpress.com/2020/08/16/how-to-vote/

Here’s a piece of it, including two important resources:

“The two links below are very helpful for locating information for this election. They can link you to info specific to your state. Keep in mind that a few states have different rules for each county. Find out well in advance. No excuses.

Don’t let them steal another one.”

https://www.usvotefoundation.org/vote/state-elections/state-voting-laws-requirements.htm

https://www.vote.org/early-voting-calendar/
 
NBC News also has a site, Plan Your Vote, with info about mail-in and early voting, answering such questions as whether COVID is a valid reason for mail-in ballots in states that didn’t originally allow them. And it tells you how to track your ballot to make sure it’s been accepted; that’s extremely important.

Your single vote has never been more essential than it is this year. Please do everything you can to make certain that it’s received and counted. Our democracy, indeed, our very lives, depend upon it.

Annie

A Thanksgiving-ish Story

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City Landscape in the Night Courtesy of Publicdomainvectors.org

Three women, strangers, seats 23D (aisle), 23E (center), 23F (window).
One soybean farmer, one blogger, one psychotherapist.
Flight delayed by weather at destination.
10,000 feet above ground, swiftly nearing landing.

23D and E heading for home.
23F preparing for romantic rendezvous with second husband.
Twenty years married, only one previous holiday sans kids—hers/his.
He’d joined his kids for one lap of their year sailing ‘round the world.

I have to pass through Portugal on my way home, he’d said.
Why don’t you meet me there? She was thrilled.
Meet in Lisbon, tour the countryside.

But…

Time was 7:40 PM. Connecting flight gates to close at 8:15.
Why don’t we change seats now? suggested 23D.
The change was made. Traveler-in-motion now seated on the aisle. Precious minutes saved.
Maybe tell the flight staff to call ahead? offered 23E.
The call was made. Anxiety easing.

I can’t find my boarding pass, lamented the traveler-in-motion.
Here it is, her companion said, picking it up from the floor.
A spontaneous warm hug from the traveler-in-motion.

Shared moments, caring among strangers. Empathy in action.
A week before Thanksgiving, but appropriate for the season.
Any season…

Annie

 

Music to “Stretch Our Ears”: Beethoven, Beatles, Blues…

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I can’t carry a tune, and no one would ever accuse me of having perfect pitch. But I love music—so many different kinds of music, preferably live. At some point in my life, I’m determined to see Bruce Springsteen in concert—even though I hate crowds.

But one type of music really transports me: the fully realized magnificence of a fine symphony orchestra. Fortunately,  there is such an orchestra that performs fairly close to my home, and my husband and I have had a series subscription with friends for the past few years. 

Thursday night was the season finale—and it was a whopper, appropriately titled the “Blockbuster All-Orchestral Season Finale.” For those of you who don’t love classical music, imagine attending a concert given by your very favorite band, and I think you’ll get the mood.

First of all, the conductor is a wonder: a tiny slip of a woman who exudes energy, power,  and artistry with her every move and gesture—sort of a woods sprite with a baton.

This was the only time she’d appeared this season, as there were guest conductors, and when I told my husband I wished I could have seen her more often, he said, “Just put her in your pocket and take her home.” She’s really really tiny.

I’ve been told that the orchestra loves her, and it’s clear she returns the favor. So from the time she reaches center stage, everyone is happy and optimistic.

The program featured Mendelssohn, Selections from A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Op. 21, which begins very softly and ends with The Wedding March, which you’d recognize immediately.

According to the program notes, the young Mendelssohn had been sitting with his family as they entertained an astronomer, their guest describing the contents of the sky far above.  When Felix went out for a walk, he headed for the garden 

“to gaze at the stars that had been the primary topic of conversation at the dinner table. His attention was diverted by the gossamer activity of the summer night.” 

Four evening breezes were purportedly the inspiration for the four woodwind chords that open and close the overture. The delicate violin string segments were his “musical impression of fireflies flickering about the nocturnal atmosphere.”

Years later, Mendelssohn said, “That night I encountered Shakespeare in the garden!”

That lovely piece was followed by a Rachmaninoff symphony: No. 2 in E Minor, Op. 27. Absolutely breathtaking. Apparently, it took the composer years to complete, as he was filled with self-doubt. 

The program notes state: “The music is lush and relaxed. This is an expansive symphony in the late Romantic vein: heartfelt, emotional and long.” (Not long enough for me!)

As is often the case with classical music, one of this symphony’s themes has made its way into popular music: it appears in the song “Never Gonna Fall in Love Again,” which was a hit in 1976.

I find that one of the delights of listening to a beautiful symphony, in addition to the aural pleasure, is being in such a civilized environment. As those of you who are familiar with my blog know by now, I’m always seeking common ground. Sitting in a large group of people enjoying a common experience—away from all politics and divisiveness—is a joy in itself.

But here’s the rub. Entering and leaving the concert, I see a vast number of people with canes, walkers, and wheelchairs. It’s inspiring to see folks who don’t let their infirmities stop them from participating in these events, but I wonder how viable this orchestra, and others, are when I’ve read that the average age of symphony orchestra attendees is 60. (I suspect in our locale, that average may well be considerably higher.)

I’m not the only one to express such concerns, of course, and it’s not a new one. I did find one optimistic note from a 2004 article titled: ”Probing Question: Is classical music still relevant in today’s world?” According to George Trudeau, Director of the Center for Performing Arts at Penn State, 

“Classical music is alive and well. What has changed is there are more avenues than ever before for classical performance and public education, including public radio, the internet, and other digital technologies.”

Penn State’s Center was actively seeking to stimulate appreciation of classical music in students, faculty, and community members through a diverse program involving artists in residence and such efforts as “experiencing the music in alternative venues and informal settings such as our Classical Coffeehouses.”

Trudeau said then that attendance at the various classical music performances by Penn State students had risen from 26% of total sales to 40% in three years, and that students told him “exposure to classical music was enriching their lives.”

So perhaps there’s hope that coming generations will still find their way to the symphony. I have noticed that when a very young guest performer appears at the programs we attend, many very young people show up in the audience. 

Similarly, several months ago, my husband and I attended a One Day University lecture on “How to Listen to (and Appreciate) Great Music,” given by Orin Grossman of Fairfield University and featuring several incredibly talented young musicians from a local arts public high school. 

There the emphasis was on chamber music, and Grossman discussed melody, recurring themes, the dominance of the piano, the way the composer would get himself far out on a limb and then musically work his way back, and other elements.

He demonstrated his points by asking these gifted musicians to pick up the relevant pieces of the classics and play them—and they did, flawlessly. It was a joyous occasion—and wonderful to see these young symphony performers in the making.

Yesterday, I found that One Day University had a revised version of Grossman’s lecture available online. The title was the same, and the purpose was once again to encourage active listening “in order to ‘stretch our ears’ and get more pleasure from the musical experience.”

While I’d been worrying about the diminishing presence of symphony orchestras, Grossman was underscoring how much luckier we are than people long ago, who had little or no access to great music.

“We have the opposite problem,” he said. “It’s so accessible we try to tune it out and become very passive.” It’s fine to use music as background and simply to relax, but he was stressing how much more gratification we get when we “stretch our ears.”

In contrast to the live lecture with Grossman that we’d attended, the selections of great music this time were more varied–and he was the sole performer. The focus was on melody and how the composer treats it. Yes, there was Bach, who’d either combine two melodies or, more commonly, create a “dialogue” of melodic fragments, as in the Concerto for Oboe and Violin.

Grossman easily segued from Bach to the Beatles, whom he considers the best musicians in decades and whose music he believes “holds up very well.”

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The Beatles, holding up very well!

Using John Lennon’s song “Girl,” he illustrated how Lennon pushed the boundaries by introducing second melodies, returning to the melody with a guitar backup.

Next, he spent time on Duke Ellington, saying he had been misunderstood as merely a bandleader when he was “one of our greatest composers. From the 20s to the 70s, he gave a name to the Swing Era: ‘It Don’t Mean a Thing If It Ain’t Got That Swing.’” Grossman played and stopped a recording of the song several times so we could hear the call and response as the brass swings.

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Duke Ellington: Composer, musician, bandleader

“The harder you listen to where it’s going—you’ll be tricked,” he said impishly.

For no reason I could discern, he returned to the classics and Beethoven at this point, which was fine with me once I got accustomed to the temporal whiplash. He pointed out that in the movie “The King’s Speech,” Colin Firth as King George VI must address the nation despite his stuttering. As he gets to the microphone, in the background we hear the chords from the second movement of Beethoven’s 7th Symphony in a repeating rhythm. 

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Ludwig van Beethoven

The intensity and power of Beethoven’s music are often built through fragmentation of the melodies, which finally explode into heroic sounds, as “metaphors of victory through struggle,” Grossman said. Perfect reinforcement for the King’s message to his people.

He ended with George Gershwin’s “Rhapsody in Blue,” which combined elements of life in New York–and by extension, America–the Blues, Latin rhythms, ragtime, and Broadway band ballads, to illustrate the “clashing and blending” of the various cultures.

“The imagery interlocking the piece is trying to show one version of the United States,” he said. “At heart, it’s a good mystery: you wouldn’t want everything explainable.”

No, we wouldn’t. And if you have an extra 17 minutes and would like to test your active listening skills for discerning the various elements Gershwin intertwined, go to YouTube’s video of Leonard Bernstein and the New York Philharmonic playing “Rhapsody in Blue.” (You can skip the ads.)

I return to the sense of civilization and common ground that I feel when I listen to the soaring music of a symphony in concert with fellow music lovers (a little pun here). Regardless of your taste in music, at any live venue, there’s always a sense of community, of sharing your enjoyment with others. And music is so often tied to memories that such a sharing can be a part of your pleasure even when you’re listening alone. I felt that way watching the video of “Rhapsody in Blue,” in which Bernstein both conducted and played the piano.

Do you like to “stretch your ears” with active listening to music? If this is a new idea to you, is it appealing? What type of music do you prefer, and what role does music play in your life? Do you/did you play an instrument? How often do you hear live music? Would you go more often if it were more convenient? Less financially burdensome?

I look forward to your comments. In fact, I’m all ears.

Annie

How Do We Talk About Race in America? An Unfortunate Update…

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In these highly partisan and polarized times, there’s been a fair amount of talk denigrating what’s referred to as identity politics. Why should we be talking about the needs of individual groups when we really should be finding ways to unite us as a country?

Many well-meaning people stake out this position, and as my blog is devoted to finding common ground, I understand that sentiment—and feel we must pursue both goals simultaneously. I long for the time when we are all so comfortable with one another that we embrace our differences, while those differences recede in importance in the ways we respond to each other. But we sure aren’t there yet.

In Part 2 of my exploration, “How Do We Talk About Race in America?,” I spoke with Doug Glanville, a friend of my daughter’s whom I’ve known since they were children. After graduating as an engineering student from the University of Pennsylvania, Glanville has gone on to do great things in his life: his rich and varied career, which included nine years of playing major league baseball (twice with the Chicago Cubs), now involves being a sports commentator, writer, podcast co-star, and lecturer at Yale University, teaching a course titled “Athletes, Activism, Public Policy, and the Media.” He is a uniter and optimist by nature—confronting racial injustice when needed but always trying to put it into perspective and not overreact.

In my previous post, we discussed his being profiled by a police officer from a neighboring town while shoveling the snow off the driveway of his Connecticut home. His response was to work toward what eventually led to a change in state law governing police jurisdictions. He received an apology from the governor, who appointed him to the Connecticut Police Officers Standards and Training Council.

Somehow, due to his largeness of spirit, he retained no animus toward the police officer who confronted him, viewing the episode instead as an opportunity to work with the police to improve their procedures. He told me when we spoke that he likes to “take lemons and make lemonade.”

Well, life just handed him another big lemon, which he described in The New York Times Sunday Review. (He’s also a contributing opinion writer for the Times.) I hope everyone will read his entire Op-Ed: it’s a powerful, nuanced, sophisticated view from a very thoughtful person about issues we should all be aware of and thinking about. Here’s the beginning:

“Ambiguity has always been a friend to racism.

On May 7, during a television broadcast of a Chicago Cubs game at Wrigley Field, I was on camera doing in-game commentary for NBC Sports Chicago when, unbeknown to me, a fan behind me wearing a Cubs sweatshirt made an upside-down ‘O.K.’ sign with his hand.
The meaning of this hand gesture can be ambiguous. It has long been used to simply say, ‘O.K.’ Some people also use it to play the ‘circle game,’ where you hold your hand below your waist and try to get others to look at it. And most recently it has been co-opted to express support for white supremacy. The man accused of committing the New Zealand mosque massacres flashed this sign during his first court appearance.

Because I am a person of color, the fan’s gesture suggested its sinister meaning.”

He wasn’t aware of what had happened until after the game, when he noticed his Twitter feed “overrun by strange avatars, unrecognizable handles, aggressive trolls and a heated debate about racist imagery.” There was considerable discussion about whether the man’s actions were or were not sinister.

And that ambiguity is precisely the point, Glanville writes.

“According to the Anti-Defamation League, users of the online message board 4chan originally introduced the idea that the ‘O.K.’ sign was a white supremacist prank to get the media to overreact to innocuous gestures—but the sign soon morphed into a genuine expression of white supremacy as well.”

In other words, we are all being gaslighted by the most racially extreme elements among us. But for people of color, including those like Glanville who still manage to be optimistic about race in America, this gaslighting is particularly odious and exhausting—the degree of fatigue varying with the extent of racism they’ve experienced in their lives.

Glanville seeks to explain what it’s like by depicting a coordinate graph in which people of color might plot the various episodes that could be racist that have either happened to them or they’ve heard about.

“The x-axis represents the passage of time and the y-axis represents the degree of racism of an episode—from someone’s assumption that you’re a valet when you’re parking your own car to the burning of a cross on your lawn. For each experience, you mark a dot.”

The pattern that emerges when those dots are connected, Glanville says “allows you to notice correlations, to make predictions. You are learning from evidence, in part for your self-preservation.”

Then comes the tricky part, when someone who has learned from such evidence meets with an individual who hasn’t had similar exposure.

“He sees evidence of racism only from time to time, and when he does, it tends to be stark and unambiguous—the use of racial slurs, an explicit avowal of hate.”

To this person, “racism seems to be a rarity, maybe even invented.”

Glanville, who teaches courses focused on communication, wonders how he can convince such a person of the pattern he sees, when the listener is inclined, based on his own experiences, to depict subtle racism as an “isolated incident” and even accuse Glanville of “playing the race card.”

How often have we heard that phrase in our political rhetoric?

Equally troubling, the person may say all this talk about racism is just making things worse.

Glanville stresses that he, and most people of color, continually look for the innocuous explanation, trying not to think the worst of people. He recognizes that despite the overwhelming evidence from the data he’s experienced, he can be wrong in a particular instance.

“An ‘O.K.’ sign means nothing on its own. But racism thrives in ambiguity, in shadows. In this form, it is cowardly with double meanings.”

Despite his instincts, he didn’t immediately condemn the Cubs fan who made the gesture. He waited until the facts were in. Indeed, the Cubs quickly did an investigation, found that the fan’s intent was malicious, and banned him from Wrigley Field.

The Washington Post (May 8) quoted the Cubs’ president, Theo Epstein: “We’ve made clear how egregious and unacceptable that behavior is, and there’s no place for it in our society, in baseball, and certainly no place in Wrigley Field.”

Said Tim Elfrink, the Post writer:

“The case marks the latest high-profile emergence of the hand symbol and suggests yet again how thoroughly troubling language and memes pushed by the alt-right and adopted by hate groups have infiltrated American culture. But such gestures, which can run the gamut from ironic jokes to long-running games to outright symbols of intolerance, are also notoriously difficult to interpret.”

It bears repeating that ambiguity is precisely the point. The Post quotes Salon writer Amanda Marcotte, who observed that the O.K. sign was to serve as both white supremacist symbol “and also one that is just ordinary enough looking that when liberals expressed outrage, the white supremacist could play the victim of liberal hysteria.”

And as Glanville points out, the impact of ambiguity on people of color can be profound, making them feel…

“That their sanity hinges on a single verdict. If the Cubs fan was flashing a white nationalist sign, we are in danger; if he was not, we are ‘politicizing’ things or ‘race-baiting.’ This is an incapacitating position to find yourself in, especially when you are just an innocent bystander. You are thrust into the public eye and forced to relitigate the existence of racism. Before you know what has happened, you find yourself on the defensive.”

And Glanville draws the very straight line from such soul-bashing episodes of racism as symbol to racism as system:

“…institutional power that can crush neighborhoods, generations of children, stripping people of validation, self-worth and opportunity. Those who have been on the losing end of this power are never certain that they will be O.K.”

Still, he holds out hope that we as a society will “choose the path of empathy and hope.” pointing out that baseball “is played by teams of people from all walks of life, following universal rules, competing on a level playing field.” Acknowledging that this image may be part mythology, he still sees it as an “aspirational ideal, a goal for us as a society.”Doug Glanville 56ff1f7494371.image

But only if we are willing to acknowledge

“that racism operates not only with fire hoses and police dogs but also in whispers, in fine print, in invisible ink, in coded language. Until we are fully against it, we are letting it fester, and while we try to sort out the ambiguities, people are suffering.”

His closing sentence: “They will still suffer once we have our answers, no matter what we find out.”

Though that is more hard truth than optimistic conclusion, I know Doug Glanville will continue his work of building bridges, teaching and writing about social justice, guiding his own children to focus on the good around them and rise above the rest.

Of course we’ve made progress since the Jim Crow era, but with the current trends, including deliberate attempts to deny or make it nearly impossible for people of color to vote, and the far too numerous killings of unarmed black people by police officers—many of whom are not held accountable—how can we possibly expect people of color to ignore racial slights or “put them in perspective” when, regardless of their accomplishments, they know how close they are to the next indignity—or worse?

How does it feel to hear TV commentators focus on how important it is for Democratic candidates to appeal to the white voters in Pennsylvania, Wisconsin, etc., when the water situation in Flint, Michigan, has still not been fully resolved five years later, and we don’t even know how many other predominantly black cities are similarly affected? What will it take for us to care—as if they are our own—about the children being poorly educated and poisoned by environmental pollutants that are getting worse as the EPA standards are lessened or removed?

And why does the shocking data that African-American women are three to four times more likely to die in childbirth than white women—regardless of their income and education levels—not cry out for national attention?

With so many hate crimes and “anti-isms” against various groups on the rise in this country, some may be tempted to belittle the kind of assault Doug Glanville recently experienced. After all, he wasn’t physically injured.

I don’t use the word “assault” lightly: when someone so accomplished—a good-hearted, caring individual with a long history of trying to ease tensions among groups—lets us in on how devastating the accretion of these insults can become, we dare not ignore his words.

Yes, we must strive to overcome our differences and reduce the terrible polarization that threatens us now. We must always seek those things that unite us, rather than divide us.

But we’ll never do so until we realize that the original sin of slavery still hovers over us, and in 2019, we have much more work to do. I am grateful to Doug Glanville for so eloquently sharing his pain with us. He’s still ready to do the hard work to make our country better for us all. Are those of us whose lives aren’t disrupted by the types of incidents Glanville and so many others continually experience ready to do the same?

I welcome your thoughts, opinions, and stories.

Annie

NOTE: You can hear an audio interview in which Glanville describes the episode and its aftermath on WBUR’s Here and Now (May 29).  Notice that he ends with a positive observation, as he always tries to do.