art, history, ideas, language, life, poetry, talent, unfortunate

Enormous Changes, Last Minute: About Grace Paley

Grace Paley died two days ago. She was a sweet and humane poet and short story writer, one of those individuals for whom many will admit a familiarity with the name if not a specific knowledge of the work because some high school English teacher somewhere along the line (but a fan, truly) assigned a couple of her stories about the lives of working class New York women, narrated by those same working class New York women. But many others will remember her for a long time because they were great stories and great poems and illuminated a talent and a part of society that we would do well to remember–the Yiddish-inflected Jewish street and home life of New York in the 50s and 60s.

Grace was also an ardent activist, particularly for the cause of piece. During the Vietnam War she went to Hanoi on a peace mission to negotiate for the release of American prisoners. To learn more about her, I strongly recommend the obituaries in the New York Times and Washington Post–the Post for its wit (really, Grace’s wit), and the Times for its sheer, uninhibited enthusiasm.

I first met Grace Paley in 2000 or 2001. She lived near my college during the later part of her life, in Thetford, Vermont, and we had a couple of friends in common. One of them, Cleopatra Mathis, introduced me to her after a reading by the poet Grace Schulberg. We were at a little reception, catered by a local African restaurant, with platters of doughy fried finger foods and fresh vegetables. Grace Paley wasn’t in much of a talking mood, but was still very warm and friendly. “Don’t forget to eat your vegetables,” she told me. And then she bit into a carrot.

I saw her again a few years later, in April 2003. During the new Iraq War, it turned out. And she was worried about me. It was like talking to a close family friend or favored great aunt who is in town for the night and really just wants to make sure I’m getting along OK: am I? really? OK?

She was in San Francisco to give a talk at the giant Temple Emanu-el. (I wrote a friend about it, and from that am I getting some of these comments.) She didn’t read much, except a short and excellent story about spending six days in jail, and a few poems by other people. But she did talk a lot, especially about current events, and she didn’t avoid any questions. When asked about US involvement in the domestic situations of other countries, she recalled meeting a Chilean truck driver who had a briefcase full of paper money from the CIA. She and her husband Bob Nichols were visiting Chile to learn about strawberry farming. This was 1973.

I think I must have been the youngest person in the audience, except for a few 12 year olds. Maybe I was the youngest person who went there voluntarily. One woman a bit older than me stood up and asked Grace how she felt about current events as a Jewish person. This woman was young and attractive and well-dressed and well-spoken and after Grace’s talk she was surrounded by complimentary old women who clucked and cooed over her. The question seemed to arouse a sense of approval from some sections of the audience, though not necessarily all. How do you feel about these things as a Jewish person?

And Grace said, I’m not quite sure what you mean.

Grace Paley grew up as a normal socialist Jewish girl, she said, and added that religion never was very important in her family. I think she also said that her parents were quite critical of religion. She did make her opinion on the Israel-Palestine problem clear by suggesting that we transplant the anti-war slogan “Bring our soldiers home” to the occupied territories: “Bring the settlers home.” (This was before Sharon started the settlement withdrawals.) An Israeli friend of hers pointed out that having those settlers integrated into regular Israeli society would drive everyone else crazy, so Grace switched gears: “Send them home. They’re all from Brooklyn, anyway.”

She then mentioned that a series of threats she had received for her criticism of the settlements were traced to a single phone booth at a college in Brooklyn.

I talked to her briefly afterward, and she signed my edition of Collected Poems. (The poet and professor Gary Lenhart gave me a copy of her Collected Stories a couple of years back, as well–there you’ll find much of what the critics rave about.). We talked for what seemed a long time, but was probably just 10 or 15 minutes. I could feel all the middle aged women there eyeing me suspiciously–why is he taking so long? Though by the time I talked to her, there was no line. No rush, I suppose, either, as she made time for everyone who wanted to speak with her.

She hadn’t shaken the Bronx inflections (one former New Yorker told me they all work to cultivate it long after they’ve left): How’s life, dahling, whatta ya doing, are ya making enough money, good luck, dahling, good luck to you.


Grace Paley figured in the first blog entry I ever wrote, on the occasion of the death of a playwright. In that little essay, I lamented not getting to meet these great and talented people who lived when I lived, but died before I could talk to them, and noted that when it came to Grace Paley, I was lucky. Another person I mentioned there was the poet Kenneth Koch.

Kenneth Koch wrote a lot about helping people–especially children and seniors–write poetry. Koch figured heavily in me getting to know the aforementioned Gary Lenhart. And a friend of mine used some of Kenneth Koch’s writings when he helped children learn creative writing. Through some circuitous conversation, we ended up talking a little about all that. I hadn’t talked or thought of Koch for a while. This was Wednesday, the same day Grace Paley died. She was 84.


“Here,” by Grace Paley. First published in the Massachusetts Review.

Here I am in the garden laughing
an old woman with heavy breasts
and a nicely mapped face

how did this happen
well that’s who I wanted to be

at last a woman
in the old style sitting
stout thighs apart under
a big skirt grandchild sitting
on off my lap a pleasant
summer perspiration

that’s my old man across the yard
he’s talking to the meter reader
he’s telling him the world’s sad story
how electricity is oil or uranium
and so forth I tell my grandson
run over to your grandpa ask him
to sit beside me for a minute I
am suddenly exhausted by my desire
to kiss his sweet explaining lips

ideas, influence, politics

Read the Times, Save Dartmouth

Ran across an interesting ad on the New York Times‘s home page today:

Save Dartmouth Ad

(Note, the image is a composite of two screenshots as my screen is quite small.)

So. Save Dartmouth.

I must have misunderstood that the ruckus over Dartmouth’s alumni constitution and its system of having alumni vote for half the Board of Trustees was over with the last election. It can’t be cheap to purchase ad space as large as the main photo on the home page of the New York Times.

It’s hard to tell who’s behind this. They ponied up the extra money to keep their domain registration private. There is only one name listed with the organization: “Comments and questions can be directed to our unofficial leader, Mr. Andres Morton Zimmerman, at”

East Wheelock Cluster

Interesting to note that during my freshman year I lived in Andres Hall (back left), and my sophomore year in Zimmerman (back right). Of the three residence halls that made up the early incarnation of the East Wheelock Cluster when I was at Dartmouth, I did not live in Morton Hall, which you can see in the foreground on the right. As I recall, there was a fair amount of criticism of the East Wheelock Cluster (once called the New Dorms) because they were an attempt to establish a residential college of the sort overseen by the late former Dean of First Year Students Peter Goldsmith when he was at Mathey College at Princeton. A very un-Dartmouth kind of program tutted the traditionalists. And so perhaps an odd choice of name for the unofficial leader of Save Dartmouth. Only Mr. Andres Morton Zimmerman really knows.


The Broken Angel

A story in today’s New York Times by Robin Pogrebin describes the recent travails and planned revival of a house in Brooklyn. The house is called the Broken Angel, a distinctive building for the modifications and additional construction created by Arthur Wood, the owner and resident. After an October fire, the building was deemed structurally unsound. But a group of architects and students affilliated with the nearby Pratt Institute’s School of Architecture are converting Wood’s designs into code-compliant plans. (Some of their work is visible here, in a NYT photograph by Liz O. Baylen.)

Brent Porter, a professor at Pratt, is playing a major role in this effort. One reason:

Mr. Porter’s efforts also reflect his memory of how the Broken Angel affected his daughter, Christina, who died at 21 in 2005 after a skiing accident. “I saw in my daughter’s eyes the joy that she and her friends drew from this building,” he said. “And I see a similar kind of respect my students have felt for the avant-garde in their lives.”

These names might sound familiar for those who follow the news from Dartmouth. Christina Porter was in the class of 2006. In February 2004, she hit a tree during a skiing class; the collision broke the left side of her skull into 12 pieces and left her in a coma for six months. Although she regained consciousness and some ability to communicate, she died in January 2005. The Times fails to mention–though the college’s newspaper did–that Christina was Brent Porter’s only child.

journalism, politics

Dartmouth Maintains Its Bad News Streak

“Bad” is probably too strong a word. But it’s not exactly “good” news, either. What follows are some rough thoughts on article “Dartmouth alumni battles become a spectator sport,” NYT, 21 June 2006.

Dartmouth does get mentioned in the news for interesting things like research, especially in engineering, economics, and medicine; and advances in campus computing. Just check out the Times Topics listing for Dartmouth. If you search on the New York Times site for “Dartmouth,” you’ll get even more results, many of which reflect the social cachet associated with an Ivy League pedigree–the wedding pages. (Slate‘s Tim Noah in 2002 wrote, “The wedding pages remain because a very small aristocracy demands that they remain. And when Chatterbox says ‘aristocracy,’ he means it largely in the traditional sense, i.e., ‘those who pass great wealth or power on to their children.'”)

But Dartmouth in the news. The college has plenty of high-profile alumni and faculty who make the papers: Henry Paulson, the incoming Treasury Secretary; Jeff Immelt, the GE chief; a good number of President Bush’s economic advisers; and probably some others whose primary aim is possibly something other than the generation of wealth. These people, especially the alumni, tend to reflect very well on the school.

Which is why the college is probably a little put out by the Times article about the pitched alumni battles over the board of trustees and the Alumni Council constitution. Like many of the notable news items about Dartmouth in recent years, it reveals some cracks in what I’ll call “Dartmouth Life.” And Dartmouth Life is probably the college’s biggest selling point. (That is, the image that Dartmouth wants to project of a wholesome, meritocratic bastion, a pastoral retreat where one can indulge in the life of the mind, attain the old Greek ideal of arete in a holistic sense, engage in chummy debate, celebrate all kinds of diversity, and gain a set of liberal arts values that will stick with you for life. Is that rhetoric enough? I also receive a newsletter every couple months full of good news about Dartmouth called Dartmouth Life.)

Dartmouth probably doesn’t want you to see those cracks. Just take a look at the school’s own “Dartmouth in the News” site, a great resource to find out about all the great things that Dartmouth people are doing all over the world. One can’t blame the college for trying to manage its image. Any organization that wants to present a message with any effectiveness strives to brand itself and speak with a unified, coherent voice (plus, it helps with fundraising). The Bush administration does it. Look at the American Civil Liberties Union which, of all groups, is considering limits on what its directors can say about what’s going on within the ACLU.

But the Times article doesn’t just show how enthusiastic Dartmouth alumni can be (and they can be rabid). Take a look at this: “The outsiders [petition candidates who won trustee elections] accused the college administration of sacrificing free speech to political correctness and of abandoning Dartmouth’s historical focus on undergraduates to turn it into a ‘junior varsity Harvard.'” With coverage like this, one might think that Dartmouth is becoming a red hot front in the wars of culture and ideology.

So what’s new about that? Not much. I think it’s fair to say that Dartmouth might stand out from other schools because conservatives have established a prominent foothold there in what is often perceived (not necessarily accurately) to be a liberal Ivy League–this despite finding much of the student body to be quite comfortably apolitical during my time there. That foothold is the conservative Dartmouth Review, which was founded with the backing of William Buckley and whose alumni include Dinesh D’Souza and Laura Ingraham. I have very mixed feelings about the Review, an independent publication with offices off campus, but it does sometimes spark conversations that the college’s student body might not otherwise have. And while Dartmouth is a great school, from a national media perspective it tends to be more interesting when it invites controversy or is subject to tragedy. A few examples of this type of newsworthy Dartmouth issue spring to mind:

  • The Alpha Delta raid earlier this month
  • The Zeta Psi sex papers
  • The Chi Gamma Epsilon ghetto party
  • The Alpha Chi/Tri-Delt attempted luau (I’m really not trying to pick on the Greek system)
  • The computer science mass cheating allegations
  • The Zantop murders
  • The destruction of protest shanties

All of those took place in 1999 or later, with the exception of the shanties. That, which occurred in 1986, is one of the college’s more interesting conflicts. In the fall of 1985, students erected shanties on the Green to protest apartheid in South Africa and encourage the college to divest itself of any South African investments. Eventually, the town of Hanover ordered the shanties removed, but student protestors physically blocked the College from carrying that out. At about 3 a.m. on January 21, 1986 (Martin Luther King Day was January 20), the “Dartmouth Committee to Beautify the Green Before Winter Carnival” smashed the shanties with sledgehammers. Turns out, the committee was mostly made up of students on the Dartmouth Review staff. Controversy, of course, ensued–you can read more here and here–and some from their ranks were suspended (indefinitely).

Jeffrey Hart, an emeritus English professor and regular Review contributor, said about the shanty dismantlers and their efforts:

If the conservative movement lets these kids down, these kids who are fighting the last vestiges of Sixties leftism–if the conservative movement does not come to the aid of the students who, at the moment, have their backs against the wall–then we might as well pack our bags and go home. For there will be no point carrying on the battle here in comfortable Washington, D.C., if we permit the Left to gang up on and lynch our people on America’s real battlefront, the college campus.

—Remarks published in the New Republic, 11 April 1986


I found the Times article useful mainly because it elucidated what’s happening with the Alumni Council constitution, which I haven’t followed too closely. But the ultimate aim of all these machinations is to determine who sits on the board of trustees.

As for our “renegade” trustees, Todd Zywicki, a law professor at George Mason, hasn’t said anything terribly controversial, that I’ve yet heard. In an interview, the Dartmouth Review asked:

TDR: There were some alumni who saw you as a sort of an ideologue or a reactionary. Is that true? Are they right?

TZ: [Laughing] No, that’s not true. That’s not true at all.

Of course, at Dartmouth, having a friendly interview with the Review is enough to be painted a hellfire-spouting conservative by others on campus (I’ve given a quote to the Review on a subject important to me when no one else would give them one, but I’ve not been interviewed). Zywicki has a position with the Bill of Rights Institute, which has been described as a conservative organization; I haven’t read much about it, except that it’s partnered with the Jesse Helms Center in the past.

Trustee T. J. Rodgers is probably more accurately described as a libertarian than a right-winger. When his concerns are described as “increasing the budget for teacher salaries and preserving the primacy of Dartmouth’s role as an undergraduate institution,” one can, I hope, take him at his word.

“Outsider” trustee Peter Robinson has conservative bona fides: he was a Reagan speechwriter, authored How Ronald Reagan Changed My Life, and works at the Hoover Institution. When asked, as a candidate, what traits or experiences would be his “greatest contribution to the Board,” Robinson answered: “After watching the fortieth chief executive of the United States stand up to the Kremlin, I’d be perfectly happy to stand up to the bureaucracy in Hanover.” Commenting to the Times on the proposed alumni constitution, Robinson said, “This is as much a reform as when Joseph Stalin decided to hold elections in Eastern Europe…Voting? Yes. Democracy? Not at all.”

It’s too easy and too often that issues of political philosophy and education philosophy are confused. While Peter Robinson talks about “excellence in undergraduate education,” he also campaigns for his concept of freedom of speech. Rodgers and Zywicki, as well, have stated that they wish to preserve freedom of speech at the college. And how can you be against that? But I think the concern among many alumni is that “freedom of speech” is becoming a sort of code that doesn’t just mean rooting out “political correctness,” however that may be defined–and which is a debate over what kinds of ideologies are allowable–but may also signal something more. It puts me in mind of how George Bush, during the 2004 debates, mentioned the Dred Scott case–which, while an important issue in itself (like freedom of speech), was also a loaded reference to something quite different from ante-bellum slavery.

It’s twenty years since the shanty controversy, and maybe Jeffrey Hart is as right as ever: “America’s real battlefront, the college campus.” While I think there’s a been a shift away from the campus as the unequivocal center of political and ideological conflict, perhaps the “outsider” trustees disagree. After all, in this country, with all of its freedom and variety, you can pick your battles.

competition, education, journalism, money

Getting In

For a long time, when people asked me where I go, or went, to college, my first response was “New Hampshire,” or even, “New England.” Then they would slowly zero in: which school, or which town, until: Dartmouth.

I abandoned that initial answer too long after I had started getting the question. While I thought I was avoiding the obnoxious and overbearing pride of the Ivy Leaguer by not immediately admitting my affiliation, the avoidance began to seem self-consciously coy and precious, subtly inviting the inquisitor to continue peeling away, with growing anticipation, the layers of obfuscation. It was like Barthes’s strip tease. The final revelation was not always a great letdown, but, like the strip tease’s denouement, it sometimes was. Of course, coming from Alaska (as in many places west of Ohio), every second or third person did not know what or where Dartmouth was, so a regional response was often a very appropriate answer.

The issue of Ivy League designations is meaningful to me again because I recently had the choice of graduate programs at Columbia University and the University of California at Berkeley. I believe that some people who were in the same situation picked Columbia, in large part because it is an Ivy League school (though that factor often went carefully unmentioned). By the way, that’s Columbia’s Low Library pictured above. I think it was Nick Lemann who pointed out when I was there that it is a library with no books.

Last October, Malcolm Gladwell, who brings revelatory sociology to the masses, published a story on the Ivy League mystique in the New Yorker. In particular, he described how the Ivy League has effectively branded itself as a high-demand, low-supply luxury, the result of various admissions practices that are themselves remnants of early 20th century policies stemming from conceptions of race, class, ethnicity, and morphology. The article also acts as a roundabout review of the book The Chosen: The Hidden History of Admission and Exclusion at Harvard, Yale, and Princeton by Jerome Karabel (who happens to be a sociologist at Berkeley).

Gladwell is Canadian, and applied to college using a very simple form that took him about ten minutes. The college admissions process, for him, was not the nail-biting, mind-bending, perspective-warping experience it often is for Americans. He writes:

Am I a better or more successful person for having been accepted at the University of Toronto, as opposed to my second or third choice? It strikes me as a curious question. In Ontario, there wasn’t a strict hierarchy of colleges. There were several good ones and several better ones and a number of programs—like computer science at the University of Waterloo—that were world-class. But since all colleges were part of the same public system and tuition everywhere was the same (about a thousand dollars a year, in those days), and a B average in high school pretty much guaranteed you a spot in college, there wasn’t a sense that anything great was at stake in the choice of which college we attended. The issue was whether we attended college, and—most important—how seriously we took the experience once we got there. I thought everyone felt this way. You can imagine my confusion, then, when I first met someone who had gone to Harvard.There was, first of all, that strange initial reluctance to talk about the matter of college at all—a glance downward, a shuffling of the feet, a mumbled mention of Cambridge. “Did you go to Harvard?” I would ask. I had just moved to the United States. I didn’t know the rules. An uncomfortable nod would follow. Don’t define me by my school, they seemed to be saying, which implied that their school actually could define them. And, of course, it did. . . .

from “Getting In,” New Yorker, October 10, 2005.

Does it? That is one question I had to ask myself when choosing between Berkeley and Columbia. Later in the article, Gladwell discusses the research of a pair of economists, Alan Krueger and Stacy Dale. According to their work, if a student gets into a selective school as well as a less selective one, and then chooses the second option, he or she does as well in life as those who go to the more selective school. I find that a reassuring fact.

There is a big difference here between the choice that that research describes and my choice: namely, I was not choosing undergraduate schools. In fact, Berkeley has many highly-regarded graduate programs, including the journalism school; and I don’t know that the statistics for the journalism programs would bear out the assertion that one is more or less selective than the other. My choice–and here I am fortunate–was between two very good graduate schools. But throughout the process, the implication present in many of my discussions was that success at Columbia was more likely than at Berkeley. I often reminded myself that I could do as well for myself by choosing Berkeley than Columbia.

There are no guarantees, certainly. In fact, “no guarantees” is an appropriate motto for much of my life experience. When choosing, I considered that what happens in my life–my professional life, at least–is not determined solely by my school, but mostly by me. And that helped.