We Have Syllogisms, But I Have Silly-isms

July 20, 2013

Bad Math (2+2=5) picture, July 20, 2013. (http://www.scenicreflections.com).

Bad Math (2+2=5) picture, July 20, 2013. (http://www.scenicreflections.com).

I’m far from done discussing issues of race, racism, civil rights and education this summer. Not by a long shot. Especially with the half-century anniversary of the March on Washington and W. E. B. Du Bois’ death just over five weeks away. But a one or two blog break is needed, if only because I need it today.

When it comes to so many things in my life, my memory is better than IBM’s Watson. You give me a date anytime in the previous seventy years, I can tell you within a day what day of the week it falls on. I can tell you what I had for dinner on many a given day twenty or thirty years ago, what 616 smelled like in the middle of a July heat wave in ’82, and which of my former Humanities classmates were dating in the summer of ’85. Yeah, and where I walked to clear my head on any given Saturday or Sunday between July ’85 and August ’87.

But I frequently forget people’s names, but never their faces. I forget to bring reuseable bags with me to the grocery store, but recall physics facts and figures I haven’t looked at since AP Physics my senior year of high school. And — most importantly for today’s post — I often forget book titles. But I almost always remember the book’s content, context, audience, writing tone and style, where it fits in the historical literature or in its genre (and even whether it gave me a headache or inspired me), or whether it forced me to truly change the way I thought about a given issue or topic.

When I was a grad student at Pitt and Carnegie Mellon, reading books the way Joey Chestnut and Takeru Kobayashi suck down hot dogs, I couldn’t keep the book title’s in my head when I referred to them in seminars or in my papers. I just couldn’t. Maybe it was because the titles were boring, or because the books themselves were regurgitative snorefests. Whatever the case, by the middle of my second year of grad school in late ’92, I needed a way to find a way back to a title and an author’s name, especially when in class refuting another student’s argument, in delivering a paper at a conference, or in answering questions from my professors about multiculturalism.

Otis Redding, The Dock of The Bay (posthumous album - 1968), July 20, 2013. (http://vibe.com; Atlantic Records).

Otis Redding, The Dock of The Bay (posthumous album – 1968), July 20, 2013. (http://vibe.com; Atlantic Records).

That’s when I inadvertently took my penchant for pop cultural references and began applying them liberally to the task of keeping book titles and authors’ names straight in my head. (I would’ve tried to memorize them otherwise). It started with the late Derrick Bell’s Faces at the Bottom of the Well (1992), which somehow bounced around a few neurons to conjure Otis Redding’s “Sittin’ On the Dock of the Bay” (1966). I didn’t need Redding to remind me of Bell or the title of his best-selling allegorical book. What it did, though, was free my mind to think of my massive amounts of reading on two levels, one scholarly, and one as reminders of my life and the lives of those suffering from inequality on the basis of race, class, gender and education.

So, when more boring book titles and/or books would come along, my mind would automatically go there. I turned David Tyack’s One Best System (1974) — a book about America’s K-12 system as a sorting out machine for the majority of the nation’s students — into Paul Carrick’s “One Good Reason,” a minor pop hit from ’88. My mind translated Patricia Cooper’s Once a Cigar Maker — all about gender and working-class issues in industrialization at the turn of the twentieth century — into Chicago’s “Once In A Lifetime” (not a hit, but on the Chicago 17 album). Or, even more often, I’d go, “You’re once, twiiiceee, three times a cigar maker, and I looooathe you” — a nod to Lionel Richie and The Commodores.

Anita Baker's Rapture (1986) album cover, July 20, 2013. (Donald Earl Collins).

Anita Baker’s Rapture (1986) album cover, July 20, 2013. (Donald Earl Collins).

I went further — and sillier — as I transferred from the University of Pittsburgh to CMU. Sean Wilentz’s Chants Democratic (1984) became Sean Wilentz “and the Pirates of Penzance” because of the rhyme scheme between “Wilentz” and “Chants.” Historian Christine Stansell was “don’t stand, don’t stand so, don’t Stansell close to me,” my homage to The Police. Leon Litwack’s Been in the Storm So Long (1979) became Anita Baker’s “Been So Long” (1986) from her Rapture album, while Michael Katz’s In the Shadow of the Poorhouse (1989) for me morphed into “Under The Poorhouse,” set to the tune of The Drifters’ “Under The Boardwalk” (1964).

It’s been nearly two decades since my last graduate seminar, yet I still find myself setting my book titles and authors to tunes and cinema. It makes reading an adventure for me, even as it helps me remember who wrote what. Silly, yes, it’s true. But don’t tell me I’m the only one who does this!

A Musical Mirror in Time

November 13, 2010

My iPod, November 13, 2010. Donald Earl Collins

A side benefit to working on Boy @ The Window has been walking down memory lane in describing the music of those times. The music I listened to for inspiration, out of love, rage or goofiness. Or music that provided my means of escape from the drudgery of poverty at 616, the organized chaos that was Humanities and Mount Vernon public schools. Music that I stumbled upon, or deliberately discovered or discounted.

I’ve wondered off and on what the tunes in my ear and head would’ve been like if all the music that I’ve been exposed to since the end of the ’80s had all been at my fingertips in ’81 and ’82. I know one thing for sure. Had I the ability to send my eleven or twelve-year-old self my iPod from ’10, weird or not, Hebrew-Israelite or not, I’d been one of the coolest kids in school. Assuming that I wouldn’t have had to defend my improbable toy against bullies and muggers, that is.

So, now that I have access to music from any time and any year up to 2010, what would I’ve listened to

My iPod, Sting's "Desert Rose", November 13, 2010. Donald Earl Collins

during the Boy @ The Window years? Thinking about Crush #1, the music I had available in mind and in ear was Stevie Wonder’s “As” and “That Girl,” and The Police’s “Every Little Thing She Does Is Magic” between March and June ’82.

Fully acknowledging that I was in some sort of love then, gee, what would’ve fit my mood? What would’ve been appropriate to the chaos in the rest of my life? U2’s “Beautiful Day” — where “you’ve been all over, and it’s been all over you?” Or Coldplay’s “Clocks,” Sting’s “Desert Rose,” Tevin Campbell’s “Can We Talk,” and Celine Dion’s “That’s The Way It Is,” all songs of shyness and unrequited love? Talk about framing a mood!

Well, what about Crush #2, my obsession with her, and the pain she helped cause? What could complement music like Richard Marx’s “Should’ve Known Better,” Paul Carrack’s “Don’t Shed A Tear,” or Geto Boys’ “My Mind Playin’ Tricks On Me”? Going back to January ’88, Live’s “White, Discussion” would’ve been a place to start. White male angst about race and possibly love — “Look what all this talking got us, baby” screamed at maximum lung-ness by lead singer Ed Kowalczyk — could’ve just as easily been my sarcastic and rage-laced refrain regarding Crush #2.

Other, more goofy and less epic tunes to lay out my anger and disappointment — or to get over it — hmm. Probably something like Michael Bolton’s “Time, Love & Tenderness,” Mariah Carey’s “Can’t Let Go,” or Annie Lennox’s “Walking On Broken Glass.” Music from the ’90s. So much better for coping with crushes and trifling people.

On a more serious tip, what from my present would’ve soothed my constantly worried mind back in the days when mp3 would’ve been thought of as a kind of motor oil? My faves of the ’80s were Mr. Mister’s “Kyrie” and “Broken Wings,” because the songs met me where I was, a teenager struggling to find his true self, to succeed in school, to survive life at 616. Other than some social justice-lite songs like Marvin Gaye’s “What’s Goin’ On,” Sting’s “They Dance Alone,” or Peter Gabriel’s “Don’t Give Up,” there wasn’t much of a message in most of the music from the mid- to late-80s — at least related to my life.

My iPod, Nickelback's "If Today Was Your Last Day," November 13, 2010. Donald Earl Collins.

But bringing music back from the future would’ve helped. Like Anthony Hamilton’s “Comin’ From Where I’m From,” Creed’s “Higher,” Sounds of Blackness’ “Optimistic,” even Nickelback’s “If Today Was Your Last Day.” The line of lines — “Against the grain should be a way of life” — has been when I’ve gotten the most out of myself, my God and my life.

I can only imagine what life would’ve been like with a piece of second-decade, twenty-first century

My iPod w/ U2, November 13, 2010. Donald Earl Collins

technology in the early ’80s. It made have made most of my embarrassing, disheartening and sorrowful moments easier to bear. But without those moments, I certainly wouldn’t have as full an appreciation of the music I listen to now and the blessings that have occurred in my life in the three decades since. As Anthony Hamilton would say, “Sometimes you gotta walk alone,” although with music, not completely alone.


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