Tag Archives: censorship

Thursday scatter: ugly veggies, moral fiction

Our old friend Giuseppe Arcimboldo is on our mind today, as he should be on yours. Arcimboldo, you may recall, is the great fruit and vegetable guy of the 16th century, the painter who made a splendid living by portraying people in botanic form, and he could twist a turnip like nobody’s business if that was what he needed to do to turn a proper chin.

The old agrarian image-monger comes to mind because of today’s news that the European Union, an outfit that really should have known better in the first place, has scrapped its rules banning the display and sale of ugly fruits and vegetables in supermarkets. Well, it’s lifted the ban, sort of. Come July, when the rules change, you can get a misshapen pea or plum but not, for instance, an ugly apple or tomato (and everyone knows the ugly tomatoes are generally the best-tasting). The continent that brought us such notable advocates of lookalike symmetry as Napoleon and Hitler will allow you to buy or sell certain misshapen produce so long as they’re labeled substandard or intended for cooking or processing.

Then again, how are the bureaucrats going to know what you do with your zany zucchini once you get it home? What if you slice it and eat it raw? What if you turn it into ratatouille? What if you make holes in it and hang it from your ears? What if you prop it on your kitchen counter and turn it into LIVING ART?

A Certain Member of Our Household is an inveterate (some might say shameless) collector of oddball fruits and vegetables, the more twisted and deformed the better, and it’s a trait we’ve come to cherish. Up with skewed squash! Down with boring, blandly beautiful Golden Delicious apples! Mutts of the botanical world, the battle is yours!

On a regular basis ACMOH arrives home from the grocery store or farmers market with something truly glorious: a turnip that looks as if it’s been trained by a psychotic bonsai artist; an eggplant with troll-size warts; a carrot with forked tongue; a tomato like lumpy gravy. It becomes the center of conversation, the subject of visual admiration, yea, the philosophical warrior of freedom in the great battle for variety as the spice of life. It holds center stage as it slowly deteriorates. Then it becomes compost, or dinner. And soon, a new beautiful monstrosity takes its place.

Europe, you disappoint us, although you seem to be coming to your senses. You never would have gone so stultifyingly astray if you’d kept your eye on Arcimboldo. And he’s a native son.


Meanwhile, the curtain has come down semi-successfully on the latest act in the Sherwood Follies: The town’s school board has decided that John Gardner‘s novel Grendel will not be removed from the reading list in the sophomore honors English class, in spite of insistent complaints from a tiny group of distressed parents. (Sherwood is the Oregon town, you’ll recall, where a middle school principal last school year banned performance of a play about bullying, again prompted by a small number of angry parents.)

Not a lot of people have spotted the irony simmering at the bottom of this tempest-toss’d teapot, which was brought to a boil because of moral objections to some particularly gruesome violent acts on the part of Gardner’s central character, the notorious monster slain by the hero Beowulf. Gardner, back in the 1970s, loudly and prominently declared himself ON THE SIDE OF MORALITY — although his idea of morality was quite different from the hide-your-eyes-and-hunker-down version advocated by so many self-styled moral guardians these days. Here’s what Lore Segal has to say about Gardner’s stand in her fascinating, finely written introduction to a recent reprint of Gardner’s 1978 book On Moral Fiction. (The whole essay’s worth reading, and probably the book, too, which I found stimulating, even though I disagreed with large chunks of it, when it first came out. I haven’t reread it since):

“The purpose of criticism, said John Gardner, was not to belabor the distinctions between modernism and postmodernism but to look at the real end of all art, which is Beauty, Truth and Goodness, as decent folk have known all along.”

Even, apparently, a solid majority of the decent folk of Sherwood.
Gardner, by the way, took a lot of heat for the position he staked out in On Moral Fiction, and its publication undoubtedly did serious harm to his career. But he was stubborn in his belief that morality is difficult yet definable, and that it plays a central role in art. Grendel had a case to be made, and Gardner let him make it pretty well. Caliban had a case, too. And Frankenstein’s monster. Ugly vegetables, all, perhaps, but fascinating — and instructive — in their own ways.

It’s a miracle! Dead bunnies revived!

Hold the fort. Hold the matches. No book burnings in Halsey, after all.

Oregonian writer Joseph Rose files this report on Oregon Live: Apparently the angry mom who declared she’d burn the copy of Andy Riley’s cartoon book The Book of Bunny Suicides her son brought home from the school library has had second thoughts. Or maybe a clearer explanation of her first thoughts. Yeah, she said that stuff, she says now, but it was in the heat of anger: She didn’t really mean it. Although she still has a few stipulations before she’ll surrender the book to go back on the shelves.

Thank goodness. On the subject of book burning, Art Scatter sides squarely with Mel Torme. Chestnuts roast far better on an open fire.

Bunny dies laughing; mom does slow burn

So, this dyslexic guy walks into a bra …

Funny? Cruel? Crude? Pointless?

Yeah, probably.

Humor has a way of picking at scabs,
and it loves taboo territory: The shock factor of transgression is liberating. So, George Carlin‘s seven dirty words. The flip-flopped race-baiting of Melvin Van Peebles‘ movie satire The Watermelon Man. The rank exploits of a supervillain chunk of flying excrement in Dav Pilkey‘s juvenile Captain Underpants comic books.

Humor can be rough when it deals with the “other” — the resented and ridiculed Micks and Wops and Yids and dumb Swedes, all butts of the joke of an emerging nation trying crudely to make sense of its own sprawling immigrant variety. And it can be every bit as tough when it looks inward: I just finished reading Michael Chabon‘s dark detective comedy The Yiddish Policemen’s Union, and its feverishly over-the-top depiction of religious and cultural Jewishness (and, for good measure, Christian fundamentalist extremism) is hilarious and could only have been written by a Jew. In the annals of comic history, the seriously dimwitted — whether actually dumb or only considered dumb, for mocking purposes, by a core culture that thinks it needs an outcast — has always had a special role to play. Shakespeare had his Dogberrys and Aguecheeks. Sheridan had his Mrs. Malaprop. Texas has its village idiot. How many humorless pedants does it take to screw in a lightbulb?

Until this morning I’d never heard of Andy Riley or his cartoon book The Book of Bunny Suicides. Then, there they were, both of them, on the front page of The Oregonian, in this story by Joseph Rose. The idiot bunnies and their creator are the focus of a book-snatching in the town of Halsey, between Corvallis and Eugene in Oregon’s Willamette Valley. A 13-year-old boy brought the book home from the high school library, which also serves middle school students. His mom looked at it. She was horrified and disgusted — and now she’s holding it for ransom.

Not ransom, actually. True, she’s filed an official complaint to have the book removed from the library shelves. In the meantime, though, she’s not giving it back. She says she’s going to burn it instead. Which is funny, in a perverse sort of way. Braised rabbit is a favorite fall dish in Oregon country.

Let me suggest that Riley’s bunnies are extreme dimwits, in a clever sort of way.
As such, they’re a lot like the rest of us — and that’s what makes them funny.

I’m not about to anoint Riley with a crown of comic genius, at least not on the small sampling of his work that I’ve perused. It’s pretty juvenile — but then, it’s for juveniles, and a lot of humor gets its verve and sting from its immature prankishness, which allows it to view the careful concealments of adult convention and pull its pants down at it. I happen to be the father of boys 14 and almost 11, and every day I wince at some sort of boy crudeness or another. I try to herd them, rein them in, get them to understand the limits of civilized speech and behavior, for crying out loud, and I’m sure they’re thoroughly sick of all the nagging (they tell me so, regularly). But I’d also worry if they weren’t poking at the edges. Life is a scary thing, and if you can’t laugh at it, how are you going to bear it?
Continue reading Bunny dies laughing; mom does slow burn

Why I quit my job: A teacher tells all

There are plenty of reasons to quit a job, even in a lousy economy like this one.

You just came into a healthy inheritance.

You married a millionaire.

You’re going back to school so you can get something that pays better than slinging coffee drinks.

Or, you’re mad as hell and you’re not going to take it any more.

That’s the one that finally made sense to Jennie Brown, a teacher at Sherwood Middle School in Portland’s southern suburbs, whose passion and specialty was teaching drama. Brown, you may recall, was the author and director of Higher Ground, a play about bullying at school, which she wrote based on extensive conversations with the kids in the show. It talked about bullying for all sorts of reasons: because kids are overweight, or don’t wear the “right” clothes, or they’re the “wrong” race, or maybe they’re gay, or … you get the picture.

At the last minute, parents of three kids (out of 52 involved) protested to Principal Anna Pittioni, who called the show off. That was in February. The kids themselves voted not to water down the script so they could take the stage in a censored version (some of them claimed the show already diluted the harsh realities of life in their blackboard jungle), and the Portland Center for the Performing Arts invited them to present the play as it was written in downtown Portland, where it was received enthusiastically.

But for Brown, it was the beginning of the end. Her relationship with Pittioni crumbled. She was investigated by the school board (at one point her school-issued computer was seized and her email messages scrutinized). She felt marked. And last week, with nothing else concrete on the horizon, she quit a job she had loved.

Just another day in the Nanny Dearest environs of the public schools, you might think. And indeed, a similar case sprang up a few months later, when Portland actor Wade Willis sued the Beaverton School District for $125,000 because, he said, administrators at Southpark High School had “harrassed, intimidated and humiliated” him to such an extent that he was forced to resign.

Continue reading Why I quit my job: A teacher tells all

A “Laramie” lawsuit: Footing the bill for censorship

Here we go again: More trouble over a school play. Don’t these people ever learn? I mean the principals and school boards who do the censoring and always seem to do it so clumsily, as if critical thinking were anathema to education and free speech were a legislative inconvenience to be swatted away on a whim — usually the whim of a frightened administrator or a few right-wing parents determined to make everyone else line up with their rigid view of the world. Where do they think they are, Guantanamo Bay?

The play in question this time around, almost predictably, is The Laramie Project, Moises Kaufman’s moving and mostly even-handed exploration of how the brutal murder of gay college student Matthew Shepard in 1998 affected the people in his town of Laramie, Wyoming. This one’s just too much for the great 16th century thinkers who seem to be running, and running roughshod over, our public schools. Controversy? Perish all thought.

As Melissa Navas reported this morning in The Oregonian, Portland actor and onetime teacher Wade Willis has sued the Beaverton School District for $125,000, claiming he was “harassed, intimidated and humiliated” for his attempt during the 2005-06 school year to bring The Laramie Project to the stage at Southridge High School, where he had been a music, drama and language arts teacher. Shattered by the experience, Willis quit a job that he presumably loved.

His lawyer argued, Navas reports, that “a wrongful discharge lawsuit can be filed when an employer ‘maintained specific working conditions so intolerable’ that a person would resign.” Navas also reports that Kaufman had given permission to take out the play’s profanities to make it appropriate for a school audience, and she points out that although the play is about a hate crime against a gay man, it’s not about sex.

I don’t know Wade Willis, but I’ve seen him many times on stage, and he’s always struck me as an actor who approaches his job in a totally professional manner. (Right now he’s on stage in Broadway Rose Theatre Company‘s critically hailed production of the musical Les Miserables.) The loss to the students who no longer get to learn from him is of course impossible to measure, but I imagine it is significant: Here is a man who understands music and theater from the inside out, deeply respects his craft, is exceptionally good at it, and was willing to pass that knowledge along. Further, he wasn’t afraid to confront his students with topics that demand critical thinking — and what greater skill can a school hope to impart to the children in its care?
Continue reading A “Laramie” lawsuit: Footing the bill for censorship