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I am posting this as a benchmark, not because I think I'm playing very well yet.  The idea would be post a video every month for a ye...

Saturday, December 30, 2017

unnecessary weaknesses

Here's an idea. I want to rid my musical life of unnecessary weaknesses, like being intimidated by certain keys, or by my slowness at reading music. These are unnecessary because they aren't due to an inherent lack of ability: if I can read music at all I should be able to read notes that far above the staff. I just need to practice more and systematically learn what I need to learn. If I know a key with five flats, then I should be able to learn one with 4 sharps. If my time is weak because I don't practice enough with the metronome, then the solution seems blindingly obvious. These are self-created obstacles, not inherent defects in my musicality.

Of course, this is not a claim that I have no inherent limitations. It may be that I am not a very good musician in numerous ways, some of them correctable with time, others not so much. Some limitations might be correctable, but I might not get there in the time I have left on earth. For example, my piano technique will continue to improve, but I won't become a virtuoso.

It seems obvious that mechanical details that numerous other non-genius musicians have mastered are also accessible to me.  Also, only those things that are possible to improve are worth working on in the first place. In other words, aptitude or raw potential are, by definition, impossible to improve.  


Friday, December 29, 2017

Annals of Casual Misogyny

At the airport bar in LAX, a middle-aged guy talking on cellular at the opposite end from me, but loud enough so I could hear, kept saying that "Jesse" had "too much estrogen in his life." That same phrase, and variations of it, ("an overdose of estrogen") over and over again, maybe a dozen times. The conversation drifted a bit, but at the end came back to the estrogen. I gathered that he was a kid living with his mother and maybe another female relative or two. The cell phone guy was suggesting that he come to visit the kid Jesse, and, I guess, supply some other kind of sex hormones in his life? It was obviously a turn of phrase that he was very proud of, and to make himself understood he had to hammer it home. I have no idea who is was talking to. I don't think estrogen is contagious, nor that you can absorb it by living around women, and the metonymy: women = estrogen is rather lame, especially when repeated 15 damn times.

Monday, December 25, 2017


Yume means dream, but in this dream it meant rain. A little Japanese girl named Yume (or Yube?, evening) rang the doorbell. This was a symbolic act of some kind because it immediately started raining. The rain filled a glass that was in the house, several times, and quenched our thirst.  This was an unusual dream, for me, because of its lyrical quality. I spent a lot of time while still asleep trying to figure out the meaning of the name. It wasn't until I woke up that I was able to disambiguate the words (yube, ame, yume).    

Saturday, December 23, 2017


I knew last year around this time that it would be the last time my sister Debbie recognized me. She seems now to know that I am part of the family, someone of some relevance to her, but I can't tell if she knows I am me, her brother.  Her vocabulary is now severely reduced, though syntax and phonology are largely whole. What she says makes almost no contextual or pragmatic sense, except for a few set phrases. She stands at the window and talks to imaginary interlocutors at great length, and the monologues might make some sense.  She is largely positive, telling the imaginary friends that they are wonderful people, she loves them very much. With some urgency, she tells me it is time to go now. "Right now, hurry."  If I say we are staying she says "why?" but cannot understand the explanation. She gets impatient and frustrated then. She cannot feed herself anymore, or perform other basic functions. She cannot feel hunger or fullness, doesn't know when she is thirsty or tired, seemingly. She has to ride in the back seat of a car with a child safety lock because she will try to get out of the car at a stop light otherwise.

She will explain something to me using a napkin or an onion, or some small ceramic dishes: "This is the thing. This is the best thing ever. This is what we have to do, like this. It is very difficult. It is a problem. I'm sorry.  I'm very sorry. You have to do it this way..." and on and on like that. Then she'll start like this again "you are a wonderful person, wonderful, wonderful, wonderful, I love you very very very much."

It is not Alzheimer's, but a frontal temporal lobe dementia that affects language (first) and then other cognitive functions. It is not as common as Alzheimer's, but tends to have an earlier onset and hence is more common in younger people. (She is 60 and has been in noticeable decline for 5 years, with some symptoms before that but nothing you would have noticed.} She is taken care of by her husband and by my 82-year old mother. I see her once a year, on my visits to California, and can see the decline every year. A few years ago she was still playing piano or organ in church a bit, and directing the singing of hymns. Now, of course, not. (She was professional organist her entire adult life.)  

The choir performed some pieces she had composed, and she and her husband were at a rehearsal.  An officious woman shooed them out of the room for no particular reason. When they came back a little later, the officious woman tried to kick them out again and my sister's husband just put up his hand and said: "Stop. Let me explain what we are doing here. The choir has just performed a piece that my wife composed. We wanted to listen to it." The woman just slunk away without a word of apology.

Friday, December 15, 2017

Aspiring to mediocrity

What I mean by this is that we need to achieve competence. For example, I would like to play jazz piano that sounds like generic playing that anyone half-way good would do. The kind of player who would get a one-star review in Downbeat, but that you would recognize someone who knew how to play idiomatically, tastily, and fluently in a jazz style. But if you could really do that, and actually swing, then maybe you would be up to a 2-star player? If what you play is tasty, then maybe you're a 3-star player? At the next level you would need some originality, but I'm still working on sounding good within my very narrow limits. One thing I need to do is practice a little less, rather than obsessively spending hours at the keyboard. Doing more is fine too, but it all needs to be disciplined and patient.  

For my own poetry, though, I want to unlearn the idiomatic, fluent style of contemporary poets, because I think a poem should sound distinctive to its author rather than being written in a period style. I can achieve this in two ways: by parody, and by not giving a shit about those norms. One way is to be reading poetry of the past rather than soaking up the influences that are everyone's influences.  

Scholarly writing is more like mediocre jazz playing. You want to sound like a scholar, rather than deviating too much from the norm. People will assume that you don't know how to do it otherwise. And a basic competence will almost guarantee that you are in the top quarter of published scholars. I had a student quote from a bad study found on line that said "women are oppressed by feminism" when the author of the study meant to say the opposite, that feminism can show how women are oppressed by patriarchy.

I see graduate students struggling to get to that mediocre level, where the paper is well done in a conventional sense, and could be standard paper published in a second-line journal.  This doesn't mean the paper is perfect, but that it is perfectly mediocre, does what a paper ought to do and checks all the right boxes. After that, then we start talking about something more.

Once you achieve mediocrity, then you can work from there toward a more original perspective.  A lot of what I've done on Lorca is simply to assume that we should study him using our knowledge of how literary criticism should best be done, rather than working on him within the distorted baggage-laden framework of Lorca studies.    

Wednesday, December 13, 2017

I love theory

I mean music theory, here. It is funny that what goes by the name music theory would be, in literature, the equivalent of prosody and plot construction, not "theory" as it is known to literature folks. (And not in the third sense of a scientific theory meaning a strong and empirically testable explanation that accounts for a set of phenomena in the natural world.) Although classical performers study theory in conservatory, many of them find it unexciting. To write or improvise music, though, you are always thinking about what the chords are. I am constantly making duh discoveries, like the fact that the pentatonic minor scale will have the same notes as the pentatonic major scale of the relative major. It seem kind of obvious, but I just discovered this this week. I also discovered that I was using pentatonic scales in melodies without knowing what it is I was doing.

I like working in Dflat (five flats) for some reason. I think it is because it has chords unrelated to C, so that if I combine those two keys, then I have about 20 chords under my fingers, if I include modulations to other keys related to these two keys, tritone substitutions, secondary dominants... I don't have to learn 12 keys really well; I can have about 3 or 4 I know pretty well and I have most if it covered.

Someone was asking how to memorize all the chords. You don't memorize them, you learn them in relationships to other chords and keys. You know them. If you tried to memorize them by rote out of all context it would be much harder.  A harmonic context distant from C major is simply a different context, where things have a different meaning, but where the relationships are completely commensurate.

A musical composition has to make sense to me, melodic, rhythmic, structural, and harmonic. I have to work on it until it all fits together. The surprising thing is that I know how to do this, that I knew how from my first song, and that more sophisticated harmonies do not make my songs necessarily any better. They are just fun to compose in their own way.  

Everyone who listens to music knows what melody is and can recognize one or have one stuck in the head. There is no actual criterion for what a good melody is except for one that someone responds to subjectively as a melody.  We can say objectively that some music is more complexly organized or longer, but can we say that the Beatles's "Michelle" is better or worse than some other melody that a lot of people like as much? There are melodies from Bach I don't think are great, and others that are.

Tuesday, December 12, 2017


I don't base a melody on scale. What I do sometimes is choose one note and play it against chord progression.  It will have a different function depending on what the chords are underneath. Then I can see where that note wants to go at various times, and how it wants to move rhythmically.  If you are thinking of a scale then you are thinking of a chord as statically there for a long time allowing you to create scalar patterns with it, but the chord progression is always moving, even when it is not. Melody has to move horizontally, even when it repeats the same note. I've watched some youtube videos and they say: "don't do this" [plays a scale from top to bottom or bottom to top].  Well no. That's obvious, though of course classical composers do that sometimes.

  If you play a pentatonic scale though it is almost automatically melodic [plays first line of someone to watch over me]. That means leaving out the 4th and the 7th. You can put the seventh back in as a passing tone and you have all you need. You can melodize all day long and never have to use the 4th.

What I feel missing in discussions of melody is the idea of lilt.  This is not up or down, or down then up or up then down, but an engaging "up-down" contour that catches the ear at a certain angle.

Take Ornette's "Latin Genetics" in the last post. The A sections of the tune consists of a series of 7 chords arpeggiated in a downward movement to the same five note rhythm, with another down-up phrase at the end, played twice.  It has a nice lilt to it and part of this is the lack of movement in the first three notes of the motif.  The other part is you never know whether the next phrase will start or end lower or higher than the previous one.  The tune sounds both simplistic and unexpected.

Ornette Coleman - Latin Genetics

Thursday, December 7, 2017

A trick

Take a Bb minor pentatonic scale

[Bb Db Eb F Ab]

Now play these over a progression in the key of Db major. You will find that these notes work well over the chords I IV V ii and vi.  Probably iii and vii as well, though I haven't explored these as much. There is some tension in the tritone sub.

If you play an F minor pentatonic you also get a good set of notes to play in this key.

Tuesday, November 28, 2017


What bugs me about this is that it is an application of English-language concepts of gender to a word in Spanish.

So in Spanish you would say: "literatura latina." That would be literature written by Latinos and Latinas: the adjective modifies the noun, which happens to be feminine in gender. The x is a way of neutering the gender. If the noun happened to be feminine, then you would say "feminismo latino."

From the perspective of speaking English, gender is only applied to persons and animals with a designated sex. So people think of Latino / Latina as only applying to people. Hence you need to say "Latinex" to keep things gender neutral. The word was invented by someone who doesn't think in Spanish.

Monday, November 27, 2017

La La Land

I saw this movie about a jazz pianist, La La Land. There wasn't a hip jazz piano lick in the whole movie. It was a highly acclaimed movie and won awards for its music--which sucked to high heavens.

Razor's Edge

 As part of my project "razor's edge" I outlined my goals as related to music. As you can see, it is not just "get to be a better piano player," but a good deal more than that. I basically want to retire to being a songwriter, as my full time hobbyjob, in 10 years time. I started this project in Sept. 2015, without knowing that it was the start of something. I figure need to be about 80% of where a truly good pianist is, though that is a nebulous concept because 80% of what, exactly?  For me it might mean playing tastefully and tastily within my particular technical limits. I'm about 30% now, realistically. Writing out these goals makes me realize that I need to focus on one thing, like mastering Sibelius, that is holding me back from other things.   

Overall goal:

Be a songwriter able to play and sing my own songs in public and to record own cds. 

Specific Goals

Play piano and sing at 80% level
Compose at 90% level
Record cds of my music

Steps already taken

Write songs  
Take voice lessons
Take piano lessons
Establish piano practice routine
Learn to read lead sheets / basic jazz triadic voicings
Acquire keyboard
Join choir and participate in performances
Experiment with recording self in library
Perform in talent show
Begin to improvise walking bass lines and “rhythm changes”
Use phone app to notate leads sheets of own songs

Next steps

Master Sibelius software
Go to open mics
Improve reading / sight-reading
Work on lyric writing / have lyrics for at least 5 songs

Further Steps

Learn quartal voicings / jazz comping at a fluid level
Improve ear and listening ability
Improvise at high level
Play more with other musicians 
Learn arranging / more sophisticated compositional techniques
More advanced and detailed knowledge of harmony
Write for SATB or other formats 
Lose fear of other recording technologies

Tuesday, November 21, 2017

Dreams are Confused

Dreams are confused, yet men seek clarity there

Oracles speak with twisted tongues; men trust them and do not despair

From confusion--dogma, false hope

Through fog, on slick roads--stupid, dismal determination

Sunday, November 19, 2017


By using the tag Popular songs I am able to trace the development of my short and unsuccessful songwriting efforts. I started in September '15, so I have been writing for 2 years and 2 months. I couldn't do song in all the keys that I know now.  I've been able to do more complex things, though complexity is not an end in itself. My playing is far better: I only started piano lesson in fall of '16, or a year after I had started. My new teacher now is teaching me proper piano technique, which makes it much easier to play well.

I need a system to write them down and keep track of them.


The only way to learn improvisation is to do it.  So I set a timer for 15 minutes, choose a set of chord changes, and just do it. You can play many choruses in 15 minutes. The trick is getting to where you can sing it to yourself in your head what you are about to play, just before you play it. If you then go on to play something different than you thought of, you know you are not hearing it correctly in your head.


 I realize I've been holding myself back unnecessarily in many ways, making things harder for myself. It would take me a long time to learn a relatively simple classical piece, when I could be learning it faster, simply by choosing an 8-bar section and practicing only that for 15 minutes at a time. I thought I could only reach an octave and it turns out I can reach a 9th, etc...


I've decided to use Zotero to keep track of references.  That is what I am worst at, so that will make my next project all that easier to complete.   I won't be stuck at the last minute with many incomplete references like I normally do.

Thursday, November 16, 2017

Lilt: a theory of melody

A melody has to catch the ear. A lilt is an up and down movement that has to be asymmetrical or surprising in some way. It can go up, and then down. That is fine, if there some surprise there, or some element not completely predictable. It also has to have a shape, and be intelligible as a series of related phrases. I think that everyone, even those with no musical knowledge, understands a melody, everyone could be able to say: it goes down, then up, then down again but to a place lower than where it started. Or it leaps up and then comes down by steps. Or it goes up in smaller leaps and then down on the same notes.  Just as there is a harmonic rhythm (how fast the chords change) there is melodic rhythm, in the same that the same sequence notes will not be same melody if the rhythm is very different.

I know how to write a melody, and I did it well the first time I tried. A melody can be very simple, like the first three phrases of "I got rhythm." A simple melody is not worse than a complicated one, though.  It can have more or less movement, and move across a wider or narrower range. Since my melodies are mine, I like them. They express exactly what I want them to. I work them over until they are what I want them to be. I'm not afraid to repeat a note 5 times in a row.

I generate melodies through tension with the chords, using a lot of ninths and chromatic movement in the underlying harmonies.

Could someone explain why one melody is better than another? I know some melodies are more catchy, some are beautiful. Some are elegant and symmetrical. Some of my favorites are these

The Blessing (Ornette Coleman)
Monk's Mood (Monk)
Wachet Auf... (Bach)
Star Dust (Carmichael)
Lester Leaps Up (Young)
Nessun Dorma

Sometimes I know there is a melody, in a technical sense: notes that move in a way that is intelligible, but I feel that there is not really melody in the sense of something that I would have wanted to write as a melody. It is scrub-a-scrub baroque music of the mediocre sort, or its Clementi equivalent. I get tired of jazz improvisation when it involves a lot of aimless running up and down scales, rather than melodic development. You can have a melody that happens to coincide with a certain sequence of notes of a scale, in fact that is impossible to avoid. But you shouldn't write a melody that's just a scale.

I saw the movie Evita, and, though it is all sung, there are not melodies in the sense I mean. It is like talking, but non-melodically, on designated pitches.


I always liked this word. It follows the morphological pattern of sacacorchos or aguafiestas: third-person singular verb + plural noun. Someone "who spares your life" or allows you to live is a bully, or someone who acts like they are braver than they are.

"Perdonarle la vida a alguien," to spare someone's life, means to condescend to them. So if someone writers that in a newspaper column, someone spares Borges's life, it means they are treating them with condescension, deciding whether Borges can live or die.  It is arrogance, or the arrogation of an authority the critic doesn't have.

Tuesday, November 14, 2017


I've read two books in the past few days, one for a book review, the other for a tenure review. Both deal with several authors, but they are all male. Another book I reviewed for a press this summer dealt with Spanish writers in New York.  Once gain, only male writers appear.

You could guess the genders of the authors of these books. But the last one was written by a woman. So my question is: why not put some women in your books? Why do women authors have to be studied in books only about women, with a lot of other books about other general topics (modernism, translation, etc...) ignoring women completely?

Saturday, November 11, 2017

I couldn't find Hans Josef on my iTunes list.  I guess he was Haydn.

More Bialoksy

Logan strikes again.  

Friday, November 10, 2017

Feeding the Ego

I have a book review to do. The person does not cite me (when he might have???). Although the book will get a good review from me, it will be with less relish. I don't think that he had to cite me, but he might have. I think, egotistically of course, that the kind of ideas that I develop, and that he might have cited, would have benefitted his approach and made his book smarter. It is a smart book in its own right, though, so I have to be fair. Ah well...

(Do you think a book on translations of modernism between US and Spain would cite me, or not?)

I also have a tenure case to do. The person does cite me favorably, and I am favorably inclined to his work. He not only cites me, but makes me sound smart in the process, giving enough of my own words to make me sound that way, and using my point to make another good point of his own. And he does it more than once. This is not the perfunctory, cover-your-bases citation that we perform so often, the citation that only shows that you are aware of the work, that people will expect you to cite it so you do.

What is even more gratifying, is that he cites something that I forgot I had written (not the book but the particular analysis of a poem).

Why should I even need these ego boosting events? Normally, we work long hours writing a book, or several books, and we only hear sporadically about whether anyone likes or appreciates them, or knows why they are good. The institution treats scholarship as items on the cv to be counted. Your colleagues know that you have published, but they work in different fields.

My personal non-academic friends don't read my scholarship. I had an interesting conversation once with some acquaintances, people I see often, in which we were talking about how much we read. At some point, I had to say: do you know what my profession is?

So yes, as far the adulation and ego boosting: bring it on!    

Wednesday, November 8, 2017

Why plagiarism isn't "intertextuality".

Suppose I set a novel in Wyoming, and have my main characters be Frodo and his uncle Bilbo. That would set up intertextuality with Lord of The Rings. Suppose Bilbo left a valuable object to his nephew in his will...   Or I wrote a micro fiction in which a cockroach turns into a human being. Bolaño wrote a sequel to Kafka's story of Josephine the mouse singer. Graham Greene has a novel based obviously on the Quijote. Ashbery has a cento in which each line is a line from a famous poem. Koch parodies "This is Just to Say" in a poem called "Variations on a Theme by William Carlos Williams."  A play called "Lorca in a Green Dress" uses material from Lorca's plays and poems.

Intertexuality depends on the reader recognizing the source. It so happens I don't know the origins of all the lines in Ashbery's poem, but I can tell very early on that it's a cento (and even labelled as such!).  A concealed "intertextuality" with an unknown text is plagiarism. Concealing the origins, and using a "intertext" that most people would not recognize, means that there is no longer any intertextuality at work, because you don't have two things playing off each other.

Most intertextuality is with the canon. I'd say more: by using a text as intertext, if it is not already canonical, one is canonizing it, or treating it as a work that ought to be recognized by the reader.

As the cat climbed over the top of the jamcloset

Silent, upon a peak in Darien

To soothe a time-worn man

Silent, upon a peak in Darien

Caminante, son tus huellas el camino, y nada más. Caminante, no hay camino

Silent, upon a peak in Darien

As I sd to my friend, because I am always talking, John, I sd, which was not his name

Silent, upon a peak in Darien

Stout Cortez!

Silent, upon a peak in Darien 

First the right forefoot carefully

Silent, upon a peak in Darien 

Yo quiero ser llorando el hortelando de la tierra que ocupas y estercolas 

Silent upon a peak in Darien

Bright star, would I were steadfast as thou art, not in mute splendor

Silent, upon a peak in Darien...

Tuesday, November 7, 2017


An otherwise good book I'm reviewing but has Castile as the "central province" of Spain, and the "annexing" Catalonia, Galicia, and Asturias over the centuries. He has Castile rising to prominence in the 15th century. I'm pretty sure that Castile was prominent under Alfonso X two hundred years before that.  

(He also has Pierre Menard trying to become Cervantes, when that is the initial approach that Menard rejects.)

There was never an annexation of Catalonia by Castile.  Catalonia was essentially part of the kingdom of Aragon, and the marriage of the Catholic monarchs Ferdinand and Isabel was the first main step of unifying Spain politically.

And of course Castile is not and never was a "province." That's a bit like calling England a province that annexed Wales and Scotland.

It is hard to state facts accurately.


The plagiarist writes a self-pitying memoir about being found as a plagiarist. She calls it one woman's search for an authentic voice.  I guess, that, yes, you would need to search for authenticity in this circumstance. A plagiarist is the least authentic person in the world.   

Monday, November 6, 2017

Plagiarism as a systematic practice, or, banana peels

I propose to look at plagiarism as a system or a structure, not an isolated, accidental event. People often get distracted by wondering whether an act of plagiarism was intentional or not. They look at the issue of mens rea. This ends up being confusing, because a lot of plagiarists do not commit this act intentionally.

What I mean by structural plagiarism is the following. This poet who had plagiarized very extensively wrote down other peoples poems in her own notebooks, along side her own work, and often reworked someone else's poem extensively over a long period of time. Then, when sending out work or assembling a collection of poems, she sometimes used a poem that was not altered very much at all. This is a virtual recipe for plagiarism. It is like littering a path with banana peels, walking down the path, and then calling your falls "accidents." Maybe you did not intend to fall, and tried hard not to slip on those peels, but you did intend to litter the path with banana peels or ball bearings. The fault is one stage earlier in the process, but it is nonetheless your own fault.

Ira Lightman says that "Plagiarists never do it once." This is because plagiarism is the result of a method of writing in which the writer refuses to keep track of what words are his or her own.

Now I can see someone accidentally not closing a quotation mark at the end, or slipping up in a minor way with a brief sequence of quoted words. I think this kind of mistake, though, is not greeted with howls of outrage. What makes people made is the serial plagiarist, the person who makes a systematic practice of laying down banana peels on the road and slipping on them.

Sunday, November 5, 2017

The Gospel Writers

"The Gospel writers nicked stories from each other verbatim "

That's a phrase I found in a Facebook comment thread.  This is how people like to defend plagiarists. Plagiarism is not so bad, because Jesus, Shakespeare...  It pretends to be historically savvy but is quite the opposite.   


What bothered me most in people defending their own plagiarism was the appeal to their status as victims and the use of the vocabulary of self-love and empowerment.  

Saturday, November 4, 2017


Now, I would also like to bring up how I was treated in this affair. I have been bullied, victimised and abused by a number of ‘poets’ who thought it was necessary to act like a lynch mob. One ‘poet’ wrote “Head ———> Pike” in a Facebook comment about me. Another ‘poet’ suggested I be put in the stocks and alluded I should be put to death. Such behaviour really isn’t on. I have become extremely depressed by their actions and don’t deserve it. There is no excuse. I have written somewhere between 5 – 600 poems over the last eight/nine years. I intend to write more. I do not believe I should have to throw away several years worth of work over isolated incidents which I deeply regret. I am not, for the record, a compulsive plagiarist who gets a rush from doing it. I’m not that person. Please believe me…. I am not the complete monster that a lot of people think I am. I am a human being and deserve better.


In May 2015, the unspeakable happened to me. There was a public shaming. My whole world fell apart the day I was accused of being a plagiarist on Facebook by a ‘so-called’ friend and fellow poet. He wrote that he’d found whole scale “borrowings” from other writers’ words, phrases, and structures within my latest collection of poetry. He said that he was just doing his duty for the poetry community by bringing it to everyone’s attention. What followed was what I chose to call a public lynching of me as a writer, poet and person. This was the unspeakable that happened to me. But funny enough, I am speaking about it here, as well as writing a creative non-fiction book about this whole experience. Everything I knew, all I was, how I thought myself to be was taken from me in that public posting. I issued an apology regarding my unintentional mistakes and withdrew from the public realm. At one point, death looked a very promising course of action, but I had my family and some supportive friends who helped me.

Friday, November 3, 2017

Religious Freedom

Religious freedom seems to be mostly about being able to discriminate against gays and deny women funding for contraception in health care plans. If those are the only areas in which people and institutions are not religiously "free," then I would say that religious freedom is fairly robust. The entire legacy of Christianity apparently depends on a few issues like this. It's not as though the Baptist mayor of a small town is shutting down the Methodist church. No, the entire issue is that religious institutions don't get to regulate other peoples' (non-members of the religion) sexuality. And now, apparently, they do get to do so.

It's rather strange because contraception is not a big issue in the Bible. Maybe Jehovah at one point didn't want Onan to pull out too soon, which he did so as not to impregnate his sister-in-law, but that's all I remember. Most churches don't force people to marry their dead brother's wife any more, so this might not be all that relevant.


Protests don't shut down universities that are actually politically conservative. Only liberal institutions are vulnerable to the kind of implosion that has occurred recently at Reed and Evergreen.  If an administration tries to affirm its commitments to social justice, it might increase student dissatisfaction about these issues.


They say a liberal is someone who can't take their own side in an argument. I've seen it attributed to Robert Frost: "A liberal is someone too broadminded to take his own side in a quarrel." What this means, in practice, is that I spend a lot of time considering arguments I don't agree with, both from the left and the right of my own positions if we must imagine every issue along a spatial continuum we inherited from the French revolution.  There is a danger I might be convinced by a right wing argument, or have my positions not entirely line up the way they ought to. I certainly cannot shield myself from arguments I don't like. What would be the fun in that?  


There is an irritating Facebook group called teaching with a sociological lens, or something like that. A person reported that a student had written an email to her saying "we only hear liberal views in class, how about a debate with people on different sides of the issue." Of course, virtually everyone on the group responded that sociology is a science based on empirical research, so of course there are no sides to these issues, only facts. Now the student, whom the group immediately labeled a privileged white guy, may have been misconstruing the field of sociology.  But surely these sociology professors know that "facts" are socially constructed? Surely there are issues about which people, seeing the same set of data, disagree, and not necessarily from ideological differences. There have to be things that nobody knows for sure, open questions. There have to be implicit biases in the field, and specific ways in which researchers attempts to hold their biases in check, or ensure that they haven't put their thumb on the scale when gathering and interpreting data.  The purpose of the sociology class should be to teach students to think like sociologists, not to simply provide a set of incontrovertible facts about society.  

As a literary critic, I never know what my conclusions will be before I engage with the text. My conclusions are not aligned along a right / left axis. If I knew in advance what I would find, then my reading of the text would be worthless.

Wednesday, November 1, 2017


Symbolism is tremendously important. Don't let anyone tell you ever that an issue is "merely symbolic," because we put a lot of store into symbols. American flags, confederate flags, statues of confederate generals.  Words are symbolic and we need to be careful to use the right words at all times, those that are "symbolically correct," so to speak. People can go to war, ostensibly at least, over the right to use their own symbolic code, rather than that of the oppressor.

We cannot disparage interest in symbolism, then. Both Trump and NFL players seem to agree on the importance of the flag. There is no position that views it simply as a piece of cloth of no significance. In this sense, revering and burning a flag are acts invested degree of deference to an identical symbol.

Yet we can win all the symbolic battles we want, and nothing will change. Aren't we always told that racism is "structural"? High rates of incarceration and poverty among African-Americans are hugely more significant than some statue of Robert E. Lee. We can ban symbolic expressions of racism all day long and have structural racism run rampant. People who are overtly racist and fascist, etc... are only a small part of the problem.

Yet people seem to only understand problems in symbolic or iconic fashion. It's always some outrage over something someone said. Even a problem like police killing of civilians is reduced to a few iconic cases, when it is really a structural and statistical problem.  

Saturday, October 28, 2017

Academic Freedom

Here's an interesting one.

An "academic freedom syllabus" that sees academic freedom exclusively as administrators caving in in "knee jerk" fashion to the right. She repeats that phrase "knee jerk" so many times. And "alt right."

Most of the time, academic administrators are repressing freedom on their own accord, not because of some external right-wing threat. They are doing so when faculty challenge the administrators, or to satisfy some not right-wing constituencies of students, or in a misguided attempt to enforce Title IX.

They are creating "free speech zones" and speech codes.

The so-called "progressive stack" is very dangerous. If someone has the academic freedom to call on students according to a hierarchy of race and gender, why wouldn't another professor have the right to call on students according to a "regressive stack"? This professor might say, well, "since my colleagues are using the progressive stack in their classes, I need to counter this by calling on the most privileged first, etc..." Well, that would be outrageous, but if the progressive stack exists, then wouldn't the same academic freedom justify the regressive stack.

Of course, some would point out that the regressive stack is already being practiced. I can see that perspective too.  So we could go around in a circle with this argument. I would counter that then the regressive professor could say that he is just following the status quo then, so he can't be disciplined for doing what he has always done. Because academic freedom.

 I think this should be debated and if anyone can prove me wrong I would be happy.


Jonathan uses me myself and I pronouns.

When addressing Jonathan please use you pronouns.

A Short Cultural History (A Fragment)

Meanwhile the great edifice crumples, creating danger zones where

sharp edges create an "attractive nuisance." Once, these

borders were policed by well-meaning bureaucrats.  The culture

coarsens and grows bewilderingly nuanced at the same time. "Shit happens"

on the one hand, and, on the other, infinite gradations of identity, in the small gap

between two otherwise indistinguishable genders. The response

was supposed to be that that the most subtle and the least subtle among us

"lack all conviction." But it isn't so. Those working against the obesity epidemic by day

would join in protests against "fat shaming" in the evening but if you thought

there was a contradiction in this you would be very wrong. That's just one example.

I'm speaking off the record here. I can't even mean what I say anymore....

Friday, October 27, 2017

You can't plagiarize by accident

Suppose there is a language with ten nouns and ten intransitive verbs.  Speakers of this language only use two word sentences like "lion sleeps" or "man eats."  So there are 100 possible sentences in the language. The chances that two sentences will be identical, then, is 1 in 100.  The chances that two consecutive sentences will coincide are 1/1000. And so on.  (Image two people in rooms 100 miles apart who are asked to write essay in this language.) Of course in a corpus of billions of words you will find identical stretches of language, and these will occur according to the probabilities we can easily calculate.

Now let's say that the language gets many more types of words, and more in each category, and that sentence length is indefinite, and patterns of syntax more varied.  Now we have 20,000 words, not 20, so I can't even run the percentages any more: they are too vast. See two short stories by Borges, "Pierre Menard" and "The Library at Babel" for more insight into this. See Chomsky on the creativity of language.

In our musical system there are twelve notes. I used to wonder why we didn't run out of new melodies. After all, the possibilities are finite. It is true that many melodies contain identical sequences of notes in some stretches, but it is not hard to write new melodies.

The idea that your language forces you to say certain things and not others, then, needs to be re-examined. You can follow all the rules of syntax and still come up with original combinations.


Plagiarism by accident happens when you literally copy and paste something and leave the quotation marks off, and then come back to your text and lose track of whose language is whose.  It is an accident but it is still your fault. Aside from the carelessness of not marking the language as quoted, there is another issue: you should have a pride in your prose that would make someone else's language stick out when inserted therein.  Sometimes I look at a guest post by Thomas on this blog and think for a second or two: oh, that is strange, I don't write like this, before realizing that, no, I don't write like that. Thomas writes very well, but differently than I do. There are posts I don't remember writing, but I recognize them as my writing.

 I guess poets with cookie cutter styles might have this problem.    

Thursday, October 26, 2017

The Testament of Mateo del Olmo

I lost one book to alcoholism

one to debt

one to depression

another to life itself

and so I leave to the world these four books of poems

Pristine, Poems of Salt,

The Diamond in the Rough,  Rawhide Visions

Wednesday, October 25, 2017

Associate Deans

We used to have associate deans for humanities, social sciences, hard sciences.  Now we are going to have associate deans for "academic innovation and student success" and things like that. This means that we won't know them as well, because they are not in charge of various sets of departments, but of broadly defined conceptual values.  There will be one for diversity, maybe one for sustainability.  

I see this as part of the trend toward emphasizing less academic functions of academia, though the dean is making these positions 25% ones rather than 50 to save money. So the dean will do as much work, probably, but be paid half the amount for the administrative work sh/e does.

Humor and wit in music

Music can be funny or witty, but how so? It might be interesting to look at various kinds of musical wit. I'm reminded that scherzo means joke, so we might think certain movements of longer works are meant to be playful. 

Then we have intertextuality, like a quotation in a jazz solo. I think Parker quotes "White Christmas" in a solo on "Ornithology." 

There is irony, as in the use of excessively simple or saccharine melodies that we don't feel are to be taken seriously.  Parody as well.  

The frustration of expectations, or misdirection, or surprise.  The use of odd juxtapositions. 

Funny timbres and tonalities, dissonances. It might be funny to use a kazoo.  

I think Haydn is funnier than Mozart, and Monk funnier than Mingus, though the latter can be witty as well. Ellington is witty in a sophisticated way. 

I never went in for the PDQ Bach stuff for some reason.  

It takes some sophistication to hear humor in music, because many people approach music, especially classical music, with a deadly earnestness. 

A Small Country

We literary people, even the smartest among us sometimes

need our convenient caricatures

reclusive Emily, expansive Walt

Baudelaire the flâneur

casual Frank O'Hara, abstruse Ashbery

cool Miles, eccentric, dissonant Thelonious

But in Monk's music there is a universe of music

vast territories of mood, texture, color

childlike simplicity and recondite complications

or at the very least a small country it would be nice to visit

Tuesday, October 24, 2017


This is the prose of the contemporary academy:

A situation that took place in a sociology classroom earlier this week has been brought to my attention and I felt the need to communicate to you about it, particularly as it pertains to our value of inclusivity.
A professor is reported to have presented materials and made comments about which some students have expressed concern. We are taking the matter very seriously and are gathering the facts to determine if and what action is warranted.
The classroom is an environment in which students and faculty can and should discuss challenging topics and ideas, which makes it all the more important that we gather and fully review the facts in this case.  
As we review this situation, let me say unequivocally that SUNY Geneseo has a steadfast and uncompromising commitment to diversity and inclusivity. We work diligently to sustain an inviting and supportive environment for people of all gender identities, gender expressions, sexual orientations, races, religions and other identities.   
I use this opportunity to remind you that our Interim Chief Diversity Officer robbie routenberg (capitalization style intentional) is available as a resource to the campus community. I would also encourage any students who have support needs to contact Lenny Sancilio, dean of students, and Dillon Federici, coordinator of LGBTQ Programs and Services.

Who will edit the editor?

Not plagiarism, but simply bad writing:
Her lines are clear and concise, distinguished by rhyme, sound, punctuated with her signature dash and exclamation marks, half-rhymes and surprising line-breaks. She accepted her private isolation and agoraphobia and chose to commune with humanity through her poems.  
I don't know if Dickinson's lines are "clear." To say they are "distinguished by rhyme, sound" is to say very little, since almost all lyric poetry rhymed in the 19th century. That is not a "distinguishing" characteristic. And sound?  What can this possibly mean?

"dash and exclamation marks"--why switch between singular and plural instead of saying "dashes and exclamation marks"?

Then we get "half-rhymes." That is fine, but are they meant to be punctuation too? Why repeat "rhyme" twice in the same sentence? Isn't the use of half-rhyme more distinctive? And Dickinson is not particularly known for surprising line breaks or enjambement. Shouldn't we just say it concisely--that she mostly uses the ballad stanza, defamiliarizing it through slant-rhymes and eccentric punctuation?  

And "commune with humanity."  I don't like that. And "private isolation"--as opposed to public isolation I suppose?

A page later, she is talking about how Dickinson is "relatable," as though she (Bialosky I mean) were a 17-year old.  Her writing is extremely dumbed down.

We find clichés like "limp as a rag doll" and "the black cloud of depression." Seriously?  Could no-one have edited the editor a bit?

Why I won't use an oppression stack in my class

I could look at graduation rates and see that males are graduating at a much lower rate than females in my university.  Should I favor men in order to even the odds? Of course not. Even though some of the worst students I have had are white males...  

I had two students dominate, or at least predominate, my two classes last semester.  One was an African American male, the other was a white female. I didn't try to shut them down, but I did make sure that they weren't the only people speaking.  

I have Latino students who speak better Spanish. They are at an advantage, since class is only in Spanish. Should I call on the more because they are more oppressed, or less because they are comparatively advantaged in this particular situation?  

There isn't some huge competition to participate. Many students, the majority in fact, don't want to say anything at all.  I'll still make them say something from time to time, but I want to be a professor, not a dentist.

Should I call more on students who do not seem as gender normative? So I am supposed to make a judgment about someone based on their external mannerisms? Their skin color? Their last name? Should I favor Asian over whites, or vice-versa? How should I treat Jews? International students? Should I ask for students' or parents' tax returns to see how well off they are?

If my students knew I was calling on them more or less based on their race / gender / perceived gender identity, would they like it? Yes, you seem like you're gay, so I'll call on you more than the guy sitting next to you. Wouldn't then the straight white guy with an invisible disability make his own claim? To announce that you were going to do this would be disastrous. The woman who tweeted that she would call on white males only "if she had to" is practicing overt discrimination. Of course the right wing picked up on it, but that does not make it right. Sometimes seemingly progressive ideas are simply terrible.