Monday, March 24, 2014

Happy 95th Birthday to Lawrence Ferlinghetti

Source: Wikipedia
Lawrence Ferlinghetti, co-founder of City Lights Bookseller & Publishers in San Francisco, turns 95 today. Click here to visit the City Lights Ferlinghetti page.

Kerouacians will be familiar with Ferlinghetti as the owner of the cabin in Big Sur where Jack spent some time between July and September, suffering the nervous breakdown he made famous in his novel, Big Sur.Of course, Ferlinghetti was a strong proponent of Beat writers, but City Lights has published across genres internationally. 

For more on Ferlinghetti, his Wikipedia article (here) is quite informative. 

I've been lucky enough in the past to serve as a reviewer for City Lights publications, and I hope that opportunity continues. If you ever get to San Francisco, a pilgrimage to City Lights is required. While you're there, you can bop over to Vesuvio's (across Jack Kerouac Alley) where Jack used to hang out or make the trek across the Columbus and Broadway to visit The Beat Museum.

Happy Birthday, Lawrence!

Sunday, March 23, 2014

Jack Kerouac, Steve McQueen, On the Road, and the origin of "cool"


Click here for a PBS article about the American Cool exhibit at the National Portrait Gallery in Washington, D.C. The exhibit brings together 100 examples of "cool" Americans, and features photographs of the likes of James Dean, Billie Holiday, Marlon Brando, Steve McQueen (the coolest, in my book). I'm not sure if Jack Kerouac is represented in the exhibit, but he's mentioned in the article:
In the face of racism, the great African-American jazz saxophonist Lester Young was “cool.”

Credited with bringing the word into the modern American vernacular, “I’m cool” wasn’t Young’s reference to the sunglasses he wore day and night on stage, or the saxophone slung across his shoulder. It was his response to a divided society, a way of saying that he was still in control.

Decades later, after the term crossed over into Jack Kerouac’s work, and even found itself the subject of one of Leonard Bernstein’s numbers in “West Side Story,” the question “what is cool?” remains a topic of debate, a generational point of contention. But for Frank H. Goodyear III and Joel Dinerstein, it’s the question “who is cool?” that takes center stage in the “American Cool”exhibit they curated for the National Portrait Gallery in Washington, D.C.

I didn't know Lester Young brought the word "cool" into our vernacular, but he was mentioned by Jack in On the Road a couple of times. Now, in fact, Jack used the word "cool" in On the Road in few different ways.

For example, referring to temperature:
Terry said we could live in tents on the job. The thought of living in a tent and picking grapes in the cool California mornings hit me right (Kerouac, 1976, p. 89).
Or pejoratively:
There he is! That's him! Old God! Old God Shearing! Yes! Yes! Yes!" And Shearing was conscious of the madman behind him, he could hear every one of Dean's gasps and imprecations, he could sense it though he couldn't see. "That's right!" Dean said. "Yes!" Shearing smiled; he rocked. Shearing rose from the piano, dripping with sweat; these were his great 1949 days before he became cool and commercial (p. 128).
Or as in Steve McQueen "cool":
"I don't know but we gotta go." Then here came a gang of young bop musicians carrying their instruments out of cars. They piled right into a saloon and we followed them. They set themselves up and started blowing. There we were! The leader was a slender, drooping, curly-haired, pursy-mouthed tenorman, thin of shoulder, draped loose in a sports shirt, cool in the warm night, self-indulgence written in his eyes, who picked up his horn and frowned in it and blew cool and complex and was dainty stamping his foot to catch ideas, and ducked to miss others-and said, "Blow," very quietly when the other boys took solos. Then there was Prez, a husky, handsome blond like a freckled boxer, meticulously wrapped inside his sharkskin plaid suit with the long drape and the collar falling back and the tie undone for exact sharpness and casualness, sweating and hitching up his horn and writhing into it, and a tone just like Lester Young himself. "You see, man, Prez has the technical anxieties of a money-making musician, he's the only one who's well dressed, see him grow worried when he blows a clinker, but the leader, that cool cat, tells him not to worry and just blow and blow-the mere sound and serious exuberance of the music is all he cares about. He's an artist. He's teaching young Prez the boxer. Now the others dig!!" The third sax was an alto, eighteen-year-old cool, contemplative young Charlie-Parker-type Negro from high school, with a broad gash mouth, taller than the rest, grave. He raised his horn and blew into it quietly and thoughtfully and elicited birdlike phrases and architectural Miles Davis logics. These were the children of the great bop innovators (pp. 238-239).
 Definitely check out this link to the exhibit itself.

Bottom line: Jack Kerouac was cool.


References

Kerouac, J. (1976). On the Road. New York: Penguin Books.



P.S. The above quotations from On the Road are duly cited and used in accordance with the fair use doctrine of U.S. copyright law.

Wednesday, March 12, 2014

Happy 92nd Birthday to Jack Kerouac!

In honor of Jack Kerouac's 92nd birthday today, here is a quiz I gave my First Year Seminar class on Tuesday. It covers On the Road Part 3 Chapters 5-11 (classic edition, not The Scroll). I give quizzes to check on whether the students do the assigned reading; they aren't meant to be profound.

Scroll way down for answers and leave a comment about how you did. Oh, and for my students: If you were absent for the quiz, I wrote an alternate for you to take so don't bother memorizing the answers.

Rating:
10 correct = You know Jack
9 correct = You're no Memory Babe but not bad
8 correct = You're ready to head out "on the road"
7 correct = Much better than sheer guessing
6 correct = As close to flunking as you can get (by university standards)
5 correct = Fail (along with all the scores below)
4 correct = Good test-taking skills may have gotten you here
3 correct = Sheer guessing may be in play at this level
2 correct = No bragging rights for you
1 correct = This is really, really bad
0 correct = Wow, you really suck at On the Road knowledge and test-taking

Quiz

1. At the beginning of this section, Sal and Dean are:
A. leaving New York for Chicago
B. in Denver looking for Old Dean Moriarty
C. in New Orleans at Old Bull Lee’s
D. heading eastward from San Francisco

2. Sal gets really mad at Dean when they first get to Denver because:
A. Dean finds Marylou and they ditch Sal
B. Dean makes a crack that Sal thinks makes fun of his age
C. Dean has been driving too fast
D. Dean refuses to pay for his share of their room at the YMCA

3. Why does a mother living across the cornfield from the Okie family threaten to shoot Dean with a shotgun?
A. Dean has been repeatedly trying to make her daughter
B. Sal steals their corn and they mistake him for Dean in the dark
C. She is delusional and thinks Dean is her cheating husband
D. Dean steals a bag of grain out of her barn

4. What old habit does Dean return to when they are out and about in Denver?
A. knocking Marylou around
B. hustling pool
C. stealing cars
D. tagging alleyways with graffiti

5. What kind of travel-bureau car do they drive from Denver to Chicago?
A. a 1949 Hudson
B. a baby blue convertible
C. a brand new 1950 Ford Crestliner
D. a big black Cadillac

6. On their way out of Denver they stop at what kind of place owned by Ed Wall?
A. a hippie commune
B. a ranch
C. a casino
D. a brothel                                                                                                                                                        

7. Dean’s common top speed across Nebraska and Iowa seems to be:
A. 70 MPH
B. 80 MPH
C. 90 MPH
D. 110 MPH

8. While out in Chicago listening to jazz, what musician shows up who they consider to be “God”?
A. Louis Armstrong
B. Thelonius Monk
C. Dizzie Gillepsie
D. George Shearing

9. What are the consequences of returning the travel-bureau car covered in mud with no brakes, stove-in fenders, and rattling rods?
A. They have to borrow money from Sal’s aunt to pay for the damages
B. There are no consequences
C. They get thrown in jail
D. They have to work with a mechanic to fix the car.

10. In Detroit, rather than rent a room somewhere, Dean and Sal:
A. sleep under a railroad trestle
B. stay in a movie theater all night
C. rent a tent at the local campground

D. spend the night in a whorehouse


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ANSWERS:
1. D
2. B
3. A
4. C
5. D
6. B
7. D
8. D
9. B
10. B






Sunday, March 2, 2014

The Town and the City anniversary

Jack Kerouac's first novel to be published, The Town and the City, appeared on this date in 1950. That's 64 years ago today! If you haven't read it yet, I recommend doing so. It's more traditional than Jack's later novels, Wolfean some say, but his voice is there.

Tuesday, February 18, 2014

True Detective goes Beat

HBO's new series, True Detective, is blowing my mind with its literary references. It's already led me to read Robert W. Chambers' The King in Yellow and I am part way through Thomas Ligotti's The Conspiracy Against the Human Race. Now it appears that William S. Burroughs' work appeared in the latest episode. Detective Rust Cohle (Matthew McConaughey), in one of his many philosophical monologues, says, "So death created time to grow the things that it would kill."

That line is classic Burroughs. Can you name the work?

Saturday, February 15, 2014

Just like Jack Kerouac

Just like Jack, some modern writers use good old-fashioned pen and paper to write (and even manual typewriters). Click here.

Friday, February 14, 2014

An anniversary of sorts and a plea

One year ago today I went in the hospital for an eight-day stay in a locked-down psychiatric ward. It was the worst experience of my life (losing one's freedom is a soul-crushing experience) but probably saved me from doom. I was experiencing a major depressive episode accompanied by psychosis, delusions, debilitating anxiety, and suicidal ideation. I missed 8 weeks of work and then only returned to part-time status, teaching one class for the last several weeks of the spring semester. Thanks to the support of loved ones and friends, meds, and therapy, I recovered and had a much different Valentine's Day this year (although I did have minor surgery on my toe this morning - all is well). Mentally, I am much better but far from where I was or wish I were. This may be the new normal. My memory isn't what it was, and a lot of the time it feels like my thinking is disorganized or happening in slow motion. Like someone said, you don't "beat" depression: you manage it. It's always looming, you sense its presence, and occasionally it wanders too close for comfort. That's when the skills you learn in therapy help.

One important lesson I learned from the experience - among many - was realizing firsthand what mental illness really means. It means you can't just "suck it up and get on with it." Even if you could give a shit about doing so - which you most assuredly don't when depressed - you don't have the capacity. Your executive functioning is affected, and irrational thoughts and delusions make your decision-making abilities suspect. Ending the pain once and for all makes total sense, and the suffering is so significant that no thought of others - if you even have one - ameliorates the thoughts of suicide. And the anxiety just makes it all worse.

I am reminded of the vitriole cast Philip Seymour Hoffman's way regarding his recent heroin overdose. How he was just "selfish." That hurt. That means I was being selfish when I contemplated suicide, and that is not accurate. I was sick. Period. I wasn't responsible - my brain wasn't working properly. I didn't ask to be depressed, psychotic, delusional, anxious, and suicidal, but that's what I was and that's why I was in a spiral of unhealthy behaviors. You might say Hoffman "chose" to use heroin and the rest was all therefore his fault. If that's so, then I chose to be depressed because - in hindsight - there were many red flags along the way and choices along the way I could have made that possibly would have skirted the whole affair. No one wants to be in the place I ended up, or in Hoffman's, but it happens, and when it does, I think some compassion is in order.

You are not immune from experiencing what I went through. That's a fact. I hope you never do. In the meantime, though, I hope my sharing these thoughts will give you pause next time someone overdoses or attempts suicide or acts in some bizarrely inappropriate way. When your brain is sick you think and do things that don't make sense from the outside looking in. From the inside, they seem  logical, even unassailably right. At that point, people need help, not judgment.

Fortunately, help is available. Let's thank the people and organizations that work with people with mental health issues and support public policies that ensure mental health services are maintained and strengthened. Let's do what we can to end the stigma surrounding mental health, starting with telling our own stories and pushing this dark phenonmenon out into the light of day where we can deal with it openly, honestly, and with care.

Jack Kerouac was in the pschiatric hospital during his stint in the U.S. Navy. Diagnosed with "demential praecox" (schizophrenia), he was no stranger to this topic. Neither was Allen Ginsberg, Carl Solomon, and other beat characters. Depression et al. are equal opportunity conditions affecting people without regard to social status, ethnicity, political persuasion, gender, religion, or any other diversity factor. It's one of the last frontiers of discrimination in this country, and I say let's make it the civil rights issue of our time.

Want to get involved or learn more? Check out NAMI's website, like them on Facebook, or follow them on Twitter.