Utne-Stuff2The gift-giving season just having passed, most all of us now have more stuff, and we’re poised for acquiring even more: the biggest bargains of the year coming in the dead of winter as merchants try to clear out what they didn’t sell during Christmas.  I’ve recently moved from a house we were in for nearly 20 years—20 years we jammed it with stuff—so these days I’m hyper, hyper sensitive about how much stuff I have.  After months of lugging boxes of it upstairs and down—in one box I found the magazine pictured here featuring an article on…stuff—I’ve still got about 40% of it left to lug.  “I bet everyone here,” I say as I look at one college class after another, “has at least twice what they really need, maybe more like three or four times. And me, after owning houses for decades, I probably have a 100 times what I need!”  Easily.

So I have thought for years about E.B White’s essay “Mrs. Wienckus,” one of his smallest—which makes me like it even more.  It was one of the somewhat random pieces he wrote for The New Yorker, and which the magazine sprinkled here and there, especially near the beginning of each issue.  It begins, as many of his pieces do, with him noticing something small in the news or just everyday living.  “The Newark police arrested a very interesting woman the other day—a Mrs. Sophie Wienckus—and she is now on probation after having be arraigned as disorderly.”  The police complained that she was bedded down in a couple of boxes in a hallway.  She could have done otherwise because they found on her person bank books showing she had $19,799.09 saved.  I presume the piece was written in the early 50′s, so that would be roughly $200,000 today.

So, naturally, the judge asks, “Why didn’t you rent a room.”  “We feel,” says White, “that the magistrate oversimplified his question.”

Rent-Room2“…he should have added parenthetically ‘(and the coat hangers in the closet and the cord that pulls the light and the dish that holds the soap and the mirror that conceals the cabinet where lives the aspirin that kills the pain).’  Why didn’t you rent a room? ’(with the rug that collects the dirt and the vacuum that sucks the dirt and the man that fixes the vacuum and the fringe that adorns the shade that dims the lamp and the desk that holds the bill for the installment on the television set that tells of the wars)?’”

A classic White move.  He constantly shows us how something seemingly little, almost throw-away, connects to something universal-big.  Where does the essential disorder lie?  “We salute a woman whose affairs are in such excellent order in a world untidy beyond belief,” White concludes.  It’s not just that we have so much we trip over it: it’s even more the mind set, the spiritual set, that leads to such tripping.  All of us pay lip service to the belief that we can’t buy happiness, but obviously we act, most of the time, as if we could.  That leads to all kinds of disorders.

  This article is part of a series on The Arts of the Essay.

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30th ANNIVERSARY of the Gospel Extravaganza

Saturday, FEBRUARY 3rd, NORTH CENTRAL COLLEGE, 7:30 p.m.


Psalm 90, verse 4, says, “For a thousand years in your sight are but as yesterday when it is past, or as a watch in the night,” so a 30th Anniversary might not be all that big in the grand scheme of things.

But, still, it is—isn’t it?  Certainly to us mere mortals.

Please come celebrate with us.  Exciting music.  Passionate Praise.

Just over thirty years ago a group of North Central College students asked me to attend a gospel concert they were putting on at a church down the street from campus.  I was director of the college’s Cultural Events program, and afterwards a few of those students asked, “Can you bring this to campus?”  I said, Yes, right away, and some months later we held our first Gospel Extravaganza.  I’ve written about some of its history elsewhere, and posted videos of our 25th Anniversary and others.  Just follow the links at the end of this post.  Here’s the program cover I created for our Fifth Anniversary, another milestone that few of us—if any—thought was pointing 25 years into the future.


  Read about and watch moments from Gospel Extravaganza 25.

  Read “Father Mike Pfleger and Other Gospel Extravaganza Memories.”

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We Are Everywhere


Above is a template for brief reviews used by the Virginia Quarterly Review in the old days, this one dated 6/19/79, when I, in response to a review copy of a book the VQR sent me, turned in this small note on Michael Raeburn’s We Are Everywhere: Narratives from Rhodesian Guerillas.  James Baldwin wrote the Introduction, and the few words I quote from it—I say he’s in “classic Balwin form”—ring perhaps louder today than when I latched on to the words in 1979.  The template says if you’re using elite type, type your review between vertical lines A and B; if using pica, type between lines A and C.  Here’s the short note/review I wrote between A and C:

“The five, finely-counterpointed narratives in this book rise above mere propaganda to give as human and complex a view of the Rhodesian guerilla struggle as one is likely to get. Raeburn, a distinguished young film-maker, bases his stories on actual events and succeeds in giving us a first-hand feel for various aspects of the war.  Two stories concern campaigns, another the ‘re-tribalization’ of a young man.  Another begins with an evocation of the Bloomsbury group, which provides a subtle comparison and contrast to a night of conversation about the relationship between action and ideology.  The book’s introduction is by James Baldwin, who is in classic Baldwin form.  ‘Freedom for the black man,’ he says, ‘…will bring to the white man a joy and freedom he does not, now, dare to imagine.’”

WeAreEvery2Rhodesia—Zimbabwe today—has continued being, as the jacket blurb says, “one of the political tinder boxes of Africa,” and it’s just gone through what we hope will usher in a joy and freedom it has long not dared to imagine.  As the Financial Times reported on November 24, 2017, “Emmerson Mnangagwa committed to holding democratic elections next year as he was sworn in as president of Zimbabwe on Friday at a ceremony that was the culmination of an extraordinary 10 days that ended Robert Mugabe’s 37-year rule.” Mnangagwa is an old Mugabe ally, so we’ll see.

What I quoted from Baldwin rings especially true at this moment in American history.  Everyone sees it as a turning point, a water-shed moment—at least they hope that’s what it is—led by the extraordinary backlash against sexual harassment and assault symbolized by #MeToo and #TimesUp.  It’s a riskier, much less clear proposition to suggest that the white backlash that has spawned Donald Trump’s election and the resurgence of white power may be the beginning of the end of White Supremacy, too.  What men who want to preserve old-boy privilege, and whites who want to maintain their privilege and supremacy do not realize is, to paraphrase Baldwin, that freedom for women and people of color will bring to men and white people a joy and freedom they do not, now, dare to imagine.  It takes so much energy and so much denial (always a dangerous thing) to maintain such privilege, to remain on top by pushing others down, to imagine such a lofty view of yourself—a view which always detaches you not only from the humanity of others, but your own humanity as well.   ”We are everywhere.”  I can imagine that as one of the new slogans of this era when we finally realize—as we really have not for centuries of time—that women and people of color really are everywhere, and have always been.

  Go to All Things Baldwin for more on this site about James Baldwin, and go to the Teaching Diversity main page, and the Reviews and Commentary main page.

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