Thursday, January 30, 2014

Goodnight, My Pete, Goodnight

The remembrance of her father never approaches
her heart but the tyranny of her sorrows takes all
livelihood from her cheek.

All’s Well That Ends Well, I.1

This week we lost one of humanity’s best. Not just an impressive figure, but a deeply good person who brought that goodness to bear on so many righteous causes and infused so many little lives (like mine) with a hunger for purpose that it is not hyperbole to say his “worth’s unknown although [his] height be taken.” [Sonnet 116]
Waking up to the news the other day that Pete had died in the night left me feeling that a considerable quantum of light had abandoned the world, irrevocably. For most of my life, he has been more than a distant icon. To speak quite candidly, he was the first of a very select group that I chose to be my father.
I chose Pete to play this part when I was four and the post had suddenly been left vacant. I’d met him thanks to the very first album to come into my possession: Pete Seeger Sings to Children in Town’s Hall. The girl on the cover, perched next to him on a stool and looking up to him with rhapsodic interest—well, she, seemed like a proxy for me at the time. And Pete’s utterly authentic voice—wailing with the banjo or telling a rambling story tale continuing to strum nimbly on his 12-string guitar—spoke to me from the start—and reliably thereafter.
During the years while that daddy position on the home-front remained vacate, I collected a few other contenders for the role. Most notably, Atticus of To Kill a Mockingbird. But first and foremost among the Ideal Daddy Pantheon was and remained Pete. To this day, I keep a framed picture of him on my desk at home along with other family photos, the earnest, lovable standard by which all others were measured.
I did see him in person a few times--in concert, peak experiences to be sure. Especially memorable was the time when I was 7 or 8 when my mother took me to see him at the University of Houston where she was then a hippie graduate student. At the intermission, I was able to slip away while Mama was engrossed in conversation with friends. I ducked passed the security guard, ran back stage, and found Pete chatting with a group of African musicians who had joined him for part of the performance. Before the guard could catch up to me, I was able to secure an autograph on a napkin replete with his signature sketch of a banjo, a relic I carried around for years along with my Pete-heavy record collection—until the lot was destroyed in the flooded basement of my college boyfriend’s rental house.
Not long after the autograph-seeking episode, I decided to take action. I wrote Pete a long, gushy letter, taking care to remind him about our recent encounter. I sent it care of PBS headquarters in New York City since he had recently made a cameo appearance on Sesame Street (one of the first vehicles whereby he made it back on the air after years on the blacklist). I did my best to convey my eternal devotion to him. And he actually wrote me back! His tone, however, was all-business—for there was serious business to be done. He explained about the project they were undertaking up north called “Clearwater” to clean up the Hudson River that was then full of “garbage, garbage, garbage” just like the lyrics to one of my favorite songs of his from that period. In a postscript to his letter, he observed that in Houston, where he saw that I lived, there was a bayou running through the very heart of town that, as he understood it, could use some attention too. So he had included some pamphlets with his letter that explained all about how I might start organizing folks in the community to take action, see if Buffalo Bayou could become something other than a vile cesspool.
Since I was only 7 or 8 at the time, I didn’t get very far with that initiative. Or at least the fact of being 7 or 8 is my convenient excuse. Because I don’t think folks like Pete ever thought of anything—age, income, stature—as an insurmountable obstacle, as an excuse for inaction.
I thought about his refusal to accept any obstacle as immovable tonight while driving home from work. My job as a commercial litigator is not one that Pete would have disdained, because he was not the sort of person to have those kinds of petty emotions; but I suspect it is a job that he would have found a bit perplexing. But maybe it would have cheered him to know that a person engaged in such an unlikely pursuit can and often does easily conjure up his voice inside her head.
Without any concerted effort, tonight I heard him singing a verse that he had written as an addendum to Joni Mitchell’s “Both Sides Now.” According to his intro on whatever album it was (I once, but no longer, had most of them), he said that he had written the verse on the occasion of his 50th birthday. How apropos that that is precisely the age that I have achieved this year when he has left us. That synchronicity, as well as the verse’s content, made it a perfect choice for the occasion. The verse was dedicated to his biological daughter.  As I remember it, it went like this:
Daughter, daughter, don’t you know,
You’re not the first to feel just so.
Ah, let me say before I go,
It’s worth it anyway.
Someday we may all be surprise;
We’ll wake and open up our eyes.
Then we all will realize
The whole world feels this way.
We’ve all been living upside down and turned around with love unbound--
Until we turn and face the sun,
Yes, all of us, every one.


I see it now. That is what he was always trying to get us to do: turn and face the sun.

So I hope anyone who stumbles upon this post in search of some pithy (if occasionally strained) analogy between Shakespearean text and the practice of law will forgive this diversion. The impulse to make this confession and to pay tribute was just too strong, and I fear I had no other readily available outlet. Although I can think of some stirring father-daughter relationships in Shakespeare’s plays and an occasional father-daughter team in the law that I could have tried to pull together to make sense out of this post, the effort would have cheapened the moment. Besides, when a person has lost one of the only remaining ones whom she has loved the longest, complete coherence can hardly be expected.
What can be expected is an effort to heed Pete’s legacy of dogged optimism. As the NYTimes quoted him in its own tribute: “The key to the future of the world is finding the optimistic stories and letting them be known.”

Sunday, January 26, 2014


Usage expert Bryan Garner recently republished an article whose thesis can be summed up this way:  Lawyers have a hard time letting go of stylistic preferences even when evidence abounds that these preferences are wrong-headed or even counter-productive. Garner describes this syndrome as “mumpsimism.”

The OED defines “mumpsimism” as “an obstinate adherent of old ways, in spite of clear evidence of their error,” and suggests that the term comes from a story of an illiterate priest who, when told that the Latin term in the Eucharist that he was looking for was sumpsimus not mumpsimus, the priest replied in a huff, ‘I will not change my old mumpsimus for your new sumpsimus.”  
As an example of lawyers’ modern-day refusal to abandon mumpsimus for sumpsimus, Garner tells a story that features himself in the role of the illiterate priest. He describes how he had once dogmatically insisted on two spaces after every period; he then explains his painful conversion to the preferable one-space approach; and he finally concludes that: “Today I feel a very mild revulsion at seeing two spaces after a period. And slight pity. But I understand the strong feelings of those who persist.”
This story made me smile with the kind of pained recognition that can only come from looking too closely in the mirror.
When I started teaching legal writing, I announced to my students at some point that, although there were barbarians out there who were content with but one space between sentences, I was no such barbarian. Therefore, if they did not wish to make my skin crawl as I reviewed their research memos, they should commit themselves to ensuring that two spaces appeared after each and every period. I was not sure exactly why I felt so strongly about this convention. After all, I never took typing in high school. Indeed, I never really learned how to type—the proper way.  Gaining access to a computer at the dawn of the word-processing age, I’d never looked back; I’d simply become very adept at my own idiosyncratic approach (and exceedingly grateful for the “Backspace” key). But somewhere along the way, I got it into my head that two spaces after a period was de rigueur. So much so that, upon reviewing a document in which an author had “slipped up” and placed but one space between sentences, my eye would twitch and my lower track rumble.
Fast forward a few years. Thanks to a student here and a colleague there, I read articles about this typographic controversy and learned that the “two spaces” approach was totally Old School, and not in a good way. The convention had been called into question by those with more refined aesthetic sensibilities as a mere relic of the typewriter era, which, as I noted above, I’d never even occupied in the first place. Soon I was convinced that the Old-School approach really did impinge on a text’s readability. And with great pains to my kinesthetic memory, I made the adjustment, vowing thenceforth to use but one space after each period (and after each colon too, for good measure). I then humbly shared with my students my dawning awareness of the two camps, their conflicting, fiercely held convictions with respect to the RIGHT way to deal with this matter, and my own recent ideological conversion. I concluded by giving them the freedom to decide which camp with which to align themselves—with impunity—so long as they were consistent in implementing their choice because inconsistency was a thing that I most certainly could not tolerate.
Not long after making this humbling confession/concession, I returned to practicing law full-time. The very first feedback I received on a brief I wrote for another lawyer did not address the substance of my arguments, the resonance of my case illustrations, or the elegance of my rhetorical flourishes.  Oh no. The sole feedback I received was: “Please be sure to include two spaces after every period. Just one of those things that makes the practice of law go round.”
As I read this email, my eye twitched and my lower track rumbled.
The same day that I was revisiting these happy memories thanks to Garner’s article, I happened to hear a segment called “Two Guys on Your Head” on KUT radio.  In this piece, “Debunking Myths Behind Different Learning Styles,”  the two guys, professors Dr. Art Markman and Dr. Bob Duke, explain how the theory that people can be classified by learning style—visual learner, auditory learner, and what not—is a vast oversimplification.  Yet pedagogues and social scientists continue to insist on the idea’s validity. This seemed like another example of “mumpsimism” that I was being asked to confront!?
Yes, although the example is a tad more subtle.
It is true that there are different ways to go about learning something. And many of us may have ways we prefer to learn. I, for instance, have a much tougher time processing information conveyed aurally and vastly prefer seeing stuff spelled out for me in text.  But these two guys say that the misconception is not that different learning modes exist but in believing that a person can be classified as a type of learner. For in fact, we can all learn through different modalities. And the likelihood of learning something—anything—improves for most folks if we are exposed to concepts through more than one modality at a time. It is mumpsimism to continue to try to place individuals in boxes defined by a single learning modality because vast evidence shows that learning is almost always a multivalent phenomenon. Yet if one is a school administrator or a person seeking a Masters degree in Education, a really effective way to shake up some grant money might be a promise to explore “lesson plans tailored to distinct learning modalities to increase student success.”
All this talk of mumpsimism reminds me of a certain passage from Henry VI, Part 1, when Basset (of the House of Lancaster) and Talbot (of the House of York) “upbraid” each other “about the rose [they] wear” and then beg for permission to defend the honor of their respective houses by invoking “the benefit of law of arms.” King Henry, rather sanely, responds to these contentions thus: “Good Lord, what madness rules in brainsick men,/ When for so slight and frivolous a cause/ Such factious emulations shall arise! [IV.1.1876+]. Yet these "slight and frivolous" causes are the things that often seem most likely to make our eyes twitch, our lower tracks rumble, and our racing pulses demand vindication through the "law of arms." Why might that be?

Thursday, January 23, 2014

Gallop apace

Recently, I was watching a bit of the BBC’s heroic, if rather dated, 15-part production of Shakespeare’s history plays—available on Netflix for all those anxious to devote the better part of a decade to watching. It was originally broadcast in 1960, back when Judi Dench, one of the series’ many stars, was a mere lass. I was watching snippets of this production as a consolation prize. Sadly, at present I am unable to pop over to Stratford-upon-Avon to see staged productions of the history plays that commenced during the Winter 2013 season with a new production of Richard II.  Also, I have not yet seen the new BBC film adaptations of some of these same plays—Richard II, Henry IV, Part 1, Henry IV, Part 2, and Henry V—being aired as part of PBS’s “Great Performances” series under the title of The Hollow Crown.  (Some I missed; some haven’t even aired yet.)

I know, I know: this intro does no more than establish that I am a Super Nerd, and an antiquated one at that. But here is what struck me as I was watching the quaint, black-and-white, video-taped stage productions: I was reminded why the Brits do such a better job with the Bard than Amuricans do. The reason is two-fold: diction and pace.  Perhaps this seems obvious, but I will explain myself anyway.

Diction—as in: clear enunciation of one’s words—helps animate Shakespearean text because, after all, the text is rather dense. Lots and lots of words involved. If you cannot make out what the actors are saying, you have little hope of understanding them. And most of what makes the plays beautiful is a function of the language itself; plot and character are compelling, but really only play a supporting role.  When it comes to diction, most British actors start out way ahead of their American counterparts. Let’s face it, unless they begin life in some god-forsaken place like Lancashire or London’s East End, they sound prettier than we do on this side of the pond without any training whatsoever. Those who want to be actors then devote a lot more time working on their speech than American actors do.  They train their voices as intently as professional musicians train on their instruments and athletes train their bodies. By contrast, most American actors focus on the mere surface itself (appearance) and/or the deep psyche, ignoring the middle ground that involves drilling things like diction.
Pace—as in: going fast—also helps animate Shakespearean text by making it approachable, if not exactly naturalistic. If a person takes too long to get through a sentence, the listener is more likely to get lost—even if one’s diction is superb.  That is, even if one speaks slowly out of reverence for the poetry, the language seems ponderous and inordinately theatrical.  The poetic form is theatrical enough as it is.  So a good actor “plays the opposite,” working to make the unnatural seem as natural as possible by allowing the words to flow trippingly off the tongue.  As with diction, being able to speak “apace” requires physical dexterity.  But this skill also requires mental dexterity, knowing what you are saying so well—not just the words but what they mean—so that you don’t have to take time to think through lines as they are uttered. For as we all know, in the real world, much of human speech comes right out of people’s mouths without much of a filter.  If you can “see” an actor thinking through his lines, he is not entirely “in the moment.”  Working really hard on pace allows actors to give the impression that they aren’t working at speaking at all—which makes for a more convincing performance.

I am not suggesting that performing Shakespearean text effectively can be reduced to a mere formula:  just enunciate well while racing through all of your lines at a breakneck pace, then you’ll be great.  But as a mechanical starting point, excellent diction and the capacity to speak the lines as fast as one would “ordinary speech,” in my view, are two phenomena that explain why British actors are more likely to perform Shakespeare effectively than even some of the very best American actors.  The latter tend to be simultaneously too sloppy and too reverential with the words.
Compare John Stewart as John of Gaunt:
Sorry, Al. I love ya but. . . . Although both of these performances are fraught with passion, I suggest that the first is far more masterful because the passion is supported by both beautiful diction and a brisk pace.
So, okay, like, uhm, lawyers do a lot of speaking too. They speak to clients, co-counsel, opposing counsel; occasionally, they speak in court to judges or jurors. And, I suspect, most lawyers—even those lucky few who spend a great deal of time speaking in public, as opposed to private, arenas—spend little or no time thinking about their diction or pace. Arguably, paying attention to such things would be really useful to those folks because, on the most basic level, lawyers, like actors, are in the communication business.  But even if we treat diction and pace as metaphors, not just as descriptions relevant solely to the act of speaking, it should be obvious that lawyers can benefit from giving them some attention.
“Good Diction” could mean committing to precision when articulating an argument, describing a legal proposition, telling a client’s story, giving advice, setting up client expectations.
“Good Pacing” could mean being as efficient as possible when preparing a legal strategy, conducting legal research, drafting legal briefs, shifting through a sea of largely irrelevant documents,  responding to professional emails about the status of things that are making others anxious.
At the same time, just as lawyers can’t do any of the things that lawyers are hired to do well if their diction is sloppy and their pace is sluggish, they also can’t thrive when their diction is too precious and their pace too frenzied.  But we can take this hint from the Brits when performing the Bard: doing the underlying work that makes clear diction and effective pacing possible may mean better results than worrying only about surfaces and/or deep truths.