Sunday, November 30, 2008

Here we go (again)

November is in its waning hours. The long Thanksgiving weekend is over. It's only been two weeks since I was sitting on the beach in Honolulu, but looking out at the Wisconsin snow, that seems like ages ago. Time for the year-end schedule to shift into high gear.

I have a work deadline Thursday, and another two weeks later. Next weekend I'm headed to Rochester to see Wilco play a headlining gig in the middle of their tour with Neil Young. That's upstate New York, not Minnesota ... though when it comes to flying in December, both may be equally ill-advised. Days after I get back, it's time for the seventh annual Letters to Santa charity event in Chicago. It will be my sixth year in attendance, and once again I'm planning to stay for the entire 24 hours. Actually, this year things are changing up a bit, and it will be even longer than 24 hours. I'm not sure what we've done to earn this extra test of endurance, but wish me luck. Throw in a couple more concerts - Harry Connick Jr. with my mom in Milwaukee, and Bon Iver with Tamala and Rob in Madison - and we're pretty much up to Christmas. Yipes.

Random thing I've been wondering for years, but was just reminded of when the song came on: is the title of Nels Cline and Thurston Moore's "Blues for Helen Burns," actually a Jane Eyre reference? Lord, I hope it is.

Thursday, November 20, 2008

The Whitewashing of Betsy

Before we begin: I'll bet I'm not actually allowed to include the excerpts I have included below, for copyright reasons. Same with the illustration, probably. However, I'm going to go ahead and chance it. If this disappears at some point, you'll know that the book police found me.

When I was a little girl, some of my favorite books were from the Betsy series by Carolyn Haywood. Haywood was a prolific writer and illustrator of children's books. She was also responsible for the Eddie series. (Eddie and Betsy knew each other, and shared some crossover adventures.) I enjoyed stories about Eddie, but Betsy was always my favorite. The first Betsy book was written in 1939, and they have a classic, wholesome feel to them that always appealed to me.

Since the books come from a different time, some aspects can seem out of place when transplanted into the present day. Not long ago, I reread the second book, Back to School with Betsy, for the first time in at least ten years. I picked it up from the local library on a whim: a paperback edition from 2004. The cover illustration was snappy and updated, but the inside illustrations featured the classic Haywood drawings I know and love. Ah, Betsy. What fun she had with friends Billy and Ellen, and cocker spaniel Thumpy.

Near the end of the book, I reached a chapter I remembered well from previous readings. Entitled "Exactly What Betsy Wanted," it tells of Betsy's desire for another sister to go along with her existing baby sister. The catch is, Betsy wants her parents to adopt a little black baby. Her mother informs her that this isn't really likely to happen, but Betsy keeps hoping. Lo and behold, she finds a lost little black girl in town the very next week. Although Betsy wants to keep her, the little girl's own mother is found - and it just so happens she's the new housekeeper at the house right behind Betsy's. How fortunate!

What I really remembered about the chapter was the fact that it was a little ... hmmm. Racist? I couldn't come up with any concrete examples, but I definitely recalled the distinct impression that the same chapter today would not be written as it had been in 1943. With that in mind, I delved into the 2004 edition. I immediately noticed that it wasn't nearly as bad as I'd remembered. It was really pretty innocuous. In fact ... it was too innocuous. Something was amiss.

My sister is the current owner of the original 1943 edition of Back to School with Betsy that we all read as kids. I borrowed it from her and paged to the same chapter. And what do you know? The 2004 wasn't nearly as bad as I'd remembered because it was edited! Quite liberally edited. The good old 1943 edition was every bit as "innocently" racist as I'd remembered. Let's compare and contrast:

"Mother," said Betsy, "Do you know what kind of baby I want the next time we get one?"

"Goodness!" cried Mother. "You're not thinking of the next baby already, are you?"

"Oh, yes!" said Betsy. "I know exactly what kind I want."

"Well, what kind do you want?" asked Mother.

"I want a little colored baby," said Betsy.

"But, Betsy," said Mother, "we can never have a little colored baby."

"Why not?" asked Betsy. "I saw one the other day. It was so cunning. It looked as though it was made of a piece of your brown satin dress. Why can't we get a little colored baby?"

"Because, dear, colored babies have to have colored fathers and mothers," replied Mother.

"Well, I know," said Betsy, "but couldn't we get one all ready made? I forget what you call babies that you get all ready made."

"You mean 'adopt' a baby," said Mother.

"Yes," replied Betsy. "Couldn't we 'dopt one?"

"No, dear," said Mother. "Colored babies like to be adopted by colored fathers and mothers."

"Mother," said Betsy, "Do you know what kind of baby I want the next time we get one?"

"Goodness!" cried Mother. "You're not thinking of the next baby already, are you?"

"Oh, yes!" said Betsy. "I know exactly what kind I want. Could we get one all ready-made? I forget what you call babies that you get all ready-made."

"You mean 'adopt' a baby," said Mother.

"Yes," replied Betsy. "Couldn't we 'dopt one?""

"No, dear," said Mother. "We already have a baby."

The two children were standing in front of a big house. Betsy looked up at the house. Then she led the baby up to the front door. Betsy rang the bell. She waited. In a few moments a lady opened the door. She looked at the two on the step. "Well, what do you want?" she said to Betsy.

"Does this little girl belong to you?" asked Betsy.

"She certainly does not," said the lady. And to Betsy's surprise she slammed the door.

The two children were standing in front of a big house. Betsy looked up at the house. Then she led the baby up to the front door. Betsy rang the bell. She waited.

In a few minutes the door was opened by a plump old lady, wearing a checked apron. "What is the matter?" the lady asked.

"Does this little girl belong to you?" asked Betsy.

"No, she doesn't," said the lady, leaning down to look at the children. "Now, I've just made some cookies," she said. "Perhaps if we give her a cookie she'll stop crying. Just wait a minute."

Soon the old lady was back with two cookies. She gave one to each of the children.

(and my favorite)

The colored woman ran toward them and picked up Lillybell. The tears were running down her face. "Oh, Lillybell!" she cried. "My little Lillybell! What fo' you go 'way from yo' Mammy?"

Lillybell patted her mother's cheek and said, in a very tiny voice, "Mammy!"

"Mother!" cried Betsy. "Lillybell can talk. She just said 'Mammy'!"

Lillybell's mother ran toward them and picked up Lillybell. The tears were running down her face. "Oh, Lillybell!" she cried. "My little Lillybell! Why'd you run away?"

Lillybell patted her mother's cheek and said, in a very tiny voice, "Mommy!"

"Mother!" cried Betsy. "Lillybell can talk. She just said 'Mommy'!"

So, what do I think about this? My first reaction was one of amused shock, that a publisher can just completely hack up an author's work and not note anywhere that it's an abridged version. Isn't this censorship? The chapter is rather impressive today in its non-political-correctness. But that's how it was written - we can just delete anything uncomfortable for today's audience and not say a word about it?

On the other hand, I can kind of see the point. This chapter in Back to School with Betsy was meant to be another charming, lighthearted tale in a book - and series - full of the same. It didn't completely ignore racism. The door-slamming woman is meant to be an example of it. Yet although Haywood aimed for a sweetly amusing story that highlights Betsy's innocence and good nature, incidental bits like the the reunion scene actually undermine her intent when read today. They're a byproduct of the time and place of the book's writing. The contemporary 1943 audience reflected by the chapter, and fact that these elements weren't given a second thought, is actually much more interesting to me than the chapter itself. But since the book is currently intended as fluffy elementary school fare for children today, I can see deciding that the questionable elements simply aren't worth the trouble of including.

What I really want to know is how common such practices are. Do publishers "clean up" older titles all the time? Do they need permission from the author or the author's estate to do so? The book was reprinted in 1971 for the first time; were the changes made in that edition? Am I disgusted by the censorship, or do I think it's not really a big deal in cases like this?

Friday, November 14, 2008

Middle of November

The view from our dinner table tonight, 9:00 p.m., Waikiki Beach. Tiki torch light visible on the right.

I have to pack tomorrow night. Noooo! (The horrified exclamation is half because I don't want to leave, and half because I think there's a pretty good chance all of the crap strewn about this hotel room - my home for nine days - is not going to fit back into one small suitcase.)

Monday, November 10, 2008


Five days into my trip. Five days to go. I'll have more to write when I have time to do more than work, go out to dinner, and sleep.

I will say that being in a location like this for business kind of messes with my head. This is my first time in Hawaii, and we are staying in a resort across from Waikiki Beach. Everything about my surroundings screams "exotic vacation." We've gone out for long, fun dinners every night. There are palm trees and tiki torches and Christmas lights up and down the street below my 18th floor balcony. On Saturday night I watched the sun set over the ocean while an old man played a violin nearby. Local surfers mingle with tourists outside the doors of our hotel, and every big name designer you could think of has a store down the street. (Coach has at least three.) And by the time Wednesday night comes, I'll have worked 50+ hours in four days.

I love it here.

Thursday, November 6, 2008

Gone til November

Here I am back in California - probably for the last time this year, but I won't make any promises. I'm on back-to-back work trips: first in Sacramento, and then on to Honolulu tomorrow. I draw your attention to the photograph above. I took it on my way to La Bou a little while ago to scrounge up a wrap for ... breakfast, or whatever meal it is that one eats upon waking up at 2:00 p.m., and getting ready to work until 6:00 a.m. the next day and then fly to Hawaii. Anyway, does your university book store rent breast pumps? I didn't think so.

I flew out yesterday morning. The country had known that Barack Obama would be our next president for less than twelve hours when I touched down in Chicago for my connecting flight. (Chicago: home of Barack Obama, and also home of my checked bag for the next 18 hours. Thanks a heap, United Airlines. That's why we pay you $15 per checked bag. To babysit.) Anyway, the general mood I encountered all day long was very positive. I scored a Chicago Tribune from one of the million newspaper boxes strewn around O'Hare. It was only 8:30 a.m., but I got one of the last issues I could find. 75 cents. Nice. I passed people wearing Obama shirts. Our African-American flight attendant apologized to us as we got off the plane: "I'm sorry; Obama is president and I can't stop smiling." When I was walking around at Macy's in Sacramento yesterday afternoon, a makeup counter employee called out that she liked my Wisconsin for Obama button. There was a poster of Obama at the Downtown Plaza reminding people to vote, and groups of kids would burst into cheers and applause as they passed it.

I've been enthralled this afternoon reading articles like this one from Newsweek, reporting inside campaign gossip obtained by reporters on the condition that it wouldn't be released until after the election. My respect for Barack Obama continues to grow. I'm discovering I had more reason than I'd even known to be very, very afraid of Sarah Palin. Most interestingly, and a little sadly, I'm seeing more evidence that the John McCain I respected up until about a year ago, and saw again in his concession speech on Tuesday, was never really gone. He'd just gone underground in the hopes of winning this election. Maybe his campaign's tactics gave him a better chance than he otherwise would have had - and maybe not. Regardless, I'm hoping this McCain has returned for good.

I overheard a man on one of my flights yesterday talking about the election. "I'm not saying who I voted for," he said. "But all I'm saying is this - being president isn't all that. People are acting like Obama being elected is a big deal. Whatever - it doesn't make any difference." It doesn't make any difference? Barack Obama being elected isn't a big deal? I don't feel any sense of triumph over people (including some friends) who supported John McCain. We all want what's best for our country. I don't believe that Barack Obama's election will change "everything." Any candidate elected would have a huge uphill battle in the next four years trying to dig us out of the hole we're in right now. Obama isn't going to ride into the White House on a unicorn, wielding a magic wand of change. But there is so much hope alive right now that no matter what, it's already a good thing. It has already made a difference, and it is most certainly a big deal.

Sunday, November 2, 2008

Concert for Change

Less than twelve hours after the Decemberists show, it was time to get ready for another concert. Not just a concert, but an Obama campaign event featuring Senator Russ Feingold, Congresswoman Tammy Baldwin, and half of Wilco. And this event was nice enough to take place right in Madison.

My most specific Russ Feingold memories involve him speaking at Law Day when I was in junior high. It was nice to see him again on Saturday, watching him speak in support of Barack Obama and introduce Pat Sansone, John Stirratt, and Jeff Tweedy of Wilco. I'd never seen this particular incarnation of Wilco perform, and I was impressed at what they could do with acoustic guitars, bass, and keyboards. Jeff did a nice job of tying the set together with a thread (sometimes tenuous) of political and voting references. And of course, it was a treat to hear "Wilco the Song" in person. Debuted just a couple of days ago on the Colbert Report, I'm not sure if anyone knows the ultimate fate of the song ... but I do know that the chorus has been going through my head all day.

Tammy Baldwin wrapped things up with a call to the polls, leading a group of concert attendees to vote early after the event. With election day within striking distance at last, there was a palpable sense of excitement around the Union on Saturday - and, dare I say, optimism. I was lucky enough to find myself in the middle of the action, and my respect has grown enormously for those who combine their talent, time, and organizational skills to make things like this happen. And they're happening all over the country right now. Here's hoping that it culminates in the biggest party yet - on Tuesday, just a couple of hours south in Grant Park.

Saturday, November 1, 2008

Halloween with the Decemberists

If ever there were a band made to play Halloween concerts, that band would be the Decemberists. Hey, some kids dress up for their shows even when it's not Halloween. So when I learned that the Decemberists were playing on Halloween night, at Wheaton College, in a chapel ... well, it didn't take too much consideration for me to buy a ticket.

The show met my expectations. The band came out half an hour later than the ticket-listed time of 7:30, but there was no opener, so I'm not complaining. And what an entrance they made. Colin rode out (well, rode/was propelled out) on a big wheel, dressed as Danny Torrance from The Shining. John and Nate appeared next, dressed as the creepy twins. (Colin later remarked that this was probably the first time two cross-dressing men had ever stood on stage at Wheaton College.) They were followed by Jenny as Wendy Torrance, and Chris Funk in the role made famous by Jack Nicholson. Short movie scenes were reenacted, and the movie was brought up throughout the night. The band members weren't the only ones dressed up, of course. Costumes abounded in the crowd. My favorite was a woman who dressed as a crooked French Canadian complete with guts spilling out, and even brought along a a bottle of "gin." Later in the show Colin perched her little Canadian flag on his guitar.

Colin stated that they had crafted the setlist with an eye toward the spooky, and there was an abundance of songs about murders and ghosts. Then again, that could be said about the Decemberists' catalog in general. The show was also peppered with new songs. The ending of one in particular ("Days of Elaine?" "O New England?") may have been the most rocking thing I've ever seen the band do live. In fact, the whole show was probably the most energetic I've seen from the Decemberists. During "Culling of the Fold" Colin ran all over, climbed things, and eventually wound up writhing on the stage. He also stole someone's iPhone and sang a verse to the kid's mom.

After the show, the setlists went to a few incredibly eager kids. I thought a setlist from this show would be a fun souvenir, in part because I wanted to remember what all the new songs had been. I decided to try something that I had tried at another Decemberists show a few years ago. I was successful then, and I was successful this time, too. I passed by the soundboard at the back on my way out, and sure enough, nobody had thought about the setlist from up there. The sound man told me it was all mine. Excellent. I'll take a nice setlist over trick-or-treat candy any day.

The set:
-Shanty for the Arethusa
-July, July
-Valerie Plame
-Dracula's Daughter (may be out of order - request from the crowd - played in full; Colin directing the band through the second verse. Colin, "At last, with the full band treatment I'd always dreamed of. Now we should never play it again.")
-Leslie Anne Levine
-Bachelor and the Bride
-Yankee Bayonet
-O' New England (nice Irish treatment on the setlist)
-Shankill Butchers (featuring Jenny Conlee on the Edman Chapel pipe organ)
-Culling of the Fold
-Days of Elaine
-16 Military Wives (with election-themed call and response)
-Record Year for Rain
-O Valencia
-Cautionary Song

-Raincoat Song
-Perfect Crime #2 (breakdown featuring vocals from the creepy Shining twins)