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Cue Sheet – May 2010

I DIDN'T DO IT

NPR is having a rather rocky newscast right now (7:01 a.m.), with a tiny, unauthorized blast of music in the first minute and an awkward pause between news items that somehow sounded a lot longer than the one second or so it really lasted. It's hard for listeners to tell whose fault it is when something like that goes wrong, but I insist those two incidents weren't my fault! But perhaps a more important issue is, do listeners even notice little things like that, or care? Somehow, I think not.

radio-life,

MORE ON THE LISTINGS

The classical music listings have been restored (actually, they were a few days ago), but I thought I'd call your attention to a couple of comments on the subject that came in from blog readers.

One, which was posted in the comments section, requests that we restore the performer and label information we used to include years ago. Those fell by the wayside, I think, when we changed our music scheduling software. I don't know what it would take to get that info back online, but I'll bring it to the attention of the Web guys.

Here's a note that came to me directly from an online listener in New Jersey, and it echoes another message I received recently:

I am not one of those three people you mention in your blog. I am on the East Coast and check your listening to see if you are playing some syndicated broadcast not found elsewhere on the web. Material from CD Syndications, for example, is getting hard to find these days. Of course finding a site that is providing the program is not enough. The sound must also sound good. Only a few classical stations stream above 128Kbits/sec in MP3 although the quality of the web stream depends on more than just the bit rate. I would also add that not many stations provide the detailed listening that KUAT did. I am sure many more than three people, who can hear the station over the air, use the schedule to plan when to listen to the station given how well it was prepared.
radio-life,

AMERICAN DREAMERS

Amid all the current nasty rhetoric about race in Arizona, it seems like a good time to revive an essay I wrote long ago about the American idea of community, and it has nothing to do with race. Of course, since I wrote this in the late 1990s, the remark about “fairly current books” is nonsense, but they’re still worth your attention.

A Community Of Dreamers

The American dream causes us much tossing and turning, for we are by nature a restless people, and our dream suffuses our waking hours even more than our sleep. For about a century, Americans have conjured a cultural vision based on conflicting notions of egalitarianism and material prosperity. Egalitarianism, because democracy implies community rather than hierarchy, and universal opportunity for personal success. Materialism, because our economically stable, ostensibly egalitarian society measures success that way.

Yet there is more to our dream. Within this grand vision of a common life lurks a peculiarly American preoccupation with the individual mind and heart. It's a question of uniqueness within community—how can we fit together while setting ourselves apart from one another? Therein lies the dream's inherent tension.

Two fairly current books, when read in tandem, provide a masterly analysis of our cultural ideal and its individual realizations. Each pursues one of the opposing forces in the American Dream to its logical extreme.

The more recent treatment of this subject is the 1996 novel Martin Dressler: The Tale of an American Dreamer by Steven Millhauser, winner of the Pulitzer Prize. It begins as a Horatio Alger story: boy of humble means makes a name for himself through wit, strength of character and some luck. But by the end it seems to have been hijacked by Jorge Luis Borges; as Martin Dressler's dream expands, it can be conveyed only through fantasy and symbolism.

The tale begins in the 1880s. Martin is a child working in his father's modest Manhattan cigar store. As time passes, Martin finds lowly work in a fine hotel, moves up through the ranks and learns the business, saves his money and gradually builds a chain of restaurants, and finally is able to buy a hotel of his own, a microcosm of the world.

But Martin is restive within the limits of a traditional hotel. He builds bigger and more complex edifices, culminating in the high, wide and deep Grand Cosmo, which integrates living quarters with shops, theaters, amusements, freak shows, wonders and elaborate indoor re-creations of natural settings. It is the whole world in a single city block. One can't help thinking of the latest synthetic pleasure palaces erected in Las Vegas, but Millhauser is writing less about today's America than the genesis of today's America.

The second book under consideration is This Boy's Life, a 1989 memoir by Tobias Wolff. With the unity, detail and grace of a novel, it recounts the second decade of Wolff's life, in the late 1950s and early '60s. He dreams of living in a more stable, affluent household and schemes to create a bigger, more complex Self, integrating a respectable way of life with a dynamic personality. But Jack, as this boy insists on being called, fears that he is unworthy of success, for he is a liar, a vandal and a petty thief contending with a loving but unconventional mother and a self-absorbed, intermittently violent step-father.

Both Martin and Jack are first-class American dreamers, but Martin dreams himself into a world of parable, while Jack dreams himself out of hard reality. Martin is optimism; Jack is, if not pessimism, at least self-doubt. Martin devises building projects of such magnitude that they border on tools of social engineering. Jack's reveries are entirely personal—being adopted by strangers he sees on the street, or running into his estranged, distant-dwelling father. He indulges any fantasy that would offer him better circumstances in which to be a better person:

I was a liar. Even though I lived in a place where everyone knew who I was, I couldn't help but try to introduce new versions of myself as my interests changed, and as other versions failed to persuade.

While Martin strives to reproduce the world in perfect miniature, Jack strives to produce a perfect little self, a combination of privileged lineage and good character traits that would lift him out of his squalid, mean, lower-middle-class circumstances. But the ideal Jack is a creature solely of the imagination; Martin feels confident that he can shape at least a small bit of the world, but Jack finds himself constricted by the world around him:

Unlike my mother I was fiercely conventional. I was tempted by the idea of belonging to a conventional family, and living in a house, and having a big brother and a couple of sisters. ... And in my heart I despised the life I led in Seattle. I was sick of it and had no idea how to change it. I thought that ... away from people who had already made up their minds about me, I could be different. I could introduce myself as a scholar-athlete, a boy of dignity and consequence, and without any reason to doubt me people would believe I was that boy, and thus allow me to be that boy.

Both characters learn that, if the customer is not always right, at least the customer is easily manipulated. Martin Dressler quickly grasps the value of advertising and marketing, with help from a marketing genius named Harwinton. Martin insists that every venture combine convenience, comforting familiarity and exciting innovation in a balance that will intrigue rather than overwhelm the customer. (His downfall is forgetting the part about not overwhelming people.) Jack Wolff learns how to adopt a persona for every occasion, an approach that will get him through encounters with tough kids, kind teachers, do-gooders and ill-wishers. In lieu of finding anything interesting to say about his true self, he learns the value of a well-crafted lie, going so far as to plagiarize his first confession.

Martin is diligent; Jack is negligent. But something about both boys—their looks? their manner?—attracts people who can help them. Martin realizes this vaguely but never analyzes it; Jack fails to recognize this at all, being certain instead that intelligent or sensitive people will instantly perceive his fraudulent nature.

Still, Jack aspires to be—or at least to appear to be—the ultimate homo sapiens, the thinking man, the man of wisdom, someone respected for the intangibles of mind and character. Martin, on the other hand, is the classic homo faber, the man who builds, someone whose sense of worth lies in his tangible accomplishments. Neither is firmly grounded in reality. Images of sleep and dreaming permeate both books.

In Martin Dressler, New York City is described as "a fever patient in a hospital, thrashing in its sleep, erupting in modern dreams." Martin's success hinges on the breadth of his imagination: "It seemed to Martin that if only he could imagine something else, something great, something greater, something as great as the whole world, then he might rest awhile." And toward the end, he begins to wonder if he "dreamed the wrong dream."

In This Boy's Life, the dream images are more subtle: "Most afternoons I wandered around in the trance that habitual solitude induces." This is when Jack imagines better parents—strangers—snatching him away.

And yet what ultimately saves both Martin and Jack is an awakening to reality. Reflecting on the imminent failure of his magnum opus, the Grand Cosmo, and why he so deeply cares about it, Martin contrasts himself with the advertising whiz Harwinton:

As an advertising man he saw the world as a great blankness, a collection of meaningless signs into which he breathed meaning. Then you might say that Harwinton was God. ... But of course God could not believe in the Grand Cosmo, just as He could not believe in the universe, a blankness without meaning, except as it streamed from Him. For only human creatures believed in things: that much was clear.

Then there is Jack, unmoved by a priest's attempt to talk some sense into him: "He believed in God, and I believed in the world." Accepting the world, just as it is, turns out to be the most courageous act. For although it teaches us that the grander notions bound up with the American Dream are impossible, perhaps undesirable, to realize, it gives us a firm platform on which we may, ever so tentatively, remake ourselves.

Martin's version of the American Dream—to co-opt, to synthesize the whole world into a compact, controlled "Grand Cosmo"—must fail, because however morbidly fascinating and excessive the dream may be, people will ultimately sense its synthetic nature and reject it. Even Martin Dressler acquiesces to its failure, and reconciles himself to the real world.

Young Jack Wolff's version of the American Dream will succeed only when he learns to reconcile individuality with social exigency. After trying to create himself from scratch to escape an unpleasant situation, he realizes much later that such situations are only transitory:

Knowing that everything comes to an end is a gift of experience, a consolation gift for knowing that we ourselves are coming to an end. Before we get it we live in a continuous present, and imagine the future as more of that present. Happiness is endless happiness, innocent of its own sure passing. Pain is endless pain.

Such knowledge comes to us slowly, individually, through diverse momentary setbacks and petty victories. This is the knowledge that enables 260 million sometime dreamers to coexist as a practical community of Americans.

quodlibet,

PROGRESS

The KUAT-FM "now playing" listings are up and running; the full month's listings should be available soon. One of the bugs that had to be worked out was that the system didn't understand when the evening concert programs are supposed to end, and we've had to work out a surprisingly baroque technique for indicating when a one-hour show like the Santa Fe Chamber Music Festival is over. (If they were all the same length--most are two hours long--it would be a simple matter to train the computer to understand that everything that starts at 8 p.m. ends at 10, but of course the scheduling is never that simple.)

I know, from the complaints we get when the listings are late, that there are maybe three listeners who live by that music schedule. I wonder how many other listeners check it regularly. Do those three listeners represent a large number of people who don't mention to us how important the schedule is to them, or do the three merely represent themselves? It would be interesting to know.

radio-life,

IS THIS THING ON?

Our Web guys launched a completely revamped Arizona Public Media site on May 1, and as often happens in such cases, not everything works yet. One glitch is the process for transferring the classical listings onto the KUAT-FM page. The technical explanation from one of the specialists: "we need to fix our legacy import scripts to comply with the new hotness of the website." The listings will return, but patience will be necessary.

radio-life,

About Cue Sheet

James Reel's cranky consideration of the fine arts and public radio in Tucson and beyond.