The Eyes Have It

I am employed by a college where I teach young people writing and give them advice about navigating life in their chosen fields and, in turn, the world.

I don’t know everything, or sometimes even anything.  But overall, on a given day, I know a lot more than they do.  Certainly, I’ve experienced more.

Me on the first day of class

Contrary to popular belief, the role of higher education is not primarily to be a vocational or trade school.  Of course, we want our students to work and we have an obligation to train them with skills that will allow them to make a living when they graduate.

But if you had a gun to my head, which it often feels like Zooming these days, I’d confess our number #1 job is to teach them how to think.

No, not WHAT to think, just TO think.  For themselves.  

Desired reaction to education #keanuknows

Oh, of course they have thoughts and certainly they process them.  But they’ll need to do more than that in an information age (Note: God how I HATE that phrase) mired in bullshit specifically conceived to convince and convert them to a certain point of view.  Or to bury them in such a load of research that they accept as okay what they know in their guts to be seriously wrong.

If my students can recognize crap excuses, crap rulings and crap pronouncements on just about anything it makes my day.  And when they manage to find a creative way to bust through a crap show and assert what’s true, that’s jackpot.  Game over.  My work is done here.

Me, in the mirror

A current crop of insurgent students now attending the University of Texas at Austin is a case in point.  Somewhere I assume more than a teacher or two in this liberal university town are privately gloating and cheering on the small but powerful way their young people are calling bullshit on the powers that be in control of the university they all pay handsomely to attend.

See, UT Austin’s alma mater song in 2021 is still a little ditty from 1903 called The Eyes of Texas (Are Upon You).  The words of the tune were inspired by the words of a famous Confederate general rallying on his troops and it was first performed at a university-sponsored minstrel show in order to raise money for its track team at the turn of the century. 

The 20th century.

Oh.. I have a feeling this is not going to end well..

Nevertheless, after a many months long study UT Austin president Jay Hartzell, he of the smiling, welcoming tieless photo complete with southern style pocket square, ruled in a terse statement that the songis and will remain our alma mater.

This might not seem like a big deal to an outsider but in higher education life symbols mean a lot.  Heck, symbols and the protests or support they engender help define American life. 

We are a country that loves imagery, from the flag flying above or directly AT and THROUGH the Capitol building on down.  We use our symbols to interpret and express who we are, to the world and to ourselves.

And we call this…

That is why this story of this symbol in this weekend’s NY Times, as well as other writings in such publications as Texas Monthly, caught my eye.  As a college professor it also made me wonder:

If we can’t even bench a minstrel show song at one of the largest universities in the country after a year of protests over the nine minute public execution of a Black man by a racist cop, where exactly ARE we at the moment?

Pres. Hartzell’s pronouncement was in keeping with the conclusions of the 58-page study he commissioned on the subject and was no doubt met with great praise by the many wealthy donors who threatened to cut off the financial spigot to his institution were he to conclude any differently.  No doubt they were also pleased by the words in the report that said the song contained no racist intent.  Ditto earlier pronouncements by Mr. Hartzell that the song should unite us in that it would hold them all to be accountable to their institution’s core values.

Reminder: He looks like this so…

To me, the definition of bullshit is the same as former Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart’s definition of pornography:

I know it when I see it.

And trust me, this university president is mired in it.  Well above his kneepads.

Well, clearly someone (nee professors) at UT Austin is doing their job because lots of their students see it too.

Level 5!

Since the Hartzell ruling, half of this university’s hundred or so volunteer student tour guides, many of them white, quit.  These are teens or early 20s who say they love their school (Note: Why else be a tour guide, seriously?) but could not in good faith walk people past UT Austin’s Admissions Center, on which a large plaque with The Eyes of Texas lyrics hangs prominently.

The president of the Texas NAACP and its members agreed and strongly voiced  their opposition at a televised news conference.  Then one of UT Austin’s oldest and most prominent campus service organizations held an online discussion in support of banning the song, which had to contend with a masked attendee with a gun who suddenly and quite purposely showed up onscreen in full intimidation mode.

Meaning, well, all of this is far from over.

I’d say!

The above should be painfully obvious to anyone who has half a brain about the evolution of social change.  Just as the Cleveland Indians has finally acquiesced to change its name and mascot after decades of pressure (Note: To what, we don’t yet know), The Eyes of Texas will at some point no longer exist as UT Austin’s official alma mater.

But this little song, written by one university band member at the request of another who happened to also be the executive director of the school’s annual minstrel show and one quarter of the Varsity Quartet that first performed it, won’t exit the stage willingly.

Then again, neither has the Confederacy.  It continues to live on in the form of this and so many other songs.  Still, this tune does have the distinction of having been featured prominently in such classic Hollywood films as Giant, Viva Las Vegas and The Right Stuff, as well as at the inaugural ball of Pres. Lyndon Johnson and the 2007 memorial service for his late wife, Lady Bird Johnson.

Let’s never forget this either (yikes)

It will also, for the time being, be a thorn in the side of all persons of color who attend the school, and to many others, including some whites, at each university sporting event where it will be very proudly played and sung.

No doubt this will also particularly irk all of the Black legislators who lobbied hard to ban it, people who know all too well that the very nature of a minstrel show in turn of the century Texas means White people dressed in blackface spoofing them as dimwitted, lazy, happy-go-lucky buffoons with bugged out eyes and wide toothy grins.

This is the history they are trying to preserve… really

If they have a kid there, or for some reason find themselves at a game, or another school event where this is tolerated they might even picture those reveling and singing that song sporting any one of the above accouterments while shuffling across the stage.

And we Whites wonder why so many people of color we know are so pissed off these days?  Read the lines to the ditty with everything you’ve just learned (Note: Or better yet, sing it to its tune of I’ve Been Working on the Railroad) and tell me if you’d feel any other way. 

The Eyes of Texas are upon you,
All the livelong day.
The Eyes of Texas are upon you,
You cannot get away.
Do not think you can escape them
At night or early in the morn —
The Eyes of Texas are upon you
Til Gabriel blows his horn.

And if your answer is still yes, be prepared to forever be called out on your BULLSHIT by people far better at it than I.

Dua Lipa – IDGAF

The Real Millennials

If you want to know what millennials are thinking about become a college professor. And if you really want to know, become a college writing professor.

May is end-of-the-semester time. That means all the original screenplays and TV pilots come in and you spend an intensive two weeks reading them, becoming immersed in worlds of THEIR making – not YOURS.

The majority of these worlds are fantastical, dystopic, and superhero-ish, and suffer from an overuse of social media, technology and the word “I.” Right?

Plus BRUNCH! and AVOCADO TOAST! right??


The majority of these worlds are realistic in origin and deal with themes of sexual abuse, suicide, drug addiction, alcoholism, mental illness, and domestic violence. At least mine, did. And I suspect in thousands of home and college offices across the country, so did a significant majority of many of the others.

Oh sure, there is the usual market share of family dysfunction and unrequited, coming-of-age love. That is a generational constant – a sort of baseline, if you will. But if you think you KNOW what is on the minds of today’s young people by simply perusing the pages of Wired or Seventeen, or by scrolling the tweets of Arianna Grande, Kylie Jenner, and Justin Bieber, think again. Because they have quite a bit more to say about the world and the majority of it is not pleasant.

Exhibit A: Teen Vogue #getit

This does not bother me as much as it makes me feel sad and oddly encouraged. On the latter point, I, too, was not particularly upbeat on the page at that age. (Note: And sometimes not even at this one). But looking back it’s easy to realize that being able to vent what I was seeing, experiencing and imagining all around me from what I was living is what got me through it. I shudder at the thought of what might have happened had I not had that outlet.

Still, what I didn’t have to battle was the mis-characterization of my generation as superficial, unfeeling and selfish. Self-indulgent, yes. But every younger person is thought to be that at some point by their elders – a too large group of whom have way too much invested in wanting them to suffer the school of hard knocks in much the same way they did.

Sad, funny, and true

The baby boomers (even those of us on its tail end) were never at our worst considered unfeeling or lacking depth. In fact, we were often condemned precisely for feeling too much and thinking too hard. (nee bleeding heart liberal).

In retrospect, that was a pretty easy cross to bear as a young person. An older generation will always lose when they essentially argue against the classic teachings of Jesus, Mother Theresa, and Melanie Safka (Note: Look her up).

More than just rollerskates!

But this new group of people moving into true adulthood have all that AND the battle against a perceived superficiality and laziness that, for the most part, I’m just not seeing. Or, more importantly, reading. Because the latter is where the truth really lies.

No one chooses to write about sexual abuse, mental illness or domestic violence because it’s fun or they think it’s going to sell. You can take that to the bank, even if you can’t do necessarily the same with scripts based on those themes.

And yet, how do you argue with brutally honest depictions of neglectful parents, miserable spouses waging part-time war against their kids and full time battle against each other, or a young woman so undone by the pain of a past sexual trauma and the darkly repressive reality of 2017 that she has no other choice but to return to the people who never understood her in the past and will in no way ever understand her in the future. (Note: One astute friend of mine wisely categorized this to me over the years as revisiting “the scene of the crime” and I can think of no better phrase either in fact or in fiction).

… and yet this is what awaits them. #sigh

I’m not sure of what you see when you turn on the news and watch an electoral POTUS who smack talks dissenters in the crudest of language (“nut job” “disgusting pig”) or laments to a class of military college graduates he’s supposed to be inspiring after three months in the Oval Office that he “can say with great surety – no politician in history has been treated worse or more unfairly” than he has.

(Note: Nelson Mandela? Lincoln? Or dare I say it, by His very own birther hand – Barack Obama?) (Note #2: I will leave out #Hillary in the spirit of #TooSoon).

Way, way, way too soon

I was reading a New Yorker profile of the great filmmaker James Ivory this morning (“Howard’s End,” “A Room With A View”) and in it he spoke of Maurice, the gay-themed romance he directed and co-wrote in 1987. It was based on a novel E.M. Forster wrote in the 1910s that was not published until after his death in 1971 primarily because it dealt with the author’s very own homosexual feelings at a time where it was dangerous and illegal to be that or think so/it.

Mr. Ivory noted that at its core the story was really no different than several of his films – “muddled young people living a lie.” Yet what I remember as a still young(ish) single, gay person after seeing it was literally a gigantic rainbow of romantic hope in a perilously sad, repressive time.

.. and yes, starring Hugh Grant.

This is because it was released at the height of the AIDS crisis in the 1980s. This was an age where even a NY Times piece touting the film at that moment took pains to reassure readers that it was about love, not “bathhouse promiscuity” and rightly imagined that skeptics would likely greet its release with comments like “Is so defiant a salute to homosexual passion really to be welcomed during a spiraling AIDS crisis?”

Well yes, they did say stuff like that – and a lot worse – in not only editorial pages but on the floors of the Senate and House of Representatives. And, through gross omission and frequent moral judgments, in our very own Oval Office. And we know, in retrospect, how that went.

I thought I erased those memories!

You write (substitute any creative endeavor) about what you see and experience around you at the time – consciously or unconsciously. There is no other way to do it. From where I sit, and read, there is quite a lot going on that we should be troubled by. Yet what should reassure us is that many in our younger generations are not hiding their feelings but attempting to deal with them by expressing them with some sort of positive actions – by art, or yes, in real life, look around – much like we did.

It might be nice if we paid a bit more attention and listened to what they’re really doing and saying instead of saying and doing exactly what our generation’s elders and naysayers tried with us.

After all, what would (Jesus/Mother Theresa/Melanie Safka) do?

“Beautiful People” Melanie