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Wednesday, September 14, 2011

Great Books in Wine Country 2011

The Man in the Gray Flannel Suit by Sloan Wilson

The movie stars Gregory Peck, Jennifer Jones, Frederic March, Marisa Pavan, Lee J. Cobb, and Keenan Wynn.  This is a complex movie with several sub-plots:  flashbacks to World War II, a wartime love affair, pressure and support from a loving wife, children lost to TV westerns, a conniving old man after unearned compensation, whether to climb the corporate ladder and how to do so, the strength of family, and more.  Gregory Peck does an excellent, understated acting job, one of his best.  Jennifer Jones is powerfully emotional reacting to a long hidden secret.  Frederic March is the quintessential big business man with his blind spots and personal failings.  Lee J. Cobb does not get to yell a lot and wave his arms around, but is the perfect small town, pragmatic, cynical lawyer.  All in all, this is an excellent movie with far more depth than is found in most of the films from the fifties.
In a television skit in the 1950’s Art Carney climbed out of a sewer in dirty overalls and said to Jackie Gleason, “What did you expect, the man in the gray flannel suit?”  The title of the book had become a sort of national joke in the United States.  The novel had risen up on bestseller lists and was translated into some twenty-six foreign languages.  Europeans apparently considered it an accurate reflection of American life; it was banned in Russia.  I was told I had a good story to tell about the problems which my generation faced when we came home from World War II.  To my surprise, my novel, which I had regarded as largely autobiographical, was taken by some serious thinkers as a protest against conformity and the rigors of suburban life. --- Sloan Wilson

Michael Sandel’s  book, Justice, is a bestseller in the United States today and reportedly has sold more than a million copies in East Asia.  It’s subtitle is What’s the right thing to do?  The novel we will discuss, The Man in the Gray Flannel Suit by Sloan Wilson, is about doing the right thing. 

Here is the story of Tom and Betsy Rath, a young couple with everything going for them:  three healthy children, a nice home, a steady income.  They have every reason to be happy, but for some reason they are not.  Like so many young men of the day Tom finds himself caught up in the corporate rat race---what he encounters there propels him on a voyage of self-discovery that will turn his world inside out.  At once a searing indictment of corporate culture, a story of a young man confronting his past and future with honesty, and a testament to the enduring power of family.  The Man in the Gray Flannel Suit is a deeply rewarding novel about the importance of taking responsibility for one’s own life. --- from the book jacket

9/11 & us

This last Saturday there were many 9/11 memorial ceremonies with speeches and heartfelt gestures and rightly so.  The question arises, what now?  That question was much more important in the immediate aftermath of September 11, 2001.  Below is the story of one reaction by the founder of Meetup.

We have used Meetup to attract some new members to Great Books discussion groups.  Great Bookies have been meeting with a strong sense of community since 1947 and we continue to support face to face encounters with our friends and neighbors.  Please read Scott Hefferman’s email that I received last week.  To me the significant phrase therein is “use the internet to get off the internet.”

Fellow Meetuppers,

I don't write to our whole community often, but this week is special because it's the 10th anniversary of 9/11 and many people don't know that Meetup is a 9/11 baby.

Let me tell you the Meetup story. I was living a couple miles from the Twin Towers, and I was the kind of person who thought local community doesn't matter much if we've got the internet and tv. The only time I thought about my neighbors was when I hoped they wouldn't bother me.

When the towers fell, I found myself talking to more neighbors in the days after 9/11 than ever before. People said hello to neighbors (next-door and across the city) who they'd normally ignore. People were looking after each other, helping each other, and meeting up with each other. You know, being neighborly.

A lot of people were thinking that maybe 9/11 could bring people together in a lasting way. So the idea for Meetup was born: Could we use the internet to get off the internet -- and grow local communities?

We didn't know if it would work. Most people thought it was a crazy idea -- especially because terrorism is designed to make people distrust one another.

A small team came together, and we launched Meetup 9 months after 9/11.

Today, almost 10 years and 10 million Meetuppers later, it's working. Every day, thousands of Meetups happen. Moms Meetups, Small Business Meetups, Fitness Meetups... a wild variety of 100,000 Meetup Groups with not much in common -- except one thing.

Every Meetup starts with people simply saying hello to neighbors. And what often happens next is still amazing to me.  They grow businesses and bands together, they teach and motivate each other, they babysit each other's kids and find other ways to work together. They have fun and find solace
together. They make friends and form powerful community. It's powerful stuff.

It's a wonderful revolution in local community, and it's thanks to everyone who shows up.

Meetups aren't about 9/11, but they may not be happening if it weren't for 9/11.

9/11 didn't make us too scared to go outside or talk to strangers. 9/11 didn't rip us apart. No, we're building new community together!!!!

The towers fell, but we rise up. And we're just getting started with these Meetups.

Scott Heiferman (on behalf of 80 people at Meetup HQ)
Co-Founder & CEO, Meetup
New York City
September 2011

Tuesday, September 13, 2011

2011 Picnic, Annual Meeting, and Book Discussion

We met at Berkeley’s Tilden Park on Sunday, June 12 for a fun picnic with a higher turn-out than in recent years of more than sixty Great Bookies.  The weather was sunny with a bright blue sky and a cool breeze to keep everyone comfortable.  The food, as usual was great and Grill Chef Brent Browning, pictured at right, was kept busy.

Brian Mahoney, Treasurer, presented detailed financial information to be examined by anyone present who wished to do so.  The organization is in solid financial shape. 

Jim Hall introduced Duncan Calvert.  Duncan is the 17 year old son of Rob Calvert, who is the son of Bob Calvert.  Bob and his wife Carol were participants for many years.  They still live in North Berkeley.  So far as we know, Duncan, in participating in today’s discussion of The Things They Carried, is the first third generation participant in our council’s book discussions. 

Jim Cooke drew attention to a front page article with pictures in today’s Marin Independent Journal featuring GBSF leader Roy Harvey, past Treasurer and longtime participant.   Roy is absent because he is in the famous Dipsea race, from Mill Valley over Mt. Tamalpais to Stinson Beach.  According to the article, Roy, 85, is to be awarded the title “Dipsea Demon,” as the oldest participant, running in the event for his 30th time.  Roy and his wife Jimmie first met at our Asilomar Spring Conference and married about a decade ago. 

As outgoing president, Jim Hall expressed appreciation for all in GBSF who helped to make his term successful. Events this year were well attended.  The three mini-retreats were at or near capacity, as was poetry weekend.  Three new discussion groups were launched in San Francisco and one each in El Cerrito and Berkeley.  The Berkeley group, led by Carol Hochberg, is our first devoted exclusively to poetry.

Election of Officers: Jim introduced Rick White, nominations chair, who announced the slate of officers of GBSF for the coming year approved by the Executive Committee.  They are Marge Johnson, president; Rob Calvert, vice president, Brian Mahoney, treasurer;  Rick White, secretary.  Jim called for further nominations of which none were offered.  He then called for a vote on the slate of candidates.  Approval was unanimous.

Meet Marge Johnson:  It's been said that if you want something done, ask a busy person. So here's Marge Johnson, our new president.  Marge is fairly new to the Executive Committee, but by no means new to Great Books. She is a regular at Asilomar and the Long Novel Weekend, attending with her husband Rudy, long active as a discussion leader. She and Rudy met at Stanford and have been married 53 years.  Marge first taught handicapped children, then became a real estate broker. She retired from that in 2000 and has since devoted her time to travel, "our favorite pastime"—she and Rudy have traveled widely—to cultural activities, and to their three grandsons. When Marge and Rudy are not attending the theatre or the symphony, or going to and from the airport to visit family, they volunteer at city functions and tutor foreign students.  Marge is eager to be of service in her role as president and seeks the assistance and counsel of everyone who can help her make this "the best year ever."

As her first act of office, Marge Johnson thanked Laura Bushman for managing this picnic and announced that Laura has agreed to do it again next year.  Marge praised Jan Vargo for the excellent large print name tags provided.  She said that since so many participants took effective responsibility for carrying out the Council’s activities, she had been told “there would be nothing to the job” of president.  She requested of the group that during her term she receive any praise that was to be offered and that any questions go to Jim.

We adjourned the meeting and Laura convened four groups to discuss The Things They Carried, by Tim O’Brien.  This book, about men who served in Viet Nam, brought out some widely divergent opinions.  Most agreed that war could play havoc with some people’s mental stability, but, while concurring, some thought that after awhile people should “just get over it” and get on with their lives.  Is this award winning book history, memoir, or fiction?  Does it matter?

For a different treatment of similar subject matter you might consider attending our Great Books in Wine Country event on October 2, 2011 where we will discuss The Man in the Gray Flannel Suit by Sloan Wilson in the morning and view the movie adaptation in the afternoon.  There is still time to register, click here.

Monday, September 12, 2011

Socrates, Cleopatra, Mrs. Dalloway, and Stabenau Go Into a Bar

                                                                                                        Jim Stabenau

Stabenau:  Here we are in the Grecian Urn Taverna on the Elysian slopes. Let us seek beauty and truth in our discourse today. When Keats wrote the "Ode on a Grecian Urn" he drew on deep memories, not tracts of certainty. This provides us imagery where Truth and Beauty may be found. He believes the urn to be a friend to man with much to tell us. Keats summarizes the drawing on the urn in poetic rhetoric: “Beauty is Truth, Truth Beauty; that is all ye know on earth and all ye need to know.”

Socrates: I’ve seen the urn but had not read the poem until Dr. Stabenau handed it to me. Before I dazzle you with my famous “Socratic method,” allow me to say that whereas the urn shows images as if each were in its own space and time, the poet clearly takes the artist’s purpose to be to convey a single concept: the idea of Beauty as Truth. Keats adds Truth as Beauty. Poetic truth conveys the beauty of language. Truth and beauty are expressions of the two halves of our consciousness. One half expresses our thoughts through rhetoric and the other through imagination. Together they form the unity of truth and beauty. Thus we have an eternal dialectic between Beauty and Truth. Cleopatra, Clarissa, do you see this as true for you?

Cleopatra:      Oh great thinker, I will speak first because I am young and beautiful. When majestic Caesar came to my kingdom I presented him youth and physical beauty. I felt no need for truth because I am able to lie well and copiously. This did not impress the old man. But he saw my potential and tutored me in seeking truth. He said that I should value truth in others more than I value beauty in myself. Then I would become truly a queen. Upon his return to Rome he would ask Mark Antony — strong, with muscular round arms — to come to Egypt and be my lover. So I believe that if you have beauty and guile you don't need the truth.

Stabenau (to himself):  Perhaps her left and right brain were trying to come together but didn’t make it.

Mrs. Dalloway (Clarissa):     I too have been young. Preparing for my recent party I had cause to ruminate upon my romantic past, no pun intended. Get it? Romantic? I did not have your beauty, Cleopatra, but I did have class. I knew passion with Peter and with Sally. But I passed over them to marry Richard, solid and steady, a choice that followed reason. Alas, that makes me simply Mrs. Dalloway. Virginia Woolf summed this up on the last page of my story. “What does brain matter,” said Lady Rossiter, getting up, “compared with the heart.”   I watch the old woman across the street prepare for bed and wonder if when I face death I will ponder whether I have given away the truth and the beauty that could have been mine with Peter or Sally.

Stabenau:       Well said, my friends. We struggle in a quest for beauty to have a meaningful life. Such a life should be based upon truth with oneself and with others.

Socrates:     Bartender, one more round of drinks, but hold the hemlock.

53rd Asilomar: Rob Calvert reports

The 53rd annual Great Books Asilomar weekend began with rain squalls, soon clearing to beautiful spring weather on the gorgeous California coast. One hundred or so eager lovers of literature gathered from near (Monterey Peninsula College) and far (North Carolina) to exchange ideas on Plato, Woolf, Shaw and selected poetry.
Vince Scardina leads discussion of George Bernard Shaw’splayCaesarandCleopatra
at Asilomar.Seated from left, Roger and Ann Brogan, 
Vince, Jan Fussell, JenniferAnderson. PhotobyJimHall.

The clandestine, unacknowledged Theme Committee was a bit more obvious than usual this year in its choice of selections. Clearly, this weekend’s readings explored the passage of time. Poems by Keats, Auden, and Thomas all dealt explicitly with things that wither in time and things that do not. Plath’s Daddy looked back in time as she attempted to exorcise a childhood demon. As for Rae Armantrout’s Soft Money, what was that poem about? Prostitution? Britney Spears? Banana republics? Dubious investment practices?  Perhaps all of the above. 

Meanwhile Virginia Woolf’s Mrs. Dalloway couldn’t seem to make it through a sentence of internal monologue without hearing a clock chime somewhere. And Shaw’s Caesar and Cleopatra was a long muse on “The modern British empire is nothing compared to those cool Ancient Romans — those were the days.” So yes, time was in the air.

As I compiled evaluation stats and looked at comments, it was clear that many (myself included) were challenged by Plato’s Phaedrus. A poor choice of translation was partly responsible, for which I take full blame — we’ll be more careful choosing editions in the future. But the dialogue presented difficulties beyond those caused by the translator for those of us unversed in the mysteries of classical rhetoric. Some of us preferred to set the rhetoric aside and concentrate on Phaedrus’s initial discourse about lovers vs. non-lovers (Platonic love), perhaps separating us into Lovers and Talkers. When the discussion was over, I was left wondering – what was Socrates smoking when he hallucinated flying chariots drawn by one white horse and one black horse?  Cosmic.

Unsurprisingly, the weekend held a few surprises. It was realized too late that we hadn’t followed the usual rotating-groups-of-ten- people arrangement, and that we’d share discussions with the same twenty companions for much of the weekend. With a little spin control, this evolved into an impromptu “experiment” in which feedback was solicited on whether fixed groups or rotating groups are preferable. Rotating groups was the clear victor, and we’ll return to that arrangement next year. Thank you, “test subjects”! We also innovated this year by adding a Saturday afternoon film screening, drawing on the success of GB mini-retreats, in which a book discussion is combined with a viewing of its film adaptation. The gods of consumer electronics were not kind, however. A roomful of seventy people, assembled and ready to enjoy Vanessa Redgrave’s portrayal of Clarissa Dalloway, instead witnessed a line of text on the video screen saying:  “Cannot play this disk – please insert another.” That was when we realized that our DVD was cracked nearly straight through!  So much for Netflix, and Blockbuster to the rescue.  Following a mad dash to the Pacific Grove video store, I returned with The Hours (closest I could get to Mrs. Da loway) and was greeted by  “No problem about the delay — we’ve been talking.” I love bookies.

Clarissa Dalloway and Peter Walsh would have fit right in at the Saturday afternoon party. Although there were no sightings of the prime minister, we were graced by the artistry of Donna Reynolds’s piano playing. The party provided a welcome chance to catch up with old friends and to debate what the poetry had really been about.

Organizing an event of this size is made easy because so many share in the effort. The genius of the Great Books Council of San Francisco lies in the willingness of its members to help make it all happen. Sheri Kindsvater shouldered the largest burden as registrar, meeting the needs of each attendee while navigating the sometimes strained relationship with Aramark, which is now in charge of Asilomar State Park’s management. Barbara McConnell helped in a thousand ways, most notably as discussion arranger, a task that bears remarkable similarities to reciting the Gettysburg Address while humming the Ode to Joy and dancing the tango. Barbara helped Mary Stuart, who coped beautifully with incessant “one more thing” plan changes as she assembled registration packets at the last minute (assisted by Jan Vargo).  Louise DiMattio was our own Clarissa Dalloway, arranging and hosting the film screening and party. That volunteer list just scratches the surface, though — there were also the reading selection committees, the stalwarts at the Friday registration table, and last but not least the 21 discussion leaders who read and reread the books, thought up topic questions, attended pre-discussions, and generally made themselves experts, all so that they could avoid expressing their own opinions and let us have the fun of expressing ours. Thank you.

A walk to the beach.
View to the South

Flowers in the dunes
Gull Searching

Fragile--Protected by Chicken Wire

Another Flower

View to the North
More Flowers
View to the West
More Flowers
Beware the Man-Eating Kite

Return to Asilomar

Sunday, September 11, 2011

From the Ex-President's Desk

My term as President of the Great Books Council of San Francisco ended in June, 2011. It has been a distinct pleasure to work with all the members of this organization over the past two years. We are blessed with many talented, energetic people who make things happen in a way that seems effortless, but requires a lot of hard work. Thanks to all of you.

At the beginning of my term I listed several areas on which to concentrate. One was to in- crease media exposure. That has not been very successful. Having worked with some success with electronic media, I suggest that pursuing print media exposure is not worth much time or effort. The internet has proven to be a powerful tool and is getting better. From email between individuals to discussion among committee members (our book selection committee works entirely by email) to disseminating information via e-newsletters, I find electronic media to be marvelously efficient. Anybody who does not use the e-media regularly should learn to do so. Except for Great Books discussions, learning something new, like how to surf the net, is the best way to keep and improve our mental capacities.

Another effort is supporting existing groups. That is underway with the leadership of Louise DiMattio. She identifies and works with our area coordinators to help local leaders. Barbara McConnell developed our mentor program to assist leaders. Our mini- retreats have all proven successful, including the newest, Great Books in Gold Country and Great Books in Wine Country. We will support the establishment of more as the opportunity arises—which means whenever a local discussion group wishes to organize one. We can provide resources and publicity to start an event which will have the best possible chance for success. Our other events have also been successful even in these times when people have less discretionary income. We experienced a decline in attendance at Asilomar in 2010, a problem handled well by Rob Calvert, our Asilomar coordinator. Rob made adjustments and Asilomar 2011 was a great success.

Another area we worked on is establishing new discussion groups. We are designing a program to be used by anyone who wishes to start a new discussion group. Local discussion groups are the life-blood of this organization. Longstanding groups do not seem to be good at attracting new, in particular younger, members. I have nothing against seniors; I am one. I appreciate what has been done by us seniors for Great Books through the years. However much we may try, established groups are not as welcoming as a new group where everyone is starting together. We have had success in San Francisco starting three new groups in the last two years, this in a city having only one discussion group for decades. Clifford Louie is the one most responsible for the success of these groups, one meeting at the main library, one at the Richmond branch, and our newest at the Noe Valley branch. Let us know by phone or email if you are interested in starting a new discussion group. We’ll help.

As past president I will assist our new president, Marge Johnson, any way I can, I’ll continue efforts at starting new discussion groups, and I’ll go on publishing our e-newsletter.  I expect to increase our public exposure through the use of social media on the internet.  Again, thanks to everyone in this organization for the pleasure of working with you these last two years.
Jim Hall