Plumber’s Helper

We slept until noon. Around three, Sylvie left to register for her conference at some humongous hotel on the bay. After registration and check-in there would be meet and greet meetings followed by an opening night banquet, speeches and entertainment, closing with some notorious keynote speaker with a wishful thinking slide show on passion, motivation, and sports. But Sylvie would be back at the bungalow for the night. She would not be sleeping at the hotel. I walked around the bungalow and yard, checking out the details, sipping a late afternoon coffee, feeling lazy and easy going. Our neighbors to the east were noisily going in and out of their place, filling a small dumpster out front with trash from their house. I wandered over to say hello. Josh and Margo were co-presidents of a service fraternity, and they’d leased the house for a week of meetings and parties in sync with the fall semesters starting up. The clean-up was almost over, and they were vacating the place as soon as they got it inspected and got their security and cleaning deposits back. Meantime, did I know anything about plumbing? One of their toilets was backed up. I found a plumber’s helper and a drain snake in the garage and went to work. Apparently they don’t teach you in college not to flush a bikini down a toilet, I said. Or an empty beer can. Margo looked distraught. Josh said he’d not taken Plumbing 101 yet. I plunged the second toilet for good measure. When I asked Josh what he was studying he said he’d soon be finished with a business degree in marketing and planned to pursue an MBA. His goal was to amass as much capital as he possibly could over the next ten years then sit back on his laurels and surf. He was planning a startup that would amass capital for the express purpose of funding other startups. Right, Margo joshed him, it will take you the next ten years just to pay off your student loans. Margo was studying forensic science. Maybe you should both consider a plumbing start-up, I suggested, and left them to their clean-up, studies, and careers.

“Plumber’s Helper” is episode 62 of Inventories, a Novel in Progress in Serial Format at The Coming of the Toads.

Virtually Nowhere

Writing for the New York Times Sunday edition for June 28, California veteran-reporter Shawn Hubler, reporting from Davis, California, on the ghost town effect Covid-19 is bringing to college towns across the country, and wandering around the abandoned town UC Davis keeps flush, notes, apparently sans irony: “Outside the closed theater, a lone busker stood on a corner playing ‘Swan Lake’ on a violin to virtually no one.” I know the feeling.

Meanwhile, musicians across the globe are turning to virtual possibilities to keep their chops up in front of a live audience. Amateurs too are getting into the act, as evidenced by the creation of the “Live at 5 from the Joe Zone” shows, nearly nightly live broadcasts (5 pm PST) via Instagram “stories” and “IGTV” posts, featuring myself, a nephew, and three brothers, to wit: “The Joe Zone nightly Live at 5 with Joe@ketch3m@johnlinker@charleslinker@kevin_linker: Portland, Salem, Healdsburg, Ione, Drytown.” Listeners tune in to hear music and stories while watching the player, and comment live, often talking, virtually, to one another, via their online comments.

The shows last anywhere from 10 minutes to an hour. These are not group performances. If we could figure out how to do that virtually, we might give it a go, but for now, each of us takes a night in our respective hometown pandemic quarantine digs and creates a solo show for the live entertainment of our loyal followers. The other night, I had 5 listeners in my audience (go ahead: irony, satire, and sarcastic comments all accepted with good grace). There were, at one point, 6 listeners, but one apparently came and went. It happens. But that was also a slow night. I’ve had as many as 14 live listeners, at once. Ok, ok, still not exactly Arena Rock. And, but, in any case, that’s not the point.

If one saves the live show via IGTV, most followers eventually find it, but at which point it’s a kind of rerun. The key is to catch it live. But of course 5 in the evening is not necessarily the best time-fit for any given listener. I’ve not saved my shows beyond a few hours, if at all. I caught grief last week for an immediate delete, since Susan thought it was my best show yet, but the rerun dilutes the live effects. And the show is intended as a real quarantine activity, a virtual get-together, a virtual hoedown or hootenanny.

Of course, all towns are potential ghost towns (there appears to be a gene for it they are born with), and all performances are played potentially “for virtually no one.” Still, Davis is but a rock’s throw from the much larger Sacramento (about a 20 minute drive) and just over an hour to the Bay. Not to mention it’s a major Amtrak stop for the north-south Starlight Special. In many other small college towns across the country you can already hear the whistle’s last blow and watch the tumbleweeds filling the streets.

Happiness and the Humanities

Chris Beha’s investigative report (Harpers, Oct. 2011) on the for-profit higher education experiment is an impressionistic view of the inequities of degree access and funding. Not quite Maigret goes to [night] school, but this is US culture, the land of opportunity, and of second opportunity. Is the for-profit model hopeless? Cut to England, where the LRB Blog reports equity firms are about to seize a market opportunity: the purchasing of Universities by private hands. The degree is the product by which we’ll catch the conscience of the customer. Yet Beha suggests an important question: Is college making us happy?

Maybe college isn’t necessary or desirable for everyone. But has innovation and reform in higher education been hampered by the same self-serving forces that Joel Klein has argued explain the failure of American high schools?

It’s been a rough month for the Humanities. In Florida, there’s talk of limiting degrees offered to those that are “practical.” One wonders what those might be in the current job market. We need a new word: merittechocracy. But isn’t the market already moving in Florida’s direction? Humanities enrollment and attrition rate at UCLA suggest Westwood is no longer the bohemian capital of LA. The UCLA 2010 annual report offers more insight: “At the same time, we conducted a thorough review of our academic programs with the goal of streamlining majors, reducing unnecessary units and courses, and helping students graduate in a timely manner. We also pursued initiatives that will produce new revenue streams, including an enhanced emphasis on translational research, which will deliver more of our faculty’s inventions into the marketplace and potentially lead to licensing and royalty revenues for UCLA.” The product is big business.

But there’s a reading crisis spreading perniciously throughout the land. And reading is important. In a November, 2007, report from the National Endowment for the Arts, “To Read or Not to Read,” Chairman Dana Gioia had this to say about reading: “All of the data suggest how powerfully reading transforms the lives of individuals—whatever their social circumstances. Regular reading not only boosts the likelihood of an individual’s academic and economic success—facts that are not especially surprising—but it also seems to awaken a person’s social and civic sense. Reading correlates with almost every measurement of positive personal and social behavior surveyed. It is reassuring, though hardly amazing, that readers attend more concerts and theater than non-readers, but it is surprising that they exercise more and play more sports—no matter what their educational level. The cold statistics confirm something that most readers know but have mostly been reluctant to declare as fact— books change lives for the better.”

The first front on which to begin combating poverty and inequality is reading. And who’s got the books, if not the Humanities? But if the Humanities, now on the Endangered Animals list, become extinct, who will ask the question, “Are you happy now”?