Gerri Jones, Professor Cleese, and Me

Last summer, Gerri Jones called to tell me that Cornell Professor at Large John Cleese would be coming to Ithaca in September for a week. She told me that she had scheduled me for a public talk with Cleese on September 11th at Bailey Hall that would become the last chapter of the book we were working on together.

Since joining this amazing Press in 2015, moments like this seemed to occur with some regularity. I attended a poetry workshop at Olin Library café with a former leader of the SDS at Cornell, a Nobel Laureate and an A.R. Ammons biographer. Today, I am surrounded by correspondence rejecting Vladimir Nabokov’s novel in verse and a ledger that holds the 1939 pencil-written royalty entries for the publication of The Nature of the Chemical Bond. I am also keenly aware at times of Cornell founder Henry Sage and his wife Susan who initially occupied the mansion where I work. Gerri Jones fit right in as part of an emerging entourage.

A small family of deer mingled outside my window looking in my direction as if waiting for an answer. Surely someone else would want the opportunity to have this conversation. Gerri confirmed that she had cleared it with the Provost’s office, and that the Provost would be introducing us both. I still didn’t believe it was going to happen.

cleese cover

More than one year after that call and the event that formed the final chapter of Professor at Large: The Cornell Years, Gerri Jones passed away on August 10th, 2018. She was 68. She died from an infection in the hospital while being treated for leukemia.

This mystical and extraordinary woman who first alighted upon the second-floor landing of the Sage House during a folk concert never got to see her book get published. It was Gerri who brought one of the world’s most impressive and hilarious minds to Cornell over a span of seventeen years.

“Start thinking about a plan for the conversation,” she instructed me.

 

As it always was with Gerri, I knew what she meant. Avoid the cliched version of the Professor. Don’t spend a lot of time on Python—which I already knew anyway. If my words didn’t energize Gerri—she became bored and disinterested. She’d make a face. You had to elevate your game to be on the field with her. Those words reverberated in the weeks after the call. I dove into the Cleese canon of books, movies, and television shows. His mind came first. I read the manuscript of lectures and talks over and over.

While studying the Minister of Silly Walks, I recalled Gerri’s return to Sage House after the folk concert wearing knee-length boots and John Lennon shades. She carried a white shopping bag of Cleese talks and lectures on CDs. She told us about the never before published lecture entitled “The Sermon at Sage Chapel” that included a passage about “The Psychopaths for Christ.”

I received word of her passing and attended her funeral. She was supposed to be in remission now.

Through her friends, I came to discover that this whole episode was another glorious chapter in the amazing life of Gerri Jones. She could tilt the universe in any direction. She brought the Dalai Lama to Ithaca twice as the house mother to the Tibetan monks. She carried Kurt Cobain’s ashes back to Courtney Love after the monks had prepared them. She had even used one set as a door stop. She broke Reagan’s blockade of Nicaragua. She was the pride of Central Islip High on Long Island. To everyone there, she was simply “Ger.”

She loved Mardi Gras, dogs and Professor Cleese fiercely. They trusted each other and their chemistry was telepathic. She engineered a schedule that both challenged and protected him and left him with enough space to be creative. “I can’t read him,” he told Gerri during our second meeting after trying to discern the meaning of my facial expression. I can tell you that in that moment I felt absolute joy. My preparation for the talk had been rigorous and thorough. Professor Cleese had been talking about the brain and I leaned back in my chair and smiled. Yes, I had a little secret. I had known exactly what he was going to say before the words came out but I didn’t want to tell him that in the aftermath. Getting to know John Cleese is like learning how to play guitar. The chord structures are accessible, but they merely serve as a launch pad into an endless galaxy of improvisation.

I was ready for the public conversation and had enough confidence in his presence to suggest how the show was going to begin. After nearly falling off the chair with laughter, he agreed. Until now, Gerri was the only one I told this to in the hallway after we left Cleese that day. She and I have other secrets related to the book. Those we will keep. She swore me to it.

“We make a good team, don’t we?” She pinched my arm.

GERRI
Photo courtesy of Slade Kennedy.

 

About the author of this blog post: Dean Smith is the Director of Cornell University Press.

Gerri Jones, Professor Cleese, and Me

Happy Independence Day, India: Grassroots Resistance in India Past and Present

Since India won its independence in 1947, it has celebrated its victory over its bygone British colonial occupiers on August 15th annually. In contemporary India the holiday is celebrated with parades, flag-raising ceremonies, and the singing of the national anthem, “Jana Gana Mana.” The festivities mark a celebration of the modern Indian state, but it is also day of remembrance and a repudiation of the repressive colonial powers of the past. Most of the princely states and regions that are now unified under the state flag of India were under the thumb of the British Raj for close to a century (and some lands had been under military occupation by the East India Company or other colonial interests for a least a hundred years before that). Thus, India is no stranger to foreign interventions, and it should be quite comprehensible that many Indians are still sensitive to soft and hard applications of power by outside influences.

Celebratory parade in India, photo by Jessica Falcone.

As I discussed in my book, Battling the Buddha of Love: a Cultural Biography of the Greatest Statue Never Built, when an American-based transnational Tibetan Buddhist group of mostly non-heritage Buddhists sought to build the biggest statue in the world, they became embroiled in a dispute with local Indians in Kushinagar. The Buddhist group, the Foundation for the Preservation of the Mahayana Tradition (FPMT), wanted to build a 500-foot behemoth Maitreya statue in Kushinagar, the site of the Shakyamuni Buddha’s death about 2500 years ago.

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A Buddha statue in Kushinagar, photo by Jessica Falcone

The “Save the Land Movement,” comprised of rural Indian farming families and their advocates, argued that the land acquisition of several hundred arable acres that had been organized by the state government for the Maitreya Project would be a complete disaster for those affected. In the process of arguing against the statue, locals said that even if they did consent to sell their farms, which most refused to do outright, the state was forcibly taking their land at far less than market value. While some Indian farmers felt that the project could offer some benefits to the local economy, they were almost in total agreement that the proposed process of land acquisition would be so imbalanced that they themselves would be shunted aside long before any potential benefits trickled down to their villages.

During my years of research on the Maitreya Project, I was often compelled by informants to think about how such a compulsory land acquisition on behalf of a foreign institution was not unlike a neocolonial incursion.

When I embarked upon ethnographic work in India in the mid-aughts, I did not seek to study the echoes of colonialism, but as many scholars in the region will attest, postcolonial India is haunted by the past, especially insofar as domination of the poor by the rich has continued unabated, albeit under new globalized, neoliberal, neocolonial guises. Even armed with the intellectual understanding of this history and cultural context, I naively hoped that the project that I was studying would be different. But my hope that the cultural logics of Buddhist morality would set this intervention on a more deliberate, ethical path were not borne out in fact. Most surprising to me, FPMT and its Maitreya Project, seemed utterly ambivalent about the local resistance movement directed against them.

A village protesting against the Maitreya Project, photo by Jessica Falcone.

An elderly woman in Kushinagar who counted herself as an anti-Maitreya Project protestor told me that she remembered Gandhi’s anticolonial protests from her childhood. She told me during our interview that they had beat the British and they would fight against this Maitreya Project too. On another occasion, I was approached by a local man, let’s call him Sanjay, who likened the Maitreya Project to a foreign parasite. He said, “We will win against the Maitreya Project. I am 100 percent sure that we will be successful. [Around 1600 CE] the East India Company came from London. The East India Company was also a ‘project.’ The Maitreya Project is like the East India Company.” When I hastily wished him and his peers well in their struggle against the Maitreya Project, he seemed skeptical and anxious.

And so, on the occasion of this year’s celebration of Indian independence, as I find myself thinking about Indian resistance movements past and present, allow me to share what Sanjay said to me by way of farewell, “We are stronger now. You tell them that we can’t be colonized again.”

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About the author of this blog post: Jessica Falcone is an Associate Professor of Anthropology at Kansas State University where teaches about South Asian and Asian-American cultural and religious worlds. Her book, Battling the Buddha of Love: a Cultural Biography of the Greatest Statue Never Built, will be released on September 15, 2018 by Cornell University Press. Since the release date of Manikarnika: the Queen of Jhansi was postponed until next year, she will be celebrating India’s Independence day by watching the movie, Lagaan, for the hundredth time.

budda

Happy Independence Day, India: Grassroots Resistance in India Past and Present

What Does Faith Demand? Elizabeth Seton and the Beliefs of Others

This summer has found Americans arguing over religion. What do we think of a baker who refused, on grounds of religious liberty, to make a cake celebrating a gay couple’s marriage? Should Catholic hospitals consider offering contraceptive services if they’re the only hospital in their region? Is it ever a good idea to turn to Scripture in order to justify or criticize government policies? Arguments like those made news. Other moments, in which someone looked with kindness, indifference, or contempt at a neighbor’s hijab, or crucifix, or flying spaghetti monster bumper sticker, didn’t. But in their daily accumulation, those small encounters also make history: the history of how people who disagree on things they consider supremely important, decide how and whether they will live in peace.

Elizabeth SetonNext month Cornell University Press will publish Elizabeth Seton, my biography of the woman who in 1975 became the first native born American citizen to be canonized in the Roman Catholic Church. Seton (1774-1821) changed her mind about her beliefs more than once during her life, and she also changed her mind about whether what she believed in should affect the society around her. As a very young woman, Seton laughed at the idea that faith needed any particular doctrinal content: if one found one’s way to cheerfulness and harmony, then all was well. This form of religion neither inspired Seton nor offended anyone else.

 

In her early thirties, after years of personal tragedy and spiritual inquiry, Seton converted to Catholicism. Her new faith allowed her to create a women’s religious community whose spiritual daughters serve others to this day. It also left Seton ablaze with certainty that only those who believed as she did were on the path to salvation. Her efforts to convince others of this angered many in her cosmopolitan Manhattan circle: they thought that faith should be held privately, its edges smoothed to avoid friction. Seton felt her friends’ and family’s insistence that she should keep her faith to herself was an assault on her beliefs and good intentions. Friends and family found her proselytizing a violation of their right to be left alone.  Everyone felt unfairly judged.

Within a decade, Seton had once again changed her mind. And although she continued to believe that the Catholic Church was the only safe path to God, she no longer tried to persuade others to follow it. Neither the venerable magisterium of the Catholic Church nor the First Amendment, its ink still damp, deserve the credit for this view; Seton’s growing desire for harmony and her growing spiritual humility do. She now believed that her faith imposed a different kind of obligation than she’d first believed, an obligation to offer specific, loving attention to those around her. Nurturing relationships, not spreading doctrine, would be the external manifestation of her faith. She wanted, she wrote, to “constantly find occasions of rendering [others] good offices and exercising kindness and good will towards them.”

As the summer’s arguments show, living harmoniously when people disagree vehemently will always be challenging. So will the act of creating a faith community that makes no unwanted claims on those outside it, but is meaningful to those within. Yet I think often of the principle Elizabeth Seton set forth late in her life: “Fear nothing so much as not to love enough.” Amid our many (and necessary) arguments, this seems like a promising place to start.

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Related upcoming event of interest: Living History Tour 

For more on Elizabeth Seton visit:

Daughters of Charity Federation

National Shrine of Elizabeth Seton

About the author of this blog post: Catherine O’Donnell is an historian at Arizona State University.  She writes and teaches about early America, religion, and the Atlantic World.

What Does Faith Demand? Elizabeth Seton and the Beliefs of Others

THE HEADSCARF IN THE UNITED STATES (or the celebration of freedom on this 4th of July)

The Fourth of July is so close you can almost sense it. And to most people, it feels like freedom and independence. But how does it feel to the Muslim American women wearing a headscarf (or hijab) on that day?

The question about the headscarf, its meaning, and, more than anything, the experience of the women that wear it, has fascinated me for a long time. Maybe because some people don’t seem to think much about it, beyond the simple act of wearing a scarf in itself; maybe because to others, it evokes sentiments of distrust and anxiety, led mainly by stereotypical images propagated on TV.

In April 2014 I traveled to Turkey and asked questions about this practice myself. Because I knew little about it, I was surprised to find out that most Muslim women embraced the covering of their hair, and sometimes their whole body, as an expression of their identities. They talked about religious liberty, their sense of femininity carefully embroidered and woven in cloth.

A few years later, as I strolled the streets of Casablanca, Morocco, I was witness to the same phenomena. Arm in arm, gossiping in their burkas, or with smiling eyes in a hijab, women were voicing their beliefs. How is it that I had not seen through the veil of my own cultural bias, unable to understand the subtleties of wearing a head-covering scarf?

HEADSCARF

The issue of Islamic head-covering and the political and social debates on the topic are as multiple as they are complex. This 4th of July, I invite those interested in unveiling its construction and political consequences, to listen to our latest podcast with Bozena Welborne, Aubrey Westfall, and Sarah Tobin, co-authors of The Politics of the Headscarf in the United States.

On this Independence Day, their book provides us with a chance to hear from Muslim American women, to learn about their values and beliefs, and how they express their identities in a country that aims to be the model of democratic pluralism.

 

 

“I love identifying myself as that, as a Muslim American, especially in that order, too, because this is my country and my religion is the most important to me. But after that, like . . .  this is where I was born, this is where I was raised and I was born with these values, American values of tolerating freedom of expression and freedom of religion and freedom of the press, and I think that’s one reason why our country is so successful is because we’re tolerating so much diversity and therefore people from all over the world can come and bring their talents into our country. So, I take a lot of pride in that phrase, Muslim American.”

—The Politics of the Headscarf in the United States (p.162)

 


 

Recommended artist to follow with this post:

http://www.boushraart.com/

 

About the author of this blog post: Adriana Ferreira is the Social Media Coordinator at Cornell University Press. She is grateful to have had the opportunity to travel around the world and meet people from various countries, with different cultural values and religious beliefs, and to be part of a diverse, multi-cultural and heterogeneous community.

 

THE HEADSCARF IN THE UNITED STATES (or the celebration of freedom on this 4th of July)

A Photographer Grows in Brooklyn

Before leaving California in October 1970, to return to NYC, I bought a 35mm camera at a San Jose pawnshop. Because it was the heavier of the two cameras in my $30 price range, I chose a Nikon rangefinder. I was lucky, 22 years old and wanted to be a photographer.

Back home, I took a photography class at the School of Visual Arts, a job with the telephone company and began photographing my family and friends in South Brooklyn. I never felt comfortable at SVA so I rented a small storefront in Sunset Park and set up my own black and white darkroom. I bought a paperback book on photography, and carried it everywhere, reading and re-reading every section.

I returned to college and graduated in 1972. Over the next few years, I completed a Masters degree and worked as a cab driver, cameraman, waiter, photographer’s assistant, bartender and carpenter. But no matter what I did to earn money, I kept photographing. I made my own prints in a variety of darkrooms – almost always ill equipped for washing big prints. So I often used a bathtub.

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Looking back on it now, I smile thinking of my eager young self. I walked around South Brooklyn with my camera and a hand-held light meter, recording each exposure in a 2 x 3 inch spiral notebook. I enjoyed working as a photo assistant in a Manhattan commercial studio, but deep down always preferred photographing in my neighborhood.

Somewhere around 1975, one of my mother’s cousins gave me a Speed Graphic. This classic camera – made famous by Wegee and familiar to me as the logo of the New York Daily News – used 4×5 inch sheet film.

It was quite a while before I was ready to meet the challenges of photographing with a large format camera but I learned.

When I began learning about the craft and art of photography, I was influenced by Robert Leverant’s book Zen in the Art of Photography: “A camera is an extension of ourselves. An appendage to bring us closer to the universe.”

My universe in the 1970’s was South Brooklyn where my ongoing interest in photographing working class family life and religious expression began. Although I photograph throughout NYC with a variety of cameras, I still like to shoot family events in BxW with an old medium format camera.


 

About the author of this blog post: Larry Racioppo was born and raised in South Brooklyn, and he has been photographing throughout New York City since 1971. Living in Rockaway, NY, with his wife, interior designer Barbara Cannizzaro, and their dog, Juno, he can’t believe his good luck.

You can pre-order and learn more about his upcoming book, BROOKLYN BEFORE, here.

A Photographer Grows in Brooklyn

What happens when we feed birds?

Jones Birds at My Table

Feeding wild birds is probably something so familiar, so everyday, so commonplace—so tame perhaps—that we can forget that this is a fundamentally artificial activity. In virtually every case, the types of food we use to attract birds to our house yards—typically mixtures of various seeds but sometimes leaf-overs from a family meal—are entirely different to those they consume in their natural diet. Our feeders also concentrate birds into closer interactions than they would normally tolerate, often bringing together species which would never have anything to do with each other. Even the structure of the feeder itself is starkly unnatural: a swaying glass cylinder or a conspicuous platform, typically in an open and potentially dangerous setting. Continue reading “What happens when we feed birds?”

What happens when we feed birds?

Celebrating Our Cornell University Authors

As Commencement Weekend (May 22–24) fast approaches, it seems an opportune time to highlight some recent books whose authors and editors teach at Cornell University. The range of topics represented in this selection of books by Cornell professors published by the Press since 2013 (and forthcoming in Fall 2015) provides a glimpse of the broad scope of both our list and the university’s curriculum:

Mobilizing against Inequality: Unions, Immigrant Workers, and the Crisis of Capitalism, edited by Lee H. Adler (ILR School), Maite Tapia, and Lowell Turner (ILR School)

Cornell: A History, 1940–2015 by Glenn C. Altschuler (American Studies) and Isaac Kramnick (Government)

Introductory Food Chemistry by John W. Brady (Food Science)

Empire of Language: Toward a Critique of (Post)colonial Expression by Laurent Dubreuil (Romance Studies)  Continue reading “Celebrating Our Cornell University Authors”

Celebrating Our Cornell University Authors

The Thirtieth Anniversary of the Phelps Dodge Strike

This summer marks the thirtieth anniversary of the long, often violent, community-rending—but for women, in particular, sometimes empowering—Phelps Dodge Strike in the copper towns of Arizona. Cornell University/ILR Press authors Barbara Kingsolver (Holding the Line) and Jonathan Rosenblum (Copper Crucible) both wrote books about the Phelps Dodge strike that continue to be taught today at universities like Gonzaga, University of Minnesota, George Mason, and elsewhere. Professor Anna O’Leary, a leader of the women’s auxiliary of Morenci Local 616 who teaches at University of Arizona in Tucson, writes in a letter to the Latinopia blog that “…[M]any striker families moved on to other places in search of work and a new life. For many, it was a period of uncertainty and struggle and adaptation. However, being able to keep our heads held high in knowing that we were on the right side of history, helped in this period of adjustment as they brought other rewards to our children and a different future that had been difficult to envision at the time.

Rosenblum asked Morenci Miners Local 616 former president Angel Rodriguez to write a few words about why, alongside economic matters, his members belonged to the union:

“30 years ago on June 30, 1983, over 2,000 miners went on strike against the copper giant, Phelps Dodge (PD) Corporation at its Morenci, Ajo, Douglas and Bisbee operations and its refinery in El Paso, Texas. Copper miners at PD had gone on strike every three years. The general feeling among union leaders was optimism that in this round of negotiations we could avert a strike. The copper industry was feeling the effects of a slow economy and a market glut of copper worsened by foreign copper imports. According to the industry, the price of copper was not enough to cover the costs of producing the red metal and still make a profit. At the time, I had been President of Local Union 616 since 1977.

The company was proposing to terminate the 1980-83 contract and all other agreements, settlements, letters of understanding, dating back to the 1950’s…The company’s proposals were an obstacle to any meaningful negotiations on any level as they were steadfast and unbending. They weren’t looking for concessions, they wanted total capitulation. Thinking back, this was one time where our unity worked against us. At the time, we were firm in our position that whatever pattern was set by one of the other copper companies, that would be the basis for a settlement not only for us, but all the other copper industry negotiations. . . . The company had hired scabs to replace us and eventually led them to petition for a decertification vote. Needless to say, all the unions overwhelmingly lost the election, After 32 months, strikers were placed on the preferential hiring list and eventually many were recalled and resumed working for the company without union representation. The strike was a bitter strike with striker on scab and scab on striker violence and police brutality. In short, the aftermath was a divided community where families and long-time childhood friends remained bitterly divided. A way of life was destroyed.”

Rodriguez underlined what that way of life had meant to the mining community, especially the political participation of Mexican Americans:

“The union became the vehicle for Mexican Americans to run for political office and win elections to city, county and school boards and in some cases, state offices. It instilled the value and importance of being registered and voting in elections to elect their supporters to public office. Membership in the union was an empowering experience that gave the miners and their families the ability to standup and fight for the right for their children to speak Spanish when not in class at school without being punished. They fought for the right to walk into the movie theater and sit in any area other than designated/segregated area. They fought for the right for their children to go to the swimming pool on any day of the week, not only on the day before the pool was to be drained, so the Anglo kids could go swimming in ‘clean’ water the following week. They were able to go bowling where previously that had been denied service at the bowling alley, unless they were working there. The union empowered the miners to desegregate the restaurants that didn’t serve ‘Mexicans’ and be served. The miners’ families fought for the right to use the public library in Morenci.
In the midst of the hardships on the miners and their families, they always found a way to alleviate their hardships by engaging in community events that entertained them and helped them mix the good with the bad. It strengthened their bond.
What workers could accomplish once they felt the power a union could bring them!”

The Thirtieth Anniversary of the Phelps Dodge Strike

Recommended Reading List for the New SEIU President

As Mary Kay Henry begins her tenure as the President of the Service Employees International Union, we’d like to suggest the following ILR Press titles for information, guidance, and inspiration—

A New New Deal: How Regional Activism Will Reshape the American Labor Movement by Amy B. Dean and David B. Reynolds

Power in Coalition: Strategies for Strong Unions and Social Change by Amanda Tattersall

Working for Justice: The L.A. Model of Organizing and Advocacy by Ruth Milkman, Joshua Bloom, and Victor Narro (editors)

A Shameful Business: The Case for Human Rights in the American Workplace by James A. Gross

Building More Effective Unions, Second Edition by Paul F. Clark

Safety in Numbers: Nurse-to-Patient Ratios and the Future of Health Care by Suzanne Gordon, John Buchanan, and Tanya Bretherton

Counter Culture: The American Coffee Shop Waitress by Candacy A. Taylor

Global Unions: Challenging Transnational Capital through Cross-Border Campaigns by Kate Bronfenbrenner (editor)

The Sex of Class: Women Transforming American Labor by Dorothy Sue Cobble (editor)

Recommended Reading List for the New SEIU President

From Predators to Icons in the New Yorker

From Predators to Icons: Exposing the Myth of the Business Hero by Michel Villette and Catherine Vuillermot is prominently featured in Malcolm Gladwell’s article “The Sure Thing” in the January 18, 2010 issue of the New Yorker. An abstract is available here: The Sure Thing

Here’s an excerpt:
“Michel Villette and Catherine Vuillermot set out to discover what successful entrepreneurs have in common. They present case histories of businessmen who built their own empires . . . and chart what they consider the typical course of a successful entrepreneur’s career. . . . The truly successful businessman, in Villette and Vuillermot’s telling, is anything but a risk-taker. He is a predator, and predators seek to incur the least risk possible while hunting.”

From Predators to Icons in the New Yorker