Dateline: Downtown

Dateline: Downtown

Dateline: Downtown

Dan Roche

My kid brother voted for Kerry Healey, but more precisely against Deval Patrick. Not out of party affiliation. He just wanted to vote against Hope.

Hope. You want to lead Massachusetts to a brighter tomorrow? You want to ensure a future where our children will be safe, and planes won’t crash? And you want to help us make it…together. Right?

Well, how about ‘no’? Let other people hope. Massachusetts doesn’t need hope, it needs someone to fix the MBTA.

That’s what he thinks. I differ, but have to respect the opinion (he’s bigger than I am, after all, though I’m the more economical fighter). I’m for hope. What brought the Jews from the Desert? What inspired Cyrano? Why put your kids through school? Why survive torture? Hope. If you lose it, the world does you in. I’d rather get snookered once in a while than cheat myself out of it. I’m not cynical.

So I gave Patrick a one-year grace period before I start for the arrows. There’s always the possibility that good will be done. (If he stays out of the news and the state continues to function, that’s good enough.) Any good work, though, takes hard work, and I think that’s why my brother is suspicious; politicians and civil “servants” (haha!) like to bamboozle the rubes with cloud talk about how gol-durned great tomorrow will be, if only you hold your nose and cover your eyes through the interim. Hope looks cheap once you realize you’ve been holding your eyes forever and no matter how tight you pinch your nostrils you can still smell the stink. Cynicism has its own slinky allure, and can make itself look more admirable.

Back to hard work. Any artwork worth a snot is not the result of some flighty fancy that just sort of hits certain people, who are great painters or poets in vitro. Great art results, yes, from an inspiration or a series of them, but it is also the expression of a craft that requires practice to refine. Sophocles didn’t just start spitting the Oedipus. The distinct elements had to be combined, with emphases handled deftly, general and specific details weaved into a form that distills meaning from the chaos of murder and lamentation.

Or let’s take “Ooh Child”, by the Five Stairsteps. (It’s been covered by other artists, but you know the version I’m talking about.) Someone singing it to themselves down the street in the sun might make you happy, but it’s not going to make you melt if you hear them next to you in the laundromat at 2 A.M. when you have a headache and you’re mad. The classical version may reduce the hardest to tears whenever it is heard, I am confident. Go ahead, find it on Youtube and just listen.

Now. What did you hear in that song, besides the young gentleman’s sweet voice? There was an intricate drum pattern that moves the song in a way you don’t notice but do feel, horns that say the little the singer can’t, and subdued strings that nonetheless power the mood. It’s a killer, they really know what they’re doing.

The song, yes, resulted from an initial emotive expression, namely hope. The execution of the piece though cannot be done without years of basement rat-tat-tapping by the drummer, the bassist sitting on his bed playing the same lick ad nauseam, or the singer rehearsing himself hoarse once or twice. To present a thing that is beautiful and complete, care has to be taken in composition. Great art is always the result of focused hard work and is never the result of the distracted and undisciplined, who produce mediocrity or less.

None of this is anything new. Others have said the same thing and cloaked it in similar terms. But people still just don’t get it. They want to be great artists, they want fame and recognition and crowns and drachmas, but they don’t want to or can’t devote themselves to the strain of craftsmanship.

I think it’s not just art, but cheese making and scholarship and auto repair that follows these general rules as well. And public office. If someone wants me to give me a reason to hope, they’d better know what their end of the deal is.

I’m for Motley. I hope he accomplishes his ambition of making UMB the country’s premier public, big-city University. I hope through his foresight and attention to detail our school churns out big-hearted Philosophy majors aggressive and crafty in argument, perceptive and sensitive Psychology majors, creative Business majors with solid ethics, and observant scientists that are full of wonder, one after the other, with a basketball team that will eat your lunch. Everything I’ve heard about him has been impressive. I know that people outside of our school genuinely love the guy, and my gut endorses him. He never hesitates to point out that it’s not whether “he” can do a good job, or “he” can do this or that for the school, but whether we can get up together and get it done. He likes the word “we”, and I do too.

The way this school will be great is if we take all the intellectual resources our city’s working class can offer, the reclusive 17-year-old dork in the Mattapan attic poring over a 20-year-old physics textbook or the poet who took five years off from life and ended up washing dishes in Chelsea for 60 dollars a day, channel them toward the end that drives each particularly, teach them how to work smart and hard, and set them back into the city and the world. It’s the only way. We’re never going to be Harvard. We shouldn’t want to be. Harvard doesn’t represent Dot Ave, or Blue Hill, or Grove Hall, or D Street. We do. With everything Keith Motley’s accomplished, every tick on his curriculum vitae, I sense that the streets of Pittsburgh have stayed with him. In ways others can’t perfectly understand– but we don’t need to. You don’t need to know exactly what the war was like for Tolstoy, you can read for yourself. You needn’t sniff much into his Westphalia boyhood to appreciate Rubens. What UMB is now ain’t bad, but there’s enough intellectual independence, energy, and street smarts in this school for us to be art. What Keith Motley brings to the table will help shape this school into what it should be, a unique, prodigiously productive, excellent component of a well loved city.

So I hope.