On #GirlsInQuizbowl and supporting women

We had a moment across the quizbowl community during the Middle School National Championship Tournament in Chicago. I want to talk about it a little bit, and ask the quizbowl community a question, maybe a question that applies to other places too.

The moment was associated with an offhand comment someone made to player on the Norfolk Academic Guild, a homeschool cooperative who fields teams for a lot of tournaments, and was reported by a parent/coach:

The response to this moment, on Twitter at least, was immediate and very focused and very unified:

I may have even participated in this moment myself (and sorry, I’m going to be that guy who blogs his own tweetstorm, but my perspective might be a little left of center):

…and, because only one mic drop is possible for quizbowl people of a certain vintage to this issue:

There’s a lot of dialogue that is associated with moments like these, of course, and there’s a very reflexive response that is prone to happen in moments like these. One may even say it’s a performative moment – we respond because, well dang it, we’re supposed to respond, and what does it look like if we don’t respond?

We even hashtag this response with #GirlsInQuizbowl (which I’m still not sure I like, because we’re concerned with women in this game broadly – very young, much older, all points in between – and if they’re intelligent enough to participate in the game and get value from the game they’re intelligent enough to be treated with respect and not belittled as “girls”) and holy cow, you can search that hashtag and get all the responses that are in one way or another what responses are supposed to be. I’ve quoted several. There are several more, many from the women themselves who do this work – take it away, Jackie Wu:

(and, of course, plenty more where that came from!)

And we know this is a longstanding issue – because the same aforementioned Rebecca Rosenthal wrote for her campus newspaper, the Swarthmore Phoenix, about being smart while female and many of the experience she’s had to deal with being a first- and second-year student in college who cares deeply about quizbowl.

But the thread in this whole storm comes from my friend in Chillicothe, Ohio, who feels the tension behind this issue very keenly:

 

There are reasons women aren’t represented in this game. And, no, none of those reasons are good. And that’s where the conversation has to begin.

It’s one thing to say that women aren’t in this game, and that’s dumb. There are a lot of us alpha dudes who will absolutely perform when the time comes and will say every right thing when the time comes and then when nobody is paying attention (possibly even right now) simply return to simply doing all the exactly same things we’ve done before.

And let me be plain here. I didn’t say you alpha dudes. I said us. I count.

I grew up conservative, and I grew up Southern, on the knife’s edge of Methodist and Baptist cultures. Men belonged at the front, in the pulpit and at the head of the meeting, with the demonstrative voices and running things. Women belonged in the back, in the kitchen and in the nursery, speaking demurely and quietly and eventually finding themselves in the family way. I was a good young man, so I was supposed to find my way to the front of the room. The women alongside me weren’t.

I could find that rather dumb in my own obtuse sort of way. There were a TON of females in my classes who were obviously very smart and dang it why don’t they get as much attention as I seemed to in my human-calculator sort of way? But there really wasn’t a whole lot of room to differ, and it became obvious over time that I wasn’t SUPPOSED to differ. The men had roles they took on, over time, very consistently. The women had roles they took on. Anyone who didn’t take on those roles got whispered about, and not in a kind way.

Once those messages are baked in, they’re very hard to get out.

In many ways, it didn’t even matter that I got educated in a very feminist sort of way by a woman who was very central in my intellectual development. When women were given grief in the academic environment and the roles of men and women obviously separated even as students were coming through classrooms, that was a source of amusement and humor, not a symbol of a systemic problem. When women were treated differently because of the way that they dressed in interview processes, that was an issue for the woman to address in how they dressed, not an issue for the man to contemplate his own judgment on.

When a team of girls was harassed by a team of boys at a quizbowl tournament, that was something for the girls to adapt to, not something for the boys to be reprimanded for.

And we’re not just talking teasing or snide comments. We’re talking responses in anger when games don’t go well. We’re talking gamesmanship and intimidation. We’re talking overt propositioning and sexual harassment.

Frankly, I haven’t done enough in my life, when I have seen it. I haven’t screamed bloody murder in public that it’s wrong and it must end. I’ve given lip service to being interested in women’s roles in this game and I’ve let women down.

Let me be even more forceful: I’m talking about all women. I’m even talking about women who are some variety of queer or trans. If you haven’t figured this out about me yet, I’m an evangelical Christian who is 46 years old with emphasis on old and I’m still working out in my brain and in my faith what I think about LGBTQIA* culture and how I speak credibly to it and I’m deeply entrenched in the Protestant crisis of authority and this is all my problem and nobody else’s. I personally have botched nothing else when it comes to the treatment of people in this game more profoundly and more consistently than my use of pronouns. That is on me. The thing to call somebody is what they want to be called. Anything else is failing to be gracious. Period.

This is my personal, unreserved apology – and repentance, commitment to do consistently and continuously better and better until my treatment of all people is 100% equal, and my treatment of all women in this game is completely beyond reproach.

And part of that repentance is that my voice shouldn’t be the voice at the forefront. It should be a voice that empowers women to lead, not to follow.

Because when I contemplate a little bit, it seems men and women have roles at our tournaments, too. Men organize and lead meetings and train and read matches. Women work the info desk and work media and scorekeep. There are exceptions, and so many of the women who DO the info desk and media and scorekeeping are so incredibly valuable – but even in our own spaces, there is a gendered separation.

We don’t need that separation to be maintained. We need to be more intentional at not merely speaking about the importance of women in the leadership of this game, but actively making space for women to lead in this game.

Is our commitment to hashtag-girls-in-quizbowl genuine? Do we say that we want women to have a role, and perform our progressive dance, and beat our chests and say “hooray, I helped” while leaving things the exact same way they were?

Or are we going to make this game better?

I had a vision of an all-woman team, and seeing them get glory (and maybe soaking in glory of my own) for being winners. That whole alpha vision, again.

But maybe my own vision isn’t the important thing. Maybe our vision, as men, isn’t all that important.

Maybe the most important thing we can do as men is amplify the voices of those who are on the margins. Maybe we can get out of the spotlight and do more of the support work. Maybe we can simply get off the stage and make room for the voice of a woman.

For once.

Advertisements

Public bragging, circa 25 April 2018

Published to my Facebook wall, in a rare return to public posting there, so I can tag people and brag on students publicly through that medium. 

So, let me interrupt this Facebook not-as-much-of-a-hiatus-anymore to do this bit of bragging.

Once upon a time, at an institution far, far away, Craig Allee told me I was going to advise pre-pharms, and of course having a role in advising was a good thing to have for the promotion-and-tenure thing and you want to do right by your dean and so I wasn’t going to tell him “no”. (Telling Doc Allee “no” wasn’t something done lightly in any event, for Reasons.)

And as I dove in to the task, I found out that doing that sort of thing was one whale of an education in its own right. I recognized very quickly that it was one thing to have students check off courses of prerequisite curriculum, and it was another thing entirely to actually recognize where that student might want to attend pharmacy school and actually make sure what the student was preparing matched up with where the student might want to go. And then I found out how much of a thing clinical pharmacy was, and how much different preparing to do that was than preparing to be in a retail environment. And I found myself getting deeper and deeper into conversations with students and seeing the contours of what these students wanted to accomplish.

I found myself saying the phrase “professional vision” a lot. I found myself calling upon my grandfather’s own professional identity – reemphasizing to my students and myself that the prescription for apathy is involvement – and asking my students what they aimed to accomplish as practicing professionals.

We got students into pharmacy school. Hooray. And I’ve continued to have a role in that task as I’ve gone forward in my career, and hopped from one place to the next. But I hope we’re doing more than that. I hope what we’re doing, as students and faculty working together, is helping realize the full potential for the student as emerging professional, and how the professional working in their role can serve the community around them.

So here’s an announcement. It’s recipients of awards in the United States Public Health Service Excellence in Public Health Pharmacy program.

There are 27 of them nationwide.

I’ve advised two of them.

I advised Lindsey Bruner when she was at Shorter University. She is finishing her PharmD at Mercer University’s College of Pharmacy. She is cited for “developing partnerships with community organizations to prevent substance abuse and for raising awareness of substance use by educating children and parents about the proper use and storage of medications.”

I advised Tiffany Vũ when she was at Virginia Intermont College. She is preparing to graduate from Campbell University’s College of Pharmacy and Health Sciences. Her citation is for “development of a student led community care clinic dedicated to community wellness and public health, and for serving as a team leader during multiple medical mission trips to Honduras.”

I see that list, and I recognize those names, and I’m stunned and stunned again and stunned all over again. It’s incredibly humbling.

There are also MANY other students I’ve advised who do things every bit as great. Their names might not be on citations like this, but I’m every bit as proud of them.

There is also a list of advisees I have here at Tusculum. There are also students who have started pharmacy school from here, and students preparing to start pharmacy school, who I’ve had in classes here.

I recognize talent upon talent upon talent, still identifying that vision that will carry them forward.

I have moments these days when I’m very tired, when the long road that I’ve been down and the failures on the path behind make me feel like I’m reaching the end of the career.

And then I see a list like this, and I still feel like my career is just starting, and there is so much promise ahead.

Lindsey, Tiffany: thank you for your hearts of service, and blessings to you as you move forward on your careers as new professionals.

But thank you also for these little reminders that renew me.

On being a freshman from…somewhere

We’re three weeks into the new semester, and both of my 4-credit-hour lab science classes have probably gotten to know me better than they’d like. We’ve run an exam in both of them, a second exam in #chem101tc is much closer than that crew would like for it to be, both classes have started to get around the equipment in their labs, and people who really don’t need to be worried about their grades are starting to worry about their grades.

However, I still don’t know my class in our freshman orientation structure – the Tusculum Experience – nearly as well as I’d like.

Part of that is simply the schedule. It’s a weird schedule, so for those outside of Tusculum looking over my shoulder, let me fill you in: I see the two lab science classes all day long, twice a week, for eight weeks. There are two lab sessions scheduled per week, as opposed to one a week in a conventional semester schedule. At the end of the eight weeks we end the block and we run a second eight-week block with different two-day-a-week classes for the rest of the fall. The Tusculum Experience class I only see one afternoon a week, in a one-credit-hour setup, but I’ll see them over the full 16 weeks of the fall.

So the Tusculum Experience class and I just haven’t gotten the time together, and I haven’t gotten used to making sure they get the sequence of assignments they need, and making other arrangements, and Wednesday afternoons can just get awkward y’all.

The thing that makes our experience common are the readings, an online book called Voices of Tusculum that the good English professor Michael Bodary arranged and got assembled for us.[1] And I’ve been reading and reflecting on the class assignments out of that book as I’ve gotten my fall started.

Three of these essays, one of which has been assigned in the first three weeks of the class, are by my colleagues, two of whom I’ve gotten to know pretty well (by Jonita Ashley, currently Acting Dean of Students, and Kim Carter, who is the campus EPA Coordinator, Chemical Hygiene Officer and laboratory coordinator) and one of whom I haven’t gotten to know so well yet (David Smith, the Director of Student Support Services). And it occurs to me, reading all of these, that all these people have something in common that I don’t:

They’re all from around here. And they’re working not-at-all-far from where they grew up and where they started college.

I’ve joked – a lot – that my career is Hank Snow’s classic country song “I’ve Been Everywhere”. But it’s true. And it’s been a laundry list all over the land east of the Mississippi. I went to school, and then I did a postdoctoral research appointment at a university, and then I’ve taken teaching jobs at all kinds of places. Hey, this is the list, from high school to now:

Hilliard Middle/Senior High School (Hilliard, Florida)
Rose-Hulman Institute of Technology (Terre Haute, Indiana)
The Ohio State University (Columbus, Ohio)
University of Alabama-Birmingham (Birmingham, Alabama)
Middle Georgia College (Cochran, Georgia)
Shorter College (Rome, Georgia)
Virginia Intermont College (Bristol, Virginia)
Tennessee Technological University (Cookeville, Tennessee)
Tusculum College (Greeneville, Tennessee)

That’s a list, y’all.

And it was a pretty natural list. I grew up in Hilliard, Florida, but my mother was raised in Coweta County, Georgia and her family settled all over the Atlanta area. My father was raised in Berea, Ohio, just outside of Cleveland, and my grandfather actually graduated with his Doctor of Dental Science from Ohio State, almost exactly sixty years before I got my Ph.D. from Ohio State. My uncle on Dad’s side went to Texas, and there are Pearsons in Ohio, Texas, and Florida – with others scattered about.

I love the Central Appalachians, and I moved to Tusculum very deliberately to return to this area. But I’m not from here. And what’s more, I don’t have a whole lot of experience with being from somewhere. Even that small town in Florida where I grew up was one that had a lot of families that spent their entire lives there. Even spending sixteen years of my life there, I never completely belonged, because I had a father who the Federal Government brought in to work at that air traffic control center in town.

That’s not a bad thing, but it’s not a good thing. It’s a thing. It’s a thing that has made leaving a lot easier, in my life, than it would be for a lot of others. And it’s made my emotions about places are lot more even-keeled than they otherwise would be (even though I can be a super-emotional man). But I see a lot of the lifelong relationships that people have in a small town, and the depth of investment, and I feel like I’ve missed something that is exceptionally special there.

It’s a thing I don’t think I know about a lot of my freshmen yet. I still remember the first Physical Science student who followed me – and I saw he was from Ware County, Georgia and hey I know where you’re from, man, and it ain’t near here! But that’s a reality of being at a place that recruits for the sports.

I wasn’t in for the sports. I just wasn’t connected to that small town, once upon a time, and that school in Indiana that wanted me around was all kinds of appealing (and I was choosing between the school in Indiana and – alternate history alert – the school in New Mexico. I wanted out of North Florida, y’all.) There was difficulty and awkwardness of all of a sudden being in this place where I knew nobody and it felt like they were all from more sophisticated places than Hilliard, Florida (they weren’t, but it felt like they were) and all kinds of adaptation was involved.

I think I’m going to keep telling that story as this fall goes forward, and I get to know a group of freshmen who are going through a version of what I went through, and what Dr. Ashley and Ms. Carter and Dr. Smith went through.

But right now, I want to know where are the freshmen of this place are from. Are they dealing with the challenges of all the family and friends being close enough to want you at home, or the challenges of having all your family and friends so far away?

Do they hope to have a list of places as long as mine is – or maybe even longer, or maybe from places farther afield than just “east of the Mississippi” – or do they hope to just have a short list of places around East Tennessee?

Part of the joy of doing what I do for a living is I get to hear these voices. Not polished voices, and not experienced voices. But voices with experiences of their own, and stories of their own to tell. I will never tire of hearing the stories.

[1] Y’know, I promised Bodary a chapter for this Voices of Tusculum thing. I think he’s still a bit salty at me that I didn’t deliver. Next year, man…

How a molecular biophysicist gets hyped for a solar eclipse

(1) Not well. Not well at all. I’m only posting one pre-eclipse post, and it’s less than 24 hours until peak eclipse in Greeneville, Tennessee.

(2) Of course, I might not even be making this post at all if I wasn’t teaching a physical science course to non-majors, and if I wasn’t making some early ideas on astronomy wasn’t a key part of the thing. Shout-out to #nsci105. I don’t even know if the youth says “shout-out” anymore.

(3) Of course, I kind of wanted to make such an eclipse post to be some sort of hot take about the pointlessness of eclipse glasses, and Lifehacker just straight-up stole that hot take from me.

I was in middle school the last time a major solar eclipse passed over my hometown. Some teachers supplied us with glasses and others helped us build viewers from cereal boxes, and we went outside for the big moment. It was okay, I guess. But when I got home, my mother told me how she saw the eclipse.

She told me that she stepped outside with her co-workers, and ended up sitting by a tree. And she noticed the shadow of its leaves on the ground. Everywhere there was a little gap between the leaves, each spot of light was in the same crescent shape as the eclipsed sun.

Curses to Gizmodo Media! Curses to them!

But dang it, everybody’s going to be having video of the Sun before the event happens in Tennessee AND after the event happens in Tennessee. There is one moon. There is one sun.

There are a ton of different trees around, and a ton of different shadow patterns possible. Diffraction of light with such a faraway light source that is being obstructed so completely will make for some wild shadows.

And uniqueness in the shadows EVERYWHERE.

Get you some pinhole camera action going and have some fun.

My favorite guide to pinhole camera construction is Emily Lakdawalla’s blogging for the Planetary Society, and CaLisa Lee’s video does the job super well too. Yeah, it’s targeted for kids. But I’ll do the same stuff too.

There are other sources for eclipse projection from the American Astronomical Society, the Jet Propulsion Laboratory, and good friends at the Upper Cumberland Regional Science Initiative. The Capital Weather Gang at the Washington Post wrote about this, too.

(Late addition: the alpha physics blogger, Chad Orzel of Union College in New York, also wrote a low-tech pinhole camera optics explainer. I’ll always link when Orzel explains something, even if I have to edit the post after the fact to do it.)

I’ve been joking that I’m going to go without eclipse glasses; that’s a lie, I’ll totally have a pair on me. But I am going to have a ton of small cards for pinhole cameras, and I’m going to have at least one surface for watching the shadows come through them.

(4) In addition, NASA has a little smartphone app I’m just learning about called Globe Explorer (part of “an international citizen science initiative to understand our global environment”), and they’re wanting data tomorrow during the eclipse. It can be as simple as taking pictures of clouds to recording reliable temperatures. But it’s accessible to all. If the idea of being a citizen data-recorder appeals to you, download the thing and join in.

(5) I’m not trying to get on the road and travel through eclipse traffic (however eclipse traffic proves to be) while my teaching load is slightly nutty. I’m staying in Greeneville, even though I’m not going to get 100% totality. I have dear friends at Pellissippi State (one dean in particular) who will be Tailgating in Totality, and my old colleagues at Tennessee Tech are throwing a full Totality Awesome Eclipse Fest. (Click through that page and you can see explanations from my department chair at Tech, Steve Robinson, who’s way better explaining this stuff than I am.)

I’m disappointing all my friends equally by staying put, which is maximum fairness for all concerned.

(6) But I am the Eclipse Expert for the Tusculum event (sponsored by the United Way of Greene County, thanks you guys) at Pioneer Stadium, starting at 2:00 PM. And, if NBC News is to be believed…

…I am personally contributing to, and even leading, a mass loss of productivity at Tusculum College.

If you’re in the neighborhood (and not driving pell-mell to reach totality), come be unproductive with me.

eclipse_at_tusculum

Starting to call time on Facebook

(Shared simultaneously to my Facebook news feed, and this will take a place atop that feed for the foreseeable future.)

So. I think it’s been apparent I’ve been starting the long goodbye to Facebook for a while. Let’s make it official.

I’ve been on FB for what clears eleven years at this point. It’s mostly been good. I’ve been able to reconnect to a host of people and engage in conversations with people across the country. The power behind any technology of this sort, to me, is the capacity to extend our human connections. There are points when, as I talked about this place in the past, I might have sounded very Zuckerberg-like when describing the power and potential of this thing.

I really don’t even think I need to tell you what’s changed about Facebook. Always and forever, I’m going to wish one and only one thing: that the people in charge of these wonderful social networks that have turned up over the course of the last decade haven’t largely sold out to Wall Street. Caring about stock value means you will do everything you can to jack up the advertising dollars and if that means that real, human engagement takes a back seat, so be it. That damage has been steady and ongoing.

I will tell you what has gradually changed for me, and what I honestly feel like has run its course: the broadcast mentality I’ve taken towards social media, and Facebook in particular. My friends network on this thing got large enough at one point that I was friends with people I didn’t genuinely know, and that didn’t want to get to know me. If you feel like what you say can have influence and be positive, well, hey, that’s good news. There was a spell when I could share a random news article and get 100 likes on it and get serious, thoughtful conversation going in the comments, with a level of depth that never reached flame war or trolling status. That engagement was always what I was most grateful for. That engagement only happens in the rarest of circumstances now.

And I honestly think that’s part of Facebook’s design, as they more and more actively serve in a news feed what you “want” to see and prevent you from having control. The effectiveness of my own sharing on Facebook has dropped off the map. There was a time when I’d share a thing on Facebook and Twitter and it would get hundreds of views from Facebook and tens of views from Twitter. That ratio has now completely flipped, as faithful friends on Twitter share and reshare my stuff and shares on Facebook fall into a black hole. When Twitter has always been more effective in putting my stuff in front of new people outside my circle of friends anyway, I look at Facebook putting the kibosh on my sharing even with my friends and say “y’know, you really don’t care about me; what’s the point?”

For now, the conversation is going to continue on Twitter. For now. I don’t even really feel like Twitter is a long-term solution (and this goes beyond the standard concerns about safety and harassment; for crying out loud, the service has been murmuring about pushing a monthly $99 subscription fee to boost “influencer” timelines; if that happens, they’ll kill their own golden goose and wreck the benefit I take from them besides). But it’s the solution right now that gives me a critical mass of people I’m talking to, and in many ways it’s been the social network that’s enabled the transformation of my scholarship and my professional life over the course of the past few years. I’m “having a think” (to steal Kate Bowles’ phrase) about Mastodon and conversation that’s more authentic. That may not even be a long-term solution either, although I’m as positive about Mastodon as I have been about any social media since that group of us at Shorter first got online in 2006. I’ve also turned up on Instagram and I’m sharing things every now and again over there, although my preferred mode of communication is words and not pictures. And chuckpearson.wordpress.com does exist and will get stuff posted to it from time to time; if ever there’s major news in my world, it will appear there.

(No, I’m not on Snapchat, and I still don’t see the point.)

And this is a slow goodbye. There are still a host of people I only see on this thing and nowhere else. There are quizbowl communities where Facebook is my primary mode of communication, so I won’t disappear entirely. I use Facebook Messenger extensively, and honestly at least that isn’t going to change for the foreseeable future. This profile will remain visible; things can be shared with me, I’ll still review, I may even comment on a thing you post every now and again; but the buffer has been shut down and the sharing of things on this profile page will be rare.

Nobody (but Facebook themselves) pushed me to this point. If you have any fear that you’ve offended me or put me out in any way, don’t. I’ve decided that the time I spend on Facebook can be better spent in other ways. That’s all.

Messages are still open; don’t ever hesitate to say “hi.” But I’ll be on your news feeds less and less for a while.

Famous Songs You’ve Never Heard #5 – Mr. Mister

Click through to hear tracks from the album and ordering information from richardpagemusic.com.

This is a (very long-term) series of posts on songs that are exceptionally obscure, and that even most serious music fans will never have heard and that deserve more exposure.

Of all the bands that could ever appear on such a list, Mr. Mister is a terribly unlikely name. Mr. Mister had one of the iconic albums of the 80’s, Welcome To The Real World, which spawned two #1 singles: the slow-dance standard “Broken Wings” and the positive-pop anthem “Kyrie”. And while Go On… didn’t sell anywhere near as many copies, it had an MTV-ready single (“Something Real”, which snuck onto the Billboard Top 30) and a standout movie’s title track (“Stand and Deliver”, also notable for appearing in a Hilliard Middle/Senior High School yearbook as a certain 1989 senior’s favorite song).

So “No Words To Say”, which turned out to be the first and only Mr. Mister song with lyrics by Richard Page alone, working without his longtime collaborator John Lang, is a Famous Song You’ve Never Heard because of the story of Mr. Mister’s follow-up to Go On….

If you were even aware that Go On… existed at all, you might be surprised by the existence of another Mr. Mister album. And you should be, unless you’ve paid the closest of attention. Because it was recorded. And then RCA never released it.


Andre Salles, of the Tuesday Morning 3 A.M. blog, wrote what’s in my mind the definitive ode to Mr. Mister’s late career seven years ago. His emotions about Go On… very neatly mirror my own; I’ve never lost my affection for the crisp opening tones of “Stand And Deliver”, for the yearning behind “Healing Waters” and “The Border”, for the unspoken stories in the textures of “Dust,” and for the determination in every word of “Something Real.”

But that story is comparatively known.

 The next part of the story – of Steve Farris’ departure, of the work the remaining three members did to work out a serious artistic step beyond Go On…, of the changes in the recording industry under the band’s feet, and of RCA’s ultimate rejection of the album breaking up the band, remained the stuff of fan rumor for the longest time. Salles even writes his own story of his exploration of that next step not by hearing an official release of Pull, the lost Mr. Mister album, but by tracking down and downloading bootleg copies of the songs that had leaked from RCA and been dubbed and redubbed.

The remastered and offical album was finally released in November 2010 on frontman Richard Page’s Little Dume Recordings, to the delight of die-hard fans and very few others. And ultimately, most observers – up to and including the members of the band themselves – understood why RCA didn’t hear a commercially viable album. The songs were much darker, from time to time they veered into pop/jazz fusion, and the lyrics were very challenging. Even the song the band called “son of Broken Wings”, “Waiting In My Dreams”, didn’t speak of hope but of hopelessness and loneliness, with the only outlet being the dreamlife – “when I close my eyes, you’re all I see…the only time you’re next to me.” The repeated “Kyrie Eleison” from Welcome To The Real World was a hopeful Greek prayer that any youth group leader could use; the lyrics of Pull’s “Lifetime” recalled Gabriel García Márquez’ Love In The Time Of Cholera, which (while hopeful over the long haul) didn’t get talked about near as much in church when I was growing up.

But the challenge is worth the reward, and like so much in the music industry in the 90’s, a label’s failure to hear the prospect of immediate sales robbed the musicians of a chance to share a fully realized piece of art with the world. There wasn’t a vision for how a unique album with a famous name behind it could find its audience. And how a uniquely challenging message could resonate.

And that message was needed, and still is needed.


 

Here is Richard Page, describing what he was attempting to convey with “No Words To Say”:

I’d collaborated with John Lang for years and years on lyrics, but that song was one of the first I’d took on myself to write. It was kind of a seminal moment for me. Plus, it was a recollection of my growing up in the deep South in the ’50s with the civil rights movement and all the chaos, from a kid’s point of view…

Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. was there in Montgomery, Alabama, and they were marching and it was in the news all the time. I played pop warner football with George Wallace, Jr. My best friend across the street – his father was rumored to be a high official in the KKK. White and black drinking fountains and restrooms and things like that.

And yet, we had a maid – a black woman – who was so beautiful and kind. My mother worked, and this woman was with me and my siblings all the time, she was part of the family. From a kid’s point of view, again, why would anybody hate anybody because of their color? But more importantly, why didn’t people who knew better speak out? That’s what I achieved as an adult, looking back – where were the adults going, “This is wrong, we have to change this”? There weren’t very many – of course there were a few – but that’s where the song came from.

And that’s not to say I’m above any of the accusations I’m throwing either. We all carry with us a lot of prejudices and they’re unconscious, many of them. And again, not rocking the boat is more important than getting the truth for a lot of us.

What’s striking about “No Words To Say”, beyond the stark and evocative lyrics, is Page’s phrasing of them. For somebody who’s been accused of having a vanilla voice and a bland pop sensibility, Page weaves these words through the song in a fashion that’s almost more reminiscent of spoken-word than singing:

There were those who know the tables would turn
Running out into the burning streets
And hoping to hear the words
Of a prophet or a sage who might come along
And straighten out the mess they had made
The injustice and cruelty by their own hands
Of the ones of another shade

Page hears a the sound of protest vividly, the language of the unheard – “growing sweeter and more murderous all at once” – and longs for one of the adults in his very white life to lead with integrity, instead of pretending like everything is OK and taking advantage of the benefits of their privilege. Too many lived their lives quietly, silently.

It doesn’t strike the ear like a first tentative effort at solo lyricism. It strikes the ear as a masterwork.

When I finally heard it for the first time in 2010, Pull offered closure – the conclusion of the progression that the path from Welcome To The Real World to Go On… marked. But the more I’ve listened to it, the more Pull has become its own entity, and an album I go to in its own right, its own work of art.

And the song “No Words To Say” has challenged me more and more with each passing year. It becomes clearer and clearer with each passing day that whatever progress we’d allowed ourselves to believe had been made in hearing every voice and giving value to every life was an illusion, that the positive steps that had been taken can just as easily be walked back. The ways of change continue to be peculiar. People are still trying to hide their eyes.

Richard Page, it turns out, spoke the prophetic words he wrote about. They are words we still need to hear, perhaps now more than ever. And the mess we have made will require a lifetime’s of work to straighten out.