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Don White’s Memoirs of a C Student

I caught the end of an interview with Don White on Matt Watroba’s music program, Folks Like Us. Although I don’t usually do this, I found his website right after the show, and ordered his book. It would be hard for anyone to create a pleasant surprise after evoking so much enthusiasm to begin with, but this author, folksinger and stand-up comic pulled it off.

White stands up for the human spirit against the idiocy it sometimes confronts, with beauty that can make you smile through tears, and hilariously funny portrayals of the ludicrous. He shares personal experiences, communicating as much sense of reality as I’ve seen anywhere. His frankness and humor about his own difficulties prevent the greatness of his art and outlook from overwhelming the sense of human commonality from which it stems.

The author tells how he deliberately chose to call himself a folksinger – rather than use trendier terms like ‘singer-songwriter’, ‘acoustic’ or ‘alternative’ musician – in order to keep his rowdy friends from coming and disrupting the tea-sipping coffee house audiences. Stories of childhood escapades (how he jumped off a freight train and then hid while three tough kids cycled by) let you share those adventures – now that they’re past – from the comfort of your living room. Vivid scenes bring you into his life as a husband, father and day-laborer, working to support his family while making music.

If there was one passage I especially appreciated, it was his fictional description of a TV personality named “Dr. Joe”:

I was channel surfing yesterday when I inadvertently clicked into the Dr. Joe show. Dr. Joe, for those of you who are unfamiliar, is a bald, fat, preachy psychologist who specializes in issues that affect the family. A few years ago, seeing the success that reality TV was facing, he put together a daytime television program that brilliantly combined the most popular aspects of reality T.V. and the Oprah Winfrey Show.

The result was a program that filmed people in their homes and then got those people to view their lives before a studio and a television audience. Dr. Joe would then chastise his guests for their behavior, make them cry, give them advice and get them to promise to evolve into better people. It was an unbeatable ratings formula. It was pure television gold, an instant hit, and must-see for millions of conscientious parents. 1.

White puts in a caveat that Dr. Joe, despite his obnoxious qualities, is always right. This allows the author to act like Shakespeare, and slip his own views into the mouth of his character. Two young parents are guests on the show. It seems they had been a song-writing guitar player and a painter, but sacrificed their art to devote themselves to their children. Being modern disciplinarians, they eschewed spanking or frightening them; instead they gave them ‘time outs’. They expected that children – who don’t know one time from another – would use these intervals to think their way into better behavior. However, as the footage reveals, that didn’t happen.

Dr. Joe berates the couple for all of this well-intentioned but troubled parenting. Once they are totally devastated and heartbroken, he knows he has to put them back together because greatness in the mediocre world of television is gauged by overcoming adversity – even if that adversity is manufactured deliberately so that it might later be overcome for the sake of the ratings. He tells them,

“John and Mary, I know this has been hard for you. You’ve been very courageous to come here and talk to America about the challenges facing your family, and I want to thank you sincerely for that...

“Things look bad now but I’ve got to tell you that I think you two are uniquely positioned to turn this around because, unlike most people in the world, you both know what you love to do. Most people never even allow themselves to think about what they love. But you know that you love writing songs and playing guitar, and you know that you love to paint...” 2

The doctor now comes up with a formula for successful parenting; they should each spend half an hour each day on music or art. This half hour of creativity will pass itself on to the children by example. He then looks at the camera and adds:

Those of you who dabble in, or used to dabble in an expressive art form of any kind, I encourage you to do it....Use it as a refuge...The least that will happen is that you will be the one person in a thousand that stays connected to his or her creative voice. And maybe, somewhere along the line, you – or even better, one of your children – might just be the one person in a situation who can articulate and, in so doing, capture with love and compassion, and contribute to the tribe, the poetry of a beautiful moment in time.

We’ll be back after this short commercial break to discuss tomorrow’s show, where we’ll sit down with Mr. and Mrs. Wellstone of Kansas and their fifteen year old daughter who is addicted to crack and having a sexual relationship with her stepfather. Don’t go away.” 3

I found this passage especially serependipitous because, a few days earlier, I’d caught an actual TV show whose host displayed an M.O much like that of the fictional “Dr. Joe”. I’d ranted to a friend about the way he ‘benevolently’ bullied some vulnerable people who had the nerve to respond with authenticity to prepackaged concepts of what was good for them.. In discussing them with a colleague on camera, “Dr. Joe”‘s counterpart showed the respect, I felt, that a kid on the street might show an orange peel under his shoe.

It was wonderful to see that someone else had a similar perception, and put it (along with some very beautiful moments) into print. The encouragement for creativity is something we can all appreciate In a more nurturing world it would find much wider expression. This segment is placed in the center of a story about a lady who is near death, dancing with her friends and family, in what people present see as a light around her. The author put it into a song.

In a way, Don White reminds me of Rembrandt, whose paintings and prints expressed such a real but affirming view of the humanity we all share. A grass roots quality comes through in these stories, as it does in Rembrandt’s portraits.

I have only two gripes. (Well, two and a half. I would quibble with his “research” conclusion that eager obedience to authority within ideological subcultures characterized the attitudes of young Americans in the 1950’s. Ideological subcultures were definitely there, but obedience? I don’t think our parents, teachers, camp counselors, club leaders and other adults blessed with dealing with us would have agreed!)

Apart from that, my only two complaints are that he says he’ll never do this again, and that the book isn’t yet available in Borders. I can see why he won’t do it again – no one could hand readers his life more than once. However, if there are more stories, I know people will want to read them, and I hope we all get the chance. As to Borders, I’ve already told them what I think they’re missing. This is a book that should be on every shelf.

1 Don White, Memoirs of a C Student (Lynn, MA: Barry Park Press, 2006), 57.
2 White, 65.
3 White, 67.

Edna Garte is Professor of Humanities at Oakland Community College, Auburn Hills, MI. Frugalfun posted her article, “The Prophet Elijah, Earl Robinson and the Iraq War” in September, ’06. She is also published by the National Gallery of Art, Gazette des Beaux Arts, Journal of American Indian Education and Jewish Quarterly Review.

© Edna Garte 2006

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