Alan Pagliere

Alan Pagliere
webmaster, Citizens for Responsible Schools; pedal steel guitar player, Cadillac Cowboys

Tottered on: 20 March 2006
Temperature: 34 F
Ceiling: mostly cloudy
Ground: moist
Wind: ENE at 12 mph

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TT with HD: Alan Pagliere

AP: I haven't been on one of these in a long time. You just sort of go for it, don't you?

HD: Yeah, you just go for it by feel. I've found it doesn't really pay to measure out the distance and weigh people beforehand.

AP: Oh, yeah, right. There's Archimedes and then there's seat-of-the-pants.

HD: So while you were out of the country recently, there was this spoof website of the Ann Arbor Public Schools that appeared. And I reasoned, since I knew for a fact that you were out of the country, that it was not you who had launched the site, even though there was plenty of evidence suggesting that it was the same person who maintained the website for Citizens for Responsible Schools [], which is you. So I was willing wager a bag of M & M's that it was not the same person. But lo and behold, it turns out it's the same person.

AP: Yeah. Well, sorry about that.

HD: Minimal cost. A bag of M & M's. And it doesn't look like the winner of the wager is even going to try to collect. Which is fine. I just wanted to ask you about the timing of the website launch. It doesn't seem like it was the smartest play to go out of the country ...?

AP: Absolutely. Absolutely not the smartest move.

HD: So I take it the out-of-country family visit was scheduled long in advance?

AP: I've been going every year now and it's always around this time. I like to go there during their summer.

HD: This is Argentina?

AP: This is Argentina, my family is in Buenos Aires. I visited my 95-year-old aunt, lots of cousins. Anyway, no. The two things were completely unconnected, as are lots of aspects of my life. I scheduled the trip based on when I could get away from work and it'd still be summer, and when my family was going to be in town, and when they were not going to be in town. The website, which I think I registered in late January or early February, I completely didn't expect ... people to be hitting hit until much later. But it never occurred to me, it never occurred to me, that there was going to be this big splash. I thought there were going to be only a few hits here and there. A few giggles, a few chuckles and that's about it. So I was very surprised when it made a big splash. And was kind of, I don't know, what's the word, disappointed, that it happened while I was away. Because it was pretty much impossible to manage. I was always behind the curve, trying to manage the buzz and trying to manage changes to the site.

HD: Did you talk about it with your 95-year old aunt? Did you explain to her what you'd been up to?

AP: I did not. In fact, I didn't mention it to any of my relatives, well, maybe just one, that I was in the middle of this. It was hard to find time to make the phone calls necessary. And it was impossible to find the technical tools I needed: I'd set the site up using Dreamweaver, but I couldn't get a copy of Dreamweaver down there. It was hard enough just to find a computer ...

HD: So if you'd known that it was going to make the kind of splash that it did, other than making sure that you released it with appropriate timing, is there anything else you would have done differently?

AP: Yeah! And these are the things that I would have changed on a dime had I been here. The things that were the most obviously objectionable from the point of view of the complaints of the school district and the complaints of the lawyers. Things about copyright infringement ...

HD: ... use of images ...?

AP: Right. Those are things that arguably, people do argue about them, Is it a copyright infringement, if you use it in parody? So that whole argument could be pushed to its limits, but that didn't need to be pushed to its limits ...

HD: ... so from a practical point of view you could have just said, Okay if they send me a cease-and-desist letter, then the easiest thing to do is just to change some of the graphics around ...

AP: ... exactly. And it would have been so easy. And I would have left the site up probably, probably ...

HD: And just to be clear, it's down now, right? The last time I checked, it's a placeholder page?

AP: Yeah, I even cancelled the domain name. It wasn't that I just parked an empty page there. I could have done that at any time. So yeah, that's basically it. I was sorry that it happened while I wasn't here.

HD: So this wasn't a sort of part of a larger strategy to launch a candidate for the school board?

AP: Oh, heavens, no.

HD: Why not?

AP: Why not? Well, it was supposed to be fun. It was about parody and nothing else. Had it been a part of an obvious campaign or something like that, it would have lost its completely, what I thought was, it's more or less jovial aspect. So, since I'm the webmaster of the other site [Citizens for Responsible Schools] and have had involvement with banging away at some of the serious issues and serious discussions thereof, that was all background. And this was sort of a light-hearted way of approaching ...

HD: ... a poke in the ribs?

AP: A poke in the ribs, right. And also having been inspired by the Yes Men. I don't know if you're familiar with the Yes Men?

HD: Ahhh ... there was a documentary called um ...

AP: ... called The Yes Men!

HD: Yeeaaah, United Nations, or something?

AP: Right. One of the things they did was impersonate the WTO. They had a website and people would invite them to conferences and they would go. And they'd be interviewed on the BBC ...

HD: ... okay, it's coming back to me ... the guy with the inflatable suit, or the part of the suit that inflated?

AP: Yes. And all these serious people, took them seriously. And their most recent thing was the Union Carbide, Dow fiasco. On the 20th anniversary of Bhopal, they came out [as Union Carbide] and said that they were selling off the Union Carbide side of things for 12 billion dollars. And were going to give the funds directly to the victims, because they fully accepted responsibility. And this was in an interview with the BBC.

HD: Wow. And no one was skeptical?

AP: Well, some people were skeptical. But everyone was, Wow, what an amazing thing! They found some conscience somewhere in there in doing this!

HD: They're doing 'social good' like other companies we know!

AP: So then, they put the company in the very difficult position of having to say ...

HD: ... no, no, no that's not us, we're absolutely not doing that!

AP: So anyway, they're coming to town, by the way, on April 6th.

HD: The Yes Men?

AP: The Yes Men will be in town as part of the Penny Stamps Series, sponsored by the A & D School [Art and Design]. I think at 5 o'clock at the Michigan Theater. Going back, I was inspired by a concept that the Yes Men call 'identity correction'. Rather than 'identity theft' it's 'identity correction': speaking fully honestly, instead of disingenuously about one's motives. Taking on the persona and speaking that way. So I tried that and that was the idea.

HD: One specific aspect of the spoof site that really fit that description of identity correction, was the bit about the rules for public ...

AP: ... public commentary?

HD: Yeah, because I read the parody version and I thought, Well, that's a little nuts to set things up that way. But when you go and read the authentic site's description, it's not far off, with just some of the more absurd possible consequences missing! There wasn't a whole lot of tweaking necessary.

AP: Right. Well, so many people spoke at so many of those board meetings and the most you can get is three minutes ...

HD: ... I think it's four actually ...

AP: ... no, it's three .... hmm, wait, oh, at City Council meetings, it's three? Hmm.

HD: I think it's four for school board, but that's the maximum. You could get less.

AP: Yes, if there's lots of people speaking you could get all of 17 seconds!

HD: Yes, there's math involved, you have to perform division in order to calculate your allotted time. So are you going to be showing up to the next meeting which is this coming Wednesday, the 22nd of March?

AP: I wonder. I've missed the last several, because I was away. I don't know if I can. I may be going to the Film Festival.

HD: Is there anything you're keen on seeing in particular?

AP: No, I don't really know much about it. I've been very involved in it the last couple of years. Helping even to do the installations and so forth. But this year I've been very far away from it, so I don't even know what's coming up.

HD: There's one called B.I.K.E. that looks kind of interesting to me. But back to the school board meetings and school board stuff in general. Is anybody from Citizens for Responsible Schools thinking of filing a write-in candidacy, which is the only option at this point?

AP: There's been talk about that, I guess. There was more talk about it last time last year.

HD: But no one's actually done it yet. I called the Clerk's Office this morning and they said no one had filed as a write-in.

AP: No, I think part of it is just what an awful job it would be. I mean, if I were to even consider it, and I'm certainly not, it's really more a matter of the time drain than anything else. I think it would probably be great to be involved. And it'd be great to be able to go in there and ask the questions that these people never ever ask of their hired experts. But I can't do it. I already have too many competing interests.

HD: So who on the board right now would you point to as a voice of reason, as some one, or ones, that a new board member should look forward to working with?

AP: I think that Susan Baskett has brought up issues and asked questions in a reasonable way. And I would like to think, even from conversations I've had with some of the board members, I'd like to think that they were reasonable. I know they are intelligent. And I think they're probably great at what they do in their day jobs. But when it comes to managing, which is essentially what their role is, supposedly, managing the superintendent and the administration somehow, they don't seem to ask questions about accountability and things that just don't sound right.

HD: You mentioned the superintendent. He's leaving, which is too bad, given that we were assuming he was going to be around for the medium-term if not the long-term. The actual school system website has a survey meant to solicit public input for the selection process for the new superintendent. I assume they'll have other mechanisms as well for gathering public input. But it's a pretty simple survey, and I thought I'd throw some of the questions on that survey at you.

AP: Oh!

HD: The first question is 'What do you feel are the best qualities of your school system?'

AP: I would say, from having a son who graduated from Pioneer, in my experience, it's the individual teacher on the ground. And like in all things, you hit good ones and you hit bad ones.

HD: And your son hit a lot of good ones?

AP: He hit, I think, a reasonable number of good ones. I don't know really percentage-wise. I remember a couple of bad ones in particular that he was not happy with. And part of going through school is managing to deal with people you don't like, people who have control over you. I mean, seriously, it's part of 'social learning' or whatever.

HD: Sure.

AP: But he had some especially great teachers. I think every adult remembers one or two teachers, who sort of influenced them on the way up, who was like this shining person. Everyone should hopefully have at least one of those in their past. And I know who it was for my son. It was Jim Robert, who, I think, is that person to a lot of people.

HD: What does he teach?

AP: He teaches philosophy among other things. ... So anyway, to answer the question, I think it's that individual on the ground doing incredible things with the little that society gives them, in terms of actual resources and respect, that makes the world go round.

HD: Let's see, well this next question here is, I think, almost impossible for a lay person to even begin to answer: 'Looking at public education over the next five years, and your current district structure as well as area demographics, what issues will your district face that could impact the educational programs for children?'

AP: Oh god! That is a very ...

HD: ... it's a wonkish kind of question, really.

AP: Yeah, it's a strange question to be asking of everybody in the district, ... but there are a couple of things that strike me. Whenever you go to a website now, and you see all the FAQ's. They're not really frequently asked questions. The answers are the things that people want to give you. They give you these answers and they make up the questions as if they'd had lots of them. I think a lot of these questions sound like that. And a lot of these surveys sound like that. They're driving towards an answer. This particular question is, perhaps, a bit of an exception, because who knows what kind of answers people are going to give! But it seems to me, if I can even remember what the question was, that the issues they face are: running the school district in terms of actual money [operating, not just constructing, the new high school]. And another is demographics. One of the main three issues that came up about the new high school in the very very beginning was demographics. That the school should not have been built there, not only because everybody wanted a green belt and they had 60 plus acres clear-cut. But also because it's in the richest part of town, and the growth and the need for a new high school is not there, but in the south east. But because they owned the land, they thought it just easier to just use it, rather than use some leadership and say: You know what, we should sell the land, because everybody really does want a green belt; a lot more people voted for that than voted for this school, when we didn't even put the site on the ballot language; and so, because we're forward-looking people, we're going to put the school where it's needed; and we're going to do whatever it takes to get it there. No, they didn't do that. So that's demographics. I think that those demographic issues are obviously going to play a part.

HD: But for this school, I mean that ship has sailed. It's not realistic to think ...

AP: Right, the forest has been cut down now. The 'environmentally-friendly' school is going to be built on that land where the forest used to be. It's all happening.

HD: Well, the irony is rich at least. One issue that I would think is going to be confronting school systems in general, and maybe that's not what they meant by this question, but it's more of an educational issue as opposed to an administrative one. What made me think of this, actually, were Mary Sue Coleman's comments in her welcoming address to this recent symposium sponsored by the U of M on library digitization projects. One of her laugh lines had to do with the idea that young people are so good a doing web searches that they don't know any other way to work. And I thought well, that's not funny, that's a shame, really. And rather than serving as a laugh line I thought it maybe should serve as an occasion to give pause and ask, Is that what an education is becoming, the execution of a web search? In the context of all of this information that's being organized into electronic form, what does an education mean anymore in that context?

AP: I often think that the general principles that people live by haven't changed in eons. But the trappings have. And the trappings are, you have a question about a fact, you have a doubt about any piece of information, then you can find it easier than in the past than when you had to go to the library and find an encyclopedia and look things up. But facts themselves aren't much of anything. Education to me means a higher level of putting them together. I mean it's the old, Data isn't Information, Information isn't Knowledge, Knowledge isn't Intelligence, and Intelligence isn't Wisdom. At each of those levels there's a bringing together of the things on the level below that. So just having tons of facts means nothing about how educated you are. Because we can gather facts more easily doesn't say anything about education. It just says something about fact gathering. And so I don't think that the principle of how you teach someone changes all that much: Here are the facts and let's put them together and try to process it and think. And eventually, you start approaching things like intelligence and wisdom. And to me I don't care whether the information comes out of a search engine or an encyclopedia. But one thing I've often thought about, and this is just a very minor minor point, is that there should be classes about how to properly look things up on the web. You have to properly set up your interlocking Venn diagram circles, so that you pinpoint different connotations of words an so on. I don't know if people are teaching that, but they should, just like they used to teach how to find things at your local library.

HD: So back to this spoof website. As best I can gather it was a kind of creative outlet for you in some ways at least?

AP: Creative outlet? ... I don't know ...

HD: Well I'm going to say it was a creative act and you did it, so ...

AP: Okay, well then it was a creative outlet. But I like humor. I think of it as more than just a way of passing the time. Humor is often based on surprise or just a different perspective. And it's always good to get different perspectives on things. So humor, to me, can be that. So I guess, in sort of figurative way, that's true of that.

HD: Well, I just wanted to use that to launch into creative outlets in general. And you have several. The one I'm thinking of is that you play the pedal steel guitar. I actually have a CD that you play on by Corndaddy [].

AP: Oh, yeah yeah yeah. Right. I played with that band for a few years.

HD: I was just wondering if you have a favorite tune off that Corndaddy album?

AP: It's the first Corndaddy album?

HD: Yeah .

AP: I'm trying to remember now ...

HD: Sleeping outside Omaha ...

AP: Oh, I do like that one, because of the sort of haunting reverb on that one, very nice.

HD: Landfill Mountain?

AP: No, that's not a favorite. I sort of had trouble coming up with things for that one. I like the song. I just didn't feel particularly creative on that one. And then, of course, I think it ends with Trying to Say, is that the one? A big, loud kind of raucous tune. That was good, because it got me out a little bit. I tend to be a little shy about my playing. So that was useful!

HD: How long have you been playing the pedal steel guitar?

AP: I bought my first one thirty years ago, almost thirty one years ago. In '75 when I was in college.

HD: How old an instrument is that, actually? I mean they weren't around in Beethoven's era, right?

AP: No, no, no. They came a little later. They kind of evolved out of the dobro and the Hawaiian guitar and all that kind of thing. At some point someone decided to electrify a steel guitar. And probably someone decided, in the late 40's, I don't know exactly, someone decided to put pedals on it, to change the tunings of certain strings ...

HD: ... that was a question I had, What do the pedals do? It's different from what piano pedals do?

AP: Yes. More like a, a classical harp, which, you hit a pedal and a set of strings will actually rise in pitch. So you've changed the tuning. The thing is, they hit the pedal and play. The pedal steel is used in such a way where the pedals are part of ... there's very little difference in sliding the bar up and down and hitting a pedal. There's a constant pitch change from point one to another, but different pedals ... and knee levers also ... will raise and lower different strings. People in the early days of the pedal steel would actually do that: hit a pedal, have a new tuning, and then play. So instead of carrying around two or three necks with different tunings like they used to, they'd hit a pedal and play and it'd be a different tuning. And then sometime in the mid 50's on a song by Webb Pierce, a guy named Bud Isaacs actually picked a string and hit the pedal, and the pitch changed while he was doing that and every ....

HD: ... everybody went, Ooooooooooh!

AP: Everybody went, Ooooooooooh! And so that's when pedal steel really started going and then it took probably a couple more decades for the main tunings and pedal setups to be hammered out, the standard ones. Now there are one or two standard tunings. And people usually have a couple of extra pedals or knee levers to do their own, you know, the 'lick of the month' or whatever.

HD: So you're still playing with Cadillac Cowboys []?

AP: Oh yeah, we played just on Friday.

HD: Where did you play?

AP: At the Cavern Club. We'll be there again in the next two months. For Happy Hour.

HD: How'd it go?

AP: It was good, it was packed.

HD: What's the demographic there? I was at the Blind Pig recently, and discovered that I was the oldest person there by like 20 years.

AP: Oh, well, then you need to come to one of our gigs! Just to give you sort of an idea, when I joined the band, when I moved to town in 1978, they were already in progress. They had been playing together since 1974 or something like that. And mostly at Mr. Flood's Party ... it was where the West End Grill is now. It was an amazing place, music pretty much every night. We were pretty much the standard Friday Happy Hour band and so we played every Friday afternoon and had a regular crowd.

HD: How often do you get together to rehearse?

AP: Back in those days every gig was a rehearsal. Nowadays we probably get together once or twice before each gig. It's very loose. It's always been very loose, that's just the way it is ... we've been playing together so long that we can remember arrangements, or sometimes we don't, I guess! As we're getting older ... and it's always a tradeoff between wanting to practice and get the music tight and people's lives ...

HD: Do you listen to any local music? Beyond the music you're making, are you tapped into the general local music scene at all?

AP: Actually, sometime back in the 80's, we were playing only once a year maybe. So my steel playing just went to hell and it's never fully recovered. That whole decade for me musically as a musician was lost because I was raising a kid and I didn't have time for music. So mostly my listening nowadays is mostly still old stuff. I've been listening to a lot of jazz lately. I want to play a lot more jazz on the steel. I've been listening to a lot of tango.

HD: Yeah, tango is enjoying some sort of weird popularity, like fad right now here in the States. You were just in Argentina ..

AP: ... it's a a different deal down there. It's definitely grown in popularity in the last five to ten years. If you go to any kind of gathering ... any kind of dance, you see people of all ages. You see a 15-year old guy dancing with a grandmother. You'll see old people, young people, everybody who's into tango.

HD: Is there any awareness that in the US, the tango in enjoying this huge popularity now?

AP: I think most Argentineans are not particularly interested in tango. Like a lot of Americans you run into couldn't care less about country music. But of those who do, yeah, I think they're aware of what's going on. There's a lot more bands. There's a lot more younger bands. Even though the old timers are still around. ... And they know that America is big on it and that Finland is big on it.

HD: Finland?

AP: Supposedly. I don't know, but I think I heard somewhere that other than Argentina it's the country to be in for tango ...

HD: Well, I know you've got to get back to work at some point. So I want to wrap things up and take your picture, and I'll get you on your way.