Monthly Archives: June 2010

The truth and diamonds

The truth is precious.  So are diamonds.

Both can shine brilliantly, sparkling in the light to dazzle your eyes, making young couples blush with happiness and pride.  Like the truth, diamonds aren’t nearly as rare as their market value would indicate.  Both can be found with ease when you know where to look.  Every once in a while, someone stumbles on a massive diamond in the plain light of day, just one more rock in the landscape until a chance encounter sets it apart. No small amount of truth is discovered in the same way.  What sets these discoverers apart from the rest of us is as often as not luck.

The truth and diamonds leave two trails, one of bliss and hope, the other of blood and cruelty.  More banal than ironic, this is the way of the universe.  The same truth that turns a God of peace into a God of war also turns simple assumptions about fairness into human rights.

What happens when beauty and ugliness form a bond so tight that they become inseparable?  The trouble with the truth and diamonds is that they can lead you anywhere.  What really matters is where you want to go.

Notes and Credits

The opening photograph of the Hope Diamond is by Chip Clark, who passed away on June 12, 2010, away after 35 years as a photographer for the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History in Washington.  Mr. Clark’s beautiful photographs of gems, animals, birds, and other things can be found all over the web.

The Hope Diamond is surrounded by legend.  It seems that most who have possessed it have come to tragic ends.  It is currently owned by the United States of America and is on display at the Smithsonian.

The playing cards were photographed by the author, from a miniature travel deck for Patience (Solitaire) given to me in 1992 by Professor Raymond Grew, a mentor of mine in graduate school at the University of Michigan.

It should be noted that the truth also grows more precious with time, the simple truths of youth seeming to appear ever more complex and enduring as time goes along, much like the songs of Neil Diamond and just about everything touched by Johnny Cash.

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The truth and fearlessness

Macha Chmakoff, Daniel et l'ange dans la fosse

My God has sent his angel and closed the lions’ mouths so that they have not hurt me.

Daniel 6:23

Of those who are fearless, there two kinds:  the reckless and the serene.

The reckless attract more followers, for they are dashing and dramatic.  Yet that which is dramatic is also sloppy and careless.  The reckless laugh in the face of danger, but only because doing anything else would seem lifeless and limp.  The reckless cannot appreciate the little things, nor can they understand the subtle, warm moments in between danger, fear, excitement and ecstasy.  They see and feel only in extremes and abandon all judgment in between.  They search out life at the margins where few dare to go or dwell and in this they seem like heroes, but they are not.  Heroes can understand triumph in sadness, and they always know where they are.  The reckless, by comparison, are lost.

I—I can remember
Standing, by the wall
And the guns, shot above our heads
And we kissed, as though nothing could fall
And the shame, was on the other side
Oh we can beat them, for ever and ever
Then we could be heroes, just for one day

David Bowie, “Heroes” (1977)

Fearless Heroes

The serene can be heroes.  They know where they are and what they want.  They are motivated by the desire to do the right thing, and they do so regardless of the odds of success or failure.  They are not reckless because they endanger no one but themselves.  They accept the risk even as they try to minimize it because they are as simply human as the rest of us and they do fear death and pain and suffering.

Giotto, St. Francis Preaching to the Birds

Heroes who are fearless and serene become vessels for a love larger than they are.  They seek nothing from their actions but to be made even more whole in the act of giving to another.  St. Francis of Assisi—once a street brawler, solider, and libertine—found his calling in service to the poor and in love for the animals.  He became the friend of all those in harm’s way, the trampled upon, oppressed, and marginal.   The prayer of St. Francis puts all of this in simple verse.  We used to sing it in church when I was a child.

Lord, make me an instrument of your peace
where there is hatred, let me sow love
where there is injury, pardon
where there is doubt, faith
where there is despair, hope

where there is darkness, light
where there is sadness, joy.

O Master, grant that I may never seek
so much to be consoled as to console
to be understood, as to understand
to be loved, as to love
for it is in giving that we receive
it is in pardoning that we are pardoned
and it is in dying that we are born to Eternal Life.

Amen.

Modern Heroes

Padre Bruno Secchi and Pastora Rosa Marga Rothe—he a Catholic priest and she a Lutheran Minister—are both human rights workers in Brazil. I met them in 1992, as I was beginning fieldwork for research on social movements and politics.

Padre Bruno came to Brazil in 1964 and in 1970 founded the República of Emaús, a ministry with street children.  Emaús has just celebrated its 40th anniversary and is still going strong.  Padre Bruno’s work is dedicated to creating the space and opportunity for street children to grow into productive, happy people.  It is humble work, dedicated not to changing these children but to allowing them to find their potential and calling in life.  Emaús in Belem was a part of the worldwide movement that eventually resulted in the UN’s Convention on the Rights of the Child, which was ratified in 1989.  The CRC is a milestone on the path to a better world, appointing the rights of the child in the world we would like to have, not the world we know right now.

Rosa Marga I have written about already, in the Tamba-Tajá stories.  She teaches and practices liberation theology, the interpretation of Jesus’s life and works as a message of liberation for the oppressed and marginalized of the world.  She has been a leader in the women’s movement in Brazil and Belém.  From 1997 to 2005, she was the Ombudswoman for the State Police in Pará, responsible for representing and investigating claims against corruption, brutality, or human rights violations by the police.  In this position, she received international recognition.  She and her family took me in as a friend.  There is always much joy in her house.

Giotto, "St Francis Giving his Mantle to a Poor Man"

In 2004, along with my colleague Sasha Abramsky, I once again interviewed Padre Bruno and Rosa Marga for my work as a researcher.  Afterwards, I reflected on what I had learned from them over all these years.  I was struck by their constancy in the face of overwhelming odds.  They work for the small victories and see joy in every one, rather than the long road left.  Serenity, I thought, is what makes them so effective and compelling.  Without serenity, they would not be able to endure the suffering that their struggles have brought them personally.  Without serenity they would not be able to bring young people into adulthood with hope, promise, and love.

The theologian Reinhold Niebuhr wrote the “Serenity Prayer” at some point in the 1930s.  It has been widely adopted by many who struggle with changing themselves in a world that resists change.

God, give us grace to accept with serenity
the things that cannot be changed,
Courage to change the things
which should be changed,
and the Wisdom to distinguish
the one from the other.

What is remarkable about people like St. Francis, Padre Bruno, and Rev. Rosa Marga, is that the “wisdom to distinguish the one from the other” leads them to take on the most enduring and difficult challenges of all.  That is real heroism.

Notes and Credits

The opening image is “Daniel et l’ange dans la fosse” (“Daniel and the Angel in the Pit”) by Macha Chmakoff (www.chmakoff.com), a contemporary painter who has an extensive set of works in Biblical themes and images.  The original painting is oil on canvas, 52″ x 39″ (130 x 97 cm).  Ms. Chmakoff is a psychoanalyst and painter who has been exhibited across France and has gained international noteriety for her paintings.  The image was provided by Ms. Chmakoff and is used here with her permission.  She recently had a reproduction of one her paintings, “Jésus, souviens-toi de moi,” exhibited between the columns of the Église de la Madeleine, the magnificent Greek classical church in Paris.

David Bowie’s song “Heroes” was recorded in Berlin with Brian Eno, near the Berlin Wall. When guitarist Tony Visconti and backup singer Antonia Maass snuck away for a kiss near the wall, Bowie wrote them into the song and they became heroes.  The song is a masterpiece of experimentation that sounds so much less than experimental today.  Radical as it was in its day, it’s purely beautiful today, and its sentiment is timeless.

The images of “St. Francis Preaching to the Birds” and “St Francis Giving his Mantle to a Poor Man” are from the series of frescoes known as “The Legend of St. Francis,” which can be found in the Upper Church of the Basilica de San Francesco in Assisi, Italy.  The frescoes date from 1297-1300 and are usually attributed to Giotto de Bondone, though they may have been done by several painters.  These images are taken from The Atheneum, an organization devoted to making tools for art, scholarship and community-building available over the Web.  They encourage people to post photographic images of art from around the world and then make it possible for others to repost and use that art in ways that will bring it to others.

St. Francis’s ministry to animals and to the poor are radical and enduring parts of his ministry.  St. Francis is a constant reminder of the simple fearlessness in Jesus’s ministry.

A Note on Heroes, Villians, and Justice

Not all who are serene and fearless can be called heroes.  I have chosen to dedicate this post to the heroes, but I have to recognize that villains, too, can be fearless and serene.  In this way, they are like heroes, even though they are not.  Let me clarify.

Only those who work for the cause of justice are heroes.  There are others who are equally fearless and serene but who are concerned only for themselves, their narrow interests, and personal pleasures.  They are sociopaths.  Those sociopaths who intentionally harm others are the criminals of sensational accounts in films, television, books, and magazine.  They are rapists and serial killers and destroyers.  Some find a legitimate outlet for their urges in mercenary exploits, military conquest, dogma, and institutional authority.  These sociopaths are dangerous and horrible, but they are not numerous.

Far more pernicious are sociopaths whose violence is exerted at a distance under the cover of ideology and reason.  They kill without ever coming close to the trigger.  They command armies and industries.  They tell us we need them in order to live our own lives and that without them we would not have jobs or homes or food to put on the table.  They are serene.  They are fearless.  They are all around us and hidden in our midst.  “Sometimes Satan,” Bob Dylan sang, “comes as a man of peace.”

As for justice, there are many definitions, but I prefer to keep it simple.  That which reduces needless suffering and cruelty is just.  The definition of needless suffering and cruelty usually is apparent by sight alone, without words.  Once people start to bring words into play, the cause of justice is damaged.  This is a cruel irony for those of us who are writers and seek to paint beauty in words.

The Convention on the Rights of the Child is one of the UN’s landmark accomplishments.  It is a form of aspirational justice, more a signpost on the way to the world we would like to live in than a description of the world we have.  All member-nations of the UN have signed on to the CRC, except for two:  Somalia and the United States of America.  Serenity now.

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E/F – The glass of oil

There are jobs, and then there are jobs.

We built our world on petroleum, especially in the state I come from, Louisiana.  We power our cars and computers and houses with petrol and its funky little brother, natural gas.  Over the course of the long twentieth century, the automobile fueled explosive growth in the American economy and allowed people to spread out in endless suburbs that offered relief and tranquility compared with the noise and chaos of urban life.

Along the Gulf Coast and elsewhere, countless thousands of jobs are devoted to the exploration, drilling, refining, distributing, selling, purchasing, and using of petrol in its many forms.  We create our food with petrochemical fertilizers that rely on the abundant natural gas deposits found deep in the Gulf of Mexico along with oil.  The plastic bags we carry our food in are made of petroleum.  Cosmetics and personal lubricants are made of petrol.

Oil and other fossil fuels have made everything we know possible, from the things we use to the lifestyle of abundance that for some seems an American birthright.  We Americans are the people of the tar.

We eat the oil, and the oil eats us

Back in the 1970s, when gas prices shot through the roof because of the Arab Oil Embargo, the rest of the country went into a tailspin while Louisiana thrived on oil.  The construction of the New Orleans Superdome, opened in 1975, started a downtown building boom in New Orleans that reshaped the city before my eyes as I grew up. Then in the early 1980s, when oil prices fell as the country’s economy recovered, New Orleans and Louisiana went into a tailspin.  The oil companies moved their offices to Houston and drilling shut down as oil fell below $15 a barrel, the price at which it was no longer economical to produce oil in Louisiana.  As the oil money left, people lost jobs all over the state and everyone suffered.

Now, as the Deepwater Horizon blowout has become the world’s worst man-made environmental disaster, Americans face an impasse.  Do we follow Louisiana’s own politicians and call for more drilling?  These are the same politicians who along with other (mainly Republican) politicians around the country created an environment of contempt for business regulation that fueled a lawless world in the boardroom, on the factory floor, and in the marshes and mountains and wildlife prerserves.  Corporate lobbyists wrote environmental and workplace protection laws.  Our social world—our values and the values reflected by our government—made it the casual business of the day to celebrate the sub-prime mortgage market, overlook safety in coal mines, and build drilling rigs without proper blowout protection.  It was the time of our life and there wasn’t an American alive—left, right, or independent—who didn’t just love their IRAs, home equity, air conditioning, and cheap gas.

Un-natural disasters

Deepwater Horizon comes almost 5 years after the “natural” disaster of Hurricane Katrina, which continues to show us what can happen when the government abandons its people.  The Katrina disaster was neither inevitable nor natural.  It was a man-made disaster of the first degree, founded upon the same neglect and abdication of social responsibility that are at the core of America’s post-Reagan social contract.

Our world will change as the oil runs out, which it will do one day, sooner rather than later by current predictions.  How many disasters do we need to learn that all of us are made better by a government that provides social protections and guarantees against exploitation—of people, environments, and resources?  The BP oil disaster is our opportunity now for the national courage to get off oil.  Such a matter of fundamental change could be achieved only by a massive state-led effort akin to the New Deal.

For comparison’s sake, here’s The Deal We Got:  oil will kill us, either way.  It’s already started.  If it doesn’t kill us now, it will kill our children or grandchildren.  There’s no going back now on the damage oil has done and will do to Louisiana and the Gulf Coast at large.  Add one hurricane to it this year and it’s over.

Imagine

Can we just think about ending oil?  It doesn’t matter how realistic it seems.  It will hurt.  It hurts to stop any self-destructive addiction.  Yet while it’s going to hurt one way or another, it doesn’t hurt to dream a little.  Ask any hurting person.  Or these pelicans.  Why not …

… deploy the government’s resources to bail out the regular people of Louisiana who will lose their jobs in this tragedy? If it’s good enough for Goldman Sachs it’s good enough for the Bayou State.

… put the Army Corps of Engineers to work creating a levee system that channels the immense force of the Mississippi River to the restoration of the coast? The same government agency that corralled the river in the first place ought to be able to set it free.  Indeed, by cutting off the annual flood, the levees have helped erode the Louisiana wetlands at the rate of one acre per hour. Restoring the annual flood just might be the best way to combat the effects of the oil spill.

… cut our addiction to automobiles and airplanes by building railways—high speed and local—that can rely on wind, hydro, and other safer energy sources? Start with rails in Louisiana so that people there don’t have to buy gas and can still get to work. Put these guys to work at home and let them become a corps of railroad builders who can teach the rest of the nation how it’s done.

Imagine a permanent, federally funded project of restoring and then maintaining one of the world’s most vital and richest wetlands.  Call it real conservation and tip your hat to Teddy Roosevelt (the ex-Republican Bull Moose).  The point is that this is not just an oil spill.  It’s the big one, the wake-up call.  If the fear of losing jobs is what keeps people in Louisiana under the thumb of big oil, then let’s find them other jobs.  Are we slaves?

This isn’t rocket science.  It’s a matter of will.  We are the richest country on Earth, and we can do this if we want to.  While we’re at it, we can finally clean up the mess and set things to right from Katrina.  What America does shows the world—and more importantly, ourselves—what we really want and what we really care about.   What shall we do this time?

The glass

The glass is a champagne flute from Williams Sonoma.  I photographed it on the southern edge of the pond in Prospect Park, Brooklyn.  The pond is home to a lot of turtles.  Fish are stocked and then fished out by the people who live in the neighborhood.  Macy’s sponsors an annual fishing tournament in the park.  Swans, geese, ducks and other birds make the pond home, for at least part of the year.  Of late, there has been a series of mysterious animal deaths in the park, prompting outrage and concern by folks all over the city.  Comprehensive coverage of what started with an injury to John Boy the Swan, which later resulted in his death, can be found in Gothamist and in the Brooklyn Paper.  Video of John Boy can be found here.

Notes and Credits

All photographs are by the author, unless otherwise noted.

On the petrochemical sources of our food, no one has written more eloquently than Michael Pollan.  In his book, Omnivore’s Dilemma, he provides an accounting of the carbon footprint beneath the food we buy so cheaply in the supermarket, as well as the government policies that prop up the union of agribusiness and petroleum.

The sub-title, “We eat the oil and the oil eats us,” paraphrases the title of June Nash’s classic book about Bolivian tin miners, We Eat the Mines and the Mines Eat Us.  The book’s title comes from the way the miners talked about their relationship to the mines, mining, the mountains, and the tin companies that exploited them so ruthlessly.  Louisiana is like that, a place being eaten up by big companies who could care less about the local people apart from their willingness to work for low wages without union representation.  When I was a kid, we sometimes called New Orleans “The Tegucigalpa of the North.” It was sort of joke, just sort of.

On levees and their importance—I grew up about a half mile from the levee.  I used to play behind the levee every day in the batture, the swampy land between the levee and the river itself.  We played army and pirates behind the levee when we were little.  Then we smoked pot and made out.  When I was in college at Loyola University in New Orleans, I used to ride my bike from home (commuter student) to the college on the levee.  I wrote one of my best songs, “Down By the River,” about falling in love with a brown-eyed girl who gave me my first kiss on the levee.  It’s a bluegrass tune.

I took the satellite image of Hurricane Katrina from weather.com a few days before it made landfall.  I was holed up in Dallas, Texas, at my mother-in-law’s.  I happened to be there visiting, for reasons that had nothing at all to do with the storm.  My parents went to my brother’s place in Nacogdoches, Texas—now they were storm refugees and only went home at the end of October, after 2 months in Texas.  I kept that image of Katrina.  In my anger over the storm and the abandonment of New Orleans, I made it the wallpaper of my computer desktop, not changing it for a couple of years.

The battered house is where my father grew up in the 1940s and 50s.  It was on the corner of Lafaye and Frankfort Streets, which was in a new subdivision being made up near the shore of Lake Ponchatrain, where the Air Force had major installations during World War II.  My grandparents moved there after the war, once my grandfather— “Grumpy” as we called him—got home from the Pacific and took a job with the Postal Service, where he would work until his retirement.  I remember that house in the 1960s and early 70s.  I was all of 5 and everything was happy there.  Grumpy made ice cream in the back yard and told us funny stories.  He let us grandkids take a turn or two each on the hand-crank.  It was good ice cream.  The house is no longer there.

Environmental Impact Statement

None of the fish, turtles, geese, ducks, or swans that call Prospect Park home were endangered in any way by this photo shoot.  In place of oil, I used all-natural, unsulphered molasses, which has the look of oil but is quite sticky and tastes much better.

Molasses is a rather suitable substitute for oil in other ways as well, since it’s a Louisiana product that probably does much less damage than oil.  My grandparents grew up on sugar plantations up the river from New Orleans.  Grumpy used to tell us how they refined sugar from cane, every single step, including molasses.  He knew sugar.  Granny used molasses to sweeten the pecan pies she made every year with the nuts she gathered from the tree in her own backyard.  Molasses has been around for a long time without causing the epidemic of obesity that can be traced to high fructose corn syrup, which in turn can be traced be to the agricultural policies of the Nixon administration (will we ever run out Republicans in this story?), which in turn can be traced to petrochemical fertlizers and in the end:  oil, oil, oil.

The use of the first-person, plural possessive—we—in this essay is intentional.  We all own the oil spill.  The politicians who created the culture of disregard for public safety and environmental sustainability in business and corporate life are there because they received enough votes to win office.  The people who voted them in office did so for various reasons that Thomas Frank documents pretty well in What’s the Matter with Kansas and which for Louisiana are intricately related to the famed “Southern Strategy” that the Republican party adopted with Richard Nixon’s successful presidential campaign in 1968.  The race politics that underlay all of this are a tangled (yet quite simple) web that deserve another essay in their own right.  This is how America is, for whatever it’s worth.  Those of us who didn’t vote for these politicians, we’re also complicit.  We use the energy that comes from petrol.  We might want to laugh at Sarah Palin’s convoluted explanation of how environmentalists are really responsible for the Deepwater Horizon tragedy, but it’s our culture and we’ll keep driving to work every day, even if on a bus powered by gasoline or its funky little brother, “natural” gas.

We are the people of the tar.

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The truth and type-casting

There are two kinds of people:  those who follow and those who don’t.  Of followers, there are two kinds:  those who stay put, and those who go somewhere.  Of followers who go somewhere, there are two kinds:  those who are led and those who are pushed, the latter including those who fall in holes  whether pushed or not (go ask Alice).  Of followers who stay put, there are two kinds:  those who stay in a place, and those who stay in a particular frame of mind.

Of those who do not follow, there are three kinds:  poets, prophets, and migrants.  Of poets, it is said that they show us who we are.  Of prophets, it is said that they show us who we should be.  Of migrants, it is said they show us where to go next.

Poets, prophets, and migrants are called.  They do not choose who they are, and mistakes can be made when callings are crossed, whether by the one who is called or by those doing the calling.  When poets are mistaken for prophets, everyone is deceived.  Cults are formed and lives are wasted.

There’s a whole lot of people in trouble tonight from the disease of conceit
Whole lot of people seeing double tonight from the disease of conceit
Give you delusions of grandeur and an evil eye
Give you the idea that you’re too good to die
Then they bury you from your head to your feet
From the disease of conceit.

Bob Dylan, “Disease of Conceit”

Prophets are rarely mistaken for poets, but when they are, they are generally neither and the poetry is awful.  Though it is nearly impossible for a poet to be a prophet, either might be a migrant, whether on land, in dreams, or of the mind.

Leadership is an attribute given by those who follow to someone else, who may or not be the kind of person who follows.  The truth is—leadership has nothing to do with being a follower or not.  In the end, perhaps there really are only two kinds of people:  those who do well when type-cast, and those who only begin to thrive when cast against type.

Notes and Credits

The photos were all taken by the author in the neighborhood of Park Slope, Brooklyn, in 2008, 2009, and 2010.  The first is a photo of an art project my son did in the first grade (2009), drawing the human form.  The second is the tunnel at the northwestern entrance of Prospect Park.  The third is a garden scultpure in front of a house on 2nd Street, near the corner with Prospect Park West.

Bob Dylan was called to be a poet, but the people who loved him wanted him to be a prophet.  It cost him, and some of those loved him, twenty years. After years of reflection, Dylan wrote that by the mid-1980s “[e]verything was smashed.  My own songs had become strangers to me. I didn’t have the skill to touch their raw nerves, couldn’t penetrate the surfaces.  It wasn’t my moment of history any more.  I couldn’t wait to retire and fold the tent”—Chronicles, Vol. One (Simon and Schuster, 2004), p. 148.

Dylan wrote “Disease of Conceit,” in 1987 as he began to explore a new musical identity more aligned with his own sense of self and his mission as an artist. The song would be the eighth track on Oh Mercy, the album that set him on the path to redeeming his career with a whole new audience by the mid-1990s.  In the fall of 1989, I saw him perform at Hill Auditorium on the University of Michigan Campus in Ann Arbor.  It was the third show of his I had seen at that point in my life and by far the best.  Toward the end of the show – as either the closing song or the last encore – he brought down the house with “Disease of Conceit.”  The poetry was breathtaking.

As for those who fall down holes …

Alice on the toad-stool, Central Park, New York, December 20, 2009

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