Category Archives: death

The truth and reconciliation

image

My body is not one. It has shown itself now to be a collection of minor beings struggling to work together without really knowing how. I felt them begin to pull apart, these pieces of me, my own free floating awareness pitting me as an observer against my-selves. As I lay in convalescence after the harrowing break, with the black rock of my own death still cold in my hands, I ask again and again, “how did this happen?”

How and indeed why – the questions come and go like Prufrock’s ladies sometimes louder than before, sometimes softer, always there at least somewhere in the background. The science is clear even where it is ambiguous. The autoimmune disease turns my best defender against me. Now my oh-so-powerful body attacks me. It cannot tell the difference between me and my enemies. It attacks with full force like a mad dog that doesn’t know what it’s doing and can only lash out, because that is now the nature of its being.

My body is not one. A beast lies within, ready to attack at some semi-random moment when something wakes it up. The beast wasn’t always so. It was my friend in older times, defended me against the world and kept me safe, until something flipped and everything changed. A gene was switched, some of the doctors will say. Something triggered it like too much stress, spicy food, or alcohol. It feels like possession, like something outside stepped in and captured this part of me and turned it rogue, like a son who attacks his father because in his greed and hubris he cannot be who he was born to be. It feels angry within me; it has something to say, only it has no words and can only attack what it cannot understand.

My body is not one. It is not what it was. After the attack, this time, they had to cut away a big piece, and what was once complete and then quite sick is no longer there. It was cut out by carefully trained hands, that piece of my body turned against me by the beast. It was cut away to stop the harm, a piece of death arrested, excised, and placed into a bin for further study, when the doctors will try to figure out why and how. With the diseased part of me gone now, they say I’ll be able to start over. With the resection went the larger risks, some of the cancer prospect, and the places where the beast fed on my life itself.

My body is not one. It will never be one again, even when I get better. I will have to care for the beast and love it surely as one loves the rogue son – for he is mine and I cannot deny him. I must forgive the wrongs and find a new way to love myself and my-selves, believing in a kind of healing I’ve never imagined before. The doctors have cleaned up the mess and put the beast in a box. I’m being redrawn and reconnected, like the overhaul of plumbing in an old house, a renovation in flesh and blood.

My body is not one. Part of it has died, part of it is new, part is restored, part must be contained. What did the doctors see when they began the renovation? Maybe that’s not even a question they ask. They just do their best and move on, repairing harm and ending suffering. Is it up to me to see what I need to see? The doctors came back and told me that I was young even though I felt old, that I was healthy even though I felt sick, that I was already getting better even though I was racked with pain and doubt.

My body is not one. Yet all must be reconciled. It cannot just be contained. It cannot be a regime of toleration. We cannot agree to disagree, play nice, share the sandbox. We must transcend that which divides to form a new self even while the rest of our clamoring selves continue their cantankerous dialogue down beneath. I read the letters of Saint Paul to myself over and over again, on building a church of love from disparate groups and individuals who want to belong together. Saint Paul comes to us with words soothing and stern, asking us to let love be our guide, the same self-sacrificing love shown to us by the Savior – for us to enact in our own lives until we return to Him and are one again.

Can my body be one? I have to ask even though I suspect it will always be at the very least a balancing act between reality and desire. Every day will be a challenge to keep my-selves together in a common vision of who we are. It will be time and sweat and hard work even when I know something is different inside. The doctors will tell me I need to be vigilant because the beast cannot be tamed forever, even with the greatest love I can give. I can never trust fully. The beast has taken that away even though I must love my beast-child while never turning my back.

Can my body be one? Without trust there can be no reconciliation. But how can I trust the beast? Maybe that is not the right place to start: rather, I can begin by calling it what it is and not what it feels like. It’s not a beast or a rogue son. It’s a mistake, there only because it is. We can’t know how it came to me, except to know that my mother shared some of these symptoms and, in the end, succumbed to her own autoimmune demon via multiple sclerosis. She struggled so hard to know why, only I don’t think there’s a why. Illness is as much part of life as health.

What is it, if not a beast? Is it me? Could it be that simple? It may be an aberration, something most people don’t deal with, but I’m not the only one. Rare perhaps but we are many, and as I look around me perhaps not rare indeed. We are who we are, and this is part of me, as much as missing nine molars is part of me. Those teeth were never there and my mouth ends in gum lines where others have teeth. Yet I eat and have a bright smile that warms hearts and helps me say hello. It’s nothing more than who I am, a man missing a lot of molars, with a baby molar still there on my right side at 52 years. And now, a man with Crohn’s Disease and a long life ahead.

Reconciliation is never complete. It is an ongoing action, something practiced, never done, always incipient. The virtue of reconciliation is that it is always on the verge of its own demise, challenging us constantly to make it real. The daily exercise of reconciliation is a stand against entropy, casting hope into the world. Reconciliation is a pathway, a bridge from one way of life to another. Reconciliation keeps the pieces of me together and holds out the hope we need even when the disease itself will always be there, even if only in shadows.

My body may not be one. But all the pieces are mine. Reconciliation keeps us honest and gives us a chance.

image

 

Notes and credits

The opening photograph is the author at Maimonides Hospital in Brooklyn following emergency surgery for a burst colon, January 27, 2016. The second photograph is flowers in my room, sent by family.

 

 

2 Comments

Filed under ageing, body, death, entropy, life, resilience, truth

The truth and progress, 2: Santa Teresa

Cruces_Lomas_del_Poleo

This is the second reflection on ideas about “progress” and change through novels that explore the consequences of progress for ordinary people and their everyday live.  The first considered  Patrick Chamioseau’s Texaco, and here the conversation turns to Roberto Bolaño’s The Savage Detectives and 2666.

The secret story is the one we’ll never know, although we’re living it from day to day, thinking we’re alive, thinking we’ve got it all under control and the stuff we overlook doesn’t matter. But every damn thing matters! It’s just that we don’t realize. We tell ourselves that art runs on one track and life, our lives, on another, we don’t even realize that’s a lie.
―Roberto Bolaño, Last Evenings on Earth

Cesárea

The Savage Detectives and 2666 are monumental novels about a search for literary ghosts in the cities and towns of northern Mexico’s Sonoran Desert. They were written by Roberto Bolaño, a Chilean who lived much of his life in exile, in Mexico and Spain, searching for ways to make words reconcile the world that is with the world of his own experience and imagination.

In The Savage Detectives, Bolaño assumes a pose akin to Chamoiseau’s in Texaco, as a thinly disguised self called Arturo Belano, whose poetic vocation reflects his directionless quest for authenticity and escape from the Latin American “Boom” generation—those writers like Octavio Paz, Garcia Marquez, Vargas Llosa, & etc. whose work won four Nobel Prizes and utterly defined the “Latin American” voice. Their monumental dominance is for Belano and his generation a straight-jacket of Latin exoticism that is nothing like the world they grew up in. Belano/Bolaño’s world is one in which global currents are washing over Latin America, wearing away what the Boom Generation created.

Sion

Cesárea Tinojero’s only known poem, “Sión”

The Savage Detectives follows Belano’s group of poets—the “Visceral Realists”—from an early adventure in the mid-1970s to find an obscure 1930s Mexican poet, Cesárea Tinajero. In the 30s, she worked for one of the generals leading the Mexican Revolution, which began in 1910 and only wound down by the 1930s. The Mexican Revolution itself was the constituting event in Latin American history that drew a line between the United States and everything south of the Rio Grande. It made the Boom Generation possible.

By the late 1970s, long after her general died, Cesárea is presumed living in somewhere in Sonora not far from Santa Teresa, itself a thinly disguised version of Mexico’s border boomtown, Ciudad Juarez, just across the Rio Grande from El Paso. After rambling through the desert, they finally find her, aged and alone, in a small room in Santa Teresa. Through a local teacher who had befriended Cesárea, they learn that she had lived a very lonely, impoverished life, lately having taken to scribbling visions of the future, afraid of persecution and even death, in a scene that appears to foreshadow 2666 without being specific enough to say anything at all.

“… Cesárea spoke of times to come and the teacher, to change the subject, asked her what times she meant and when they would be. And Cesárea named a date, sometime around the year 2600. Two thousand six hundred and something. And then, when the teacher couldn’t help but laugh at such a random date, a smothered little laugh that could scarcely be heard, Cesárea laughed again, although this time the thunder of her laughter remained within the confines of her own room.” (The Savage Detectives, p. 634)

Belano and his cohorts will meet Cesárea herself, but before anything much happens her end meets the end of the Visceral Realists in a thudding anticlimax that explains the preceding 400 pages chronicling the group’s dissolution and dispersal around the world.

Archimboldi

2666 isn’t a sequel to The Savage Detectives, but in important ways it picks up where the earlier left off, with a crew of literary critics searching for Benno von Archimboldi, a German author whose Pynchonian mantle of self-imposed obscurity only heightens the reverence of his followers. As with Cesárea Tinojero’s oblique reference to the year 2600, Archimboldi is also referenced in The Savage Detectives, as “J.M.G. Arcimboldi,” credited for the Archimboldi of 2666‘s early novel, The Endless Rose. By the time of 2666, set around the turn of the millenium, Archimboldi has had a 40-year  career in which he has published 21 novels and is mentioned frequently as a short-list candidate for the Nobel Prize. Like most of their colleagues, Archimboldi scholars are a fanatical lot and would go to the ends of the earth to find their master—which leads them to Santa Teresa a quarter-century after Arturo Belano and the Visceral Realists arrived there to find their master.

What is different between the two novels is the Mexico they depict. Where The Savage Detectives chronicles a generation’s futile struggle against the grandiose and Nobel-studded world of their literary forbears, 2666 completes that story by portraying a Mexico that is at once devouring itself with it’s own misogyny and violence while at the same time it is irretrievably caught in a tide of globalization, which abets the local violence and even explains it as its own pathology. Like Texaco, 2666 is a novel about a city that stands for a larger story about the price of progress.

If the apogee of the Mexican revolution, in literary terms, is Octavio Paz’s Nobel Prize, then the nadir, in human terms, is the killing of up to 400 young women—femicidios—in Ciudad Juarez between 1993 and 2004. These murders are historical core of 2666, just like slavery and urban modernization are the historical core of Texaco. Thumbnail sketches of the murders in the fictionalized Juarez of Santa Teresa, hundreds of them, are meted out in clinical detail for over 280 pages in the longest of the novel’s five sections, “The Part About the Crimes.” Plot points filter in and out of an utter fog of forensic reportage like familiar faces wandering into a dream, trying desperately to drag it into the waking world. The scourge of violence becomes banal and then fades into normalcy. “The Part About the Crimes” is the reader’s own exile from everything she knows, the reader as Aeneas in Hades seeing a prophetic vision of dystopian globalization that reverses the familiar story of progress, replacing civil society and the rule of law with a world descending into inexplicable, and inexplicably unjust, viciousness.

cjuarez_airshot

In the last section of the book, “The Part About Archimboldi,” we finally learn who this writer is in an epic tale spanning the Russian Revolution, World War II, the Cold War, the emergence of computer technology, and the femicidios of Santa Teresa. In the end, it’s the story of how the twentieth century gave way to the twenty-first, a Latin American novel that was written in Spain and unmoored itself from Mexico with a cast of characters from the United States, Spain, England, France, Germany, Russia, Chile, Romania, Italy, Mexico, and other places. Set on the border between the U.S. and Mexico, in an international metropolis that reflects the two countries’ grand fraternal struggle for coexistence, 2666 continuously finds its border-crushing narrative crashing against the invisible wall between these two countries. Like Chamoiseau, Bolaño in The Savage Detectives and 2666 reimagines the world he has lived in and feeds it back to us in overlapping waves of murder mysteries, vision quests, and pilgrimmages. These books are the chronicle of Bolaño’s life swept up by the grand rip currents of history.

Notes and Credits

Photographs and images:  The first photo is of crosses placed on Lomas del Poleo Planta Alta, Ciudad Juárez, in the place where the bodies of eight murdered women were discovered in 1996. It is from the Wikimedia Commons. The photocopy of Cesárea Tinajero’s poem, “Sión,” from p. 398 of The Savage Detectives, is a photocopy taken by Tom Sparks and posted on his blog, WFTM.  The air photo of Ciudad Juarez’s sprawl across the countryside up to the mountains was taken from an article in El País online, ¿Porqué Ciudad Juárez?

Five Latin American writers would win the Nobel Prize between 1945 and 2010:  Gabriela Mistral (Chile, 1945), Pablo Neruda (Chile, 1971), Miguel Ángel Asturias (Guatemala, 1967), Gabriel García Márquez (Colombia, 1982), Octavio Paz (Mexico, 1990), and Mario Vargas Llosa (Peru, 2010). These writers and many others equally as notable, including Jorge Luis Borges, Júlio Cortázar, and Carlos Fuentes, to name a few, not only created a globally recognized “Latin American Literaure” but they also exercised a palpable influence on post-World War II literature in general.  García Márquez’s novel One Hundred Years of Solitude is recognized as the overarching masterwork of the era, bringing the notion of “magical realism” to fore in world literature, while Cortázar’s Rayuela has become a post-modern touchstone that has far eclipsed the Boom Generation.

From 1993 onward, around 400 women have been killed in Ciudad Juarez, a city of about 1.5 million people just across the Rio Grande from El Paso. Most of the victims of the femicidios were young and suffered violent deaths that included rape and torture.  Few of the murders were solved.  Those who could fled the violence (an estimated 700,000 people leaving the area in the late 1990s-early 2000s) while those who couldn’t continued to work in the maquiladora factories created to supply U.S. companies with cheap production based almost entirely on the miserly wages paid to the Mexican workers—mainly women—who have flocked to the border for work.  The violence has ebbed and flowed, but it nonetheless continues to the present day and has spawned movements and organized reactions.

1 Comment

Filed under body, conflict, danger, death, fiction, hubris, ideas, postcolonialism, writing

The truth and progress, 1: Texaco

Oil Refinery at Baby Beach, Aruba, 2012

“She taught me to reread our Creole city’s two spaces:  the historical center living on the new demands of consumption; the suburban crowns of grassroots occupations, rich with the depth of our stories.  Humanity throbs between these two places.  In the center, memory subsides in the face of renovation … here on the outskirts, one survives on memory.”

—Patrick Chamoiseau, Texaco,  p. 170.

In the novel Texaco, an old woman named Marie-Sophie Laborieux tells a young urban planner the story of her neighborhood, a slum named after a nearby oil refinery on the island of Martinique.  The urban planner sees the slum as place of chaos, disorder, violence, sex, and death.  The slum grew up around the refinery because it provided jobs for the poor and uneducated who could not afford to live in the city, Fort-de-France, which was the capital and the center of everything civilized on the island.

ft-de-france-modern

Modern-day Fort-de-France

“In its old heart:  a clear, regulated, normalized order.  Around it:  a boiling, indecipherable, impossible crown, buried under misery and History’s obscured burdens.  If the Creole city had at its disposal only the order of the center, it would have died.  It needs the chaos of its fringes.  Beauty replete with horror, order set in disorder.”

Texaco,  p. 184

Marie-Sophie tells her story on the precipice of annihilation, a Caribbean Scheherazade to the urban planner from Fort-de-France’s development agency who has come to study Texaco in preparation for the slum’s demolition. The story begins with Marie-Sophie’s father, Esternome, born into slavery and freed as a young man. This is not the story you find in books.  It’s the kind of story that people tell one another at dinner and around bonfires.

Mount_Pelée_1902_refugees

Refugees from the damage caused by the eruption of Mt. Pelée in 1902

These are the stories that Chamoiseau, a noted anthropologist, has made it his life’s work to understand—along the way publishing both ethnographic studies and fiction based in Martinique and the cultures of the Caribbean. Chamoiseau’s work on either side of the fiction/non-fiction divide is equally celebrated as it exposes the voices of those who live “beneath history,” as Chamoiseau puts it.  These are the stories that give us a different way to see the non-self-evident goodness of what we normally call progress or modernity.

A hillside shantytown in Fort-de-France

Progress, in a word, means the destruction of everything Marie-Sophie will tell the urban planner in the course of the novel’s 400-or so pages.  While destruction itself is not always and everywhere a horrible thing, in no place in this story is it clear why this destruction or progress is necessary. The novel’s real purpose is given away in the urban planner’s name, Oiseau de Cham, the author’s barely disguised fictionalized self complicit in the dismantling of the culture and people—his own—that he has faithfully catalogued in all his writing.  In recording these stories, he annihilates them even as he preserves them.

. . . I did my best to write down this mythic Texaco, realizing how much my writing betrayed the real, revealing nothing of my Source’s breath, nor even the destiny of her legend . . . I wanted it to be sung somewhere, in the ears of future generations, that we had fought with City, not to conquer it (it was City that gobbled us), but to conquer ourselves in the Creole unsaid which we had to name—in ourselves and for ourselves—until we came into our own.

Texaco,  p. 390

In Texaco, Mr. Chamoiseau’s two writerly lives meet.  It is the chronicle of his life swept up by the grand rip currents of history.

Notes and Credits

This is the first of 3 posts in a longer essay on the concepts of “progress” and “globalization.”  I examine these issues through modern literature:  Chamoiseau’s Texaco here, and then Robert Bolaño’s The Savage Detectives and 2666.

I read Texaco while I was editing the book, Globalizations and Social Movements with Mayer Zald and Michael Kennedy.  I was deeply moved by the book and wound up quoting Texaco twice in the introductory chapter.  In Chamoiseau’s writing, I saw echoes of my own experiences gathering oral histories in Belém, Brazil througout 1992 and 1993, yet without the same remorse Chamoiseau/Oiseau de Cham felt. For the people of Belém were not my own, even if my Belemense friends and I sometimes felt otherwise.

There, I worked in neighborhoods of all social classes, but I especially loved my time in the neighborhoods of Bom Futuro and Aurá.  These areas would be called favelas elsewhere in Brazil, or “slums” or “shantytowns” in English.  The residents, however, resoundingly favored the term invasão, meaning land invasion, because it described their own action to take the land in a politically motivated context.

One of the eye-opening moments in my work came in Aurá when Dona Walda—after telling me her stories for over 2 hours one morning—looked squarely into my eyes, took my hand in hers, and said, “We are not important, but in our own lives, we are important.”  I think that statement will be the germ of another post, after this series is done.

Photographs:

[1]  The photo of the oil refinery was taken by the author at Baby Beach, Aruba, in February 2013.  We were on vacation there and I couldn’t help but think of Texaco when we stopped there for a swim.  The beach, which is opposite this view of the refinery, is very nice.  Baby Beach was created as a shallow swimming lagoon for the Aruba Esso Club.  The refinery is currently owned and operated by the Valero Energy Corporation.

[2]  The photograph of the modern city of Fort-de-France is from Panoramio and was accessed through Google Earth.  The photo was taken by Panoramia user FloetGilou. 

[3]  The next photograph is of refugees fleeing the 1902 eruption of Mt. Pelée, which devastated the surrounding area and killed dozens of people.  The picture is in the public domain and was uploaded to Wikimedia Commons by William Herman Rau.

[4]  The photograph of a hillside shantytown, probably much like Texaco, is from the web version of a brochure for the international conference called “The Changing World of Coastal, Island and Tropical Tourism,” which was held in Martinique in January 2011.  I would have liked to put this photograph in the place where the modern Fort-de-France photo is, but I couldn’t manipulate the size of the photo due to its original file properties.

Fort_de_France_Rainbow

4 Comments

Filed under conflict, death, ideas, life, literature, memory, postcolonialism, struggle, truth, writing

The truth and dreams, 3: White Whales, Holy Grails, and Shooting Stars

Most of us will chase something at one point or another.  It may be a short chase, after something well-defined and easily obtained.  Or a long chase, made as much by the struggle as by the goal itself.  Or a youthful chase full of bright-eyed, dreamy exuberance.  Or the quest of later years, when what lies ahead is increasingly defined by what went before.

For some, the chase is a noble cause that will leave the world a better place, regardless of whether or not the goal is achieved. Others will take the low road of vengeance, recrimination, or pride, plunging into the depths like Captain Ahab on the bloodied back of Moby-Dick.

“Moby-Dick, p. 548” by Matt Kish

To those caught up in the chase it’s not always so clear which side they are on.  For those convinced of their righteousness, the nobility of the cause is beyond question, hardship merely a price worth paying, while to others the same quest is utter nonsense. In the end we only remember the quests that hit stride at the right time, when the right people are paying attention. Those chasing Holy Grails and windmills tend to go down anonymously.  It doesn’t mean their quests were futile or unimportant, even when they were imaginary or sad.  As Dona Walda put it after we finished her oral history in 1993, “We’re not important, but in our own lives we’re important.”

My father once told me that when you see a shooting star, it means a great man has died.  It’s an archaic saying that calls to mind stargazers and great dreamers, who loom in my imagination like ancient Greek statues but are just as easily my own grandfathers, my mother, a neighbor who befriended us when we needed it.  So many little things come together to make a life under the stars and with the stars, each one’s path to “follow a star,” as the saying goes.

Seen a shooting star tonight
And I thought of me
If I was still the same
If I ever became what you wanted me to be
Did I miss the mark or overstep the line
That only you could see?
Seen a shooting star tonight
And I thought of me

Bob Dylan wrote that verse as he stared down fifty, as I am doing.  It makes me wonder, too.  What are these shooting stars, really?  My father believed in “great men,” whose lives we look up to like we look to the stars.  Centuries of belief in the ancient world tie our lives to the movements of the stars.  The great tragedies are “star-crossed” while Abraham lifted the history of a nation by counting those same stars against the backdrop of nothingness and everything all at once.  I believe in the chaotic beauty of a universe held together as much by accident as intention. We all chase our stars, our white-whales and our Holy Grails, eventually going the way of the stars themselves, flaming out against infinity.

Notes and Credits

Photograph of Supernova Remnant N 63A Menagerie from NASA, taken by the Hubble Telescope.  You can find the whole Hubble collection at the Hubblesite, which catalogs all the photographs along with explanations of the phenomena being documented.

The Moby-Dick illustration is from Matt Kish’s collection Moby-Dick in Pictures:  One Drawing from Every Page.  It’s a beautiful book – see the profile in the Atlantic Monthly. This one, “P. 548,” is used by permission.

Photo of a white (albino) humpback whale found at Cryptomundo.  The whale is called “Migaloo,” and more photos can be found here by Dan Burns of Blue Planet Marine and Southern Cross University, New South Wales, Australia.

Dona Walda was the matriarch of a family I met in Aurá, a suburb of Belém, Brasil, in 1992-93.  I came to know Dona Walda and her family as I took oral histories of their experiences in Aurá, which was founded by land invasion in 1990 during the gubernatorial elections of that year, when candidate Jader Barbalho went around the state promising to legalize invasion neighborhoods if he won the election.  I visited with my friends from Aurá from 1992 through 2004, learning much from their neighborhood’s history and writing a few pieces about he neighborhood association for scholarly journals.  Dona Walda’s statement after her interview with me is one of the most touching things that I’ve heard across my entire career of interviewing people about their lives.  A wise statement, I will never forget it.

4 Comments

Filed under ageing, death, existentialism, hubris, ideas, individuality, life, truth, vanity

The truth and the bee tree

The bee tree is gone.

It was there, under that tree in April of 2008, that I saw a bee swarm come up in the park.  I’d never seen such a thing before, and it remains to this day a most magical experience.  I was laying on the ground with Duke, my dog, just enjoying a nice warm spring day.  My son, Noel, was playing ball with his friend not too far away.  The bees came up on me and Duke slowly, a few at a time, until they were arriving by the dozens and then hundreds.  They hovered over us but never landed.  The sound of thousands of bee wings in motion covered us, like a blanket, and I felt a warm serenity.  After a while I noticed the bees moving up toward the branches of the tree above us.  There, the bees were swarming around their queen, who was leading the colony away to find a new home.  They shared a part of their journey with us, and we were blessed.

A few weeks ago, in December of 2011, my son and I were walking through the park when we passed the spot where the bee tree was.  In its place, there was only a stump.  It must have been cut down recently, perhaps a result of Hurricane Irene, or maybe disease.  Between the Hurricane, last year’s tornado, and the unexpected Halloween snow storm in 2011, the park had a lot of downed trees to deal with – so much so that the park was giving away the mulch they made from this year’s Christmas trees.  Whatever the reason, the bee tree was no more.

With death comes reflection for those of use who are left behind.  That’s how I felt when we happened upon the stump.  In the time since the bee swarm in 2008, a lot has happened.  About a year later, Duke died, which I chronicled in “The truth and sleeping dogs” on this blog.  We buried some of his ashes in the park, where he had spent so many happy days.  Noel is now in the fourth grade and is a whole lot more of a person than he was then.  His wants and desires are more solid.  His life in the park has grown, too, from birthday parties and piñatas, to baseball and sledding and flag football.  Back in 2006, when he was 4, he saw a racoon on the little hill by the Third Street Playground.  For a year or two, every time we passed that hill he would slow down and hunch up, stopping to say, “Daddy, be quiet, we’re hunting for raccoons!”  He doesn’t say that any more, but he still thinks about it and we were talking about that raccoon just last week.

In that time, I lost a job and spent a little over year doing odd consulting gigs while trying to see if I could reorient my career.  It was a pretty bad crash, but I came out of the better in the end.  The year of searching was a gift, in which for the first time in my life I stopped and simply enjoyed myself.  I started Truth and Rocket Science at this time, in February of 2009 about four months after I stopped working. That summer, I wrote a post called “The truth and Twitter, part 3:  The Swarm,” reflecting on the “swarm culture” that Twitter is producing.  In the post, I brought up the bee tree and added a photograph of it.  That photo gets a lot of hits – if you Google “bee tree” or “bee bee tree,” this photograph is on the first page of images that comes up.  In February 2010, I took a limited contract with an agency providing services to people with HIV and those who are at risk of HIV.  By Christmas the funds were running out and I was about to be laid off when the department director walked off the job and a new career was born.

In the wake of my mother’s death, my father and I have created a new relationship, two men supporting each other against life’s adversities.  I met a wonderful woman who has helped open up my heart in ways I haven’t been used to.  I got up to 7 miles a day running and then herniated a disk in my lower back, which has put me off running for the last 18 months.  With everything else, it left me feeling older and older, approaching 48 now and wondering what it would mean to start thinking of myself as middle-aged.  I spend a lot of time reflecting on my youth and what I’ve done in those other 2 or 3 lives I have led in Ann Arbor, Brazil, South Africa, Rock Island, and the Mississippi Delta, to name a few of my great haunts.  I can go on YouTube and watch videos from the 80s and 90s for hours, remembering all the songs that form the soundtrack of my life.

At this point, the episode under the bee tree seems like a lifetime away.  In the next few years, as I have over the last few, I will pass the bee tree’s place again and again.  It won’t be with Duke, and less and less with Noel as he grows into his own life and starts to spend time in the park without me.  Today I did 2 laps around the park on my bike, smiling as I passed the bee tree stump in the darkening eve.  In the next couple of months I will start running again, and there it will be, a reminder of so many things in life and, at the bottom of it, the day when Duke and Noel and I saw the bees migrating to their new home.

It all brings me back to another place, when I first read Shel Silverstein’s The Giving Tree in the fourth or fifth grade, in religion class at Catholic school.  A good 35 or 36 years later, my brother gave me his son’s copy of the book to pass on to my son.  The first time I read it to him, I had to choke back tears.  Something profound came over me, like it does sometimes when I’m doing things with my son.  I suddenly see myself in him, or my father in myself.  Time stands still and life takes on new meanings, like light refracted through a prism emerging in many colors on the other side.

I’m not ready to sit on that bee tree’s stump just yet.  I have a few more things to do, but one day I will go to Prospect Park and take a seat there.  I’ll be an old man, and my own son will be grown and maybe with children of his own.  I’ll sit there, and I’ll remember to thank the bee tree for the times we have shared.

The Bee Tree of Prospect Park, RIP 2011

 Notes and Credits

Photographs taken by the author.  The image from The Giving Tree was scanned from my own copy, which was published by Haprer Collins in 1964, the year I was born.  In that frame, the boy sits on the stump.  It’s the last thing the tree could give him, “and the tree was happy.”

5 Comments

Filed under ageing, death, Duke, fathers, life, Park Slope, sons, truth, youth

10 years later, we remember

The Parkside School, Brooklyn, New York, September 11, 2011

Ten years ago, I went to work early.  I was in the office before 8:00 am.  I taught political science at Augustana College in Rock Island, Illinois.  It was a beautiful blue-sky morning, and I hoped to get a lot of work done.  My wife was in St. Louis on a work trip, so I was on my own.  At some point in the morning, our Administrative Assistant, Jane, came running down the hall and ran into my office.

“A plane crashed into the World Trade Center!”

We went to the seminar room and turned on the television.  Live coverage.  There was the building, with smoke pouring out of it.  Before I saw the pictures, I thought it must a be terrorist – but then once I saw the images I couldn’t believe it was a big plane.  So I thought it was an accident.  Maybe a small plane.  And then, as Jane and I sat there, gape-mouthed and gazing at the television, another plane came into the view and hit the second tower.  That was a big plane, and I couldn’t believe it.

After a bit, I went back to my office and put on the radio.  I was listening to NPR as American Flight 77 crashed into the Pentagon.  At this point, I thought we were under attack, at war, and I was terribly afraid of what might be next.  We didn’t know who was doing this, and it was very frightening.

I was able to talk to my wife later that day.  She was stuck at the airport in St. Louis for a day.  She was stuck but okay, and I was relieved to speak with her.  By midday, we knew what had happened, but it was still scary and hard to believe.  A couple weeks later, we found out that she was pregnant.  We were going to have a child.

Ten years on, I spent this anniversary of the attacks in Prospect Park, Brooklyn.  My son, Noel, had his first flag football practice today.  He’s been waiting for this day for a long time – he loves football and so wants to play.  He was incredibly happy, happier than I have seen him in other sports, and it was a joy to watch him play.

While the kids were practicing with Coach Marc, the other dads recounted where they were on September 11, 2001.  One worked just a few blocks from the towers and managed to escape the area as the towers were falling down to the ground.  The other had witnessed attacks from his apartment in Brooklyn, where he had a clean view of the events.  He’d been taking photos of the skyline that morning, and only later, upon developing his film, did he realize that he’d caught images of the second plane flying into the second tower.

I didn’t live in New York then, but I do now.  Noel was born on May 28, 2002, and I am raising him here.  New York – or Brooklyn, more precisely – will be the place he always calls home.  He has no memory of 9-11, though he knows what happened.  All his life, his country has been at war.  When I think about his life and my life, this post-9-11 world seems like a weird and different place, and this America is not at all the country I grew up in.  Yet this is his country, and on this day that I remember with somber feelings and sadness, he had a great football practice.  Later, we went home and watched the games on television.  Then I called my brother and wished him happy birthday, like I do every year on 9-11.

Notes and Credits

Photographs by the author.  The first is of the flag at half-mast at PS 130, The Parkside School.  The school is just next to the entrance to the Fort Hamilton Parkway Subway Station for the F and G trains in Brooklyn.  It’s where we live, and the site of an earlier post, Without the Truth, You Are the Looser.

The photograph of the airplane in the clouds was taken in Prospect Park, near the “dog beach.”  That’s where my son’s team was practicing this morning.  Prospect Park is beneath one of the main approaches to LaGuardia Airport, and you can hear the planes fly over every couple of minutes most days.  Today, it was cloudy, low clouds, and the planes could only be seen in the haze, rocketing over us on their way into the airport.  Fifty-one years ago, a plane crashed into Park Slope along that flight path.  It was one of the worst disasters in New York history to that point; 134 people died in the crash.  From 2004 to 2006, I lived on Sterling Place, the street where the plan crashed in 1960.  My neighbor, Ms. Phipps was a witness that day and had told me about it. You can find a photo essay of it here.

Planes and clouds.  It seems we have always lived under flight paths.  In Minnesota, we lived just under main approach to the Minneapolis Airport.  Noel’s first word was “airplane.”  As we were leaving Prospect Park after practice, we saw a man selling bubble-making kits for kids.  He filled the playground with bubbles as he walked along.

6 Comments

Filed under conflict, danger, death, fathers, freedom, life, New York, Park Slope, playing, politics, sons, struggle, toys, truth, war, youth

The truth and broken glass

Don’t tell me the moon is shining; show me the glint of light on broken glass.
—Anton Chekhov

Glass can reveal you and other things in the world.  Glass can challenge you.
Glass can cut you.  Glass is a magical substance.  Glass reflects things as truly as it distorts them.

Why, it’s a Looking-glass book, of course! And if I hold it up to a glass, the words will all go the right way again.
—Alice, Through the Looking Glass, by Lewis Carroll

Stained in small pieces, it can create images and stories that tell us how God lived and died, saints turning sunlight and suffering into colored mists of other-worldly atmosphere here on earth.

You could be known as the most beautiful women who ever crawled across cut glass to make a deal.
—Bob Dylan, “Sweetheart Like You”

Broken, glass becomes a metaphor for struggle laced with pain and suffering, love destroyed, the end of things that once were.

My whole life has crashed, won’t you pick the pieces up
’cause it feels just like I’m walking on broken glass

—Annie Lennox, “Walking on Broken Glass”

Yet broken glass is more than this.  Sometimes, what is broken becomes better than it was before.

Now it’s just like the other horses . . . ” says Laura in Tennesee Williams’ The Glass Menagerie, when Jim knocks her glass unicorn to the floor, breaking its horn.

Breaking the glass at the conclusion of a Jewish wedding reminds of the fragility of human relationships, which need the greatest care.  The broken glass is the world the couple came from, forever and irreparably changed by their union.  New joy must live alongside the pain and suffering of the world.

Something fell from Nellie’s hand and knocked on the floor. She started, jumped up, and opened her eyes wide. One looking-glass she saw lying at her feet. The other was standing as before on the table.
—Anton Checkov, “The Looking-glass”

The mirror reveals only what it is shown, and what it means to the looker can be something different altogether.  The looking-glass is only one more opportunity to warp the matter of the world into shapes that suit deception, plotting, and retellings of post-hoc truths that matter now more than the time to which they refer.

Looking through the bent backed tulips
To see how the other half lives
Looking through a glass onion

—John Lennon, “Glass Onion”

All that ends must be followed by something else.  So it is with broken glass.  The broken vase pictured at the opening of this essay was bought by a lover to whom I had sent roses after some transgression that I have long forgotten.  She, too, is gone, though the vase remained with me after she left.  It’s been filled by the flowers of other lovers who have come and gone, each one leaving a mark on my heart, life by a thousand cuts, as it were.

Then one day last year, my cat jumped up to the window sill in the middle of the night and the vase came crashing to the floor.  The sound woke me and I went to look, shaking my head as I plodded back to bed, thinking that in the glint of that broken vase there was a story to be told.  I will miss her.

5 Comments

Filed under death, life, literature, love, truth, writing

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.

8 Comments

Filed under beauty, danger, death, freedom, hubris, ideas, love, money, philosophy, revolution, riches, truth, war

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.

2 Comments

Filed under art, beauty, Brazil, danger, death, existentialism, ideas, life, truth

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.

10 Comments

Filed under danger, death, failure, freedom, hubris, life, Louisiana, Park Slope, politics, riches, truth