Category Archives: ideas

The truth and grace, 2: Beneficence

Macha Chmakoff, "Paul"

This is the second of three essays on grace.  The three parts move through different aspects of grace—reason, beneficence, and the unknown—roaming across Sartre, the epistles of St. Paul, Flannery O’Connor, Roberto Bolaño, and Nassim Nicholas Taleb

The Road to Damascus

A few years after the death of Jesus, a Jew named Saul of Tarsus, who was also a citizen of Rome, became a Christian and changed his named to Paul.  Prior to his conversion, Saul persecuted the Christians.  As Paul, however, he became the greatest apostle of the early church, moreso than St. Peter or the others who were with Jesus in his lifetime.  Working tirelessly until his own execution at the hand of Rome, Paul established numerous churches throughout the Greco-Roman Mediterranean.  Paul’s letters to these congregations provided definition for the faith and are a critical part of the Christian Bible.

Paul could not explain the change in his heart that occurred on the road to Damascus one day, when he was struck blind and heard the Lord speak to him.  He had to accept this as an act of radical, unsolicited, and unreasonable beneficence.  This he called the grace of God.

“For I am the least of the apostles and do not even deserve to be called an apostle, because I persecuted the church of God. But by the grace of God I am what I am, and his grace to me was not without effect.” (1 Cor 15:10)

The grace of St. Paul is a divine beneficence that is unknowable and without a cause such as we can recognize.  To understand grace is to find a place in between the rigid certainty of dogma and the despair of Roquentin.  With grace, we accept that good things happen for no reason that we can understand.  In deeming God the author of grace in the universe, goodness is given a source and it is made relatable.  Without needing to explain beneficence, one must simply accept this:  You are loved, for no reason that you may know or understand.  But you are loved.

Flannery O’Conner wrote stories that often dealt with the consequences of grace for proud people.  They were crushed by grace.  They could not bear beneficence.  To a friend she wrote,

“All my stories are about the action of grace on a character who is not very willing to support it, but most people think of these stories as hard, hopeless and brutal.”

Let it Be

Grace presents a challenge:  to live up to its goodness.  This is a challenge to act freely, for one must choose to live up to the goodness one has been given, even when that goodness was given freely and with no good reason for it.

For Ruby Turpin, the protagonist of O’Connor’s story, “Revelation,” recognizing grace caused her to crash on the shoals of her own hypocrisy and bad faith.  Mrs. Turpin was a well-(enough)-to-do woman in the Deep South whose Christian piety propped up her sense of racial superiority.  She was self-righteous in the most ungenerous sort of way.

“If it’s one thing I am, it’s grateful. When I think who all I could have been besides myself and what all I got, I just feel like shouting, ‘Thank you, Jesus, for making everything the way it is!’ It could have been different!… Oh thank you, Jesus, thank you!”

The story is set in the reception room of a local doctor’s office, where Mrs. Turpin is telling all this to another woman in the room, a woman of similar class and beliefs it would seem, whose college-aged daughter, Mary Grace—a name well chosen—begins to seethe with each word out of Mrs. Turpin’s mouth.  The climactic moment comes when Mary Grace finally boils over in rage and throws a book at Ruby Turpin, telling her quietly, “Go back to hell where you came from, you old wart hog!”  After the incident, back on her farm, Mrs. Turpin sinks into filth and despair, overcome with a sickening sense, much like Roquentin when he discovered that his world wasn’t ordered the way he’d imagined it to be.  As she slops her hogs, she has a revelation of the righteous ascending to heaven with her and her husband bringing up the rear at the very end of the pack.

For Saul of Tarsus, the recognition of grace provided a reason to change for the better, to set aside violence, hatred and pride.  Writing to a different friend, O’Connor commented,

“There is a moment in every great story in which the presence of grace can be felt as it waits to be accepted or rejected, even though the reader may not recognize this moment.”

The nausea demanded of Roquentin that he become the sole author of his own life, but it also demanded a kind of surrender.  To be author of own’s life was not a Promethean charge to become a god. Quite the contrary, this freedom was “rather like death” at first, until Roquentin realized that in this freedom he gave away precious things (his sense o right and order) in order to take up a different, ultimately more rewarding, task. This is a theme Sartre visited in later works, most notably his play, The Flies, in which freedom leads to persecution and hard choices about breaking laws or traditions in order to do the right thing.

Grace demands the humility to accept that we may neither deserve nor benefit from the goodness we receive.  “There but for the grace of God go I,” as the saying runs, paraphrasing the English Protestant martyr John Bradford as he sat in jail and watched other prisoners being taken for execution.

Grace demands the humility to surrender, to “let it be.”

Notes and credits

The images in all three essays on grace are the paintings of Macha Chmakoff, a French painter whose works can be found at http://www.chmakoff.com/.  She has granted me reproduction rights for these images and provided high-resolution .jpgs for the postings, for which I am very grateful. This work is called Paul, and it is one of her many Biblical paintings that are beautiful and stunning.  I have never seen these works on the canvas, up close; I have only seen them on the Web.  Her use of color and muted, vague definition seaks to me and touches me.  Ms. Chmakoff and I have struck up a friendship over her paintings and my writing, and that, too, is an element of grace that I am thankful for.

For the early Christians, the time of Christ through the few decades after his death was a time without reason.  They believed, Paul along with them, that the world would end soon, in their very lifetime.  They believed that Jesus would return to judge the living and the dead, and that all those chosen by God would be taken to heaven with him.  In the face human law, persecution, the might of Rome, and the weight of the old Jewish law, Jesus’ teachings tore down all conventions and laws that had come before.  Jesus remade the world for these believers, and like Perpetua and Felicity in Carthage in 203 AD, they went to heroic lengths to demonstrate their faith.

In 67 AD, Paul was beheaded by the Roman Empire, an execution given him due to his Roman citizenship, less painful and drawn out than the crucifixions of Jesus and St. Peter, or the wild animals and soldiers who killed Perpetua and Felicity in the arena. The Frontline documentary, “From Jesus to Christ,” provides a robust discussion of the historical Jesus, the early Christian Church, and St. Paul’s role in defining the church and spreading the faith across the Mediterranean world.

The first Flannery O’Connor quotation, “All my stories …” I discovered on the blog Cage Wisdom, a site dedicated to the flms of Nicholas Cage.  The second Flannery O’Connor quote, “There is a moment …” is from an essay by Patrick Galloway called “The Dark Side of the Cross,” which can be found here.

St Paul’s writings are foundational to the Christian Church.  Differing interpretations of Paul were used by clerics and theologians on all sides of the Reformation, though by and large it’s possible to say that Reformed Protestantism is more singularly grounded on St. Paul than on the other letter writers of the New Testament.  That is to say, branches of Reformed Protestantism represent a Pauline purism, while Catholicism balances St. Paul with the other traditions evident in the early church.  As I am finishing the second part of this essay on grace, I am thinking of a fourth essay on St. Paul’s grace in modern Christianity.  Perhaps it will come, but for now, I leave it out of this essay on grace, because my understanding of grace is more personal (and larger than) Christian theological traditions.  My references are Christian because that is what I know, but I hope the notion of an unaccounted for, unexpected, superfluous experience of beneficence is something in the human experience that can stand apart from specific religious of philosophical tradition.  Indeed, gratuitous beneficence is something any culture needs to understand.

In The Flies, Sartre uses the Greek Electra myth dramatize the proposition that people freely determine their own lives through their actions.  Fleeing from responsibility for one’s actions, or from the consequences of those actions, is to flee from the truth.  In the story, Electra’s brother Orestes must assume must assume responsibility for killing his mother and stepfather in Electra’s defense.  She is too weak to do so, but in the act of assuming responsibility Orestes becomes fully human, finally showing throwing off the chains of self-denial and self-abnegation that Zeus and the gods used to keep people compliant and quiescent.  Now free, Orestes walks into the future pursued by the Furies (giant fly-like beings) who peck at him and torment him.  Such is the price of freedom.

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The truth and grace, 1: Reason

Macha Chmakoff, "Le Chemin de Damas"

This is the first of three essays on grace.  The three parts move through three aspects of grace—reason, beneficence, and the unknown—roaming across existentialism, Sartre, the epistles of St. Paul, Flannery O’Connor, Roberto Bolaño, and Nassim Nicholas Taleb.

A Reason For Everything

There are people who say that everything happens for a reason.  This is true, for every event will always have an explanation. Natural events—say an apple falling from a tree—have mechanical explanations that can be objectively verified.  When people are involved, it’s less clear why things happen the way they do.  The reasons begin to get fuzzy, or they become contested.  These are the debates charted in the far too numerous tomes cluttering our bookshelves and Kindles.  Yet no matter how ham-fistedly human pretense tortures the truth with conspiracy, polemic, or just plain history, the fact is that in human events, too, everything happens for a reason.

But this is not what people mean when say that everything happens for a reason.  These reasons are invoked when unexpected events change life in some irrevocable way, whether for good or ill.  These reasons give purpose to the challenges we face.  Yet this saying says less about the nature of the universe than about the instinctively human drive to narrate order into it.  This takes place at the expense of reason, for it overlooks the simplest explanation that fits the facts:

We don’t know why some things happen, including the big, unexpected things that change lives and the course of history—and we may never know. 

There may be no “reason” to the universe.  It is shot through with events we can only call random, which appear to rob the world of purpose and meaning.  In response people seek different ways to build up the certainties they need.  Some avoid asking questions or wondering why.  Theirs is an existence amid the fog of quick pleasures and slovenly gratification.  Others turn to dogma or hard-and-fast explanations of the grand mysteries of life, preferring to believe that everything happens for reason, even if they have to make up those reasons again and again in order to adjust the truth to the events of the day.

Others still, a much smaller number to be sure, find themselves stuck in the middle, vexed and even anguished at the lack of universal order and meaning, repeatedly disappointed by every attempt to find larger truths they can hold on to forever.

Roquentin

Such was the case with Antoine Roquentin, the main character in Jean-Paul Sartre’s novel, Nausea.  Roquentin was sickened by the sense that his own life and actions were “superfluous” and even repugnant, since he could no longer find any deeper meaning to the world outside his own mind.  Instead of feeling intentional and historical, he was an alien in a world that treated him with indifference.  After fighting these feelings almost to the point of madness, he finally accepted that this was the real nature of life—empty, indifferent, unnecessary—and in this he found his reason to act.

“I am free:  there is absolutely no reason for living, all the ones I have tried have given way and I can’t imagine more of them … My past is dead …”

Roquentin now had the power to define his own life and what it meant, yet still he despairs.

“I am alone in this white, garden-rimmed street.  Alone and free.  But this freedom is rather like death.”

In the face of this bleak, graceless epiphany, Roquentin decides to abandon the historical biography that he was working on when the nausea struck him.  Instead, he will write a novel.  The novel will define him, as “a little of its clarity might fall over my past” and then one day “I shall feel my heart beat faster and say to myself:  ‘That was the day, that was the hour, when it all started’.”

Thus fiction replaces history to give meaning—and reason—to real life.

Notes and Credits

The images in all three essays on grace are the paintings of Macha Chmakoff, a French painter whose works can be found at http://www.chmakoff.com/.  She has granted me reproduction rights for these images and provided high-resolution .jpgs for the postings, for which I am very grateful.  She wrote me, “I am delighted with [John’s] respect for the work of artists, for he does not reproduce the images from my website without my permission.  As an artist this touches me deeply.  On the other hand I do this also as a sign of friendship between our two countries, France and the USA, in spite of our political and economic differences.”  Thank you, Ms. Chmakoff.

The painting that leads this essay is “Le Chemin de Damas,” The Road to Damascus.  It was on the road to Damascus that Saul of Tarsus had the conversion experience that led him to become Paul the Evangelist, the apostle who more than any other spread  Christianity across the Mediterranean world in the decades following the crucifixion.  Prior to his conversion, Saul persecuted Christians.  On the road to Damascus, something changed in an irrevocable way that turned Saul into his opposite.  He had no reason by which to understand this.

Paul Bloom’s essay in The Atlantic (December 2005), “Is God an Accident,” reviews recent science on the human instinct to read and narrate order into the universe:  “Our quickness to over-read purpose into things extends to the perception of intentional design. People have a terrible eye for randomness.”  The notion that there is no purpose to life (that we can recognize) is hard for human beings to swallow, because a sense of plot and story-line is hard-wired into our cognitive structure.

Quotations from Nausea:  Jean-Paul Sartre, Nausea, trans. Lloyd Alexander (New Directions: 1964), pp. 156-57.  I devoured Sartre in college and eventually wrote my senior thesis on the evolution of “freedom” in his work, from Nausea through the Critique of Dialectical Reason, his last great work.  Along the way I read most of his plays, all the novels, his memoir (The Words), Simone de Beauvoir’s memoir his last years, Adieu, and another biography I have since misplaced.  At the end of the day, I can fully appreciate the humor of Marty Smith’s Jean-Paul Sartre Cookbook.

This essay uses a fictional character, Roquentin, as an exemplar of behavior, attitudes, and ideas that should be meaningful to real people.  I treat Roquentin as if he were real, for he is.  I never quite agreed with the way Dan Qualye was ridiculed for using Murphy Brown as an example for a discussion of values in America.  (There were plenty of other, legitimate reasons to ridicule Mr. Quayle and hope he would never have a chance to sit in the Oval Office.)  In all, the 3 pieces of this essay mix real and fictional characters, because their actions (fictional, real, or historical-but-embellished) are meaningful.

St. Paul, the overarching subject of the 3 essays, is a real figure who comes to us through writing:  his own letters to his congregations across the Greco-Roman world and the writings about him that survive, notably in the Gospels and the Acts of the Apostles.  We know that not all the letters attributed to Paul were written by him.  Those that are still contain later insertions and redactions added by scribes over the centuries.  In the end, the way Sartre finishes Nausea is the key:  Roquentin will gain his freedom by leaving history and biography and writing a novel.  This is just what Sartre did; Roquentin’s redemption was the day, the hour, when it all began for his author as well.  Through the very act of creating, even fiction, we give purpose to our lives and order to the universe.

 

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The truth and moonshadows, 3: Oh, Very Old

Note:  This is the third of three posts in an extended essay exploring my relationship with my father and my son through the songs of Cat Stevens/Yusuf Islam.

Oh, Very Old

My son, Noel, plays baseball with the 78th Precinct Police Athletic League.  He has a great throw and a yen to learn pitching.  I am trying to teach him, and for inspiration I took him to websites with pictures and facts about Yankee legend Ron Guidry.  I remember well the heady days in the seventies when Ron Guidry, The Ragin’ Cajun, was blowing away the Major Leagues and winning the World Series.  Everyone in Louisiana became a Yankees fan at that time.  My mom hatched a scheme to have my father, also Ron Guidry, sign baseballs and sell them to fans.  This would be no lie, she said, but my father wouldn’t agree to it.  On one occasion, he had his credit card refused at a gas station in Alexandria, Louisiana, because the clerk refused to believe that was his real name.

Noel Shanks Guidry

One night recently, as Noel and I were having dinner and watching TV-on-the-internet, I wondered what Noel might think of the song, “Father and Son.”  I called up the video on YouTube and pointed at me when the lyrics indicated the father, and at him when they indicated the son.  His comment at the end was that he didn’t ever want to “go away.”  Of course, a few days ago, he’d announced his intent to go to college in Colorado (notably, he had just visited the state with his mom).  Then he added quickly that he would come back to Brooklyn after college, saying “I’ll live in Brooklyn for ever.”

I said, “Sonny, it’s ok. All fathers and sons go through that.” He looked a little puzzled.  I said that “going away” is not just moving to another place.  It’s also about changing your mind or growing up into someone who isn’t like me or his mom.  He perked up when I said this, as if it meant something to him.  (I didn’t ask.)  Then we listened to other Cat Stevens songs.  When I played “Moonshadow” he said, “I feel like this song is familiar, but I don’t know why.” Then I told him about how I used to sing it to him when he was an infant.

In the years since my son was born, my father has come back to me in many ways. While Cat Stevens was busy becoming Yusuf and converting to Islam, Captain Ronald James Guidry was earning a Master’s Degree in Religious Studies and becoming Deacon Ron Guidry, ordained in the Roman Catholic Church.  He serves as a Deacon to St. Louis Cathedral in the heart of the French Quarter and was for several years Master of Ceremonies for the Archbishop of New Orleans.  He still doesn’t like guns and is trying to figure out if there is anything such as a “just war” – World War II perhaps, maybe Afghanistan in the early going, but certainly not Iraq (I or II) or the other imperial wars America has waged in the last 100 years. As Deacon, he has baptized all three of his grandchildren, including Noel.

I experience him now differently than I did as his young son.  I watch him with Noel and see something I hadn’t expected.  They understand each other and communicate in an intuitive way that seems both foreign and magic to me.  The older man is more easy-going and less rigid than when I was young.  I’ve imagined saying to him now, “where were you 35 years ago?” But I don’t.  He has the right to grow old, to become whatever person he wants to become, even if it seems different from the father I used to know.

As I look at it now, it seems my father was growing older even as I was; while I was busy becoming someone, it turns out that he was becoming someone, too.  This is something I can appreciate only now, seeing him with my own son. Such are the vagaries of time and companionship, and we are indeed companions, me and the Old Man, having survived my two marriages, bouts of unemployment and career redefinition on both sides, the loss of innocence and the freedom of wisdom, and on June 27, 2007, the loss of my mother and his beloved wife, Mary Krupa Guidry.

The Guidry boys - Noel, Ron, and John

At the end of the day, I’ve been able to return to my father and to Cat Stevens/Yusuf Islam, a famous singer who brought us together in odd ways many years ago. I listen both to the old Cat Stevens tunes (there are wonderful YouTube recordings) and the new Yusuf Islam recordings, his old songs and his new ones. The music he makes now is much like the music he made before, and he is still pursuing the same dreams. As Yusuf told Charlie Rose in 2009, “It’s the same old heart, you know, that’s the point.”

Last summer, my father did something he’d always wanted to do.  He saw Joan Baez live in concert.  He had always loved her voice and something about her message. The way he talked about seeing her in concert made me think a little of the consummation (albeit chaste) of a long and unrequited love affair, something like Love in the Time of Cholera, a book he has greatly admired and which he read at some point on those early Saturday mornings after my brother and I were gone from household to build our own lives.  It’s wonderful to see him happy.

For my own part, I have mixed feelings about the passage of time and growing older.  Cat Stevens was right—I had to go away, but sometimes I wish I never had.  Then again, every time I look at my son, I am old, but I’m happy.  And so is my father.

Notes and Credits

In August 2009, Yusuf Islam gave an interview to Charlie Rose, which I reference above.  It’s a great interview, and it’s easy to see how Cat Stevens and Yusuf Islam are the same man.  Particularly poignant is when he talks about how his own son’s interest in playing the guitar sparked Yusuf to pick it up again.  The interview is on YouTube in two parts, found here (part 1) and here (part 2).  Another great interview with Yusuf in Dublin is here.

The Cat Stevens entry in Wikipedia list among his influences a folksinger from New Orleans named Biff Rose.  Biff went to college with my parents at Loyola University in the late 1950s.  Rose went on to have a career of some prominence, and he returned to New Orleans to perform at the Penny Post coffee house in the mid-80s, where I met him when I was performing there.  Around the same time, a young Emily Saliers played there as a student at Tulane University, following Lucinda Williams who’d passed through the venue years before.  The Penny Post is one of America’s great coffeehouses, founded in the mid-1970s.  It closed in the 1990s but has reopened as the Neutral Ground and continues to provide a space for singers of songs and teller of tales.  The Penny Post story is told by Ray Oldenburg in The Great Good Place: Cafes, Coffee Shops, Bookstores, Bars, Hair Salons, and Other Hangouts at the Heart of a Community

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The truth and moonshadows, 2: Of Fathers and Sons

Note:  This is the second of three posts in an extended essay exploring my relationship with my father and my son through the songs of Cat Stevens/Yusuf Islam.

Of Fathers and Sons

John Alexis Guidry

With the passage of time, everything changed, as it always does. By 2002, Cat Stevens had been Yusuf Islam for 25 years, becoming a Muslim in late 1977 and appearing to disappear from Western public life altogether. During that time across the 1980s and 1990s, my brother and I both grew up. We moved far away from home, and we had sons of our own.  My brother’s was named Joseph, after our mother’s father, Joe Krupa, a Slovak steelworker from the Allegheny Mountains in western Pennsylvania.

My son was named after one Noel Matherne, born around 1768 on the First German Coast of Louisiana.  He married a woman named Charlotte Delmer on November 24, 1789, and among their children was one Eugene Matherne, among whose great-grandchildren was my own great-grandmother, Pauline Badeaux, born in 1896 and deceased in 1998.  Pauline married Ernest John Guidry II in 1917.  Their first-born son, Ernest John Guidry III, married Marie Lezina Vicknair on June 7, 1939, and on March 21, 1940, Ronald James Guidry was born.  Ronald married Mary Krupa on September 7, 1963 and on June 3, 1964, John Alexis Guidry was born.  On June 10, 2000, John married Denise Shanks and Noel Shanks Guidry was born on May 28, 2002.

From infancy through his third year, I sang Noel to sleep every night with “Moonshadow,” delighting in the playful exchange of eyes and ears and teeth and hands throughout the lyric.

mall map of Nova Scotia. From Atlas Portatif Universel, by Robert de Vaugondy.
L’Acadie, c. 1749, R. de Vaugondy

This August of 2011, my father, my son, and I are travelling together to Nova Scotia.  We’re going back to the Acadian homeland, called l’Acadie by its first European settlers.  As Cajuns, we don’t really have a European homeland, which sets us apart from most white people in America. Our ancestor, Claude Guidry, was either born in l’Acadie in the 1640s or arrived there from France in 1671 (the records are disputed).  There is no known Guidry prior to Claude, and the path backwards vanishes there.

He is known in the archives as Claude Guidry dit Laverdure dit Grivois.  “Dit” means roughly “said to be” (like “also known as”), and Claude’s other names mean “The Green” (Laverdure) and “Saucy” (Grivois).  “Saucy,” as far as the record indicates, appears to refer to Claude’s and children’s joviality and penchant for living life the way they saw fit. They were outlaw fishermen and trappers who intermarried with the local Micmac Indians and lived with them, thus exempting themselves from the early census of the colony in 1671, which didn’t count people in mixed-race marriages and their children.

We’re going to go to Claude’s old haunts in Lunenburg, LaHeve (Bridgeport), and Annapolis (Port Royale). If Claude was on the ship L’Oranger, which reached l’Acadie/Nove Scotia in 1671, he would have disembarked in Lunenburg, then known as Mirligueche.  If he wasn’t on that ship, then he was already living there among the Micmac. Which story is true isn’t as important to me as simply knowing that I will walk the ground that Claude trod. It’s a dream I’ve had for many years, of standing with my son on the Eastern Coast of Nova Scotia, looking out across the Atlantic Ocean and telling him that our people came from that water, somewhere over there, leaving everything behind, and growing up here, on the land of the New World.

The British and French had both laid claim to Acadie since the early 1600s, and across time this tension provoked an independence in the people there, who preferred to mind their own business and generally refused to sign oaths to bear arms for either side. As it became apparent that the French might not support these renegades, Yankee forces in Boston and the lower colonies formed a plan to expel the Acadiens and repopulate the land with Protestant Scots and Germans, creating a prosperous market for the farms and factories of New England.

“The Great Expulsion” of 1755 was an Eighteenth Century case of ethnic cleansing that dispersed our people throughout the Britain’s Atlantic Empire.  An idealized version of the story is told by Longfellow in Evangeline, a more historical form in John Mack Faragher’s A Great and Noble Scheme:  The Tragic Story of the Explusion of the French Acadians from their American Homeland (New York:  Norton, 2005).

That’s how we ended up in Louisiana.  How Noel and I ended up in New York is another story, but at least we’re not the first Guidry’s to make the move from Louisiana to New York.

Ron Guidry, Yankee Legend

Notes and Credits

The photo of Ron Guidry was taken from the website Josh Q. Public, profiling some great pitchers, including our namesake, the Ragin’ Cajun.

Throughout the 1600s, both the British and French and tried to have the Acadiens sign oaths of allegiance.  For the most part the people refused to do so, preferring to be left alone.  Neither the French nor the British wanted to protect them, and they fit into neither country’s imperial schemes.  Some yielded to the pressure, however, and on August 16, 1695, Claude Guidry signed an oath of allegiance to the British King.  The record in Ancestry.com states,

The Oath read “We do Swear and Sincerely Promise That we will be Faithful and bear True Allegiance to his Majty King William, King of England, Scotland, France and Ireland. So help us God.” Captain Fleetwood Emes, Commander of the Sorlings Frigate administered the Oath at Port-Royal. In taking the Oath, Claude signed his name as “Claude Gaidry”.

On January 9, 1723, Claude Guidry “conditionally baptized” twin grand-daughters Helene and Marie-Josephe Guidry in Boston.  They were there with other Acadiens who were prisoners and refugees of a war between the English and the Indians that lasted from 1722-25, known variably as “The Three Years War,” “Rale’s War,” “Lovewell’s War” and “Governor Dummer’s Indian War.” This is the last mention of Claude in any historical record.  Not long after he returned to l’Acadie and passed away some time thereafter, among his family in his homeland.

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The truth and oral history: The Double Life of the Interview

BROOKLYN READING WORKS

org. Louise Crawford
guest curator John A. Guidry

THURSDAY, JANUARY 20, 2011
8:00 – 10:00 PM
Where: OLD STONE HOUSE at J. J. BYRNE PLAYGROUND
5th Avenue in Park Slope between 3rd and 4th Streets
(718) 768-3195

The idea

Stories do not tell themselves. Even once they are told and recorded, stories need some help to be heard and to live in the world. This month’s Brooklyn Reading Works will look at the processes by which people collect stories and use them to tell stories. We will have panelists who use oral history practices to document our world and the lives we lead, and the conversation will explore the work it takes to make stories interesting and give them legs to stand on, as it were. Panelists will represent and explore several different genres and styles of the oral historian’s craft, from traditional first-person historical storytelling to the mediations of photography, academic writing, marketing, multimedia, and social advocacy—as well as stories of how collecting stories ultimately affects oral historians as authors and curators of the human experience.

The panel

Brian Toynes and Luna Ortiz, with Gay Men’s Health Crisis, who have developed innovative community-level interventions that use personal stories about change and resiliency. Luna is one of the few people documenting the “House and Ball” scene that came to general public prominence in the film, Paris is Burning, and in Madonna’s “Vogue – but which has also had a much more complex and international history over the last 100 years.

Michael Garofalo, a producer with StoryCorps, who will talk about the work of StoryCorps and the importance of collecting and listening to the stories we can tell each other about our lives.

Mary Marshall Clark, Director of the Columbia Oral History Office. Mary Marshall will concentrate on the stories of 9-11 that her team collected here in New York and the process of working with these kinds of interviews in order to create a tangible and personal history of these events.

Jason Kerstenauthor of “The Art of Making Money,” a true-crime story of a young counterfeiter and his life. Jason’s interviews with Art and his family reveal a host of issues that a writer must confront when getting so close to the subject while trying to tell a true story that is compelling, informative, honest, and in the end protective of the subject’s own history and privacy.

John A. Guidry, who has used oral history and long-interviewing techniques in academic writing (community organizing and children’s rights in Brazil), community development research (all over the US), and public health promotion (HIV health and social marketing).

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The truth and magic: One Hundred Years of ‘Tude

The magically-unreal story of how it all began …

Many years later, as he faced the firing squad, whose right to shoot him was protected by the second amendment, Colonel Aureliano Boone was to remember that distant afternoon when his father took him to discover books.  At the time, America was a village of McMansions built on the bank of a river of polluted water that ran along a bed of stones polished to unearthly brilliance by chemical waste, petroleum fertilizers, and random sewerage, all of which made the children look like fat prehistoric eggs.  The world was so recent that many things lacked names, for nothing lasted longer than the attention span of an 8-year old pointing his stubby, French Fry fingers at things he could not understand.  Every year during the month of March a family of ragged right-wingers would set up their tents near the village, and with a great uproar of pipes and kettledrums they would create new radio shows.  A heavy gypsy with an untamed ignorance and limp, fist-fucking hands, who introduced himself as Rush Limbaugh, put on a bold demonstration of what he himself called the eighth wonder of the learned alchemists of Kansas, where scientific knowledge had peaked around the time of the Scopes trial.  He broadcast from house to house, his ideas attracting every angry white racist, bigot, gun owner, know-nothing dipshit, and ditto-headed idiot who had been lost for a long time, dragging along in turbulent confusion behind Rush Limbaugh’s magnetic charm.  “Freedom has a life of its own,” the gypsy proclaimed with a nondescript Midwestern accent.  “It’s simply a matter of waking up its soul.”

Notes and Credits

Photograph of Glenn Beck at the Rally to Restore Honor from Wikimedia Commons.  Parody of Gabriel Garcia Marquez courtesy of satire.

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The truth and criticism: origami boulders (memo re: November 2)

Susan Sontag famously wrote, “Interpretation is the revenge of the intellect upon art.”  Those were fighting words in 1966, among a certain (probably not so large but then again much larger than it would be now) crowd.  “Even more,” she continued, “It is the revenge of the intellect upon the world. To interpret is to impoverish, to deplete the world – in order to set up a shadow world of meanings.”

True enough, but what is the case when art itself becomes the revenge of the intellect upon . . . art?


Thus Origami Boulders, an experiment in creative expressionism that emphasizes the bridges between satire, infrarealism, hyper-realism, post-modernism, modernism, and plain old-fashioned mockery.  It is not subtle.  In an age when hyperbole has become truth and irony just means “bad luck,” Origami Boulders promises a return to simpler truths.  What-you-see-is-what-you-get.

Fine enough, you might say, but where do you draw the line between “simpler truths” and fascism?  This is a good question, since much of what is considered fascism is founded upon simple truth.  At the same time however, it’s also true that only about ten percent of all simple truths are, in fact, fascistic.  The problem is that that ten percent can foreseeably find the backing of an incredibly disproportionate amount of a country’s wealth and power.  Here is the linkage between the artist, the slacker, the Tea Partier, and the hipster, “who in fact aligns himself both with the rebel subculture and with the dominant class, and thus opens up a poisonous conduit between the two.”

Dear heavens—but the Origami Boulders were meant, in fact, to smash the conveyors of convention, to drown the purveyors of propriety, and to derail the fornicators of formality.  How is it that such a bold experiment could so quickly become turned upon itself until it was nothing more than the opposite of what it intended?  Much less than a hollow statement of artistic meaning in an artless world, the Origami Boulders, it would appear to the untrained and unwashed, are little more than tools of their own opposition, indistinguishable in effect from the contemporary Democratic Party.  As the man on Ellis Island said to my great-great-grandmother (not that) many years ago, “Welcome to America.”

Pray this shall not be the case and that the stony weight of the Origami Boulders will come crashing down to Earth on November 2, 2010, raining like meteorites and asteroids on the dinosaurs, bringing to an end the rule of claw-toed, semi-feathered metareptiles and giving way to the rise of little birds and all the brilliance of avian plumage and delicacy.  Sigh.

America, it seems, has become the revenge of the anti-intellect on democracy.  Can we throw more than paper boulders in our defense?

Notes and Credits

Photographs of origami boulders and the artistic process by the author.  This work, like everything else in America, is for sale.  Please email guidry_z [at] hotmail.com for a price schedule and list of options to tailor Origami Boulders to your specific needs.  The fact that there is printing on one side of the sheet of paper used is indeed a meta-critique of Western Society itself, leaving no stone unturned in the artist’s quest for antihistorical self-actualization.  I am grateful to Rob Vanderlan, fellow political science graduate student at the University of Michigan, for introducing me to the joys of origami boulder sculpture in 1989.

For a fuller fleshing out of the meaning of irony, see the “urban dictionary” and not, under any circumstance, Alanis Morisettee.  For the “hipster” quotation, see Mark Greif’s article in the November 1, 2010 issue of New York magazine.

Susan Sontag’s famous quotation from Against Interpretation and Other Essays (1966).  I tend to agree with her, so much so that I once paraphrased her statement in a cover letter for an academic position, alleging that social science is the revenge of the intellect on people.  Needless to say (but I’ll say it anyway), I was never called back on that one.  Then again, I also think that Origami Boulders so deeply challenges the very fundamentals of both Eastern and Western artistic traditions that Camille Paglia should invite me to her house for cocktails, though that would be too close to my heart.  I’ll keep buying lottery tickets for the better odds.  In retrospect, it seems like Sontag’s statement is oddly prescient of Fox News.

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The truth and stones

With relation to stones, we observe two kinds of people:  those who cast them and those who collect them.  Of those who cast stones, some do so from fear, while others do so strategically.

The fearful cast their stones either from glass houses or at glass houses.  The former are the hypocrites, while the latter are self-righteous, and both are equally insufferable.  The fearful cast their stones in reaction to something and not because of a belief in something, less from the solidity of their own convictions than from a nagging sense of their fragility.  The fear that causes these stones to be cast comes from inside the throwers and, like the stones they throw, is projected outward into a hostile and alien world.

The strategically inclined cast their stones either from a position of strength or at a position of strength.  Both tend to claim truth as their ally, and the truth tends to flee equally from either, for the truth is seldom on the side of casting stones.  Truth, being what truth is, can win its battles without stones, or in spite of them, because all positions of strength are time-bound and predicated on illusion.  The emperors will never wear clothes.  Their castles will all be made of sand—and glass, as we know, is nothing but sand.

The collectors of stones are mainly of two kinds.  They are either martyrs or future throwers of stones.

Of martyrs, there are two types, the situational and the pure.  The former are those who, upon being showered with stones, simply die because they are overcome.  They die because nothing else is possible, regardless of the degree or intensity or their fervor.  No one can prove whether situational martyrs were committed to a cause, or if they just happened to be in the way of an angry mob.  Situational martyrs die in the right time at the right place before they can get bored or do something that would cast aspersions on their martyrability.  A great many narcissists have achieved sainthood this way.

Pure martyrs collect stones in order to cleanse the world and remove hatred so that the rest of us can live in peace.  While their service to humanity is well-recognized, in life most of them are indistinguishable from narcissists.  The pure martyr is only revealed in death, for in death their purity is preserved.  Die young, stay pretty. Pure or situational, martyrs are the scissors-carriers of the world.  Yet as our mothers told us, running with scissors will be no escape, for those with scissors will always be crushed by those throwing stones.

The future throwers of stones are the paper carriers.  They cover stones and rocks to avoid martyrdom.  For more than a few, not coincidentally, throwing stones is a second career taken up after re-assessing the limitations of an earlier vocation to martyrdom.  They cover the stones that have been cast at them, but then they tear away their paper covers and cast those stones back again.  Thus we observe the cycle of stone-throwing and fear in which victims recycle what has happened to them, joining the ranks of oppressors and casting off the stones they once hid beneath paper.  Write what you know, as the saying goes.

It is thus that we arrive at the central problem facing humankind:  In a world of human conflict, no one will win.  Neither the throwers nor collectors of stones can vanquish the other.  Neither righteousness nor evil will win the day, which may be some comfort for those who wish to avoid evil but not so much for those who wish to achieve righteous glory.  This is because victory by either side—stone throwers or stone collectors—would require settling differences among adversaries in ways that are not possible to achieve.

The stone throwers face each other in glass houses, which before long will lay about their feet in shards and pieces.  Of those who collect stones, the paper carriers who are the future throwers of stones will allow the stone throwers to crush those with scissors, who in martyrdom provide the narratives and scripts that give the rest of us hope.  Yet once all the martyrs are gone the future throwers of stones will become simply the throwers of stone and new martyrs will emerge with sharper scissors to cut the old paper into bits.

The fortunate thing is that we are defined not only by our relation to stones, conflicts, or disagreements.  We are bigger than this.  Our world is increasingly one made of glass in which the things we wear and say and claim dissipate around our bodies like lost auras or the blinding penumbrae of lives best viewed through smoke-colored glasses.  Seeking truth in this haze is both a worthy and a necessary endeavor, though a thankless and quite possibly never-ending one as well, whose value lay more in the seeking than in the finding.

Notes and credits

The photographs of rocks and stones and scissors were taken by the author.  The photograph of Philip Johnson’s  Glass House is from the Wikimedia Commons and is available for common usage.  The Sandcastles are also courtesy of Wiki Commons.

Rock/paper/scissors—RPL as it is commonly known —is a game of strategy, cunning, and skill. Or so the World RPS Society would have us believe.  Apparently, RPS has been used to resolve disputes for hundreds of years, supplanting dueling and other more barbarian forms of conflict resolution.  If only Alexander Hamilton had known.

The math whizzes at PlayRPS.com have devised a simple playable RPS game that allows anyone to use the method to resolve their disputes.  To the naive, this could be very useful, for example, in the current Israeli-Palestinian negotiations, greatly facilitating Hillary Clinton’s job.  The only problem is that while on average RPS tends toward random distribution of the results (i.e. on average rock, paper, and scissors even out over time), in any one instance the odds are overwhelmingly that one outcome will have more wins than the others.  For example, the odds that the results after 99 efforts will be 33-33-33 are slimmer than the odds that it will be unbalanced and favor someone.  Level results happen only if the total number is divisible by 3, which further narrows the odds.  Any odd number of games (and any idiot who agrees to play with an even number of games deserves to lose) that isn’t divisible by three guarantees that someone will have more wins than the others.

RPS actually exemplifies the perfect mathematical expression of the futility of human design and intentionality:  It is a conflict resolution device almost perfectly designed to engender more conflict.  RPS is more elegant than “Murphy’s Law,” which operates by way of categorical affirmations and a priori givens, without any justification or proof whatsoever.  While offering the masses a palliative notion of conflict resolution, RPS actually encodes the perfect mathematical explanation of why conflict resolution is almost completely impossible. It’s like politics in America rendered in a way that both children and adults can believe in.  Randall Munroe demonstrates this in his XKCD comic strip, “Improvised,” in which RPS doesn’t do Han Solo much good in figuring out how to reply to Princess Leia in a famously tight moment, though in Han’s defense this is not the kind of proposition that is easy to deal with even under the most relaxed of circumstances.

At least one financial analyst has chosen to analyze our current economic crisis as a relationship between currency and gold as one of rock (gold), paper (currency), and scissors (economic turmoil).  And the television show Big Bang Theory just made it all seem silly, as it does with most things.

The Rock-Paper-Scissors playing glove is a technological innovation that serves at least two purposes.  It should help indecisive people make decisions in crucial moments.  It is also something that Senatorial candidate Christine O’Donnell of Delaware might find use in helping people to avoid masturbating by giving them something useful to do with their hands.  (Scissors and masturbation?  Oops.)  If the mathematical logical I outlined above holds, the glove will keep them playing forever, thus ensuring the inavailability of the hands for other, more profane purposes.

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The truth and narrative, 3: my life with Roberto Bolaño

1987

I met Gondim in Rio de Janeiro in 1987.  He brought me to Morro dos Prazeres, a favela whose name translates into English as “Hill of Pleasures.”  We took the streetcar from downtown up to the neighborhood of Santa Teresa, climbing a couple thousand feet along the way.  It was (and still is) Rio’s last streetcar line, and the trip is a step back in time.  At the end of the line, you arrive in Santa Teresa’s walled streets and tight alleys, a Bohemian retreat high above the Rio’s noise and splatter.  It’s a nice place, and the mountain air is cool.

One turn and a hundred feet down another street, Santa Teresa gives way to small houses climbing up the hillside in seemingly ramshackle fashion, stacked one atop the other to the sky.  Children play on rooftops, their kites hanging in the ocean breeze.  The two neighborhoods cling to each other on the steep hillsides of Rio de Janeiro in an uneasy relationship marked by occasional hostility, outbreaks of violence, and cheap domestic help.  The views are breathtaking across the Guanabara Bay.  Back in 1987, Gondim introduced me to Walter, the “professor,” a fan of Fidel Castro’s and leader of the neighborhood association in Morro dos Prazeres.  I spent time there talking to people, hanging out, following Walter around.

At that time, Gondim lived in Santa Teresa, among artists and musicians and dancers.  It was love and revolution all night long over cachaça, weed, and samba.  At night, and sometimes during the day, I played music anywhere I could, with Rogerio or for the girls on Avenida Atlântica between tricks, the ocean crashing across the road beneath the moon and the Southern Cross.

1992

Five years passed and I wasn’t a very good correspondent.  Neither was Gondim or Rogerio or anyone in Rio.  In 1992, I found Rogerio in Flamengo, the neighborhood down on the beach below Santa Teresa.  He asked me what I was doing, and I told him I was on my way to Belém.  Belém!, he screamed—there are only crooks and thieves and whores there! Madness to go there! he told me.  My people, I thought, and then he gave me his sister’s phone number and said I should look up her up when I get there.  Next I went to Gondim’s offices at the magazine, but the editor told me he had moved.  Where to? I asked.  Belém, she said, and she gave me a phone number.

In Belém, it was sweaty nights on the street in Cidade Velha with Gondim and his friends, among them Petit, a Catalan who had married a Belemense girl and become a professor at the university.  We drank beer, ate chicken and rice, and sang songs about everything.  With Marga (see the Tamba-Tajá stories) I took in the arrival of Iemanjá on the beach at Mosqueiro in 1992.  Márcia took me to her neighborhood, Bom Futuro, which like Morro dos Prazeres had a meaning that seemed at odds with its circumstance, “Good Future” in Portuguese.  We had great parties at her house and a photograph of all the women in her family, four generations, hangs in my office next to my desk, not far from a photograph of my own mother.

Bom Futuro was an invasão—they didn’t call them favelas in Belém—in a swampy area amid the mega-invasão of Área Cabanagem (pop 200,000) named after Oscar Neimeyer’s nearby monument to the slave and Afro-Native rebellion that occurred in Belém in the 1830s.  Chiquinho took me to his invasão in Aurá, a suburb about an hour or 90 minutes from central Belém by bus.  I spent years with him and his comrades as they struggled to pave the streets and keep the lights on.  I cherished these friends dearly, as I also loved M-J, who became my accomplice in dreams for a few years.

Then things changed.

The details are unimportant.  What matters is that things changed because I made decisions that I don’t understand today.  The right thing to do now seems so obvious, though it was so obviously the wrong thing to do at the time.  My mistake was not so much in doing right or wrong, but in doing either only half way.  I forgot my passion at some point, and my calling went to rest beneath a rock of responsibility or reason that did not suit me very well.  Maluco Beleza was the song I loved, and it became the life I lived a little by accident and not nearly enough by design.

2008

Years later, when I picked up The Savage Detectives in Brooklyn’s Community Bookstore, I felt like I found something I had lost.

My lives with Greene and Cortázar were there on Bolaño’s pages, in the stories of Arturo Belano, Ulises Lima and their band of poets—the visceral realists—by way of hundreds of small depositions from everyone who had crossed paths with them over four continents and twenty years, chronicling their lovers and affairs, their triumphs and tragedies and madness.  About half way through, the literary and historical sweep of the novel becomes staggering, Cortázar resurrected in the granularity of Bolaño’s storytelling and an entire generation of Latin American literature (including at least two Nobel prizes) left in the dust.  This was my world.

I laughed out loud on the subway to read Amadeo Salvatierra reminiscing on his hero during the years just after the Mexican Revolution (p. 396),

… I emerged from the swamp of mi general Diego Carvajal’s death or the boiling soup of his memory, an indelible, mysterious soup that’s poised above our fates, it seems to me, like Damocles’ sword or an advertisement for tequila …

And also at the exchange between Belano and Lima and Salvatierra over the one published poem by Cesárea Tinajero, the original visceral realist in the 1920s (p. 421),

Belano or Lima: So why do you say it’s a poem?

Salvatierra:  Well, because Cesárea said so … That’s the only reason why, because I had Cesárea’s word for it.  If that woman had told me that a piece of her shit wrapped in a shopping bag was a poem I would have believed it …

Belano:  How modern.

I felt my heart tug when Joaquín Font spoke about his release from the mental hospital where he’d spent the last several years (p. 400) …

Freedom is like a prime number.

… and when Edith Oster, a heart-broken, ill, displaced Mexican in Barcelona, told of how she went to find a payphone to call her parents in Mexico City (p. 436),

In those days, Arturo and his friends didn’t pay for the international calls they made … They would find some telephone and hook up a few wires and that was it, they had a connection … The rigged telephones were easy to tell by the lines that formed around them, especially at night.  The best and worst of Latin America came together in those lines, the old revolutionaries and the rapists, the former political prisoners and the hawkers of junk jewelry.

She had broken Belano’s heart, too, but the image brought me back to Vargas Llosa’s revolutionaries in Historia de Mayta, who sat around debating the finer points of Marxist theory in their garage, perched atop stacks of their party’s newspaper that had no readers and never saw the light of day, much less of a dim bulb or candle for covert reading in a dormitory, prison, or monastery.

Bolaño himself was at one time or another an old revolutionary, a former political prisoner, and a hawker of junk jewelry. Adding rapists to the mix only put down the rose-colored glasses of our generation’s passions and all those fights between Garcia Marquéz and Vargas Llosa as if to say “enough, already.”  Yet being Bolaño, it would have been more like a visceral scream from the front row during a book reading at a polite salon or book store.

The Savage Detectives is a fractured narrative told in the shards of pottery and broken mirrors laying about the floors of the places where Bolaño slept.  I read Bolaño and I saw what had become my life.

Notes and Credits

The photo of Bolaño’s The Savage Detectives was taken by the author on his nightstand.  This is the normal appearance of my end table.  I picked up the leather Brazilian street scenes in Salvador, Bahia, in 1993.

Bolaño’s biography is well-noted and I won’t go over it here, except to say that the last 10 years of his tragic life (cut short by terminal illness) was one of those artistic outpourings that will live in legend.  In a brief period of time, Bolaño the cast-off cast-away reshaped Latin America an became its voice (for now, at least).

The photo of Santa Teresa and Morro dos Prazeres comes from the Wikimedia Commons and a photographer named “chensiyuan.”  The photo of Belém from the Amazon River was taken by the author in 2000, arriving in Belém on a boat trip that began in Manaus about 10 days earlier.  The photograph of Bom Futuro was taken in 1995 on a visit to Márcia’s house. I’ve chosen for now to leave out my photos of Márcia, her family, and the parties we had.

The picture of the Bolaño graffiti was taken from gsz’s photostream on Flickr.  The photo of the author and Gondim was taken on the beach at Mosqueiro in 1995.  Mosqueiro is the old resort area of Belém, still within the city limits but on a remote island, where the elite used to have weekend vilas and houses.

Earlier this year, torrential rains caused flooding in Rio that resulted in a huge landslide in Morro dos Prazeres and other areas.  As a result, the mayor of the city developed a plan to remove the neighborhoods, on the pretext that the danger of flooding is no longer tolerable.  The problem with this logic, however, is that Rio’s favelas have always had this problem in the annual rainy season.  To many, it seems the floods are just an excuse to to solve some of Rio’s other problems with crime and drugs (really a police problem) by blaming the poor and tearing down their neighborhoods.

This is the same issue that drew Janice Perlman to the favelas in the 1960s and me there, later, in the 1980s.  Unfortunately, the problem of drugs and organized crime is all too real.  In 1987, when I was there, the police routinely went into Morro dos Prazeres and rounded up young men for summary executions – this as a warning to others and a means of controlling the population.  Twenty years later, the film Trope de Elite (Elite Squad) chronicled the same story, Morro dos Prazeres still there at the center.

The Memorial da Cabanagem is a landmark in Belém.  It was built by Governor Jader Barbalho after he became one of 9 resistance candidates to win election to governorships against the military regime in 1984.  The pretext is that Barbalho’s victory signaled a rebellion of Cabanagem-like proportions, the people rising up against the elite.  After humble beginnings, Barbalho himself has been governor twice and held seats in both the national congress and the senate, where he was that body’s leader for a short while until he was impeached while rumors and allegations of corruption mounted.  Barbalho is one of the richest men in Pará.  As with Fernando Collor, time conquers all, and Barbalho is back in the national congress representing Pará.  Jeferson Assis’s Flickr photostream has many images of the Cabanagem monument, as does Jeso Carneiro.

Bolaño’s rigged payphones reminds me of stories my friends told about the payphones in Washington Heights in the 1980s.  The Latin American drug traffickers (or so my friends said) would rig them to make free international calls, and everyone in the neighborhood used them.

When all is said and done, I wish peace to my friend Gondim and pray that I will see him again.

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Another year and we remember, 2010

For three years, from 2007 to 2009, I was able to look out of my living room window every September 11 and see the Tribute in Light over downtown New York.  Last year, I posted photos by my neighbor and myself.  Then, on 9.27.09, I moved to this apartment.  I can’t see downtown from there, though I can see the lights shooting up over the trees of Prospect Park, like strange sentinels of an Oz far away, beyond the woods.  I know there were events—call them vigils, rallies, protests, or demonstrations—down at Ground Zero, but I wasn’t there.  I was working all day at home, cataloging AIDS service organizations in the tri-state area for a research project.

This year, the arrival of 9.11 coincided with Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year, and the end of Ramadan, the annual fast that is one of the five pillars of Islam.  On Friday, 9.10, my son had the day off from school because of the Jewish holidays, and his friend G came over to visit.  We played ball in the park and walked around the neighborhood to grab pizza at Bene’s and snacks at the grocery.

The Bangladeshis were all out on the street, families.  The men wear white pants and tunics, with their small white caps that are often embroidered and appear delicate and firm and strong all at the same time.  You see groups of men like this on the sidewalks of Coney Island Avenue on Friday evenings after mosque services.  The women wear beautiful long patterned dresses and veils of vivid colors.

During Rosh Hashanah every year, Hasidic Jews—mainly the men, I think—come out on the streets of Park Slope and all around Prospect Park and try to reach other Jews to celebrate their heritage.  Dressed in black suits with white shirts and black hats, they are polite and discreet as they ask everyone passing by a simple question, “Excuse me, are you Jewish?

Friday, as I walked my son over to his mom’s house after G left, we passed several along the park’s sidewalks.  They asked, and I think said, “No, not today” out of my habit with the usual assortment of canvassers for progressive causes who work the sidewalks of Park Slope.  But I might have said, “No, sorry” (why “sorry” I don’t really know).  My son asked why they were asking us, since we aren’t Jewish, and I explained what they were up to.   In a couple days, on 9.12, we would be going up to St. John’s Episcopal Church in Park Slope to celebrate mass with its mixed WASP and Caribbean congregation that we have come to cherish.

Thus it was that on, 9.11.2010, as my son and I walked home from the grocery on MacDonald Avenue through this jigsaw puzzle of religions, races, languages, ethnicities, foods and their smells, I thought about my old apartment and the sight I would not be able to see from my living room window.  I do not miss my old living room window.  I prefer the street the way it was today.  If there is anything that America has meant to me, it is this jigsaw that is not puzzling at all.

In a few weeks, the park will turn colors, and my walks over to pick up and deliver my son at his mom’s house will look like this.  Olmsted and Vaux, known more designing Central Park than Prospect Park, considered the latter to be their masterpiece, a place of recreation designed as a “democratic space” that breathed the essence of Whitman’s poetry in the war-torn republic.  And so it is.

Notes and Credits

I have my own opinions on the controversies brewing here in New York and around the country, along with my own doubts and fears about the future of the world, but that’s not what this posting is about.  Taking a break from all that, it’s just an observation about my neighborhood and the relatively tranquil days we’ve had here this week, in spite of it all.  Nothing more and nothing less.

Photographs of my apartment and the fall in Prospect Park taken by the author.  For a tour of the park and our neighborhood across the seasons, see The truth and every purpose and The truth and spring-time.

Photograph of the Bangladeshi women, all clients of the Grameen Bank, by a UN staffer and posted on this site.

I regret that I have no photo of the Tribute in Light over Prospect Park.  It’s moving in an entirely different way that the traditional photos of the lights over downtown are.  The park just looks like a forest, especially at night.   You really can’t see the city at all, especially if you can limit your view to the park itself.  At night, it’s like this but moreso.  The lights shoot up over the dark silhouette of treetops.  They seem to come from nowhere to announce a mystery looming in the distance.  Beacons, sentinels, signs of something distant and different.

This year, the lights had to be turned off a few times, because they attracted migrating birds, as Gizmodo reported:

According to John Rowden, citizen science director at the Audubon Society’s New York chapter, “it has only happened once before. It’s a confluence of circumstances that come together to cause this. Some of it has to do with meteorological conditions, and some with the phase of the moon.”

The images of the lights with the birds are some of the most beautiful photos I ever seen, reminding me of a stunning night in 1994 when I was walking along a road in Pretoria, South Africa, next to a ball park at dusk.  There was no game in the park, but the lights were on and hundreds of bats were flitting about them, feasting I suppose on the bugs in the lights.  Such was one theory of the birds in the Tribute in Light.  According to commenter deciBels, “If you’ve ever worked night construction, you’ve seen this all the time. Those big bright lights bring out big dumb bugs. What are 2 creatures that LOVE eating bugs? Birds and bats.”  See the incredible photos on the post, including this one from commenter, Baroness.

Our apartment building and this end of Prospect Park sit at the juncture of several neighborhoods.  Sweeping around the clock, starting at 11 o’clock in Windsor Terrace, the neighborhood is something like this, based on less-than-scientific observations I have made around the area since moving here:

11 o’clock—Italians, Irish, and Latinos/Puerto Ricans in Windsor Terrace, along with some (mainly white) yuppies (my tribe) who want to be close to Park Slope—9 o’clock—Jews of all sorts, trending more traditional (Orthodox) as you move to 6 o’clock and Borough Park and Midwood, along with Russians, Poles, Albanians and Bulgarians (European Muslims), and as you get over to MacDonald Avenue, Bangladeshis—6 o’clock—Banglatown all the way down MacDonald Avenue and Coney Island Avenue, Arabic and Bengali (I think) on all the signs until you get to Borough Park and the Orthodox Jews—5 o’clock—giant Victorian houses in the late-19th century suburban experiment called Prospect Park South, a bit mixed but very much the province of nice white liberals and yuppies on the move from Park Slope to bigger houses and easier parking—4 o’clock—as you head down Flatbush Avenue it’s a mix of Black Caribbeans and African Americans—3 o’clock—Jamaicans and other West Indians—and finally, all around the clock, Mexicans—Sunset Park (just west of Kensington) has a large and growing Mexican population, but the presence of Mexican taco stands, restaurants, cantinas, and bodegas all around my neighborhood is marked, though you don’t see the Mexicans on the street walking around the same way you do the Bangladeshis and others.

Neylan McBaine is a Mormon woman who lives in Park Slope and wrote a wonderful article about the Hasidic Jews on the sidewalks of the neighborhood this time of year.  See it here.  Finally, while writing this posting, on 9.11, I remembered to send my brother an email, Happy Birthday, bro.  Talk to you tomorrow.

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