Category Archives: individuality

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.

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

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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Filed under existentialism, freedom, hubris, ideas, individuality, Jean-Paul Sartre, life, literature, truth

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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Filed under existentialism, freedom, hubris, ideas, individuality, Jean-Paul Sartre, literature, order, philosophy, truth, vanity

The truth and moonshadows, 4: Coda, from friends

After I published the essays, “The truth and moonshadows, 1-3,” a couple of my friends shared their own stories with me.  The essays prompted them to think of their own fathers.  They are two very dear friends, whose associations go back many years.  This gave me an idea, and on this, my 47th birthday, I ask …

The Ask

What I seek from this posting is any email or correspondence concerning other fathers and sons. I’d like to collect some of our stories and figure out what they mean.  Send me stories and photos and I will work with you to craft something that we can share.  After you read this, post this to other websites, or email it to friends who are themselves fathers, whether of sons or daughters.

Peter

I met Peter in 1996 when I walked on to the campus of Augustana College as a newly minted Ph.D. with an office in a former closet next to his own office, which was small but had spectacular windows.  Peter was my epitome of an academic, walls of books surrounding a neat desk from which he produced a steady stream of books and articles, all the while teaching a full spate of classes for dozens of undergrads who came through Augustana every year.

John,

I just finished reading the third installment of your look at fathers and sons, and maybe because I did so in the ancestral land of my own father—Finland (a place he never saw)—I thought back on our relationship.  The summer after my first year at Michigan was the last time I lived at home.  I got a job working for the mining company, the Cleveland Cliffs Iron Co. (“do or die for the CCI” was the old refrain in Ishpeming).  My Dad had just retired from teaching and I think [he] was at something of a loss, trying to figure out what’s next and seeing his son giving indications that whatever his future was, it wasn’t going to be in the UP.  Most days after work, we went fishing, something we really hadn’t done while I was growing up.  He sought out all of the old small streams where you used to be able to catch brown trout.  It would appear that by the summer of 1967 those streams were all fished out because I don’t recall catching anything, while being eaten alive by mosquitoes.  The experience was, however, a moment of silent bonding that I never forgot.

When my son, while studying for his PhD at Tennessee, and I decided on a road trip that would take us from Nashville through to his place in Knoxville for a few days (including his treat: a John Hiatt concert as a replay of the first concert I took him to when he took up the guitar—John Hiatt and the Tennessee Queens at the Col Ballroom in Davenport), and then on to Ashville.  We called it the “-ville tour” and decided then and there that we would do a comparable road trip each year.  In fact, we had plotted out a trip that started in Memphis and headed south from there.  Before that happened, Aaron proposed to Katie, they got married in Virginia last summer and thus Memphis wasn’t going to happen.  I did help him with the move into New Jersey last summer and will do the same in July when they move to Providence, RI. I am really happy that Aaron got married, but I realized what my father was thinking about back in ’67.

By the way, you really do look like your father.

Best,

Peter

Jeff

Jeff and I met in 1986.  In that year, I began the Master’s program in Latin American Studies at Tulane.  Jeff had started in ’85, and so he was a veteran.  He lived with a bunch of hippies and Dead-heads up off Broadway in the coolest house I’d ever seen.  A year later I met my first wife in that house.  I was a neophyte from New Orleans, going to school in New Orleans, who had never left New Orleans (save for a 1984 summer in Mexico City to study).  I was a social justice oriented quasi-Marxist, inspired in equal doses by Liberation theologians and Sandinistas (who were sometimes the same people).  What I said in seminars made sense in some ways; in others, however, it was inchoate and in need of focus.  Jeff gave me a nickname I didn’t become aware of for many months:  “Raw Material.”  It was an affectionate nickname, meaning I would be capable of some very good things when I got more shape and maturity to my view.  Of course, he was right.  The summer before I left New Orleans for good, I lived in that house, subletting Jeff’s room while he was off somewhere in Colombia or Baltimore.

Nice read, John. It was challenging for me to focus on because M is on the phone in the kitchen, and for some reason is being really loud with her parents this morning. I started with part 1 and read all 3. The 3 generations of your family seem to share high emotional intelligence, which is usually repressed in our gender and looked down upon. My friends (especially those from work) look at me askance whenever I emote, unless it’s sarcasm, anger, or drunken boisterousness. I’ve always said that my dad has almost no affect—though he has a good sense of humor—and his only 2 emotions are love and anger. He’s never held back on the affection, but he doesn’t seem to be as insightful as you and your dad both seem to be. Noel is lucky that way. I’m also impressed that you can trace your family back to the 17th century!

Jeff

Notes and Credits

The photos are by the author.  The first is of me and Noel and Duke, taken in the summer of 2006 in front of our home at 50 Sterling Place.  Duke departed us in April 2009.

The “UP” to which Peter refers is Michigan’s “upper peninsula,” the triangular nose of land north of Wisconsin that sits between Lake Superior’s southern shore and Lake Michigan’s western shore.  People from the UP are called “Yoopers,” and it was an area historically known for its iron mines, independent spirit, and Finnish settlers.  In Marquette, there is Northern Michigan University, where another old friend from Augustana now teaches.  Ishpeming, where Peter was from, is a few miles west of Marquette on Hwy 28.

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Filed under ageing, fathers, individuality, life, sons, truth, youth

The truth and narrative, 1: my life with Graham Greene

This is the first of three posts on writers whose work has influenced the course of my own life.  The writers are Graham Greene, Julio Cortázar and Roberto Bolaño.  In these writers I have seen myself in futures, presents, and pasts.

Travels with My Aunt

It started when I saw glimpses of the film, Travels with My Aunt, late at night on television.  I was doing homework or something.  What I noted then, and what I remember now, is the face of a very young Cindy Williams on a train with Alec McGowen as Henry Pulling.

I was in college already, but still living at home with my parents.  I had these vague ideas of wanting to explore the world, do something exciting, see places no one in my family ever had seen.  Later, I noticed the book on a shelf in the house and read it.  What I remember best from the book is Pulling’s trip by boat up the Rio Paraguay, from Buenos Aires to Asunción.  I knew then what I wanted to do with my life.

My mother, it turned out, was quite fond of Graham Greene.  She was fluent in Spanish for reasons she never told me, though I cannot recall whether she declined to say or I simply failed to ask.  As a college student in Pennsylvania, she had gone to Mexico City one summer to study abroad, a trip that led her to New Orleans and Loyola University, where she met my father in 1960.  At Loyola, she paid her bills in college by teaching Spanish at Mercy Academy, a Catholic girls’ prep school next to the campus.  She told me Travels with My Aunt was a frivolous book and that the really good Green was in The Power and the Glory, his novel of a “whiskey priest” trying to escape persecution during the Mexican Revolution and its aftermath.  I read the book and though I agreed with my mother, I never stopped thinking about Asunción.

Mexico City

In the summer of 1984 it was my turn, and I went off to Mexico City in the very same program my mother had gone on 25 years earlier.  My Dutch friend was on the Mexico trip the year before, and he gave me the names of two girls, R and E, and told me to look them up.  He’d had a crush on E, who worked in the big bus station and lived in a poor neighborhood on the outskirts of Mexico City, where 2-room cinder block houses crept up the hillsides surrounding the city.  E was indeed the prettier of the two, but I fell in love with R.

She was older than I was by about seven years, which at the time seemed like a lot.  She took me to Coyoacan, where we sat on park benches until three in the morning kissing and talking under the stars, which we could not see but knew were there above the constant soup of Mexico City smog.  We talked about Frida Kahlo and listened to jazz.  We drank tequila over art and philosophy and revolution with her friends.  During the days, in between classes in US-Mexican Diplomatic History and Spanish, I took Graham Greene novels from the library and devoured them.  The End of the Affair, The Comedians, The Human Factor, and others.  I marveled at the stories he told, so strong and bold and confident.  I read Greene and knew what I wanted to do with my life.

Rio de Janeiro and Asunción

I imagined I was reading biographies of the lives I wanted to lead, perhaps without the Russian Roulette but nonetheless in that Greenean world of strained romance and moral decay.  By the time I was 23 I was on my way to Asunción, albeit over land by bus from Rio de Janeiro, where I had just spent 6 weeks interviewing people in favelas during the day.  Favelas were the infamous slums that clung to the mountainsides of Rio and lined the bottoms of its swamps.  In the favelas, marginal people lived on the extremes of the most spectacular scenery on earth.  By night I played music with my friend Rogerio do Maranhão, who had standing gigs at Maria Maria in Bota Fogo and a pasta house in Copacabana.  We sang for food, beer and women.

... portrait of the author as a young musician

In Asunción, I stayed with the family Weiss, who were hosting Brother Alexis Gonzales, a theatre director from Loyola, mom’s and my old alma mater.  One night, after hanging out with the actors past curfew—these were Stroessner’s last days—I came home to find everyone on the street in their night clothes.  Minutes earlier, some Colorados drove by and shot up the house. They didn’t like Alexis’s production of Princípios, a play about censorship in Latin America. We pulled bullets from the walls and kept them as souvenirs.

Along the way, Greene stayed with me.  He wrote at a disciplined clip of five hundred words per day and produced almost a novel a year for forty years. His stories played on the compromised decisions of flawed men in decadent contexts.  With le Carré, Greene was the ultimate Cold War novelist, the two of them forming bookends around the era’s great struggles and grand themes, le Carré in Europe and its near environs, Greene everywhere else, across Latin America, Africa, and Asia.  They were our literary secret agents, searching for (and finding) the same themes every where they looked, morphing effortlessly into the same man with a different name everywhere they went.

Greene wrote about people and places that were not his native contexts, though when he did touch his own world, as in The End of the Affair, the results were breathtaking.  I was drawn most to his wanderlust and his ability to create compelling stories in so many different places.  Still I wondered—why did Greene make such sense to me?  Was it because I, too, was an outsider, a privileged white thrill-seeker in worlds brown and black and poor and altogether far away from the places I knew?

Yet critical post-colonial narrative was not something I could sustain for very long.  I was too good-humored and guileless.  This was a chicken and egg story that after a while could be anything and nothing at all.  Like all narratives it was mostly about justification and never really got to the heart of the matter.  Disciplined writing in an inevitably tainted world of compromised good and stilted vengeance was, on the other hand, a narrative I could understand.

Notes and Credits

I was inspired to go up the hills by my advisor at Tulane and by a book called The Myth of Marginality by Janice Perlman.  Perlman went to the favelas and lived there and worked with the residents even as the military government at the time was razing their neighborhoods and resettling the residents in modern slums further from the center of town.  I called Perlman from S’s dorm room at Louisiana State University one Sunday morning as the fog of a hangover left me, to ask Perlman about doing this kind of work.  “Go, do it,” she said, without specifying anything more specific about how to do it or whom to ask for help.  I didn’t speak to her again until 2006, almost 20 years later, and in 2007 I was able to contract her to evaluate the program I ran at the New York Academy of Medicine.  In 2010, she published a sequel to Myth of Marginality called Favela, in which she revisits the favelas and favelados she wrote about n the early 1970s.  She was able to find the children and grandchildren of her original subjects and the new book is a compelling story of coming full circle, as all narratives eventually do.

Cover photograph of Travels with My Aunt from the Wikipedia article about the novel, found here and used under fair use principles.   The photograph of Greene’s gravesite is also from Wikimedia and is used under the Creative Commons license.

Photograph of the author from his personal collection, no doubt to be sold one day for millions (in Monopoly money?) on E-Bay.  I cannot recall the name of the restaurant in Copacabana where we used to play, but here’s another of my friend Rogerio, from the same time.

Rogerio do Maranhão

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E/F – The glass (or cup, as it were) of coffee

Thomas Pynchon once imagined a conversation between Mason and Dixon (of the “line” fame, not the knitters, or the pollsters) that is as true in the twenty-first century as it must have been in the eighteenth.  Mason asked Dixon,

How is it … that of each Pot of Coffee, only the first Cup is ever worth drinking,— and that, by the time I get to it, someone else has already drunk it?”  To which Dixon answered that it’s because of “Coffee’s Sacramental nature, the Sacrament being Penance … whereby the remainder of the Pot, often dozens of cups deep, represents the Price for enjoying that first perfect Cup.”

Coffee is the original smart drug, but like all things good, it comes with a price. The key is to be mindful of how much you drink, for the beneficial effects advance only to a certain level, after which having more coffee produces something like a living nightmare of half-truths, unfinished thoughts, and incomplete sentences.

For these and other reasons, people have blamed coffee for the Enlightenment and related revolutions in rocket science and politics.  They all got started in coffee houses, perfect sites for the blending of conversation and caffeine, the ultimate result of which being a heightened desire for self-expression without, however, a commensurate acuity thereof.  Or as Pynchon put it when describing the scene as Mason and Dixon slipped into a coffee house in Philadelphia in the late 1700’s—

With its own fuliginous Weather, at once public and private, created of smoke billowing from Pipes, Hearthes, and Stoves, the Room would provide an extraordinary sight, were any able to see, in this Combination, peculiar and precise, of unceasing Talk and low Visibility, that makes Riot’s indoor Sister, Conspiracy, not only possible, but resultful as well.  One may be inches from a neighbor, yet both blurr’d past recognizing,— thus may Advice grow reckless and Prophecy extreme, given the astonishing volume of words moving about in here, not only aloud but upon Paper as well …

Coffee sounds a lot like alcohol.  Coffee houses and barrooms once upon a time shared the combination of low lights and incessant smoking that leads two or more people to make very bad decisions based on what little they can see or understand of each other, half-remembered bliss and release lifting like a fog with the clarity of morning.  The poor judgment brought on by low-lit coffee conversations that once resulted in revolutionary dreams, however, now leads mainly to snark and graduate theses.  Compared to alcohol, it’s more difficult to appreciate the terrible results of coffee, because they are so often taken for success.

The Tea Lounge, Park Slope, Brooklyn: a revolution is being plotted right here, right now.

People often combine alcohol and coffee, as if the effects of one can cancel out the other.  This is a mistake.  When you drink coffee while already drunk, you don’t become sober.  Instead, you achieve a much more keen awareness of how incoherent you are.  It’s called coffee-boarding and is outlawed by several international accords signed by everyone but the United States.

The relationship of coffee and alcohol to the truth is easily demonstrated by the degree to which various world religions have grappled with either or both.  Islam banned alcohol, and Muslims became coffee addicts, as did fundamentalist Christians though their coffee is not nearly as good.  AA meetings would be intolerable without coffee.  The Mormons banned both coffee and alcohol, which is why they wound up in Utah, though somehow Coca-Cola escaped the ban despite its (post-cocaine) base in coffee’s essential force, caffeine.  The Buddhists call for people to avoid intoxication by alcohol or stimulants, but they don’t make it inflexible.  This sounds like a pretty good idea, except that it’s impossible, which is the point.

The Tea Lounge, Park Slope

repurposing an old garage, the Park Slope way

The photos for this post were taken in the Tea Lounge, a venerable institution in Brooklyn’s Park Slope, the neighborhood that everyone (else) in New York loves to hate, according to the local newspaper.

The original shop was located in the South Slope on 7th Avenue but had to close a while back due to increasing rents, leaving the larger Union Street shop (pictured here) as the flagship in the heart of the neighborhood.  (Another Tea Lounge has opened in Cobble Hill, a couple nabes over on the other side of the Gowanus Canal.)

Every morning, it begins to fill up with freelancers of every type imaginable – writers, designers, editors, bloggers, people looking for jobs – who stay there all day sipping coffee and making the American economy what it is (hey, they’re telecommuting).  One morning a week (which one has rotated over time) the place fills up with mommies and nannies and toddlers when Lloyd comes to sing for the kids.  Those of us who’re working (including the staff) double down, shut our ears, and keep on working.  The place features in Amy Sohn’s satirical send-up of (and not-entirely-ironic homage to) Park Slope mommyhood, Prospect Park West, as the “Teat Lounge,” so-called for the ubiquitous nursing of infants that goes on there to the soundtracks of Neil Young, Rolling Stones, Joni Mitchell, and the occasional contemporary indie-groove (think Jem).

A review by Elizabeth of the Anti Tourist describes the Tea Lounge like this:

Studious laptop users sat beside romancing couples and chatty friends and I have to say, between licking the whipped frosting off of my OREO cupcake and sipping a glass of Riesling, I was immediately at ease–especially when my friend bought me a second glass. So yes. Conclusively, I like Tea Lounge. Is it a perfect place to work? Eh. Maybe not. Is it a good place for a date or a drink with a friend? Definitely.

Notes and Credits

All photographs by the author.

Thomas Pynchon on coffee in Mason and Dixon (New York:  Henry Holt, 1997) page 467 for the first quotation and 305 for the second. It’s an historical novel that follows the eighteenth century British astronomers Charles Mason and Jeremiah Dixon throughout their lives, from their early collaborations in England and South Africa through their pioneering work to survey the border between the Pennsylvania and Maryland colonies from 1763 to 1768.  As novels go, it’s a wonderfully comic buddy film with a touching ending that reaches deep into the emotions surrounding friendship and fatherhood.

Stephen Johnson in The Invention of Air:  A Story of Science, Faith, Revolution, and the Birth of America (New York:  Riverhead Books, 2008) provides rollicking imagery of the confluence of coffee, truth, alcohol, rocket science, tobacco, and the Enlightenment.  The thesis is simple:  replacing beer with coffee as a way to avoid bad water propelled the Enlightenment foward with clear thinking at long last.  Of the London Coffee House, the meeting place of Benjamin Franklin, Joseph Priestly, and other men of science and revolution, Johnson wrote (p. 17)—

The London Coffee House lay in St. Paul’s churchyard, a crowded urban space steps from the cathedral, bustling with divinity students, booksellers, and instrument makers.  The proximity to the divine hadn’t stopped the coffeehouse from becoming a gathering place for some of London’s most celebrated heretics, who may well have been drawn to the location for the sheer thrill exploring the limits of religious orthodoxy within shouting distance of England’s most formidable shrine.  On alternating Thursdays, a gang of freethinkers – eventually dubbed “The Club of Honest Whigs” by one of its founding members, Benjamin Franklin – met at the coffeehouse, embarking each fortnight on a long, rambling session that has no exact equivalent in modern scientific culture.

It no doubt would be interesting for Mr. Johnson to survey the clientele at the Tea Lounge and find out what revolutions are brewing for the near future here.

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The truth and money

The truth is that money is often a divisive influence in our lives.  We keep our bank balances secret because we worry that being candid about our finances will expose us to judgment or ridicule—or worse, to accusations of greed or immorality.  And this worry is not unfounded.

Jenny Offill and Elissa Schappell, Money Changes Everything (New York:  Doubleday, 2007), p. xi

Brooklyn Reading Works:
The Truth and Money

On April 15, 2010, the Brooklyn Reading Works will present its monthly writers’ program on “tax day.”  This happy accident, observed last summer in a casual conversation over coffee with Louise Crawford, resulted in the idea for a panel called “The Truth and Money,” a reading and Q & A with three authors whose work has taken on money in some significant way.

Our three panelists are:

Elissa Schappell, a Park Slope writer, the editor of “Hot Type” (the books column) for Vanity Fair, and Editor-at-large of the literary magazine Tin House. With Jenny Offill, Schappell edited Money Changes Everything, in which twenty-two writers reflect on the troublesome and joyful things that go along with acquiring, having, spending, and lacking money.

Jennifer Michael Hecht, a best-selling writer and poet whose work crosses fields of history, philosophy, and religious studies.  In The Happiness Myth, she looks at what’s not making us happy today, why we thought it would, and what these things really do for us instead.  Money—like so many things, it turns out—solves one problem only to beget others, to the extent that we spend a great deal of money today trying to replace the things that, in Hecht’s formulation, “money stole from us.”

Jason Kersten, a Park Slope writer who lives 200 feet from our venue and whose award-winning journalism has appeared in Rolling Stone, Men’s Journal, and Maxim.  In The Art of Making Money, Kersten traces the riveting, rollicking, roller coaster journey of a young man from Chicago who escaped poverty, for a while at least, after being apprenticed into counterfeiting by an Old World Master.

Please join us for the event at 8:00 p.m. on Thursday, April 15, 2010, at the Old Stone House in Washington Park, which is located on 5th Avenue in Park Slope, between 3rd and 4th Streets, behind the playground.

Read about all the Brooklyn Reading Works events at Only the Blog Knows Brooklyn and the BRW website.  For info on the Old Stone House and its role in the Battle of Brooklyn (1776) and contemporary life in Park Slope, go here.

Many thanks from all of us at Truth and Rocket Science to Louise Crawford, of Only the Blog Knows Brooklyn, for making this possible.

Money, It’s a Gas

The subtitle on the cover of Elissa Schappell’s book says everything you need to know about the stories within:  Twenty-two writers tackle the last taboo with tales of sudden windfalls, staggering debts, and other surprising turns of fortune. “The last taboo” is how Schappell and her co-editor, Jenny Offill, characterize our behavior when it comes to money, because nobody really wants to talk about it.

People are secretive and embarrassed—for having too little, or too much, or something to hide about the reasons either way.  In a country where everyone seems to have a story of how they, or their parents or grandparents, used to be poor, any personal narrative but “hard work” is out of the question.  Even hardened criminals revel in detailing the blood, sweat, and tears that go into their “work.”  No one, it seems, can sit back and say with no embellishment or apology, “I got lucky, that’s all.”  Money is the measure of what we deserve, and in our society what we deserve is in some sense who we are.

In The Happiness Myth, Jennifer Michael Hecht seeks to disentangle why things that are supposed to make us happy frequently don’t.  To the notion that “money doesn’t buy happiness,” she shows that it does, to an extent.  For most of human history (and pre-history), people have lived in conditions of terrible, frightening, life-threatening scarcity that money in no small part has eradicated for all but a very small fraction of Americans.  (In line with Schappell’s notion of money-taboo, I now feel the urge to apologize and state something statistical about hardship and inequality in America, but I won’t.  We deserve ourselves and all of our money issues.)  Hecht writes,

“We need to remember that most people through history have been racked by work that was bloody-knuckled drudgery, the periodic desperate hunger of their children, and for all but the wealthiest, the additional threat of violent animals.  Nowadays a lot of what we use money for is a symbolic acting-out of these triumphs.”

Once out of poverty, in other words, what we do with money—or more precisely the things we feel when using money—have a lot to do with ancient urges and inner conflicts that endure in our minds, bodies, and culture across time and without, so it seems, our self-conscious awareness of them.  Money does buy happiness, up to the point we’re out of poverty, and then the real problems begin.

Like the craving for fat and things that are sweet, the urges we satisfy with money are deeply embedded in our being, fundamental to the way we evolved in the most far-away places and times.  It’s all fine and easy to understand or forgive, but we all know what happens when you eat too many doughnuts.

Doughnuts to Dollars

Yet money is not like a doughnut.  This we all know—money isn’t some thing, it’s just some non-thing you use to get doughnuts or whatever else you think you need.  The economists’ word for this quality is fungible.  Adam Smith introduced money in his great book on wealth by reviewing the things that societies have used for exchange measures over time, including cattle, sheep, salt, shells, leather hides, dried codfish, tobacco, sugar, and even “nails” in a village in Scotland that Smith knew of.  All this was terribly inconvenient, and Smith noted that the use of precious metal as a stand-in for things of value constituted a considerable advance—

“If, on the contrary, instead of sheep or oxen, he had metals to give in exchange for it, he could easily proportion the quantity of the metal to the precise quantity of the commodity which he had immediate occasion for.”

Money in this sense becomes nothing but a means of measurement, and it would be perfect indeed if money’s effects on the world ended there, but we all know that they don’t.

Money—as Elissa Schappell and Jenny Offill, Cyndi Lauper and conventional wisdom tell us—changes everything.  Money’s magical qualities go well beyond simple notions like greed.  Money’s powers are existential, transformative, and really weird.  Money makes us into things we are not.  Karl Marx was pretty blunt about this—

“Money’s properties are my properties and essential powers … what I am and am capable of is by no means determined by my individuality.  I am ugly, but I can buy for myself the most beautiful of women.  Therefore I am not ugly, for the effect of ugliness—its deterrent power—is nullified by money.  I, in my character as an individual, am lame, but money furnishes me with twenty-four feet.  Therefore I am not lame.  I am bad, dishonest, unscrupulous, stupid; but money is honored, and therefore so is its possessor.  Money is the supreme good, therefore its possessor is good.  Money, besides, saves me the trouble of being dishonest:  I am therefore presumed honest.  I am stupid, but money is the real mind of all things and how then should its possessor be stupid?”

Marx may have fallen short as an economist, but then again so do most official economists.  In terms of money’s most basic ontological properties, however, it’s worth noting that he got money right.

The Glow

In the story of master counterfeiter Art Williams, Jason Kersten tells one such story of how money changes people, their values, and the truths that bind them together.  Art’s counterfeit was of an extraordinarily high quality, and its effect on people was fascinating to behold.  Art called it The Glow—“They would get this look on their face … a look of wonder, almost like they were on drugs.  It was like they were imagining the possibilities of what it could do for them, and they wanted more.”

Like the anonymous subjects of history in Hecht’s writing (note:  that’s us), Art wanted something that money, or the lack of it, had apparently stolen from his life.  Art’s “pursuit had very little to do with money, and the roots of his downfall lay in something impossible to replicate or put a value on.  As he would say himself, ‘I never got caught because of money.  I got caught because of love.’”

So where does money get us?  It’s easy to tell stories of money and doom, but we all know that without enough of it we’d be unable to do anything we need to do, let alone the supposedly unnecessary things that seem to make up for the drudgery of a life built upon doing the things we need to do.  Is the grubbiness of money as it comes off in the Pink Floyd song all there is to it?  Or is there more?

Join us on April 15, after affirming the give-away of twenty-eight percent (for most of us) of your annual harvest.

Questions:  jguidry.7@gmail.com or 212.729.7209.

Credits and Notes

Many thanks to Louise Crawford for inviting me to curate the Tax Day BRW panel, through the Truth and Rocket Science blog.  A sincere debt of gratitude, not to mention late fees, is owed to the Brooklyn Public Library, for enabling my research and inquiry into this topic.  The BPL’s copies are indeed those photographed on my dining room table to lead the blog post.

Jenny Offill and Elissa Schappell, Money Changes Everything (New York:  Doubleday, 2007).

Jennifer Michael Hecht, The Happiness Myth (New York:  Harper One, 2007), p. 129.

Adam Smith, The Wealth of Nations, in Robert L. Heilbroner, ed., The Essential Adam Smith (New York:  W. W. Norton, 1986), p. 173.

Karl Marx, Economic and Philosophic Manuscripts of 1844, in Robert C. Tucker, editor, The Marx-Engels Reader, 2nd ed. (New York:  W. W. Norton, 1978), p. 103.

Jason Kersten, The Art of Making Money (New York:  Gotham Books, 2009), p. 152 (first quotation) and p. 4 (second quotation).

Photo Karl Marx’s grave, Highgate Cemetary, London, taken by the author in January, 1994, while on layover on the way to South Africa and its historical elections later that year.

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