Category Archives: Park Slope

The truth and publishing: Beyond the Writing

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Brooklyn Reading Works at The Old Stone House presents The Truth and Publishing, a panel discussion about the future of books, publishers, authors, agents and readers, curated by John Guidry.

Thursday, January 17, 2012
8:00 pm – 10:00 pm
Refreshments provided
$5 suggested donation

OLD STONE HOUSE
5th Avenue in Brooklyn
b/t 3rd and 4th Streets at JJ Byrne Park
718.768.3195
info@theoldstonehouse.org

We often think of writing as a lone pursuit, a lone artist or dedicated journalist pursuing the craft with every ounce of dedication they can muster. If we think in the plural, it’s usually in pairs. Yet behind the work of writers is a larger cast of professionals every bit as dedicated to the written word and concerned about its future. They include editors, agents, publishers, critics, and others whose work helps make the printed word possible. On this panel, we will meet editors, publishers and agents who will share their perspective on the process behind the written word and what lies in store for those in the publishing industry during these changing times.

Panelists include Amy Hundley, Tamson Weston, Josh Rolnick, Rob Spillman, Jonathan Lyons, and Renee Zuckerbrot.

AMY HUNDLEY is subsidiary rights director and editor at Grove/Atlantic, where she has worked in various editorial capacities for fifteen years. As a fiction editor, she has worked with authors such as Jim Harrison, Anne Enright (Winner of the Man Booker Prize), Barry Hannah, Porochista Khakpour, Ryan Boudinot, G. Willow Wilson, Mo Hayder, and Aminatta Forna. She also works with many of Grove’s authors in translation, including Pascal Mercier, Catherine Millet, Nedjma, Kenzaburo Oe, and Jose Manuel Prieto. Her nonfiction list includes Last Night a DJ Saved My Life and How to DJ Right by Bill Brewster and Frank Broughton and The Deserter’s Tale, a memoir by an American deserter from Iraq. As director of subsidiary rights, she is responsible for selling foreign and domestic rights in Grove/Atlantic titles. She has attended international publishing fellowships sponsored by the French Ministry of Culture and French-American Foundation; the Frankfurt Book Fair; the Polish Book Institute; the Jerusalem Book Fair; and the Turin International Book Fair. Born and raised in Chicago, Amy Hundley attended Wesleyan University in Middletown, Connecticut.

TAMSON WESTON is a published children’s book author, founder of Tamson Weston Books, and an editor with over 15 years experience. She has worked on many acclaimed and award-winning books for children of all ages at several prestigious publishing houses including HarperCollins, Houghton Miffling Harcourt and Disney Hyperion. When she doesn’t have her nose in a book, Tamson likes to run, bike, swim, lift heavy things and, most of all, hang out with my family in Brooklyn, NY.  Visit her online at www.tamsonweston.com.

JOSH ROLNICK’S debut collection, “Pulp and Paper,” won the 2011 John Simmons Short Fiction Award, selected by Yiyun Li. His short stories have also won the Arts & Letters Fiction Prize and the Florida Review Editor’s Choice Prize. They have been published in Harvard Review, Western Humanities Review, Bellingham Review, and Gulf Coast, and have been nominated for the Pushcart Prize and Best New American Voices. Josh holds an MFA from the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, and an MA in Writing from The Johns Hopkins University. He is working on a novel.

In a journalism and writing career spanning two decades, he served as a fiction editor at the Iowa Review, creative writing teacher at the University of Iowa, an editor at Stanford Social Innovation Review and Moment magazine, a newsman for the Associated Press, and a reporter for Congressional Quarterly and the News Tribune of Woodbridge, N.J. He currently serves as fiction editor of the literary journal Unstuck, and publisher of Sh’ma, a journal of Jewish ideas.

Josh grew up in Highland Park, N.J. He spent summers fishing for fluke and riding the giant slide at Hartman’s Amusement Park in Long Beach Island, N.J., and camping in a Jayco pop-up trailer across the Adirondacks, returning again and again to Buck Pond, where he caught his first bullhead. He holds a BA from Rutgers University, an MA in International History from London School of Economics and a visiting graduate certificate from the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. He has lived in Jerusalem, London, Philadelphia, Iowa City, Washington, D.C., and Menlo Park, California. He lives with his wife and three sons, dividing his time between Akron, Ohio, and Brooklyn, New York.

ROB SPILLMAN is Editor and co-founder of Tin House, a fourteen-year-old bi-coastal (Brooklyn, New York and Portland, Oregon) literary magazine. Tin House has been honored in Best American Stories, Best American Essays, Best American Poetry, O’Henry Prize Stories, the Pushcart Prize Anthology and numerous other anthologies, and was nominated for the 2010 Utne Magazine Independent Press Award for Best Writing. He is also the Executive Editor of Tin House Books and co-founder of the Tin House Literary Festival, now in its tenth year. His writing has appeared in BookForum, the Boston Review, Connoisseur, Details, GQ, Nerve, the New York Times Book Review, Real Simple, Rolling Stone, Salon, Spin, Sports Illustrated, Vanity Fair, Vogue, Worth, among other magazines, newspapers, and essay collections. He is also the editor of Gods and Soldiers: the Penguin Anthology of Contemporary African Writing, which was published in 2009.

JONATHAN LYONS is a literary agent and Director of Translation Rights for Curtis Brown, LTD. Founded in 1914, Curtis Brown’s client list includes numerous bestselling and award-winners, such as Karen Armstrong, Po Bronson, Betty Friedan, Jane Dyer, Diana Gabaldon, Gail Carson Levine, Harold Kushner, Frances Mayes, Diana Palmer, Linda Sue Park, S.E. Hinton, A.A. Milne, Ogden Nash, Ayn Rand, W.H. Auden, Tony Hillerman, John Cheever, Lucille Clifton, and more. Previously Jonathan ran his own agency, Lyons Literary LLC, and has also overseen the subsidiary rights departments at both McIntosh & Otis and Folio Literary Management. His own client list is varied, including authors of mysteries and thrillers, science fiction and fantasy, literary fiction, young adult and middle grade fiction, and nonfiction of all types. Jonathan is a member of the Authors Guild and is on the Contracts Committee of the Association of Author Representatives.

Jonathan is also an attorney with the boutique intellectual property law firm of Savur & Pellecchia. He has over ten years experience handling a variety of publishing and copyright related transactions on behalf of individuals and corporations, with an emphasis on print and digital publishing. His legal clients include authors, publishers, magazines, literary agents, distributors, and artists, among other publishing industry businesses and professionals. Jonathan regularly gives lectures and participates in panels regarding publishing law, including most recently at the Copyright Clearance Center’s On Copyright 2012 Conference, the NYSBA Entertainment and Sports Law 2012 panel “New Models of Publishing”, and the 2012 Self-Publishing Expo. Jonathan earned his law degree from Benjamin N. Cardozo School of Law in 2001, and his undergraduate degree from Washington University in St. Louis. He is admitted to the bar of New York.

RENEE ZUCKERBROT founded Renée Zuckerbrot Literary Agency after working as an editor at Doubleday and Franklin Square Press/Harper’s Magazine, following a short stint at Marly Rusoff & Associates. She is a member of the AAR and Authors Guild, and in 2008, Poets & Writers included her on their list of “Twenty-One Agents You Should Know.” represents a wide-ranging list that includes literary and commercial adult fiction, narrative non-fiction, and cookbooks. The agency represents writers at all stages of their careers, first-time and well-established authors alike, and the agency’s small, intimate scale fosters warm and long-lasting relationships with our clients. We believe that an agent should be the author’s greatest advocate and fan, and to that end we take a proactive role throughout the publishing process, offering crucial support in project development, editing, contracts, marketing, rights management, and career-planning over the short and long term.

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Filed under art, fiction, ideas, journalism, knowledge, literature, Park Slope, writing

The truth and words

Of Writers and Authors

Words are everywhere.

They surround us very much like the air we breathe. Sometimes they are visible, in bookstores, in grocery stores, or on bill boards. Sometimes they are invisible: you see the leather seats, but not the word luxury. Words are many things, even as they represent many other things. Words change lives. They make you stop, push, pull, sit, wait, and be quiet. Words can kill as easily as they create.

As children, we learn magical words – abracadabras and shazams and open sesames. As adults, we learn that all words can be magical in one way or another, whether manifest, latent, silent, or spoken. Some of us fall under words’ spell. We become writers.

In this world of words, there are no strays. For all the words in the world, we can make a few observations:

Somebody wrote the words.
Somebody will be paid for them.
Somebody will claim to be their author.

These statements hold true for all the words we can see in the world. The exception is for private words: the letters, personal journals, notes or emails that people write to specific somebodies or to no one at all.  Under closer scrutiny, however, this exception falls away, for private words tend to become public when the opportunity cost of maintaining their privacy exceeds the actual cost of making them public.  Or put differently, when the public value of private words exceeds their private value, it’s only a matter of time before they become public.  Paid or unpaid, words have value, and those who claim authorship will hold that value dear, whether money is on the table or not.

The interesting thing about the above referenced somebodies is that they are not always the same somebody. Any stroll past the bestseller shelves in a bookstore (or surfed across the pages of Amazon.com) reveals a fundamental division of labor between writing and authorship, and the authors are always paid more than the writers. Additionally, agents, editors, marketers, and publishers also share in the take from any well-written (or at least well-selling) set of words. Just how the writers fit into this is an open question, because our society’s fetish for authorship is indeed a pretty solid hedge marking the boundary between our enacted reality and the real labor that makes it possible.

The Truth and the Ghost Writer

The truth and the ghost writer, January 19, 2012

To tease out these issues was the purpose of “The truth and the ghost writer,” a book reading that took place on January 19, 2012 in Park Slope, Brooklyn. The event was part of the Brooklyn Reading Works program that takes place every third Thursday of the month from September through May at the Old Stone House, a restored Dutch farmhouse that was part of the Battle of New York in 1776 and later the original clubhouse for the Brooklyn Dodgers baseball team. Every year, for three years running now, I’ve been asked by the Brooklyn Reading Works creator, Louise Crawford, to come up with the program for one the events. For this year’sprogram, I gave myself the challenge finding ghost writers for a book reading.

The four writers on the panel were Keith Elliot Greenberg, Sarah Deming, Alisa Bowman, and James Braly. They are all writers who have managed to pay their bills with words. They each brought experiences both of ghostwriting and solo authorship. They each had rich stories about the care and feeding of clients who as often as not were testy and uncooperative. They each operated with something of a code of honor and professionalism of conduct, meaning that they don’t reveal their authors, and they work hard to make sure their authors speak honestly and understand the consequences of their words. This doesn’t mean they don’t embellish, but there seems to be some slippage in the ghosting process that you don’t have, say, in the writing of memoirs (viz. James Frey). Veracity and verisimilitude are but two ends of the ghostwriting candle, with a lot of wax in between.

Keith Elliot Greenberg

Keith Elliot Greenberg

Keith was the Indiana Jones of the group, a swashbuckler who went deep inside the lives of pro wrestlers in order to coauthor their autobiographies. His work fed a long and stormy relationship with Ric Flair, known as the greatest pro wrestler of all time, who blamed Keith’s book for the demise of his marriage. It was a classic case of the author not understanding the consequences of his words when printed — specifically the humiliation his wife would suffer with the public revelation of Flair’s amorous adventures. Flair said that he’d told his wife about these affairs long ago, but he didn’t realize that she figured these stories would go no further. Keith can report Flair’s name – also Classy Fred Blassie and Superstar Billy Graham – because he alone of the panelists scored deals that put his authorship on the book cover. He also coauthored a column for Jesse “The Body” Ventura. Overall, Keith has written over 30 books and in addition to the professional wrestlers, he has nurtured an eclectic stable of authors including homicide detectives, women’s self defense instructors, and children’s rights advocates.

Sarah Deming

Sarah Deming

Sarah was the ying and yang of the evening’s presentations. Her experience involved the marriage of opposites in a way that felt natural and not at all at odds. Her authored work includes a children’s novel, Iris, Messenger (Harcourt 2007), and (in process) a memoir of her relationship with her mother, a bipolar woman whose kidneys were destroyed by Lithium. Sarah donated a kidney to her mother and is now writing the memoir with her, each alternating the voices of the chapters. Her ghosting was in porn, specifically erotic novels based on the lives of real nude models. The standup moment in her presentation was her comparison of the ways in which porn and children’s literature are the same, taken from an essay she wrote about writing.

“People have commented on the apparent contradiction of writing both children’s fiction and porn. They think I’m being cute when I say they have a lot in common, but I’m not. Both are underrated genres that aim to please, not to impress. Roald Dahl wrote that children’s literature is unique in that it does more than merely entertain, it teaches children the habit of reading and increases their vocabulary. It has, in other words, a utilitarian, developmental role. So does porn. My message is pretty much the same to both children and adult readers: live in your imagination, accept all kinds of people, and let go of shame.”

Alisa Bowman

Alisa Bowman

Alisa was the consummate professional. Soft-spoken and serious, she blended personal reflection and self-deprecating humor as she told her story. After starting out as a staff writer at magazines, she was offered the job of writing a book for another writer who had too many other time commitments. In addition to her skill as a writer, it turned out she was good at channeling the voice of another person, and more ghosting offers came her way. She quit her day job when she realized could make a lot more money as a ghost, and in her first year she doubled her income. After seeing her titles — but of course not her name — on the New York Times bestsellers lists, there came a time when she wanted to make a go getting her own name on that list as author and writer. To do so, she began to write a sex advice column, entering her own world of swashbuckling ying and yang until the day came when she realized she was becoming someone she didn’t want to be. The ghost, as it were, became her own ghost and she didn’t like it. Other flirtations with writerly fame have followed, but mainly she’s returned to ghosting as a master of a craft that requires satisfaction with the act of writing itself. To date, she has ghosted over 30 titles, 7 of which have wound up on the New York Times bestsellers list.

James Braly

James Braly

James was the panel’s reluctant one, whose skill and natural storytelling ability keeps the work coming even while he’s not entirely sure this is his true calling. He told a tale of how a neighbor’s ghost hijacked him from the unwanted drudgery of ghosting a speech for a corporate client. It had happened that while James was writing, this neighbor jumped ten stories to his death in the courtyard. Some time later, James found himself scrambling into bed with his young sons, chased by the neighbor’s ghost and hoping that real ghosts wouldn’t attack children. As one ghost taunted the other, James closed his eyes and hoped that his boys would not follow their father’s footsteps, even as he continued down this path of channeling the spirits of others for a wage. Unlike the others on the panel, James’s ghosting work doesn’t much involve books. He writes speeches, presentations, and other communications for corporate clients, including the world’s 144th richest man. He hems and haws about it, but he keeps doing it even while he leads another life as a performer in his own (really) self-authored, autobiographical one-man-show that has been seen around the world to rave reviews. The show has been optioned for film.

At the end of the presentation, James told how he has finally come to terms with this profession that he wouldn’t wish on his children. In that story, he told of interviewing a series of architects and designers for the renovation of his Upper West Side coop, the same apartment where the aforementioned tragic ghosting incident occurred. The designers each came to him with grand plans for his apartment that reflected their own distinctive styles, but this was precisely what James had hoped to avoid. He wanted, he said, a solid renovation that would be tasteful and reflect the character of his apartment and his life. The best designer for his home would be the one who simply vanished into the work itself, leaving nothing but the renovation. It was at that point that James realized he was ghost writer and that it was okay.

Notes and Credits

James Braly’s website can be found here, with all you need to know about his show, “Life in a Marital Institution (20 years of monagamy in one terrifying hour).  Alisa Bowman’s website is here, in which she helps you understand her story and what she can do for you.  Sarah Deming’s blog is called “The Spiral Staircase,” and she has another website about her work here.  Keith Elliot Greenberg can be found on Huffington Post and elsewhere on the Web, including this Youtube video about his book on John Lennon.

The photograph of the stop sign comes from a site called “Funny Free Pics,” which can be found here.  I was looking for a stop sign and chose this one because of the street sign, “Washtenaw Ave.,” which is the main drag of Ann Arbor, Michigan, where I did my doctoral studies.  Also, I like the graffiti, which is ironic-cute-pointless in a way that reminded me of the 1980s in Ann Arbor, though I admit that I think this sign might just come from Washtenaw Ave. in Chicago.  I can’t quite tell, but it’s a word that ambiguously reminds me of my past on a sign telling me to do something (which I will do, to be certain) defaced with words that make me roll my eyes.

Photographs of the Brooklyn Reading Works event and the four writers are posted courtesy of David Kumin, a friend of Keith’s who sent me his pictures of the event.

Many thanks go to Louise Crawford, who organizes the Brooklyn Reading Works and is the founder of the Brooklyn Blogfest. Her blog, “Only the Blog Knows Brooklyn,” was a touchstone of community information for the Park Slope for many years and continues to provide postings of Hugh Crawford’s photographs and other news. Her community presence is an inspiration to me.

The venue for these readings and many other events in Park Slope is the Old Stone House, which features a regular calendar of community events.  The OSH is maintained by a non-profit organization that reflects the best of community-building in our world.

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The truth and the bee tree

The bee tree is gone.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Bee Tree of Prospect Park, RIP 2011

 Notes and Credits

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

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

10 years later, we remember

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

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

“A plane crashed into the World Trade Center!”

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

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

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

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

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

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

Notes and Credits

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

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

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

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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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Filed under ideas, journalism, knowledge, life, literature, media, Park Slope, writing

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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Filed under freedom, ideas, New York, Park Slope, sons, truth

Truth and Rocket Science – guest stenographer

Photograph courtesy of  Visual Stenographers: Atiba T. Edwards + Emma Raynor

The Scoop

Photographs from Truth and Rocket Science—some already published on this site and some from my archives—are now being featured on the blog “Visual Stenographers,” which is published by Atiba Edwards and Emma Raynor.  The photo above is one of theirs.  The blog is a delightful visual tour as much through the world as the minds of their photographers, and TRS is honored to be invited.  My photos will run for about two weeks, give or take, along with any others they are posting.  Do visit the site and while you are there, enjoy the archives.

The Stoop

This came about as a result as my involvement in the Brooklyn Blogfest, which I had been advertising along the sidebar of TRS (and still am even though it’s over).  The Fifth Annual Brooklyn Blogfest took place on June 8, 2010, at the Brooklyn Lyceum.  Absolut sponsored this year’s event as part of the launch of its limited edition “Absolut Brooklyn,” which they created in collaboration with Spike Lee, who spoke at the event.  It’s vodka with “an invigorating blend of red apple and ginger replete in a specially-designed bottle reminiscent of the ubiquitous ‘Brooklyn Stoop Life’.”  Okey dokey.

For the Blogfest itself, TRS was the “panel wrangler,” responsible for helping to ensure that the panelists would show up and do their thing.  The panelists this year were:

Faye Penn of Brokelyn

Jake Dobkin of Gothamist

Heather Johnston of So Good:  Food and Wine with Heather Johnston

Petra Simister of Bed Stuy Blog

Atiba Edwards of Visual Stenographers

The panel was moderated by Andrea Bernstein of WNYC.  A theme (among many) for the evening was Brooklyn’s capacity for conversation and discourse and the possibilty that blogs could take the dynamic of good old-fashioned stoop conversations and amplify, broadcast, hone, and narrowcast them across both time and space, in Brooklyn and beyond.

The Day After

Apparently, there has been some controversy in part of the blogging community here (i.e. Brooklyn) about Absolut’s sponsorship, provoking a bit of righteous ire across these stoops.  Heather, one of the panelists wound up having an extended exchange on Atlantic Yards Report, and another Brooklyn blog, Brownstoner, claimed the Blogfest had “sold out.”  As one who has been a community organizer in different places around the country and was happy to help with the Blogfest, I could run on with platitudes about getting up and doing something, and maybe this time Louise, Blogfest’s organizer, was trying something new, and so on and on and on.

Righteousness is like certain kinds of spicy foods that were wonderful in youth yet with age tend to bring on a bad feeling in the stomach and thereafter when consumed prodigiously.  Righteousness has its place, of course, but at this point in my life I rather like the way Heather Johnston put it, “I like Louise and what she does.”  Of course there was controversy, but there was also a really great event and some momentum for the future.  Perfect?  What is? It’s like they always say, If a tree falls in the forest …

Stomping Grounds and Old Haunts

So that is how I met Atiba, who shares with me not only the stomping grounds of good ole Brooklyn, but also the University of Michigan, as is obvious from the photograph of VS’s creators taken in front of the Graduate Library on the campus in Ann Arbor, our old haunt (and we have the paper to prove it).  At the Blogfest, Atiba suggested I send some photographs over to VS and here we are.  A very good idea.

Thanks

At the end of the day, thanks goes out to Louise Crawford, the force behind the Brooklyn Blogfest and keeper of Only the Blog Knows Brooklyn.  Louise’s dedication helps bloggers and writers of all stripes to become a community in spaces real and virtual, keeping both honest and focused on talking to each other.  Louise has been a cherished mentor and supporter of my own blogging, and I try to repay her with thanks in action, whether panel wrangling or curating sessions for another of her community-building projects, Brooklyn Reading Works, for which I organized “The Truth and Money” last April.  TRS will be curating another Brooklyn Reading Works event in January 2011 – The Truth and Oral History: The Double Life of the Interview.  Stay tuned …

art is … what unites us!

In the meantime, please enjoy all the photographs on Visual Stenographers and stop over for a look at Atiba’s other projects.  Check out FOKUS, an organization Atiba helped to found that uses “the arts as a tool for education, entertainment and empowerment.”  FOKUS publishes Insight, a quarterly magazine of interviews, articles, photography, poetry, and more.  Atiba’s work merges old fashioned community organizing and the technologies of our time to take community-building to a new level, both in scale and in accessibility.  As the FOKUS website puts it, “art is … what unites us.”

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Filed under art, ideas, journalism, media, Park Slope, politics, truth

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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Filed under fiction, freedom, ideas, individuality, life, Park Slope, philosophy, politics, revolution, struggle, truth

E/F – The glass of oil

There are jobs, and then there are jobs.

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

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

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

We eat the oil, and the oil eats us

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

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

Un-natural disasters

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

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

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

Imagine

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

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

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

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

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

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

The glass

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

Notes and Credits

All photographs are by the author, unless otherwise noted.

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

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

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

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

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

Environmental Impact Statement

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

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

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

We are the people of the tar.

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The truth and type-casting

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

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

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

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

Bob Dylan, “Disease of Conceit”

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

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

Notes and Credits

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

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

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

As for those who fall down holes …

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

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