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.
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.
Many years later, as he faced the firing squad, whose right to shoot him was protected by the second amendment, Colonel Aureliano Boone was to remember that distant afternoon when his father took him to discover books. At the time, America was a village of McMansions built on the bank of a river of polluted water that ran along a bed of stones polished to unearthly brilliance by chemical waste, petroleum fertilizers, and random sewerage, all of which made the children look like fat prehistoric eggs. The world was so recent that many things lacked names, for nothing lasted longer than the attention span of an 8-year old pointing his stubby, French Fry fingers at things he could not understand. Every year during the month of March a family of ragged right-wingers would set up their tents near the village, and with a great uproar of pipes and kettledrums they would create new radio shows. A heavy gypsy with an untamed ignorance and limp, fist-fucking hands, who introduced himself as Rush Limbaugh, put on a bold demonstration of what he himself called the eighth wonder of the learned alchemists of Kansas, where scientific knowledge had peaked around the time of the Scopes trial. He broadcast from house to house, his ideas attracting every angry white racist, bigot, gun owner, know-nothing dipshit, and ditto-headed idiot who had been lost for a long time, dragging along in turbulent confusion behind Rush Limbaugh’s magnetic charm. “Freedom has a life of its own,” the gypsy proclaimed with a nondescript Midwestern accent. “It’s simply a matter of waking up its soul.”
Susan Sontag famously wrote, “Interpretation is the revenge of the intellect upon art.” Those were fighting words in 1966, among a certain (probably not so large but then again much larger than it would be now) crowd. “Even more,” she continued, “It is the revenge of the intellect upon the world. To interpret is to impoverish, to deplete the world – in order to set up a shadow world of meanings.”
True enough, but what is the case when art itself becomes the revenge of the intellect upon . . . art?
Thus Origami Boulders, an experiment in creative expressionism that emphasizes the bridges between satire, infrarealism, hyper-realism, post-modernism, modernism, and plain old-fashioned mockery. It is not subtle. In an age when hyperbole has become truth and irony just means “bad luck,” Origami Boulders promises a return to simpler truths. What-you-see-is-what-you-get.
Fine enough, you might say, but where do you draw the line between “simpler truths” and fascism? This is a good question, since much of what is considered fascism is founded upon simple truth. At the same time however, it’s also true that only about ten percent of all simple truths are, in fact, fascistic. The problem is that that ten percent can foreseeably find the backing of an incredibly disproportionate amount of a country’s wealth and power. Here is the linkage between the artist, the slacker, the Tea Partier, and the hipster, “who in fact aligns himself both with the rebel subculture and with the dominant class, and thus opens up a poisonous conduit between the two.”
Dear heavens—but the Origami Boulders were meant, in fact, to smash the conveyors of convention, to drown the purveyors of propriety, and to derail the fornicators of formality. How is it that such a bold experiment could so quickly become turned upon itself until it was nothing more than the opposite of what it intended? Much less than a hollow statement of artistic meaning in an artless world, the Origami Boulders, it would appear to the untrained and unwashed, are little more than tools of their own opposition, indistinguishable in effect from the contemporary Democratic Party. As the man on Ellis Island said to my great-great-grandmother (not that) many years ago, “Welcome to America.”
Pray this shall not be the case and that the stony weight of the Origami Boulders will come crashing down to Earth on November 2, 2010, raining like meteorites and asteroids on the dinosaurs, bringing to an end the rule of claw-toed, semi-feathered metareptiles and giving way to the rise of little birds and all the brilliance of avian plumage and delicacy. Sigh.
America, it seems, has become the revenge of the anti-intellect on democracy. Can we throw more than paper boulders in our defense?
Notes and Credits
Photographs of origami boulders and the artistic process by the author. This work, like everything else in America, is for sale. Please email guidry_z [at] hotmail.com for a price schedule and list of options to tailor Origami Boulders to your specific needs. The fact that there is printing on one side of the sheet of paper used is indeed a meta-critique of Western Society itself, leaving no stone unturned in the artist’s quest for antihistorical self-actualization. I am grateful to Rob Vanderlan, fellow political science graduate student at the University of Michigan, for introducing me to the joys of origami boulder sculpture in 1989.
Susan Sontag’s famous quotation from Against Interpretation and Other Essays (1966). I tend to agree with her, so much so that I once paraphrased her statement in a cover letter for an academic position, alleging that social science is the revenge of the intellect on people. Needless to say (but I’ll say it anyway), I was never called back on that one. Then again, I also think that Origami Boulders so deeply challenges the very fundamentals of both Eastern and Western artistic traditions that Camille Paglia should invite me to her house for cocktails, though that would be too close to my heart. I’ll keep buying lottery tickets for the better odds. In retrospect, it seems like Sontag’s statement is oddly prescient of Fox News.
With relation to stones, we observe two kinds of people: those who cast them and those who collect them. Of those who cast stones, some do so from fear, while others do so strategically.
The fearful cast their stones either from glass houses or at glass houses. The former are the hypocrites, while the latter are self-righteous, and both are equally insufferable. The fearful cast their stones in reaction to something and not because of a belief in something, less from the solidity of their own convictions than from a nagging sense of their fragility. The fear that causes these stones to be cast comes from inside the throwers and, like the stones they throw, is projected outward into a hostile and alien world.
The strategically inclined cast their stones either from a position of strength or at a position of strength. Both tend to claim truth as their ally, and the truth tends to flee equally from either, for the truth is seldom on the side of casting stones. Truth, being what truth is, can win its battles without stones, or in spite of them, because all positions of strength are time-bound and predicated on illusion. The emperors will never wear clothes. Their castles will all be made of sand—and glass, as we know, is nothing but sand.
The collectors of stones are mainly of two kinds. They are either martyrs or future throwers of stones.
Of martyrs, there are two types, the situational and the pure. The former are those who, upon being showered with stones, simply die because they are overcome. They die because nothing else is possible, regardless of the degree or intensity or their fervor. No one can prove whether situational martyrs were committed to a cause, or if they just happened to be in the way of an angry mob. Situational martyrs die in the right time at the right place before they can get bored or do something that would cast aspersions on their martyrability. A great many narcissists have achieved sainthood this way.
Pure martyrs collect stones in order to cleanse the world and remove hatred so that the rest of us can live in peace. While their service to humanity is well-recognized, in life most of them are indistinguishable from narcissists. The pure martyr is only revealed in death, for in death their purity is preserved. Die young, stay pretty. Pure or situational, martyrs are the scissors-carriers of the world. Yet as our mothers told us, running with scissors will be no escape, for those with scissors will always be crushed by those throwing stones.
The future throwers of stones are the paper carriers. They cover stones and rocks to avoid martyrdom. For more than a few, not coincidentally, throwing stones is a second career taken up after re-assessing the limitations of an earlier vocation to martyrdom. They cover the stones that have been cast at them, but then they tear away their paper covers and cast those stones back again. Thus we observe the cycle of stone-throwing and fear in which victims recycle what has happened to them, joining the ranks of oppressors and casting off the stones they once hid beneath paper. Write what you know, as the saying goes.
It is thus that we arrive at the central problem facing humankind: In a world of human conflict, no one will win. Neither the throwers nor collectors of stones can vanquish the other. Neither righteousness nor evil will win the day, which may be some comfort for those who wish to avoid evil but not so much for those who wish to achieve righteous glory. This is because victory by either side—stone throwers or stone collectors—would require settling differences among adversaries in ways that are not possible to achieve.
The stone throwers face each other in glass houses, which before long will lay about their feet in shards and pieces. Of those who collect stones, the paper carriers who are the future throwers of stones will allow the stone throwers to crush those with scissors, who in martyrdom provide the narratives and scripts that give the rest of us hope. Yet once all the martyrs are gone the future throwers of stones will become simply the throwers of stone and new martyrs will emerge with sharper scissors to cut the old paper into bits.
The fortunate thing is that we are defined not only by our relation to stones, conflicts, or disagreements. We are bigger than this. Our world is increasingly one made of glass in which the things we wear and say and claim dissipate around our bodies like lost auras or the blinding penumbrae of lives best viewed through smoke-colored glasses. Seeking truth in this haze is both a worthy and a necessary endeavor, though a thankless and quite possibly never-ending one as well, whose value lay more in the seeking than in the finding.
Rock/paper/scissors—RPL as it is commonly known—is a game of strategy, cunning, and skill. Or so the World RPS Society would have us believe. Apparently, RPS has been used to resolve disputes for hundreds of years, supplanting dueling and other more barbarian forms of conflict resolution. If only Alexander Hamilton had known.
The math whizzes at PlayRPS.com have devised a simple playable RPS game that allows anyone to use the method to resolve their disputes. To the naive, this could be very useful, for example, in the current Israeli-Palestinian negotiations, greatly facilitating Hillary Clinton’s job. The only problem is that while on average RPS tends toward random distribution of the results (i.e. on average rock, paper, and scissors even out over time), in any one instance the odds are overwhelmingly that one outcome will have more wins than the others. For example, the odds that the results after 99 efforts will be 33-33-33 are slimmer than the odds that it will be unbalanced and favor someone. Level results happen only if the total number is divisible by 3, which further narrows the odds. Any odd number of games (and any idiot who agrees to play with an even number of games deserves to lose) that isn’t divisible by three guarantees that someone will have more wins than the others.
RPS actually exemplifies the perfect mathematical expression of the futility of human design and intentionality: It is a conflict resolution device almost perfectly designed to engender more conflict. RPS is more elegant than “Murphy’s Law,” which operates by way of categorical affirmations and a priori givens, without any justification or proof whatsoever. While offering the masses a palliative notion of conflict resolution, RPS actually encodes the perfect mathematical explanation of why conflict resolution is almost completely impossible. It’s like politics in America rendered in a way that both children and adults can believe in. Randall Munroe demonstrates this in his XKCD comic strip, “Improvised,” in which RPS doesn’t do Han Solo much good in figuring out how to reply to Princess Leia in a famously tight moment, though in Han’s defense this is not the kind of proposition that is easy to deal with even under the most relaxed of circumstances.
At least one financial analyst has chosen to analyze our current economic crisis as a relationship between currency and gold as one of rock (gold), paper (currency), and scissors (economic turmoil). And the television show Big Bang Theory just made it all seem silly, as it does with most things.
The Rock-Paper-Scissors playing glove is a technological innovation that serves at least two purposes. It should help indecisive people make decisions in crucial moments. It is also something that Senatorial candidate Christine O’Donnell of Delaware might find use in helping people to avoid masturbating by giving them something useful to do with their hands. (Scissors and masturbation? Oops.) If the mathematical logical I outlined above holds, the glove will keep them playing forever, thus ensuring the inavailability of the hands for other, more profane purposes.
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.
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:
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.
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.”
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).
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 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.
The still photograph is not so still. The photograph asks questions. It suggests a story. It presents an idea in a language without words. It is even as it signifies. Video killed nothing, and the still photograph survives (even as the radio star carries on). Unlike video, you can take the still photograph in. You have a role in your experience of the photograph. It speaks to you at a speed that you can handle, that doesn’t overwhelm, that invites your participation and imagination. You can look into its nooks and crannies and seek out all it has to offer. All this at your own pace, and for your own reasons.
Snow on Sterling Place, Brooklyn 2005
The still photograph is a water that runs deep. If it seems to sit there, that’s its charm. The still makes you active, because it’s impossible to just look. Indeed, that’s the point, and all the while the still is not nearly inert. It just moves differently, at a different pace, like a tree.
Detail of a rock on the beach, Long Island Sound, 2009
You fill the stillness with motion, the silence with voices. You hear these people, feel the breeze come across the flowers, sympathize with a long face or smile with happy eyes. Or you imagine the immediate suspension of all motion and noise and concentrate on only the image and the miracle of capturing time itself.
Intensity . . .Prospect Park, Brooklyn, 2009
Video? Its harsh, grating noise, the motion too fast to keep up with – video steals your ability to think about what you’re seeing and replaces your mind with its own images. The difference between the still photograph and video is the difference between democracy and dictatorship.
Fixing the sidewalk, Prospect Park Parade Grounds, Brooklyn 2009
Notes and Credits
On December 15, 2009, I had the opportunity to hear two award-winning photographers, Lynsey Addario and Damon Winter, discuss their work at the Museum of the City of New York. After the panel discussion, one member of audience asked them if they were experimenting with video, given the prominence of video on the Web and current developments in social media and journalism. Of course they were interested, but they were still committed to the still photograph. That’s what got them aroused in the first place, and the still continues to drive them today. Moderater Kathy Ryan, photo editor for the NYT Magazine, chimed in that photos are still much more popular than videos on the Magazine’s website, perhaps because the photos allow the viewer to control what they are seeing. So that got me thinking . . .
Sidewalk fixed, December 2009
All the photos featured in this post were taken by the author. Go back and double-click them to see a larger view. Enjoy. If you want to see some interesting and incredible photos by others more talented and adept with shutters than I, check out the work of some friends at T’INGS, Chloe, and the No Words Daily Pix on Only the Blog Knows Brooklyn.
“We do not draw the moral lessons we might from history … In history a great volume is unrolled for our instruction, drawing the materials of future wisdom from the past errors and infirmities of mankind … History consists for the greater part of the miseries brought upon the world by pride, ambition, avarice, revenge, lust, sedition, hypocrisy, ungoverned zeal, and all the train of disorderly appetites which shake the public with the same.”
This passage from Edmund Burke’s Reflections on the Revolution in France, written as the French Revolution began in 1789, is shot through with contradiction, like Burke himself. It takes a little more time to digest than a shot of Santayana – Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it – or the oft-cited quip, We learn from history that we learn nothing from history, which is often attributed (erroneously, it seems) to George Bernard Shaw. But it’s worth it, because Burke got it right.
Notes and Credits: Burke and history and quotations
This quotation from Burke is taken from the Google books archive, which features the 2nd Edition of the Reflections on the Revolution in France, printed in London for J. Dodsley, M.DCC.XC (1790), pp. 207-08.
Burke’s writing fleshed out the impassioned complexity of his own life and commitments. As a member of parliament in the 1770s, he was a staunch supporter of the American Revolution, something of a libertarian. With the fall of the Bastille, however, he became enraged at the treatment of the French royal family and the disregard for history and tradition by the revolutionaries and their Enlightenment muses.
In the Reflections, he seems to predict the horror that would follow in the “Reign of Terror,” as well as the problems of revolution in general, and this work became the foundation of modern conservatism. Interestingly, the degree to which a conservative relies on Burke in his or her own thinking is the line between the intellectual side of the movement (George Will, David Brooks, Thomas Sowell) and the populist mobs (Glen Beck, Rush Limbaugh) that one such as Burke would so rightly disown. (Note: George Will’s use of Burke to attack blue jeans is just silly, but Will has earned it.)
A searchable, copyable, full text of Burke’s Reflections is available here. As a life long leftist, I don’t share the commitments that George Will and David Brooks have, but I do admire complex thinking and impassioned writing. As Sina Odugbemi points out, Burke’s supposed “conservatism” was really about finding the appropriate – and constant – means for reform of the state: “You reform in order to conserve; without reform you cannot really conserve a political system.” If only the opponents of health care reform had the tact and intellect of Burke.
In response to a call-out on Facebook to find out where the G. B. Shaw statement mentioned above came from, my friend Katie replied with:
I tried to use the power of the internets, and what the internets are telling me is that I should infer that it is a popular misattribution. It’s not on his Wikiquote page, but it was on the Anonymous Wikiquote page for a while–if you look at the talk page someone mentioned a similar quote attributed to Otto von Bismarck. Here is an actual political scientists saying it’s popularly attributed to Hegel: http://bit.ly/1Xp8RD .
Notes and Credits: The teacup
The Chinese teacup in the photograph is half-filled with lukewarm jade tea. It belongs to Kaoru Wang, a friend who responded to my call-out for photos of half-filled glasses in the first E/F posting. The teacup has been in her family for “years and years and years.” She photographed it on a pretty carpet of unknown origin. She sent another photograph showing the cup with its cap, which lets you keep the tea warm while taking your time to drink it over pleasant conversation or in reflective solitude.
Teacup, with cap
The tea itself was given to Kaoru by a friend who left his family’s tobacco business in order to build a tea company in Vancouver, bringing his knowledge and experience with leaves into a concern that could contribute positively to the health and well-being of his customers. Among his clients are some of the most prestigious hotels around the world.
In her note to me about the teacup and its surroundings, Kaoru wrote that it is “comforting to reflect how much history and warmth there is in the most basic of items,” a sentiment that drives my own writing here and elsewhere. Kaoru’s observations about life, her experiences, and her work can be found here. She is currently making a film about education and change called “The Killer App,” which she writes about in several places, including the film’s blog under its previous title, “Something Far Finer.”
... with persimmons and more of Roosevelt Island
Through the window, behind the teacup, we have a blurred view of Roosevelt Island, a 2 mile long sliver of land in the East River between Manhattan and Queens. A self-contained family farm from the late 1600s to 1828, it was known as Blackwell’s Island (after its owners) for most of its modern history, being named for FDR only in 1973. After the Blackwells sold the island to the city in 1828, it was given over to “a long succession of institutions and hospitals,” which included a lunatic asylum (“The Octagon,” so called for its signature building); a hospital; a Smallpox laboratory (The Strecker Laboratory); and a prison that at one time or another housed Boss Tweed, Emma Goldman, Mae West, and Billie Holiday.
In 1969, the city leased the island to the State of New York Urban Development Corporation, which has created a unique urban community on the island. Home to about 12,000 people today, the island is closed to car traffic and accessible by bus and tram. The Roosevelt Island tram is a notable piece of New York architecture, frequently featured in films and television (CSI: New York, City Slickers, The Professional, Spider-Man, Cold Souls, and others). The residential buildings have innovative designs – such as duplex (multi-story) apartments that make is possible for the elevators to stop only every 3 floors. In the spirit of contemporary wealth-and-consumption-driven governance and planning, The Octagon has been restored and is now a high-end apartment community with a mall and a lot of solar panels.
Brazil is a country of inspired appropriation. Its peoples, cultures, sounds, and visions grind against each other. They rise up and smash together like tectonic plates. In the collision of Brazil and Brasília, the city of candangos gave the country Renato Russo.
No “torso of steel,” no “[w]inged elbows and eyeholes,” but like Zweig and Plath a literary mind and poet, Russo’s voice became his generation’s. In his epic song, “Faroeste Caboclo,” Russo tells the story of a poor kid’s migration to Brasília across 159 lines of free verse, punk sensibilities, and an affecting melody that calls to mind the traditional country music of Brazil’s Northeast. Faroeste is what they call a “Western movie” in Brazil, and caboclo refers to the Brazilian mestiço everyman, a mixture of races and cultures, poor, seeking his or her fortune in some faraway place. Faroeste Caboclo is Walt Whitman, rogue-Gary Cooper and Joe Strummer together in Niemeyer’s white palace.
The hero is João de Santo Cristo, from Brazil’s Northeastern “backlands.” Brazilians call this region the Sertão, a rural, agrarian, drought-afflicted area that is the poorest place in the country and carries the deepest currents of Brazil’s premodern past. João robs the poor box from the church. He goes after the girls in the town. People don’t trust him. He feels the effect his skin color has on others who are lighter, more well-to-do. He’s arrested and goes to reform school, where he is raped and degraded. He is filled with hatred.
When a man on his way to Brasília decides not to go and gives his bus ticket to João, he becomes an accidental candango, leaving his past for the “beautiful city” where everything will be different. He works as a carpenter’s apprentice, but he can’t make ends meet and becomes a drug trafficker.
After some time in the criminal world, he tries to go straight when he falls in love Maria Lúcia, but eventually the drug trade pulls him back in. João’s enemy, Jeremias, steals Maria Lúcia and they have a child together. João challenges Jeremias to a duel, which is covered in the press and shocks the city’s elite but makes João a hero to the people. In the duel, Jeremias shoots João in the back and wounds him fatally. Maria Lúcia rushes to her first love and gives João a gun. He challeges Jeremias to die like a man and shoots him. In the end, Maria Lúcia and João die together in each other’s arms.
The people declared that João de Santo Cristo
Was a saint because he knew how to die
And the bourgeoisie of the city didn’t believe the story
That they saw on TV
And João didn’t accomplish what he desired like the devil
When he came to Brasília
What he wanted was to speak to the president
To help all the people that
Russo and his bandmates in Legião Urbana (Urban Legion) grew up in Brasília in the late 1970s. Their songs of protest, love, and everyday struggles became the nation’s soundtrack to the last years of the military dictatorship and the re-emergence democracy in the 1980s.
“Será,” a love song with an anthemic refrain, could be heard blaring from sound trucks at the massive marches and rallies of the caras-pintadas (“painted faces”) in 1992, as they challenged the nation to bring down Fernando Collor, Brazil’s first democratically elected president since 1960.
So called because they painted their faces in the Brazilian national colors, green and yellow, the caras-pintadas had grown up under the military regime and saw their hopes threatened by Collor’s massively corrupt regime. They led the way for the whole country, which stopped each day at 7:00 for the allegorical soap opera, Deus Nos Acuda (God Help Us), a comedy in which the angel Celestina tries to save Brasil from the excesses of its social and political elite. In the show’s opening, the rich are smothered in mud and flushed down a whirlpool shaped like the country itself.
Collor was impeached and left office by the end of 1992.
Russo died on October 11, 1996, of AIDS-related illnesses. Russo’s wishes were to have his ashes spread over the gardens of Brazilian landscape artist Roberto Burle Marx, returning him to Brasília and its modernist vision.
In 2006, Fernando Collor was elected Senator for his home state, Alagoas, for an 8 year term (2007-2015). Brazil has absorbed Brasília.
Notes and Credits
Photo: interior of the Brasília Metropolitan Cathedral. As with the previous post, the photo is taken from the Flickr site of Shelley Bernstein, aur2899. She works at the Brooklyn Museum (according to the Flickr “about”) and has a lot of pictures from Brasília and elsewhere. Her Brooklyn Museum blog posts are here.
Renato Russo was born Renato Manfredi, Jr., in Rio de Janeiro. He moved to Brasília in 1973 at the age of 13 and became a songwriter and musician. He renamed himself after the philosophers Rousseau and Bertrand Russell, and the painter Henri Rousseau.
Faroeste Caboclo plays on the iconic stories of migration from the Brazilian backlands, the sertão, to cities in search of a better life – one of the central storylines of Brazilian history. It’s a story of spiritual depth and apocalyptic reach, most famously told in Euclides da Cunha’s Os Sertões. Da Cunha’s book, published in 1903, tells of the Brazilian military’s destruction of the city of Canudos in the 1890s.
Canudos was a city that grew up around the milennial teachings of a folk preacher, Antonio Conselheiro, bringing tens of thousands of poor Brazilians together in a sertanejo enclave to await the last days. The Brazilian government saw the city as a grave threat to its own project of bringing Brazil into the community of modern republics while still maintaining the class and racial divisions of its colonial and plantation (slavery) past. Canudos was utterly destroyed by the military, and its inhabitants were massacred.
The destruction of Canudos removed one “sore” from the Brazilian body politic, but in the predictable irony of history and unintended consequences, Canudos gave birth to the next social threat. Soldiers from the campaign, unable to find work on retrn to civilian life, migrated south from the Northeast to Rio de Janeiro and built their own squatter colony on a hill. Thus was born the first favela, later to become the 21st century dystopian Canudos that continues to challenges the Brazilian modernizing project.
During 1992 and 1993, I lived in Belém and accompanied the protest marches through the city. I was officially a researcher, but I was also 28 years old, not much older than the caras-pintadas who I spoke to. Just a few years earlier, as a college student in New Orleans in the mid-1980s, I used to grab the New York Times every day to read up on the military’s exit from power in 1985. In 1992-93, like everyone else in Brazil, I was glued to the television every day for Deus Nos Acuda.
Another song that rang out from the sound trucks and radios everywhere was the first Legião Urbana hit, “Tempo Perdido,” with the echoing call of the refrain, selvagem, meaning wild, untamed. It was a song about love and not losing the time at hand, but it was also about the passion for breaking free of repression that made this song the “anthem of an entire generation” (O hino de toda uma geração), according to Alexandre Inagaki. In the video the band pays homage to all their forebears in rock and roll.
“Tempo Perdido” follows in the footsteps, or looking down from the shoulders of Raul Seixas and “Maluco Beleza.” Raul Seixas was Brazil’s Elvis (his idol), Jim Morrison, and John Lennon rolled into one. He “was not just a musician, but a philosopher of life …” (Raul não era apenas música, Raul era uma filosofia de vida), “Always Ahead of his Time.” See Jesse’s portrait of Raul on her blog, Mundo de Jesse. “Maluco Beleza” (“Crazy Beauty”) is for many the epic statement of individuality and creativity from the central icon of Brazilian rock.
For an English translation of “Faroeste Caboclo” along with the music, go here. The translation of the ending of the song above is taken from this video, and credit goes to Alexandre Mello and Andrea Hilland.