Category Archives: struggle

The truth and progress, 1: Texaco

Oil Refinery at Baby Beach, Aruba, 2012

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

—Patrick Chamoiseau, Texaco,  p. 170.

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

ft-de-france-modern

Modern-day Fort-de-France

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

Texaco,  p. 184

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

Mount_Pelée_1902_refugees

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

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

A hillside shantytown in Fort-de-France

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

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

Texaco,  p. 390

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

Notes and Credits

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

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

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

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

Photographs:

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

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

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

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

Fort_de_France_Rainbow

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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 dreams, 1: Lost

Women, photograph by Lara Wechsler

I dreamt that we were around each other, but not really together.  Our recent split was a wound still open, and I was trying to follow you, to get back to you, to make you see me again as yours.  I knew that I had pushed you away in the first place and then raised the stakes for a reunion.  I never claimed to be the complete master of my emotions.  And you, being your locked-down self, said the same thing over and over, which in this case was like saying nothing at all, since I didn’t believe you wanted it to end.

All this was in the air around us when I saw the child, a young girl maybe two or three, walking around, uncertain perhaps where she was.  She was small, dressed in a pink Hello Kitty onesy, carrying a stuffed animal.  She bore a vague resemblance to you.  It looked as if she would begin to cry at any moment.

I didn’t know whose child she was, and there were no other adults around.  For reasons I don’t really understand or remember, I thought the child was with you, or that you knew where the parents were.  I pursued you with the child, and I told you that we need to find the parents.

I don’t remember that you said anything, but you took the child from me.

Then we got into a car and you told me to drive.  The car wasn’t yours, but I couldn’t figure out if it was stolen or rented.  On the way there—a “there” that only became clear as we got closer, since I didn’t know where we were going and was only following your periodic directions—the air between us was frosty.  Not much was said.  You held on to the child.

We pulled into the parking lot of a drug store, one of those chain stores that all look and feel the same, regardless of the name on the sign out front.  It was very white—the aisles, the light, the coats that people were wearing.  You took the child back behind the pharmacy counter and began speaking to someone amid shelves of pills and ointments and jars.  I couldn’t hear what you said, but you did something to divert me, something involving the car, and I left.

When I got back to the pharmacy, you were gone.  I shouted into empty space, “We have to return the car!  Whose is it?”  Then I saw you running away.

I followed you into a massive, dark parking lot, the kind of multi-story affair you see next to stadiums, shopping malls, and airports.  By the time I reached the spot, the car was gone and so were you.  I thought: I must call you.

I awoke shaking and covered in sweat.  I reached to the nightstand for the telephone, and that’s when I realized where I was.

Notes and Credits

This posting is fiction, but the dream was real.

Photography credit to Lara Wechsler, who let me use this photo for this posting.  Lara’s work can be found on flickr, and on her own website.   Her work is on exhibit with other local artists at 440 Gallery in Park Slope, Brooklyn.  Her work is street photography, which mainly involves photos of street scenes and, in Lara’s case, photographs of people.  The photograph I used in this posting is the rare one in her collection not of people (or even one person).  In this case, it’s a shot that evokes a persona, the perfect image for this dream that made me think, over and over again, what do I want?

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The truth and moonshadows, 1: Another Saturday Morning

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

Another Saturday Morning

When I was a child, Saturday mornings were tranquil and unoccupied, a time when no one had work to do or church to attend.  It was the one day of the week that mom got to sleep in, and it was the one morning of the week when my father had some time to himself. And so it was that Saturday mornings began with a ritual of discovery, waking up to seek out my father in the family room to see what he was doing.  This was important, because whatever it was that he was doing, it looked important.

Sometimes he would be reading; sometimes he would be writing.  But he was always writing in all the books he read, and when he listened to music on the stereo, he scribbled all over the record sleeves and lyric sheets. And then sometimes he was just writing in one of his empty books that were simply labeled “Record.” He had a whole bunch of these already filled on the bookshelves.

Teaser and the Firecat

One Saturday morning, I came into the room and heard a new record, as I often did.  This one was “Teaser and the Firecat,” by an oddly-named singer called Cat Stevens.  From that day on, the song “Peace Train” became an anthem in our household, for it was in those days, or thereabouts, that my parents and their friends were peace-loving young people, the “social left” of their local Catholic Church, complete with their own bearded-hippie-Jesus priest who rode a motorcycle, preached against war and hosted wonderful weekends at his family’s fishing camp down on Lake Verret. In our household, guns were forbidden, not even toys, and we didn’t go hunting or shooting, all of which set us quite apart in Louisiana.  Guns, my father said, had only one purpose, which was to kill people, and that was not something to celebrate.

At the same time, from the walls of our living room—the same living room where Cat Stevens, Bob Dylan and Joan Baez sang every Saturday morning—there hung a striking sunset-silhouette photograph of my father’s tank out on the ground around Fort Hood, Texas, where my brother and I were both born.  On the same or a nearby wall (it changed every once in a while) my father’s bayonet was mounted on a felt-covered board with some other mementos, and on another wall hung award my mom got for service to Army wives.  Before Cat Stevens, Captain Ronald James Guidry was a tank commander and expert marksman.

Captain Ronald James Guidry, age 1 or thereabouts

Over time, Cat Stevens’ music continued to be played in our house. My father brought home each new album, all the way through Numbers, though I recall thinking that “Bannapple Gas” didn’t do the same thing for me that the other songs did.  Within a few years of that, however, around the same time that Cat Stevens seemed to disappear—and I would have no idea why that happened until many years later—my brother and I were both playing the guitar and learning the ubiquitous Cat Stevens’ Greatest Hits songbook cover-to-cover.

It was around that time, too, that the songs started to mean something different to me. They were no longer songs that were important to my father for reasons that he told us. They were songs that helped me think about important things, too. They were songs that captured the way I had begun to feel about my father as I was starting to think about what I wanted from this world and realized, with no small degree of concern, that the things I wanted weren’t what he wanted for me.

This was a challenging idea, because I thought of my aspirations and values and dreams as direct extensions of my father’s.  I didn’t understand the difficulty he had with some of my ideas, but I began to think I should worry less about his feelings than just figuring out how to move along.  Like every boy my age with a guitar, I sang the words to “Father and Son” as if I had written them myself.

How can I try to explain, when I do he turns away again.
It’s always been the same, same old story.
From the moment I could talk, I was ordered to listen.
Now there’s a way, and I know that I have to go away.
I know I have to go.

Cat Stevens, “Father and Son,” 1970

For his part, I recalled how my father listened to “Oh, Very Young,” seeing in his eyes the familiar look of loss that increasingly haunted his moods the older he got.  I couldn’t tell if he was mourning his own lost youth or mine, or perhaps the notion of lost innocence, though whether personally or in general I couldn’t quite tell.

Oh very young what will you leave us this time?
You’re only dancing on this earth for a short while
And though your dreams may toss and turn you now
They will vanish away like your daddy’s best jeans
Denim Blue fading up to the sky.
And though you want him to last forever
You know he never will.

Cat Stevens, “Oh, Very Young,” 1974

What I can say is that to this day, almost 40 years after first hearing that lyric, I cannot see my father in blue jeans without hearing the song in my head.  The images are burned in my mind and branded on my heart, stirring me still as I grow older and watch my own son as he emerges from the fog of childhood into a person of his own substance and mettle.

Notes and Credits

On some Saturday mornings, my father took my brother and me to Audubon Park.  These were especially magical.  He would sit in the grass and paint watercolors while we played.  Then he took us around the park, across the bridges and next to the lagoon.  He pointed out the places where he and my mother fell in love.  Whatever he did on those Saturday mornings, my brother and I followed.

When challenged that guns could be used to kill animals for food, my father simply pointed out that guns were not used to kill the animals we ate. He’d spent a goodly part of his childhood on his grandparents’ farm in Lutcher, Louisiana, fifty or sixty miles up-river from New Orleans. It was part of the sugar plantation there, but now it’s a Kaiser Aluminum Plant. And as a teenager, he was a butcher in his neighborhood meat shop. He knew how animals became food, and the few shot with guns today had mostly been killed in other ways for most all of human history.  When pressed on the point, he explained military history and why we have guns. He was adamant about this.

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The truth and stones

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Notes and credits

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Without truth you are the looser

If a picture is worth a thousand words, how many words is a picture of words worth?

Spelling mistake or assertion about the relationship of truth to intestinal fortitude?  Martin Luther would surely disagree, for in his case getting to the truth was intimately dependent upon getting loose, and the entire fate of the Medieval Church hung in the balance.  Luther’s was one divine and hellacious struggle.

By the time Alberto Fujimori got loose and began to deal with his struggles, he was a wanted man.  President of Peru from 1992 to 2000, he defeated the Shining Path revolutionaries by resorting to atrocities that rivaled those of this enemies.  The dirty war in Peru took over 70,000 lives on both sides, and mass graves of military executions are still being found.  Peru’s Equipo Peruano de Antropología Forense (Peruvian Forensic Anthropology Team) has made a striking documentary of the largest grave site, If I Don’t Come Back, Look for Me in Putis.  After losing the 2000 presidential race, Fujimori fled to Japan after corruption schemes involving over a billion dollars came to light.  He returned to South America in 2005 to run for president again the following year, but instead he was arrested, tried, convicted, and thrown in jail.  With or without the truth, Fujimori was finally  the loser.

How many words is a Wordsworth worth?

Notes and Credits

All photographs were taken by the author, except as otherwise noted.

“Trust your struggle” appears on the approach ramp to the Ft. Hamilton Parkway Subway Station in Kensington, Brooklyn (zip code = 11218).

“Without truth you are the looser” was taken in Lisbon, Portugal in 2000.  The ironies of this photograph go well beyond its mispelling.  But that’s all I’m saying here.

“Fujimori Presidente” was also taken in 2000, on a trip I took to Peru with students from the college where I taught at the time.  This political graffiti was seen on a fairly desolate road in the altiplano, the high plains of the Andes Mountains.  We were on a bus on our way over the continental divide, which we crossed at around 16,000 feet, and then down, down, down to the Manu River Forest Preserve.  The Manu River is a tributary of the Amazon River which at this point has just come rushing down from the Andes and is settling into the massive river it will become with each new tributary on its 2,000+ mile journey to the Atlantic Ocean at Belém.

William Wordsworthis an image from the Wikimedia Commons of what is apparently an 1873 reproduction of an 1839 watercolor of the poet by Margaret Gillies (1803-1887).

The Importance of Place: Fort Hamilton Subway Station

The Ft. Hamilton station is beneath an expressway interchange, where the Prospect Expressway empties out on to (or begins at, depending on your vantage) Ocean Parkway, beneath the Ft. Hamilton Parkway overpass.  Ocean Parkway is a major thoroughfare running south to Coney Island from Prospect Park.  It’s a folkloric parkway lined with trees and sidewalks where people are walking every day of the week, at all hours it seems.  Kareem Fahim posted this wonderful story on Ocean Parkway in the Times on October 10, 2008.

Here’s a video, working hard to be experimental, on the Parkway …

And this one, with a bowling theme, which is big here.  In summer camp they take the kids at least once a week, from age 5 on up.

The Prospect Expressway links Ocean Parkway to the Brooklyn-Queens Expressway, the BQE as we call it.  This interchange is a concrete manifestation (literally) of Robert Moses’s dreams for New York.  Moses served in various posts involved in urban planning and development, and from the 1930s to the 1970s he managed to thoroughly remake the city and Long Island’s highway system, housing agencies, and parks, which we have taken up before in Truth and Rocket Science, in The truth and change, 2: Technoredemption Goes Pro and The truth and set theory: more on Mr. McNamara.  The Fort Hamilton interchange is one small of Robert Moses’s living legacy.

The photograph above is found on the Wikimedia Commons.  To the right is the beginning of Ocean Parkway, where the Prospect Expressway empties out.  The person walking away in the photo has just passed “Trust your Struggle,” to the left, on the side of another retaining wall, as is obvious from the way that he (or she?) is contemplating the solipsism of passengerless cars rushing by on the expressway.  I do not know who put this particular graffiti there, but I smile a little every morning as I walk by it.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Tea Lounge, Park Slope

repurposing an old garage, the Park Slope way

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

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

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

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

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

Notes and Credits

All photographs by the author.

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

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

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

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

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