You smile when your heart is broken,
life wringing joy from bitter
darkness in this lowest hour.
The honest baring of teeth
against desire, mocking hope,
a face skids on the ice
looking down, looking in, cut off
cracking, cracking, crackling.
Beneath the brittle surface
oxygen is scarce, sounds weighted down.
Senses grow numb, your body cold,
yet it will last not seasons nor the
passing of time, melting slowly
to the bone, where truth is spun.
There was, there is, and there will be love.
Across the church, I saw her big, toothy grin. It made her face expand and inflate. She was chasing after her son, a puffy toddler loose in the church, racing to the altar steps with all the abandon of a baby bull in a sacred store. She grabbed him and brought him in with one swooping motion that parents know how to do without trying. I remembered the Wednesday service, when she cried in the pews. The Reverend Mother sat with her quietly, holding her and this child whose father now lived halfway across the world. Her mother told me what happened and how it happened and wished her daughter could let the anger go. And today, chasing the boy down, she couldn’t help smiling when she picked him up, just like she can’t help the anger. I know that feeling. There’s nothing you can do about it but trust it and hope that the boy, and the smile and the joy, are bigger than the heartbreak. There was, there is, and there will be love.
The story is true. The smile was huge and beautiful. The photograph was taken by the author at Prospect Park, Brooklyn, in 2010 during a snow storm. Only the birds cross the ice on Lake Prospect.
It was there, under that tree in April of 2008, that I saw a bee swarm come up in the park. I’d never seen such a thing before, and it remains to this day a most magical experience. I was laying on the ground with Duke, my dog, just enjoying a nice warm spring day. My son, Noel, was playing ball with his friend not too far away. The bees came up on me and Duke slowly, a few at a time, until they were arriving by the dozens and then hundreds. They hovered over us but never landed. The sound of thousands of bee wings in motion covered us, like a blanket, and I felt a warm serenity. After a while I noticed the bees moving up toward the branches of the tree above us. There, the bees were swarming around their queen, who was leading the colony away to find a new home. They shared a part of their journey with us, and we were blessed.
A few weeks ago, in December of 2011, my son and I were walking through the park when we passed the spot where the bee tree was. In its place, there was only a stump. It must have been cut down recently, perhaps a result of Hurricane Irene, or maybe disease. Between the Hurricane, last year’s tornado, and the unexpected Halloween snow storm in 2011, the park had a lot of downed trees to deal with – so much so that the park was giving away the mulch they made from this year’s Christmas trees. Whatever the reason, the bee tree was no more.
With death comes reflection for those of use who are left behind. That’s how I felt when we happened upon the stump. In the time since the bee swarm in 2008, a lot has happened. About a year later, Duke died, which I chronicled in “The truth and sleeping dogs” on this blog. We buried some of his ashes in the park, where he had spent so many happy days. Noel is now in the fourth grade and is a whole lot more of a person than he was then. His wants and desires are more solid. His life in the park has grown, too, from birthday parties and piñatas, to baseball and sledding and flag football. Back in 2006, when he was 4, he saw a racoon on the little hill by the Third Street Playground. For a year or two, every time we passed that hill he would slow down and hunch up, stopping to say, “Daddy, be quiet, we’re hunting for raccoons!” He doesn’t say that any more, but he still thinks about it and we were talking about that raccoon just last week.
In that time, I lost a job and spent a little over year doing odd consulting gigs while trying to see if I could reorient my career. It was a pretty bad crash, but I came out of the better in the end. The year of searching was a gift, in which for the first time in my life I stopped and simply enjoyed myself. I started Truth and Rocket Science at this time, in February of 2009 about four months after I stopped working. That summer, I wrote a post called “The truth and Twitter, part 3: The Swarm,” reflecting on the “swarm culture” that Twitter is producing. In the post, I brought up the bee tree and added a photograph of it. That photo gets a lot of hits – if you Google “bee tree” or “bee bee tree,” this photograph is on the first page of images that comes up. In February 2010, I took a limited contract with an agency providing services to people with HIV and those who are at risk of HIV. By Christmas the funds were running out and I was about to be laid off when the department director walked off the job and a new career was born.
In the wake of my mother’s death, my father and I have created a new relationship, two men supporting each other against life’s adversities. I met a wonderful woman who has helped open up my heart in ways I haven’t been used to. I got up to 7 miles a day running and then herniated a disk in my lower back, which has put me off running for the last 18 months. With everything else, it left me feeling older and older, approaching 48 now and wondering what it would mean to start thinking of myself as middle-aged. I spend a lot of time reflecting on my youth and what I’ve done in those other 2 or 3 lives I have led in Ann Arbor, Brazil, South Africa, Rock Island, and the Mississippi Delta, to name a few of my great haunts. I can go on YouTube and watch videos from the 80s and 90s for hours, remembering all the songs that form the soundtrack of my life.
At this point, the episode under the bee tree seems like a lifetime away. In the next few years, as I have over the last few, I will pass the bee tree’s place again and again. It won’t be with Duke, and less and less with Noel as he grows into his own life and starts to spend time in the park without me. Today I did 2 laps around the park on my bike, smiling as I passed the bee tree stump in the darkening eve. In the next couple of months I will start running again, and there it will be, a reminder of so many things in life and, at the bottom of it, the day when Duke and Noel and I saw the bees migrating to their new home.
It all brings me back to another place, when I first read Shel Silverstein’s The Giving Tree in the fourth or fifth grade, in religion class at Catholic school. A good 35 or 36 years later, my brother gave me his son’s copy of the book to pass on to my son. The first time I read it to him, I had to choke back tears. Something profound came over me, like it does sometimes when I’m doing things with my son. I suddenly see myself in him, or my father in myself. Time stands still and life takes on new meanings, like light refracted through a prism emerging in many colors on the other side.
I’m not ready to sit on that bee tree’s stump just yet. I have a few more things to do, but one day I will go to Prospect Park and take a seat there. I’ll be an old man, and my own son will be grown and maybe with children of his own. I’ll sit there, and I’ll remember to thank the bee tree for the times we have shared.
The Bee Tree of Prospect Park, RIP 2011
Notes and Credits
Photographs taken by the author. The image from The Giving Tree was scanned from my own copy, which was published by Haprer Collins in 1964, the year I was born. In that frame, the boy sits on the stump. It’s the last thing the tree could give him, “and the tree was happy.”
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.
Irene wasn’t really a hurricane when she finally reached New York after some 18 hours of waiting, waiting, waiting. By 6:00 am on Sunday, August 27, 2011 Irene was a tropical storm. The most horrifying aspect of the storm for us in Brooklyn was the waiting. It was like being stuck behind a slow walker or a tourist or a sudden-stopper on the sidewalk. Horribly aggravating, enough-so to ruin a day, or at least a morning.
I live across the street from the Prospect Park Parade Grounds. A number of photographs featured on this blog have come from this very street, Caton Ave, some even from the same dining room window from which these two Irene videos. From this vantage point I was able to record the storm safely. By 10 am on Sunday, the storm was largely over.
Finally, by the early afternoon I was ready to go find brunch. After being cooped up in the house for 24 hours, my son and I were eager to get into the fresh air. On our way, we documented our journey to the Windsor Cafe, just across Prospect Park from here.
Notes and Credits
These videos were taken with my new Canon Powershot SX20 IS. It’s a baby camera, a point-and-shoot, but it’s a good camera for me. These videos and hundreds of photos I have taken since buying the camera have convinced me of its fit with my needs. Ironically, I decided to buy the camera to document my vacation in Nova Scotia with my father and son. The vacation was set to begin Saturday morning, August 26. Then my father abruptly canceled, claiming that Hurricane Irene posed too great a danger to travel. On my end, I though the trip to Nova Scotia would be the perfect hurricane evacuation, which it would have been. My view, however, was not the majority view, and I lost. So for Irene, my son and I spent Friday night through Sunday afternoon preparing and enduring the storm. Ugh. It was so good to get outside and take these pictures!
For three years, from 2007 to 2009, I was able to look out of my living room window every September 11 and see the Tribute in Light over downtown New York. Last year, I posted photos by my neighbor and myself. Then, on 9.27.09, I moved to this apartment. I can’t see downtown from there, though I can see the lights shooting up over the trees of Prospect Park, like strange sentinels of an Oz far away, beyond the woods. I know there were events—call them vigils, rallies, protests, or demonstrations—down at Ground Zero, but I wasn’t there. I was working all day at home, cataloging AIDS service organizations in the tri-state area for a research project.
This year, the arrival of 9.11 coincided with Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year, and the end of Ramadan, the annual fast that is one of the five pillars of Islam. On Friday, 9.10, my son had the day off from school because of the Jewish holidays, and his friend G came over to visit. We played ball in the park and walked around the neighborhood to grab pizza at Bene’s and snacks at the grocery.
The Bangladeshis were all out on the street, families. The men wear white pants and tunics, with their small white caps that are often embroidered and appear delicate and firm and strong all at the same time. You see groups of men like this on the sidewalks of Coney Island Avenue on Friday evenings after mosque services. The women wear beautiful long patterned dresses and veils of vivid colors.
During Rosh Hashanah every year, Hasidic Jews—mainly the men, I think—come out on the streets of Park Slope and all around Prospect Park and try to reach other Jews to celebrate their heritage. Dressed in black suits with white shirts and black hats, they are polite and discreet as they ask everyone passing by a simple question, “Excuse me, are you Jewish?”
Friday, as I walked my son over to his mom’s house after G left, we passed several along the park’s sidewalks. They asked, and I think said, “No, not today” out of my habit with the usual assortment of canvassers for progressive causes who work the sidewalks of Park Slope. But I might have said, “No, sorry” (why “sorry” I don’t really know). My son asked why they were asking us, since we aren’t Jewish, and I explained what they were up to. In a couple days, on 9.12, we would be going up to St. John’s Episcopal Church in Park Slope to celebrate mass with its mixed WASP and Caribbean congregation that we have come to cherish.
Thus it was that on, 9.11.2010, as my son and I walked home from the grocery on MacDonald Avenue through this jigsaw puzzle of religions, races, languages, ethnicities, foods and their smells, I thought about my old apartment and the sight I would not be able to see from my living room window. I do not miss my old living room window. I prefer the street the way it was today. If there is anything that America has meant to me, it is this jigsaw that is not puzzling at all.
In a few weeks, the park will turn colors, and my walks over to pick up and deliver my son at his mom’s house will look like this. Olmsted and Vaux, known more designing Central Park than Prospect Park, considered the latter to be their masterpiece, a place of recreation designed as a “democratic space” that breathed the essence of Whitman’s poetry in the war-torn republic. And so it is.
Notes and Credits
I have my own opinions on the controversies brewing here in New York and around the country, along with my own doubts and fears about the future of the world, but that’s not what this posting is about. Taking a break from all that, it’s just an observation about my neighborhood and the relatively tranquil days we’ve had here this week, in spite of it all. Nothing more and nothing less.
Photograph of the Bangladeshi women, all clients of the Grameen Bank, by a UN staffer and posted on this site.
I regret that I have no photo of the Tribute in Light over Prospect Park. It’s moving in an entirely different way that the traditional photos of the lights over downtown are. The park just looks like a forest, especially at night. You really can’t see the city at all, especially if you can limit your view to the park itself. At night, it’s like this but moreso. The lights shoot up over the dark silhouette of treetops. They seem to come from nowhere to announce a mystery looming in the distance. Beacons, sentinels, signs of something distant and different.
This year, the lights had to be turned off a few times, because they attracted migrating birds, as Gizmodo reported:
According to John Rowden, citizen science director at the Audubon Society’s New York chapter, “it has only happened once before. It’s a confluence of circumstances that come together to cause this. Some of it has to do with meteorological conditions, and some with the phase of the moon.”
The images of the lights with the birds are some of the most beautiful photos I ever seen, reminding me of a stunning night in 1994 when I was walking along a road in Pretoria, South Africa, next to a ball park at dusk. There was no game in the park, but the lights were on and hundreds of bats were flitting about them, feasting I suppose on the bugs in the lights. Such was one theory of the birds in the Tribute in Light. According to commenter deciBels, “If you’ve ever worked night construction, you’ve seen this all the time. Those big bright lights bring out big dumb bugs. What are 2 creatures that LOVE eating bugs? Birds and bats.” See the incredible photos on the post, including this one from commenter, Baroness.
Our apartment building and this end of Prospect Park sit at the juncture of several neighborhoods. Sweeping around the clock, starting at 11 o’clock in Windsor Terrace, the neighborhood is something like this, based on less-than-scientific observations I have made around the area since moving here:
11 o’clock—Italians, Irish, and Latinos/Puerto Ricans in Windsor Terrace, along with some (mainly white) yuppies (my tribe) who want to be close to Park Slope—9 o’clock—Jews of all sorts, trending more traditional (Orthodox) as you move to 6 o’clock and Borough Park and Midwood, along with Russians, Poles, Albanians and Bulgarians (European Muslims), and as you get over to MacDonald Avenue, Bangladeshis—6 o’clock—Banglatown all the way down MacDonald Avenue and Coney Island Avenue, Arabic and Bengali (I think) on all the signs until you get to Borough Park and the Orthodox Jews—5 o’clock—giant Victorian houses in the late-19th century suburban experiment called Prospect Park South, a bit mixed but very much the province of nice white liberals and yuppies on the move from Park Slope to bigger houses and easier parking—4 o’clock—as you head down Flatbush Avenue it’s a mix of Black Caribbeans and African Americans—3 o’clock—Jamaicans and other West Indians—and finally, all around the clock, Mexicans—Sunset Park (just west of Kensington) has a large and growing Mexican population, but the presence of Mexican taco stands, restaurants, cantinas, and bodegas all around my neighborhood is marked, though you don’t see the Mexicans on the street walking around the same way you do the Bangladeshis and others.
Neylan McBaine is a Mormon woman who lives in Park Slope and wrote a wonderful article about the Hasidic Jews on the sidewalks of the neighborhood this time of year. See it here. Finally, while writing this posting, on 9.11, I remembered to send my brother an email, Happy Birthday, bro. Talk to you tomorrow.
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.
There are two kinds of people: those who follow and those who don’t. Of followers, there are two kinds: those who stay put, and those who go somewhere. Of followers who go somewhere, there are two kinds: those who are led and those who are pushed, the latter including those who fall in holes whether pushed or not (go ask Alice). Of followers who stay put, there are two kinds: those who stay in a place, and those who stay in a particular frame of mind.
Of those who do not follow, there are three kinds: poets, prophets, and migrants. Of poets, it is said that they show us who we are. Of prophets, it is said that they show us who we should be. Of migrants, it is said they show us where to go next.
Poets, prophets, and migrants are called. They do not choose who they are, and mistakes can be made when callings are crossed, whether by the one who is called or by those doing the calling. When poets are mistaken for prophets, everyone is deceived. Cults are formed and lives are wasted.
There’s a whole lot of people in trouble tonight from the disease of conceit
Whole lot of people seeing double tonight from the disease of conceit
Give you delusions of grandeur and an evil eye
Give you the idea that you’re too good to die
Then they bury you from your head to your feet
From the disease of conceit.
Bob Dylan, “Disease of Conceit”
Prophets are rarely mistaken for poets, but when they are, they are generally neither and the poetry is awful. Though it is nearly impossible for a poet to be a prophet, either might be a migrant, whether on land, in dreams, or of the mind.
Leadership is an attribute given by those who follow to someone else, who may or not be the kind of person who follows. The truth is—leadership has nothing to do with being a follower or not. In the end, perhaps there really are only two kinds of people: those who do well when type-cast, and those who only begin to thrive when cast against type.
Notes and Credits
The photos were all taken by the author in the neighborhood of Park Slope, Brooklyn, in 2008, 2009, and 2010. The first is a photo of an art project my son did in the first grade (2009), drawing the human form. The second is the tunnel at the northwestern entrance of Prospect Park. The third is a garden scultpure in front of a house on 2nd Street, near the corner with Prospect Park West.
Bob Dylan was called to be a poet, but the people who loved him wanted him to be a prophet. It cost him, and some of those loved him, twenty years. After years of reflection, Dylan wrote that by the mid-1980s “[e]verything was smashed. My own songs had become strangers to me. I didn’t have the skill to touch their raw nerves, couldn’t penetrate the surfaces. It wasn’t my moment of history any more. I couldn’t wait to retire and fold the tent”—Chronicles, Vol. One (Simon and Schuster, 2004), p. 148.
Dylan wrote “Disease of Conceit,” in 1987 as he began to explore a new musical identity more aligned with his own sense of self and his mission as an artist. The song would be the eighth track on Oh Mercy, the album that set him on the path to redeeming his career with a whole new audience by the mid-1990s. In the fall of 1989, I saw him perform at Hill Auditorium on the University of Michigan Campus in Ann Arbor. It was the third show of his I had seen at that point in my life and by far the best. Toward the end of the show – as either the closing song or the last encore – he brought down the house with “Disease of Conceit.” The poetry was breathtaking.
As for those who fall down holes …
Alice on the toad-stool, Central Park, New York, December 20, 2009
April is the cruellest month, breeding
Lilacs out of the dead land, mixing
Memory and desire, stirring
Dull roots with spring rain.
These, I, singing in spring, collect for lovers
Collecting, I traverse the garden, the world—but soon I pass the gates,
Now along the pond-side—now wading in a little, fearing not the wet …
Everything here is yellow and green
the ground, that winter nightmare,
has cured its sores and burst
with green birds and vitamins
The bees are flying. They taste the spring.
I took a broken root to fling
Where the proud, wayward squirrel went,
Taking delight that he could spring
Oh, give us pleasure in the flowers to-day;
For this is love and nothing else is love,
The which it is reserved for God above
Notes and Credits
T. S. Eliot, The Waste Land, ll. 1-4
Walt Whitman, Leaves of Grass, #38, These, I, Singing in Spring, ll. 1, 4-5
Anne Sexton, It is a Spring Afternoon, ll. 1, 30-32
Sylvia Plath, Wintering, l. 50
W. B. Yeats, An Appointment, ll. 2-4
Robert Frost, A Prayer in Spring, ll. 1, 13-14
All the photos were taken by the writer in Prospect Park, Brooklyn – except for the white roses, which bloom every year in Tom and Laura’s backyard in Park Slope, Brooklyn. The squirrel is the most recent, taken as he chopped up and dropped leaves and twigs and flowers on all of us baseball parents while our children were at practice last week.
For the W. B. Yeats poem, I credit Jim Tolstrup, who posted on this poem and squirrels and anarchy a couple months ago.
There is an appointed time for everything,
and a time for every affair under the heavens.
A time to be born, and a time to die;
a time to plant, and a time to uproot the plant.
April 21, 2010
A time to kill, and a time to heal;
a time to tear down, and a time to build.
A time to weep, and a time to laugh;
a time to mourn, and a time to dance.
October 31, 2009
A time to scatter stones, and a time to gather them;
a time to embrace, and a time to be far from embraces.
A time to seek, and a time to lose;
a time to keep, and a time to cast away.
December 21, 2009
A time to rend, and a time to sew;
a time to be silent, and a time to speak.
A time to love, and a time to hate;
a time of war, and a time of peace.
April 29, 2010
Notes and Credits
The photos of the tree at the beginning of this post were taken by the author from my dining room window on Caton Avenue in Brooklyn, 11218. The tree is in the Bowling Green of the Prospect Park Parade Grounds.
The photos of the trees forming an arch over the sidewalk were taken by the author at the Prospect Park Parade Grounds, Caton Avenue sidewalk, 11218.