11 November 2016

good day

#2 in an occasional series of snacks semi-randomly selected from the kiosk downstairs. These were disappointingly ordinary, with an unfortunate hint of coconut but otherwise inoffensive. Not too sweet but with the masala tea I think even less sweetness would work better. 5/10.
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07 October 2016


First in a possible series of semi-randomly selected snacks from the kiosk downstairs.

Chalky, extremely dry crackers, possibly chocolate flavor, overwhelmed by a filling with the taste and consistency of oversweetened orange crayon. 4/10.
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04 September 2016

friday afternoon, washington square park

This is not a photo of a jazz quartet.

I was sitting in Washington Square Park after work on Friday.  We'd gotten out early before the Labor Day weekend.  It was too lovely a day to head immediately into a hole in the ground, so I walked through the West Village to the park and sat on a bench, where a number of people were sitting listening to the four musicians above.  I was thinking about how much my mom would love this, the way you can just go sit in the park in New York on a summer afternoon and hear musicians as good as anybody you might pay to see in a concert hall.  I sat and listened and watched the people come and go.

A man walked through, waving his hands to the music as if he were conducting, but not looking at the musicians, just staring ahead, walking slowly, right in front of the improvised stage.  I mean, it was the path; what else are you going to do?  He called to mind a conversation I overheard my parents having once when we were on vacation.  I have no idea why I remember this.  My mom asked my dad, "Did you see that man in the yellow shirt?"  Or something to that effect,  I am mostly making these particulars up.

"Yes," my dad said.

"He reminded me of George So-and-so."

"Yeah - just kind of, in his own little world."

As I said, I made the particulars up, although not the phrase "his own little world."  That was the one.  As I said, I have no idea why I remember this.  But on Friday there was a man walking through Washington Square Park, plainly, and happily enough, in his own little world, among us.  I wondered if that'll be me someday.

That was the man sitting on the bench, on the left, the one in the hat.

After a moment - he may have turned around and headed back, the younger man, the one sitting on the right, came running up, a little awkwardly; he was wearing sandals.  "Dad, Dad," he called.  The man in the hat turned to him, and the younger man led him back toward the center of the park, and then to the bench.  He pointed to the bench and said something, but his dad kind of started wandering off again, and the son had to chase after him again and, pointed to the bench and told him to sit there.

The son, of course, is the one on the right, with the sunglasses hanging from his collar.  This is a picture of the two of them.

Finally his dad complied.  He didn't seem totally happy about it, but he wasn't that perturbed either.  There seemed to be some others that the son was trying to keep track of; at first I thought it was two women, one of whom you can see on the next bench, to the left of the father, but then that didn't seem to be the case.

Eventually the son sat down.  They sat there and talked, and listened to the music, and enjoyed the perfect afternoon.  It wasn't clear how coherent the conversation might be.  It wasn't clear how much care the father might require.  A lot, maybe.  But every now and then you get to enjoy an afternoon in the park together.

We must love one another and die.  That's pretty much all there is to it.

31 August 2016

sitting with colin

As it happened, I read Joe Posnanski's column about Colin Kaepernick while I was on my way to see a game of the Class A Brooklyn Cyclones, and I read the comments. And it occurred to me as I was walking from the train to the ballpark that I might try sitting through the national anthem. Not especially to make any political statement, although one would almost certainly be inferred, and although I'm inclined to support both Colin Kaepernick's position and his right to express it, and even I might argue that his method of protest is as effective - or at least as prominent - as any he might choose. But mostly I was curious to see what it would feel like. I'm certain I've never sat through the national anthem in my life. I don't think it's ever occurred to me.

I was curious to see whether people might say anything, what they would say. I thought I might answer, "I'm sitting with Colin."  Then I thought that might be a bad idea.

But, as it happened, I got to the ballpark about two minutes too late; they were starting the song as I hit the top of the stairs, and it would have been really weird to rush to my seat and sit down in the middle of the song. So instead I stood on the concourse and observed people. Most people were standing at some form of attention, looking at the flag or the field or the singer.  The hot dog salespeople were standing the same way, and I wondered if they were instructed to do so - I don't think I've ever noticed a concession stand employee during the national anthem. One couple ran up to the concession stand - I didn't see whether they were served right away.

Do sportswriters stand during the national anthem? I mean, they're working. Certainly cameramen and sound engineers and the guys in the truck don't stand at attention. People have jobs to do. Commerce, of various kinds, overrides patriotic duty, I guess. Political opinion, not so much it seems.

So I sort of walked around, looking at the way people were behaving. It was odd. It felt like being in a "Twilight Zone" episode where everyone else has been frozen in their tracks, while I was free to wander around. It really was as if time had stopped for a minute or two. That was powerful.

Then the game started, and I found my seat, and mostly forgot about it until the seventh inning, when at the start of the seventh-inning stretch the singer came back out to sing "God Bless America."  The PA announcer said, "we invite you to stand..."  I thought that was interesting, as if this weren't really compulsory, as if he were giving me permission not to stand.  Maybe it's a level of sensitivity about things that you might find in multicultural Brooklyn. Maybe it was just courteous wording.

The weather in New York in late August and September is as perfect as you'll find it anywhere. The days are warm, the mornings and evenings cool, the sky almost invariably cloudless. It's delightful and full of the sadness of summer ending. And full of the sadness of that horrible day 15 years ago, and the horrible days after, days when the sky was clear save for a long gray smudge low over the western sky, when everywhere you turned you saw a flyer with a face and the word "Missing." I don't think I've walked out into a day like that, a day like today, without feeling a little of that sadness. I imagine it's like that for many people, or in any case the news starts to run anniversary-type stories, probably more than usual this year for being the 15th anniversary. So September 11 is not far from the surface in people's minds, I think.

For me, the sadness has become mixed with resentment, resentment about what the day gas come to mean, resentment about the way it was hijacked for a war without end and the perpetual messages of fear that are spread through "See Something? Say Something" advertisements, about the animosity directed toward ordinary people, about the bad faith of politicians and would-be politicians, about the compulsory patriotism that is our national faith. It dishonors that day and the people who lost their lives that day, the way we have come to commemorate it.

I get that I may be an outlier in this regard.  I didn't know anyone personally who died on September 11, and I didn't know anyone personally who died in the wars that followed.  Maybe I don't get to say how those events should be commemorated.  I certainly don't speak for anyone but myself.  

I find the enlistment of "God Bless America" in this cause to be particularly distasteful.  The national anthem has going for it, at this point, 100 years of tradition, and to the extent it's not simply empty ritual, it may at least, as one of Joe Posnanski's Facebook commenters noted, a pause to acknowledge a greater unity before taking the field as foes.  I think the use of "God Bless America," on the other hand, is nakedly political.  it's as if the powers that be are saying, you can forget slavery, you can forget the extermination of the natives of this land, you can set aside all the crimes and injustices ever committed here, but you can't play a single sporting event in the city of New York without pausing in the middle to recall that one day, and without invoking the supreme deity on our side.  That's not what the song says, of course, but like any symbol, it has come to mean more things, other things, besides its literal meanings. For me, "God Bless America" carries meanings that I refuse stand for.

Was that too cute?  If so, I'll edit it out.

So, during the preamble to the seventh-inning stretch, I carried out my experiment.  I probably carried it out with more feeling than I would have during the national anthem.  If people thought I was making a point, they weren't wrong about my opinions, anyway.

The experience was: odd.  I was self-aware.  I wonder how self-aware Colin Kaepernick was; a great deal, I'd imagine.  He had certainly thought it through.  I was aware of what to do with my hands - I started to cross my arms, and then immediately uncrossed them.  The man sitting in front of me saw me remaining seated as he rose, and looked at me with something that might have been contempt.  He didn't say anything, just stood and placed his hand over his heart.  He looked like someone who might have been a firefighter once.  I looked around, as much as I could without being too conspicuous about it.  I certainly didn't see anyone else sitting.

It was a statement, I suppose, whether I wanted it to be or not.  It wasn't much of a statement; I doubt even the man in front of me remembers.  I don't think I won anyone over to the cause.  It didn't feel good, exactly.  Standing for "God Bless America" has never felt good, either.  It wasn't a big deal.

Maybe it wasn't a big deal because it wasn't a big deal,  It's possible to imagine the guy in front of me taking offense, and then it might have become a deal of some size.  Colin K is more visible than I am, of course, and lives in a world inhabited in part by professional offense-takers, and so that has become a big deal.  It seems to me that, other than those offense-takers, it might not be one.

The singer went off.  They played "Take Me Out to the Ballgame."  I stood up for that.

25 August 2016

polish that silver

I read today the extraordinarily smug letter sent by the dean of students of the University of Chicago to the U's entering undergraduates.  Here is what I think about it.  There's a bit here that you might find hurtful or offensive, and I hope you'll understand it in the context of the events.

When I was a graduate student at the U of C,  I took a seminar about Richard Wright.  It was a pretty good course, but then pretty much any course in which you read the near-entirety of Wright's writings is likely to be pretty good.  I don't remember too much about what we talked about in the class, except that a lot of it was about media and the way Wright used media to frame the way his characters were seen and saw themselves.

I do remember one incident pretty vividly, though.  It was sometime in the middle of the course.  I don't remember what book we were reading at that point, or what the topic of discussion was.  But the professor, whom I'll leave nameless, was making a point about the way people could have multiple images of black people in their heads; could separate and compartmentalize their feelings about one black person from their different feelings about all black people.  He talked about his grandmother, who loved Cab Calloway, listened to him all the time.  And then she would turn around and tell him, "Polish that silver 'til it shines like a nigger's heel."

Well, there it was.  Some of us laughed, I think; I probably laughed.  It was a startling thing to hear.

A few class sessions later, the professor set aside his regular lesson to talk about a complaint that had been lodged against him to the dean by a student in the class.  The complaint was that the story had been told without the appropriate context.  It was told in a humorous way, and people had laughed, and the seriousness of using the word "nigger" wasn't appreciated.  He was both trying to apologize to the student who had complained, and to anyone else offended, and also explain that he hadn't meant that, and also express hurt that the student hadn't come to him directly rather than filing a complaint.  We had a discussion about it.  It wasn't very successful.  We were all guessing about who the student was, and I suspect he - if I recall, he outed himself as the complainant along the way - felt further victimized by the discussion.  I would have felt that way.  I don't think you can successfully hold a discussion that's an apology and a defense and a complaint all in one.  In any case, it was really unsatisfying for everybody, and we went through the rest of the course carrying that with us, and I suspect it was a pretty painful experience for one student in particular.

To be clear, this was a graduate course.  The student in question never struck me as someone in need of protection from difficult ideas.  To be a graduate student in English at the U of Chicago, you had to know your shit, and you had to be able to work, and you had to have a certain willingness to stand your ground.  I don't think he was someone in need of coddling.  And I don't think that was what he was asking for.  It seems to me now that maybe he was just asking for the knowledge that he could engage in rigorous debate, discussions, and even disagreements in an environment of civility and mutual respect.

I suspect, even more than me, that moment was all that he remembered.

How easy it would have been for the professor to have simply said, "My grandmother would tell me -  and I don't want to offend anyone with this language, I'm making a point as honestly as I can ..."  To have used, you know, a trigger warning.  A student might not have felt mocked, and would have learned more.  I would have learned more - at least, more about the stated purposes of the course.  We wouldn't have spent a class in a tortured discussion of race and academic protocol and suspicion and doubt.  We might have been able to get to know each other better and learn more from each others' experiences.  I don't really see what would have been wrong with that.

Then again: the U of C struck me, as I've noted before, as a place where they brought together the smartest people in the world, gave them all the resources in the world, and let them do whatever the hell they wanted without regard for the repercussions.  It's the sort of place you go if you want to invent atom bombs.  So some number of people can be glad that that place still exists.

09 April 2016

death notices

The first real job I had out of college, not counting waiting tables or pounding nails with the Amish carpenters working on my parents' new house, was writing for the public relations department at Kenyon.  The Office of Public Affairs, to be precise.  The job was Assistant to the News Director, and it was half-time and paid a princely eight-something an hour, but I managed to live on that plus the half-time, four dollars an hour the Mount Vernon News paid me to be their local education reporter.

The duties, as outlined in the job posting, were principally writing press releases, articles for the Alumni Bulletin, and obituaries.  The first turned out to be fun and useful and a good lesson in writing engagingly and concisely, which you may argue I have largely ignored since.  The last was - well, in my early days on the job it was a punchline at cocktail parties.

It was mentioned in the job posting, I think, to weed out the applicants who might be creeped out by writing about dead people.  It did seem creepy to me, but I needed a job that was better than delivering massive trays of chicken wings to college kids on dime-a-wing night at the Brown Jug.  So I swore not to be fazed by it.  Mieke Bomann, the News Director who was hiring me, pressed me on the point by making clear that an essential part of the responsibility of writing obituaries would be calling people - Kenyon being a former men's college, generally aged widows - and asking about the cause of death.  No problem, I said, apparently convincingly enough.

Somewhat to my surprise, it wasn't a problem.  Well, the first couple of times, yes.  I'd suck in my breath, look at the name and phone number I'd pulled from the alumni files, pick up the receiver and punch in the digits.  I tended to reach those aged widows on the first try.  I would explain who I was and why I was calling, and express sorrow to them for their losses.  

And then we would proceed to have lovely conversations.  At twenty-three, I was far too untraveled to realize that there are few gifts more welcome to a grieving spouse then to spend half an hour talking with her about her former life partner.  It's funny - what did I expect?  That they would say, "Ugh!" and slam down the phone in pain?  I think maybe I did expect that.  Instead, I found myself spending too much of my four hours a day talking about the small details that make up ordinary mens' lives: their fraternity memberships, the ordinary jobs that they gave themselves to, their sports heroics, their love of their families.  

The one phone call I can recall most distinctly was about an alumnus for whom the files held almost nothing.  No information about family, no news clippings, little even about his days on the Hill.  We might have found out about his death from a returned piece of mail - that was pretty common.  I needed something, so I looked up where he had worked and called, blindly, hoping for some little detail or anecdote.  I ended up speaking a former colleague, maybe the guy who worked at the next desk.  There still wasn't much.  

And yet - there was someone on the other end of the wire who felt his loss.  You know, I suppose I might have dismissed the guy, written three sentences and moved on, but I didn't understand the job that way.  I don't think I've cared about getting any job I've had right as much as I did writing those little obituaries of ordinary men.  So the fellow on the line told me how his old colleague would often speak fondly of Kenyon, and I noted it down, and when it came time to write I made sure to include that little phrase.  It felt like placing a little flower in remembrance.  

It landed on Mieke's cutting room floor.  Which was probably the right call, editorially, and didn't really bother me.  In truth, I hadn't written that sentence for anyone who might have read it.

I had that job for about eight months.  In many ways, I feel as if everything I've written since - everything creative, anyway - has been a kind of obituary: of a place, of a time in my life, of a job I once had.  A way both of remembering and of moving on.  Whether that's true or not, I've always had an appreciation for the art, and the Times of course bears the standard.  When I used to get paper copies, I would never skip them; today, in digital form, they're easier to miss.  But every now and then you come across a standout.  The one linked here is a spectacular example, of a spectacular life.