Sunday, December 18, 2005

Hanging odes

I just finished reading an account of the culture of medieval Islamic Spain, The Ornament of the World (see ).  The book describes a vibrant, tolerant and multicultural medieval Spain, when Islam was dominant as both religion and cultural influence, and also traces its downfall at the hands of fundamentalist tendencies from both within Islam and from Christians to the north.

Works of creativity, and especially poetry, are at the heart of this account.  Menocal traces one thread of this love of poetry back to pre-Islamic Arabian tribes, who are reputed to have gathered for a yearly poetry competition.  Winning odes were displayed on gold-embroidered banners; as the banners were hung for display, the best poetry became known as "hanging odes."
* * *
One of the books I remember from when I was a kid was about a field mouse named Frederick.  While all the other field mice were gathering nuts and seeds and such to store for the winter, Frederick lazed about in the sun, admired the flowers, and acted in a generally bohemian manner.  During the winter, when the field mice huddled together in dark burrows under the snow, Frederick recreated the sunshine and the flowers for them with poetry.
When I was a young, bohemianish creative person I liked remembering this story for its obvious promotion of bohemianish creativity, but now I like remembering this story for its clarity about the social relations that govern creative work.  Physical labor is necessary to sustain creative labor.  In the "primitive communist" society of these imaginary field mice, Frederick is not appointed as the mouse laureate -- he must take the initiative and is subjected to reprimand for evading his nut-gathering duties -- but the value of culture, at least during the dreary winter, is affirmed in the end by the community.  The food gathered by the others is shared equally with Frederick.
* * *
As a teenager I remember always seeing a book called "Albion's Fatal Tree" on the small bookshelf that sat just to the right of my father's seat at the kitchen table (the same seat I would take over after my parents went to bed, and I would stay up late reading and listening to the all-night jazz show).  The title and something about the design of the book always fascinated me, but every so often when I would pick it up the academic-ness of its contents would always put me off -- it was a collection of 5 longish essays on crime and society in England during the early days of capitalism.  The title references the explosion of crimes punishable by hanging during the eighteenth century.  To quote the back cover, "From one point of view eighteenth-century England, with ... its polite arts and culture ... appears as a stable, self-assured civilization. ... This book explores these contrasts: a settled ruling class which could only rule through forms of judicial terror; a population deferential by day but deeply subordinate at night."
* * *
Maria Rosa Menocal, who wrote the Ornament of the World, is a professor at Yale.  Yale is a hugely rich institution in the middle of a struggling, blue-collar city.  It is the alma matter of both Bush presidents, as well as John Kerry.  Its institutional hostility to recognizing the value of labor extends even to its own graduate employees (who are overwhelmingly from white middle-class backgrounds), who have fought an uphill and so far unsuccessful battle for union recognition for well over a decade.  The Muslims, Jews and Christians celebrated for their "culture of tolerance" in Menocal's book are overwhelmingly men of power; the fundamentalists who tear down their sumptuous, cultured palaces and ultimately their polity are poor.

Thursday, June 30, 2005

Can't stand the heat

We've hit our second real hot spell here in Vermont -- not as humid as the first one in early June, but longer, as it has lasted several days now and is projected to continue through the weekend. It reminds me why I so dread the coming of summer: heat, mosquitoes, blinding sun, allergens making any exposed skin itch when I'm in any area with much vegetable growth (like, say, our backyard). Now is the time when I abandon any foolish notions I had during the spring of intentional gardening, and just let the yard become whatever the weather, efforts of spouse and kids, and profligate growth of weeds and wanted plants alike will make of it. Life takes whatever niches it is given, and fills them as full as it can. Crabgrass has already buried my nice stone path on the front corner of the lawn.

Despite the heat, I actually had a pleasant morning today with S, while his older sister was at soccer camp. We went down to the big municipal beach on Lake Champlain before it was open to car traffic; there were a few stray campers from the nearby campgrounds, but we pretty much had the beach to ourselves. S made ephemeral art of sand and driftwood -- we had watched "Rivers and Tides" last week, and S was so taken with the Scottish artist Andy Goldsworthy, who makes art installations out of materials he finds on the land, that he was in fact repeating phrases from the movie as he walked around the beach. "I am giving it to the sea," he announced proudly at one point, though the tide of the lake was unlikely to swallow his pieces of driftwood balanced against each other in the same dramatic fashion as the Atlantic enclosing Goldsworthy's stone cone, or carrying off his monster beaver house. No, S's driftwood sculpture from this morning is more likely to be simply knocked down by the waves of children and adolescents that swarmed the beach once the SUVs and camp buses were allowed to drive down into the parking lot.

While S constructed, I read about Antarctica. In the summers, the cold seas around Antarctica are abundant with untold billions of living things, but they are clustered into only a relative handful of species, each one filling one of the few niches that the stark environment allows for life. The blue whales, largest animals on earth, sit atop a three-step food chain: algae photosynthesize the sun's energy, krill eat the plankton, whales eat the krill. Or used to sit atop, before the expansion of commercial whaling into the Antarctic in the early 20th century. Harvesting of the huge rorqual whales in the Southern Ocean was no heroic adventure, no contest with the universe. The whalers of the nineteenth century, throwing harpoons into the much smaller right whales from small boats, were simply no match for these huge beasts; only with the coming of mechanized harpoons, complete with explosive devices, and floating factories to process the blubber into oil, did the killing of blue and fin whales become possible, let alone profitable.

* * *

The other night, as we sat by the lake drinking beer and feeding mosquitoes, a friend asked me if I thought the world's ecosystem would be done any great harm if we could find some way to simply eliminate that species. I have no formal knowledge of the life sciences beyond 9th grade biology, but I suspect that ecosystems are complex beyond human understanding, that the ultimate effects of any given action are simply impossible to predict. Heat, humidity and mosquitoes, I suppose, must just be lived with.

Tuesday, March 22, 2005


I am just at the end of yet another week in the Midwest, helping my mother pack up her house so she can move to Vermont to live by us. Between this past week, a previous week-and-a-half here in February, and two weeks with the kids in a different Midwestern city, accompanying H on a work assignment, I've done a good half of this winter's cooking in other people's kitchens.

In one's own kitchen, there is not only the familiarity of knowing where everything is, there is also the familiarity of your own range of staples. I always have olive oil, flour, onions and garlic, canned beans, white wine, tortillas on hand. Other people's kitchens throw up both obstructions and opportunities, especially because as a short-term guest, you often can't justify laying in the staples you might need to cook like you're at home — one onion is easy enough, but if your host doesn't use flour, it's hardly worth buying a pound of it just to dust your chicken breasts with it.

My kids will not touch anything leafy and green, so we rarely have anything to make green salads around the house, especially in the winter, as I've grown more seasonal in my produce cravings in recent years. But at my mom's this past week, with no small food critics underfoot and being a full two "gardening zones" south of Vermont, we've been indulging in the modern convenience of lettuce and salad greens at the end of winter.

Around this time of year, Vermonters tend to have only one conversation, the "I'm ready for winter to be over" conversation. I don't know if it's just the fact that we had an especially cold January, with the temperature rarely breaking into the single digits, or because I knew that I'd be spending the first day of spring out here, but I was hardly complaining at all, even as more and more snow fell in the first few weeks of March. The days in the upper 20s seemed warm enough for now; perhaps I felt spring coming in a way I haven't before, perhaps as I get older I'm more confident that the seasons will turn and things will be OK and we can be patient and calm.

Spring comes late in Vermont, and is full of dirt and mud and it's still pretty cold. It is a little exposed shoot of new life in a forest of still-barren trees, you see it there and do a double-take because it seems like everything should still be bundled up and hidden away. But it's spring now, and here it comes.

Thursday, March 03, 2005


Kansas is the 19th century, dragged willy-nilly into the 21st. It was born from the passions of the greatest and most passionate struggle of a century when struggle was expressed in novels and poetry and grand crusades, before trenches and aerial bombing and mass media took over. There were sober men of principle from Massachussetts, building settlements to win Kansas territory for the "free north" by the ballot box, and there were wild, poorer men from Missouri, doing the political bidding of wealthy slaveholders though they themselves never owned a slave, raiding and burning. And most of all there was John Brown, called by God in the noble cause of abolition to pull five men of proslavery sympathies out of their beds one night along the river and behead them with a sword. In the state capitol building of Kansas, there is a massive mural of John Brown, his beard and gun in hand and mouth open, his figure towering over all, proclaiming such a passion.

Minneapolis is snow and hope and danger. The late, great Paul Wellstone beat an incumbent Republican with little more than pluck and brains and a working-class program, served two terms as the conscience of the Senate and then was killed in a plane crash in a storm. Several weeks ago, the centerpiece of Garrison Keillor's Prairie Home Companion monologue was the lesson he learned growing up in Minnesota: winter is no time for caution; winter is for danger and for taking risks.

Detroit is a trap. Detroit has the highest percentage of single-nuclear-family homes in the nation, a product of the UAW bringing the auto industry's workers to the middle class, at least for a few decades. In the so called "Truce of Detroit," after World War II, the UAW led the way for the industrial unions of the CIO, in exchange for high wages and little houses for each of their members, to abandon the broad working-class-and-civil-rights social movement they had been at the center of in the 1930s, as if the immigrants and radicals and African-Americans and women who built the CIO fought heroic battles against uneven odds, built interracial unions in the Jim Crow south, took over factories, and died at the points of policemen's guns, for no greater dream than a little house in the suburbs, locked away with their husband or wife watching TV, heartache hiding behind each door.

Tuesday, March 01, 2005

Moonlight held together with words

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Those of a social-scientific bent (and I count myself among them) are wont to explain human motivations and actions and feelings by reference to observable, if not precisely measurable, social phenomena. "It's hardly surprising that M would leave T and run off with D," H and I might say to each other, unwinding over a couple of beers after the kids are put to bed, "given the fact that her last job put her into all kinds of long hours and adrenaline-producing situations with D, while only causing stress in her relationship with T because of her having to be all over the state." Add in, say, factor X in M's background and the stress between M and T being raised to the third power because they have three children, and you can get yourself a fairly complicated mathematical equation.

The great astronomer Galileo Galilei, who preferred the title "Mathematician and Philosopher" and who, after being censured by the Inquisition at age seventy, merely went ahead and laid the basis for Newton's invention of physics, was a man whose "genius lay in his ability to observe the world at hand, to understand the behavior of its parts, and to describe these in terms of mathematical proportions."* And yet he often referred to wine as "light held together with moisture."

*Dava Sobel, Galileo's Daughter

Wednesday, February 23, 2005

Though geography conspires against us

At the memorial service for my father, held about a week and a half ago in the middle of the country, some of my parents' closest friends flew in from far afield — New England, D.C., the Bay Area, the Pacific Northwest — some of them to speak at the service and some just to attend. One of the speakers said in his remarks that whenever he and his wife met up with my parents over the more than three and a half decades they have known each other, it was like picking up a conversation that had only left off the day before, instead of the three or five or thirteen years since they had last seen each other.

Another friend, H, could not attend the service but sent a touching testimonial. H became a friend of my father's in high school, on Long Island. The last time they saw each other was when H, who struggled for years to make a living as an actor in New York, came out to the Midwest in a touring show. This was when I was in high school, and I remember having lunch with them. I don't remember much about the conversation, or even really about H himself, but I do remember the meeting as seeming to possess a gravity of emotion that somehow pulled a little on my life, the way the pull of a massive object can curve the path of a flying object or even a beam of light. I was also, being a teenager, stunned by the fact that my father had a friend with a romantic profession like being a real actor!

H remembers the visit this way:
We went to the Museum to see a Thomas Hart Benton retrospective, and ended up sitting the entire afternoon in the museum cafeteria, letting our conversation play over every topic from our personal lives to the events of the day. He was always a conversationalist worth a trip across the country. It remains a day that anchors my thoughts.

The internet can give us a sense of being connected to people across great distances. Certainly, my father stayed in touch with his old friends, and us children as well, on a far more regular basis once email had permeated professional and academic life in the late 90s.

But the myth of the internet is the myth of weightlessness, that somehow when we get online we transcend our physical bodies, our frailties and passions and needs. The myth of internet weightlessness is what fooled so many people into thinking the late 90s were a "New Economy," where everyone would get rich from information technology because the internet economy was not subject to the physical realities of paying people to make things and move things and that "the economy" was somehow now divorced from the way we procure the physical things we need to feed and house and clothe and enjoy ourselves. Of course, the "New Economy" turned out to be just a classic speculative bubble, and under the cover of this illusion the making of things was moved from that factory north of town to southeast Asia, from paying your neighbor's mortgage to handing a few coins at the end of the day to desperate, starving young women.

It is now a truism that the internet is a crucial tool for organizing in the global economy, but we underestimate the physical at our own peril. No interactive technology can convince you of the physical repercussions of the "weightless economy" quite as well as a woman from a factory in Bangladesh describing in person the maladies wracking her body and the bodies of her children because she could afford to feed her family nothing but a scant daily portion of rice. And no emailed message of solidarity can build trust like a handshake, or face-to-face discussions awkward because of translation but ringing true in the language of bodies.

We stayed around for a couple of days after the service. The night before we left, I was talking with my mom about her and my father's relationships with the folks who had come to the service. She said, "You don't meet too many people in this world who you just click with. When you do, you've got to hold on to them."

Thursday, February 17, 2005

Portrait of the blogger as a young left-wing journalist

Going through my father's papers last week, I found this "eyewitness account" of the May, 1992 demonstrations in New York City, following the Rodney King verdict, which I sent home to the local peace and justice coalition newsletter in the heartland:

9:00 p.m., Saturday, May 2, New York City. I am sitting in a court room in Central Booking, also known as "The Tombs," awaiting the arraignment of my friend Rebecca on charges of disorderly conduct. She was arrested last night during the demonstrations sparked by the Rodney King decision, not for any violent act, but for peaceful protest.

The demonstrations yesterday began in Times Square at a rally organized by the Movement for a People's Assembly, an organization that is calling for the establishment of an independent assembly to represent the interests of minorities and the poor in New York. The multiracial crowd, composed of blacks, whites, Latinos and Asians, showed an impressive amount of interracial unity, with none of the anti-white or anti-Asian violence that the news media has capitalized on in Los Angeles.

Speakers, including Williams Kunstler, the radical lawyer who represented the Chicago 7 before the Supreme Court, called for greater economic equality and community control of the racist, irresponsible and violent law enforcement system. The demonstrators then began marching south along 8th Avenue and entered Madison Square Garden. Two windows were smashed there by overexcited demonstrators, but then, as later, violent members of the crowd were more or less restrained by more peaceable demonstrators.

As the march continued south, swung east through Washington Square Park and began heading north towards Tompkins Square Park, they encountered increasingly frequent attempts by the police to break up the march and became increasingly agitated as they were forced again and again to push through police lines. As the demonstrators marched through Washington Square Park and the East Village, a few members began throwing bottles or harassing merchants, but the majority of the demonstrators did their best the restrain such behavior, often forming a wall with their bodies outside threatened stores or restaurants or running ahead of the crowd to warn owners to close their doors and security gates. Overall, the demonstrators showed a remarkable amount of cohesion, unity and self-control.

Such restrain was not, unfortunately, displayed by the NYPD. Many demonstrators were hauled off, beaten up and tossed into paddy wagons, as were many people who had merely walked into the street to see what was going on. Rebecca was arrested as she stood on the sidewalk (she had gotten off the street as the police had requested) holding a sign reading "Los Angeles Is Everywhere," exercising her constitutional rights to free speech.

After she was arrested, nearly demonstrators began chanting "Let her go!" and one man threw a bottle at the police. In response, some 40 or 50 policemen charged the crowd, hitting and beating people indiscriminately. What is most disturbing, though, is that despite the large number of reporters on the scene, not a word of this reached the public through the news media — the New York Times covered this part of the march with the single sentence, "Police dispersed the demonstrators at 1st Avenue and St. Mark's Place."

Rebecca was arraigned and released on personal recognizance at 11:30 Saturday night, with a trial date pending. Her police report contains ridiculously inflated charges of jumping on police cars, yelling incendiary socialist and anarchist slogans, and leading masses of rioters against police barricades, none of which are even remotely true.

Her description of the New York jail system is reminiscent of prison conditions in the early nineteenth century; prisoners who have not even been arraigned yet, let alone proven guilty, are treated like animals. Rebecca was denied a phone call until 15 hours after her arrest, taunted by male police officers, and was told repeatedly that they planned to send her to Riker's Island (a prison for convicted criminals) if she was not arraigned soon.

In a New York jail there is no such thing as civil rights, and even basic human rights such as clean food and water are denied. It is no wonder that most of the minority and working-class residents of America's cities have lost faith in the institutions of the American state.

The likely re-elected of George Bush, a president who has shown no interest in combating the evils of racism and poverty and whose solution to most problems involves the armed forces, will only lead to more violence and will slowly turn America's cities into occupied zones and police states.

Thursday, February 10, 2005

Turning red

This week I have returned to the town I grew up in, for a memorial service for my father and to help my mother sort through the things in the house here, which she is going to sell so she can move up by us.

This town is in one of the reddest of the "red states" — the last time it voted Democratic for president was 1964 (the anti-Goldwater landslide) and before that, 1936. And I grew up in this state during the Reagan era.

Now my town was (and certainly is still) considered the "red square" of this state — "red" in its older meaning, that is — though when I was growing up that primarily meant that we didn't run moderate environmentalists and Amnesty International out of town. There were really no visible manifestations of any kind of politics more progressive, class-conscious or "left" than a kind of middle-class do-goodism. This was the politics of my parents, and while I certainly didn't oppose it, getting involved with the local Democratic Party organization was hardly going to appeal to a rebellious teenager.

H graduated from a small high school where, because it was so small, everyone who was not a "jock/cheerleader" or a "hick" had to bond together into a kind of "miscellaneous" social group - which was how H, a "nerd," came to discover drugs and sex from the theater people and the druggies and so forth. My high school was large, so the theater people, the druggies, the honor students, and so forth all had their own well-formed cliques, and my miscellaneous social group was made up of what were in the late 80s much more rarefied types: socialists and anarchists, writers and poets, musicians who wanted to play weird jangly pop music instead of heavy metal or classic rock or synth-pop.

So I was politicized as a teenager not by any cataclysmic event or insight, and certainly not by any organization, but by the slow erosion of my inherited faith in the goodness and democratic nature of America by lapping waves of doubt — the realization that Reagan's going to kill us all in a nuclear war — the latest Jello Biafra spoken word album — resentment of the rich preppies in my classes — reading The Jungle and The Grapes of Wrath in American Lit II — working in the fast food industry, not nights and weekends for pocket money, but full-time to support myself after graduating from high school, as I spurned higher education in favor of playing in a rock and roll band.

I never would have thought that, returning to this town at age 31, I would find a "revolutionary center and radical library" where a greasy hamburger joint used to be, or that one would be able to pick up a copy of the Industrial Worker from news boxes next to USA Today on downtown corners. Walking around I've seen not one but two houses proudly displaying the red and black flag. Running errands today, one of the four or five wage-slaves who I happened to come into contact with, seeing my workers' center shirt, engaged me in a conversation about radical labor politics — he's involved in the revolutionary center and was an IWW member.

Not that this presages any great revolutionary uprising here anytime soon; more prominent than the few red and black flags are the massive growth of subdivision sectors on the west side of town and the big box stores that feed their insatiable appetite for consumption and waste. Nonetheless, I doubt that in future decades, "I grew up during the W administration" is going to connote the same suffocating blanket of bland depoliticization that the Eisenhower and Reagan administrations are known for. Even in the "red" states.

I was a teenage communist.

I had forgotten this until recently, because I tend to think of my own radicalization, largely through the trade union movement, as having happened over the last ten years or so. And this is not untrue: ten years ago I probably would have described myself as a democratic socialist or social democrat. I was certainly anticommunist and vaguely remember ridiculing Marx in some of the papers I wrote in college.

Yet a writer friend I had in high school, with whom I recently began corresponding after more than a dozen years, remembers me giving her a copy of the Communist Manifesto for her birthday. And some of the things I wrote before I went to college, which I unearthed going through various boxes in my parent's basement this week, showed an understanding of class dynamics which I certainly didn't remember having at that age.

Higher education had its intended effect on me. It taught me that politics was about "big ideas," and even though many classes discussed some big ideas which contained a fairly radical critique of society, we always discussed them as big ideas. Marx was about teleology and dialectic and does Marxist utopianism necessarily lead to totalitarianism? and most certainly not about Why did you get paid what you did in that fast food restaurant or plastics factory? or Why is the refrigerator factory down the road laying people off and moving work to Mexico?

An education in big ideas teaches two lessons: first, since arguments about big ideas can be based on nearly any evidence, and that evidence is almost always secondary or tertiary, it tends to favor big ideas which for the most part accept the status quo. Most of the resources which support scholars and intellectuals come from institutions which are powerfully invested in maintaining their own prestige and power; there will always be a preponderance of studies and treatises written on the assumption that the basic institutions of society, or at least most of them, are fundamentally sound and need only tinkering.

The second, and more insidious lesson, is simply that politics is about big ideas, and only people trained in thinking about big ideas should participate in politics. This, I think, is why for so much of the academic and middle-class left, "socialism" has come to mean merely a sensibly designed system of allocating resources among society. That's a necessary part of socialism, of course, but the soul of socialism is not so much about a "system" which is well-designed or equitable or just but about the ability of people, of all people, to participate in creating and governing all of the institutions of their lives — their workplace, their neighborhood, their schools, etc. — based on social solidarity. To learn the necessity and possibility of this, you need not an education in big ideas but an education in small things.

The education in small things cannot happen at a liberal arts college. It can happen at work, in neighborhoods, in schools and hospitals and grocery stores. It can happen when the big ideas run up against the human body in all of its materialism, when "free trade" means I'm losing my job and can't pay my rent or the "free market" means I'm not going to get medical care or "freedom of speech" means my boss can haul me into his office and subtly threaten to fire me if I don't quit the union and stop complaining about the noxious chemicals that burn my eyes every day at work.

Education is not a solitary activity, it is a social activity and a dialectic. Just as teachers, by themselves, cannot "educate" a student who refuses to participate, experiences, by themselves, cannot educate anyone unless they have some kind of social context, interaction with teachers or friends or parents or books. In most cases, education is a dialectic which aims to integrate the student into the existing social structure; this is easy, because the teacher has both power and knowledge and the student learns to adopt his or her knowledge to fit that reality. Paolo Freire's "Pedagogy of the Oppressed" sought to develop a method which recognizes and legitimates the student's existing knowledge — their knowledge of the circumstances of their oppression — but it still requires a teacher; the goal is to get the student to name the oppressor, recognize and name the system.

I never worked grease-collar and blue-collar and temporary and contingent jobs out of some Marxist fantasy about being one with the working class; I've worked those jobs because of rock and roll romanticism and dumb life choices and crappy job markets. I consider myself lucky that some random combination of my parent's liberalism, rock and roll rebellion, a chance 10th grade English class assignment to read the Communist Manifesto and joining the right union at the right time led me to an understanding of how capitalism functions. I couldn't have figured it out on my own.

Thursday, February 03, 2005

City mice

The other day while walking E home from kindergarten she mentioned that her teacher, Mrs. C, was telling the kids that she lived out in the country, and was therefore a "country mouse," while the paraprofessional who works in her classroom was a "city mouse." E quickly surmised that she herself was also a city mouse, like Mrs. L, the paraprofessional.

Mrs. C is a bright, energetic young teacher, several years younger than I am, a fairly recent graduate of the university here, which draws students from all over New England, mostly from the middle-class suburbs of Boston and Connecticut. Mrs. L is significantly older, and her francophone last name likely come from the French Canadians who migrated here in the nineteenth century to work in the textile mills and whose descendents make up a sizable part of the city's working class to this day.

There are no textile mills in New England these days, of course. That industry left for the American south before World War II, when the process we now know as globalization didn't have to be quite so global. Low wages and violent repression of strikes were accessible to northern capital just by moving south of the Mason-Dixon line.

I heard on a radio program a few months ago that, statistically, New England has been deindustrializing for over one hundred years. Before the Civil War, the mills of New England were the brain and heart and muscle of the American economy, generating the capital which made possible the building of the railroads, a circulatory system that sucked in agricultural products from the midwest and pumped our products out to the frontier towns, filling the shelves of the mitochondrial general stores.

Capitalism thrives not simply by exploiting workers, but by separating the hand and the head. The knowledge that is essential to any work process is abstracted and given to "managers," while workers are expected merely to rent their muscle to their employers for the day. Brain and muscle, managers and workers, headquarters and production, core functions and outsources, the imperial center and periphery, the pattern of dualism and alienation spreads ever outwards. "An honest day's pay for an honest day's work" is not a slogan which addresses this; it was a strike in a New England mill town that gave us one of the greatest of workers' slogans: "Bread and Roses."

New England still boasts a big head — we have the headquarters of GE and many other companies, and the suburbs of Connecticut still house much of the upper-level management of the financial capital of the world, New York. But our body is old, rusty, has been cast aside so many times for the south, then Mexico and now China.

It's enough to break your heart.

Everything in the natural universe has a center and a periphery. Inside the atom, protons and neutrons are bound together in a nucleus and electrons swirl around them, their motions determined by forces that are as fundamental to the universe as gravity and electromagnetism yet operate only on this tiny scale. Gravity holds stars together into galaxies, and galaxies into clusters. The repel-and-attract of the matter and energy that makes up the universe does not distribute itself randomly or evenly across space, but coalesces into spheres and discs and orbits.

The one thing which does not have a center, oddly enough, is the universe itself. Space is curved in ways which we cannot really grasp. We keep trying to project a center onto the universe, because our human lives are so dominated centers and peripheries.

I do not think that Mrs. C does really lives in the country, but in the proto-suburbs known as "sprawl" which are taking over the rural townships around here. Every township has some kind of center, a village or sometimes just a "junction," and many of them used to be a vital part of the functioning of the town, with perhaps a general store or a grange hall, a place for the distribution not just of goods but of news and ideas and sociability.

Now, though, developers simply hack off chunks of land in a township for development, often those nearest the nearest city, with no regard for the biological life of the township. One township, just to the north of us, is now the third biggest municipality in the state, but I'll bet that most of its population have never been to the actual village, which lies well to the north of the subdivision sectors, still surrounded by farms. The subdivision sectors, of course, are built right up against the city line, for those who want to escape the supposed dirt and crime of the city but don't want to deal with the rough bodily inconveniences of actual rural life. More ominously, another township to the southeast of us has sprouted a whole tumor of "big box" stores like Walmart right along our border, sucking commerce from our downtown and the old township center alike.

Marx wrote that one of the dire effects of capitalism upon human society was the "metabolic rupture" of the symbiosis between city and countryside, and he hoped that its replacement with socialism and communism would help restore balance between the city and the country, humans and nature. Just as American society has produced a blanket denial of the class contradictions between workers and capital, we have produced a blanket denial of the rupture between city and country: the suburb.

Suburbs have no center, or at least they pretend to, grandiosely insisting on the privilege of the universe itself. The conceit of the suburb is that each home is a castle, dependent on no center, free to choose from any of the big box stores and shopping malls that line the boulevards separating the subdivision sectors.

But of course people need social centers, so we Thank Goodness It's Applebees and we throng in the malls, trying to defibrillate these prosthetic hearts. It doesn't work, because malls will not sell us what we need — the challenge of others, the slight air of danger that pervades all of real life, the cracks that you can finger tenderly because they hurt but you can't stop from trying to pry open because it's the cracks that let the light in, the breaks that let the truth out.

Tuesday, January 25, 2005

Where were you?

Kurt Cobain's death

A Friday, in spring, 1994. Mid-afternoon, I walked into a room where MTV was replaying Nirvana Unplugged and someone lounging on the sofa relays the news. Later, in a hallway, a "classic rock" fan roughly my age is mocking the death by playing the four chords of "Smells Like Teen Spirit" over and over again on an acoustic guitar. I buy some liquor for some younger friends (even though I'm not 21 myself). I'm not so much touched by the death itself as by how ironically everyone is taking the news. I write a song that ends "when you can't sing anymore, all they remember is your name."

UPS Strike

Middle of the night, the summer of 1997, my two roommates and I sit up past midnight to watch Teamsters president Ron Carey come out on live TV and announce the settlement which forces UPS to create thousands of full-time jobs and make them available to their part-time workforce. "For decades, since Reagan crushed the PATCO strike, working people have been taking it on the chin," he says before announcing the details. For weeks afterwards whenever I'm wearing anything with union insignia on it, random people, waitresses in diners and folks in line at the post office and so forth, comment on the strike, about how someone has finally stood up against the forces of corporate America and won.

The Battle of Seattle

I was only even vaguely aware that it was happening, so when I woke up on December 1, 1999, I wasn't even looking for news about the protests or the WTO. It was a nice surprise when H read the paper to me. THEY SHUT IT DOWN. That day I spent driving off to a dying deindustrializing town for a boring union meeting with a bunch of old white guys who worked, or used to work, in machine-tool shops. And I have never seen anyone quite as thrilled about the sudden resurgence of anarchism in America as those guys.

September 12, 2001

Like pretty much any American who wasn't in New York or DC or Pennsylvania, my experiences on September 11 were pretty banal. The next night I saw Lucinda Williams play; she opened the show with a moment of silence, followed by "Masters of War," a harshest of musical curses upon all warmakers.

Tuesday, January 18, 2005


I only know one poem by heart anymore, by Ogden Nash:

There's something about a martini
A tingle remarkably pleasant
A yellow, a mellow martini
I wish that I had one at present
Yes there's something about a martini
Ere the dining and dancing begin
And to tell you the truth,
It is not the vermonth
I think that perhaps it's the gin

It's somewhat embarassing, I suppose, that the only poem I know by heart is about what is probably the greatest threat to my own health (if "Life is a Highway," as my clock radio insisted one morning this weekend, waking me up to an unnatural wooziness, I should probably be pulled over).

I never knew that much poetry by heart, and don't recall ever spending much time trying to memorize poems, but I have a good memory and things tend to stick with me, for a time at least. When poetry was a regular part of daily life, I could recall large chunks of verse with the same ease that I now pull the measurements of favorite recipes or the family schedule of lessons, appointments and juggled nonstandard work hours or the location of a stored-away toy from my memory files.

Adolescence is like the big bang; the very boundaries of your universe suddenly begin expanding away from you so fast in every direction. Discovering sex, literature, driving, rock and roll, love, psychoactive substances, and the other side of midnight all at once is thrilling and intoxicating and extremely disorienting. For me, poetry was part of making sense of all this on a day-to-day basis, and I remember lines and fragments and whole poems of Ginsberg and cummings and Whitman just lodging themselves in my consciousness willy-nilly, like meteorites perhaps.

There is one other poem that I can remember a few lines of, but it is in Russian. It is a short poem by Pushkin, and I was told in my Russian classes that this is the poem that every Russian schoolchild learns by heart.

I studied Russian for the first two years of my higher education. It seemed a language full of both romance and the sweep of history. The coup which ended the Gorbachev era and cleared the way for Boris Yeltin happened the weekend before I left for college, and for a left-leaning 18-year-old it seemed like the Soviet Union might be poised on the cusp of a grand new marriage of freedom and socialism. But of course, things fall apart.

The first line of the Pushkin poem is "Ya vas lyubil, lyubov yeshcho bitz mozhe" mdash; "I once loved you," the poem begins unambiguously, but then continues with a phrase which (if I remember my Russian properly), could either mean "perhaps I still love you" or "perhaps love still exists."

Thursday, January 06, 2005

Death and writing

This morning on the bus, I was reading a review by Chris Hedges of two recent books on the invasion of Iraq. Hedges opens the review with the point that only the vanquished can tell the truth about war, because only those who have suffered the violence are immune to its allure and seductiveness. But, he warns those who would try to know war from what is written about it,

the words of the vanquished come later, sometimes long after the war, when grown men and women unpack the suffering they endured as children, what it was like to see their mother or father killed or taken away, or what it was like to lose their homes, their community, their security, and be discarded as human refuse. But by then few listen.

2004 was the year my interest in writing resurfaced after years of neglect. As a teenager, I occasionally fancied myself a writer of stories and even, in the depths of teen angst, the occasional bit of poetry, but I certainly never felt that it was a calling. In my forays into the world of higher education, I always received praise for my writing skills, and even derived some enjoyment from it. I was a high school student who received high marks for original but I imagine poorly organized and sloppily reasoned essays papered over with rhetorical flair beyond my years. It wasn't until the second college I attended that professors began to hold me to some standards, insisting that graceful style does not exempt one from the standards of an academic discipline and demanding that my arguments be not only clever but supported with evidence. It was a bit of a shock, but I took to the new discipline well, evolving from a late-night stream-of-consciousness essayist to a careful, sentence-by-sentence self-editor.

After dropping out of the higher-educational system, I still carried writing around in my skill bag, but for years I never thought about it except instrumentally, in the course of activism. I provided content for union newsletters, crafted resolutions and policies, wrote (or ghost-wrote) letters to the editor and op-eds to influence public policy, and even delivered a speech to a major anti-war rally in the state capitol. I enjoyed doing the work when asked, but never went looking for it.

I spent a good portion of yesterday, while the kids were at school, working to finish my father's writing. He died a few days before Christmas. He had been in the hospital for about a month, suffering various infections and inflammations and procedures and surgeries, all ultimately stemming from the biliary duct cancer he had been fighting for five years. On Tuesday, he learned that his liver was irretrievably damaged. That evening I sat by his hospital bed while he made sure to go over, with me and my mom, the three articles he had almost finished before entering the hospital. One had already been accepted for publication, and one only needed to have the correct citations, hunted down by a research assistant, added into the footnotes. But the third, an examination of Alexis de Toqueville's Democracy in America and its implications for modern constitutional law and theory, still needed at least one piece of rewriting.

This is what I did yesterday. A combination of clerical work (typing the footnotes and correcting types), a stray bit of editing here and there where academese took over my father's writing style, and the intense rewriting of one sentence. That one sentence, compressing an overview of current constitutional interpretation about the rights to political speech in the media into its first half, then providing a "Toquevillian" critique of that same interpretation in the other half, had to be revised in light of a multi-page memo from a colleague more versed in the rise and fall of the "fairness doctrine." I read and re-read through the whole article to make sure the new sentence remained compatible with its meaning and style, through the memo — which was a little dense in legalese — and finally, by three in the afternoon or so, came up with an servicable new sentence.

Her Little Bird, who convinced me to start this blog at the end of last summer, told me the other day that writing was the writer's attempt to survive death. It may be, but it is also the way in which we can expand our conversations, our debates, the thinking-together which is a necessary part of social human existence, beyond the immediate bounds of our family, neighborhood and workplace.

The last several days of my father's life, when I was up at the hospital for a good chunk of each day but he was often asleep, I was reading the October issue of Monthly Review, which was devoted to rememberances of Paul Sweezy, a Marxist economist and one of the two co-founders of the magazine, who died in February. Monthly Review is a magazine with a truly international impact; its editors and writers advised Fidel and Che in the early years of the Cuban Revolution, and it is one of the only American publications taken seriously by the Left in the global south — as reporting and analysis from the heart of the Empire, as it were. Paul Sweezy's analysis of monopoly capitalism speaks from beyond the grave, of course — it is still highly relevant to today's eventy — but more importantly, it connected him to, and helped to strengthen and guide, a world community of activists and intellectuals whose dedication and analysis have been, and will continue to be, a critical part of the struggle for a peaceful, just and humane world.

For many years I was suspicious of intellectual pretentions, of "ideas people," of those who claimed that writing was worthwhile work of the movement. But I think I am beginning to soften a little on this point, especially as the road ahead looks longer and harder than it did in the later 90s. I still believe in collective action, but I'm coming to realize how important collective thought is, how writing is essential to collective thought, and how it is important for us to write against death, individual and collective.