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.