Columns

EmailTwitterFacebookDiggStumbleUponGoogle+

More… “Tent”

Dave Mondy is an award-winning travel writer, as well as the writer/performer of many one-person shows. His production “This Love Train Is Unstoppable and I am the Conductor” won the Best Solo Comedy award at the San Francisco Fringe Festival. His monologues have appeared on Minnesota Public Radio, and he has penned scripts for Garrison Keillor’s A Prairie Home Companion. As an actor, Dave shills for corporations like Kemps and Best Buy.
EmailTwitterFacebookDiggStumbleUponGoogle+
The ethereal myth of the Old South
EmailTwitterFacebookDiggStumbleUponGoogle+

Driving south from the North, we tried to spot exactly where the real South begins. We looked for the South in hand-scrawled signs on the roadside advertising ‘Boil Peanut’, in one-room corrugated tin Baptist churches that are little more than holy sheds, in the crumbling plantation homes with their rose gardens and secrets. In the real South, we thought, ships ought to turn to riverboats, cold Puritanism to swampy hellfire, coarse industrialists with a passion for hotels and steel to the genteel ease of the cotton planter.

   

Most of what we believe about the South, wrote W.J. Cash in the 1930s, exists in our imagination. But, he wrote, we shouldn’t take this to mean that the South is therefore unreal. The real South, wrote Cash in The Mind of the South, exists in unreality. It is the tendency toward unreality, toward romanticism, toward escape, that defines the mind of the South.

The unreality that shaped the South took many forms. In the South, wrote Cash (himself a Southern man), is “a mood in which the mind yields almost perforce to drift and in which the imagination holds unchecked sway, a mood in which nothing any more seems improbable save the puny inadequateness of fact, nothing incredible save the bareness of truth.” Most people still believe, wrote Cash — but no more than Southerners themselves — in a South built by European aristocrats who erected castles from scrub. This imaginary South, wrote Cash, was “a sort of stagepiece out of the eighteenth century,” where gentlemen planters and exquisite ladies in farthingales spoke softly on the steps of their stately mansions. But well-adjusted men of position and power, he wrote, “do not embark on frail ships for a dismal frontier… The laborer, faced with starvation; the debtor, anxious to get out of jail; the apprentice, eager for a fling at adventure; the small landowner and shopkeeper, faced with bankruptcy and hopeful of a fortune in tobacco; the neurotic, haunted by failure and despair” — only these would go.”

The dominant trait of the mind of the South, wrote Cash, was an intense individualism — an individualism the likes of which the world hadn’t seen since Renaissance days. In the backcountry, the Southern man’s ambitions were unbounded. For each who stood on his own little property, his individual will was imperial law. In the South, wrote Cash, wealth and rank were not so important as they were in older societies. “Great personal courage, unusual physical powers, the ability to drink a quart of whiskey or to lose one’s whole capital on the turn of a card without the quiver of a muscle — these are at least as important as possessions, and infinitely more important than heraldic crests.”

The average white Southern man (for this man was Cash’s main focus) was a romantic, but it was a romance bordering on bedlam. Any ordinary man tends to be a hedonist and a romantic, but take that man away from Old World traditions, wrote Cash, and stick him in the frontier wilds. Take away the skepticism and realism necessary for ambition and he falls back on imagination. His world becomes rooted in the fantastic, the unbelievable, and his emotions lie close to the surface. Life on the Southern frontier was harsh but free — it could make a man’s ego feel large.

The Southern landscape, too, had an unreal quality, “itself,” wrote Cash, “a sort of cosmic conspiracy against reality in favor of romance.” In this country of “extravagant color, of proliferating foliage and bloom, of flooding yellow sunlight, and, above all, perhaps, of haze,” the “pale blue fogs [that] hang above the valleys in the morning,” the outlines of reality blur. The atmosphere smokes “rendering every object vague and problematical.” A soft languor creeps through the blood and into the brain, wrote Cash, and the mood of the South becomes like a drunken reverie, where facts drift far away. “But I must tell you also that the sequel to this mood,” wrote Cash, “is invariably a thunderstorm. For days — for weeks, it may be — the land lies thus in reverie and then …”

The romanticism of the South, wrote W.J. Cash, was one that tended toward violence. It was a violence the Southern man often turned toward himself as much as those around him. The reverie turns to sadness and the sadness to a sense of foreboding and the foreboding to despair. Nerves start to wilt under the terrifying sun, questions arise that have no answers, and “even the soundest grow a bit neurotic.” When the rains break, as they will, and the South becomes a land of fury, the descent into unreality takes hold. Pleasure becomes sin, and all are stripped naked before the terror of truth.

A God who politely ignored the fury was no help to the Southern mind. A God, wrote Cash, “‘without body, parts, or passions’ is an abstraction for intellectuals.” What was demanded was a God who was as personal and individual and passionate as the South itself; a religion not of prayer books and liturgies, but of fits and jerks and barks; a faith “to draw men together in hordes, to terrify them with Apocalyptic rhetoric, to cast them into the pit, rescue them and at last bring them shouting into the fold of Grace.” The word of God in the South was an incantation, the mighty rhythm of the South.

The unreality of the Southern mind was W.J. Cash’s obsession — that mind was also his own. In February 1941 The Mind of the South was published to critical acclaim. It was considered essential reading in the task of understanding the South well into the 1960s. But W.J. Cash would — or could — never write another book. He put his entire self into that single work, and would never escape from it. The Mind of the South — and that of W.J. Cash — slipped slowly into obscurity.

In June of 1941 W.J. Cash moved himself and his wife to Mexico. He thought the grant money he had gotten to write a second book, a novel, would stretch farther there. But the altitude and the heat made Cash sick and dizzy and sleepless. At night, Cash heard voices. Nazis, he whispered to his wife. In Mexico, Nazi spies were everywhere and they were planning to kill them both. It was retribution, Cash said, for the articles he had written against them. On that last night of his life, Cash locked the doors and windows and held fast to his carving knife.

More than most people, wrote Cash’s wife — 26 years after his suicide — Cash had a vivid fear of death. It was due “to his fundamentalist upbringing,” she wrote, “his childhood exposure to finger-shaking sermons on eternal damnation and the searing fires of hell.” But that last night Cash was too irrational, she wrote, to be saved by anything so rational as the fear of death.

“At last we wearily got ready for the night,” she wrote, “and Cash picked up his Bible and said, ‘Read Ecclesiastes, baby.’ And so I read to him of there being a time to every purpose under heaven: a time to be born and a time to die; a time to kill and a time to heal.” Cash let go of his knife and fell asleep, she wrote, listening to the mighty rhythms of the words — the story of a universe that unfolds according to its own logic, its own set of seasons, its own time to kill and its own time to heal, its own pale blue fog of reality. • 23 February 2015

Stefany Anne Golberg is a writer and multi-media artist. She has written for The Washington Post (Outlook), Lapham’s Quarterly, New England Review, and others. Stefany is currently a columnist for The Smart Set and Critic-in-Residence at Drexel University. A book of Stefany’s selected essays can be found here. She can be reached at stefanyanne@gmail.com.
EmailTwitterFacebookDiggStumbleUponGoogle+
EmailTwitterFacebookDiggStumbleUponGoogle+

I recently finished college and a competitive, labor-intensive internship. I’m going to be starting a new job in a couple of weeks, but instead of feeling proud or relieved to have completed my studies, I feel nervous. Why does The End seem so ominous?  
— Patrick E.

   

Well, as the old adage goes, the end is the beginning of something else. It is the beginning of the unknown — that’s why it can be so scary. That’s why it can fill us with unease, but remember that we would get bored if life were predictable. We love the unknown in books, for example. We love movies that shock and awe, stories that end with a twist. We love poems whose endings make us hoot in delight:

“Endings”

Part II

Setting the V.C.R. when we go to bed
to record a night owl movie, some charmer we missed
we always allow, for unprogrammed unforeseen,
an extra half hour. (Night gods of the small screen
are ruthless with watchers trapped in their piety.)

We watch next evening, and having slowly found
the start of the film, meet the minors and leads,
enter their time and place, their wills and needs,
hear in our chests the click of empathy’s padlock,
watch the forces gather, unyielding world
against the unyielding heart, one longing’s minefield
laid for another longing, which may yield.
Tears will salt the left-over salad I seize
during ads, or laughter slow my hurry to pee.
But as clot melts toward clearness a black fate
may fall on the screen; the movie started too late.
Torn from the backward-shining of an end
that lights up the meaning of the whole work,
disabled in mind and feeling, I flail and shout,
“I can’t bear it! I have to see how it comes out!”
For what is story if not relief from the pain
of the inconclusive, from dread of the meaningless?
Minds in their silent blast-offs search through space–
how often I’ve followed yours!–for a resting-place.
And I’ll follow, past each universe in its spangled
ballgown who waits for the slow-dance of life to start,
past vacancies of darkness whose vainglory
is endless as death’s, to find the end of the story.

(Mona Van Duyn)

Life is a loop of beginnings and endings, stories copious as crossbars on a roller coaster. Roller coasters scare the living daylights out of me, but sometimes my husband can convince me to ride one with him (not in the least considering the other passengers whose eardrums I might burst with my desperate pleas to STOP THIS RIDE!  STOP!  STOP!  STOP!). I’m glad when it’s over, but I know that in the future my husband will persuade me on another ride. I have no idea how he does it. I am acutely aware that a mishap, no matter how slim the chances, could kill me, though maybe some part of me enjoys being terrified.  Maybe some part of me loves that jolt and thrill, hearing that scream that comes from the depths of my fear. Fear is good, most of the time. Anyway, Patrick, you are at a precious juncture in your life. Good things have passed and good things will come. Just enjoy the ride.

Thank you to the many people who have supported this column in various ways. I’d like to extend a special thanks to my mom and dad, Jeff Seglin, Jason Wilson, Dr. Sunshine, Liz Bury, Allison Brown, and my husband, Gamal. • 28 June 2011

Kristen Hoggatt lives, works, and writes in Boston, where she received her MFA from Emerson College. She volunteers at 826 Boston.
EmailTwitterFacebookDiggStumbleUponGoogle+
BW_GABBERT_APHOR_BF_001
EmailTwitterFacebookDiggStumbleUponGoogle+

Etymology has become an overused avenue into semantics. It’s a cliché to begin an essay or meta-essay with a reminder of the original meaning of essay, to try. Still, recently, I wondered after the etymology of aphorism. Since it’s often paraphrased as “truism,” I wondered if the roots involved truth. And was it one root or two? Perhaps the negating prefix a- designated the opposite of phor? I sort of wished this were true; phor means to bear or to carry, which would make an aphorism something that does not carry — more of an untruism. A contronym. I looked it up and learned that the Greek root aphor means to define: The definition of aphorism is “definition.” But I reject the armchair linguist’s inclination to use etymology as argument. In spirit and in use, an aphorism is not a definition, but something more like an essay, an attempt to define. An aphorism is an essay, an essay in its smallest possible form.
More… “Aphorisms Are Essays”

Elisa Gabbert is the author of The Self Unstable (Black Ocean) and The French Exit (Birds LLC). Follow her on Twitter at @egabbert.
EmailTwitterFacebookDiggStumbleUponGoogle+
But only one ghost to write the book.
EmailTwitterFacebookDiggStumbleUponGoogle+

When It Takes a Village: And Other Lessons Children Teach Us was published in 1996, the book was met with the kind of response that a serious nonfiction writer dreams about. The ideas presented in the book became the topic of conversation across the land, politicians and commentators felt obligated to respond to it, it won awards, including a Grammy for its audio book edition, and it became so ubiquitous, both in sales numbers and in impact, that it started to become heavily parodied.

   

Any writer would be thrilled. Moved, even. And yet this particular writer also has to watch while someone else, taking credit for her work, takes all of the credit.

Hillary Rodham Clinton may have won the title page and the cover image (and the Grammy), but at best she was just one of many voices filtered through the actual writer. It Takes a Village was, of course, ghost written. The of course is the same “of course” attached to any book by a politician, major celebrity, or woman credited with one of those young adult series about pretty, wealthy white girls and their adventures that spits out 15 books a year. But it’s a delayed “of course.” It takes us a moment to look at the book, the author’s name, and come out with “but probably not.” Otherwise it would not have caused a minor controversy when Rodham Clinton admitted she did not do the actual writing per se and Barbara Feinman Todd stepped forward to take some of the credit.

People played at being shocked that Rodham Clinton did not sit down in the wee hours of the night over a cup of coffee, mercilessly pouring her heart and soul into a typewriter. But there have always been people willing to buy the right to take credit for another person’s work, ever since Count Franz von Walsegg bought Mozart-penned compositions and slapped his name on them, or, hell, since Homer signed epics that had been worked through orally for generations. The modern audience is savvy. We do not truly expect UK reality star/topless model Jordan to write the YA novels and books for children that she’s credited with. The ghosted writer is a prominent figure, filling the stacks of celebrity memoir, books by politicians, and novels by reality star/pop singer/whatever-turned-writers. This year we’ll see a new (ghostwritten) Hillary Rodham Clinton book as she gears up for her campaign, a new (ghostwritten) Tim Geithner image rehabilitation project, and probably five or six (ghostwritten) alternate history novels by Newt Gingrich. And thereby an entire squadron of underpaid, underemployed writers will be able to pay their rent but not necessarily make their name.

What’s interesting, because the books themselves so rarely are, is what everyone gets out of this shell game: ghostwriter, ghosted writer, and audience.

“The only reason I can think of to participate in such an endeavor would be either to score some relatively easy cash and/or ingratiate one’s self to a publishing house.” After profiling him in GQ, Robert Draper was commissioned to write John Edwards’ 2003 book Four Trials. But after he turned in the manuscript, he saw his work almost entirely rewritten by John Auchard and Edwards’s wife Elizabeth and his own named removed. “She and I fell out over the first draft. Most of all because the very premise of the book (i.e. that Edwards had this deep emotional investment in these trials and clients) was untrue.”

We can only guess what dark thoughts leaped into the mind of Theodore Sorenson when it was John F. Kennedy’s name attached to Profiles in Courage at the Pulitzer Prize ceremony, and not his own. Todd, who has worked with many politicians and other faux writers and spoke to me like all of the ghostwriters through the filter of many confidentiality agreements and intricately worded publishing contracts, admits that ego concerns can creep up for an uncredited writer. It’s not always a concern for her, as, she told me, “sometimes you wouldn’t want your name on this stuff.” But when the book sticks and has real power, it can be harder to let others take the applause. After all, Sorenson may have claimed idealism as his reasons for his uncredited work on Profiles, but he still used the opportunity of his own autobiography, written after Kennedy’s death, to lay claim to the book.

Since the nation’s beginning, American politicians have looked to others to give a written form to their ideas, and since the beginning the writers have had a complicated time letting their words go. Alexander Hamilton wrote for George Washington, and when his audience praised Washington as being so thoughtful, so erudite, Hamilton’s wife fought for years for her husband to be credited. It was so shocking, so hurtful for early Americans to learn Washington did not write every word he spoke. Now, however, we come to every publication, every speech and press release knowing that every celebrity and politician has a team to manage and control the public perception. President Obama may have written his own books, but the second, written in campaign mode, may as well have been ghostwritten, as managed and bloodless as it feels. The Audacity of Hope lacks the passion and bite of Dreams from My Father. But then maybe the politician Obama was ghosting for the man the second time around.

In an ideal arrangement, a ghostwriter gets paid well enough to let someone else lipsync to their voice, and that writer disappears completely. No lingering vapors or shrouded figures lingering in the background to distract the audience. That was the intent of Andrew O’Hagan’s arrangement when he agreed to ghostwrite Julian Assange’s memoir. It was only when the whole thing went sideways that he made a full confession in the much-discussed London Review of Books essay. In this particular case it was the ghosted who was only interested in the money rather than the ghostwriter himself. Assange had no real intention of facilitating the writing of his own book. The disowned-by-all-involved-but-Canongate scraps of a manuscript that were put between two covers and sold as the “unauthorized autobiography” of Julian Assange limped onto the marketplace. Instead of dominating the conversation, the conversation became all about how disappointing it all was.

For celebrities and politicians who need to maintain a particular image in order to stay employed, or, like Assange, need to restore an already damaged image, the ghostwritten biography is an important tool. They are allowed to shape their story to their liking. (Or, almost always. Actress Hedy Lamarr sued her own publisher for libel over the kiss-and-tell book that carried her name.) They can present a simpler, less muddled version of themselves to the public, offering an alternative to the predatory biographers who feel free to reveal anything they damn well please without a thought to how it could possibly hurt their subject.

Just compare the autobiography of Ulysses S. Grant, luckily for him conceived, shaped, edited, and published by Mark Twain, versus any of the biographies written after his death. In one, dignity and courage. In the other, a boozy man and, despite good intentions, not a very good president. And yet what a great read the autobio is, Twain-inflected as it is, and it gives us permission to see uncomplicated greatness in a complicated era.

Certainly, the sales and advances for a ghostwritten memoir are going to be higher than a thorough biography, unless the subject was really naughty and unwilling to fess up to it. (We may love simplicity, but never as much as we are going to love scandal.) And certainly a policy or history book carrying a recognizable name and face is going to sell more than writers and scholars who have been studying and writing about the same topics for years. It’s not simply the public’s credulity at play here, but also our need to think our politicians have thoughts, possess an understandable logic behind their actions, and can express these things in sentences.

We want to see our politicians and public figures as writers, in the same way that politicians and public figures want to be seen as writers. The archetype of the writer, unsullied by the reality of a contemporary writer’s life, is still seen as being a figure of great importance and influence. There is a prestige to having a book under your name that not even reality show money can satisfy the longing for. The writer possesses intellect, possesses dignity. People who can’t write still like to play imaginary dress up in writer’s clothing. And if they have the money and the audience to sell their book to, they can buy a writer’s clothes to parade around in.

A ghostwriter who spoke with me only under the condition of anonymity lists her recent clients as a business CEO, a celebrity writing a young adult novel, a psychologist writing for a lay audience, and a former child star working on her memoir. Each had a different motivation for wanting a book in their name, and yet all the reasons had a common denominator: they had an idea they wanted expressed, and a book seemed like the best vehicle for that idea. She, the ghostwriter, sees each project as a a new world to delve into and research and understand. No matter how big a leap moving from one project to the next requires, the act is still the same: “mirroring” the person with the idea, finding the form to convey the idea, “and protect[ing] them from themselves if necessary.” She does not struggle for credit; on the contrary, she jealously guards her own name. She fights for stricter confidentiality agreements, and certainly wouldn’t allow me to name her here. “I want to keep my name to myself, for my own writing.”

But then the compromise of content is part of the struggle of the ghostwriter, being hired for work that they might otherwise think is beneath them. Like Thomas Mallon, acclaimed American novelist, tasked with getting the thoughts and ideas of Vice President Dan Quayle down on paper. A main part of the job of the ghostwriter seems to be the ability to keep these things separate, the work you do for the ghosted and the work you do for yourself. As Draper said, “You enter into the bargain finding virtue in being emotionally divested and knowing the property is in no way yours.”

I wonder, though, what it does to the ghosted souls, all of those basking in the paid-for glory, all of those taking bows for someone else’s applause. Todd, who has given up ghostwriting and now runs the undergraduate program at Georgetown University, explained away my concerns for the late night moments, trying to chase away worries about being a fraud with whiskey. “They usually believe they wrote every word, that ghosts are expensive typists. Amnesia is a common affliction of the ghosted.” • 19 May 2014

Jessa Crispin is editor and founder of Bookslut.com. She currently resides in Chicago.
EmailTwitterFacebookDiggStumbleUponGoogle+
No thanks to him...
EmailTwitterFacebookDiggStumbleUponGoogle+

   

I’ve smoked a lot of weed in my day. Blunts with boys on stoops in bad neighborhoods, metal pipes with middle-aged Buddhists, roaches with an old man hooked up to an oxygen tank at a Dead concert, and gravity bongs made out of POM bottles. I would never classify my avocation as an addiction. But perhaps an appetite? Something old Aristotle might say is “the cause of all actions that appear pleasant”? I’d say so.

One would assume that a philosopher would approve of such appetites. Weed does, after all, inspire thinking, pondering, concluding — all that good stuff. But reading a line from his Rhetoric gave me a twinge of uneasiness, as though an assumed supporter no longer stood by me. He writes, “A ‘criminal act’ … is due to moral badness, for that is the source of all actions inspired by our appetite.”

I never saw this hobby as “bad,” for I wasn’t harming anyone. If anything, I was spreading love and uniting random groups of people like a member of the Peace Corps. Yeah, it’s “illegal,” but I don’t sell and I’d never mugged a person for their pot, so am I still “morally bad?”

And are my actions “criminal” strictly because they’re banned by law? Whereas if I had been born in Amsterdam I wouldn’t be performing an act deemed “criminal” and therefore not filled with moral badness by Aristotle’s standards? If that were the case, would my leisure pursuit still be inspired by appetite?

Not that I am, or ever have been, too concerned about it.

On my third day in Valencia, Spain, where I was studying for the summer, I stood in the booze aisle of the supermarket. Not yet 21 years old, I was as happy as a pig in shit. Liquor. Wine. Liters of beer in plastic containers.

Twenty feet to my right were Spanish versions of cheese curls, potato chips, and artificially flavored two-bite bread snacks. I noticed a boy wearing a Yankees hat holding the bruschetta bites in one hand, and the pizza-flavored variation in the other. He was pale and freckled — most definitely not a native.

I made it to the checkout with lettuce (my host Mom didn’t let us use hers), beer, vodka (my host Mom only drank gin), ice cream bars, and chewing gum. While the long-fingernailed, middle-aged woman with a huge hole above her lip scanned my items, the boy in the Yankees hat appeared behind me in line. He had chosen the bruschetta flavor.

“You from New York?” I asked him, nodding my head toward his hat.

“Virginia.” He shook his head, “You?”

“Philly,” I smiled. “I’m studying here for the next couple weeks.”

“Sweet.” He bared huge chompers. “Me too.”

He and his University of Viginia buddies were stationed across the street at a sidewalk table in the shade, clearly exploiting the three-Estrella-miniature-beers-for-one-Euro deal that lasted until 10:00 each night. At least 40 empty bottles sat on the metal table.

As we approached, Alex — a blond with a goatee, black shirt tucked into black belted jeans, and black sneakers — shouted, “OH FUCK YES, SNACKS! AND A LADY?” 

A tall, dark, and handsome number emerged from the bar’s interior, somehow managing to hold nine beers in his two hands. “God,” I thought, staring. “I love Spaniards.” He walked over to our table, where I was still standing, unsure if I should join them in consumption or carry my groceries the few blocks home.

“Oh, hey,” the exotic-looking boy said to me, in an accent not far from my own. “I’m Ben — take my seat.” American, but still beautiful. He handed me a cerveza and pulled up another chair.

Nine beers later, I was still there. My lettuce had grown soggy in the June heat, but my ice cream had not yet managed to seep out of its box.

“We’re here every afternoon,” Alex said. “Literally. Well, if we’re not at the beach. But as you can tell from my skin tone I’d rather be here at Castillo.”

“Yeah,” Ben laughed. “Here drinking or somewhere random smoking hash. I got the hook up.”

“Seriously?” I asked, slamming my beer down and causing bottles to clank together.

“Oh hell yeah,” he smiled. “You should join us tonight.”

I walked home buzzed and beaming — bookbag, plastic shopping bag, four-liter-value-pack of beer bound in a plastic carrier, twelfth Estrella pony, and appetite in hand. It had been a week, and I was itchin’ to get high in this foreign land.

Aristotle may not approve of criminal acts, but he does admit, “The things it is pleasant to expect are those that when present are felt to afford us either great delight or great but not painful benefit.” The hash was amazing. I couldn’t decide if this boy or this getting high was the benefit to the already delightful other.

We all hung out a few more times, and my appetite increased in more ways than one. I wanted my own stash, and I also wanted Ben, maybe even more so. I gauged Ben’s interest, and based on the fact that he made it a point to buy me at least one round of three-for-one-Euro beers each day, even if it meant breaking a five and I had a single waiting in my hand, I decided that the attraction was mutual.

One evening, it was just the two of us. I mentioned, while taking a hit of his spliff, that I wanted some goods of my own. “I got you covered,” he told me. “I was here a term before everyone else, so I know the neighborhood to score what you want like the back of my hand.”

“Oh,” I let out a puff of smoke, “really?”

“Oh yeah. I’ve been there TONS of times, so I know a few guys. They’re like my friends at this point. Plus, my memory’s great and I have an awesome sense of direction. We won’t need a map or anything.”

It was 3:00 in the afternoon, and I was sweating as we zigzagged through this strange barrio. It was so tempting to stop in any one of the bars we’d been walking by. I was thirsty. But more intensely than thirst, I had this appetite. After an hour of walking, his “Left,” “Right,” and “Straight”  were said with disappearing confidence. We stood at a four-way intersection. He looked right, left, behind him, and upward. I asked him, “Who are we even looking for?”

“Anyone that looks shady. Someone dirty, wearing a fanny pack or book bag. Maybe someone with dreadlocks.” I wondered why we hadn’t asked any one of the 50 shabby people we’d already passed. I bit my tongue and waited to be impressed, as I was assuming I would be. And I’m sure he was been waiting for the right dealer and moment to impress.

Eventually we reached a plaza that reeked of urine, where stray dogs walked and lay about. “Let’s sit down for a sec,” he suggested, nervously.

We were approached by a limping, skinny, older man covered in dirt. He stood in front of us, facing away. I held my breath in anticipation. “Drogas?” Ben finally asked.

The old man continued to face away. “Heroína? Cocaina?,” he inquired. Ben just kind of stared at the sandy ground. “Para fumar,” I piped in impatiently. “Hashish.”

The man asked us to come with him, not specifying where. “No, aquí,” Ben told him, demanding that we stay where we were. The dirty, shoeless man walked across the plaza, giving handshake-hugs to other dirty, shoeless men he passed. He spoke with a dreadlocked guy on a bike, who opened his backpack and shamelessly handed our new friend a little something. He limped back over to us wearing a smirk.

The hash was in a thin brick form, sitting directly in this man’s filthy, sweaty hand. “Twenty Euro,” he told us. Ben inhaled deeply, pushing out his chest, and cleared his throat. “Uhh,” he paused, then looked at me, asking in English if I thought this was worth twenty Euro.

“No — más.” I told the man I wanted more for twenty Euro, wondering why my opinion had even been sought. Wasn’t Ben the expert? The old man laughed, shook his head, and returned to his supplier — as though he was the waiter, returning the food we demanded “hotter” to the kitchen. I wondered if the tip was included. I looked at Ben, who seemed uncomfortable and picked at his fingernails.

The man came back with nearly twice as much, and this time I laughed — good enough.

Ben seemed distracted and seemingly ashamed of “being all talk” as we tried to navigate our way out of the neighborhood, using the smell of trash and animal waste as markings of where to hastily head in the opposite direction. He didn’t speak, so I didn’t speak, wondering if he was coming up with something to say or trying desperately to remember where we had to turn. I felt somewhat embarrassed for him: He had built up his skill set and network of “a few guys,” only to fail at presenting anything of the sort. Did he have performance anxiety? Was he notoriously full of shit? Or was he nervous because he liked me?

After Ben accidentally steered us back to the very plaza where we had made the drug deal, we gave up and took a taxi back to the bar. Alex, Brent, and another kid sat at the same table as the day before — or every day, for that matter — drinking the tiny beers. Ben didn’t say a word for the rest of the afternoon. He sat with a furrowed brow, peeling his beer label, the classic sign of sexual frustration. Perhaps he realized he had blown what he hoped was a step in the right direction to appease some other appetite.

“So it’s my turn to contribute. Who wants to smoke at, like, 11:00?” I asked.

“Word.” Alex replied.

“I’m down, man,” Brent RSVP’ed.

The new kid told us he didn’t smoke, and so we all turned to look at Ben. “I’m, um,” he hesitated, “gonna pass.”

This was odd. Despite his failure at leading that afternoon, he was usually the initiator, roller, packer, and ringleader of the smoking sessions.

“What?” Alex asked. “You don’t wanna smoke? What’s up, man?”

Ben licked his lips and shook his head, finishing his beer and leaving a few moments later without much of a goodbye. The remaining four of us looked at each other with confusion.

I decided that when I saw him next I would try to make him feel as though I was unaffected by our little drug-acquiring-adventure. After all, I was interested in him before any of this “let-me-show-you-all-I-can-do” talk. His helplessness was a turn-off, but I’d get over it if he would.

But Ben consistently kept to himself when I’d come around. When I told him that our hash was awesome and he had to try it, he merely half-smiled, still looking down. I was confused, but not too bothered. His “big talk” was a little much, but who was the Ben I had first met? Was that a front, too? His presence at Castillo faded until one day, Brent told me that Ben had left the study abroad program early.

I tried not to think about possible reasons for why he had turned anti-social and fled the country, for I didn’t want to blame my appetite for doing more than breaking the law. “A ‘criminal act,'” Aristotle says, “has results that might have been expected.” I certainly wasn’t expecting my desire to buy hash to amount in his personal downfall. • 24 November 2009

Emily Callaghan‘s work has appeared in The Philadelphia Inquirer and Philadelphia magazine.
EmailTwitterFacebookDiggStumbleUponGoogle+
Photographer Frances Benjamin Johnston shows children a Kodak.
EmailTwitterFacebookDiggStumbleUponGoogle+

In January, Eastman Kodak filed Chapter 11 documents in U.S. bankruptcy court. Its debts exceeded its assets by approximately $1.7 billion. The New York Stock Exchange delisted it. Three weeks later, the company announced that it will stop making digital cameras, camcorders, and digital picture frames some time this year in an effort to cut costs and further reduce its workforce. Apparently Kodak believes there are people somewhere who will still buy whatever it will still be selling at that point, but according to all the experts, the company that created a mass market for personal photography has officially morphed from viable commercial enterprise into picturesque curio, another victim of the Internet’s punishing economies.

   

Like many other media behemoths that fell before it, Kodak had trouble embracing the notion that the products it had sold effortlessly and profitably for so long would become worthless so quickly. So a few horny geeks had started trading 256-color images of old porn mags on CompuServe. So what? So digital cameras were getting cheaper and more powerful. Who cares? Hundreds of millions of people around the world weren’t going to just stop buying film overnight. “You come back in 10 years, there will be a film business here,” a Kodak executive told the Rochester Democrat and Chronicle in 2009. Six months later, the company discontinued the last remaining version of its iconic Kodachrome line.

“They were a company stuck in time,” Ryerson University professor Robert Burley explained to Bloomberg News. But if any company should have recognized what 2012 would be like in, say, 1988, Kodak should have. After all, it pretty much invented 2012 in 1888. That was the year that company founder George Eastman introduced the Kodak No. 1, catalyzing a new way of looking at the world, a new mode of existence that would make Kim Kardashian a millionaire and Mark Zuckerberg a billionaire.

As Alexis Madrigal explains at The Atlantic, Kodak referred to this new mode of existence — in which a camera or some other recording device is ever-present; in which making images, consuming images, and other forms of self-documentation and self-curation are major aspects of one’s life — as Kodakery. Unfortunately for Kodak, it wasn’t able to maintain the sort of proprietary hold on this mode of existence that the name suggests. Even in 1888, Kodakery (or as we might more generally call it, snapshot culture) was too big an idea for just one company to control.

The first production camera model, the Daguerrotype, was manufactured in Paris 50 years earlier. It cost 400 francs or approximately $50 at the time —  the equivalent of $1,190 in current U.S. dollars. It and all the accompanying equipment it required weighed 120 pounds. The cameras that followed in its wake were similarly expensive, heavy, and hard to operate. Film didn’t exist yet. Images were made on glass plates inserted in the back of the camera after they’d been dipped in a bath of chemicals in a nearby darkroom. Once a plate was exposed, it had to be developed in a matter of minutes. The chemicals involved were toxic and messy, the process exacting.

All of this meant that photography was limited to a narrow sector of humanity — wealthy and meticulous he-men, essentially, who could afford the necessary equipment and had the strength and patience to make it work. The Kodak No. 1 changed things. At $25, it wasn’t cheap but at least it was cheaper. The camera weighed just under 2 pounds. Most profound, it did away with glass plates and messy chemicals and came pre-loaded with enough film for 100 exposures, which the camera’s operator would not have to develop or print himself. The Eastman Dry Plate and Film Co., as Eastman Kodak was then known, would take care of all that. “A division of labor is offered, whereby all the work of finishing the pictures is done at the factory, where the camera can be sent to be reloaded,” an 1888 Kodak advertisement exclaimed. “The operator need not learn anything about photography. He can ‘Press the button’ — we do the rest.

In her book Kodak and the Lens of Nostalgia, Nancy West, an English professor at the University of Missouri, explains that the Kodak No. 1’s 100 pre-loaded exposures represented “probably over 10 times as many photographs as the average middle-class American family owned at the time.” Photography may have been an extraordinary technology, but its scope was mainly limited to whatever could be shot in a dedicated photography studio. Its output was limited by the fact that only a relatively small number of practitioners possessed the skill and equipment to produce images. 

But the studio portrait was about to give way to the snapshot. The studio portrait was deliberate, posed, static. The snapshot was casual, spontaneous, improvisational, panoptic. Even in a controlled environment like a studio, taking 100 images in a single session with a camera that used glass plates was a virtually impossible feat. The Kodak made it a routine matter, even in the harshest environments. In 1892, for example, explorer Robert Peary took three Kodak cameras and 23 rolls of film with him on his 1892 expedition to Greenland; he managed to produce more than 2000 photographs of what the New York Sun described as “superior excellence.” In a letter to W.P. Buchanan, the vice-president of the Columbia Photographic Society in Philadelphia, Peary explained that he had never before used a Kodak, “knew nothing of practical photography,” and attributed the success of his picture-making efforts to Kodak rather than his own talent. (If it sounds like he was angling for a spokesperson’s gig, he might have been: Kodak would incorporate his story into future ads.)

Did the Kodak’s capacity to document the world so exhaustively create mankind’s desire to take 2,000 pictures of snow? Or did it merely allow mankind to finally realize a dream that had always existed inside him? Either way, 19th-century consumers loved the Kodak. In the wake of the No. 1, George Eastman marketed a series of follow-up models in rapid succession, and each one was cheaper and easier to use than the one that had preceded it. In 1900, Kodak introduced the Brownie, a camera so simple the company claimed that it could be “operated by any school boy or girl.” It cost $1. Six-exposure film cartridges, which could be loaded into the camera in broad daylight, cost as little as 10 cents.

By 1905, Kodak had sold more than 1.2 million cameras. During this period, Nancy West writes in Kodak and the Lens of Nostalgia, the company’s advertising focused on “the sheer pleasure and adventure of taking photographs…capturing subjects in candid moments…recording travel to exotic places.” Many ads focused on outdoor leisure activities: hunting, fishing, hiking, exploring a lake in a canoe. “Take a Kodak with you,” these ads insisted. On a one-off basis, these ads seem pleasant enough, with their pastoral imagery and mild, folksy imperatives. In aggregate, however, they begin to seem comically oppressive in their insistence that the Kodak should play a central role in every American’s life: “Make Kodak your family historian.” “A vacation without a Kodak is a vacation wasted.” “Let Kodak keep a picture record of your every outing.”

In 1888, the Hartford Courant lamented the new ethos Kodak and its customers were pioneering. “The Kodak has added a new terror to the picnic,” it opined.  “The sedate citizen can’t indulge in any hilariousness without incurring the risk of being caught in the act and having his photograph passed around among his Sunday-school children. And the young fellow who wishes to spoon with his best girl while sailing down the river must keep himself constantly sheltered by his umbrella.”

To a certain degree, there was pushback against the new breed of camera snoops and their new power to document the world. In 1893, for example, the organizers of Chicago’s World Columbian Exposition imposed a $2 fee on amateur photographers who wanted to bring their Kodaks to the Fair. In 1898, two American tourists were arrested for taking photos in Cuba. The first roused the ire of authorities when he took a snapshot of the wreckage of the U.S.S. Maine, which, earlier that year, had suffered an explosion of famously undetermined cause and sank in a Havana harbor. The second photographed a group of local children outside his hotel. He was jailed, his film confiscated to prevent the publication of images that would illustrate the abject conditions under which the subjects of Spain were living in Cuba.

But if one or two people were jailed, if thousands more were unfairly taxed, well, that still left millions more. Armed with portable and unobtrusive cameras and an infinite supply of film, they weren’t all just going to take charming snapshots of baby elephants and frowning toddlers. A new culture of surveillance began to evolve in America. In 1899, for example, a New Jersey laborer sued a woman who’d hired him to work on her farm but allegedly failed to pay the wage she’d promised. Things were going well for the laborer in court until the defendant produced a photograph of the laborer that had captured the true nature of his work habits: He was husking corn in the middle of a cornfield while sitting in an armchair! In 1900, a Republican politician in Baltimore recruited a team of 12 volunteers armed with Kodaks to discourage illegal voter registration tactics by the Democrats. The same year in Corning, New York, Kodak-wielding prohibitionists began compiling photographic evidence of hotels and saloons that were illegally selling liquor on Sundays.

In courtrooms, on the front pages of newspapers, in family living rooms, the snapshot established itself as the ultimate form of truth-telling. Ostensibly snapshots caught life as it happened. A studio portrait may have produced a startling likeness of its subject, but it was an obvious artificial construct. Individuals wore their best clothes in portraits. Their postures and expressions were deliberately chosen to convey specific qualities and values. Multiple exposures were made to increase the chances of capturing a person in his or her best possible light. Cropping, retouching, and other forms of manipulation might be applied to the final image.

Snapshots, in contrast, were spontaneous and informal, produced with no apparent forethought or calculation. And they  were thought to be natural, true, revelatory even. In his 1991 essay, Kodakers Lying in Wait: Amateur Photography and the Right of Privacy in New York, 1885-1915, law professor Robert Mensel explains how photography journals advised the era’s aspiring paparazzi that newspapers paid “fully twice as much” for candid snapshots of famous people as they did for studio portraits. “A photograph of a person’s facial expression, taken while that person was unaware and consequently not that self-conscious, was thought to be the surest way to capture the subject’s ‘real’ feelings, character, and personality,” Mensel writes.

As the 20th century progressed, a Kodak was the presumed antidote to a rising tide of Hollywood cowboys and corporate hamburgers, a populist defense against press agents, Madison Avenue, and all the other shills of mass-produced image-crafting. It could penetrate veils of publicity and marketing. It could slip behind the scenes and expose the real story. Because it was so closely aligned with notions of authenticity and truth-telling, the Kodak helped establish gawking as a legitimate activity. An inveterate ogler who might have once been challenged with an aggressive “What are you staring at?” could now confidently answer, “What have you got to hide?”

The Kodak turned millions of people into amateur ethnologists and investigative reporters. In 1902, an American expatriate opining in the pages of the Mexican Herald complained that tourists “armed with Kodaks” were wandering through a local cathedral and taking snapshots of worshipers engaged in prayer. “Oh, isn’t she a sight?” one of them reportedly exclaimed to another upon spying a withered old Indian woman dressed in rags. “You bet she is,” the other replied. “You don’t see things like that in the States. Wait and I will get her.”

The hunt for the authentic turned the world into a giant stage set and its inhabitants into props. Ironically, what began as a participatory, user-driven phenomenon helped pave the way for the passive voyeurism that would characterize 20th-century American culture. Kodak got us used to a life of media abundance, a life of looking. And while amateur “camera fiends” may have pioneered the new ethos of intrusiveness in the late 1880s, professional media practitioners ultimately proved at least as adept at delivering the authenticity the public demanded. Think of Weegee racing around Manhattan in the 1930s to snap photos of murder victims with his Speed Graphic before the police even managed to arrive. Think of the mid-century tabloid Confidential, which published unflattering snapshots of celebrities on its covers and promised “uncensored and off the record” tell-alls about Frank Sinatra’s fling with a call girl or the time that an already-sauced Robert Mitchum stripped naked at a Hollywood dinner party and “sprinkled himself” with a bottle of ketchup.

In the early days of snapshot culture, unwitting models often protested when their images were appropriated by entrepreneurial photographers and enterprising corporations. In one example that Robert Mensel recounts in Kodakers Lying in Wait, a teenage girl named Abigail Roberson “suffered a severe nervous shock” (and then filed a lawsuit) after discovering that the Franklin Mills Company had printed her portrait on 25,000 sacks of flour it was selling in stores, warehouses, and saloons in the area where she lived.

Over time, however, America’s capacity for exhibitionism began to match its capacity for voyeurism. And then to exceed it. There were so many two-timing hermaphrodites and racist nudists eager to expose the intimate details of their lives that not even Oprah, Phil, and Jerry could accommodate them all. In literary memoirs and gonzo porn tapes alike, the unrelenting candor of our overmediated era grew so commonplace that it began to seem simulated even when it wasn’t. To compensate for this glut of self-revelation, extraordinary measures were necessary to deliver moments that delivered the charge of the convincingly authentic. People began to eat hissing cockroaches for cash prizes on network TV. Convenience store assaults caught on surveillance cameras were presented as prime-time entertainment. Private sex tapes featuring famous or at least semi-famous individuals were leaked on the Internet.

How did the company that made it OK for 19th-century peeping-toms to gape at “half nude and innocent bathers” at Coney Island not figure out how to capitalize on all of this? Why, after teaching America that “a holiday without a Kodak is only half a holiday” in 1908, did it leave it to Mark Zuckerberg to teach America that lunch without a status update is only half a lunch? Ultimately, Kodak’s problem wasn’t that it was stuck in the past. Its problem was that it wasn’t paying enough attention to the past. Had history’s greatest peddler of memories and nostalgia utilized more hindsight, it might still have a future to contemplate. • 10 February 2012

Greg Beato is a contributing editor at Reason magazine. Follow @GregBeato on Twitter.
EmailTwitterFacebookDiggStumbleUponGoogle+
DW_TRUMPET_FI_001
EmailTwitterFacebookDiggStumbleUponGoogle+

First Tupac, then Michael Jackson, and now… Patsy Cline? Country music gets its first holographic performer. (BBC)

Michael Lind recently lamented the disappearance of the classics from modern American culture. Now, a fascinating and wide-ranging argument for “classics for the people” – or, more specifically, greater access to ancient Greek studies in British schools:

The Greeks, more even than the Romans, show us how to question received opinion and authority. The earliest myths reveal mankind actively disputing the terms on which the Olympian gods want to rule them, and the philanthropic god Prometheus rebelling against Zeus in order to steal fire – a divine prerogative – and give it to mortal men. Sophocles’ Antigone refuses to accept her tyrannical uncle’s arbitrary edict, draws crucial distinctions between moral decency and contingent legislation, and buries her brother anyway. Aristophanes, in his democratic comedies, subjected politicians who wielded power to satire of eye-watering savagery. Socrates dedicated his life to proving the difference between the truth and received opinion, the unexamined life being, in his view, not worth living. No wonder Hobbes thought that reading Greek and Roman authors should be banned by any self-respecting tyrant, in Leviathan arguing that they foment revolution under the slogan of liberty, instilling in people a habit “of favouring uproars, lawlessly controlling the actions of their sovereigns, and then controlling those controllers”.

More… “Classics, Catholics, and Patsy Cline”

Diane Pizzuto is the art director and managing editor of The Smart Set.
EmailTwitterFacebookDiggStumbleUponGoogle+
Framing memories with flowers and frills.
EmailTwitterFacebookDiggStumbleUponGoogle+

   

Page one of my scrapbooking-weekend scrapbook would contain a cardstock minivan pasted onto a gray chalk outline of a Virginia highway. A photo of my face would be slipped into the driver’s window, and my hands would be cut out and pasted to a cardstock wheel at a sturdy 10 and two.

Renting a minivan to get to the Chantilly, Virginia, convention had been an inside joke with myself about going undercover as a scrapbooker for a story on the scrapbooking phenomenon. But the joke turned on me (as inside jokes with yourself usually do) when I ended up finding the van on the way to the convention to be a comfy and spacious drive with enough bass to make it sound like Jay-Z himself was carpooling with me to the convention. By the time I arrived at the center, I realized I didn’t look any more rocking than the average scrapbookers filing into the center, and I hadn’t even had to work at the outfit (a pony tail, a dated cut of jeans, and a tank top I’ve outgrown) to look like someone who spent her money almost exclusively on scrapbooking supplies.

Page two and three of my scrapbooking-weekend scrapbook would contain photos of the inside of the expo center. Most of the women on the floor looked happy to be out of the house for the weekend, walking around the expo in tennis shoes and generous applications of drugstore-pink blush with their elderly moms, their daughters, or their girl friends, and if their T-shirts were to be trusted, they knew exactly what their husbands and other non-scrapbookers thought of their hobby, and they lived to scrap anyway.

So despite my aesthetic aversion to everything scrappy (bubble letters, paper doilies, glitter glue, ferry stamps, posed portraits, close families) a crowd made up of individuals capable of feeling excitement at the discovery of the perfect cropping tool was endearing. I spent the day walking through all the aisles, where I watched vendors demonstrate ways to “jazz-up” prom pages and make military service layouts “pop,” and then I sat down in the cafe (not to be confused with a café) that sold hot dogs and nachos, and there I watched — a little too intently to be polite — a woman devour a can of energy  pudding. She wrote something on a keyboard when she was done, and her middle-aged daughter read the computer screen and laughed. 

If they enjoyed scrapping, I thought, more power to them. For some people it looked like organizing and embellishing photos was a soothing, fun way to organize their familial and personal histories. Some people conduct symphonies, or paint, or dance, or tie fishing flies, or share at AA.  I try not to be the kind of person who begrudges anyone a form or a forum that provides them a sense of release.

The busy aesthetic of scrapping started to make me dizzy, though. When it comes to layouts, I’m comfortable with white space. When it comes to photographs, I think a well-captured frozen moment in time is arresting on its own.  So when I saw one vendor selling a plastic flip-flop kit for sewing together a book of large sized flip-flops to collage photos on to, I walked outside the convention hall for some sunlight.

The sidewalk outside was misplaced and didn’t fully lead to a destination, and some scrapbook convention attendees were driving the couple of hundred feet from their parking spots to the pack of fast food joints closer to the freeway. On page four of my scrapbook I would cut out the skyline dominated by a business park of buildings with tinted windows, a cluster of drive-thrus, and a Hooters.

And on page five I would jazz things up with a dye-cut parking lot filled with paper-piecing license plates to represent the inordinate amount of personalized license plates in the convention center parking lot: 1GODMOM, HOTXBUN, VELMA3, HAPIME, 1ONTHEGO, GS LDR, NOONISH, PAY4WRD. Some plates were held by personalized license plate holders; “Disney,” “This is not a minivan, it’s a shopping cart,” and, alarmingly if it were parked anywhere else except outside a craft booking expo, “Cutting Queen.”

On the concluding pages of my scrapbook, I wouldn’t be at the expo.  The page six-seven spread would contain a matte photo of me sitting on some concrete steps in Alexandria where I would be waiting for a locksmith, after somehow managing to lose the house as well as the minivan keys on a walk.  It might seem off topic to include a large photo of me locked outside of the house in suburban Virginia where I was dog sitting in a scrapbook that was supposed to be about the scrapbooking conference, but here I would be employing a device, scrapping off topic in order to illustrate a theme, and the theme as usual would be memory. 

We — scrapbookers, non-scrapbookers — work obsessively on the narratives of our lives all the time.  We cling to a story about the past and the future, and we embellish and run it compulsively like we’re flipping through the pages of a scrapbook we just can’t get enough of.

I had no interest in considering the past that had led me to the point of being locked out on the steps, and the immediate future seemed a little rough; I didn’t really want to think about finding a tow truck for the minivan, or how I would pay the $240 for an emergency lock smith to unlock the house so the dog, Doogie, and I could have a place to sleep. So I tried to drop my dumb personal story for a while and just look across the street.

But without a story about the past and solid plans for the future, who the hell are you? Letting it all go for a second felt like a release, but it also felt a little like a death, and I know why scrapbookers and the rest of the world have an aversion to it.

Then a mother opened the screen door of the house across the street and started to interrogate her kid, who apparently had said the “F” word in the yard and been told on.  “Who did you hear that from?” she asked. 

“No one,” he said. 

“You don’t hear that from no one,” she said. “Who?”

“No one,” he said, and began to cry as she grabbed him by the crook of his armpit and started to yank him home. 

“Who did you hear that word from?” she kept demanding, and by this time he was crying with shame and holding his free hand over his eyes.

Then right there on the sidewalk he leaned in to hug her thigh.  She kept walking and dragging him anyway.  He wanted to be comforted by her, even though she was the one making him cry.  And she was still mad at him, because I guessed she wanted him to grow up to be a good person, and in her mind a good person was not the kind that said “fuck” and then refused to tell his mom who he heard the word “fuck” from.

I don’t even know how you would capture that in a scrapbook.  Maybe you would embellish the border of the final spread with some journaling carried out with an acid-free pen. I guess though, if you had the mentality of a scrapbooker, someone interested in organizing the past to make it look like fun, and in order to create a cute keepsake, you might have to leave out a lot of the uncertain parts of the past and probably a lot of the little scenes where you cried. • 22 July 2008

When Emily Maloney is not traveling the globe, she lives at home with her mom in Oregon. Her column Emily’s World appeared weekly on The Smart Set. She can be reached at emilymaloney@yahoo.com.
EmailTwitterFacebookDiggStumbleUponGoogle+
FP_MANN_WIDOW_AP_001
EmailTwitterFacebookDiggStumbleUponGoogle+

I love cold, dark mornings. I love stretching just past the warm spots in the sheets and feeling the icy air brush across my toes. I love the way the pillow pushed under my shoulder cradles my head in softness, and I love to roll over and wiggle the curve of my hip into my husband’s side, tucking my cold feet around his warm ones.

I used to love that last part, anyway. Lately, in my sheet-swaddled semi-clarity, I reach for my husband’s hand before I realize that he’s not in bed with me any longer.

When you fight reality, you will lose.
More… “The Club No One Wants to Join”

Melissa Mann is a burger junkie, denim fanatic, and occasional voiceover artist. As a result of her solitary existence in downtown Los Angeles, she’s considering firing her trainer and letting her hair go gray.
EmailTwitterFacebookDiggStumbleUponGoogle+
Home to treasures, gems...and horrors.
EmailTwitterFacebookDiggStumbleUponGoogle+

Like many of the pieces I write for Foodstuffs, this is a combined story of love and revulsion.* But unlike those pieces, this doesn’t reach back into history to pluck out Victorian funeral cookies or pre-microwave bachelor foods. No, this month I’m writing about recipes that are much more recent, but still forgotten — the recipes that fill locally produced cookbooks of the 70s and 80s.

   

I own a small collection of these cookbooks; I purposefully keep it small, because for every good recipe I find in them, there are usually three more that simply amount to mixing a canned soup with something else from a can and putting cheese on top. You’ve probably seen the cookbooks I’m talking about — you might even own one. Produced as fundraising projects or to celebrate a particular town’s “cuisine,” these typewritten or dot-matrix printed, spiral-bound collections have traditionally served as a great way to discover that your neighbors have terrible taste in food.

Or, at least, many of mine did. Two of the cookbooks in my collection are specific to Northern New Hampshire — the Shelburne Sampler II and Our Favorite Recipes: North Country Senior Meals. Well, the infractions in the Shelburne Sampler are relatively benign (except for the off-color drawing associated with the “Ethnic” recipe section), but the fine folks who submitted recipes to North Country Senior Meals provided some absolutely baffling entries.

How baffling? Well, nobody above the age of six has ever said, “I wish somebody would put chewy candy inside of bread,” but yet we have a recipe for Gumdrop Bread, a mouth-confusing combination of gumdrops and dry, sweetish-bread. I made this, and my first bite made me send a silent spiritual apology to all of the plants and animals used to create the monstrosity. And that’s not the only misstep in this collection – oh, no. “Special Beef” is special because it also includes a can of pork and beans. “Nibblers” are salt-topped canned mushrooms that you heat in the oven. The “low calorie dishes” section has exactly seven recipes, one of which is a soup that simply includes cabbage, celery, tomatoes, and a shit-ton of bullion. The canker-sore field day known as Santa Claus Punch combines hot pineapple juice with red hot candies. Really, I should’ve known what I was getting into when the Soups, Salads & Sauces section began with two chocolate sauce recipes, went to cole slaw, and then jumped to cheese fondue.

I swear I’m not just trying to fill the internet with more snark, here — there’s a lot that I love about these cookbooks too. Despite the Gumdrop Bread incident, these grandmother-fueled locally produced cookbooks are some of the best places to find recipes for delicious baked goods and other comfort foods – and not just the buttery-rich ones you’d automatically think of. In fact, my favorite go-to vegan cake came from the Shelburne Sampler II, in the form of Eggless Applesauce Squares. The Reader’s Guide to Good Eating from the staff at Arlington County, Virginia’s library system includes all sorts of amazing, comforting treats too, like peanut cookies that use real peanuts, not peanut butter, and a dish simply known as “The Ribsticker,” which my boyfriend and I have been eating huge bowlfuls of since I made it earlier this week.

These cookbooks include all sorts of fun, weird commentary and information too. The Reader’s Guide to Good Eating has information on how to turn flowerpots into DIY hibachis. Ben Werner’s charming introduction in the Shelburne Sampler II makes sure to note that the recipes are easy, and that “There are no instructions for cooking giraffe” in the ensuing book. The North Country Senior Meals book does claim in its introduction that all of their recipes “reflect the love of good cooking,” though, which I might have to argue with.

But perhaps what I love most about these cookbooks is that they’re a window into what communities actually eat — not the idealized version of the area’s cuisine you see in a “real” regional cookbook. Because our sense of where we’re from is closely tied to what we ate there – gumdrop bread and all. • 1 August 2014

* “Lovulsion.”

Eggless Applesauce Squares

Recipe by Lala Dinsmore from Shelburne Sampler II

Lala Dinsmore was a newspaper reporter who lived down the road from me when I was growing up, and I thought she was the coolest. This recipe is my go-to vegan dessert. I’ll often cook it in a 9”x9” pan instead of the 13”x9” listed in the recipe to get taller squares, and I usually leave the glaze off.

Shelburne school children’s favorite. Made in the school lunch room kitchen in Gorham by Marjorie Ellis.

½ cup vegetable oil
1 cup apple sauce
1 cup sugar

Mix in order given. Add the following dry ingredients:

2 cups flour
½ teaspoon salt
1½ teaspoons cinnamon
1½ teaspoons nutmeg
1 teaspoon soda
½ cup raisins – optional
½ cup walnuts – optional

Bake in a 13″ x 9″ greased brownie pan at 350 degrees for about 30 mins or until top springs back when touched lightly. Cover hot cake left in pan with following glaze: ½ cup confectioners’ sugar mixed with 1 tablespoon hot water.

The Ribsticker

Recipe by Charles Peck from The Reader’s Guide to Good Eating

My one big trade here was that I used homemade ketchup to add a little bit more zing.

The following recipe (original) kept 6 men happy once a week for four years:

(Repeat the structure until pan is full)
Cheese sliced thin (layer)
Spaghetti, precooked (layer)
Ground beef (layer)
Red kidney beans (layer)

Spread ketchup between the layers. (This is best done at the time.) Cook until the aroma makes it impossible to resist.

Gumdrop Bread

From Our Favorite Recipes

Why, god, why?

Ingredients


3 cups sifted flour
¾ cup sugar
3½ teaspoon baking powder
1 teaspoon salt
½ cup chopped nuts
½ cup raisins
1 cup gumdrops, which have been cut into pieces
2 tablespoons melted shortening
1 beaten egg
1½ cup milk
1 teaspoon vanilla

Instructions
Sift together flour, sugar, baking powder and salt. Stir in nuts, raisins and gumdrops. Blend together egg, shortening, milk and vanilla. Add to dry ingredients and stir until dry ingredients are just moistened. Pour into a loaf pan, rubbed with shortening and floured lightly. Bake in a 350 degree oven about 1 hour. Cool before slicing.

Meg Favreau is a writer and comedian living in Los Angeles. Her writing has appeared in McSweeney’s, The Big Jewel, The Huffington Post, Table Matters, and The Smew. Her book with photographer Michael Reali, Little Old Lady Recipes: Comfort Food and Kitchen Table Wisdom, was released in November 2011 by Quirk Books. She’s currently the senior editor at the frugal living and personal finance site Wise Bread, and a regular guest on American Public Media’s Marketplace Money.
EmailTwitterFacebookDiggStumbleUponGoogle+
Brush off the cedar shavings first.
EmailTwitterFacebookDiggStumbleUponGoogle+

I have been known to eat foods that others snub. As a student, I lived off back-of-the-store, reduced-price vegetables and fruits. Day-or-more-old muffins and danish were a treat. My best company dish was a cheap and tasty enchilada casserole that I made with chicken necks and backs. So it was only natural I should one day undertake a real gastronomic adventure. I should try to eat a pet, a nice small one. A guinea pig would do, and the place to accomplish that was Peru where cuy, as guinea pig is known, was said to be a staple of the traditional diet.

Of course, I didn’t travel to Peru just to challenge the frontiers of dining. It had long been my dream to explore the cloud-crested ruins of Machu Picchu and to glide upon Lake Titicaca in a reed boat. I wanted to brush up on my Spanish. I wanted to experience the Andes. I wanted to try a dish so repellant that I could brag about it for the rest of my life. No matter that the furry beasts were the hapless servants of science, or that my sister and I once kept them as pets, or that every single person I spoke to curled his face in revulsion when I announced my intention to dine on a creature normally at home on a bed of cedar shavings. The more folks made retching motions, the more I rubbed my palms together with anticipation over a dish of something I imagined as a kind of mammalian Cornish game hen. I pledged to myself that I would consume cuy and then return home to triumphantly proclaim to my sister that I had eaten Fluffy.

How fondly I remembered my sister Judy’s sweet-tempered little calico guinea pig. Fluffy loved to be held and stroked. We had a tea parties for her. We made her salads with tough outer lettuce leaves. Fluffy nibbled on carrot tops and rabbit pellets. She didn’t exercise much, but neither did anyone in our family. She lounged through a placid life until we felt she needed a mate and introduced Mickey into her cage. A hefty albino, Mickey had beady red eyes, a nasty attitude, and a pair of tusks that drew more than their share of our blood.

The match, I think, was cruel one. I have often regretted it. Therefore it would have been more fitting to imagine myself biting into the hostile Mickey in retribution. But I imagined him as bitter and tough. There would be no pleasure in his degustation, none of the delight of eating Fluffy.

In Peru, I learned that cuy was prepared in a number of ways. You could make it stuffed and roasted, piquant and quartered, or flattened whole and fried. And while my host family in Cusco, the Mariscals, never served it at almuerzo, our main midday meal, cuy is said to be widely consumed in Peru. According to the author of Unmentionable Cuisine, veterinarian and food expert Calvin Schwabe, cuy provides over 50 percent of Peru’s animal protein. Many people raise guinea pigs at home, and others buy them killed and cleaned in the meat section of the market. Ask a Peruvian if he or she eats cuy, and you will hear that person wax sentimental about the way his or her mamá prepared it – just the same way an American will rhapsodize about Mom’s apple pie or fried chicken. Still, as much as the Peruvians boasted of their favorite cuy fricassee or roast cuy, not once did I see an Andean or a Criollo actually eat cuy.

So why should my mind and guts rebel before a carefully prepared dish of pet? Was I just too ethnocentric? Did I think it barbaric or taboo? If I were starving, I would probably see things differently.

 

Cuy is by no means the most stomach-turning thing one can consume. In some parts of the Amazon jungle, people eat monkey, an animal whose genome is too close to human for my taste. Apropos of the human genome, food writer Jen Karetnick, who has done considerable research on Peruvian witchcraft, reveals that in some remote areas of Peru certain cooks may stir stew with a human femur or scrape bits of skull into a marinade of fish. Karetnick explains that this is part of a spell-casting ritual, adding that the use of human remains in cooking is strictly illegal in Peru. Good to hear that since fish with skull is another no-brainer for me. But in the Andes, what did I eat unawares? There’s a mystery.

The issue of cannibalism or quasi-cannibalism aside, food tastes and food taboos are relative. The Chinese eat cat and dog. Moses declared that locusts were kosher. The Japanese challenge death by indulging in the poisonous fugu fish. The Philippinos drink and chew the delicacy of balut, the nearly mature embryo of a chick cooked in its shell. And what about haggis, the stuffed sheep’s stomach so dear to Scottish palates and my own? I did not want to be ethnocentric. I wanted to overcome a food prejudice and eat a pet, a pet that, unfortunately, also happened to be a rat.

Rodent eating, however, is not unheard of even in America. Squirrel is a classic ingredient in Brunswick stew. In some parts of New Jersey, fire companies and churches hold muskrat dinners. On the Internet, you can find recipes for muskrat, or marsh hare, as it is sometimes known. I also found a recipe for rottweiler with sweet potatoes. But I digress. The Peruvians think it is bizarre and hilarious that Americans keep guinea pigs as pets.

For the first two weeks in Peru I demurred when it came to cuy. I dined on ají gallina, a spicy chicken stew, and lomo saltado, a yummy stir-fried beef dish gilded with french fries. I particularly liked alpaca, a meat which I found a little chewy, but very tasty. Grilled and attractively plated, it looked just like scallops of beef. At most every meal I ate choclo, the bland, starchy, mega-kernelled corn that is a staple of the Peruvian diet. It didn’t taste as good as it looked, but served with a chunk of salty cheese — a bite of choclo, a bite of queso — I learned to like it better. I developed a fondness for mana, a kind of giant marshmallow-sized sweetened popcorn, a popular snack you could buy from street vendors. Peru, of course, is the birthplace of corn and potatoes, and one is served spuds of all types: yellow, white, purple, dried and reconstituted, and then some.

It was not until I was in the town of Aguas Calientes, a maze of repetitive souvenir shops, restaurants, and hostels that served the budget tourists to Machu Picchu that I bellied up to the challenge of eating guinea pig. It was now or never, I thought, for after Machu Picchu I would journey on to Lake Titicaca, and I didn’t know if I would be able to order cuy there.

This was February, the height of the rainy season. In Aguas Calientes, torrents Niagara’d off the awnings of the shops and restaurants. Deluges turned the staircase-like streets into tributaries of the Urubamba, the river that roared and rushed through the town and by the base of Machu Picchu. The town itself is called “Hot Waters” after its thermal springs, which are popular with the younger hikers. While my traveling partners, Michelle and Nancy, dared the spa, I passed, being fastidious, if not about eating strange things, then at least about stewing in a pool of backpacker bacteria. The rain had put a damper on our spirits. We did not look forward to hiking the ruins during a downpour, but magically the skies cleared the morning we were to visit Machu Picchu, and I even saw a flock of green parrots wing by a mountainside.

Never discovered, hence never destroyed by the Spaniards, Machu Picchu stands in silent majesty along the eyebrow of the rainforest. We spent a glorious morning exploring its emerald agricultural terraces and its common, royal, and sacred precincts. It was a sublime and strenuous visit. By the time we returned to Aguas Calientes, we had worked up an appetite. It was time for my next adventure. It was time to try cuy.

Together we searched for a suitable restaurant. We dismissed quite a few: too expensive, too pretentious, not clean, no guinea pig, overly expensive guinea pig. At last we settled on a homey little place called El Candamo, mostly because of its comically mistranslated menu, which was headlined: “Plates to the pleasure give the victim.”

Here, the Roasted Alpaca, or Asado de Alpaca, was known as Roasted He/She Gives German Nickel. Trout Roman-style, or Trucha a la Romana, was Trout to the Roman One. Milanesa de Pollo, or Chicken Milanese-styl,e became Milanesa Gives Chicken. Then there was my favorite: Milanesa a la Napolitana de Res, or Milanesa to the Neapolitan One Gives Head. Michelle ordered trout. Nancy asked for spaghetti. Though I regretted having to pass up that Milanese and Neapolitan combo, I went for the Cuy al Horno. Oven-roasted cuy. It cost 32 soles or about $10, and I watched with some trepidation as the cook took the small prepared mammal, lay it on a shallow white tray, and slid it into a wood-burning clay oven. Soon after I finished my Cusqueña beer, the dish was ready. The waitress smiled at me ironically.

Fluffy lay on the plate congealed and scorched, paws up, claws and head on, ringed with papas fritas, a huge log of choclo, and a few slices of cucumber and tomato. The garnishes surrounded her the way flowers garlanded the body at a funeral parlor. Fluffy was helpless. Her hind legs were splayed in indignity. Her orifices winked at me. Lest one take her for a pig, her two pairs of chisel-like incisors classed her at once in the order Rodentia. Fluffy had bits of herb over her eyes. Her mouth was frozen into an unmerry rictus, that sarcastic grin born by Death who always has the last laugh. “So, living stiff,” she chortled silently, “eat me. I dare you.”

The body of the cuy was pierced at various points to let the fat run out. With much difficulty I split it open with the dull table knife. Inside there was a dark green stuffing, made mostly of parsley and flavored with various herbs. It was potent and aromatic, but as I dipped in a second time, I came up with a fork of noodle-like stuff; the animal’s intestines were mixed in with the green. So much for the stuffing. I took a deep breath for courage then cut and mostly combed at the meat with my fork. It was a labor- intensive dish. I found I had to separate the thin sheets of meat from the leather and subcutaneous fat. After giving Michelle and Nancy as much as they would accept – about two teaspoons each, I tried the meat. It was pungent, perhaps from the herb stuffing. There was a slipperiness to it. It was stringy and chewy and tasted like pork. And that was enough cuy for me.

Partly out of respect for my companions, partly out of respect for the corpse, I drew some tiny flimsy restaurant napkins over Fluffy’s face and body. Thankfully Nancy was generous in sharing her spaghetti, and Michelle gave me some of her guacamole. The Cusqueña beer helped. All that plus a serious loss of appetite made for an adequate lunch.

My friend, Odi Gonzales, who is not only a noted Peruvian poet but also a genuine ethnic Inca with a passion for cuy, later told me that you are supposed to pick up the cuy whole with your hands and suck the meat off the thin bones. You then draw out and discard any bones that end up in your mouth. Clearly my knifing and forking had not contributed positively to my rodent-eating experience. I thought of the waitress at El Candamo and her sly smile. It must have been routinely funny to see the tourists struggle with the varmint. In her heart I think she knew that I would have been better off with the Milanesa to the Neapolitan One Gives Head.

Those of us who are not vegetarians eat dead things. This is the common fact. If you accept that humans are omnivores, which I do, we as a species kill and cook so that we may eat and live. I have never had much patience for sanctimonious vegetarians who tell me that morally I should be able to kill a cow if I want the right to eat steak. Nevertheless, there is something shocking about the frankness of seeing the cooked body entire. Of seeing the thing with its teeth. Many people, said Dr. Schwabe, have a bias against eating an animal served whole. Some will not eat fish with the head on or roast suckling pig. Well, it was that, of course, but it was also that the darn thing was a rat. As far as the gastronomy of disgust goes, I’d give whole roasted guinea pig at least an eight. So when it came time to report to my sister about eating Fluffy, I had to confess that I had eaten her, but not very much.

On the other hand, I obtained a new degree of self-knowledge. I discovered that when it came to eating strange things, I was not as brave as I thought. Some might even call me chicken.

Yet, if you, too, wish to overcome a food prejudice and eat a pet, you may want to know how to prepare cuy. I came across this recipe for stuffed guinea pig in Peru.

You will need:

one clean guinea pig

onion

ground chili pepper and ground red chili pepper (both very spicy)

cooking oil

parsley

oregano

mint

huaycatay (an herb that tastes and smells like a blend of black mint and marigold)

walnuts

salt

butter.

The recipe, obviously not one for the beginning cook, instructs you to open the guinea pig ventrally, then to salt and drain it. After salting and draining, remove the organs and intestines, but do not wash the cuy anymore. Parboil the innards separately, then pierce them and dress them with onion, chili pepper, and oil. In another container, prepare a finely chopped mixture of the parsley, mint, oregano, huaycatay, walnuts, and salt. Combine the mixture with the cooked organs and intestines and stuff all that back into the body cavity of the guinea pig. Coat the guinea pig with butter and ground red pepper. Place the critter in a roasting pan and cook it in the oven “until it’s done.”

Revised American instructions: First, go to a pet store…. • 17 September 2007

Lynn Levinteaches at Drexel University and the University of Pennsylvania. Her published works include four collections of poems, the latest of which is Miss Plastique (Ragged Sky Press, 2013) and a craft of poetry book, Poems for the Writing: Prompts for Poets (Texture Press, 2013).
EmailTwitterFacebookDiggStumbleUponGoogle+
BETTER RED
Blushing has been linked to impotence, cannibalism, and shame. But why stigmatize the most human of emotional expressions?
BY BERND BRUNNER
EmailTwitterFacebookDiggStumbleUponGoogle+

In some cases, the sufferer’s cheeks, ears, or neck grow red. Other people’s entire faces burn, or the heat washes over their head like a wave. A person who blushes feels stripped bare, even when fully clothed. A blush can be triggered by shame, guilt, joy, excitement, or irritation, and can strike when we are alone or in the company of others. But it is never under our control. It can happen when we are praised, criticized, or caught off guard. A blush can be a sign of attraction or of “hot” thoughts. Or a person may blush because she realizes she is unprepared for an important discussion or presentation – or at least feels that way. Sometimes it’s enough to drive you crazy, but blushing also has a positive side.

Blushing is just one possible reaction to feelings of shame, which in turn arise under very different circumstances in different people. Some people never blush in embarrassing situations: instead, they may grin, laugh, or involuntarily alter the timbre of their voices. “Social” blushing is also distinct from hot flashes, stage fright, skin diseases, or the reddening of the skin as a result of physical effort, happiness, or alcohol consumption.
More… “Better Red”

Bernd Brunner writes books and essays. His latest book is The Art of Lying Down – A Guide to Horizontal Living. His writing has appeared in Lapham’s Quarterly, Wall Street Journal Speakeasy, Cabinet, Huffington Post, Best American Travel Writing, and various German-language newspapers. His forthcoming book (in German) is Birdmania – The History of a Boundless Passion. Follow him on twitter at @BerndIstanbul.
EmailTwitterFacebookDiggStumbleUponGoogle+
ART/NOT
The elusiveness of Richard Tuttle's "Both/And" can be panic-inducing – until you remember that art doesn't always need a definition.
BY MORGAN MEIS
EmailTwitterFacebookDiggStumbleUponGoogle+

Hilton Kramer, longtime chief art critic for the New York Times, was never a shy man, at least in print. He thought of art criticism as a battle. There was a war, as Kramer saw it, between good art and bad art or – maybe more crucially – between art and non-art. Kramer saw himself as a warrior on the side of Art and The Good. In this war, it did not pay to be nice.

Reviewing an exhibit at the Whitney Museum by the young artist Richard Tuttle in 1975, Hilton Kramer wrote, “To Mies van der Rohe’s famous dictum that less is more, the art of Richard Tuttle offers definitive refutation. For in Mr. Tuttle’s work, less is unmistakably less.”
More… “Art/Not”

Morgan Meis has a PhD in Philosophy and is a founding member of Flux Factory, an arts collective in New York. He has written for n+1, The Believer, Harper’s Magazine, and The Virginia Quarterly Review. He won the Whiting Award in 2013. Morgan is also an editor at 3 Quarks Daily, and a winner of a Creative Capital | Warhol Foundation Arts Writers grant. A book of Morgan’s selected essays can be found here. He can be reached at morganmeis@gmail.com.
EmailTwitterFacebookDiggStumbleUponGoogle+
JO_MILLAN_HAITI_FI_003
EmailTwitterFacebookDiggStumbleUponGoogle+

I was disappointed not to go to the town of Limbe with Clement. In Haiti, Clement Benoit II is to books what Paul Farmer is to medicine. He waited for me in the open air lobby of La Plaza Hotel in Port-au-Prince while I tried to make up my mind. This was the second year in a row that I had met with him at La Plaza and he offered to take me to Limbe, his birthplace, and I had to decline. Both times, a State Department alert warned against traveling to Limbe because of riots. I’d seen similar warnings concerning Port-au-Prince and ignored them, but Limbe was three hours away.

An author who has published several poetry books, including Tach Soley, a book of poems written in Creole, Clement works tirelessly to give people access to books. His work involves establishing small libraries and delivering books on horseback to people who live in isolated rural communities. His biblio cheval, library horses, are part of his vision for raising Haiti’s literacy level, which, according to the CIA World Factbook is 52.9 percent, way lower than the rest of the Caribbean.
More… “Biblio Cheval”

Harriet Levin Millan is the author of two books of poetry: The Christmas Show (Beacon Press) winner of a Barnard New Women Poets Prize and the Poetry Society of America’s Alice Fay Di Castagnola Award, and Girl in Cap and Gown, (Mammoth Books), a 2009 National Poetry Series Finalist. Her story “Yalla!” set in South Sudan, appears in the Winter 2011 issue of the Kenyon Review. She is director of the Program in Writing and Publishing in the English and Philosophy Department at Drexel University.
EmailTwitterFacebookDiggStumbleUponGoogle+
Collaborators in life and love.
EmailTwitterFacebookDiggStumbleUponGoogle+

   

In my first real music history class, I was confronted with a disturbing fact: I couldn’t name a single British composer. In a get-to-know-you exercise our professor asked us about our homes and histories, and then connected them to music. You’re from Louisiana? Tell us about the history of cajun and zydeco! Your family came from France? Name some French composers for us. Circling around the room, my professor stopped at me.

“Where are your ancestors from?”

“As far as I’m aware, my ancestry is almost entirely English.”

“Name a British composer!”

I was startled. I ran through a list of composers in my head, feeling very put on the spot. Mozart? No, of course not, Mozart was from Austria! Beethoven was German, so was Brahms. Dvorak was Czech. Copland, Korngold, Barber… all American. Why couldn’t I have been French? All of my favorite composers are French!

“That’s right,” my professor said with a smile, seeing my struggle. “No one ever remembers the British!”

Just a few short years later, to my embarrassment, of course, I learned about Delius, Elgar, Holst, Britten… I’d heard their names and music before didn’t really know anything about them, including where they were actually from.

This Friday is the 100th anniversary of Benjamin Britten’s birth and, even in this important year, not much time has been set aside for the British composer. 2013 is a biggie in the world of classical. It’s also the centennial of the premiere performance of Stravinsky’s The Rite of Spring and the bicentennial of both Wagner and Verdi’s births. That’s a lot of competition for a comparatively unknown British composer.

Sure, the Big Five set aside a couple of performances for Britten. The Philadelphia Orchestra’s 2013-14 season contains three sets of performances that add Britten to the repertoire, although his works are simply included, not highlighted. Even these performances aren’t advertised for Britten; instead they are meant to celebrate Mozart and Mahler. Some of the other members of the Big Five do a better job — the New York Philharmonic has two programs specifically dedicated to the composer, one for adults and one to introduce a younger audience to his work. But even between all five, (Philadelphia, New York, the Boston Symphony Orchestra, the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, and the Cleveland Orchestra), there are only a total of 16 programs for the composer at America’s most popular classical venues, or an average of three per venue. Compare that to Philly’s month of Tchaikovsky or Cleveland’s three-week Beethoven / Shostakovich celebration and it’s as if Britten isn’t having a birthday at all.

Obviously, orchestras don’t pick their programs arbitrarily. Popularity has a lot to do with it, sure. Orchestra directors need to attract a large enough audience to actually fund their orchestra. But a lot of thought goes into choosing repertoire; programs are curated like an art exhibit. Cleveland’s Beethoven / Shostakovich celebration, for example, is meant to explore music’s capability of expressing something as intangible as the idea of freedom. But it’s not as if all there is to Britten is his birthday. Britten is as worth hearing today as he was last year or will be next season. And what’s particularly disappointing about the underwhelming coverage of the Britten anniversary is that audiences are missing out on a really fantastic love story.

Britten composed for love. Yes, like any composer he wrote for love in a transcendental sense — his love of music — but he was also inspired by love in a more traditional fashion. As a young man, Britten met and became lifelong partners with British tenor Peter Pears. Besides Beethoven’s mysterious Elise, we don’t hear of many muses in music. Male muses are even rarer still. One of the most unforgettable operatic singers of the 20th century, Pears and Britten were a good match. Pears didn’t have what would be considered a classically beautiful voice. There was something more real, more raw, to his sound than a traditional painstakingly perfected voice. It was unique, and Britten found both the voice and the man inspirational.

After beginning as professional friends, Pears quickly became Britten’s muse; Britten dedicated numerous works to Pears, including his Seven Sonnets of Michelangelo. And almost all of his operas were written specifically with Pears in mind — he was the lead in Peter Grimes and Death in Venice and also performed in both War Requiem, Billy Bud, and many, many more.  

Keeping all of that in mind, are we today even able to listen to Britten’s works as they were intended? The Beatles weren’t The Beatles without John Lennon and Paul McCartney collaborating. Maybe this is why our interest in Britten has waned over the years. Maybe the passion of his operas are lost when a tenor other than Britten’s muse tries to step in.

Today, the Britten-Pears Foundation has been established to continue to preserve the legacy of this longstanding artistic collaboration and relationship. On the foundation’s website, there is a Pears quote repeated multiple times. Pears said of his partner, “It isn’t the story of one man. It’s the life of the two of us.” Something about that statement I find profoundly resonant. It is simultaneously selfless and self-aware. We can’t celebrate the life and work of Britten, without acknowledging the hugely influential role Peter Pears played in it. And from the looks of the few performances bothering to acknowledge Britten at all this season, the story simply isn’t being told.

 

Britten and Pears met in 1939 and it was only a matter of months before they began living together — a situation that must have raised some suspicions and questions of decency for the times. Their life together was faced with adversity. Susie Gilberts, in her book Opera for Everybody: The Story of English National Opera, outlines the disturbing response Britten and Pears faced when the decision was made to cast Pears as the lead in Peter Grimes:


Serious trouble had begun when the eleven-week period of rehearsals began on 22 March 1945 in Liverpool. “Simmering resentment,” [Joan] Cross [the opera’s artistic director] later wrote, “Boiled up into open hostility.” Britten and Pears “were sneered at as Joan’s pansies’.”

So great was the opera company’s resentment of their relationship, that the performance was almost canceled. A boycott was threatened. Luckily, no one followed through and the English audience proved loyal. Peter Grimes premiered to a full-house. It was one of the first national operas to be performed since the end of the First World War and the audience loved it.

Interestingly enough, early drafts of the opera show that Pears’s role, Peter Grimes, had a romance with his male apprentice. That plot point was omitted from the final score. A post-WWI audience probably wasn’t ready for homosexual themes. And after the bullying they’d received from within the company, it likely seemed a practical edit.

You’d think that in our modern more liberal world that more people would celebrate these men and their success. But even today, what’s written on their relationship seems to gloss over the truth a bit — most histories you read on the pair refer to them as having a life-long personal friendship. Is it still taboo, even now? It’s certainly not beside the point or unnecessarily scandalizing: These were two men who lived with each other for over 30 years; and the fruit of that relationship was the production of some of the most influential compositions of the 20th century. To celebrate the life and work of Benjamin Britten, we must fully acknowledge the role Peter Pears, the love of his life, played in Britten’s success. • 21 November 2013

Mary Sydnor was managing editor of The Smart Set and is now a writer based in Baltimore. She has also written for Table Matters, Philly.com, and the Philadelphia Daily News. Follow her on Twitter @_MarySydnor.
EmailTwitterFacebookDiggStumbleUponGoogle+
Friend? Enemy? Frenemy?
EmailTwitterFacebookDiggStumbleUponGoogle+

Public health messages usually sound easier said than done: you know, eat right, exercise regularly, stop smoking. But back in 1931, a key public health message was, in our modern view, truly simple: “wear good shoes.” According to an article in Alabama’s Florence Times-News, wearing shoes was exceedingly important — and apparently not all that common — to help eradicate the intestinal parasite known as hookworm:

   

Two decades or more have passed since the attention of our people was turned prominently to the existence of hookworm disease in the States. At that time, every one knew that the presence of hookworm in the bowel would make a man lazy, and that backwardness among some children in the south was probably due to infestation with this organism.

The article, by the eminent editor of the Journal of the American Medical Association, Morris Fishbein, cited persistent heavy infestation in some Southern states, affecting “75 per cent or more of school children” in certain counties. This despite a five-year hookworm eradication campaign the Rockefeller Sanitary Commission had implemented across the South. The program featured testing, deworming treatment, and education about how to prevent reinfection and avoid soil pollution. When the effort ended in 1915, it had already reduced infection rates significantly, but articles such as Fishbein’s must have been important to maintaining prevention practices including the use of both sanitary toilets (instead of the open outdoors) and shoes: Walking barefoot through areas contaminated with fecal matter often resulted in infection.

Hookworm infection certainly provided an excellent argument for shoes. The invasion by tens of thousands of squirmy, blood-sucking worms was not only nauseating, it also had damaging effects such as delayed growth, anemia, and lethargy. Once known as the “the germ of laziness,” hookworm contributed significantly to school absenteeism and adult unemployment. The deworming campaign saw such positive effects as improvements in literacy, agricultural output, and income.

And yet. Today, growing evidence points to a significant downside to life without hookworm. Lately scientists have hypothesized that such parasites may play a critical health role by helping the immune system adjust to everyday environmental irritants without overreacting and producing excessive inflammation. The idea falls in line with the well-known “hygiene hypothesis.” First officially presented a dozen years ago, the hygiene hypothesis proposes that without prenatal or early life exposure to microorganisms and parasites — with which we coexisted throughout much of our evolutionary history — we have become prone to an imbalanced immune response later in life.

While modern medicine and improved cleanliness practices have eliminated many dreadful afflictions from the United States, others have escalated. Initial research on the hygiene hypothesis focused on asthma, allergies, and eczema, all of which have increased in prevalence dramatically in developed countries over the past 150 years. Research has expanded in surprising ways to consider other big-time chronic diseases linked to excess inflammation, including heart disease, depression, and obesity.

In an ironic twist, it appears that humans may actually benefit from limited, controlled exposure to some microorganisms and parasites. In particular, researchers have begun testing the effects of controlled exposure to hookworm and other intestinal parasites. Early research at University of Iowa showed that exposing mice to parasitic worms helped prevent inflammatory bowel disease. Additional studies demonstrated that the therapy could protect the mice from colitis, encephalitis, Type 1 diabetes, and asthma.

Human trials have been much more limited. Two small groups of adults — one whose members had colitis, and the other made up of those with Crohn’s disease — experienced reduced symptoms after being treated with whipworm for multiple weeks by University of Iowa researchers. But human research has stalled in the United States since the Food and Drug Administration classified parasitic worms as a drug in November 2009. Today, drug companies are working to create parasites that the FDA would approve for inflammatory bowel disease, according to Joel Weinstock, the Tufts University gastroenterologist who is a leading researcher in the field.

Meanwhile, ongoing international research in humans has not always found a positive effect. Recently, University of Nottingham researchers reported that a small group of adults infected with 10 hookworm for 16 weeks did not experience significant improvement in asthma. They did, however, experience a non-significant improvement in airway responsiveness, and the infection was, overall, well tolerated. The authors suggested that future studies should more closely mimic natural infection, including infection with more hookworm and for a longer period of time.

Moving forward, this field still includes many questions. It’s becoming clearer that we need to find a better balance when approaching public health and hygiene. To be clear, though, no one is suggesting that international deworming efforts should be stopped. Nor that we should eschew immunizations or indoor plumbing, water and sewage treatment, and organized garbage disposal. But perhaps one day we will also receive a healthy dose of microorganisms, and yes, even squirmy, wormy parasites, as part of modern medical care. • 6 May 2011

REFERENCES: Bleakley H, Disease and Development: Evidence from Hookworm Eradication in the American South. Quarterly Journal of Economics 122 (2007): 73–117. Strachan DP, Hay fever, hygiene, and household size. BMJ. 1989;299:1259-60. Okada H, Kuhn C, Feillet H, Bach JF, The ‘hygiene hypothesis’ for autoimmune and allergic diseases: an update. Clin Exp Immunol. 2010;160:1-9. Elliott DE, Weinstock JV, Helminthic therapy: using worms to treat immune-mediated disease. Adv Exp Med Biol. 2009;666:157-66. Walk ST, Blum AM, Ewing SA, et al, Alteration of the murine gut microbiota during infection with the parasitic helminth Heligmosomoides polygyrus. Inflamm Bowel Dis. 2010;16:1841-9. Summers RW, Elliott DE, Urban JF Jr, et al, Trichuris suis therapy in Crohn’s disease. Gut. 2005;54:87-90. Summers RW, Elliott DE, Urban JF Jr, et al, Trichuris suis therapy for active ulcerative colitis: a randomized controlled trial. Gastroenterology. 2005;128:825-32. Feary JR, Venn AJ, Mortimer K, et al, Experimental hookworm infection: a randomized placebo-controlled trial in asthma. Clin Exp Allergy. 2010;40:299-306.

Jennifer Fisher Wilson is the science reporter for Annals of Internal Medicine. Her stories are available at www.annals.org.
EmailTwitterFacebookDiggStumbleUponGoogle+
LF_GOLBE_NAKED_BF_001
EmailTwitterFacebookDiggStumbleUponGoogle+

In an early scene of Eileen Chang’s 1956 novel Naked Earth (reissued this month by NYRB Classics), Liu Ch’uen – a young, enthusiastic new participant in Chairman Mao’s Land Reform movement – watches the “struggle session” of a local landlord’s wife. The woman has been brought into a courtyard to make a confession before the student recruits, Party members and local villagers. The landlord’s wife is frightened and pregnant.

As they approached the low flight of stone steps they saw that a thick rope hung down from the eaves. It hung loose, swaying a little in the breeze. Several tenant farmers were standing around, looking nervous. The atmosphere was thick, as if somebody had hanged himself here and the body had just been taken down and removed.

More… “Struggling Through”

Stefany Anne Golberg is a writer and multi-media artist. She has written for The Washington Post (Outlook), Lapham’s Quarterly, New England Review, and others. Stefany is currently a columnist for The Smart Set and Critic-in-Residence at Drexel University. A book of Stefany’s selected essays can be found here. She can be reached at stefanyanne@gmail.com.
EmailTwitterFacebookDiggStumbleUponGoogle+
...a lifeline.
EmailTwitterFacebookDiggStumbleUponGoogle+

He swiveled around on his bar stool and leaned close to me and put his hands down my shirt. They gave off little sparks. I leaped off my stool like someone escaping flames.

   

“What the fuck are you doing? I’m married?”

“So what?”

He obviously had no respect for the institution.

He followed me clear across the bar to the door marked Caballeras. When he reached me, he held his frosty mug of beer in front of my face in restitution. The ice on the side that touched his lips had evaporated from his breath.

I was 23 years old. I considered a V-neck T-shirt too risqué and wore only scoop-necks or turtle necks or a blouse with the collar buttoned. I didn’t dare wear short dresses or nylons. I hadn’t gained weight or stopped brushing my teeth but I no longer felt beautiful. Unlike the German guy, I respected the institution of marriage. I liked the security. I liked having someone to cook for, even if my husband retreated to his studio when it was time to clean up instead of offering to help. Although my husband was a brilliant artist, he made it clear that I would never attain his level. One of my writing teachers, a Pulitzer-prize winning poet, had given me a recommendation for a summer teaching job. Instead of praising my talent in that letter, he listed my husband’s attributes, mentioning what a good artist he was and that the two of us had started a film series together on campus. My husband wasn’t one of his students, but instead of praising me, he praised my husband and a project we had worked on together. The German guy praised me, me, me, while he whispered German poetry in my ear — Rilke, …strange violin why are you following me?…(he was a doctoral student in German literature) — his breath tingling all the way down through my spine.

We returned to our seats at the bar and I let him stroke the skin on the back of my hand, move his fingers slowly up my arm. He seemed lonely, but he was good-looking. He had the kind of springy black hair that hung in his eyes and he was constantly shaking his head or tossing it back.

He lived around the corner from the street where the student bars and pizza parlors were located. All he wanted, he said, was to “tumble around on the floor” of his apartment with me. I didn’t believe him. I knew it had to have a different meaning in German. Something more overtly sexual than “hit the hay.” I told him I wasn’t there to pick up a guy and go home with him only to be overcome with panic that I had ruined my life for a one-night stand. This was the same week when my writing was under attack.

The workshop climate was backbiting. I’d left the session in tears, which is how I ended up alone in a bar, talking to him. I’d spent a couple of weeks perfecting a poem that my professor and classmates derided for its ordinariness, using me as an example of how not to write. After dissecting my poem, our professor handed out a mimeograph listing the one hundred most commonly used words in poems over the centuries. The word bone topped that list. Also moon and stars. You couldn’t use those words in a poem if you wanted to be original. Not anymore. I had used all three of them.

A month later, the second time my work was under attack, Esther, a classmate, followed me after the session. “I know how you must feel,” she said.

Having grown up in a town about forty miles outside Iowa City, she was the one homegrown student in the program, more big-boned than the girls from either coast, with a softer, slower way of speaking. “The whole time you were being slaughtered in there, I kept thinking what if that were me?” she said.

“Yeah, thanks,” I said, wishing it had been.

We continued walking in silence, took the elevator together in tacit understanding down to the ground floor, so we were still together when we got to the spot where she had parked her car — a white Ford Pinto. She didn’t live in a shoddy student apartment dwelling in town. She lived in Coralville, not on a farm, not in one of those haunted, shuttered up towns off the Interstate, but in a shiny tract neighborhood with a strip mall about twenty miles out.

“It’s good to get away from all this and remember why you are writing poetry in the first place,” she said, turning the lining of her purse inside out to search for her car key in among the balled up tissues and candy wrappers.

“Why is that?” I said.

She never gave me an answer, because who should be walking past just then but the German guy?

“Hey,” I said and introduced them.

He ran his hand through his hair. I watched her face as she saw the flexion in the strands bouncing back. She could have him if she wanted to. I’d give her that. She wasn’t married. It was a beautiful spring day. “Want to go for a ride?” she asked both of us. She should have asked me first, though, not that I owned him or anything.

It was good to get out of the confines of the town out to the sloping hills and the bluer, larger pieces of sky risen above them with someone like her. She had encyclopedic knowledge about the state of Iowa. She would try to teach us how to honor this land.

She called out the botanical names of flowers and species of cattle. She told us that the suburb she lived in was called Coralville because fossils had been discovered in the limestone along the river. The landlocked plains that covered the state were once a glacial deposit. She showed us the exact spot near 5th and 10th, where the Mormons who traveled cross country by rail stopped to build wagon carts from hardwoods to continue their journey on to Utah. She couldn’t find the historic marker. We clamored out of the car anyway to help her look for it.

In the weeks to come, Esther and the German guy didn’t hide from me that they had become a couple. In fact it seemed like they — or more likely he — had arranged for me to walk in on them. Esther was going to take us out on another excursion and the three of us had made plans to meet at his apartment.

“Come on in,” he called, after I knocked on the door.

I opened it. They were still lying together on the carpet, her face flushed, her belt buckle undone. For just a moment, I stared at it, catching his hand move off. Esther grabbed a pillow and pressed it against her hips. He motioned for me to sit down beside them when I continued standing. Then Esther stood up. I was still a big believer that certain people were meant for each other. I’d met the German guy by chance and now he had Esther. But I knew I could have him if I wanted.

That day, Esther took us out to see to the original tall grass prairie. It was a fourteen-acre field scattered with wildflowers and native bluestem. She led us through hushed and still. The wind through the grass made little paths that vanished as soon as we took one and we’d have to scout a new way back. Pretty soon, the three of us were lost to one another, calling out from different spots, like a marauding pack of settlers from the 1800s.

Once summer arrived, she took us swimming. In Coralville there was a man-made lake with a beach that looked real. Our favorite place to swim was in an abandoned stone quarry that had filled with rainwater. The half-mile road out to the quarry was behind a padlocked corral. We had to climb the fence slat by slat and travel the road by foot. The site was completely abandoned. We teetered in our flip-flops over sunbaked ruts in between giant gravel hills, knowing that a rain storm would flatten them and that next time we’d come here, the sharp points of the gravel would poke through to the skin on our feet, or worse, the owner would surprise us with a rifle in his arms, shouting, “Get the hell out of here, or I’ll shoot!” Again, Esther’s idea of acquainting us with the real Iowa outside the university town.

I’d climbed out on the ledge and turned around to undress. I could feel the German guy stealing looks at me. Did Esther notice? I grabbed onto a tree branch that grew out of the silt between the rocks and lowered myself into the water. Cows with spotted flanks grazed on the farmland on all sides. A solitary bull was tied to a distant tether. From the waterline, his bellows grew deeper in intensity as he released them into the air.

I was doggy-paddling, still near enough to the ledge when I felt a few rain drops and rushed back up. It was such a secluded place, the water so deep, any change in circumstances made it feel especially foreboding. The German guy felt the same way. Esther, unlike us, had dived in headfirst. She was still underwater and hadn’t felt the splatters.

“What are you doing?” she called from the water. By the time she reached the ledge from about twenty or thirty feet out, the rain shower had stopped. The only change in the weather that she perceived was the two of us sunning.

“It was raining,” I said.

“No, it isn’t. What are you doing? Are you just going to leave me here?”

“No, of course not.”

She didn’t believe me. “Not unless I drown, right?”

Around the middle of November, my husband and I drove back East to visit my grandfather in the hospital. He had been a smoker all his life. An orthopedic doctor he ‘d consulted, even knowing that my grandfather had fourth-stage lung cancer, promised an operation to remove his tumor from his shoulder and stop his pain. We traveled back to visit him after this particular operation. On our return to Iowa, we had arranged for Esther to pick us up at the airport at Cedar Rapids. It was the closest airport to Iowa City, still forty miles away. She arrived with the German guy in a different car, not her two-door white Ford. This was a boat-size Chevy. The driver’s door was bashed in like it had been in a recent accident. Smoke clouds rose out from the broken muffler pipe and engulfed its rear.

“What happened to your car? Were you in an accident?” I asked her.

“No. You wouldn’t know anything about it,” she said, refusing to make eye contact with me. Her thin upper lip clenched tight, she shook her head at the German guy, forbidding him to speak.

It was a warm day for November. Sun flared up from the metal door handles, hot to the touch. At first we drove with the windows down — our hair whipping around in our faces. The broken muffler pipe continued to drag, screeching whenever Esther slowed down. Smoke exhaust blew in through the windows and we had to close them. I peeled off my jacket and sweater and cursed the two of them. He was inched over toward her side, not exactly in the middle, but still close enough so they could touch, if one of them extended an arm. They were like two people balanced on a seesaw, edging toward the middle, finding out how far they could go before one of them flew off.

Halfway, we stopped at a Dunkin’ Donuts and when we got back into the car, the ignition wouldn’t catch. The Amoco sign we saw towering over the brush looked at least two or three miles away. Wasn’t it the driver’s responsibility to keep her eyes on the gas gauge? As it turned out, we hadn’t run out of gas. It was an electrical problem. On the third or fourth try, the car started up. The day kept getting progressively worse. Nothing was on the radio. The sun went down and the temperature dipped. True, it was no longer hot in the car with the windows closed, but it was getting chilly and of course the heater didn’t work. I felt like we were trapped in her personality disorder and that we’d never regain normalcy again, so to break the silence I again asked what had happened to her car.

She turned from the road and back over her shoulder. “Well you can tell by now that it wasn’t my fault,” she said, as the car swiveled close to the edge of the road.

“Watch out!” my husband shouted.

She turned back to glower at him. Just then the road curved and she took the turn too hard and just missed veering off onto a field and plunging us into a cow pond. The German guy grabbed the wheel. My husband did what he always did, even when his life was at stake. He could have reached over and taken the wheel himself. Instead, he disassociated, moving closer to his side of the door.

The kind of poetry that my professors favored at that time was confessional. So if I wanted to write poems that would be praised in workshop, I needed to be honest with myself. The growing estrangement from my husband gave me the necessary alone time. After that trip, we were rarely in the apartment together. Writing didn’t redeem our marriage, it actually revealed everything that was going wrong. The first solidly positive feedback I got in workshop was for a poem called “Still Moment Near Tipton” about this incident.

The Chevy returned us to Iowa City. Almost immediately I got the news that my grandfather took a turn for the worse. My husband had some important deadlines coming up. So that I wouldn’t be alone, Esther insisted on traveling East with me. I hadn’t once asked her to take me to the town where her parents lived. I should have. I had a sense that it was beautiful, a river town. She had never been to the East Coast, and now she would see it. Thanksgiving break — no classes all week. We took the train this time, like the Mormons, but in the opposite direction.

We arrived in Philadelphia way after visiting hours at Einstein Hospital. One of my former housemates had told me about a party going on in the house where I’d lived in college, not far from the hospital. Esther and I headed over. It was a hundred and fifty year-old three-story Victorian house with a center hall and a wide front porch in a neighborhood filled with abandoned store fronts. The window trim in my room had been painted over with five different layers of paint — probably lead-based, that I’d spent a whole summer scraping off with an Xacto knife, but with no mask or gloves, all summer breathing in lead dust.

The party was filled with people I knew who had done the same. Suburban kids who moved into old houses in the city and restored them in search of something authentic. Esther felt ignored and out of place. She removed herself from the crowd I was sitting with to the other side of the room. After awhile, she met someone. I noticed her talking with him, her eyes glazed trance-like, nodding her head. His name was Caruso. He’d moved in after I had already left and was still living in the house.

He wasn’t my friend, but a friend of my friends. I’d met him only one other time. He was broad and handsome, his jeans a tad darker than the faded out color most people wore in Iowa, faintly Italian looking, even if you didn’t know his name, but he seemed a little off. His rant, after he learned we were in a writing program was, “what makes your soul better than mine?” Drunk on Jagermeister, he circled the room, wagging his finger at us, saying things like, “Issac Babel didn’t go to writing school. Maxim Gorky told him to join the Red Army. That’s how Babel learned to write.” Things I already knew from having hung out with these friends of Caruso’s and obsessively reading Babel’s Red Calvary all through college.

Instead of coming back with me to my parent’s house, Esther spent the night with Caruso. The day after that, she’d made plans to meet him near City Hall in front of the giant Claes Oldenberg clothespin. She waited for him at rush hour, in one of the most bustling parts of the city, standing apart from everyone, under the clasped together legs of the clothespin. I imagine her waiting for him. She paced. She stood there for two whole hours clutching her shoulders in the cold amid the car horns and police whistles, searching people’s faces for Caruso. Because she didn’t have any change, she walked two blocks in her clunky heels to a grocery store to buy a pack of chewing gum. She found a pay phone and frantically searched her purse for the slip of paper where she’d written down his number. She dialed his number. She counted twelve rings. She called again, this time twenty-two, and again he didn’t answer.

When she returned to my parent’s house, she looked crazy. She looked like a girl I used to know in high school who wrapped her hair in a bun so tight she had all sorts of twitches from the feel of it pulling the skin on her face. Only Esther’s hair wasn’t in a bun. It hung in her face in an attempt to cover it.

“Esther, it’s my fault. All of it. I should have never brought you here.”

Esther’s eye started to twitch. She put her hand to her temple to try and control it.

“Did you hear what I said? It’s my fault. Not yours. Please don’t blame yourself.”

I tried to explain about Caruso, what a jerk he was for not showing up, and by extension, everyone who’d ever led someone else on, but she didn’t listen. She’d get a poem out of it — I saw it a few months later in workshop. She was too hurt to start writing it at that point. She’d have to wait for more tranquil moments. When we got back to Iowa, she snapped. Her feelings, her needs, had come to the surface. I knew this now. No grand finale, our friendship just fizzled out and we were no longer friends.

Some time later, I returned to the same bar where I’d first met the German guy. There he was sitting on the bar stool where I’d left him eight months ago, as if those months never existed. I felt like a teenage girl in an abandoned shack with a pack of matches, so bored, so ready for my life to begin that I would set it on fire just to see it burn. But nothing happened. He pretended not to see me or maybe he no longer considered me attractive enough to speak to. I think mainly about what had happened in between. How liberating his attention felt. How he tried to tempt me. And another thing — how maybe there were other people out there who rather than being terrified of, might make me happy. It was like waking up in the morning and going about my routine, pouring coffee then getting dressed, and as my arm tunnels through my sleeve, suddenly comprehending this: all the bad things that could happen to my husband and me — splitting up, being on my own, no longer needing one another — were going to be real. I puffed on my cigarette and blew out the smoke. • 17 November 2014

Harriet Levin Millan is the author of two books of poetry: The Christmas Show (Beacon Press) winner of a Barnard New Women Poets Prize and the Poetry Society of America’s Alice Fay Di Castagnola Award, and Girl in Cap and Gown, (Mammoth Books), a 2009 National Poetry Series Finalist. Her story “Yalla!” set in South Sudan, appears in the Winter 2011 issue of the Kenyon Review. She is director of the Program in Writing and Publishing in the English and Philosophy Department at Drexel University.
EmailTwitterFacebookDiggStumbleUponGoogle+
That's what she said.
EmailTwitterFacebookDiggStumbleUponGoogle+

I am interested in Anthony Weiner’s wiener and so are you. Here’s why: Anthony Weiner has been behaving in such a way as to undermine the public career that he is, quite obviously, in love with. Weiner is in love with politics, he is in love with power, he is in love with being a public figure, he is in love with the things he can accomplish as a Congressman. He wants to keep his job and he wants his career as a politician to grow. He is also in love with doing naughty things that, by their nature, threaten the other things he loves. We’ve all been poked to a greater or lesser degree by the horns of this dilemma, and so we are interested when we see someone else getting poked, too.

   

But there are always those who say that commentators should keep their interests to the abstract realm of issues, debates, politics, and policy. Both Hendrik Hertzberg of the New Yorker and Glenn Greenwald of Salon have come out in the last few days with columns decrying the lack of substance that surrounds Weinergate. Greenwald claims that Weinergate “sets a new standard: the private sexual activities of public figures — down to the most intimate details — are now inherently newsworthy, without the need for any pretense of other relevance.”

I will leave it to someone else to draw out the complicated connections between Greenwald’s sometimes holier-than-thou political writing style and his inability to understand that the private sexual activities of public figures “down to the intimate details” do not need  “other relevance” to be inherently relevant. The private sex lives of public figures are inherently relevant because it is fascinating to observe human beings acting strangely, or acting as we’ve always suspected that they are acting, or doing things counter to their own interests, or messing up, or ruining themselves. Consult Shakespeare or Dostoyevsky for more.

Perhaps the definitive defense of the relevance of Weiner’s wiener can be found in Ron Rosenbaum’s now-classic article for Harper’s from 1983. Rosenbaum was defending the New York Post in an article he called “Why Alexander Hamilton would have liked Rupert Murdoch’s New York Post.” The Post, as we should expect, has been all over the Weiner story, writing classic headlines such as “Weiner is Shrinking” when Weiner’s staff was trying to keep him out of the public eye, and “Weiner hung out to dry – Fellow Dems keeping hands off Anthony’s expanding scandal.”

Rosenbaum is highly approving of such Post headlines and anticipates, in his 1983 essay, the disapproval of the Hertzbergs and Greenwalds of the world. Rosenbaum writes:

[T]he people who unthinkingly make fun of the Post and its concerns are the victims of a serious intellectual misconception, a kind of kneejerk gentility, a schoolmarmish journalism-school mentality that sees the only fit subject of “investigative reporting” to be official misconduct, bureaucratic sins as opposed to those of flesh and blood.

The attitude that Rosenbaum is criticizing here is exactly the one recommended by Glenn Greenwald (who can be, by the way, a very good investigative reporter). But Glenn doesn’t always do so well with flesh and blood. In complaining about the coverage of Weinergate, Greenwald writes, “Can one even imagine how much different — and better — our political culture would be if our establishment media devoted even a fraction of the critical scrutiny and adversarial energy it devoted to the Weiner matter to things that actually matter?”

Perhaps. Perhaps our political culture would be better if journalists ignored the wieners. But it wouldn’t be about us, about the human beings that I see before me on the streets, the ones I have been living with and of whom I count myself a member.

Rosenbaum makes one more point in his essay. He reminds us of a question Alexander Hamilton once asked: “Has it not been found that momentary passions … have a more active and imperious control over human conduct than general or remote considerations of policy, utility, or justice?” Yes, that fact has been found. It has been found time and time again. The lesson of it, nevertheless, eludes us almost as rapidly. We know about the passions, we know that we are creatures of the passions, but we pretend that it would be possible to erase those passions and become creatures of pure reason.

We can all understand, I suppose, Glenn Greenwald’s wish that matters of policy, utility, and justice were of preeminent concern. We can understand it, but we know it is not true to the reality of human experience. We’ve learned in the last few days that Anthony Weiner would rush with bated breath from his latest important vote in Congress to get to the locker room nearby where the next important work of the day could begin, that being sexting with his lady friends. That short trip from the halls of Congress to the House Members gym is a journey through the deepest pathways of the human soul. It is a journey from reason to passion, from the realm of policy debates and public interest to the realm of sexual desire and pubic interest. That journey from the House floor to the House gym is a lesson in how we are, if not always how we want to be. The New York Times may be the paper of record for the first part of the journey, but the New York Post is most definitely the paper of record for the second. A true story of human behavior in all its facets requires both. As another New York Post headline about Anthony Weiner put it so eloquently, “The Beat Goes On.” • 15 June 2011

Morgan Meis has a PhD in Philosophy and is a founding member of Flux Factory, an arts collective in New York. He has written for n+1, The Believer, Harper’s Magazine, and The Virginia Quarterly Review. He won the Whiting Award in 2013. Morgan is also an editor at 3 Quarks Daily, and a winner of a Creative Capital | Warhol Foundation Arts Writers grant. A book of Morgan’s selected essays can be found here. He can be reached at morganmeis@gmail.com.
EmailTwitterFacebookDiggStumbleUponGoogle+
I'm a man whose pants are not on fire
EmailTwitterFacebookDiggStumbleUponGoogle+

It’s 1827, and you’re a social Englishman. Among fellow English gentlemen, you sit discussing the disappointment that was Mary Shelley’s 1826 novel, The Last Man. Bored with the subject matter, you excuse yourself for the evening. But as you rise from a fine mahogany chair, a hot sensation erupts in your pants pocket. Your trousers are immediately engulfed in flames, and you have to strip them off in front of a room full of astounded guests. Horrified, you slink away, running near-nude to your home as your wife awaits your return. She inquires, “Where are the matches? I’ve been waiting to light the stove for dinner.” This is your third pair of trousers ruined this month. Your wife is not happy. You could have died, and you’re fresh out of pants. It’s 1827, and friction-lit matches were recently invented, but a vessel for transport that will prevent them from igniting pockets or bags won’t be invented for another year.

   

I may have taken some creative liberties in referring to you as an Englishman (and losing pants to a controlled blaze), but there was a time when it wasn’t uncommon for matches to strike while in someone’s pocket. The time difference between the invention of matches and match safes mean little to us now, but in the late 1820s, these accidental arsons did happen. Much like The Last Man, society eventually figured out match safes. The early designs were pretty simple, comprised of a plain box small enough to fit into a pocket yet large enough to hold a few matches. Eventually, craftsmen in the United States and Europe were designing the tiny boxes in a variety of colors, shapes, materials, and sizes. Custom match safes were in pockets and near fireplaces in the United Kingdom, Europe, and America.

I can’t remember the last time I saw a modern gentlemen light a cigarette with tiny matches from a small shiny box, but they’re still somewhat in demand on websites like eBay, in private collections, or through the International Match Safe Association. In spirit of the IMSA, The Delaware Art Museum is currently featuring an expansive exhibit entitled, “Portable Fire: A History of Match Safes.” The displays contain hundreds of the compact containers from basic, functional pieces to artfully designed to mass-produced carved structures. “Match safes,” reads the text accompanying the exhibition, “were made in just about every known material in the period that they were being produced.” Nickel, jade, olive wood, and animal furs are only a few of the most bizarre materials used to make the safes.

But it’s not the materials that make the boxes truly unique: it’s the subject matter depicted on each safe. Once match safe holders realized that the boxes could be used for personal expression rather than mere function, artists were often asked to create a custom, original safes. Animals, leprechauns, erotica, monograms, advertisements, body parts, and clothes are only a few of the categories comprising the weird world of match safes. Devils, demons, and generally evil beings were common features as well. Some of these designs were sinister, containing intricate demon horns or menacing devilish faces, while others were comical or jovial. The “Rebus Devil Motif,” created by Sampson Mordan Company in 1887, is one such figure. This match safe features a relaxed black devil with its legs crossed over a white backdrop and a custom space for a name that reads, “I am ____, who the (devil) are you?”

While there are quite a few theological match safes in the exhibition, the Rebus Devil is definitely not one of them. Smoking in the nineteenth and early twentieth century was met with mixed opinions, so perhaps the devil is inviting us to indulge in a vice, to do something wicked. I imagine that being the proud owner of a demon-emblazoned match safe in the late nineteenth century evoked some diabolic feelings. The devil lives in a fiery underworld, and holding a match safe, you have the power of fire quite literally in your hands (in some regions, “lucifers” was for matches). The Rebus Devil doesn’t care how you feel, he’s much more laissez faire, more apathetic. You don’t need to smoke that pipe, but doesn’t it feel so good to be bad? With its crossed legs and laid back posture, it’s almost as if the devil is inviting you to join him in smoking a cigarette or pipe. Sit back, it beckons, have a cigar, stay awhile.

In 2014, the closest thing to a match safe I’ve encountered are Zippo lighters. Both hold a fiery power inside without setting us ablaze, and both come in a variety of colors and designs. But match safes came first, long before a flip of the thumb could bring a controlled blaze to your fingertips. I own neither a match safe nor a Zippo, but if I had to choose, it would certainly be a match safe (retro is hip these days, afterall). For now, I’ll admire these man-made blazes from afar. I would hate for the damned devil to burn my last good pair of trousers. • 3 November 2014

Alyssa Shaw is an English major and graduate education student at Drexel University in Philadelphia. 
EmailTwitterFacebookDiggStumbleUponGoogle+
OC_LIND_WOSOUTH2_FI_002
EmailTwitterFacebookDiggStumbleUponGoogle+

Would the United States be better off today, if the South had been allowed to secede, as many white Northern progressives wonder, sometimes as a joke, but sometimes in earnest?

Counterfactual history is a game, but it can be an instructive game. In my previous essay for this magazine, I argued that the secession of the South might well have set off a chain reaction of events in global politics, including the Balkanization of North America and an ominously different outcome to continental European power struggles like the world wars and the Cold War. In most of these scenarios, the Rump USA would have been worse off without the South than the actual USA has been since Lee’s surrender at Appomattox.

What about domestic politics? At least without Southern reactionaries in Congress, the Rump USA would have been a far more progressive place. Or would it have been?
More… “Without the South, Part II”

EmailTwitterFacebookDiggStumbleUponGoogle+
Makeup department, that is.
EmailTwitterFacebookDiggStumbleUponGoogle+

I was strolling through a department store recently, killing time before meeting a friend, when I became lost in the maze of cosmetic counters. I was not literally lost, of course. I could make my way past the makeup into the shoe department blindfolded. The problem is when I’m not blindfolded. That’s when my head gets turned. Although I know, intellectually, that the makeup sold in this labyrinthine space is the same as what I can buy in the drugstore for a fraction of the price, I am unable to resist the fancy packaging and the placards advertising free gifts and special enzyme action. I am seduced into believing that these products will make me, in the immortal words of Oprah, “as cute as I can be.”

   

So there I was, loitering among the age-defying moisturizers, when a young woman in a white smock smiled seductively in my direction. The come-hither look of a cosmetic saleswoman could mean only one thing: She wanted to make me over.

The term “makeover,” as used here, would take a flight of feminists to unpack, so I won’t even try. Suffice it to say that it entails, first, that you climb onto a very high stool so that your legs dangle foolishly. Once perched on said stool, you then succumb to the ministrations of the white-smocked saleswoman — the white smock providing a vaguely medical aura to the proceedings — who will daub and brush your face for the purpose of making you look as unlike yourself as possible. This dubious disguise will last all of about 20 minutes, a window during which you will be sold a truckload of products you don’t need.

I knew all this, but still, it is the nature of the cosmetic counter to erase memory, not to mention logic and common sense.  So there I was, perched on the stool, as the cosmologist (OK, cosmetologist) took out the products in her line. I had not bothered to notice what line this was, and now fearfully glanced over to see. Fortunately, it wasn’t one of the European lines with austere packaging (the more austere, the more expensive) that would bankrupt me with the purchase of a lip gloss. It was instead one of the fun, wannabe lines that would bankrupt me more slowly. I thus relaxed into the experience.

The products had now been aligned in military formation on the counter, awaiting deployment on my face. As anyone who has visited a cosmetic counter knows, these products constitute an intricately interlocking system: buy one and the others must follow as the night cream the day cream. I have to tip my hat to the marketing genius who came up with the cosmetic system; it not only helps the company’s bottom line, it also helps its female consumers live in hope. If in purchasing the foundation and the pressed powder, you still don’t look like Halle Berry or Gwyneth Paltrow, you can always rationalize this by the fact that you did not buy the moisturizer or the blush. Elaborate the system enough and there’s always something you haven’t got. As new products get added or changed, flawless beauty always remains an under-eye cream or pore-minimizer away. Makeup, in this regard, is a metaphor for desire. It keeps us women convinced, as we grow old and decrepit, that we can still look like supermodels.

But to return to my makeover. The saleswoman who had smiled at me a few minutes earlier now grew stern as she peered at my face. Having been made over before, I was ready for what was coming: the ritual of trashing my current appearance to prime me for a massive investment in something new.

“I see you don’t wear makeup,” said the white-smocked saleswoman, as though I were a hillbilly lost in the big city.

“Well, actually…”  I stumbled.  Of course I wore makeup. I had spent at least half an hour that morning slathering it onto my skin. But the tack among makeover saleswomen is to pretend you have nothing on your face, thereby suggesting that you are wasting your time with your old system. I knew this ploy, but knowing doesn’t help. If you’re insecure about how you look (and who isn’t?) you’re still going to be suckered.

The white-smocked cosmologist (sic) now continued, sensing her advantage: “Do you take care of your skin?”

This was a trick question. Or rather, a question in which the answer was already implied.  If she thought I took care of my skin, would she ask? No, she would say: “What lovely skin you have. You must take good care of it.” Which would in turn imply: “Why in hell would you want to mar your lovely skin with this product line that will cost you an arm and a leg?”  Needless to say, this was not the reasoning she was after, especially in a recession.

The fact is that she’d hit on a sore point with me. I’m self-conscious about my skin. Ever since suffering from mild acne in the seventh grade, I have spent a lot of time scrubbing my face, and I know that those in the skin care business do not consider scrubbing a good technique. You are supposed to dab lightly in the way you would in cleaning an Old Master painting.

Knowing that I had been remiss in my curatorial duties, I murmured apologetically. But the saleswoman was not interested in what I had to say. She was engrossed in cleaning off my face, occasionally looking down in disgust at the engrimed wipe so as to reinforce the notion that whatever I’d been doing before had been wrong. She then began to coat me with the various emoluments displayed before her, until Voila!, she tilted the mirror in my direction to reveal my new appearance. I squinted at the reflection. The effect, if not exactly prepossessing, was colorful. My cheeks, for example, were very rosy, as though I’d just been climbing a mountain on a windy day. Although climbing a mountain is not my thing, it’s nice to know that I can look as though I climbed one.

“You see how I’ve erased the laugh lines and minimized the jowls,” the saleswoman pointed out (jowls, I assume, are something one needs at all costs to minimize). It was true: My face looked as though it has been covered with spackle.

“And look at how your eyes pop,” she added. This was true, too. My eyes, which are small and deep-set, now looked like those of a mildly crazed beetle. I gazed at my sparkling little eyes in wonder and some fright.

“And you see what the right gloss will do for the lips.”  (Please note how cosmetic marketers dissect the face into self-standing parts that can thus be evaluated as though they belong to someone else. This allows them to sell you an entire system devoted to a singular part: the eyes or the mouth — or, once these major sites have been taken care of, lesser ones like the neck or the eyebrows.)

I inspected my lips, which, bathed in a sticky substance, looked like ripe plums. (The question, of course, is whether one wants one’s lips to look like ripe plums.)

“The lips are fabulous!” exclaimed the white-smocked saleswoman, putting an end to doubt. “Bodacious berry is definitely your color.”

I was not sure about any of this, but the high stool, the lights on the little mirror, and the white-smocked expert’s air of authority all combined to cloud my brain. I was under a spell, my will entirely obliterated so that I purchased $100 worth of products. It’s a good bite (though far from all) in the product line, for which I was rewarded with a cartload of free samples so as to entice me to buy more.

When I got home, my daughter said I looked like a clown and my husband said I looked the way I always do — two extremes that, opposed though they are, suggested that the system I had just purchased might not be worth it. As it happened, I was allergic to the foundation, thereby toppling the product system of which the foundation was, literally speaking, the foundation. I was relieved that the store was willing to refund my money — the red patches on my face possibly convincing them that a lawsuit would not be worth the trouble. But I did keep the lip gloss. It turns out I like having lips like ripe plums. Bodacious berry is definitely my color. • 17 June 2010

Paula Marantz Cohen is Dean of the Pennoni Honors College and a Distinguished Professor of English at Drexel University. She is the host of  The Drexel InterView, a talk show broadcast on more than 300 public television stations across the country. She is author of four nonfiction books and four bestselling novels, including Jane Austen in Boca and Jane Austen in Scarsdale or Love, Death, and the SATs. Her essays and stories have appeared in The Yale ReviewThe American Scholar, The Times Literary Supplement, and other publications. Her latest book is Suzanne Davis Gets a Life.
EmailTwitterFacebookDiggStumbleUponGoogle+
PI_GOLBE_TINDRUM_BF_001
EmailTwitterFacebookDiggStumbleUponGoogle+

When Günter Grass died earlier this year, it brought back memories of 1991, my first year in New York City. I sometimes think of this period in New York as its last dangerous days, when the city still had that anxious, patched-together sensibility, which is just another way of saying that once I lived in a New York City different than the New York City of today, a New York City that was romantic because I was young then. I lived that first year alone, in a single room on the upper floors of the 92nd Street Y. The 92nd Street Y was better known as a point of call for Manhattan sophisticates, who likely had little idea that, as they listened to the wisdom of celebrities in the great lecture hall, dozens of men and women were residing, like me, in tiny rented rooms on the floors above them.
More… “Being Oskar Matzerath”

Stefany Anne Golberg is a writer and multi-media artist. She has written for The Washington Post (Outlook), Lapham’s Quarterly, New England Review, and others. Stefany is currently a columnist for The Smart Set and Critic-in-Residence at Drexel University. A book of Stefany’s selected essays can be found here. She can be reached at stefanyanne@gmail.com.
EmailTwitterFacebookDiggStumbleUponGoogle+
PS_FLEMIN_VANCE_FI_001
EmailTwitterFacebookDiggStumbleUponGoogle+

It is not difficult to imagine Sherlock Holmes, that great eschewer of the supernatural, firing his clay pipe into the fireplace at 221B were he made aware of the cottage literary movement birthed by his adventures. People tend to forget that the detective and his dogged, Boswellian biographer Doctor Watson, investigated through the first quarter of the 20th century, existing as surely in the age of Babe Ruth as they had in the Victorian era of Wilkie Collins. There were, of course, hundreds of Holmes knock-offs and pastiches throughout the detective’s run, as there are now, but what some writers, at least, had the good sense to realize was that simply recasting the model of the genius deducer and his very human foil/partner was not going to achieve any more than serve up some Sherlock-lite. A new wrinkle was needed. Enter, then, the ghosts, and the duos who investigate them.

In the summer of 1914, when the wife and husband duo of Alice and Claude Askew published the eight stories that comprise the collected adventures of Aylmer Vance, “ghost-seer” — there’s something for a business card for you — supernatural fiction was going through a crucial change. The ghost story, long dominant in England, from where the Askews hailed, and which made up a goodly chunk of the best literature yet written in the States, had started to morph into the weird tale, the stuff that would dominate the pulps in the 1930s and 1940s, giving rise to those limited edition book runs at places like Arkham House, which recast horror writing much as Hawthorne, Poe, and M.R. James once had. Humans, now, were often the agencies of the macabre, or else elemental forces from the beyond divorced of human form, but borne of human crisis and strain. The dead girl in the glowing white dress, less so.
More… “The Ghost Shift”

Colin Fleming‘s fiction has recently appeared in the VQR, Black Clock, Post Road, Boulevard, and The Southwest Review, with more work appearing of late in The Atlantic, Rolling Stone, The Boston Globe, The New Criterion, and Sports Illustrated. He is also a regular contributor to NPR’s Weekend Edition. His third book, The Anglerfish Comedy Troupe: Stories from the Abyss, is forthcoming from Dzanc in August 2015, and he is completing a novel about a reluctant piano prodigy called The Freeze Tag Sessions, and a memoir, I Am Not Like You: A Broken Man’s Attempt to Write his Way Out of Hell One Story, Book, Deadline, and Note-to-Self at a Time. Find him on the web at https://www.facebook.com/literaturetolast.
EmailTwitterFacebookDiggStumbleUponGoogle+
Yes, you can eat fruit for every meal.
EmailTwitterFacebookDiggStumbleUponGoogle+

During late summers, I become almost fruitarian. Sometimes, nearing the dinner hour, I suddenly realize that the only things I’ve eaten all day have been fresh melon, berries, nectarines, and plums.

   

The root of this fruity love affair is clearly my childhood summers, which I spent at my family’s open-air, roadside produce stand in southern New Jersey. My cousins and I sold fruit and vegetables in a makeshift wooden structure with hand-written signs at the edge of property owned by my father and uncle’s packing house. I worked there pretty much from the first grade, when I had a little corner where I sold little containers of bruised and overripe “seconds” under a sign that read “Bargain Table. Everything 50 cents.”

By the time I was about 12, I awoke before sunrise and — before eating breakfast — pedaled my bike a few miles over to the packing house, where we kept our produce in huge refrigeration rooms. I enjoyed whizzing down the loading dock on an electric pallet jack, and I loved the sensation of zipping into the cold and then back out into the warm summer air. I mostly worked alone, unless an onion truck had just arrived, and then one of my dad’s employees might decide he needed to “help” me, instead of unloading 50-pound bags of onions. My job was to get the pallets ready on the loading dock before my cousin arrived in his pickup truck, back from a daily run to the farms or from the produce terminal in the city.

After I had the pallets out on the dock, I’d root around the crates and baskets and boxes. This is why I didn’t eat breakfast — after all, I had this fruit smorgasbord all to myself. I might cut up a cantaloupe or honeydew or watermelon with my pocketknife, or just grab a handful of cherries or peaches, squirting juice all over my hands, then wiping it off on my t-shirt. I’d spit pits and seeds off the dock, or toss them across the lot trying to hit a truck trailer. My general thoughts were: You can’t eat fruit all day if you don’t start first thing in the morning.

At the age of 12, all seemed clear and good in the world, and I assumed fresh produce would be my life’s work. But that was not to be. My father sold out his share of the business to my uncle when I was 16, and my job at the stand no longer existed. Soon enough the stand itself was no longer, as my cousins turned it into a successful, modern brick-and-mortar market.

As I grew older, I began to think of those early summer mornings, sitting alone on the loading dock, gorging myself on fruit, waiting for the work day to begin, as quite possibly the closest moments to pure happiness I have ever experienced. Perhaps that is what I’m trying to recapture during my current late summer fruit binges. Or perhaps that’s just the writer in me trying to justify why I’ve decided to eat fruit for dinner.

In any case, I get ridiculously excited any time a fruit finds its way into a savory dish. I am willing to admit that I have unabashedly embraced all food trends involving savory fruit: grilled watermelon, pineapple in tacos, melon soups, blueberry barbecue sauce, apple slaw, that whole strawberries-in-salads fad.

One thing I’ve always loved about the Italian table is that meals so often begin with melon and prosciutto. But beyond that classic pairing, there is a whole category of savory fruit dishes that surprised me on a recent trip to the Alpine wine region of Alto Adige (or Südtirol, as its German-speaking citizens call it).

There, in the town of Appiano (or Eppan as the German speakers call it), at a restaurant called Pillhof, the waiter informed me that the day’s special was risotto ai mirtilli, or blueberry risotto, a traditional dish of Trento and Alto Adige. I didn’t even look at the rest of the menu. When the dish arrived, the rice had a bright purple hue, and was served with a tiny lamb chop on top and garnished with blueberries. I was in heaven.

When I returned home, I delved deeper into fruit risottos, and saw that this was far from a novelty dish. In my research, I found traditional recipes for strawberry risotto, apple risotto, and pear risotto, among others. I even found a contemporary risotto recipe that called for…melon and prosciutto. To anyone who loves risotto, this is probably not too shocking. Risotto, after all, can famously be made from just about anything — seafood, mushrooms, greens, saffron, truffles, wine, beer, you name it.

So, as summer winds down, I bring you three fruity recipes. As with all risotto and pasta recipes — think of these as a template. With a little experimentation, I can envision fresh honeydews or plums or nectarines in place of the berries and cantaloupe.

I know I intend to experiment a little more. After all, you can’t eat fruit all day, unless you have it for dinner, too. • 2 September 2014

Tips for making risotto

Be patient and zen-like. Risotto can take 20 minutes or more to make, and requires constant attention and stirring. You’ll notice that all of these recipes call for a little wine. The rest of the bottle is for the cook. This will help the time pass.

Make sure you add the stock to the rice little by little, never drowning your rice and never letting the liquid completely dry out.

Make your own stock (vegetable, in the case of these recipes). You will thank yourself for this.

Be sure to use the correct rice, either Carnaroli or Arborio — no Uncle Ben’s here. I highly recommend Carnaroli rice, hailed as the “king” or “caviar” of Italian rices. If you’ve only used Arborio in the past, do yourself a favor and try Carnaroli.

With risotto, the rice should be served al dente, meaning it should be tender, and should be neither too crunchy nor too squishy. Taste the rice as you go along to make sure you don’t undercook or overcook it.

Serve and eat risotto the moment it’s finished. Call people to the table as you’re finishing your final stirrings.

Melon and Prosciutto Risotto

Ingredients

6 cups vegetable stock (below)
4 tablespoons butter
½ medium cantaloupe, peeled, seeded, and coarsely grated
2 shallots, chopped
1 garlic clove, chopped
2 cups Carnaroli rice
¼ cup dry white wine
¼ cup mascarpone
2 ounces prosciutto, chopped
Pepper

Instructions

Bring 6 cups vegetable stock to a simmer.

Melt butter in a large saucepan over medium heat. Add cantaloupe, shallots, and garlic. Cook, stirring, until liquid is thickened, 8-10 minutes. Add rice and white wine, and cook for another 2 minutes.

Add a ladleful of the stock (about half a cup) and cook, stirring continuously, until the liquid has been absorbed. Continue adding the stock, a ladleful at a time, and stirring until each addition has been absorbed. This will take about 20-25 minutes.

Once rice is finished, stir in mascarpone and prosciutto and season with pepper to taste.

Serves 6

Recipe adapted from Cassy Vires, Home Wine Kitchen, St. Louis.

Risotto alle Fragole (Strawberry Risotto)

Ingredients

About 6 cups vegetable stock (below)
7 tablespoons butter
1 onion, chopped
2 cups Carnaroli rice
1½ cups dry white wine
8-10 medium strawberries, hulled
1 cup light cream
Salt and pepper

Instructions

Bring the stock to a boil. Melt half the butter in a large pan, add the onion, and cook over medium heat, stirring occasionally, for 5 minutes.

Add the rice and cook, stirring, until the grains are coated in butter. Pour in the wine and cook until it has evaporated. Add a ladleful of the stock (about half a cup) and cook, stirring continuously, until the liquid has been absorbed. Continue adding the stock, a ladleful at a time, and stirring until each addition has been absorbed.

About halfway through the cooking time, mash all but two or three of the strawberries with a fork and add the mashed berries to the risotto. Set the remaining strawberries aside and continue stirring in the stock until it has all been absorbed. This will take 18-20 minutes.

When the rice is almost tender, stir in the cream and season with salt and pepper. Serve garnished with strawberry slices.

Serves 4

Recipe adapted from The Silver Spoon (Phaidon Press, 2011).

Risotto ai Mirtilli (Blueberry Risotto)

Ingredients

About 6 cups vegetable stock (below)
3 tablespoons butter
1 onion, finely chopped
2 cups Carnaroli rice
¾ cup dry white wine
1¾ cups blueberries
½ cup light cream
Salt and pepper
Pecorino Romano cheese, freshly grated (optional)

Instructions

Bring the stock to a boil. Meanwhile, melt the butter in a large pan, add the onion, and cook over medium heat, stirring occasionally, for 5 minutes, until softened.

Add the rice and stir until the grains are coated in butter. Sprinkle in the wine and cook until it has evaporated. Set aside 2 tablespoons of the blueberries and add the remainder to the pan. Add a ladleful of the stock (about half a cup) and cook, stirring continuously, until the liquid has been absorbed. Continue adding the stock, a ladleful at a time, and stirring until each addition has been absorbed. This will take 18-20 minutes.

When the rice is tender, stir in the cream and transfer to a warm serving dish. Add salt and pepper to taste. Garnish with the reserved blueberries and, if desired, serve with pecorino.

Serves 4

Recipe adapted from The Silver Spoon (Phaidon Press, 2011).

Vegetable Stock

Ingredients

4 potatoes, coarsely chopped
4 onions, coarsely chopped
4 leeks, trimmed and coarsely chopped
4 carrots, coarsely chopped
4 turnips, coarsely chopped
4 celery stalks, coarsely chopped
8 cherry tomatoes, coarsely chopped
12 cups water
Pinch of salt

Instructions

Place all vegetables in a large pot. Pour in water, add salt, and bring to a boil. Lower the heat and simmer gently for 20 minutes. Remove from heat and let cool slightly, then strain into a bowl or container, pressing down well on the cooked vegetables with a spoon. Use immediately or store in the refrigerator for up to three days or in the freezer.

Recipe adapted from The Silver Spoon (Phaidon Press, 2011).

Jason Wilson is the founding editor of The Smart Set. He also edits The Best American Travel Writing series (Houghton Mifflin).
EmailTwitterFacebookDiggStumbleUponGoogle+
RV_CHERRY_PHYSPHIL_BF_001
EmailTwitterFacebookDiggStumbleUponGoogle+

This fascinating book traces a debate about the nature of time. The debate begins on April 6, 1922, in Paris, at a meeting of the French Philosophical Society. The opinions expressed will persist and permutate into the 21st century. The first and primary debaters are Albert Einstein, a strikingly good-looking and ambitious young man, and Henri Bergson, a philosopher already distinguished and well-published. Each will develop a wide following that summons up views and arguments on behalf of one or the other.
More… “A Matter of Time”

Kelly Cherry‘s new book, just published, is Twelve Women in a Country Called America: Stories (Press 53).
EmailTwitterFacebookDiggStumbleUponGoogle+
And a turbulent one at that.
EmailTwitterFacebookDiggStumbleUponGoogle+

As I’d been saying, it’s always something else. Take roofs, for instance. You can go months, even years without thinking much about them. They’re in jokes like, “Just because there’s snow on the roof doesn’t mean there’s no fire in the furnace,” which considering my recent experience with a broken furnace, would be a low blow.

   

Actually, if there’s snow on the roof, it’s a good thing. That means the insulation is working and heat isn’t escaping. Or it could mean that the snow on the roof will leak, stain, peel paint — or worse.

When that starts, the first hope is that it’s just the flashing. I used to listen to a lot of home-repair programs on the radio — amazing, the trivia I store away in the file cabinet of the mind, stuffing it so that I can’t find the file concerning the whereabouts of my glasses or keys or that elusive receipt for taxes.

I was in possession of a great deal of roof trivia. It went way past metal, tar, tile, slate, asphalt, the advantages and disadvantages of each. You could — and people have — filled books with information about just slate roofs.

And I was going to need everything I knew. 

When my next-door neighbors got a new roof a year or so ago, I could hear my biological house clock starting to tick. Our houses are about the same age. If they needed a roof, I probably did, too. I figured I’d wait a year, and if they were happy with the roof work, I could get a reference.

The best way to replace a roof is to do it before you absolutely have to. But replacing — or even fixing — a roof is one of those home repairs that the homeowner given to habits of procrastination might well put off. I might and I did. For one thing, the roof’s up high and I’m down low, my eyes not much more than five feet off the ground.

From time to time I’d step back from the house in the front yard, where the garden gnome would be if I had a garden gnome and where the neighbors could watch me being a responsible homeowner. I’d stare up at the roof, sometimes squinting into the sun, sometimes with the sun at my back, which made the granules on the roof gleam. On days when the weather was mild, I’d repeat the process from the back yard.

The roof looked pretty good for its age. What exact age? Darned if I knew.

I couldn’t really tell that much from the ground. Even if I had climbed a ladder to look at the roof, I wouldn’t have known what I was looking at.

I provided myself with many happy years of procrastination in just that manner. I call them happy, but they weren’t carefree. I wouldn’t have partaken in all those sessions of roof-staring if I’d been confident that the roof was sound, that it would outlast my need of it.

Roofers, used car salesmen, and members of congress have about the same level of trust in the public eye these days. However, I get to vote every couple of years, and I can do research on the car and get it inspected. A lot can go wrong with roofing.

I know enough not to pay any mind to those printed circulars offering me a senior discount on a roof, or inviting me to use my house as a demo model for the neighborhood, with finders’ fees for any referred neighbors. So I’d toss those all away, step back and take another look — wishful, hopeful, and semi-conscious that I was fibbing to myself when I said the roof was fine.

But when the wind blew a couple of shingles down into the yard, my years of procrastination were over. Truth be told, I did allow myself to wonder if those couple of shingles were actually important. I didn’t know how long they’d been there without any problem. Maybe I could ignore them?

It was analogous to finding a bolt on the floor. How did that get there? Where did it come from? Was it going to matter? If not, why had it been wherever it was in the first place? And having no answers, I’d put the bolt in a drawer just in case I needed it. They add up, those loose bolts.

Analogies, however, break down. I wasn’t going to put these shingles in a drawer, or even in the garage. I stepped back in the yard to see where the tiles came from. Did that part of the roof even matter?

On closer inspection of a shingle, I discovered that mine had been a white roof. But it was white no longer: too many granules were gone. As I tested it for strength and flexibility, the shingle snapped in my hands like a sheet of matzo.

I toured the inside of house, looking at the ceiling to hunt for a sign of damage. I don’t usually stare at the ceiling like this. Was that something up there around the vent? Yes? Even if it turned out to be the flashing, I’d still need to call the roofer who had such a good reputation.

One major decision down.

The roofer arrived, ready to climb onto the roof and tell me the news. No sense replacing a whole roof if you don’t have to, he said. When I pointed at the problem area, he said the magic word — “flashing.” He couldn’t have said anything more welcome to me. I felt a wave of good will wash over me. Golly, I was glad this company came highly recommended because this was a darned good sales method.

I hoped what he’d find was going to be better than the state of the economy; if not, I was about to “invest” (i.e., spend) what used to be called a “fair piece of change.”

He returned with his digital camera, the next best thing to being there myself. Just as well that I hadn’t made the trip on my own. He explained to me what I was seeing; it was a little like looking at my dental X-rays.

The upshot was that after staring at a brochure with names of shingle colors as poetic as those of lipsticks, I phoned the roofing company to give them the names of a few colors I liked. The salesman returned with a full complement of shingles, which he held up against the brick, partially in sun, partially in shade.

The process repeated itself: Which is better, this or that? The roofer was remarkably patient and well organized; the number of tiles in the running decreased. But the man had seen my roof — he knew that I knew, and so on.

A neighbor came over from across the street to weigh in on the color selection. After all, the neighbors would be looking at my roof more than I would. This was almost fun.

Besides, I’d learned enough to know that this roofing company wasn’t going to vanish in the middle of the job, that the workmanship of the company was excellent, that they were entirely reliable. I’m sure the ridge vent they use is exactly like the finest ridge vent that I heard about on the radio.

Even so, the best part of getting this roof was that with the lifetime shingle and the extra warrantee, I’ll never have to do this again.

I hope. • 8 February 2011

Miriam N. Kotzin, associate professor of English at Drexel University, co-directs the Certificate Program in Writing and Publishing and teaches creative writing and literature. She is a contributing editor of Boulevard and a founding editor of Per Contra. She is the author of A History of Drexel University (Drexel University, 1983), a collection of flash fiction, Just Desserts (Star Cloud Press, 2010), and two collections of poetry, Reclaiming the Dead (New American Press, 2008), Weights & Measures (Star Cloud Press, 2009), and Taking Stock. Her novel, Cutter’s Vision, is represented by Don Gastwirth.
EmailTwitterFacebookDiggStumbleUponGoogle+
Well, not this linked....
EmailTwitterFacebookDiggStumbleUponGoogle+

The first time I wrote a collection of stories, the editor changed it to “three novellas” and then a second editor changed it to “a novel.” The next time I wrote a book of stories, the publisher described it as “a novel in stories.” Nobody in New York wanted to publish short stories, although two years later there would be a boom in short stories. They should have seen it coming, but publishers are nearly always short-sighted. Not until I published a book of stories with a university press was the book actually called “stories.”

By whatever name, I love collections of linked stories. I have written a trilogy of linked stories. I call it “A Divine Comedy,” which is what the ex-wife of a main character says when she describes the off-Broadway play she has written about him. “It’s such a divine comedy!” she chirps.
More… “Chain Gang”

Kelly Cherry‘s new book, just published, is Twelve Women in a Country Called America: Stories (Press 53).
EmailTwitterFacebookDiggStumbleUponGoogle+
Fashion continues its climb in in the museum.
EmailTwitterFacebookDiggStumbleUponGoogle+

I recently realized that the Metropolitan Museum of Art, possibly the greatest museum in the world, has put clothes not only literally but figuratively on a pedestal. It’s interesting to think that crowds that once exclaimed over artifacts exhumed from King Tut’s tomb now gawk at dresses extracted from deceased socialite Nan Kempner’s closet.

I don’t think this is a bad thing. I love clothes and am always interested in looking at them (though, to be honest, I prefer wearing them). But I am fascinated by the phenomenon of how fashion in the past decade or so has been elevated to the highest reaches of cultural respectability.

Arguably, this can be traced back to changes in the nature of the museum itself back in the late 1960s, when it became less fusty and high-brow and more desirous of courting the masses. The Met was at the vanguard under the directorship of Thomas Hoving, who served from 1967 to 1977 and pioneered the trend of blockbuster shows, high-profile acquisitions, and expanded museum shops. Hoving hired Diana Vreeland, Vogue editor, as costume consultant in 1972, and she retained this position until her death in 1989. The idea that a Vogue editor would serve as a consultant to a great museum itself defined a sea change in the cultural climate. Vreeland took full advantage of her role, helping to mount large-scale thematic shows such as “Romantic and Glamorous Hollywood Design” (1974) and “The Glory of Russian Costume” (1976). After her death, the tradition continued with shows on underwear (“Infra-Apparel,” 1993, and Eastern-inspired fashion (“Orientalism: Visions of the East in Western Dress,” 1994), this, piggy-backing in title if not in spirit on Edward Said’s 1978 book Orientalism, which was still the rage in academic circles 15 years after its publication. The museum also presented a series of exhibitions hyping the artistic vision of well-known individual designers such as Dior and Versace, a trend that began with Vreeland’s blockbuster show on Balenciaga.

Yet all this was prologue to the dramatic explosion of sartorial appreciation that the museum has launched in the 21st century under costume curator-in-charge Harold Koda and curator Andrew Bolton. Their shows include “Extreme Beauty: The Body Transformed” (2002), ‘“Goddess” (2003), “Men in Skirts” (2003), “Dangerous Liaisons: Fashion and Furniture in the 18th Century” (2004), and most notably, “Alexander McQueen: Savage Beauty” (2010-11). Now, there is “Schiaparelli and Prada: Impossible Conversations.” Judging by the crush that greeted me at a recent visit, the museum would do well to extend the run, as it did with the McQueen exhibit.

What is clear from all this is that clothes at the Met now mean more than themselves. It’s not about the clothes to wear anymore; it’s about what the clothes you wear mean. The costume collection, as it was known, was once consigned to the basement, geared unabashedly to the ladies, and relatively straightforward in its approach to designers and periods. Now, it has burst the constraints of its form and mutated into dramatic, surreal spectacles. Why is this and what does this mean?

I can begin by invoking that most fail-safe of explanations: “It’s postmodern.” Postmodernism, which admittedly has the virtue of encompassing anything hard to define, involves contravening established conventions and expectations. In architecture, where the movement was originally and most literally defined, it was a matter of using the past without concern for consistency of style or period. Thus a Greco-Roman portal could be combined with a modernist glass box and decorated with a bit of rococo molding. Postmodernism here is pastiche; it is using the past in quotation marks. In literature, postmodernism tends to be defined more negatively or, perhaps one could say, more philosophically. The critic Frederic Jameson has called it “a skepticism towards meta-narratives”—  which is to say, a puncturing of whatever may pretend to be universal or absolute. Thus Shakespeare’s Prospero in The Tempest ceases to be a figure of god-like knowledge and authority and becomes a mere colonial imperialist, an oppressor of the native inhabitant of the island Caliban. This reading expands to encompass Prospero’s creator, who ceases to be the great bard of civilization and becomes instead the repository of philosophical biases and economic interests associated with Western culture (It is harder, to be sure, to reduce the actual poetry this way — though I’m sure there are papers to be written about the Svengali-effects of iambic pentameter). In fine art, borrowing from both arenas, postmodernism is about crossing all possible boundaries while also indulging in what I would call “aesthetic pragmaticism:” using what is saleable, cool, or new and then discarding it when it is no longer saleable, cool, or new. This is a good definition of fashion with its reliance on seasonal change and shifting fads, and hence is a long way around to explaining why fashion has become the consummate expression of postmodern art.

The Met demonstrates how fully this idea has been adopted at the highest cultural levels. Fashion exhibits like that on Alexander McQueen and Schiaparelli and Prada are now major attractions, not peripheral or trivial like the old costume exhibits, because of, rather than despite, the fact that they blur the boundary between high-brow and low, enduring and ephemeral, mind and body, vanity and philosophy, and art and commerce. They glory in the confusion, rather than try to hide or rationalize it. If there were meta-narratives once separating these categories, they have been gleefully jettisoned.

Indeed, what is most striking in the current Schiaparelli-Prada exhibit is not the evolution in the look of the clothes that has occurred from the one designer to the other. In many cases, it would be difficult to distinguish the 1936 design from the 2010. Both designers dabble in gold embroidery, both are into unusual appliqués, both use materials and motifs that thumb their noses at conventional aesthetic ideas about what a fashionable garment should look like. At one point in the exhibit, a line of Schiaparelli hats are arranged above a line of Prada shoes, and we see how similar their fantasiste sensibilities are. The weird accoutrements and shapes to the hats are echoed in the elaborate cut-outs, filigree, and odd heel formations of the shoes. Yet the point here is also to show the difference in focus: hats (heads?) were more early-20th century, while shoes (feet?) are presumably more 21st. The same is true in the arrangement of jackets and skirts: Schiaparelli, designing in a café society, as the copy tells us, concentrates on jackets which present the upper body; Prada, designing at a time when the lower portion of the female body is a subject of contention, concentrates more on skirts. At least that seems to me to be one of the many points that the curators are folding into this ambitiously idea-ridden show.

The larger point is that what distinguishes the two designers is the philosophical position they espouse and which frames and contextualizes their work. Both of these women were born in Italy to well-to-do families, and both were drawn to fashion as a rebellious form of creative expression. Yet they diverge insofar as this expression is allied with their particular cultural moments.  Schiaparelli chose to be a fashion designer but worked tirelessly to make fashion into art, breaking taboos of conventional dressmaking and collaborating with artists such as Salvador Dali and Jean Cocteau. Said Schiaparelli: “Had I not by pure chance become a maker of dresses,[I could have become ]a sculptor.”

Prada, by contrast, is perfectly happy to embrace the commercial aspect of her work and to make it part of her aesthetic philosophy. “I’ve never wanted to be an artist. I’ve never wanted to be called an artist. The term seems old-fashioned. It’s a term that does not relate to modern times. And it’s too confining. What I love about fashion is it’s accessibility and it’s democracy. Everyone wears it, and everyone relates to it,” she said. She is not trying to wrench fashion into the realm of art but, in conventional postmodern fashion (to adopt terms rarely yoked together), to glory in the fact that the two are no longer distinct categories, that one can play happily within both — which is, I should note, convenient if you want to call yourself democratic and charge thousands of dollars for your dresses. The same is true of Prada’s championship of ugly chic. Who, one wonders, are the people willing to spend a fortune to look unattractive (even if in a powerful way)? They are either very sophisticated or very subservient to name-branding  — or perhaps they are both since, if we are exploding meta-narratives, why choose between the two?

The difference within similarity that characterizes Schiaparelli and Prada lies behind the inspired idea of staging a literal as well as a metaphorical conversation between the two designers. The idea was borrowed from a 1930s series of “impossible interviews” in Vanity Fair (one of which was between Schiaparelli and Stalin). Central to the Met exhibit is a film by Baz Luhrmann (director of that pastiche of all pastiches, Moulin Rouge). Luhrmann has Miuccia Prada in conversation with a quasi-fictionalized Elsa Schiaparelli. I say “quasi-fictionalized” because, though the character is played by the actress Judy Davis and speaks as though in response to Prada, her lines have been culled from actual statements she made or wrote. This mash-up of real and fictional in this virtual encounter would make filmmaker Oliver Stone proud.

The show’s execution falls short of its ambitious conception. The space is too crowded, even before the crowds make it even harder to navigate. Mirrors are poorly placed and create unwanted reflections. The juxtaposition of the Prada and Schiaparelli garments is not as crisp as it might be. The bits of film and wall copy compete confusingly with the real and photographic presentation of the clothes. The effect can be headache-inducing. Still, when you see a life-sized photograph of the Duchess of Windsor wearing Schiaparelli’s lobster dress that has its hem waving gently in the breeze via computer animation, you have to admire the fecund imagination behind the show. The curators had ideas — too many perhaps and not as sorted as one might like, but, hey, that’s postmodernism for you. • 8 August 2012

Paula Marantz Cohen is Dean of the Pennoni Honors College and a Distinguished Professor of English at Drexel University. She is the host of  The Drexel InterView, a talk show broadcast on more than 300 public television stations across the country. She is author of four nonfiction books and four bestselling novels, including Jane Austen in Boca and Jane Austen in Scarsdale or Love, Death, and the SATs. Her essays and stories have appeared in The Yale ReviewThe American Scholar, The Times Literary Supplement, and other publications. Her latest book is Suzanne Davis Gets a Life.
EmailTwitterFacebookDiggStumbleUponGoogle+
No problem!
EmailTwitterFacebookDiggStumbleUponGoogle+

Looking for some outdoor summer fun but hate the crowds of Yellowstone, the remoteness of Dry Tortugas, the heat of Death Valley, and the obviousness of the Grand Canyon? Maybe you’d instead enjoy picnicking in James H. “Sloppy” Floyd State Park in Georgia. Or swimming at E.P. “Tom” Sawyer State Park in Kentucky. Or walking your leashed pet through Harry “Babe” Woodyard State Natural Area in Illinois.

   

If so, you should get on that now. This is not a good time for state parks. With economic conditions making employment and education seem like privileges, recreation is hardly thought a right. Which is why the state parks make easy targets for the nation’s 50 governors and 7,382 state legislators looking to cut costs. Which is why the National Trust for Historic Preservation, in turn, has placed state parks and historic sites on its latest list of America’s 11 Most Endangered Historic Places.

According to the organization, 26 states have seen reductions in state park funding. This means cuts in staffing, maintenance, and access. A New York Times slideshow of the impact includes wistful photos of a donation box in an Arizona park, a Colorado ranger at sunset by a sign that reads “No Services Availalble in this Area Due to Budget Cuts,” a motorcycle club whose members have volunteered to mow the lawns of an Idaho park, and — perhaps most elegiac — a picnic table overtaken by a pale green sea of early summer grasses in New York.

Reductions in access to state parks is unfortunate for many obvious reasons: It lessens opportunities both inexpensive recreation and outdoor experiences; it also marginalizes such experiences by treating them as expendable. But less obvious is how such cuts reinforce the image of the state park as a kind of poor man’s national park. Would Yellowstone ever close? What a dumb question. But New York’s John Boyd Thacher State Park? Well, times are tough…

National Parks get all the glory. Last year, they were the subject of a 12-hour Ken Burns documentary. This year, they started appearing on quarters as part of the U.S. Mint’s new decade-long “America the Beautiful” series (Hot Springs, Yellowstone, Yosemite, Grand Canyon, and Mt. Hood National Forest make up the first batch). Their dramatic landscapes come together to form the country’s natural identity.

The state parks don’t do this kind of cultural work. Their diffuse nature — the fact that they are the products of individual states and not the federal government — prevent them from taking on symbolic meaning beyond their home state’s borders. And yet as a whole, the state parks could be more accurate reflection of our national character and aspirations than their national counterparts.

Parks in the United States actually began with the states — or the lack thereof. While it’s true that Lincoln’s preservation of Yosemite in 1864 marked the first time any federal government granted natural land such protection, California initially oversaw the reserve. Eight years later, the federal government preserved what is today Yellowstone, but since Montana and Wyoming had not yet been made states, responsibility for the park fell to the Department of the Interior. New national parks were created over the next several decades, and in 1916, Woodrow Wilson established the National Park Service.

The state park system is arguably more diverse than its national counterpart. This seems counterintuitive, considering the 58 national parks are made up of biological and geological features that range from volcanoes to giant sequoias, glaciers to dry deserts. But the epic-ness of the national parks gives the system a kind of sameness — a collection of Big Wonders.

State parks can at first seem a bit tame in comparison — many consist of forest, hiking trails, maybe a lake with a swimming beach. They’re meant to provide easy access to the natural world (when budget cuts aren’t reducing it, that is). None of us can visit on a whim, say, the deepest lake in the Western Hemisphere, formed by a collapsed volcano. But in the two free days we have each week, we can fairly easy get to Lums Pond State Park or Cherry Creek State Park or Mashamoquet Brook State Park.

But they are a much more idiosyncratic bunch. Some have surprising histories, such as New Jersey’s Parvin State Park. The park was built by the Civilian Conservation Corps, the public works program that created more than 800 state parks between 1933 and 1942. During World War II, Parvin served as a summer camp for the children of uprooted Japanese-Americans, then as a POW camp for German soldiers, and later as a temporary home for the Kalmyks of southeast Europe who had avoided Soviet deportation to Central Asia. Today it offers canoeing, swimming, and picnic tables with grills.

Other parks are notable for their non-epic invocation of the epic ideal, such as Nebraska’s Smith Falls, established around the state’s highest waterfall; you may never have considered whether a place as flat-seeming as Nebraska even had a waterfall, but it does, and Nebraska thought enough of the feature to set it aside as something to look at and enjoy. Visit Leonard Harrison State Park and you can see the Grand Canyon of Pennsylvania. And then there’s Oklahoma’s Little Sahara State Park, whose sandy landscapes inspired allusions to the brutal African desert but whose main warning is, “You must bring your own Dune Buggy to ride dunes.”

The beauty of state parks is that you don’t need a waterfall or Little Sahara to have one. You don’t even need an area all that natural. California’s Eastshore State Park on the San Francisco Bay sits, in part, on former attempts to fill the East Bay. “[T]he shoreline reflects the influences of both natural systems and human intervention,” according to the park’s general plan, “with natural features, such as tidal marshes and sand and gravel beaches, intermingled with man-made elements, such as engineered revetments, construction rubble, and other debris.” Massachusetts’ Pope John Paul II Park Reservation was once a landfill and drive-in theater. 

Every state park falls under the purview of some state agency. In Alabama, for instance, that’s the Department of Conservation and Natural Resources. Most states have “natural resources” as part of the department name. Others, like Idaho, play up the human-use aspect of the parks with names such as the Department of Parks and Recreation. Connecticut offers Environmental Protection, while Rhode Island practices Environmental Management and Delaware exerts Environmental Control. Louisiana — with its Department of Culture, Recreation, and Tourism — suggests that state parks aren’t so much about preserving the environment as they are about maintaining a place to have fun. Montana Fish, Wildlife, and Parks oversees that state’s parks; Nebraska is not as magnanimous to its wildlife: its parks are run by the Game and Parks Commission.

State parks are everywhere. According to the National Association of State Park Directors, there are more than 6,000 state park units in the 50 states. The system receives more than 725 million visits a year. And yet you’ll never see the state parks on any kind of national calendar, on the face of any coin. This is unfortunate, as the diversity of the parks and the states’ approaches to nature; the aspiration behind arguing that you may not have the Grand Canyon, but you have a grand canyon; the gumption of saying that when life hands you a landfill and former drive-in theater, make a state park, collectively create an identity as inspiring as the that of the national parks. I mean, if you’re going to have values embedded in nature, those seem like seem like pretty good ones to me. • 15 June 2010

Jesse Smith is a writer based in Philadelphia.
EmailTwitterFacebookDiggStumbleUponGoogle+
"Winning" gold at the 2000 Paralympic Games
EmailTwitterFacebookDiggStumbleUponGoogle+

Winning isn’t everything. It’s the only thing.

This sentiment has been echoed in every sport, at all levels of competition, and throughout time. Legacies have been sealed, fortunes have been made, legends have been forged on the back of victory. History remembers winners, not losers. Would we even know who Michael Jordan was even if he hadn’t won six championships? Would we even care about Babe Ruth if the Yankees weren’t so dominate? Would Jesse Owens have become part of American folklore if he didn’t defeat all challengers in Germany?

Winning has always been a matter of life or death. In ancient Rome, gladiators who won were showered with glory. Those who lost were killed. In 1964, Peru lost to rival Argentina in a soccer match, triggering a riot of epic proportions; 328 people were killed in the chaos. It is hardly an exaggeration to say sports can be war. After all, we use the same words, “victory,” “triumph,” and “conquer” to describe winning in both war and sports. To win is to survive. To lose is to die.

So, can you really blame those who cheat to win?

Surprisingly, the most shocking cheating scandal in the history of athletic competition didn’t involve performance enhancing drugs, rigged equipment, or unscrupulous officiating. It was about what happens when money, winning and nationalistic pride get mixed up in a place it shouldn’t be; when the instinct to come away victorious supersedes basic human decency. It went beyond cheating. The 2000 Paralympic Spanish Men’s Basketball ID team proved that no matter what the rules are, humans, by nature, play to win.

The 2000 Paralympics marked the first time that “Basketball ID,” or Basketball for the Intellectually Disabled, would be part of the games. The format of the games was virtually no different than it’s Olympic counterpart. There was less time on the clock and lines were moved in, but the game still required putting the ball in the hoop.

Eight countries competed in the event: Russia, Poland, Portugal, Japan, Brazil, Australia, Greece, and Spain. As the games got under way, it was clear who the favorite was — Spain. At halftime of their first game at the 2000 Paralympic Games, Spain was up by 30 points on Portugal. It really shouldn’t have been that close. After finishing off Portugal by 15, they went on to defeat Brazil by 56 points, Japan by 67, Poland by 30, and Russia by 24 to win the gold medal. There was something different about the Spanish team, in that, there was actually nothing different about them. The team held an advantage simply because they had no disadvantage.

As The Guardian later put it, “their biggest mistake was to win gold.” After the win over Russia, a photo of the team celebrating appeared on the front page of Madrid’s sports daily, Marca. Back home, the players were recognized, not as triumph sports heroes overcoming adversity, but as con artists. As word began to spread, Spanish officials told the players to wear hats and grow beards so they would not be recognized when they returned home to Madrid’s Barajas airport. The jig was up. The 2000 Spanish Paralympic Basketball ID team was not who they claimed to be. Ten out of twelve players on the team possessed no mental impairment at all. In the world of Paralympic sports, that’s cheating.

Before the Paralympics existed, several athletes competed in the Olympic Games who were classified as “disabled.” At the 1904 Olympic Games in St. Louis, German-American gymnast George Eyser won six medals, including a gold medal in the vault. He did all of this on a wooden left leg. Left-handed Hungarian sharpshooter Karoly Takacs won gold medals in both 1948 and 1952 without a right hand. Danish dressage competitor Lis Hartel won silver medals in 1952 and 1956 despite being paralyzed below the knees due to polio. More recently, New Zealander Neroli Fairhall became the first paraplegic athlete to compete in the Games (in archery) in 1984. South African (and infamous) Oscar Pistorius became the first double amputee to compete, running in the men’s 400 meters and the relay.

It wasn’t until 1948 that Dr. Ludwig Guttman organized the first competition for “wheelchair bound athletes.” Dr. Guttman, at the behest of the British government, had recently opened a spinal injury unit in the Stoke Mandeville Hospital. This was due to the demand for a place that cared for the injured veterans coming home from World War II. On July 29th, 1948, the same day as the Opening Ceremonies of the Olympic Games in London, Dr. Guttman hosted the Stoke Mandeville Games, featuring 16 injured servicemen and women competing in archery.

Twelve years later, in 1960, the first official Paralympic Games took place in Rome and included 400 athletes from 23 different countries. According to the CBC, these first games only included participants who had spinal cord injuries, like the case in 1948. It wasn’t until 1976, when the games were held in Toronto, that amputees and visually impaired athletes were allowed to compete for the first time. In 1988, it became practice to hold the Paralympics in the same city as the Olympics. In 1992, they added a Winter Paralympic games. By 2000, nearly 4,000 athletes from 127 countries were competing in 551 events across 20 different sports.

1996 was the first year that the Paralympic Games included athletes with mental impairments. For the ‘96 games, and the 2000 Sydney Games, the process to be eligible under this impairment type was quite simple and determined by the individual countries. It required a review of all readily available medical information, doctor and psychologist assessments, and educational documents. There was neither a test nor review done by the International Paralympic Committee (IPC). There were no actual requirements or benchmarks that all participants had to heed too. There was nothing that said an individual had to meet certain standards in order to be labeled as “mentally impaired.” After all, up to this point, all of the disabilities that the Paralympics dealt with were apparent and visible. Mental impairments didn’t necessarily possess this quality.

Each athlete who participates in the Paralympics must belong to one of the ten “eligible” impairment types as set by the IPC. Many of these impairment types are noticeable, like “impaired muscle power,” “short stature,” or “limb deficiency.” Others require more monitoring and assessments. “Intellectual impairments,” one of the ten eligible impairment types, are often invisible and can be very tough to classify or quantify.

The 2000 Paralympic Games began 21 days after the Summer Olympic Games ended, on October 22nd. In accordance with tradition, both athletic competitions were in the same location, Sydney, Australia. An estimated 3,800 athletes from 127 countries competed over 11 days. It had worldwide sponsorship deals from companies like Visa and Nike. Coverage of the Games was shown across the globe and it was the year’s second largest sporting event, behind only the Olympic Games.

For many of the athletes, just participating was their triumph. For others, participation wasn’t the goal, winning was. Years of training, preparation, and sacrifice — like their Olympic counterparts — put them on the cusp of a fantastic athletic accomplishment. To many, their disadvantage made triumph that much sweeter.

According to the Paralympics own website, the name “Paralympics” is derived from the Greek preposition “para,” meaning “beside” or “alongside.” This is meant to illustrate how Paralympic Games should “parallel” the Olympic Games and “how the two movements exist side-by-side.” Additionally, in 1989, the International Paralympic Committee (IPC) was founded as a non-profit to oversee and govern the games. In not only name, but also by infrastructure, where the Games were played, and how they were governed (the Olympic Games is run by the IOC, the International Olympic Committee), the Paralympics are supposed to mimic the Olympic Games. This includes the pressure to compete at the highest level possible.

Competition and winning has always been at the forefront of the Paralympic Games, as represented by a memo released by the Special Olympics to distinguish between the two, and often confused, games. While the Special Olympics emphasizes that “athletes’ excellence is personal achievement, a reflection of reaching one’s maximum potential is a goal in which everyone can aspire too,” the Paralympics “are about elite performance sport, where athletes go through a stringent qualification process so that the best, or highest qualified based on performance, can compete at the Games.”

Only weeks after the conclusion of the 2000 games in Sydney, a package arrived at the Paralympic headquarters in Bonn, Germany. Inside of the package was a Spanish team kit, 150 pounds (the amount given to each athlete as per diem), and a gold medal. Several days later, Capital, a Spanish business magazine, published an expose written by 26-year-old Carlos Ribagorda and member of the Spanish basketball team. In the expose, he admitted that he and nine other members of the team were not mentally impaired. The expose continued to say that not only was this known by the Spanish Paralympic Committee, but they went to great lengths to cover it up and were actually the ones who recruited the athletes to play in the Games.

The article laid out a conspiracy of epic proportions. It detailed how, in the words of Ribagorda, “the whole Paralympics movement was a farce.” Five months prior to the Games, Ribagorda, at the invite of Spain’s Federation for Mentally Disabled Sports (FEDDI), was asked to try out for the team in Madrid. It is unclear in the article why Ribagorda was invited in the first place, but another source said he had been “infiltrating” the team for up to two years. Despite knowing something was amiss, he went along with it. He expressed several times that he was never tested for any mental impairment while training. Said Ribagorda, “There were no real checks, no examination of medical records. I just went along, told them that I suffered from being mentally handicapped.” The only test he ever took was for blood pressure, immediately after doing six push-ups during his first day at training. He made the team along with eleven other men. Of the twelve on the team, Ribagorda estimated that only two of them possessed any mental impairment. The ones who made the team weren’t just average basketball players either. It was uncovered later by Gigandes, a Spanish basketball magazine, that several players came from mainstream amateur clubs in Spain and at least one of the players had actually been employed by a professional club. This was an absolutely absurd brazen disregard for the rules. The question, of course, is why? Why did the FEDDI want to win so badly?

Money and power are the simplest answers. The president of the FEDDI was Fernando Martin Vicente. According to several sources, he personally was the one who recruited and approached athletes to be on the team. He was, at the time, one of the most powerful men in the world of “disabled sports.” A former Madrid city councilor, he was member of the International Paralympic Committee and vice-president of Spain Paralympic Committee. In 1975, he founded the National Association of Special Sports (Ande), which received government financial support every year. He was also a father of a disabled child who participated in many of these organized events. To complicate matters even further, this wasn’t the first time Vicente had been accused of using his power to further his own interests. In the 90s, several Spanish newspapers accused him of using the government funds meant for Ande to finance his lavish lifestyle, including a “ yacht, eight cars, a Porsche, five houses and half a dozen large pieces of land.” The thinking went that Vicente was again using a supposedly charitable organization, the FEDDI, to fill his coffers. With several multinational sponsorships, like Telefonica and BBVA, at stake, there was a need to win and grab attention to ensure their continued support.

But what about the players? Why would they fake being mentally impaired?

On the surface, Ribagorda’s answers to these questions seem to make, at least, some sense. “I think people saw it as a free trip to Australia,” Ribagorda said later in an interview. The winning team of the tournament got to split approximately two hundred thousand dollars.

But the real reason seems to stem from a basic human instinct — winning feels good. After all, if Ribagorda and his teammates didn’t want to, why did they go to such great lengths to win? Why didn’t anyone speak up until after the tournament? Why fake being disabled?

No matter who your opponent is, or if they are outmatched, or at a disadvantage, winning is to conquer. Winning is to survive.

The aftermath of this scandal extended far and wide. Fernando Martin Vicente resigned a few months later. It took thirteen years, but he was finally found guilty of fraud in October 2013. The players, including Ribagorda, were cleared of all charges. Later, it was revealed that Spain wasn’t the only one cheating. Several Russian basketball players — part of the team Spain played in the finals — were also found to have no mental impairments. The same went for a number of swimmers and table tennis players from other countries, including, again, Spain. The saddest part of it all was that due to the complete failure and inability to test for “mental impairment” by the IPC, all intellectually disabled persons were barred from participating in the Paralympics. For many athletes, this was devastating.

It wasn’t until 2012, after a complete overhaul of assessment, definition, and evaluation of “mental impairment,” that the IPC allowed these athletes to compete again in the Paralympics.

One athlete who participated in 2012 was swimmer Chloe Davies of England. In a profile for Time Magazine, she said that qualifying for the 2012 London Paralympic Games was “her greatest achievement.” She finished 5th in the one hundred meter backstroke and ninth in the two hundred meter freestyle. Nonetheless, she’s already given her intention to return for the 2016 Paralympic Games in Rio de Janeiro.

This time she wants to win, just like every other person on this planet. • 6 August 2014

Matt Blitz is a writer based out of Los Angeles who’s written for Atlas Obscura, CNN, Untapped Cities, and Today I Found Out. He’s currently the head of Obscura Society LA. He does laundry on a regular basis. You can follow him on Twitter @whyblitz.
EmailTwitterFacebookDiggStumbleUponGoogle+
Even the signs aren't sure.
EmailTwitterFacebookDiggStumbleUponGoogle+

Here’s a question: Are we evolving to become quadrupedal, needing four limbs to get around as we once did on the African savanna?

After all, we now need two limbs to control foot pedals, and two to aim a wheel in the direction we’re headed. (Well, at least one to aim, one to text while driving). For nearly five million years we were fine getting around with two feet when we had to cover a distance. Then, in the last century, we’ve more or less abandoned our feet to become car monkeys.

OK, yes, it’s a facetious question. Of course natural selection isn’t likely to favor paunchy men with short arms held permanently at the 10 and 2 o’clock positions. This will never be attractive to highly fertile women.

Yet, I wonder what our cultural evolution away from the long walk means. We still get around on two feet, at least in intervals — from the cubicle to the rest room, from the parking lot to the big box store. Yet the long, purposeful walk seems to have fallen into severe disfavor. In the typical city, according to one study I came across, about forty percent of all walking episodes among adults consists of twelve steps or fewer. As I pointed out in my first Walking Tour column, we now essentially tweet with our feet, executing the equivalent of a series of 140-character walks. Long-form walking has disappeared.

I explore this trend at (perhaps obsessive) length in a new book, which came out last week. It’s called The Last Great Walk: The True Story of a 1909 Walk from New York to San Francisco, and Why it Matters Today. It’s constructed around a journey taken by a man named Edward Payson Weston, who walked from Atlantic to Pacific at age 70, averaging around 40 miles per day. (Pause to think about that).

Accounts of his walk — which was widely lauded and his route clotted with spectators when he went by — make this feel a bit like a John Henry tale, a story of noble but futile exercise to prove that the car was a superfluous interloper, and that real Americans got about with heel and toe. (“Walking is far more healthful than riding,” Weston said in 1907. “We are becoming too much of a sit-down animal. We sit down when we are at work and when we are going from one place to another even if it is only for a short distance”).

Weston wasn’t the only one agitating for long walks at the time. A 1909 story in the Dietary and Hygienic Review (yes, an actual journal) said that “to leave town but for a day or a Saturday afternoon to do a week’s end turn of ten miles, is to lay in a stock of health that will make the brain clear, the digestion good, the temper superb for the six other days.”

Yet the car won, and we as a culture have let the long walk go extinct. It’s no longer part of our physical vocabulary. The idea of walking four or five miles instead of driving seems seems more something you’d do in protest or for performance art than a normal part of one’s day. “Walking is what you do when you park your car,” says Tom Vanderbilt, historian of driving and traffic. As transportation, walking has becoming an endangered form.

Today, the long walk surfaces in our awareness chiefly when we’re focussed on other people’s health rather than our own — not a weekend passes without a large-scale march of earnest people in matching tee-shirts to raise money for research into cancer, heart disease, Alzheimer’s, or the like. The fact that long walks are in part a way to lessen the risks of all these diseases (and many other chronic illness) is something that somehow escapes us. Walking has been edited out of the national conversation, and we’re starting to see the consequences, in our physical and mental health, as well as in the erosion of our manmade landscape to favor cars, which in turn further pushes walking out of mind.

What I found in working on the book wasn’t wholly bad news. Indeed, after a century-long hiatus, we now are seeing a slow return to our feet. Millenials as a whole would rather not drive, according to many surveys. They like to live in more densely settled cities and towns where they can walk. The humble pedometer of yore has spawned the Fitbit, and now the Apple Watch, to track how many steps we take and encourage us to take more. And real estate people understand that a neighborhood’s walkability has a positive correlation with home values. After several generations of smart money heading to the far-flung suburbs, it’s now gradually shifting to the cities. A good sidewalk that leads to good shops and entertainment is the new two-car garage. Curb appeal is changing its meaning.

The most interesting shift of the past couple of decades seems to be the in perception of the long walk. It’s been a countercultural aberration for several generations — remember the jokes about being picked up by the cops for walking in Los Angeles? — but seems to be tacking back toward the mainstream. And whereas creating a world safe for the car was once a given, the automobile is now being forced to cede some of its domain, and increasingly share public space with bikers and walkers.

The direct line from horseless carriage through Thunderbird and Prius to Jetson-era hovercraft seems as if it’s not as direct as we once thought. In fact, the last century may in the long term be seen as the aberration, a detour into strangely full-throated automobility mindless of the consequences.

Slowly, bit by bit, we’re returning home. And, pleasingly, we’re doing so by foot.

This is the twentieth Walking Tour column I’ve contributed since I started down this path at The Smart Set a couple of years ago. It’s also my last.

As such, this concludes the audio portion of your walking tour. I hope you enjoyed your visit. Thank you, and please watch your step upon exiting. • 15 September 2014

Wayne Curtis is a contributing editor to The Atlantic and the author of And a Bottle of Rum: A History of the New World in Ten Cocktails.
EmailTwitterFacebookDiggStumbleUponGoogle+
Friends with benefits?
EmailTwitterFacebookDiggStumbleUponGoogle+

While Abraham Lincoln has stolen the limelight with rumors about his furtive sex life, some historians have proclaimed that America’s first gay president was really his predecessor, the now-obscure James Buchanan. (He was the 15th president, serving from 1857 to 1861). Buchanan is the only bachelor to ever have held America’s top office, and his private life raised many eyebrows while he was alive.

   

From the early 1840s, Buchanan had shared a “passionate friendship” — as well as his lodgings in Washington, D.C. – with a flamboyantly effeminate senator from Alabama, William Rufus King (who, under Franklin Pierce, became America’s only bachelor vice president). The U.S. capital was then little more than a shabby provincial town, and King was cruelly derided by roughneck politicians from the frontier who called him “Miss Nancy,” “Aunt Fancy” and Buchanan’s “wife.” The pair drew mockery and suspicion for their dapper, dandified dress and fastidious habits, a sure sign that they were “Siamese twins” — 19th-century slang for a gay couple. Buchanan was certainly fond of his house-mate: When King had to depart for a spell as envoy to France in 1844, he mourned to a friend that “I have gone wooing to several gentlemen but have not succeeded with any of them.” King died in 1853, and Buchanan lived alone when he became President in 1857.

A little suspiciously, all personal correspondence between the two men was burned by their heirs, so the question of whether they were passionate lovers or simply Victorian chums will never be resolved. This hasn’t stopped historians from weighing in. The only recent biography of Buchanan, by Jean H. Baker, argues that in photographs he displays “eunuchlike, endomorphic features of body and face as well as the low hairline characteristic of low testosterone men” — which leads her to suggest that he had “little interest in sex,” and probably kept his hands off King as well.

Regardless of his carnal potency, Buchanan’s political career was fairly abysmal: He is generally voted by historians as the worst president in American history for mishandling a string of crises and dithering his way towards Civil War. • 9 December 2010

SOURCE/FURTHER READING: Baker, Jean H., James Buchanan, (New York, 2004); Klein, Philip S., James Buchanan: A Biography (New York, 1995); Loewen, James, Lies Across America: What our Historical Sites Get Wrong, (New York, 2000).

Tony Perrottet’s book, Napoleon’s Privates: 2,500 Years of History Unzipped, is a literary version of a cabinet of curiosities (HarperCollins, 2008; napoleonsprivates.com). He is also the author of Pagan Holiday: On the Trail of Ancient Roman Tourists and The Naked Olympics: The True Story of the Ancient Games.
EmailTwitterFacebookDiggStumbleUponGoogle+
attachment-459
EmailTwitterFacebookDiggStumbleUponGoogle+

After watching three seasons of Damages straight through, I have become terrified of the wealthy. What started as a late-night, jet-lagged distraction turned into an obsession, as happens with the whole TV-on-DVD phenomenon. There’s always another episode right there, and you don’t have to really be anywhere for the next 44 minutes, so why not? After 36 episodes in two weeks, the message I took from this show about a ruthless attorney ruthlessly going after ruthless TV actor stand-ins for Kenneth Lay and Bernie Madoff is that people with money are ruthless, will do anything to protect their wealth, and think nothing of having someone in the middle class knocked off if need be.

   

  • Diana Mosley: Mitford Beauty, British Fascist, Hitler’s Angel by Anne de Courcy. 480 pages. Harper Perennial.
  • A Life of Contrasts by Diana Mitford Mosley. 296 pages. Times Books.

Of course the reason the show works is because we live in the age of Goldman Sachs domination. Glenn Beck’s followers could easily believe his insane conspiracy theory that George Soros secretly rules the world because it sure seems like he can afford to. My own fear of the rich goes back further, back to when I was working in nonprofit fundraising, a job I should never have held. Overhearing a few too many conversations about why the white woman who received a yacht as her 21st birthday present was donating money to fund family planning clinics in low income African-American communities made me fear that even when they’re being charitable, the wealthy are being evil. It’s a bogeyman-like construct I’ve been neglectful about shaking, and Damages has reawakened it in my mind.

The current financial shenanigans almost makes one nostalgic for the aristocracy. They were at least more up front with their disdain for the rabble, and they would never feign contrition in front of a Senate panel. Take Diana Mitford. Her biography, subtitled Mitford Beauty, British Fascist, Hitler’s Angel, shows a woman so bored with her estates, her elite societal contacts, her world travel that she became a fascist and befriended the “poor dear Hitler,” as she referred to him in letters to her sisters. She married Oswald Mosley, head of the British Union of Fascists, in Goebbels’ house, and encouraged the romance between Hitler and her sister Unity.

But even more remarkable than her biography is her 1977 memoir, A Life of Contrasts. While one’s older years are generally a time of wise reflection, Mitford stands her ground. When looking back at her involvement with Mosley’s politics, and her own frequent trips to Nazi Germany, she writes:

Forty-four years have since gone by; we have had our ups and downs and sorrows and joys and never have I regretted the step I took then. If I have a regret, it is that I could not have done more to help [Mosley] and further his aims, for there is no doubt in my mind that the disasters which have befallen our country and our continent need never have been.

If Diana Mitford had anyone killed, she kept quiet on the subject in her memoirs. But having tea with Hitler seems like the equivalent. On the subject of money and power itself, she’s fantastically mum. She addresses her wealth and assets as if they were perfectly normal, as if a post-prison trip to the Mediterranean would be familiar to all. That seems to me a saner sensibility than this ruthless need for more and more acquisition and domination. Her obliviousness — in contrast to greed — would make her a poor subject for the next season of Damages, starting up again in July. Watching the news, however, I doubt the show is hurting for a new villain. • 17 June 2011

Jessa Crispin is editor and founder of Bookslut.com. She currently resides in Chicago.
EmailTwitterFacebookDiggStumbleUponGoogle+
But did the people of India really wish to be photographed?
EmailTwitterFacebookDiggStumbleUponGoogle+

“Whatever person you decide to photograph,” Antonino Paraggi says in Italo Calvino’s 1955 short story, Adventures of a Photographer, “you must go on photographing it always, exclusively, at every hour of the day and night.” He adds, “Photography has a meaning only if it exhausts all possible images.” Antonino becomes an amateur photographer obsessed with documenting almost every moment of his life. When he begins to date the lovely Bice, this obsession becomes even more acute as he turns his lens upon her every move from surveillance shots along street corners to private moments waking up in bed.

   

For Calvino, Antonino reflects a kind of alienated figure whose tragedy rests in his increasing longing for more and more images, even as Bice leaves him and his friends abandon him. Slowly, he devolves into an isolated madness taking photographs of “everything that resists photography,” such as the corners of rooms, or radiator pipes, or even images in newspapers. Photographs of photographs, he thought, might just be the ultimate kind of photograph. He envies the news photographers and their constant attention at capturing every candid moment. And then he has an idea. Antonino accumulates all the image of Bice he took over the months they were together, and cuts them into pieces, spreading them out over the yellowed pages of newspapers that have piled up in his apartment, ignored by his obsessions. “Perhaps true, total photography,” he thinks, “is a pile of fragments of private images, against the creased background of massacres and coronations.” And with this thought, he turns on a spotlight, and photographs the piles of photographic fragments lying across the published headlines and news images. As Calvino concludes the story, “Antonino realized that photographing photographs was the only course he had left.”

There is of course something prescient in Calvino’s story about a man’s obsession for photographing. Can we today imagine any image-making as a symptom of some psychological disturbance? I have been intrigued by this story for years, and particularly by the way Antonino is so dependent on his camera to define his place in the world. He can, by the end, only think through the images he photographs. The question that pervades the story, and that never gets resolved: how do we know the world beyond our photographs?

This is a question that nagged at me as I wandered the New York Public Library’s recent exhibition, “Public Eye: 175 Years of Sharing Photography.” On the show’s opening day, the library’s marble lobby was filled with holiday decorations. Crowds of tourists hovered around the towering Christmas tree, taking photos of the friends and family posing near it. As I walked around the other side of the tree to get to the exhibition, another group was doing the same thing from a different angle. Navigating these photographic moments (because of course we are often navigating cameras these days either to hide or be seen), I found the exhibition entrance. Blocking the doorway was a man arching backwards, camera phone in hand, taking a photograph of himself in the huge mirror that was angled downward just above the entrance. On the floor, written backwards in black letters was the phrase: “I am in the public eye” with the tag #publiceyenypl underneath. When you looked up into the mirror, you could capture yourself, framed by the phrase, in a readymade selfie. I watched as more and more patrons stopped at the doorway, looked up, and took a photo. Later, when a docent brought through a group of patrons for a tour of the show, he reminded them to tweet the image if they would like. This was the first exhibition I have seen where you are asked to turn yourself into a photograph before you look at the photographs.

This entrance encourages you to take photographs throughout the show. At one point in my wanderings of the 500 images from the library’s vast archive, I was next to a young woman who held her camera phone in the air like some kind of sensor, photographing photographs and text panels that caught her eye without really spending time in front any one photograph. I wondered if she would look at the images later. Or, perhaps this was the only way she could experience this show, moving about and photographing in the silent and casual way our camera phones allow.


Left: Ethan Levitas (American, born 1971). “Frame 21,” from Photographs in 3 Acts. Dye coupler print, 2012. NYPL, The Miriam and Ira D. Wallach Division of Art, Prints and Photographs. © and reproduced courtesy of Ethan Levitas Projects. Right: Featured Instagram snapshots from the “Public Eye” exhibition. Screenshot from exhibition site on December 19, 2014.

Or perhaps this was just a way of managing a show that feels so overwhelming. “There is almost too much to see, isn’t there?” a patron behind me blurted out to her companion. It takes a lot of energy and concentration to look at 500 photographs in a short amount of time, clustered as they are in the spacious single room of this exhibition. I explained the show to a friend as like walking into the Instagram. Photographs surround you, including works from the early 19th century to more contemporary photographers and artists. The show’s three sections — Photo Sharing, Street View, and Crowd Sourcing — borrow from our contemporary language of image-making to reimagine the history of photography.

You encounter iconic work from the very beginning of the exhibition, starting with Eadweard Muybridge’s expansive panorama of San Francisco from 1878, constructed out of 13 singular images he took from one of the city’s highest hills and pieced together to form a image over 17 feet long. There are other less grand photographs here as well, such as two small prints by Eugène Atget, who documented a changing Paris in the late 19th century, and from his student and archivist, the American Berenice Abbott, who bought Atget’s collection when he died in the 1920s. She did her own documentation of a changing New York in the 1930s, capturing a collage-like cityscape of older architecture and neighborhoods set against art deco’s frenzy of new buildings and skyscrapers. There are a number of photographs illuminating the Farm Security Administration photography project of the Depression era that documented the experiences of dislocation and poverty. Walker Evan’s Alabama sharecroppers and Dorothea Lange’s Oklahoma migrants reflect each photographer’s effort to turn poverty into image, suffering into something to witness.

What you notice in the historical movements of this show is how much the act of photographing has turned from public vision to private realities. Early works here rest often on travels. The 19th century French archeologist Désiré Charnay photographed ancient ruins in Mexico and the Yucatan. Maxime du Champ’s stark images of ruined temples and building facades from his many trips to Egypt, Palestine and Syria, shimmer in their distance and realism. Near these images sit American photographer Carleton Watkin’s expansive views of Yosemite in the 1860s. And just a few photographs from these we encounter two iconic 20th century images of Bernd and Hilla Becher’s German industrial silos from 1968, looking stoic and solemn. It is unclear how the Becher’s industrial countryside fit into the street views. This confusion underscores the shows frenetic movement across geographies and time periods. While the organization is clearly a walk through time with each section of the show, there is an unacknowledged history of interests and intents by the photographers here — an intent that defines what and how we are asked to see the world they present us.

Consider one of the first works in the Crowd Sourcing section: John Forbes Watson and John William Kaye’s book People of India. The book presents over 400 images of India. The particular page we look at is of three “low cast Hindoos” standing against a stone wall, holding roughly hewn sticks, and gazing into the camera looking uncomfortably confused. Watson and Kaye began this project in 1868, ten years after British rule was established in India. The photographs, the exhibition text tells us, were “taken by a dozen different photographers most of whom were government and military officials.” What are we to make of this historical fact? How much did these men wish to be photographed, I wondered? The history of photographs, this show suggests, is simply an archive of images. But we know that this history is also one of perspective. A photograph not only shows us what is in front of the camera but can also tell us something about the person behind it.

The show is best when it reminds us of how photography evolved into physical objects for a mass audience. The carte de visite, for example, turned the paper image into an exchangeable object, a calling card of the 1860s and 1870s. Many of the more fashionable New Yorkers and Parisians had portraits of themselves made in a studio, posture and dress conveying their status or importance, and ordered them in bulk to pass out to friends. There is also a display of stereograph cards, those twin imaged postcards that, when looked at through a stereoscope, blended the two images to create a 3D effect. A glass display wall of nearly 100 of such cards illuminates the range of subjects of this popular middle-class hobby from domestic scenes to travel. Often publishers would print them in series. On the back of one card displaying a colorized view of the 1904 St. Louis World’s Fair, the advertisement reads: “around the world without leaving your home — just like being there” and lists the series including Japan to Russia and different parts of the US. The photographic stereographs turned the lure and sensation of travel into a photographic experience. But they also brought the experience of travel into your living room, one image at a time.

Contemporary works in this show focus on how the camera turns your private space into public spectacle. Mary Alpern’s “No. 9” 1994 from her “Dirty Windows” series captures the shadowing figures of sex workers and clients in a after-hours club near Wall Street. Alpern used the view from a friend’s window into the club to create this series. Arne Stevenson “Neighbors” series also plays with the Rear Window theme, pointing his camera into the large windows of his neighbor’s apartments near his Tribeca studio. Never capturing the face of these people, Stevenson gives us only the backs or blurring outlines of the individuals caught in the windows. And Ethan Levitas’ large format color prints are captured by elevating his camera in front of active surveillance camera’s, interrupting the flow of film footage in that split second, and capturing a view that feels both commanding and voyeuristic at the same time. This transformation of the private into the public through photographic practices is a compelling element in this show. But, as the images of 19th century India make clear, surveillance of private lives through photography has a long history. Being in the public eye has not always been a choice. And even the contemporary works raise questions about what the photograph allows us to see or understanding.

One of the last works I encountered in this show was by the German artist Joachim Schmid, who has been working with found photographs for decades. In The Showbag Book, Schmid pieces together discarded photographs he finds in public places around Berlin to create fascinating fragments of what he terms photograph works. In the 1990s Schmid started the Institute for the Reprocessing of Used Photographs, claiming that there were billions of used photographs “improperly stored in homes and business” and offering a place to properly dispose of such photography. “Few people in the world have looked at more photographs” than he has, he said in an interview a few years ago. Schmid’s art simmers with a critique of consumer excess. In his recycled and found photographs, private image turn into public spectacles without context or background. They are images without history. His photo works attest to photography’s diminishing power to arrest the world, to know something from any one photograph. He once claimed that he looked at 10,000 photographs in one day alone. I can’t image what he might have felt like at the end of that day.

The surfeit of images in this show is perhaps purposeful. Amidst the many photographs, the differing motives and intents of the photographers, the varied genres and places and time periods, we are left much like Antonino, surrounded by fragments of private and public realities, and filled with a yearning to take more photographs. • 5 January 2015

James Polchin teaches writing at NYU and is the founder and editor of the site Writing in Public.
EmailTwitterFacebookDiggStumbleUponGoogle+