Tamale pistol

Arriving from the North, the airplane reached Valle de la Ermita, the vast valley that nestles Guatemala City. Looking out the window, I marveled at four volcanoes that guarded the valley’s southwest. The conical colossi stood calm, mythical. Furthest west stood Acatenango, whose peak, though it belonged to la tierra, cohabited with el cielo as it surpassed an elevation of 13,000 feet. Next to Acatenango was Fuego, an active volcano whose typical eruptions only decorate the sky with a small ash plume, but whose eruption in June 2018 reminds us of the mysterious power of volcanoes. Then came Agua, earning this name after its 1541 eruption caused a great flood, though its older name Hunapú, “place of flowers,” continues to be used by the local Kaqchikel Mayans. Closest to the valley was Pacaya, the shortest and most active of the four volcanoes. After a century-long sleep, Pacaya erupted in 1965, during the early years of Guatemala’s armed conflict, as if to protest the war’s course. Although the war is now over, Pacaya has yet to return to dormancy.
More… “Tamales and Pistolas”

Coming out

I remember how my heart broke. I remember how I felt the air leave my chest, with no sign of ever returning. This feeling, an almost indescribable feeling, stuck around for almost a year.

The beginning of my sophomore year of high school, rumors began to spread. I was officially labeled the “gay” girl at school, and there was no going back. But truth be told, I didn’t even know if I was gay. Sure, I liked a girl, but that doesn’t really mean anything. I was still trying to figure myself out, trying to decide who I was. I could deal with the rumors at school, but then they hit home — they spread so far through the grapevine that they reached my uber-religious parents. More… “Remembering”

Cactus Rose

Several great or powerful American films have yielded signature lines of dialogue to remember them by: “Frankly, my dear, I don’t give a damn;” “We’ll always have Paris;” “I coulda been a contender;” “Go ahead, make my day.” Of all John Ford Westerns, several of them truly great, only one of them produced a signature line: John Ford’s  The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, remembered for “When the legend becomes fact, print the legend.” This line is remembered superficially, and most viewers don’t perceive the raw emotions and brutal reality that the statement embraces. And it has meanings and contradictions that resonate today, perhaps the most interesting of which have to do with contemporary notions of masculinity. More… “What Hallie Knew”

combos

I wouldn’t think I’d feel discounted by others over what I eat, though I’d expect it of what I read. Just the other day, I responded — aptly, I thought — to my wife’s charge of only wanting to read great art and not Gone Girl or Stephen King, no matter how popular, by pointing out her insistence at never wanting to consume a sandwich made by the Subway Fast Food Restaurant Company. On occasion, stranded in the city, I will partake of a foot-long tuna (not toasted) while she refuses to ingest the admittedly icky bread and plastic-tasting tomatoes and sweet peppers. Now what could ever be the difference here? One goes into the mind and the other the body, but they both touch spirit, which holds dominion over all organs. More… “On Eating Combos”

project mayhem

For some of us, Fight Club is like a dirty bomb going off in the culture. I walk out of David Fincher’s iconic film sometime in the summer of 1999 feeling like I’ve just been touched by mad genius. The film is a hot, filthy, stylish channeling of rage against consumer culture and manufactured masculinity and the failing aspirations of an entire civilization. I love it. All of my male friends love it. We can’t stop talking about the one thing you’re not supposed to talk about.

Six months later, November 30, 1999, thousands of protesters are streaming into Seattle — most of them from student groups, labor organizations, and NGOs — all there to stop a big meeting of the World Trade Organization. Some of these protesters seize control of key intersections by chaining their arms together into “lockdown” formations. Others use newspaper boxes to form barricades. They stage marches and street parties designed to block traffic and prevent the WTO delegates from reaching the convention center. I am watching news footage of someone throwing what looks like a toaster oven out of the smashed window of a Starbucks, and I have an uncanny feeling of recognition. More… “The Project Mayhem Age”

Voices of Istanbul

Can you recognize Istanbul with your eyes closed? The ezan, the call for prayer, is particularly dramatic when you are awake early in the morning and the background noise of the city is at a low ebb. At times like these, the muezzin and his recorded song dominate the acoustic landscape. Soon the seagulls chime in. They make you realize how close the Bosphorus is — hardly more than a quarter of a mile away. Why do the gulls start up their awful screeching so early on summer mornings, and why do they settle down later on? Are they motivated by mysterious air currents, changes in temperature, or just competition with their fellow birds? More… “Voices of Istanbul”

When people ask me “Who is one of the best cartoonists working today?”, I always answer “Eleanor Davis.”

OK, nobody ever asks me that question. But if they did, that would be my answer all the same. At the risk of sounding like some back-cover, hyperbole-ridden hack, the intelligence, emotion, and pure, awe-inducing skill she continually exhibits in her comics make her one of the most significant creators to come out of the indie comics scene in the past 15 years. More… “Why Eleanor Davis?”

green space in city

Welcome to Anywhere, America. The houses are identical, two-story buildings covered in clapboard and pinched in by two swathes of tightly mown lawn. The streets are wide and well-maintained. The sidewalks are after-thoughts, stopping and starting at seemingly random intervals. It doesn’t matter where they go or how wide they are because their use is intrinsically marginal. Suburbs were not designed with the pedestrian in mind.

Despite their seeming ubiquity, suburbs are an experiment, just one answer to the question of how to house and organize humanity. It’s easy to forget how quickly we’ve come to this stage. Three centuries ago, the most common profession by far was sustenance farming. Most people were illiterate village dwellers. Today, more than half of the world’s population lives in cities while more than 90% of the world’s young adults are literate. In the past 200 years the global population has septupled. More… “Urbanism in Three Books and Three Cities”

Philadelphia: Finding the Hidden City is a ground-breaking look at American cities in many ways. It takes a deep and richly textured view into places that make up what we call cities and stretches the boundaries of that understanding beyond the often one-dimensional historical, economic, sociological, or political interpretations that try to explain urban environments. The authors do this by re-imagining, recreating, and retelling Philadelphia as a complicated story from the industrial past to the post-industrial present. They view the city through “layers” of the past that both speak to a bygone era, but also the possibilities for the future, seeing Philadelphia in a very nuanced way that challenges all of us to think differently of cities in the American context. On January 19, 2018, I had a chance to sit down with one of the authors, Nathaniel Popkin, to talk about the book and the broader attempt to interpret cities in the 21st century. It was a pleasure to take time to talk about their creative intellectual endeavor. The interview has been edited for length and clarity.

More… Philadelphia: Finding the Hidden City

members of Blue Cheer

Not all moments of musical awakening have to do with sublimity. The early days of 1968 found rock and pop music waking up with a kind of hangover from all of the psychedelic happenings of the year before, when seemingly everyone — even the badass Rolling Stones — went the shimmering kaleidoscopic route.

Something was due to jar everyone back to having their feet on the ground and their ears pressed against it for the movement that would play a role in defining the new year. Enter, then, Blue Cheer and its debut Vincebus Eruptum, the first heavy metal album in history. More… “Blue Cheer”