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I know that everyone in this room, Bernie Fain included, thinks I’m some kind of a nut with my so-called fixation on this vampire thing. OK, maybe I’m wrong. Maybe he only thinks he is. But there are things here that can’t be explained away by so-called common sense. Not even Bernie’s report can explain some of them.

— From Jeff Rice’s The Kolchak Papers (1970)

A dirty, rumpled seersucker suit. A worn-out blue shirt and knit blue tie that’s always askew. Scuffed white sneakers and a straw pork-pie hat worn tilted far back on the head. This is the uniform of Carol “Carl” Kolchak, an all-American ghost-breaker from the 1970s. On January 11, 1972, millions of TV viewers tuned into the ABC Movie of the Week.  On offer was an original film directed by John Llewellyn Moxey, a British journeyman whose major claim to fame was the 1960 horror film, The City of the Dead (aka Horror Hotel). The made-for-TV movie, called The Night Stalker, was a throwback of sorts but turned out to be refreshing in its newness.

The Night Stalker features veteran Hollywood actor Darrin McGavin as Kolchak, a smart-aleck reporter in Las Vegas who stumbles upon the murder case of the century. Kolchak, and only Kolchak realizes that the exsanguination murders of several Las Vegas women are the work of a mysterious transient named Janos Skorzeny (played by Barry Atwater). Skorzeny is no normal serial killer; according to Scotland Yard, the FBI, and Interpol, he was born at the turn of the 20th century in Transylvania. Although legally a 70-something geezer, Skorzeny is impervious to LVPD bullets and has the strength of several men. Given his vigor, and given his love for drinking blood and avoiding the sunlight, Kolchak pieces together the fact that Janos Skorzeny is a real vampire.

Thanks to an excellent script by horror fiction legend Richard Matheson, and thanks to McGavin’s portrayal of the lovable loser Kolchak, The Night Stalker earned an unprecedented 54 share in ratings. This means that 54-percent of all Americans households had ABC on during the original airing. The popularity of The Night Stalker led to a sequel, 1973’s The Night Strangler. Here, in another made-for-TV movie, Kolchak, after being booted from Las Vegas for trying to tell the truth, finds himself in rainy Seattle just when that city is plagued by a supernatural serial killer. The Night Strangler followed the formula of The Night Stalker, with McGavin reprising his role and Matheson penning the script. The one major difference was in the director’s chair. The competent Moxey was replaced by Dan Curtis. More… The Night Stalker Blues”

One of the most popular internet memes of 2019 is “cats meowing into microphones,” according to the online encyclopedia Know Your Meme, and it’s one of my favorites of the year. The trend refers to videos of pet owners shoving microphones in their cats’ faces, but you never see the people, let alone the grips of their hands. As the pets grow aggravated over these invasions of their privacy, their shrill meows and tense nose-breathing get amplified somewhere off-screen, baked in artificial reverb. The humor lies in how loudly their frustrated reactions emit from their tiny heads, or at least this is why I’ve chuckled over the videos. It’s the latest installment in the internet’s perennial obsession with felines, who were the subject matter of the first ever popular online meme (see 2007 I Can Has Cheezburger? phenomenon).

Over the past few months, this year’s meme has naturally overtaken the most popular results for “cat” and “microphone.” But when I recently Googled those search terms so I could track down the videos, I was instead directed to a more grotesque-seeming object, a furry muffler that goes around microphones to cancel out the sound of wind: it’s called a “dead cat windscreen.” One blog post on an audio gear site I found offers a guide to “dead cats,” shortening the phrase under the presumption that all gearheads have some familiarity with the device, and that there must not be any other “dead cats” out there to confuse with the windscreen. This thought is misguided, though the blog post’s title asks a question much more profound than intended: What are dead cats? More… “On the Line”

Notional manifestations of working-class identity become evident through the recurrent appearance of diners in Cormac McCarthy’s largest and most personal novel, Suttree. Sometimes they are called lunch counters, or cafeterias, or drugstores, but the appellation is not what matters. What is essential is the subsistence repast and how McCarthy conjures these places as surrogate homes for the novel’s peripatetic protagonist, Cornelius Suttree, and his cohorts. Set directly in the middle of the twentieth century, the diners of Suttree evoke suitability, affordability, and community.

After it inherited an American twist on Ernest Hemingway’s clean well-lighted place and was put to canvas by Edward Hopper, and before it became an abiding symbol of nostalgia or of efficiency or of convenience, before its instantiation in visual narratives from Grease to Happy Days, or Diner to Five Easy Pieces, or from the films of Quentin Tarantino and Martin Scorsese to the television series Seinfeld, The Sopranos, and Mad Men, the diner existed alongside the pool hall, the laundromat, the barroom, and the motel as one of the defining pillars of mid-century working-class iconography. These places offer shelter, sustenance, sanctuary, and shared humanity. More… “Dine and Dash”

Sometimes, when I tell someone of my interest in Kubrick, they will briefly brighten and then suddenly grow dour before asking, “What did you think of Eyes Wide Shut?” It is not for nothing. This film was and still is reviled by many in the public and the critical establishment. Is it Tom Cruise? Is it the couple’s lavish life? Is it the nature of Dr. Bill’s odyssey into the manors of the superrich, where women are still treated like chattel? It can’t be Nicole Kidman or her character, Alice Harford, who stonily confesses an ulterior life of desire, can it? Its threats are multiple, with the fabric of the Western privileged life taken to task. Since the wife doesn’t have to work to keep them financially afloat, these are people who can afford to cheat on each other, who can afford to let their dreams almost destroy the life they have. At root, the film demonstrates how the moneyed life of doctors, of stars, of people living on Central Park West — that the poor and middle classes look up to and seek to be — is largely a sham of shallowness. Given this, it’s easy to see why so many people dislike the film, and beyond that, why men and women have a bone to pick. More… “Unappeasable and Peregrine”

When I met Tom Haines for coffee on a chilly January afternoon, he had snagged an ideal spot near the cafe’s small fireplace. The journalism professor at the University of New Hampshire, and long-time staff writer for newspapers like the Seattle Times and Boston Globe, was still reeling from the release of his new book Walking to the Sun, a deeply researched and personal account of his hikes across America’s key energy landscapes. Following more than a decade of overseas reporting, in 40 countries across five continents, Haines trained his wandering gaze back home, walking beside oil rigs in South Dakota, solar fields in the Mojave Desert, and sunken turbines off the coast of Maine. The idea occurred to him while overseeing the installation of a new home gas furnace, an experience that revealed how little he knew about the pipes that traveled up from his basement and plugged into to the broader energy apparatus that kept his family warm, their devices charged, cars running. Within minutes of joining Haines beside the fire, he made the same connection to our tiny gas-powered hearth. Walking aims to close a crucial gap that still plagues the environmental movement — that even as concerns about global warming take greater precedence, we too often overlook the demand curve of our own energy consumption. Our conversation has been edited for clarity and brevity.

MK: Can you talk a bit about what drew you to this subject, apart from that fateful day in your basement?

TH: I think a big part was my experience over the past 15 years, reporting on the ground in different parts of the world, and most significantly, in developing regions like Africa or Asia. There, I would basically be outside the industrial infrastructure in which we live. For example, I spent a week in a little village in Ethiopia writing about drought. I met farmers who worked the land, burned charcoal fires, walked for their water. Then, I would get in a steel tube and fly through Frankfurt and come back to Boston and drive home up I-95. I think all the shuttling back and forth between those two worlds primed me for exploring this subject without even knowing it.

I had already been thinking about our relationship with nature as a species, and the extent to which our industrial world is out of scale with the planet. As the climate debate continued to mount, energy became an appealing beat to stake out as a journalist, and was one that also helped me personally address a sense of helplessness or inability to even comprehend the problem.

MK: What about this immersive, on-the-ground approach did you find so empowering?

TH: I’ve always been drawn to reporting about place. I like to go where things are happening, so when I came to energy, and saw the millions of important stories about the latest science or economic findings, I knew I wanted to explore the place of it. My ancestors on my mom’s side of the family actually came from Welsh coal country to the anthracite coal fields of Pennsylvania. So at the beginning when I was thinking about going to the source, I thought about going there to start. I kayaked down the Lehigh River and went to these old coal towns where my family was from. I never wrote a word about it, but it confirmed that there was a cool story to tell about place in terms of energy, and it confirmed that I have to write the story of now versus then.

Eventually, I took inspiration in journalistic books that followed a similarly granular, going-to-the-source approach. The Places In Between, by Rory Stewart, in which he walked across Afghanistan during the war. Ted Conover did a book called Coyotes in which he traveled with migrants as a way to write about immigration. Peter Hessler did a trilogy out of China called Country Driving and the narrative thread comprises his road trips through the country. Those were examples of a way of moving through place and talking about a bigger issue, instead of it being like a travelogue.

I also think I was working in the spirit of writers like Rachel Carson, books like Silent Spring that take a close look at the natural world as a way to understand ourselves and sound an alarm about the impact of human behavior. When I made my first camp in coal country, I wrote about the voles and the meadowlarks, the beautiful grasslands. I wanted to put the reader there, because it was so powerful to see that it’s still a natural place. Part of the problem is that we too often think of these places as just resources of fuel, something like Hunger Games District 12, the place where we get our coal. I thought there was a lesson in engaging more deeply with place.

The experience was often overwhelming, but also completely empowering — to reclaim that more original relationship with nature. It was exciting to be on the ground, exposed and vulnerable, feeling alive, sleeping in a tent on a prairie and thinking about myself as an animal.

MK: Along the way, you visit parts of the country that have long viewed land as primarily an economic resource. Are concerns about global warming compatible with this worldview?

TH: It really depended on where you were, and I saw a bit of everything. New York has a long history of natural gas drilling by conventional methods. But the rise of fracking sparked a debate between neighbors about whether it would help or ruin the place. It was interesting to observe how, as a species, we’re all over the map, trying to figure out how to move forward. Maybe it was because I was walking, and sort of vulnerable and isolated, but I never found myself in politically charged situations or moments where someone would say “You East Coast liberal! No wonder you’re out here!”

It was hopeful to find that the extent to which people defended the status quo of fossil fuels was because it was the thing that enabled them to make it all work financially. A great example is Texas, where I lived for seven years. Although it is a fossil fuel state, dominated by oil and gas, it’s also now the biggest developer of wind energy due to local economic incentives. At peak times, wind now powers up to 48 percent of the Texas grid. As a cultural thing, it feels like if it could happen there, it could happen anywhere.

MK: What were some changes that surprised you over the five years of writing the book?

TH: One thing was the high level of journalism being produced, the way major news organizations have built out climate teams and put these stories front and center without holding any punches. If there is a social revolution that has to occur, that’s really heartening. But of course the bigger shift has been in the political realm. Back when I was walking through the Powder River Basin, which supplies about 40% of the country’s coal, President Obama’s Secretary of the Interior had instituted a moratorium on all federal coal from that area, a small step in finally putting our land policies in accordance with our climate policies. One of the first acts of Trump’s presidency was to roll that back. So as part of what I was learning through the book project gave more reason for hope, the political landscape was getting less hopeful.

I don’t know how history will remember this bizarro time. It was 2019 and the current administration was doing lease auctions for drilling across the American West faster than companies could bid. They’ve opened up so much land, the industry can’t take it all. But this is also a point at which to hold progressives to account. In reality, that mindset is what makes our lives so comfortable. If they weren’t out there doing this dirty work, we’d have to pay more, and sacrifice conveniences we take for granted. It’s so intertwined.

Ten years ago, if someone had asked me if it would be beautiful to look out over the plains and see 500 wind towers as far as the eye could see, I would say no way. It would almost seem like a kind of failure, or a blight. But now, feeling the way I do about the urgency of the problem, we’re in the land of compromise. There’s no perfect solution anymore. So I look out there, and I think it’s at least a more honest representation. You can literally see how much we need to power ourselves.

MK: Do you feel like the broader culture is getting more or less insulated?

TH: In some ways, I think both. My kids are teenagers in high school, and I think they are more insulated literally, through phones and the creature comforts of industrial life. Cars are bigger and have heated seats. Everything is just more and more dialed in. But their generation is being educated about the situation, so in some ways they have more of an awareness of the vulnerability of that insulation. I think for previous generations, the insulation was not yet as strong but it was somehow more effective, because we either weren’t aware of the damage or costs, or at least there wasn’t a discussion of it.

In the book, I wanted to be fair to myself about the fact that we’re all the cause of this problem. It’s like the guys I met in the Bakken oil fields, who were replacing the casing of an oil well, talking about how that fuel is in our shoes and powers our airplanes. That is how deep we are. The incident with my basement furnace wasn’t just a device. There I was, an environmentalist, or a naturalist, and I was literally writing a check to connect more deeply into the system. Is it reasonable that I could live without any kind of fossil fuels? No, you can’t, because you live in this industrialized world, but we’re being told collectively that’s what we’ve got to stop doing.

MK: Now that you’ve returned to the modern world, do you have any recommendations on how folks can work towards that renewed compact with nature?

TH: Something anyone can do, which I found powerful for this book and might sound cheesy, is go for a walk. Get outside and feel our connection to the place, because I think that instills a kind of obligation, or responsibility. If we just tune out and live in our insulated worlds, we cede any responsibility we have as animals on the planet, which is what we are.

For someone who is already engaged, keep reading both the good and bad news stories. Learn more about both problems and solutions. Part of the reason my book dealt with industrial scale efforts as opposed to rooftop solar on someone’s house, which is also important, is that to my mind the only real hope is to achieve some kind of systemic change. We as a society have to prioritize that change, and that only happens if enough people know about it and care about it and do something about it. We can’t allow ourselves to become numb or overwhelmed.

Images illustrated by Barbara Chernyavsky.

Last year, legislators in Florida passed a historic though seemingly banal bill, mandating what many might assume is already the status quo: that counties in the state uniformly collect data related to criminal justice and share it with the public. Reformers across the United States, including the nonprofit Measures for Justice, which helped draft the legislation, rejoiced in its passage. Although collecting and sharing data related to the criminal justice system might seem commonsensical, it’s far from standard. The 3,142 counties which handle most criminal justice matters in the United States each do so in their own independent way. Not only does this mean that it’s nearly impossible to understand what’s happening on a macro level, but it’s exceedingly difficult to understand where and how the system is failing. For reformers, this means that the causes or consequences of systemic issues, like racism or classism, are unnecessarily obscured, preventing effective interventions. It also means that, whether intentionally or not, the reality of the criminal justice system is kept from the public. Measures for Justice hopes policies like the one passed in Florida will dispel the fog around the criminal justice system. Standardized data collection will make accurately analyzing and comparatively studying different municipalities possible, revealing both best practices and shortcomings. Publicizing the same information will not only better inform reformers but empower the public too. Justice will be blind no more. I recently spoke with Amy Bach, executive director of Measures for Justice, about the current state of the US criminal justice system, how her organization hopes to change it, and why that work is necessary. Our conversation has been lightly edited for clarity and brevity.

More… “Greater Justice through Statistics”

Hey. Remember that stationary store in your hometown? The one located at the top of the hill on the main drag? It had been around for three generations. You used to go there with your dad on Sunday mornings to pick up the newspapers. If he was in a generous mood he’d get you some gum or a candy bar. Maybe even a comic book. Try to remember the shape of the store. Where was the cash register? What weird things were on sale in the back? No matter, it’s all gone now. Been out of business for years, replaced by chain stores and the internet. Nobody wants mom and pop stationary stores anymore.

That melancholic tone, reminiscing through hazy, unreliable memories about objects and places that have vanished or are swiftly leaving the public consciousness is a central motif in the work of the Canadian cartoonist known as Seth (real name Gregory Gallant), and one that is central in his latest book, Clyde Fans by Seth. More… “Making Change”

Venice grew to power in the divide between East and West. This unique circumstance overwhelmingly conditioned her art. At first, she was drawn naturally towards the East, as the stronger culture. But then, with the decline and eclipse of Byzantium, Venice acquired extensive mainland territory towards the West. For a thousand years, the city kept her independence under an unbroken line of doges, only to be upended by Napoleon who nicknamed the Piazzo St Marco “the grandest drawing room in Europe.”

Whether you arrive by train, bus or boat you’re bound to be transfixed by the sudden cinematic entry into a foregone world. No cars, just boats, water, and imposingly impossible beautiful buildings. All worldly concerns disappear as you are invited to take part in this historical stage, and it is always with a wistful heart that I depart. More… “Passageways”

 

2013

My first drunk New Year’s brazenly betrayed my parents’ trust.

“No drinking,” my mother emphatically reminded me over the phone. I struggled to hear her above the revelrous noise of her friends in the background, beckoning her outside to the makeshift shooting range in their backyard.

“I know, I know,” I chided back, my voice sharp with an edge that read, “I’m an honors student with a laundry list of extracurriculars and big dreams. You know I wouldn’t do that.”

I clenched our cordless house phone between my chin and shoulder while my best friend and I soundlessly debated which bottles we could skim off in concocting our celebratory jello shots. We ended up with a piss-colored measuring cup comprised of various whiskeys, liqueurs, cheap diamond-clear vodka, and old brandy. We poured it into the red powder and stuck our final product in the fridge, eager to enjoy. More… “The Wasted Years”

I park my scooter and enter the office of the collective taxi station at Pointe Simon. The smiling black receptionist with the straight hairdo and metropolitan French accent tells me, politely but insistently, that she prefers I actually meet with one of the social workers before being issued the application form. She gives me a number, and I take a seat — among the host of black single mothers.

Interminably, I wait for my number to come up on the screen above. At first, I calculate that I can safely absent myself for 30 minutes, given the delay between numbers called and my own 124.  But the numbers seem to jump erratically — in no time at all, 125 flashes across the screen. There is nothing to do but eavesdrop on the two women speaking Creole behind me. They are in agreement about the bad behavior of some nine-year-old kid — “he’s almost ten already, he should know better.” Complaining — be it in the tongue of Molière or the abbreviations of Creole – is de rigueur in the Antilles.

Thus, have I entered one of the sacrosanct institutions of the French overseas departments: the Caisse d’Allocations Familiales, familiarly known as the CAF, part of the ubiquitous welfare system of la République. Just for having children, the French state gives you money. My children are French; we are entitled to apply. But even to pick up an application form, you need to wait 45 minutes.

Never mind that I am not French. In the overseas departments, unlike in metropolitan France, the man is automatically, officially, the head of the family. Even though it is my wife who is French (and Martinican), and it is she whose bank account will be fattened by the child payments, I, the man, must apply as head of household.  “Oh, there are many differences with France,” the social worker explains to me. “It is 7,000 kilometers away.” More… “American Welfare Dad in the French Antilles”