Saturday, October 31, 2009

Emotional Radioactivity

From Stef Russell's thoughtful post about Gordon Matta-Clark and Pruitt-Igoe, which includes a link to a fascinating Flickr collection of photos of the site:

Driving down Cass, it would be easy to conclude that the site is nothing more than a wily clutch of trash trees hemmed in by bent-up chain-link fencing, but these images tell a different story—the site has been left to itself so long it is now revegetating with plants and animals that might have been here long before the site was developed in the first place. In a way, it reminds me of what has happened to the exclusion zone around Chernobyl, but the radioactivity is emotional.

Friday, October 30, 2009

Language Death

I usually disagree with John McWhorter's politics, but I did enjoy this piece (in World Affairs, where a friend of mine is the managing editor) in which McWhorter argues that maybe it's not such a catastrophe if the world's languages decline in number from 6,000 to 600, or even to one.

From his conclusion:

At the end of the day, language death is, ironically, a symptom of people coming together. Globalization means hitherto isolated peoples migrating and sharing space. For them to do so and still maintain distinct languages across generations happens only amidst unusually tenacious self-isolation—such as that of the Amish—or brutal segregation. (Jews did not speak Yiddish in order to revel in their diversity but because they lived in an apartheid society.) Crucially, it is black Americans, the Americans whose English is most distinct from that of the mainstream, who are the ones most likely to live separately from whites geographically and spiritually.

The alternative, it would seem, is indigenous groups left to live in isolation—complete with the maltreatment of women and lack of access to modern medicine and technology typical of such societies. Few could countenance this as morally justified, and attempts to find some happy medium in such cases are frustrated by the simple fact that such peoples, upon exposure to the West, tend to seek membership in it.

What McWhorter doesn't talk about, though, is the fact that language death is also, historically, associated with conquest and exploitation. As nations dominated indigenous peoples in the lands they colonized, they also sought to wipe out the languages of those peoples. In Ireland, for instance. Or the United States.

Did the Native Americans and the Irish tend to seek membership in the cultures that took over their lands? Was such membership allowed or encouraged? Did the arrival of the British and the Europeans bring the wonders of modern medicine and technology and enlightened gender relations? Are things really so much better today?

Wednesday, October 28, 2009

Ettlinger's Photos

I enjoyed this Millions piece about Marion Ettlinger's photographs of writers. Edan Lepucki gets the general feel of these photos right:

Her photos are black and white, with an antiquated vibe, as if we’d only recently progressed beyond Daguerreotypes. Her subjects look distinguished, serious, old fashioned.

It's a look that works well for Cormac McCarthy, Raymond Carver, or Alice Munro. But it's all wrong for George Saunders, Sherman Alexie, and Jhumpa Lahiri. It doesn't at all match the feel of their writing.

I guess my problem with Ettlinger, then, is that her style is her style. She remakes the writer in her image, instead of using photography to bring out the essence of the writer and the writer's work.

Tuesday, October 27, 2009

Frazier's Fanshawe

Having recently read Ian Frazier's collection Lamentations of the Father, I was primed to enjoy this new humor piece, entitled "Fanshawe." It's pretty funny, though it'd be hard to match the hilarity of "Lamentations."

Monday, October 26, 2009

West on Obama

From David Remnick's interesting Talk of the Town piece about Cornel West:

West campaigned for Obama in Iowa, South Carolina, Illinois, and Ohio, but he was dismayed by his speech on race in Philadelphia. West thought the speech was politically “masterful,” but “intellectually, it was pretty thin.” He kept his thoughts to himself, but he was especially annoyed that Obama had said that the Reverend Wright was full of rage, because he was somehow stuck in time, still wrestling with Jim Crow, and that he equated black anger with white resentment. “Have you seen the young brothers and sisters in prison, on the block?” West said. “I don’t mind being an angry black man in terms of having righteous indignation at injustice, given the situation right now in the country. But as a candidate he had to distance himself. . . . There have been excesses of affirmative action and so forth and so on, but Jim Crow de facto is still in place. . . . Who are the major victims of that? The poor—disproportionately black and brown and red. You got to tell the truth, Barack. Don’t trot out this shit with this coded stuff!” And yet, West said, “I intentionally remained relatively silent. It was a very delicate moment.”

Now, a year after the election, West has kept to his promise: he is a Socratic supporter. “I don’t want to downplay the progress, though, because Obama is a black man. It’s just that: first, you’ve got the parents. It’s more Johnny Mathis than Curtis Mayfield, or more Lena Horne than Sarah Vaughan, in terms of phenotype. And, second, you’ve got someone who really is a master at easing the fears and anxieties of white brothers and sisters. That’s part of the basis of his success. And I don’t put that down. We need different kinds of people in the world.”

So far, West finds himself infinitely more impressed by Obama’s mastery of “spectacle” than by his attention to the poor. “In terms of the impact on young people, I think it’s a beautiful thing,” he said of Obama’s election. “But, in the end, even spectacle has to deal with the darkness. That’s where the bluesman comes in. Guy Lombardo can be nice on a certain night, but you’re going to need Duke Ellington and Count Basie.”

Sunday, October 25, 2009

Adventures at QT (2)

On the way home from grocery shopping with the girls, we stopped at QT. As we pulled in, I saw an older guy walking to the door. He was a pretty rough-looking character with a bushy white beard.

"Hey girls, look at this guy's beard," I said.

Lisa shushed me, fearing he could hear.

"It's Santa Claus," she said, laughing, as the door closed behind him.

Inside, I walked back to the soda fountain. One of the workers was re-filling the 32-oz. plastic cups.

"How many of those do you guys go through in a day?" I asked.

"A lot," he said. "Mostly 32-ounce ones."

"I get one every day," I said. "I gotta cut back."

"Me, too," he said. "I get one every time I'm here and every time I work."

Santa Claus was back there, too, filling up a huge 7-Eleven cup with Pepsi. As the worker walked away and I started filling a couple 32-oz. cups with ice, he came up to me with a confidential air.

"I'm gonna show you something, just because," he said. He pointed to the price listing above the soda fountain. "Look—99 cents for a 32-oz. soda. But refills up to 100 ounces are only $1.09."

"That's a lot of soda," I said.

"Yeah, but what I do is get 100 ounces then take it home and put it in bottles. It lasts me three days."

"It stays fresh all that time?"

"Oh yeah."


"What are you laughing about?" Lisa asked as I settled into my seat a few minutes later.

"I was just talking to Santa Claus," I said.

The Fire Down Under

This New Yorker article (subscription required) about the Black Saturday wildfires in Australia, which occurred on February 7 of this year, was amazing.

A couple particularly intense passages:

[Ackerman] rushed back north to Marysville against a stream of traffic coming the other way. By the time he was a few miles from Marysville, he could see a colossal firewall coming toward him from the southwest. It was three hundred feet high. He raced it all the way back to the town, driving on the wrong side of the road to get through blocked intersections and dodging cars that sped toward him in their effort to flee. The fire behind Ackerman emitted a roar like a jet engine and threw embers and fireballs out ahead of him. Huge patches of trees and grass ignited around the car as he drove....

Strange cataclysmic phenomena occur in a huge wildfire. Kevin Tollhurst, a fire ecologist in Melbourne, told me that fires as hot as the one at Marysville—which is thought to have reached a temperature of twenty-two hundred degrees—can produce their own weather. Fires generate convection columns of gas, which may rise as much as forty thousand feet and form pyrocumulus clouds. The clouds can create lightning, which may then start more fires downwind of the original fire. The sound of the gas—like a twig popping in a fireplace, but exponentially louder—creates a wildfire's distinctive roar. The Marysville fire was so hot that gas flared out laterally, acting as a wick, along which the fire caught quickly, crossing the ground in sudden, unpredictable pulses. In the face of such a fire, it is possible to be looking at a front more than a thousand feet away and then, in an instant, to be surrounded by flames. Firefighters described the Black Saturday firestorm as "alive," and said that its behavior was completely unprecedented. In some areas it was apparently cyclonic, coming at them from all sides, burning up a road in one direction and then, minutes later, burning in the opposite direction. Tollhurst told the royal commision that the energy from all the fires that day was the equivalent of fifteen hundred Hiroshimas.

Here you can watch some video of the fires.

Saturday, October 24, 2009

Fox Park

This post is inspired by the St. Louis blogs I’ve been reading lately, and by my desire to take some photos of things that I see on bike rides around South St. Louis.

A year or two ago, my wife and I were with our daughters at Hartford Coffee Company. We met a woman who lived in Fox Park. She said her husband was rehabbing their house and thought the area was “on the way up,” but that currently theirs was the only non-boarded-up house on the block.

I didn’t know where Fox Park was at the time. But recently I came across this cool site that has all kinds of census information about every city neighborhood. I looked up Fox Park, and realized that it’s the area just east of Compton Heights and northeast of Tower Grove East. Its borders are Hwy. 44 on the north, Jefferson on the east, Gravois on the south, and Nebraska on the west.

Today I decided to celebrate finishing some grading by taking a bike ride up to the area. I brought my camera along.

In general, I was pleasanly surprised by the area. The housing stock, as far as I could tell, was in pretty good condition.

I found this line of houses (technically just to the west of Fox Park) quite beautiful.

Fox Park, the neighborhood, takes its name from a small park of the same name. At the time I was riding by, there was some kind of neighborhood picnic going on. It was a big, racially mixed crowd. Very nice to see. In terms of the racial make-up of the neighborhood, it seemed very integrated, with lots of people of all ages, black and white, on the streets, porches, even one guy out front doing work on the ornate old-fashioned doorway of his house. According to the 2000 census, Fox Park was 64% African American, 30% white. I suspect that’s changed in the past nine years.

Fox Park also includes this baseball field, constructed by Cardinals Care in memory of late Cardinal pitcher Daryl Kile. These fields are mostly built in impoverished areas, as far as I can tell. Indeed, according to the 2000 census information, the poverty level in Fox Park was 27%, three percent higher than the citywide poverty level. Again, I’ll be curious to see the new census information in a couple of years.

Here’s a modest but nicely-rehabbed home, for sale. At Ann and Ohio.

A beautiful line of homes on Russell, with cool mansard roofs.

Some new housing up the street that isn’t completely at odds with the rest of the neighborhood. (The 2000 census found that 72% of the Fox Park housing was built in 1939 or earlier.)

A community garden across the street.

One of those urban churches that seems constructed as a bunker against the urban environment outside. On California.

I find this old-fashioned and rather scuzzy-looking garage at Sidney and California charming.

There are some derelict buildings in Fox Park, to be sure. A shame, because some of them are pretty interesting. This one's near Oregon and Magnolia. The bigger one below (front and back) is at California and Magnolia.

St. Francis de Sales Church was once the center of this community. Now it's a gathering place for Catholics who like their Masses in Latin.

Riding through Fox Park, I got the sense that this area could be the next Shaw, the next Tower Grove East. There were signs of past troubles—the Cardinals Care field, the bunkered churches, and streets made into artifical cul-de-sacs to discourage drive-bys and drug traffic. But on this beautiful October day, it felt like a good place, inhabited by a population diverse racially and, it seems, economically.

If the neighborhood's fortunes continue to rise, will it retain its diverse population? Or will the typical patterns of racial succession mean that as more and more white people come into the neighborhood, buying and fixing up the houses, raising the rents, the black residents will gradually be pushed out or simply feel less comfortable living here?

One potentially hopeful sign, long-term, is the type of housing available in Fox Park. According to the 2000 census, 27% of that housing is single-unit; 44% contains two units; and 24% contains 3-4 units. That diversity in housing type would seem to suggest that this area can offer an affordable place to live to people at a variety of income levels. Of course, it all depends on whether or not people are willing to live around those of a different class, as well as a different race.

It's an interesting time to live in the city!

Thursday, October 22, 2009

Words and Music

Ekphrasis is the rendering of a visual work of art into words. I'm not sure what it's called when you render a musical work into words, but I do believe that this little passage by Whitney Balliett about Duke Ellington's "Ko-Ko" is the best example I've ever read.

Take a listen, and read along:

Here is “Ko-Ko,” a minor blues and no relation of Charlie Parker’s “Ko-Ko,” made five years later. It starts in media res. Sonny Greer gives a couple of quick timpani beats, and Carney goes immediately into a chuffing sustained note in his low register—his house-moving register—and is backed by the trombone section, possibly salted with one trumpet. The introduction lasts eight bars. In the first chorus, which is twelve bars, Juan Tizol plays a simple but ingenious six-note figure that is pursued closely by the reed section in such a way that it sounds like a continuation of Tizol’s figure. Tizol stars the sentence and the reeds finish it. In the next two choruses, twelve measures apiece, Tricky Sam Nanton, using a plunger mute, solos against offbeat muted trumpets and the reed section, which plays a sighing three-note figure. Greer punctuates on his tomtoms. In the fourth chorus, also twelve bars, the reeds come to the fore with the same figure they used in the first chorus, and the trumpet section supplies “ooh-wa”s. Ellington himself surfaces from behind, throwing runs and crazy note clusters into the air. The twelve-bar fifth chorus is intense and climactic. The trumpet section plays a repeated long-held note (one of the trumpets, probably Williams, uses a plunger mute) while the saxophone section, broken into two groups, plays accented figures and a melody parallel to the trumpets. The dissonance is almost overpowering. Then the reeds and trombones slide into an eight-bar interlude, pausing for several two-bar breaks by Blanton. In the seventh chorus, the trumpets again play long-held notes, and the saxophones play a countermelody. Carney returns in the final chorus with his very low chuffing note, backed by the trombones. The reeds climb abruptly into view and disappear into a closing full-band chord. The atmosphere of the number is rough and hustling and metallic. There are few treble sounds, and there is little delicacy. The piece bullies us. It sets out to be abrasive and lyrical, and it succeeds. It is also completely an ensemble piece—a kind of concerto for orchestra.

from the New Yorker, January 11, 1982

Wednesday, October 21, 2009

Tower Grove

This article about the Tower Grove area, and a new book about it, makes me proud to live where I live:

But before letting go of the property, Connecticut Mutual Life put in deed restrictions that required some properties to be houses and some to be apartments.

Different prices included in the restrictions allowed a mix of working people and professionals, Abbott said.

Unlike other areas, no race restrictions were included, he said.

"It allowed for balance. Balance sees you through good and bad times," Bonasch said.

Mayer on Drones

Some interesting snippets from Jane Mayer as she talks about the use of Predator drones in Pakistan:

Toward the end of the Bush Administration, the drone program in Pakistan ramped up, but when Obama became President, he accelerated it even faster. It’s surprising, but the Obama Administration has carried out as many unmanned drone strikes in its first ten months as the Bush Administration did in its final three years. It’s the favorite weapon of choice right now against Al Qaeda, and for good reason: It’s been effective in killing a lot of people the U.S. wants to see dead....

According to the C.I.A., they’ve killed more than half of the twenty most wanted Al Qaeda terrorist suspects. The bad news is that they’ve inflamed anti-American sentiment, because they’ve also killed hundreds of civilians....

Someone sitting at C.I.A. headquarters in Langley, Virginia, can view and home in on a target on the other side of the world with tremendous precision, even at night, and destroy it. Peter Singer, who wrote a book on robotic warfare, said that cubicle warriors experience the same stress as regular warriors in a real war. Detached killing still takes a tremendous emotional toll inside our borders.

Tuesday, October 20, 2009

Autumn Leaves

Photos from our front porch, with musical accompaniment.

Monday, October 19, 2009

Roth on Obama

Philip Roth, in an interview with the London Times, on our president:

You know, if McCain were President, there would be no health bill to debate; there would be no policy in Afghanistan to reconsider; no economic stimulus package; there would be a deep Depression. So whatever happens is the best that can happen, given the circumstances, you know. So I am still rather high on [Obama]. He’s done remarkably, really. He’s fighting an entrenched army of ignoramuses. He’s not a magician.

Friday, October 16, 2009


I love this detail from this article about the upcoming auction of the typewriter Cormac McCarthy bought in the mid- to late-'50s and wrote all of his novels with:

McCarthy never had the machine repaired. The only problem he ever had occurred when a poorly designed lever wore out. McCarthy got a replacement part and installed it himself.


From an interesting review of a new biography of Thelonious Monk:

The brilliant pianist Mary Lou Williams, seven years Monk’s senior and working at the time for Andy Kirk’s Clouds of Joy orchestra, heard Monk play at a late-night jam session in Kansas City in 1935. Monk, born in 1917, would have been 18 or so at the time. When not playing to the faithful, he sought out the musical action in centers like Kansas City. Williams would later claim that even as a teenager, Monk “really used to blow on piano. . . . He was one of the original modernists all right, playing pretty much the same harmonies then that he’s playing now.”

It was those harmonies — with their radical, often dissonant chord voicings, along with the complex rhythms, “misplaced” accents, startling shifts in dynamics, hesitations and silences — that, even in embryonic form, Williams was hearing for the first time. It’s an angular, splintered sound, percussive in attack and asymmetrical, music that always manages to swing hard and respect the melody. Monk was big on melody.

Sunday, October 11, 2009

More Than a Distant Land

In the liner notes to the 1998 Luaka Bop compilation album Beleza Tropical 2: Novo! Mais! Melhor!, David Byrne writes of Brazil as a kind of harbinger of what's to come for the rest of the world.

We're just catching up to what they've been doing for years, decades even.... Sadly, not only in the musical arena, but also in economic and social aspects, the Brazilians outpace us; they are the future.... the growing gap between the rich and poor ... the destruction and waste of natural resources, every politican up for sale ... these are all symptoms—soon we'll catch up to Brazil.

I thought of Byrne's comments while reading Jon Lee Anderson's New Yorker article (available only to subscribers, but here's an audio slide show in which Anderson talks through some photographs of the people and places he writes about) about gangs in the favelas of Rio de Janeiro. A gripping piece of reportage, it reminded me of the world of The Wire, but multiplied by a hundred.

The favelas, slums rooted in the aftermath of slavery (abolished in Brazil in 1888), are controlled by druglords who act as virtual mayors while viciously killing their enemies. These enemies include journalists (Anderson writes about a reporter who was tortured to death after sneaking a hidden camera into a baile funk, a street party sponsored by a gang chief), policemen (some of whom have joined vigilante militias that are becoming gangs in their own right), and even those who would dare go to a baile funk sponsored by another gang chief. Like the drug organizations in The Wire, the drug gangs of Rio have "a hierarchical structure that mimics the corporate world," Anderson writes.

In an astounding section of the article that is nevertheless typical of Anderson's incredible access as a reporter, he gains entree into the home of a thirty-one-year-old kingpin called Fernandinho, who controls all but one of the favelas on Ilha do Governador, a large island on the bay of Guanabara. Fernandinho has "Jesus Cristo" tattooed on his forearm, cartoon characters on his bedspread, and he hasn't been out of his immediate neighborhood for two years because he's wanted by the police. He claims to be a Christian and working his way through the Bible, yet the evangelical pastor who was instrumental in his spiritual awakening feels betrayed because he and his lieutenant, Gil, have resumed the killings that they had temporarily suspended.

It's scary to contemplate these favelas as America's urban future, yet The Wire does indeed depict a world that is heading toward something like what's happening in them. Let's hope that, in this case, we don't catch up to Brazil.

Monday, October 5, 2009

Six or Nine

I like this, from Anthony Lane in the Oct. 5 New Yorker:

As a rough rule, cinema can be sundered into two halves: six-o'clock films and nine-o'clock films. Most movies are nine-o'clock affairs, and none the worse for it. You get home from work, grab something to eat, head to the theatre, and enjoy the show. And so to bed—alone or entwined, but, either way, with dreams whose sweetness will not be crumbled or soured by what you saw on-screen. A six-o'clock movie requires more organization: prebooked tickets, a restaurant table, the right friends. You're going to need them, because if all runs according to plan you will spend the second half of the evening tossing the movie—the impact and substance of it—back and forth. So "Persona" is a six-o'clock movie, though it won't leave you with much of an appetite. As is "The Deer Hunter," whereas "Platoon," for all its sound and fury, works fine for nine o'clock. "The Reader" is a nine-o'clock movie that thinks it's a six-o'clock. "Groundhog Day" is the opposite.