Wednesday, April 30, 2008

Ghost bikes

I usually buy my fish in Chinatown, since there are no fish stores near my home, and the supermarket fish looks dubious. I go to the same place, near the terminals of the Fung Wah and Lucky Star bus companies, and walk over the Manhattan Bridge into Brooklyn, since the entrance to the bridge is only about a block away. Last week, on the traffic island near the entrance, I saw something new: a ghost bike commemorating a young man who was killed near that spot. I had seen a few ghost bikes in New York before: old bicycles painted white and chained to a street sign, usually with some flowers and a plaque identifying the person who was injured or killed. Ghostbikes.org is one site for more information on this phenomenon, but there are others.

Back to Governors Island

I see Governors Island nearly every morning when I walk over the Brooklyn Bridge on the way to work, though it was a while before I even knew what it was. The island intrigued me for a long time, especially when it was barred to the public: a low wooded island with a few buildings scattered on it, and a massive octagonal white structure with vertical black bars on its sides. The white octagon was so somber and impressive that I thought it must be a monument of some kind. (I only learned later that it provides ventilation for one of the tunnels under the East River.) During the winter, when I walked home over the bridge after dark, it was eerie to see only one or two electric lights on the island. The island was an oasis of quiet and darkness, only a few hundred yards from the glowing glass towers of the financial district. Once the island was opened to the public (though only during the summer, and for limited hours), I tried to get there once or twice a year on the ferry. My favorite spots were the round fort at the island’s corner, with its walls of soft red brick and deep embrasures, the broad sloping meadow that spreads out from the second, star-shaped fort, and the long row of deserted frame houses where officers used to live. Cicadas shrilled in the hot grass, and Canada geese stalked along the footpaths. Governors Island is one of the most peaceful spots I know in the city. I feel a sense of connection there, so it was a little strange to read in The Wisners in America that Governors Island was the first place in the New World where my ancestor Johanes Weesner lived. He and about 10,000 other Swiss soldiers arrived in New York around 1714 were “camped” on Governors Island for several months before finding new homes.

Tuesday, April 29, 2008

Foreclosures

The building next to my own apartment building went through a couple of owners recently before being gutted and abandoned. Now what used to be a reasonably attractive place is a brick shell with a padlocked front door, yellow tape running around the front, and a X in a box painted on the facade that marks it as condemned. An article in the Post says the number of foreclosures in Brooklyn in the first quarter of 2008 is up by 26.6% from the same period last year. That sounds bad, until you see that the foreclosure rate is even higher in every other borough, reaching 101% in Staten Island. And that sounds bad, until you see that the increase in foreclosures for the country as a whole is 112%.

The Brooklyn Literary 100

The New York Sun recently published a list (and map) detailing the Brooklyn Literary 100. In addition to the places, many of which I’m familiar with — Fort Greene Park, Prospect Park, Ozzie’s, the Brooklyn Lyceum, Community Bookstore, Heights Books, and the Brooklyn Book Fest — there were lists of prominent writers and editors, broken down by neighborhood. As silly as it is, and Colson Whitehead pointed out just how silly, to attribute special literary qualities to the borough of Brooklyn or any of its neighborhoods, I was surprised to see that Park Slope didn’t dominate as thoroughly as I expected. It has 19 names, including Paul Auster and Jonathan Safran Foer, but so does Fort Greene, which has Amitav Ghosh, Jhumpa Lahiri, and Colson Whitehead himself. (Though didn’t I read somewhere that he had moved to somewhere like Cobble Hill or Carroll Gardens?) If you throw in my own neighborhood, Clinton Hill, which many consider an extension of Fort Greene, you get 9 more names, including James Surowiecki of The New Yorker. Prospect Heights, just down the street, has 12 names, including heavy hitters like Rick Moody, Philip Gourevitch, and George Packer.

Monday, April 28, 2008

Wisner Park in Elmira, New York

This postcard, a copy of which I own, shows Wisner Park in the small upstate city of Elmira, New York — not far from Skaneateles in the Finger Lakes region, where I grew up. The settlement of Wisnerburg merged with Newtown in 1792, and Newtown was officially renamed Elmira in 1808. (In Orange County, where my family has had roots since the 1700s, there’s a town called Wisner, a little bit west of Bear Mountain State Park. I’ve been to the park but didn’t know about the town.) I dimly remember childhood visits to Elmira, which seemed nice enough. Mark Twain married his wife there in 1870, and is buried there. But there are sinister notes in Elmira’s history. A book called Death Camp of the North describes the Civil War prison camp there, where according to Wikipedia, “a combination of malnutrition, prolonged exposure to brutal winter weather, and disease directly attributable to the dismal sanitary conditions on Foster’s Pond and lack of medical care.” A maximum-security prison, the Elmira Correctional Facility was established in 1876. Although it was billed as the first “reformatory,” the policies of indeterminate sentences and corporal punishment used by warden Zebulon Brockway resulted in prisoners ending up in mental hospitals.

Friday, April 25, 2008

The Sean Bell Verdict

Three police detectives were acquitted this morning of all charges after firing 50 bullets at an unarmed men and his two friends outside a club in Queens. Sean Bell was killed on his wedding day, and his friends were wounded. The barrage was so reckless that video cameras caught bullets careening through the glass walls of the Jamaica metro station nearby. I expected at least some of the charges to stick in this case. Now that I see they haven’t, I’m not so much angry as deeply discouraged. There’s not much more to say about it: This picture and the quotes below tell the story.
“They got away with murder in there,” said Calvin B. Hunt, a man in the crowd.... William Hargraves, 48, an electrician from Harlem brought his 12-year-old son, Kamau, to the courthouse this morning. He said this verdict parallels the outcome of previous police shootings of black men. “Connect the bullets,” he said. “How many times did they shoot Diallo? Forty-one times. They were acquitted. They got a pension.” His son said: “I think it’s not right, because they shot him 50 times. They knew he was hurt, and they kept shooting him. He didn’t even have a gun.”

Boggs by Lawrence Weschler

My colleague Steven Lydenberg, author of Corporations and the Public Interest, recommended this entertaining and thought-provoking book about an artist who draws money. In some ways, Boggs reminds me of the work of Donald Evans, who created beautiful imaginary stamps from imaginary countries. Boggs is not a counterfeiter — he’s just fascinated by the artistry of currency and by the value we ascribe to it, now that the U.S. dollar, for instance, is no longer backed by gold or silver and has value mainly because we agree it does. Boggs draws Swiss francs and British pounds with very fine-tipped pens, but that’s only the beginning. The artwork is not complete, in his view, until he is able to use it to purchase something. That is, rather than sell his work he uses its face value to buy something, which is only possible when the seller agrees that its value as an artwork is at least as much as the note that it imitates. Finding someone who agrees to the transaction is often the hardest part. Another hard part was Bogg’s prosecution by the Bank of England, and his persecution by the U.S. Secret Service.

Family history

For many years I’ve been aware that I’m descended from a Swiss soldier (or “mercenary,” as family tradition has it) who arrived in the American colonies before the revolution. I knew, too, that I had an ancestor named Henry Wisner who was a member of the First and Second Continental Congresses, and who missed signing the Declaration of Independence for reasons not entirely clear. On a trip to Washington when I was in high school, I went into the lobby of the National Archives and was thrilled to look inside a glass case and see his signature on a document called the Articles of Association. My father recently gave me a book called The Wisners in America: A Family of Patriots and Pioneers, by G. Franklin Wisner. Published in 1918, it has a heavy green binding, softened with age, and an ornamentally embossed title in faded gilt. There are many fold-out pages of genealogical charts in the back, on smooth brittle paper that has to be handled carefully. One of them traces the line from Johannes Weesner (the original Swiss soldier) to my paternal grandfather. I had seen the book many times but had never felt the impulse to delve into it. I hadn’t gotten much farther than the Wisner coat of arms, which also appears at wisner.com, the website of a manufacturer of antique-looking view cameras. The motto is Amore nonvi, which my father used to say meant “Nobody loves Violet.” (It’s just possible that this is incorrect.)

Thursday, April 24, 2008

The Intuitionist by Colson Whitehead

At my book group the other night, I brought copies of Anil’s Ghost by Michael Ondaatje and The Intuitionist by Colson Whitehead. Both were books I’d read before, and both are extremely quotable. It only occurred to me that evening that the protagonists of both books are young, highly intelligent, emotionally guarded women who are conducting an investigation. Anil wants to find out what happened to “Sailor,” whose skeleton was hidden among ancient remains at an archeological site in Sri Lanka. Lila Mae Watson in The Intuitionist wants to find out what caused the crash of an elevator she had inspected a short time before. Rereading The Intuitionist, I noticed a certain similarity to Saul Bellow in the way that Whitehead plays intellectual and colloquial language against each other. At our group, we each read a paragraph from the book we’re presenting. This is from the very long paragraph I read, which begins on p. 227:
How often do catastrophic accidents touch down here. The last one in this country was what, she searches after it, thirty-five years ago, out West. The ten passengers (midjoke, aimless perusal of the inspection certificate, fondling house-key weight in trouser pockets, trying not to whistle) had time to scream, of course, but not much else. The investigators (and what a hapless bunch they would have been, the field so young) never found any reason for it. Total freefall. What happens when too many impossible events occur, when multiple redundancy is not enough.

Let them eat mud

As food prices around the world are skyrocketing, and hungry people are becoming even hungrier, the TV news asks whether Reverend Wright loves America, and whether, when Senator Obama was scratching his face, he was actually giving Senator Clinton the finger. The other day I saw a photo, very much like this one, of a array of mud pies. Each one was neatly made and smoothly finished, with an artistic swirl. They are being made by starving people in Haiti to stave off hunger pains. When I tried to find the photo again I discovered a post called Mud Pies in Soleil at the blog Dying in Haiti, one of several blogs written by Dr. John Carroll and his wife, who live and work in Haiti several months each year. I’ve been interested in Haiti for well over a decade, and visited the country in 1996, during a peaceful period in the presidency of Rene Preval. The constant media emphasis on Haiti’s problems — and the problems are dire enough — tends to overshadow the beauty and uniqueness of the country’s religion, music, art, and language. I hope the day will come when we read articles about those things. Until then, I can always reread Herbert Gold’s Best Nightmare on Earth.

Wednesday, April 23, 2008

Stories for Shin

My colleague Shin, when he is not heading up a research team on Asia-Pacific equities, reads voraciously in English and Japanese. Many of the books I see him with in the elevator are tomes on social and environmental issues that most people would not pick up unless forced at gunpoint. He does read fiction, though, and prefers stories about the problems of ordinary people. If the stories are melancholy, as these sorts of stories so often are, so much the better. (Another time, we’ll discuss the culture of suicide in Japan, where there are guidebooks and hotlines that help people kill themselves.) Poring through my bookshelves at home, I realized that I don’t own many short story collections of the kind Shin prefers. I need a little more speculation and exotic color than he does: I can’t deal with too much reality. But I did find three collections I think he’ll appreciate: Success Stories by Russell Banks (with its bitterly ironic title), In the Garden of the North American Martyrs by Tobias Wolff, and Rock Springs by Richard Ford. When I opened Rock Springs, my eye fell on the first line of “Great Falls,” which reads, “This is not a happy story. I warn you.” Shin should love it.

All that is solid melts into air

Walking over the Brooklyn Bridge on Tuesday morning, I noticed a kind of black hood over the federal courthouse tower on Centre Street, and the top of the Woolworth Building dissolving into the fog. (This photo isn’t mine; it’s from the city government.) It made me think of Marshall Berman’s All That Is Solid Melts into Air, a book I used to own (whatever happened to it?) and that I can hardly remember, except for the sensation it gave me of stretching my mind in unexpected directions. The title is a quotation from Marx, though it sounds much too spiritual and speculative for that boil-plagued materialist. (Edmund Wilson noted that to “weigh like an incubus” was one of Marx’s favorite turns of phrase.) Here’s what’s a reader said about Berman’s book at a popular mainstream online bookstore. It confirms my memory that this is a very hard book to summarize:
Among the choice subjects he includes Goethe's Faust, the vibrance of city streets, Marx and Engels in the examination of The Communist Manifesto (treated as a literary piece), the enigmatic Crystal Palace, Baudelaire, the Czars, Nietzsche and the whole hearted destruction of the inner cities such as the Bronx. It is a sort of eclectic mix that both confuses and informs.

Tuesday, April 22, 2008

A scandal in the life of Ellery Channing

Thoreau’s Journal contains a revelation regarding his frequent walking companion Ellery Channing (usually referred to as C.) that will shock cat lovers everywhere. As with his acid comments on Louis Agassiz, Thoreau feels that no commentary is required.

Jan. 22, 1854

When I was at C.’s the other evening, he punched his cat with the poker because she purred too loud for him.

Monday, April 21, 2008

Thoreau and hay fever

Every spring, around the time the forsythia is in bloom, Jenn has a terrible time with nasal allergies. The English scientist Charles Blackley discovered in 1869 that pollen caused hay fever, but Thoreau was among those who suspected earlier that it might be the culprit. On June 21, 1860, he wrote, “Who knows but the pollen of some plants may be unwholesome to inhale, and produce the diseases of the season?”

Friday, April 18, 2008

Bitten by a milk snake

While walking with my mother along a bike path near Burnt Hills, New York, I saw a small milk snake. I picked it up and let it run between my fingers until it became scared or impatient and bit me on the forearm. Its teeth were so small and sharp that it felt like getting a shot with a very fine needle. Impressed with its nerve, I put the snake back down in the grass. On my skin was a small V of tiny red dots. The milk snake is one of the prettiest snakes in the Northeast, and one that I’ve rarely seen. Thoreau wrote about it, as he did about nearly every creature to be found near Concord. He called it a “checkered adder” and noted the “forked light space” on the back of its head. His description of one (on May 28, 1854) was rather detailed and technical, suggesting that he killed it, but the act of doing so seems to have made him thoughtful. “The inhumanity of science concerns me,” he wrote, “as when I am tempted to kill a rare snake that I may ascertain its species. I feel that this is not the means of acquiring true knowledge.”

Thursday, April 17, 2008

A Political Education by André Schiffrin

André Schiffrin is the founder of The New Press, the extraordinary nonprofit publishing house that he created in 1990 after being forced out of his position at the head of Pantheon Books. A Political Education is his modestly brief, yet eye-opening memoir (published by the independent Melville House). Though raised in New York City, Schiffrin was born in France, where his father was an eminent publisher and the creator of the Pléiade series of classic literature (the inspiration for the Library of America series in the US). He has returned regularly for many years, and began in recent years to divide his time between New York and Paris. Schiffrin’s French roots, and his early immersion in socialist thought and political activism, give him a valuable perspective on politics and publishing in the US. It’s sobering, though not surprising, to learn that New York City has lost 90% of the bookstores it had in 1945. France has plenty of bookstores, but the swallowing up of independent publishers by conglomerates has advanced even farther there than it has in the US. Something that did surprise me was the extent to which the insanities of the Korean War prefigured those of Vietnam, and how Cold War censorship and self-censorship covered up those insanities. I didn’t know, for instance, that “MacArthur had proposed dropping fifty atomic bombs along the thirty-eighth parallel dividing the two countries, to make sure that a radioactive border would keep Korea forever divided.” Or that “at least eighteen of the twenty-two major cities [of North Korea] were virtually obliterated” and “more napalm was dropped on the hapless Koreans than we were to use during the whole of the Vietnam War.” Self-censorship is still with us, unfortunately, and the need for independent voices. In the first two years of the Iraq War, Schiffrin points out, no major US publisher would release a book that was critical of the war.

Wednesday, April 16, 2008

Giving by Bill Clinton

Bill Clinton’s recent book Giving: How Each of Us Can Change the World brings together examples of how people are giving time, money, and skills to change the world for the better. Some of my favorite people and organizations are discussed — such as Kiva, Ashoka, ONE, ShoreBank, and Sustainable South Bronx — as well as many that I didn’t know about. It’s a bracing wake-up call for for those who think the country is mired in apathy. In addition to his own Clinton Foundation, Clinton devotes considerable space to the medical missionary work of Paul Farmer, whose book The Uses of Haiti I reviewed at length for Transition. There’s also a chapter on Heifer International, whose marketing I have admired for years. Heifer not only brings home the personal impact of even small gifts, but its attractively produced “magalogs” make giving a donation feel like shopping for a friend. It was good to read that their work is as effective as their marketing. Clinton discusses organizations that have given books for needy schoolchildren in Zimbabwe and Nepal, but doesn’t mention Books for Africa, which has been doing excellent work for years. When my mother visited me in Zimbabwe in 1990, she brought a suitcase of medical instruments of the sort that American hospitals use once and discard. I was pleased to see that an organization called Doc to Dock is now collecting and distributing them on a much wider basis.

Thoreau imitates a Canada goose

March 20, 1855 Trying the other day to imitate the honking of geese, I found myself flapping my sides with my elbows, as with wings, and uttering something like the syllables mow-ack with a nasal twang and twist in my head; and I produced their note so perfectly in the opinion of the hearers that I thought I might possibly draw a flock down.

More on the black hole

The New York Times gave more details today on the possibility that a proton smasher in Switzerland could destroy the earth.

Today we require more than prayers that a scientific experiment will not lead to the end of the world. We demand hard-headed calculations. But whom can we trust to do them? That question has been raised by the impending startup of the Large Hadron Collider. It starts smashing protons together this summer at the European Center for Nuclear Research, or Cern, outside Geneva, in hopes of grabbing a piece of the primordial fire, forces and particles that may have existed a trillionth of a second after the Big Bang. Critics have contended that the machine could produce a black hole that could eat the Earth or something equally catastrophic.

Tuesday, April 15, 2008

Agassiz and Thoreau

Thoreau had a prickly relationship with Harvard, his alma mater, and particularly with the celebrated Louis Agassiz, the Swiss-born professor of geology and zoology at Harvard. I don’t know whether Thoreau was aware of Agassiz’s racial theories, which have been exposed and dissected by Stephen Jay Gould. They would surely have rankled Thoreau, who participated in the Underground Railroad and delivered fiery speeches on the subject of John Brown. At any rate, Thoreau never lost an opportunity to puncture some of Agassiz’s more dubious pronouncements on natural history. Whenever he does this in his Journal, it is in straight-faced New England style, utterly without comment.
May 18, 1856 R.W.E. says that Agassiz tells him he has had turtles six or seven years, which grew so little, compared with others of the same size killed at first, that he thinks they may live four or five hundred years. June 2, 1856 Agassiz tells his class that the intestinal worms in the mouse are not developed except in the stomach of the cat. July 26, 1856 Agassiz says he has discovered that the haddock, a deep-sea fish, is viviparous. March 20, 1857 Dine with Agassiz at R.W.E.’s. He thinks that the suckers die of asphyxia, having very large air-bladders and being in the habit of coming to the surface for air. But then, he is thinking of a different phenomenon from the one I speak of, which last is confined to the very earliest spring or winter.... When I began to tell him of my experiment on a frozen fish, he said that Pallas had shown that fishes were frozen and thawed again, but I affirmed the contrary, and then Agassiz agreed with me. May 14, 1858 Picked up, floating, an Emys picta [painted turtle], hatched last year. It is an inch and one twentieth long in the upper shell and agrees with Agassiz’s description at that age. Agassiz says he could never obtain a specimen of the insculpta [wood turtle] only one year old, it is so rarely met with, and young Emydidæ are so aquatic. I have seen them frequently.

Thursday, April 10, 2008

Mark Harris

I often think I should write more fan letters to authors who’ve been important to me. In our increasingly nonliterary time, I’m guessing that even fairly well-known writers don’t hear that much from their admirers. So a few days before Christmas in 2006, having recently reread Mark Harris’s book Twentyone Twice, I sent an email to his address at Arizona State University. I didn’t hear anything, which didn’t surprise me, but it was a bit of a shock not long ago when I looked him up and discovered he had died, a few months after my email. Perhaps Mark Harris wasn’t a major writer, but to me he was an intriguing and endearing one. I felt an additional connection because we shared a birthday. The author of several baseball novels, including Bang the Drum Slowly, he had also written two works of nonfiction that I liked even better. Saul Bellow, Drumlin Woodchuck was an attempt at biography, with the eager Harris pursuing his old friend but elusive subject Bellow. (The title is from Robert Frost’s poem about a woodchuck that “dives under the farm” when pursued.) Inevitably, the book becomes as much about Harris and his quest as it is about Bellow, and we experience all the trials and humiliations of the biographer, as he struggles with his attraction to Bellow’s various girlfriends and ex-wives and with the unreliability of his subject and his own memory. (Consulting his notes, he finds that one dinner conversation was either about Tolstoy’s The Death of Ivan Ilyich or the radical writer Ivan Illich, author of Medical Nemesis.) Twentyone Twice was about Harris’s improbable mission to Africa, to check out the performance of some Peace Corps volunteers. (In my email, I had asked Harris to confirm that his fictional country of Kongohno was actually Sierra Leone.) Subtitled “A Journal,” this funny and rambunctious account was apparently a small slice from an enormous personal journal that Harris had been keeping for decades, and mailed out in sections to a small circle of friends. Harris’s papers are now at the University of Delaware, and I hope that more of the journal will someday see the light of day.

Wednesday, April 9, 2008

Frozen creatures

One of Thoreau’s most endearing habits was his repeated attempt to revive frozen animals that he encountered on his rambles. I’ve found eleven examples in the Journal where he attempted to bring a creature back to life, and three other discussions of attempts by others. The creatures included a striped squirrel (chipmunk), a toad, a tortoise, caterpillars (including the woolly bear caterpillar), dor-bugs (scarab beetles), grasshoppers, pickerel, and snow-fleas. The other day, The Blog of Henry Thoreau featured Thoreau’s unsuccessful attempt to revive a toad that he found frozen on the sidewalk in Cambridge. Here are two more of my favorite examples.
March 15, 1853 There were fewer colder nights last winter than the last. The water in the flower-stand containing my pet tortoise froze solid, — completely enveloping him, though I had a fire in my chamber all the evening, — also that in my pail pretty thick. But the tortoise, having been thawed out on the stove, leaving the impression of his back shell in the ice, was even more lively than ever. His efforts at first had been to get under his chip, as if to go into the mud. Feb. 20, 1860 J. Farmer tells me that his grandfather once, when moving some rocks in the winter, found a striped squirrel frozen stiff. He put him in his pocket, and when he got home laid him on the hearth, and after a while he was surprised to see him running about the room as lively as ever he was.

Friday, April 4, 2008

New York Times photography

It’s obvious from many a feature story that the New York Times is home to a lot of frustrated novelists. But the photographs in the Times, especially since the advent of color in 1997, also show more artistic talent than most daily papers can demonstrate. One photo from the pre-color days made a haunting impact on me at the time, and I recently looked it up again. The photo shows Jimmy Carter on a blasted lot in the South Bronx. He is stepping out confidently enough, with an inquisitive expression on his face, but there is something sinister in the long dark shadows that he and his entourage cast, and the man at the left is twisting around as if checking for snipers in the windows of the gutted buildings.

Albino alligator

No special reason for this post, except that I thought this was a fine photo of an albino alligator. The alligator is named White Diamond, and he grew up in Florida and is now on display in Germany. He (or she?) almost looks as if he’s carved out of ivory. I was reminded of the legend that alligators (perhaps albino) dwell in the sewers of New York City, and of the 1996 film Albino Alligator, which made only $350,000 in the US despite the efforts of Gary Sinise, Matt Dillon, William Fichtner, Viggo Mortensen, Joe Mantegna, and Faye Dunaway.

Thursday, April 3, 2008

Change in Zimbabwe, at last

When I first went to Zimbabwe, in 1990, I had spent the previous several years raising funds for political prisoners in South Africa and Namibia. I was an admirer of Robert Mugabe because of his support for the ANC, and because he had overturned the expectations of people who expected him to be a tinpot dictator. He had improved health and education in the rural areas, welcomed foreign investors, and given farms back to white commercial farmers who had fled the country. I was troubled by the massacres a few years earlier in Matabeleland — in retrospect I should have been a lot more troubled — but I thought Zimbabwe could have ended up with a leader much worse than Mugabe. By the end of my six months in the country, I had changed my mind. It was an election year, and thugs belonging to the ruling party’s “youth league” were intimidating and beating up supporters of the opposition. The opposition candidate for vice president was shot, though he survived. Other people who were inconvenient to the government tended to die in car crashes, sometimes in collisions with armored vehicles. Joshua Nkomo, the widely respected leader of the ZAPU party, had been harmlessly neutralized as a minister without portfolio. I saw him at a ceremony for the tenth anniversary of the country’s independence — a huge sad man in a suit, staring at his lap. Meanwhile the ruling ZANU party was finishing construction on a new and brutal-looking tower in Harare. Eighteen long years later, Zimbabwe’s economy is in ruins and its people starving. When I was there, the largest bill in general circulation was a blue note worth twenty Zimbabwean dollars. As I recall, it was worth about ten dollars. In January this year, the government printed new money:

On Jan. 18, Zimbabwe’s reserve bank put a $10 million bill into general circulation, a maroon-tinged piece of paper with a sketch of water gushing through a dam that might well have symbolized the escaping value of the note itself. Worth enough at the time to buy a chicken, it now will barely buy a few eggs, with a value of about 40 cents.
As I write, Mugabe has admitted that ZANU has lost control of Parliament, but he has not yet stepped down. I hope he does so soon, that there is a peaceful transition of power, and that foreign governments and aid agencies provide the country with help that actually promotes development and not debt and dependency.

Books I can’t face

I have a pretty strong stomach as a reader: I’ve read books about the killings in Rwanda and Cambodia, and I have a shelf of books on the Holocaust. But there are some books I feel I should read but just can’t face. Not yet, at least. One of these is Medical Apartheid by Harriet A. Washington. I knew about the Tuskegee experiments, but not about Thomas Jefferson exposing slaves to an experimental smallpox vaccine. And I certainly didn’t know about more recent medical experiments on black people. From the Washington Post:
In 1945, Ebb Cade, an African American trucker being treated for injuries received in an accident in Tennessee, was surreptitiously placed without his consent into a radiation experiment sponsored by the U.S. Atomic Energy Commission. Black Floridians were deliberately exposed to swarms of mosquitoes carrying yellow fever and other diseases in experiments conducted by the Army and the CIA in the early 1950s. Throughout the 1950s and '60s, black inmates at Philadelphia's Holmesburg Prison were used as research subjects by a University of Pennsylvania dermatologist testing pharmaceuticals and personal hygiene products; some of these subjects report pain and disfiguration even now. During the 1960s and '70s, black boys were subjected to sometimes paralyzing neurosurgery by a University of Mississippi researcher who believed brain pathology to be the root of the children's supposed hyperactive behavior. In the 1990s, African American youths in New York were injected with Fenfluramine — half of the deadly, discontinued weight loss drug Fen-Phen — by Columbia researchers investigating a hypothesis about the genetic origins of violence.
I’m sure it’s an important book, and I’m sure I’ll read it sometime. Just not now.

Tuesday, April 1, 2008

Days of Heaven

Days of Heaven has been one of my favorite movies since I first saw it at the Brattle Theater in Cambridge. When it played a few months ago at the Film Forum in New York, Jenn and I went to see it and noticed Willem Dafoe in the audience. I was amazed at how well I remembered practically every scene, including seemingly random images like the silvery, shivery catspaw that brushes for a second across the surface of a pond. The eerie voiceover by Linda Manz — 16 years old but playing a somewhat younger girl — is the heart of the movie, as Robert Ebert pointed out in a sensitive essay. I was pleased that he was so struck by one of the same passages that struck me, when Linda (the character shares the actress’s name) is escaping with her grown brother and his lover on a raft. Linda’s curiosity has survived the traumas she’s seen, but any empathy for strangers is gone, or at least dimmed.
The sun looks ghostly when there's a mist on the river and everything's quiet. I never knowed it before. And you could see people on the shore but it was far off and you couldn't see what they were doing. They were probably calling for help or something or they were trying to bury somebody or something.
In the last scene, Linda has escaped in the early morning from a heartless foster home and has met a new friend by the railroad tracks. Linda has nothing and no one, but she is concerned about her friend.
This girl she didn’t know where she was goin' or what she was gonna do. She didn't have no money or nothin'. Maybe she'd meet up with a character. I was hoping things would work out for her. She was a good friend of mine.
I got a little teary when I saw that scene, just as I did the first time more than twenty years ago.