Tuesday, December 03, 2013

All History Is Local

 I'd been thinking about events and place, about how much happened in the downtown area of Greensburg, PA in my life, my family's and in history.  Did Stephen Foster and Andrew Carnegie meet, just where I used to sit as a boy watching for trains coming through the station?  I was trying to piece together bits of local history I incompletely remembered, and asked my sisters if a history of Greensburg I'd used for writing The Malling of America was still around.

It couldn't be found but my sister Kathy found another one for sale through Amazon, which came from Oregon with a note from the sellers about how much they enjoyed visiting Arcata, where I live now.  So there's a thread.

I've been reading this history of Greensburg, written in 1999, as the 50th anniversary of the assassination of President Kennedy passed.  I noted one strange thing: though local response to the assassination of Martin Luther King in 1968 was noted, and there was a passing mention of RFK's assassination that year, there was not a word about JFK's assassination.  That's hard to figure.  Like most places in America, it was a major event: that dark Friday, then the ceremonies in Washington, culminating in the funeral on that Monday in November 1963.

I've recorded on some of my other sites my recollections of that Friday: hearing that the President had been shot from Father Sheridan's voice over the high school p.a., going outside to gym class--I think we ran 50 yard dashes--and almost forgetting about it, until I was showered and dressed and walking up the narrow steps from the locker room as the next class of boys was walking down.  From one of them I learned that President Kennedy was dead.

I walked home with three friends, including my debate partner who normally would have taken the school bus eight miles home but we'd arranged to work on our debate cases that evening.  We tried for awhile but wound up talking about the assassination and what it might mean for the future.

For the next several days I was in front of the TV. All regular programs on the three networks were cancelled for four days and nights. Apart from the news about Lee Harvey Oswald, the new President, etc. there was the arrival of the President's body in Washington, the lying in state in the White House on Saturday, the public viewing in the Capitol rotunda that drew a constant line of citizens on Sunday, the funeral procession through the streets of Washington and the funeral on Monday.  While my family was at church on Sunday I stayed home to watch, and saw the live pictures of Oswald being taken through the Dallas police station.  At one point I jumped--I saw what I thought was a gun.  But it turned out to be a hand-held microphone.  A moment later I heard the shots, and saw Oswald killed.

The only time I recall leaving the house and the TV was probably on Saturday, when I went with my father to Main Street in Greensburg,  He was the manager of the Singer Store and I helped him decorate the storefront window with black crepe and a photo.  It was one of mine. I had the official presidential portrait framed, and a larger poster of President and Mrs. Kennedy.  We probably used the portrait.

All the stores on Main Street took down their normal window displays and put up a commemorative display.  My recollection is that no retail stores there were open at all that weekend, or probably even on Monday.  It was very quiet.  I remember some snow--I wonder if that memory is accurate.

Later I learned that students from my high school chartered a bus and went to Washington to walk through the rotunda to pass the casket.  It never occurred to me to do that.  I was very sensitive about what I thought was appropriate, at least for me.  I wanted to honor his life.

Still, I watched it all.  The funeral procession made the greatest impression--the caisson, the rebellious riderless black horse, the Kennedy family.  The funeral was at St. Mathews in Georgetown.  I was in Washington for JFK's inaugural and knew that when he was a senator he went to St. Mathews so I got the relatives I was visiting to take me there for Mass that Sunday.  As we were leaving we saw the cordons and the Secret Service, so we turned around and went back in.  After our second Mass of the morning, as JFK strode down the side aisle he shook hands with as many people as he could, and one of them was me.  It took a particular effort, he was reaching back a little.  I was astonished of course.  Now his funeral was in that same church, those few years later.

Somewhere in storage here I have items relating to that week.  The Four Days pictorial book.  A reply to my letter joining with thousands of others requesting that the new national arts center be named the Kennedy Center.  The embossed reply from Jacqueline Kennedy to letters of condolence she received (some of them now in a book published this year.)

But one memento I know I don't have. The next week my high school, Greensburg Central Catholic, organized its own memorial assembly.  As a known Kennedy aficionado I was asked to participate by writing something and delivering it from the stage, as several other students would.  I felt strongly at that moment that I didn't want to talk about my thoughts, but I would select and read excerpts from JFK speeches and writings.  The nun who asked me got testy and refused.

I was permitted to briefly play a few lines from JFK's Inaugural Address which my father had taped in front of the TV on his reel-to-reel while I was there in Washington. I played it on the same tape recorder at the beginning of the assembly, hunkering down backstage unseen.  Then my part was finished and I watched the rest of it from the audience. They had also asked to borrow my large poster of President and Mrs. Kennedy which was ultimately used as the centerpiece, affixed to the back curtain during the ceremony.  I believe there is a photo in my senior year high school yearbook of that stage with the poster in it.

My instinct about the event was justified as I recall one of my classmates sobbing from the stage about little John-John.  It was not a display JFK would have approved.

When the ceremony was over I had to ask for my poster back, but the nun in charge claimed not to have any idea what happened to it. She seemed completely unconcerned and no attempt was made to find it.  I never saw it again. And even today I've never seen that particular image again.

 Eventually I did write something for the school newspaper, which I reproduced recently here.

I may have Greensburg newspaper front pages from that weekend somewhere.  I find now that while the TV images and photos were universal, and many live on in cyberspace (at least for the moment), I look to a more local context to frame my memories.  This particular history of the city doesn't provide it.

Monday, November 04, 2013

The Connection

"You said that we owe literature almost everything we are and what we have been. If books disappear, history will disappear, and human beings will also disappear. I am sure you are right. Books are not only the arbitrary sum of our dreams, and our memory. They also give us the model of self-transcendence. Some people think of reading only as a kind of escape: an escape from the "real" everyday world to an imaginary world, the world of books. Books are much more. They are a way of being fully human." 

 Susan Sontag
 "A Letter to Borges"
quoted by Jonathan Cott in his new book, Susan Sontag: The Complete Rolling Stone Interview (Yale.)

 photo from Truffaut's film version of Ray Bradbury's Fahrenheit 451

They connect us to the past, to the many dimensions of our past, and to the future, by which the past is given meaning beyond itself.  They connect the unknown, the hidden and even furtive parts of ourselves to the many dimensions of our world, and of the universe, in the present.  They make connections, which is the very life of the mind...  Some ways of being more fully human.

Monday, October 21, 2013

Balance of Power

     Cloudminding #3 by WSK

"You don't have to read all the way to the end, but I have to write all the way to the end. Hardly seems fair, does it?"
-- Jon Carroll

At this point in my life there is no choice about it.  My life has been and will be as a writer.  Now I feel like a failure and a self-indulgent embarrassment because so far I've only completed and published one book, and none of fiction.  And chances are declining that I will publish other books, though I live as usual on the premise that I will.  Meanwhile I've not done much else that looks very good on the balance sheet of life. (And to be fair, no much else on the negative side either.)

But I sure have written.  I've written  magazine articles, reviews, columns, essays, songs, verse, plays, jokes, and some pretty nifty stuff and nonsense for clients.  I've been writing and publishing on the Internet for a decade now.  Thousands and thousands of words.  Some of the words, the sentences, the paragraphs, the whole pieces, are pretty good.  Some I recognize as me, and you won't get them anywhere else.  But I can only write them for you.  I can't read them for you.

Friday, September 27, 2013

Or On That Guitar

"How many of us would be willing to settle when we're young for what we eventually get?  All those plans we made...what happens to them?  It's only a handful of the lucky ones that can look back and say that they even came close...So before they clean out that closet Mr. Kirby, I think I'd get in a few good hours on that saxophone."

Kaufman and Hart
You Can't Take It With You

Tuesday, September 03, 2013

Toby's Flowers

Toby was our neighbor when we moved into this house about 15 years ago.  He was an old man already, born in Italy, and although it was an entirely different region from my roots ( he was from northern Italy, the origin of many Italians in this area who especially become dairy farmers, whereas my family came from east of Rome in the mountains near the Adriatic), to hear the language spoken was a breath of home for me.

  He was a talkative man, though the inflections of his English weren't always easy to understand, even for me.  But we soon learned that as a very young man he had been captured by the Nazis and held in a prisoner of war camp.  Towards the end of the war he and some other inmates escaped, and he soon came to the U.S.  Eventually he discovered that (for some reason I can't recall or never understood having to do with his parents) he was already a U.S. citizen.

Toby was the definition of house proud.  His house was (and so far still is) white with turquoise trim around windows and doors. I coveted that color.  He burned wood for heat, as was and to some extent still is common here, and the smell of wood smoke was part of our winter days. I would see him in the early mornings, his thin figure headed for his garage to chop and gather logs.  He grew flowers, his backyard has several always- populated bird houses, and back there he grew pear trees, though they decreased in number over the years.

After a brief illness, Toby died last winter.  His house has been vacant since, though members of his family are going to move in.  But something of Toby unexpectedly bloomed this spring and summer.  According to what he told Margaret, he'd seen these yellow flowers in a field across Sunset Avenue, and dug one plant up, replanted and then spread the seeds.  This year many of them bloomed, not only in the flower bed in front but also in the back along the border with our yard, in profusion.

I managed to snap a few photos of these yellow flowers before someone from his family got rid of most of them. (Unfortunately, the best photo was through the fence that he erected to keep out a persistent neighborhood cat--in vain.)  We also salvaged some seeds so we hope to have similar blooms.  I don't know what they're called, but to me they will always be Toby's flowers.  

Sunday, September 01, 2013

The March on Washington at 50

On this site I recorded some recollections of the 1963 March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom on its 40th anniversary.  The 50th was just celebrated, and I wrote a new piece about it that was published in a few places.

Rather than repeat any of that I've just put together links here.  At Kowincidence I posted both my 2013 remembrance and my brief essay published shortly after the March in 1963, when I was 17.  At Dreaming Up Daily I posted about the 50th anniversary event at the Lincoln Memorial, including further thoughts on the significance of this historically shining day (for me and for the country) and President Obama's speech.

In that earlier post here on the March on Washington, I joked that if you looked real hard you could see me on the left side of the reflecting pool, about halfway down and towards the trees.  It's a joke of course because there are 250,000 or so people in those photos.

However when I started writing about that day this time, I decided to test certain memories (and things others had written) against what video there might be on that startling new invention, YouTube.  The first video I looked at was this one, which appears to be a documentary shot for the United States Information Agency with some footage that may or may not have been used.  (It's called stock footage on YouTube.)

I was going through it when I heard sounds familiar from a train station, and saw the logo of a Pennsylvania Railroad train.  I rewound and slowed down the footage of marchers arriving at Washington's Union Station, and was startled (to say the least) to actually see my 17 year old self, walking towards the camera.

I immediately thought I remembered it happening, and even someone else in the shot, though my impression was that it was someone I met on the train, and never saw again.  Anyway, there actually is a photographic record--a few frames of moving picture--of me arriving for this historic event, among 250,000 other people.  I'm at the 11:32-11:35 marks approximately, on the far right of the picture, looking past the camera but then as I'm passing, towards it as I start to smile. (I had a smile then.)

I found this alone in the middle of the night, so it still didn't seem quite real.  Now I guess it is.

I wanted the piece I wrote this year to be true to my perspective at the time and to what I actually remembered.  But I also wanted it to be about the event, and not about me.

So I didn't get into the question of why a white Catholic boy was there, beyond quoting President Kennedy calling it a moral issue, and a promise made in the Constitution that was not yet kept.  I felt both of those reasons passionately.

What didn't even occur to me at the time, and which I cannot even now properly evaluate, is a simple fact of my experience: I grew up next door to an African American family.  We lived on what was virtually a new street just outside of the Greensburg (PA) city limits, and our houses were the first built there.  There were two black families on the street.  The family next door had a boy about my age, and together with the two white brothers who were next-door neighbors on the other side, we spent a lot of time together.  We played our elaborate cowboy and war and science fiction scenarios from TV shows and movies, we played baseball and football, traded baseball cards, we explored and talked about the mysteries of life and so on.  I recall going with him once or twice to his church, and being welcomed at a church dinner there.  His mother and especially his father were friendly to me.

This was through the grade school and junior high years, though we always went to different schools.  When we went to our different high schools we all saw less of each other.  High school was very absorbing.  I suppose all of this informed how I saw the early Civil Rights struggles in the south--the freedom riders and so on.  But by high school my beliefs on the subject were informed in other ways, and oddly or not, I seldom thought of my friend and his family in relation to the struggles against segregation, and for voting rights and other elements of racial justice.  But especially since there were no African Americans in my high school and I can't recall that there were in any of my schools,  these experiences must have been influential in some way.  If only that I was not uncomfortable in the presence of African Americans.

Tuesday, August 20, 2013

The Decisive Question

“The decisive question for man is: Is he related to something infinite or not? That is the telling question of his life. Only if we know that the thing which truly matters is the infinite can we avoid fixing our interest upon futilities, and upon all kinds of goals which are not of real importance. Thus we demand that the world grant us recognition for qualities which we regard as personal possessions: our talent or our beauty. The more a man lays stress on false possessions, and the less sensitivity he has for what is essential, the less satisfying is his life. He feels limited because he has limited aims, and the result is envy and jealousy. If we understand, and feel that in this life we already have a link with the infinite, desires and attitudes change. In the final analysis, we count for something only because of the essential we embody, and if we do not embody that, life is wasted.”

C. G. Jung
Memories, Dreams, Reflections
p. 325

painting by Rene Magritte

Thursday, August 01, 2013

Remembering Spalding Gray

 I last talked with Spalding Gray at Wildberries Marketplace in Arcata on the afternoon of his last Center Arts performance here. I’d had dinner with him in Pittsburgh (along with six or eight others) several years before, where the general conversation was high-spirited—at least until he quietly observed that he couldn’t laugh anymore. He didn’t know why. He just couldn’t.

 But when I ran into him at Wildberries he smiled broadly and spoke with enthusiasm about the Humboldt landscape. It was January 2001, just months before he suffered major injuries in a car accident, including brain damage. In this film about his life, Spalding Gray says that the years leading up to the 2001 accident were the happiest of his life. Three years later he was dead, presumably by suicide.

 Spalding Gray virtually invented the autobiographical monologue, although he preferred to call what he did “poetic journalism.” Several of his monologues became feature films, including Swimming to Cambodia (directed by Jonathan Demme in 1987) and Gray’s Anatomy (directed by Steven Soderbergh in 1996.) Soderbergh and his team assembled pieces of video—monologues, interviews, reflections—into a kind of posthumous autobiography, with the help of Kathie Russo, Gray’s widow.  It's called And Everything is Going Fine (Criterion Collection.)

 There are gaps (notably in the years of his greatest celebrity) and the portrait that emerges may or may not be accurate (there’s emphasis on death and suicide throughout.) But the contours of his life and career are here, from childhood obsessions to the fatherhood that started those happy years. (His son wrote music for this film.) Between them were the yearnings and penchant for seeking extremes, and then the need to construct monologues about the resulting experiences.

 In the film he says that at a certain point he got tired of talking about himself, and sought ways to talk about other people. I witnessed him one sunny afternoon in PPG Plaza in Pittsburgh, soliciting stories from an assembled audience. He was a careful, caring listener, and people responded. Later he told some of these stories with as much pith and power as he told his own.

 This DVD includes an informative “making of” extra, in which Soderbergh owns up to his cowardice in avoiding Gray after his accident. It also includes Gray’s first monologue, “Sex and Death to Age 14.” Although chaotic, it had his signature emphasis on details as well as the humor and honesty (and the poetic inventions) that he would learn to structure in his later, more mesmerizing works.

 The film’s title comes from a monologue in which Gray talks about his father’s attempt to create the perfect suburban home, but even though “everything is going fine,” there was always one more thing to buy or do to create the completely protected life.

Thursday, July 18, 2013

The Shared Solitude of Writing

"Writing is saying to no one and to everyone the things it is not possible to say to someone. Or rather writing is saying to the no one who may eventually be the reader those things one has no someone to whom to say them. Matters that are so subtle, so personal, so obscure that I ordinarily can’t imagine saying them to the people to whom I’m closest. Every once in a while I try to say them aloud and find that what turns to mush in my mouth or falls short of their ears can be written down for total strangers. Said to total strangers in the silence of writing that is recuperated and heard in the solitude of reading. Is it the shared solitude of writing, is it that separately we all reside in a place deeper than society, even the society of two? Is it that the tongue fails where the fingers succeed, in telling truths so lengthy and nuanced that they are almost impossible aloud?"

Rebecca Solnit

Monday, July 01, 2013

Life Sentences

a certain English major in 1967

In her June 22 New York Times oped, "The Decline and Fall of the English Major," Verlyn Klingenborg begins:

"In the past few years, I’ve taught nonfiction writing to undergraduates and graduate students at Harvard, Yale, Bard, Pomona, Sarah Lawrence and Columbia’s Graduate School of Journalism. Each semester I hope, and fear, that I will have nothing to teach my students because they already know how to write. And each semester I discover, again, that they don’t.

They can assemble strings of jargon and generate clots of ventriloquistic syntax. They can meta-metastasize any thematic or ideological notion they happen upon. And they get good grades for doing just that. But as for writing clearly, simply, with attention and openness to their own thoughts and emotions and the world around them — no.
That kind of writing — clear, direct, humane — and the reading on which it is based are the very root of the humanities, a set of disciplines that is ultimately an attempt to examine and comprehend the cultural, social and historical activity of our species through the medium of language.

Yeah, but so what?  What's in it for them--or for future students?  Later in the oped she concludes:

What many undergraduates do not know — and what so many of their professors have been unable to tell them — is how valuable the most fundamental gift of the humanities will turn out to be. That gift is clear thinking, clear writing and a lifelong engagement with literature.
Maybe it takes some living to find out this truth. Whenever I teach older students, whether they’re undergraduates, graduate students or junior faculty, I find a vivid, pressing sense of how much they need the skill they didn’t acquire earlier in life. They don’t call that skill the humanities. They don’t call it literature. They call it writing — the ability to distribute their thinking in the kinds of sentences that have a merit, even a literary merit, of their own.
Writing well used to be a fundamental principle of the humanities, as essential as the knowledge of mathematics and statistics in the sciences. But writing well isn’t merely a utilitarian skill. It is about developing a rational grace and energy in your conversation with the world around you.

No one has found a way to put a dollar sign on this kind of literacy, and I doubt anyone ever will. But everyone who possesses it — no matter how or when it was acquired — knows that it is a rare and precious inheritance. "

Thursday, June 27, 2013


I used to have hoop.  Lots of hoop.  Some days it meant everything.

It was sunshine and fog, hawks circling high above and small birds commenting from the trees.  It got my damn arms over my head.  And I made a lot of shots.  Dribble penetration, driving layups, jump shots (sort of), finger rolls, rainbows, 3 pointers, scoop shots, floaters.  A lot of shots.

Now hoop is gone.  What the big wind at Christmas didn't blow askew, was separated by rusty joints and corroded screws.  Just enough so that there was no hope for hoop.

There is no hoop at all now.  The last of it was taken away.  I feel hoopless, and you know why?  Because I am.

I blame Obama.  He talked all the time about hoop, and I gave him enough money over two elections to buy a new hoop and even re-pave the court (cracks in the pavement where tufts of grass alter the dribble.)  Now there is no money and no hoop.  He still emails me every other day.  But that doesn't give me hoop.

Now there's only memory of hoop, in this hoopless world.

Sunday, June 09, 2013

Home Cooking

At my hip North Coast grocer (as opposed to Safeway) I recently picked up a can of DeLallo white clam sauce.  It's an unfamiliar sauce I haven't tried in years--- but that wasn't the main reason I bought it.  It was DeLallo--a name and a brand from my western Pennsylvania childhood, suddenly on the shelf in California.

DeLallo was the most local of our western PA local companies.  The world didn't know about Klondike bars, or skyscraper ice cream cones or chipped ham (and now they know about at least one of them) but we did, because Isaly stores were in our towns--so clearly Pittsburgh area that it's a surprise to learn they were originally from Ohio.

Nobody outside respected Rolling Rock beer, bottled in Latrobe, PA.  Until the 1980s when a friend in Manhattan took me to the hippest new downtown bar--it was the spitting image of a dive along Route 30 or in one of the small towns, and they proudly served Rolling Rock.

And so on.  But DeLallo's wasn't Ohio or even Pittsburgh--it was only one store, outside Greensburg.  Their website calls the location "Jeannette," which it might be technically, but it's not in the town of Jeannette, it's actually on the highway,  at the crest of a hill along Route 30.  In fact it's a dangerous spot.  DeLallo's is a left turn off this busy highway going west from Greensburg, and there were notorious accidents there, some fatal, one claiming someone I knew.

DeLallo's was doubly local because it sold Italian food, and aggressively marketed everything it sold as Italian, including "Italian dog food" and "Italian Polish Ham," which are quotes from actual newspaper ads from the 70s.  In our part of western PA there was a substantial Italian population, and in our towns they often grouped according to the region or even the town where they came from.  The biggest waves of immigration occurred early in the 20th century, before new restrictions in  the 1920s, but since family members were exempt, it continued.  Then there was another wave after World War II, from different places (bombed places mostly), and they gravitated towards neighborhoods in Pittsburgh.

At first Italian food was exotic, outside the American mainstream. Before DeLallo's opened in 1954, my grandparents had to get their olive oil and so on from Pittsburgh.  Even when some products were available in grocery stores and those new super-markets,  my grandmother continued to get rides to shop at DeLallo's, especially for big family meals.

What was "Italian" to us came from a particular part of Italy, and a particular social class, which basically was peasantry, although people like my grandparents learned skills that liberated them from the fields and transferred to America (my grandmother sewed and had learned fine needlework at a convent school; my grandfather was a tailor.)  DeLallo's must have widened its horizons to other regions and classes.  I shopped there myself in later years.  I'm not sure where I'd heard of cannoli--maybe it was the Godfather movies--but they're Sicilian in origin, and we were decidedly not Siciliano.  Cannoli weren't part of my childhood, but I did buy some at DeLallo.  (That's a DeLallo family portrait by the way.)

Now Rolling Rock beer isn't even made in PA and the Klondike name was sold to a big specialty company.  But even though DeLallo products are available coast to coast, their only store is that same one, expanded over the years, on Route 30 west of Greensburg.

 There were Italian immigrants to the North Coast, though mainly from northern Italy, but their food is different.  And there's an Italian restaurant in Arcata called Abruzzi, which is the region my family came from. Still, DeLallo is a piece of home I somehow didn't anticipate finding nearby.    

Wednesday, May 29, 2013

Blue Movie

I've seen Page Eight something like 5 or 6 times now. It was first broadcast on the BBC and PBS in 2011, although I believe the first time I saw it was on DVD in my Bill Nighy period.  In any case I did catch it on the PBS rebroadcast last year.  Last week we got the DVD from netflix but I didn't send it right back.  I watched it a few more times, at my computer, on the cave TV..  Finally mailed it back this morning.

Why was I obsessed with watching it?  It's an excellent drama, written and directed by one of the contemporary greats of British stage, David Hare, and featuring great actors in excellent performances: the ever watchable Bill Nighy and Rachel Weisz, plus important roles played by Michael Gambon, Judy Davis, Alice Krige, Felicity Jones, Ralph Fiennes, Ewen Bremner and Marthe Keller.  It's an absorbing story, about British intelligence in the post-9/11 era.  But I realized all of that didn't add up to the total reason for my obsession.

First I thought it was because it just looked good.  But why?  Then I realized: because it's blue.

  I began to consciously realize this by the images that came into my mind when I thought about it.  Then last night I looked at it with this in mind, and it's absolutely true.  The dominant color by far is blue.

It's blue damp misty streets, blue-gray skies, blue-green structures and the lighting within them. Blue walls, blue cars. For the first part of the movie everyone is wearing blue, so much so that it resembles one of those color episodes of the 1950s Superman series they filmed to work in black and white as well as (later, when TV technology caught up) in color.  Bill Nighy in particular always wore a blue suit with a blue tie (sometimes blue and white) and at least once a blue shirt.

Eventually a few other colors intrude.  A couple of the women--conspicuously, the fascinatingly evil character Judy Davis played--wore red. (Red, white and blue would fit with a main theme--the "special relationship" with the U.S. in the Bush years as corrupting influence on the UK.)  There was a black tie event in the woody brown interiors of Cambridge University.  The Rachel Weisz character gets a earthy brown sweater.

Color palettes are important to some filmmakers.  Woody Allen hates blue--he favors browns and greens.  I saw a movie recently that ruled out almost every color except brown and green.  That I can't remember the movie tells it all.  I don't like brown and green.  I like blue.  More than like--I was ecstatic.

I happen also to like the music of Page Eight---jazz, a little James Bond, some Satie-like piano.  I would place it among my very favorite films (or TV films to be precise) except I'm bothered by the assumption in it that torture yielded real intelligence--I've seen no credible evidence that it did, or does.  There's a nice moment at a meeting when a woman (played by Holly Aird) mentions this, and Bill Nighy's character agrees.  They exchange a glance; later it turns out they've been sleeping together.

But the fact that I can't absolutely defend it as a great film worth watching over and over doesn't keep me from seeing it over and over.  The performances, the music.  But mostly, it's blue.  

P.S. I'm not the only one who liked this movie, by the way.  It was an immediate hit in the UK, and two sequels have been ordered up.

Saturday, March 09, 2013

Why There Are No Starving Publishers

An email exchange between an award-winning freelance writer and an editor of the Atlantic online has sparked the latest debate on how media is changing in the Internet age.  This time it is from a writer's point of view.

Nate Thayer was asked if he could "repurpose" for the Atlantic online a piece he'd published elsewhere.  He started a correspondence on adapting it, and soon asked the usual questions about length, deadline and payment.  The answers: end of the week, 1200 words, "unfortunately we can't pay you for it."

Thayer responded in part:  "I am a professional journalist who has made my living by writing for 25 years and am not in the habit of giving my services for free to for profit media outlets so they can make money by using my work and efforts by removing my ability to pay my bills and feed my children...I appreciate your interest, but, while I respect the Atlantic, and have several friends who write for it, I have bills to pay and cannot expect to do so by giving my work away for free to a for profit company so they can make money off of my efforts... Frankly, I will refrain from being insulted and am perplexed how one can expect to try to retain quality professional services without compensating for them." 

Thayer posted the email exchange on his blog and got lots of comments, many about the new realities for writers.  Unfortunately however this is not an entirely new reality.  For-profit publications have been cajoling writers into writing for free since I started writing professionally in the 70s.  And when they couldn't get you to work for absolutely nothing, they kept their fees very low.

Except for a few writers in a few places, that still seems to be the rule.  Some freelance fees have not changed in forty years, some longer--that is, if you got paid $50 in 1972 for a review, you might well be getting paid $50 (or less) today.  (The rent for my Cambridge MA apartment in 1972--admittedly not in a better part of Cambridge--was $150. It would not surprise me if it were ten times more now, but certainly 5.)

It's possibly even worse for literary writers, who almost never get paid now.  But even when magazines were still publishing and paying for poems and stories back in the 70s and 80s, I recall reading that many of their rates hadn't changed since the 1940s or even 1920s, despite inflation.

Everybody loves to make arguments about costs and circulation, etc. that are probably all valid, to a point.  And the point is this: the editor gets paid, the accountants get paid, the janitors get paid, but in a business with written words as a main product, it's okay for the writers not to get paid, or to get paid the least.

Even at the enlightened liberal cutting-edge electronic age site the Huffington Post, I'm willing to bet that Arianna Huffington takes home some dollars, and that Howard Fineman gets a paycheck, benefits and probably stock options, etc.  But the "bloggers" get nothing but the chance to look like they're important.  This may or may not lead to paying jobs (why would it?  They work for free for Arianna, why not for me?) but I'm pretty sure they can't pay for groceries with page views.

Writers in the realms of journalism and the general area of non-fiction may not have a great deal in common with literary writers, but they do share this.  I recall a conversation long ago with a freelance theatre artist--performer, puppeteer and writer.  "I know starving artists," he said dryly, "but I don't know any starving arts administrators."

The arts in America have long been subsidized by artists, through their unpaid or badly paid labor and creativity.  Journalists and non-fiction writers had it a little better in the 70s: writing for nothing or almost nothing was something you did when you were young, because it could lead to paying work.  If it didn't, you found something else to do that earned an income.  Writing record reviews for five bucks (and the record) for alternative newspapers could lead to staff jobs on weeklies or dailies, and/or magazines. Well-known names at the New York Times etc. started that way. That might lead to books.  There was some kind of path, and risks and inadequate pay all along the way if you didn't take the unionized daily newspaper gig, but at least something like a path existed.

Maybe for the young today there is a similar path that starts with free or very badly paid writing online.  But it's not just the young who are being starved by the collapse of periodical and book publishing.  That makes it worse.

I'm sure that today there are also overworked and underpaid editors and others as well. Still, the fundamental disconnect has been there for a long time.  Nobody would dare ask anyone else in the business to work for free--they only ask that and expect that of writers.  And writers are arrogant and unrealistic for pointing that out.            

Tuesday, January 08, 2013

R.I.P. Ada Louise

I never met Ada Louise Huxtable, though for a brief period we were both writing for the New York Times. She even quoted me in one of her books, and I certainly quoted her in The Malling of America. She was one of its guiding lights. She died this week at the age of 91. Here's her LA Times obit.

Her beat was architecture for the Times, their first real architecture critic, and she was up there with Jane Jacobs and Lewis Mumford in reshaping New York City and how architects and planners thought about cities and how people live in them. She shaped criticism itself as a journalistic pursuit involving reporting, scholarship and taste.

In particular I found her work revelatory on the South Street Seaport in New York, when it was about to host another urban "marketplace" mall built by the Rouse Company, after its successes on the waterfronts of Boston and Baltimore.

At retirement age she instead became the architecture critic for the Wall Street Journal. She also wrote books (I'm footnoted in The Unreal America.) Her influence was highest in the 60s but her work inspired me in the 80s and I'm sure is inspiring others right now. No reason why it won't for a long time to come. May she rest in peace, and her work live on.

Wednesday, January 02, 2013

Big Deal on Ross Street

After a Christmas that involved waiting out cyclonic winds before setting forth on a 6 hour car trip, and a return on a bus with a driver who wasn't really sure where we were going--aided by what might be described as in person crowd sourcing--New Years was quiet.  New Year's Eve I was the only one awake as usual, watching Charlie Rose ask inane questions about Shakespeare which nevertheless elicited interesting answers when I heard a few distant firecracker pops to note the passage of the old year.  Then the Day was spent in an epic Scrabble game and watching a lovely old Italian comedy I don't think I've seen since college, Big Deal on Madonna Street.  It's a kind of neo-realist comedy, a 1958 spoof of caper films, with a working class crew in Italy.  Their goal is a pawn shop safe but they wind up with pasta fazol.  Marcello Mastroianni and Claudia Cardinale are part of the ensemble.  A nice way to end the day and start the year.