Shanghai: livin’ large with Chinese characteristics

I just flew into Shanghai and boy are my arms tired! (Actually this is a flight simulator at one of our program's sponsor companies)

I just flew into Shanghai and boy are my arms tired! (Actually this is a flight simulator at one of our program’s sponsor companies)

I am fortunate to visit Shanghai regularly as part of supporting the China Leaders for Global Operations program, the sister program of MIT LGO. Shanghai is an almost cartoonishly ultramodern megacity, particularly in the Pudong area across the river from the old downtown. Basically rice paddies and a few warehouses in the 80s, Pudong is now home to the world’s second-tallest skyscraper and dozens of other buildings that would dwarf everything else in Boston or most places. Check out this amazing timelapse of Pudong from 1987 to 2013 and my photo below of the glowering Shanghai Tower, capped out at 2073 feet and almost ready to be crowned with the Great Eye of Sauron to become fully operational.

The Shanghai Tower looms elegantly over the already-super tall Bottle Opener Building

The Shanghai Tower looms elegantly over the already-super tall Bottle Opener

The amazing displays of state and personal wealth you see in Shanghai’s central business district are all the more striking because they both contrast with traditional images Westerners may have of Communist rule, and are also fully representative of / controlled by the Communist leadership of the country. One evening my colleague and I had dinner in a mall where every last store was a global elite luxury brand. We were seated in the restaurant between a guy wearing Prada and a woman wearing Burberry, while I (ahem) was rockin’ a Costco dress shirt…non-iron! Yet even amidst these outward signs of super-luxe, you do still see people on utility trikes collecting scrap metal, and our Chinese colleagues talked about how hard it was to make ends meet living in Shanghai.

Me at a delightful Buddhist restaurant with a vegetarian lunch box. Good thing it is so big b/c I'm bad at sharing.

Me at a delightful Buddhist restaurant with a vegetarian lunch box. Good thing it is so big b/c I’m bad at sharing.

In looking at these and other contrasts in China, I find a helpful guide to be the work of writer James Fallows (whom I got to meet at MIT in 2012). His basic take is that China today is like ‘ol Walt Whitman, contradicting itself and containing multitudes. Yes, there are incredible scenes of people honking the horns of their Bentleys to get a scrap-metal bike to move along, and no, it’s not clear how the success of bringing so many millions out of poverty (and a good chunk to Prada-wearing riches) will be reconciled with the continued lack of free expression and arbitrariness of state rule. But for all these reasons, along with its sheer scale in the world economy, China is all the more essential for Westerners to deal with and try to understand. I am lucky this program gives me the chance to try and do that.

The 19th-century original campus of our partner school, Shanghai Jiao Tong University

The 19th-century original campus of our partner school, Shanghai Jiao Tong University

Just on this trip we discovered a new area in which these contradictions are evolving. You may have heard about the massive anti-corruption drive launched this year by Xi Jinping, trying to throttle back some of the excesses of Party and state-owned company officials taking advantage of their positions to become super wealthy. The latest wrinkle is that officials are now banned from taking executive MBA programs, some of them partnerships of Chinese and Western universities, on the theory that both the officials and others who sign up for the EMBAs are doing to to create illicit networking opportunities. You can ask, aren’t all EMBA programs about networking? But even leaving that aside, what is striking for me is that this edict took effect more or less immediately. One dean quoted in the FT says that all officials enrolled in EMBA programs at his school had already withdrawn, with the execs from state-owned companies likely to follow suit. This is just a teeny microcosm of how the Party is trying to evolve policy and maintain the country’s acceptance of their rule, but it shows how academic relationship-building and the slow accumulation of trust and good practice are challenged by working within a system in which the ground rules can change very quickly.

Me along the Bund in the original part of the city, with the Bottle Opener and darkened Shanghai Tower across river in Pudong behind me

Me along the Bund in the original part of the city, with the Bottle Opener and darkened Shanghai Tower across river in Pudong behind me

 

Remembering Aaron and others this September 11th

My first day at Amherst College in 1987, with Aaron and my parents

My first day at Amherst College in 1987, with Aaron and my parents

For the past three years I’ve been writing my way towards a more public stance in sharing my loss of my brother, Aaron Jacobs, in the World Trade Center on 9/11. This started with a piece in The Awl in May 2011, about how my status as a 9/11 family member connected to reactions when Osama bin Laden was killed. I’ve posted other memorials at this anniversary each year, talking about how changes in my own life made me reflect on Aaron’s life in new ways. I have many blessings in my life, in particular Amy and our kids, but amidst this plenty I do still feel shocked and haunted every day by Aaron’s loss. The hole in our lives where he should be is in no way healed over, but moves and changes shape as we keep on living.

This past year I had the chance to connect with someone who also lost a family member on 9/11. I was introduced last fall by a friend who teaches at Hampshire College to her student, Colby, whose senior project was on narratives of 9/11 family members as they negotiated their private journeys of mourning in the context of intense public and media coverage. Colby was nine years old when she lost her mother in the World Trade Center, and until she met me had never spoken about that day or the aftermath with another 9/11 family member. We did a long interview at my house in November, talking about Aaron and my experiences since then, addressing questions like how I felt about the Iraq War, how did I feel about media coverage etc. It brought up the fact that I had not really been “out” as a 9/11 family member and I’ve wondered since then about whether the lens of being closeted or open with regard to gender could be a useful way to look at myself.

The first slide of Colby's Prezi presentation

The first slide of Colby’s Prezi presentation: “Navigating Loss in the Public Eye: Narratives of 9/11 Family Members”

I was grateful to have the chance to support this younger person dealing with a similar loss but at a different place in her journey. Then in April, I had the chance to go out to Hampshire to hear Colby’s final project session, which I thought was great in the sense that it hit the marks of an undergrad thesis, but whose subject matter was so powerful and ineffable that it could not be channeled into such a defined presentation. What really brought home that disjunction of medium and subject matter for me was the fact that Colby used a presentation software called Prezi. Prezi is different from Powerpoint in that it conveys meaning not just in words or pictures on slides, but in how the presentation moves from one slide to the next. You start at a homescreen and then zoom in (or out), twist from one slide — as it were, to change an angle of discussion — and in other ways illustrate progress and motion through the various points you want to make. Personally I prefer the static, oppressive vibe of sitting through Powerpoints to all this juking and bopping, but that’s just me. Get offa my lawn kids!

Something about framing the mourning journey in a Prezi provoked me to try and write a poem, and I have brooded on it all summer with today’s obvious deadline. What I realized in writing it was that it marks some ambiguous transition for me, as I continue to try and deal with my own loss in a private way but also feel capable of connecting with (or even helping) others in related situations. I tried to capture what is sort of awful about using Prezi for this purpose–the smooth new-corporate glossiness for a topic that is so raw–but also how the structure Prezi provides is not unlike other structures we adopt to keep ourselves moving through grief. I know that most of you oldsters reading this have never seen Prezi in action, so between that and my own vaguenesses there is some obscurity going on here. I wish I had more time and urgent motivation to write throughout the year, but am grateful at least to be able to write from this most powerful and deep-seated motivation every so often.

As an experiment, I’ve added this recording of me reading the poem. Props to my man jh0st for suggesting this.

Remembering Aaron, and so many others, today and every day.

************

A Prezi for the departed

 

The mourning template has a pleasant face—

It melds inviting blurs of voicemail clips,

Stray photographs, the downloads from the dead. 

 

The face becomes our starting point. We click

This eye to follow one loss down, from who

(We hear the wedding speech), to what (the plane,

 

The cancers), to the living. Quarter-turn: 

We trace the mourner’s path from boom to now: 

Our view pans over impact statements, blinks

 

A flashback like a strobe across the page—

And then we bounce, yanked forward to the next

Departed, all the g-force metered out

 

To give that first-day kick, the next years’ drag,

And drift us to “conclusion” at the end. 

Oh Prezi, logo-shirted Virgil, steer

 

Along these rails and never stray: for if

These dead are not yet ours to mourn, this dance

You lead, so briskly guiding hands and knees

 

In painted steps along this path, is one

We all start from the floor. Your glib bright hand

Is what we have to grab to follow on.

 

September 2014

© Joshua Jacobs

Hyannis Sprint II

Me and the family after the tri. One of my favorite photo ops of the year!

Me and the family after the tri. One of my favorite photo ops of the year!

This summer I’ve had the chance to train for the Hyannis Sprint II Triathlon…as I say, the shortest distance they’ll still call a triathlon! It was a great way to motivate to work out and to remember how to swim and bike. I was psyched to be healthy and for the weather to hold out. I finished and it was a great day out with the family.

Me and Amy before the race

Me and Amy before the race

Getting ready on the beach with Miss A...we met a 14 y o kid who was doing it for the fifth straight year!

Getting ready on the beach with Miss A…we met a 14 y o kid who was doing it for the fifth straight year!

 

I AM AQUAMAN...oh sh*t is the race starting?

I AM AQUAMAN…oh sh*t is the race starting?

Bike phase was humbling as ever…I was being passed at great speed by people up to 30 years older than me. On the other hand, my bike was weighted down by a kickstand and banana seat and cost about 1/10 the price of theirs.

I just biked in from Mashpee and boy are my arms tired

I just biked in from Mashpee and boy are my arms tired

It was a good day.

Happy Robynversary, Amy!

This summer Amy and I had our 13th anniversary. It’s been 27 years since we first met, so I think my long game has really paid off. Since Amy has never been one to toot her own horn, and anyway her horn is stowed somewhere in the garage, it falls to me every so often to praise this amazing yet secretly goofy woman.

Amy's art camp...note the scenery Amy did for the 5th grade Peter Pan musical, now in our permanent collection

Amy’s art camp…note the scenery Amy did for the 5th grade Peter Pan musical, now in our permanent collection

Just to highlight a few of Amy’s accomplishments these past few months:

  • Women’s gathering: For 10+ years now, in both our home in Newton and in Portugal when we lived there, Amy has led a monthly gathering for women based on a curriculum she prepares around a theme such as (inspired by Lean In) “What would you do if you weren’t afraid: summoning our courage and pursuing our dreams.” Amy draws together quotes from literary, philosophical and religious texts to spur the group’s thoughts before the meeting. Then on the night of the meeting, 12-28 women from a wide range of experiences gather at our house and have some snacks (with our thrilled girls bounding around, gobbling and hiding amongst the women before I drag them up to bed), and Amy leads a discussion of the theme. After she’s done facilitating the topic, she writes up everyone’s comments for her own pleasure and others’ inspiration. It has been a huge, understated inspiration to our girls to have their mom bring together this group throughout their lives, and to me to see the enormous impact the group has on its participants. Someday there will be a book on this.
Amy's Peacemakers group in Portugal, 2008

Amy’s Peacemakers group in Portugal, 2008

  • Peacemakers class: And what’s more, Amy has also organized since 2008 or so a group of kids our girls’ ages on being peace-makers. Amy uses role plays, music, some texts from Baha’i or other sources, and her general teacherly wisdom to lead classes for up to 15 kids at a time, sometimes subdivided into age groups with teenage helpers. She has also brought the group to do social action projects at local organizations. You can read a blog Amy wrote up about the class in 2011. This is another way that Amy has inspired and led not just our family but a good chunk of the local community.
  • Community Connections: Living in our suburban bubble of happy happy, I am particularly grateful that Amy has an inner drive to seek connections with people of other cultures, races and religions. Heck, I guess that last part is why I’m writing this in the first place. For our local school, Amy has taken on the leadership of a committee that puts on programs for local parents and also those families who live in Boston and attend the school through the METCO program. This summer we’ve had a couple of meet-ups in Boston, at the zoo and then at a family’s home. Amy’s super-sized love and honesty has helped the connection between Newton and Boston families through these events be genuine and fun. I am so grateful to be part of what Amy and others are helping to build through these gatherings.
Welcome to Amy's Art Camp!

Welcome to Amy’s Art Camp!

  • Art Camp! Last year, Amy realized she was just sitting on her butt most of the time and needed to build in more structure to the summer. So she organized a week-long camp at our house for our girls and local kids to make art projects. This was great, and this year Amy expanded to two weeks and covered a little art theory (colors and complementarity), different media (watercolors, acrylics, wood, gloop), and did some awesome projects like fairy houses, landscape paintings, tie-dyed shirts, and much more. Because I’m kvelling I will mention two actual quotes from happy campers (not our kids): “Mom, that was a real camp – we really did something”; “It isn’t summer without your art camp.”
  • What’s next? Amy is embarking on a graduate certificate course in parent coaching. You may not know that parent coaching is a thing, but if you’ve watched “Nanny 911″ or walked into a bookstore or heard about the “Tiger Mother,” you know that people are more open than ever before about the challenges of parenting and how to get help. Amy has talked to friends about parenting issues for many years, while also struggling mightily with our own parenting ups and downs. Now, she is taking this step to put up a shingle and professionalize her constellation of facilitating skills, ability to address hard questions in an open way, and love of all things related to family. I predict success.
Our family under the Supermoon

Our family under the Supermoon

Amy has a unique drive to create community through these gatherings and a facilitatin’ genius to guide people through discussions of challenging topics in a way that ends up being fun and productive. Talking with Amy about her plans for the coming year, I was reminded of a quote from the catcher who caught one of Nolan Ryan’s no-hitters. The guy said catching Ryan was like being at the wheel of the world’s greatest sportscar. For me I guess the analogy would that I’m making supportive, avuncular comments from the sidecar of a powerful motorcycle as it surges towards…greater peace and unity among all peoples? The metaphor needs some work but I feel privileged and amazed to be with Amy as she makes such powerful, loving contributions to people’s lives and the broader community.

Getting psyched for Robyn

Getting psyched for Robyn

ROBYN

We got to see Robyn on her tour with fellow Swedes Royskopp for their mini-album Do It Again. As chronicled previously, Amy and I have been pretty into Robyn for the past three years. The tour with Royskopp had a set of just Royskopp, a set of just Robyn, and then they played most of the songs from Do It Again.

The set from Robyn was about 40 minutes of awesomeness. Apart from her biggest dance anthems Call your Girlfriend and Dancing on my Own, which are now clearly the I Will Survive of a new generation, she played Stars 4-Ever from Body Talk. I love this song because it makes me think of Amy doing her workout video with it playing…this was before Amy started listening to Wolf Hall or What is the What while working out ( I could never do that).

The confetti blast during "Do It Again" was the absolute disco epiphany of the evening

The confetti blast during “Do It Again” was the absolute disco epiphany of the evening

And the Do It Again set was great too, albeit in a somewhat darker and (even) weirder mode. Amy is not a fan of “Sayit,” but we both watched in amazement as she did about a thousand situps (well, pelvic thrusts really) and hundreds of leg lifts, all in six-inch platform sneakers. “Do It Again” itself was the epic dancefloor ecstasy that everyone came for. And then the encore was “None of Dem” from Body Talk, which was great but, as Amy pointed out, does have a chorus of “I’m so bored of this town/ take me away from here,” which a more scrupulously polite dance diva might think was a rude way to say farewell to her adoring crowd.

Amy, you are a wonderful companion and a star 4-ever. Love you.

Past tributes:

2013

2012

2011

Turning 90: Our 90s party and annotated playlist

Amy and I turned a collective 90 this summer and decided to celebrate together 90s-style. It was a fantastic night, with a bunch of friends from many different parts of our lives hanging out inside the house and in the garage.  We had the mobile custom ice cream sandwich truck from Frozen Hoagies roll up outside the garage, which definitely took things up to 11 in the eyes of many admiring guests. A few people turned out in plaid shirts but for the most part the 90s theme was just at the musical level.

Amy and I with the Frozen Hoagies truck in our driveway

Amy and I with the Frozen Hoagies truck in our driveway

I got totally into curating a special 90s playlist, and went to the Garment District to find a vintage band shirt (Foo Fighters…a band I actually saw w/ Aaron in 97 or so). Since we had a mellow crowd, there wasn’t quite the epiphanic Rites of Spring-like dancing to Fugazi or Quad City DJs that I might have desired. But in the privacy of your own home or headphones, there’s nothing to stop you from bobbing your head in silent approbation of my playlist. Presented here in alpha order: links are to the videos. Or if you already have plenty of your own feelings and interpretations of the 90s and just want to listen, here is the Spotify list.

Everyone was feeling 1992 after a giant ice cream sandwich

Everyone was feeling 1992 after a giant ice cream sandwich

California Love 2Pac This was a great video from 2Pac that entered my grad school bubble and caused me to write a paper about it and the Kathryn Bigelow movie “Strange Days.” Images of the apocalypse or something. I presented it at SUNY Binghamton at a conference on millennial sh!t in 1997. When I googled the conf just now I was so happy not to have continued blithering in that direction in my career…I realize now I was just like Beavis and Butthead saying, “huh huh, cool” compared to people who actually made their papers at that conference lead up to books, tenure etc.
You oughta know Alanis So it turns out Dave Navarro from Jane’s Addiction and Flea from Red Hot Chili Peppers played on this track and are in the video. Such an artifact of its moment…Alanis is wearing a crop-top shirt under a jacket as she rolls around in the desert sand, full of rage and great hair.
Would? Alice in chains Hard to believe but the 1992 Cameron Crowe movie Singles was held out as a grungy monocle peering inside the life of 20-something Gen Xers like me. The movie was full of BS emotional shorthand, leavened somewhat by the cameo by Xavier McDaniel appearing in some guy’s head to help him defer pleasure. You have to give Crowe credit for the soundtrack, though, which includes some custom-written tracks by great bands. This Alice in Chains track still rocks.
Sabotage Beastie Boys Just the iconic Beasties song and video. Who doesn’t know that Mike D played “The Captain” as “Allessandro Allegré” or MCA, may his memory be a blessing, played “Chochise” as “Nathan Wind”?
Hyperballad Bjork Starting with “Birthday,” her 1988 track with Sugarcubes that brought my man Pat to Gimme Shelter-style ecstasies with Bjork’s belting style, she became one of my key cult of tiny, maniacal women singers (along with PJ Harvey). This song became a dance hit despite Bjork’s unstoppable weirdness in the lyrics.
Song 2 Blur Probably ironic that this song by Guardian-reading Blur became the soundtrack to the Starship Troopers right-wing fantasy movie and many a run mix. Still awesome. Saw them, along with Alanis, Beasties, and Bjork, at the Concert for Tibet w/ Aaron on Randalls Island in 1999.
El Cuarto de Tula Buena vista Though they had been playing gigs since the 1950s, the 90s was the breakout decade for the Buena Vista crew, highlighted by the Wim Wenders biopic in 1999. Amy, my folks and I saw them at a fantastic concert in Boston.
Lovefool Cardigans A great track from the Baz Luhrman “Romeo + Juliet” movie that I went to see with my RU English grad student posse. I was so pumped to lead my Expository Writing students through a careful unpacking of the film’s many meanings but it never happened.
Under the Bridge Chiles In a playlist full of my own trips down memory lane, this is the one track that is more of an Amy favorite. I’m like the magnanimous jerk protagonist of “High Fidelity” who ends the movie by actually making his lady a mixtape of stuff she likes instead of his own pompous tastes. I loved these guys in the 80s/early 90s.
How I could just kill a man Cypress Hill In a prelude to the “Tea Partay” video, this song reminds me of driving around Long Island w/ Doug, Amy and Bart, crankin Cypress Hill, with Bart wearing his mom’s pink velour Kangol hat
Brown sugar D’Angelo Any true Prince fan has to love D’Angelo’s one-man-band / loverman m.o. This track from his debut reminds me of hanging out w/ unattainable women in Brooklyn.
Groove is in the heart Dee-Lite From the dawn of the 90s, and before it was commonplace to have rappers guest on pop / dance songs, this little number feat. Q-Tip was a big song at Casa de Newport at Amherst in 1990-1991.
Personal Jesus Depeche Mode Nothing says “posing alterna college student” like Depeche, who like U2 seemed to have a strange compulsion to explicate religion, America, death and other big topics using only a bunch of synths and drum tracks.
The art of easing Digable Planets This is actually from their sophomore album following their hit with “Cool Like That” from 92. Saw them play outside the miserable River Dorms at Rutgers wherein I spent much of my 20s teaching Expository Writing.
Unbelievable EMF Wonderfully goofy…the kind of band that has a guy whose job is just to dance in place and say “WHOAAAH YEAH.”
My Hero Foo fighters This is the song that is supposedly Dave Grohl’s homage to Kurt Cobain.
Margin walker Fugazi Through high school in Northern VA I was basically lobotomized by classic rock, missing out on the chance to go to DC and see bands like Minor Threat and (then) Fugazi with the more aware kids in my class. Somehow I snapped out of it. The last time I played this song through speakers instead of headphones was 92 at a party in our grad school apt. A semi-punky friend said we should start a radio show on the Rutgers station…a dream that was not to be. But that dudette, Beth Loffreda, actually did make a real academic career for herself in Wyoming, finding herself there in the right moment to bear witness to Mathew Sheppard’s murder and its aftermath. Good job!
Ready or Not Fugees I taught summer courses at RU-Newark in the 90s and felt a bit of kinship with “The Brick City” when the Fugees emerged. Lauryn Hill: what a voice!
Stupid Girl Garbage In December 1998 I went to the MLA English-prof conference in San Francisco and then drove down to LA to spend New Year’s into 1999 with my cousin. I played this Garbage CD that whole week and it is tied up in my mind with the beauty of the ride, and the rising awareness that the life of an academic probably wasn’t going to pan out. Got to see some elephant seals though.
Celebrity Skin Hole My man Bart’s cousin Tim, an actual musician, proposed that Celebrity Skin was one of those albums that is flawless all the way through. Totally agree and this opening track has both hair-metal guitars AND a reference to demonology. Parfait!
Mountain Song Jane’s Addiction Unlike the more Rock Cathedral stylings of “Ritual de lo Habitual” (1990), the songs off “Nothing’s Shocking” (1988) usually get the job done in 4 mins or less. In the studio version, Dave Navarro’s guitar under the “ooooh, oooh, whoa whoa whoa yeah” chorus is excellence in shredding. This video is from a good NYC concert in 1998 that conveys the shirtless-skirt-wearing majesty that was Jane’s.
Steal my sunshine Len A bit flaky but this girl’s voice in the chorus made this song one of the big ones of Summer 1999. The CD was weak and the band vanished afterwards, their contribution to world culture assured.
Baby got going Liz Phair Liz Phair was a true cult figure for me and many of my friends in the 90s. Particularly for people in the grad school orbit, Liz Phair’s self-conscious stylings (i.e. remaking a Stones album track by track) and lyrics just added mysterious glory to her great indie sound. I do have friends that probably feel this song is too produced and not real-real enough but whatever.
Naked eye Luscious Jackson Classic Beasties-produced sound of NYC in the 90s…brings me right back to Aaron’s tiny apartments.
Vogue Madonna This song featured at the Amherst Madonna Party, where lots of people got their lingerie on. Afterwards by voice vote Madonna was awarded a D. Hum. (honoris causa) from Amherst, which we thought was pretty awesome as she hadn’t gone to college. Ms. Ciccone, the sheepskin is still waiting for you, signed by Peter Pouncey!
Ray of Light Madonna This was the Madonna phase about which my friend Sarah proposed a New Yorker cartoon with the caption, “American Indian or Madonna Indian?”
Buffalo Stance Neneh Cherry One of the great danceable songs of the decade. My sister in law just dug it out this past winter and I have to admit, I still know all the words.
Closer Nine Inch Nails Withdrawn from the actual party playlist after Amy heard the lyrics. Still, hard to resist the beat.
Smells like teen spirit Nirvana Of all the songs I looked up for this playlist, Smells Like has the most YouTube plays by far (190M plus). When Kurt died my mom recognized what an earthquake had hit my generation and called me up immediately to ask how I was taking it.
Spiderwebs No Doubt Before Gwen was Gwen (just like before Lauryn was Lauryn), she was part of this fun ska-punk band from Orange County. This song brings me back to working out in the Hoboken YMCA.
Got your money Ol’ Dirty Bastard The playful side of the Wu-Tang Crew. You have to love Kelis (of “I Hate You So Much Right Now” solo fame) on this chorus.
Even Flow Pearl Jam When I first played the Pearl Jam CD for Aaron he basically thought they were mopey, plaid-skirt-wearing dirge artists. Once he got past that he became a much bigger fan than I ever was.
State of love and trust Pearl Jam This one from the “Singles” soundtrack has more of a straight-ahead energy than the typical Pearl Jam track of those days. Still my favorite.
Down by the water PJ Harvey Another tiny maniacal performer I love. This is just about her most radio-friendly tune from the era. How can someone be so teeny and self-effacing in normal life, and such an amazing monster/diva onstage?
Sour Times Portishead Kind of like the flipside of Wu-Tang, with a similar affection for beats and noir strings together.
1999 Prince Song was released in 1982! Prince was not alone in overestimating the Y2K bug but this song is into its fourth decade of crushing it.
C’mon n’ Ride It Quad City DJs OMG just realized these guys had previously produced “Whoot! There it is”…despite that I really love this song, which is just innocent enough on the lyrics that we can play it in the house
Creep Radiohead Before they were worldwide cult heros and the subjects of a hagiographic New Yorker profile, Radiohead were the band that sang “I’m a creep…what the hell am I doing here?” I saw them OPEN FOR BELLY IN THE RUTGERS GYM. That’s how far they have climbed.
Bulls on parade Rage against the machine Nothing says 90s like the Rage cover art, a trunk full of Ché regalia and tracts. Sadly, “rally round the family/with a pocket full of shells” is more of an apt and realistic political portrait than ever.
Nothing compares to U Sinead I so loved Sinead’s sea-screech in “Jackie” from her first album. Then to sing over a Prince track, while gorgeously and baldly glowering around the grounds of a mansion? Perfection.
Baby got back Sir Mix-a-lot The summer of 1992 I spent in DC and it was wall-to-wall Sir Mix-a-Lot. My friend Tam said at the time that entire stations had become Baby Got Back outlets. Glorious.
1979 Smashing Pumpkins I saw Billy Corgan interviewed recently in “Beyond the Gilded Stage,” a Rush documentary. I think even as much as I loved the Pumpkins in the 90s, probably nobody will be doing a docu about them four decades after their founding. However, an unabashedly cool group, with a poppy lyrical sense at times as in “1979.”
Gin & Juice Snoop Dogg Brings me back to singing this with Sarah and other Sammy’s survivors while careening down the icy streets of the Lower East Side.
Back to life Soul 2 Soul Always associated in my mind with cool British women from when I studied in the UK in 89-90. Amazing feat to be archly cool while also constantly making tea and eating Hob-Nobs.
Outshined Soundgarden Soundgarden was for me the (empty? tormented?) soul of the early 90s Lollapalooza era. Nothing like the Black Sabbath like churn plus Chris Cornell’s yowling cries from the alterna-cave.
Fools Gold Stone Roses This is the song that rang in the 90s for me as I visited the “Madchester” scene of glam squalor with UK college friends, complete with a visit to the New Order Haçienda club and an ultra-poseur shot in front of the Salford Lads Club to recreate the Smiths’ Queen is Dead album cover. Totally trippy bongos on hand to remind you that people were on some major drug trips.
Tumble in the rough Stone Temple Pilots This brings back sweet memories for me and Amy, believe it or not, as we got this used CD in Flagstaff AZ on a camping trip when we were first going out and listened to these songs driving across the desert.
Electric Relaxation Tribe called quest The video says “90s NYC” better than almost anything else. If you haven’t seen it, the documentary on Tribe Called Quest, “Beats Rhymes and Life,” is great.
Mysterious Ways U2 Not content to explain America to Americans, with the Achtung Baby album and this video, U2 sought to explain the mystic appeal of North African culture. The album was such a defining moment in the senior year of my 92 friends at Amherst that when I visited them that year it was like they had to explain to me they had had a formal conversion experience.

 

Here is the playlist on Spotify again:

Endless Neuromancer Summer

"Chiba City" by user SourGasm

“Chiba City” by user SourGasm

Thirty years after its publication, William Gibson’s cyberpunk classic Neuromancer is still keeping people up too late reading about a washed-up hacker cowboy hired for one last score. Somehow I’ve had a karmic connection to the book this summer: first my friend Shana referred me to an “industrial-folk” singer called EMA whose new CD, Future is Void, is based on her reading of Neuromancer. Sold! And then the very next day, while strolling through the yarn-bombed Newton Free Library on a Maker Faire day, I saw a flyer for a 17-and-up “STEaMy” reading group on Neuromancer (that’s Science, Technology, Engineering and Math, so don’t get all excited you Molly Millions fetishists). The memory of my first reading of Neuromancer on the rainy streets of Cambridge UK (alma mater of the doomed researcher in the book’s sequel, Count Zero) ruptured my work-to-home entropy and got my old-assed self out to these two fun events.

EMA at Great Scotts in Allston, MA, 5/10/14

EMA at Great Scotts in Allston, MA, 5/10/14

These notes are just on the phenomena of What We Talk About When We Talk About Neuromancer, not the thing itself (which you should all read right away). I saw EMA at a tiny bar in Allston last month. Even after highbrow types like myself (my brow goes over my head and into my collar on the other side these days) were alerted to EMA by the New Yorker, or better yet by clued-in friends, there were maybe 50 people who came out to see the show, with another ten resolutely watching playoff hockey. EMA’s Neuromancer-riffing concept album was based on her experience of being in the public eye and feeling like her public self was a separate entity…almost like an AI! I don’t ask that 6-foot industrio-folk singers be super deep…it is enough to be loud and howly and wear Oculus Rift headsets in Neuromancer-themed videos. The mixture of grungy apartment and virtual space put me right in Bobby Newmark’s mom’s apartment in the Sprawl. It was great to be in such an intimate setting with her and the band at this show.

 

Then this week I met up for the much-ballyhooed Neuromancer reading group at the library. Turned out to be a distinguished fellow like myself–long time denizen of the Gentleman Loser–and a 28-ish woman who works at the library and had just picked up Neuromancer as part of getting into sci-fi this year. In a somewhat too Margaret Mead-like way, I asked whether people her age (shakes cane) were looking to have book groups and read Gibson. She said that some dudes she knows who never read anything at all had told her, dude, read Neuromancer (seemingly a common marker for a certain type of guy these days), and that the book might not be the most book-clubbable but that she anyway was motivated to read further into the Sprawl trilogy.

"Case and Molly on the Sprawl" by DeviantArt user RoyalBoil

“Case and Molly on the Sprawl” by DeviantArt user RoyalBoil

We commented on Gibson’s still-prophetic view of a corporate-dominated “web” of the future, which, as one commentator pointed out a couple of years ago, is coming true on the social and political dystopia front more quickly than on the technological “jacking-in” to the web frontier. Our host asked about Gibson vs. Neil Stephenson, and I just beamed with pleasure: for her at being all Cortez with a wild surmise over the new ocean of fun reading with Stephenson, and for me at thinking about these two superheroes. In fact, as I noted in this very space two years ago, Stephenson’s work is a lot closer to Adrienne Rich than to Gibson. Stephenson is the sprawling Whitmanian figure of fun and emotion; Gibson, more the noir-prophetic Raymond Chandler, the hardassed founder and embodier in style of Mirrorshades. But thank goodness, these kids today have it all laid out in front of them in our new dystopian reader’s paradise. It’s a great time to enjoy the fear of the future, especially Gibson’s paleo-future that still rings true.

Taking the road with my seder learner’s permit

The Jacobs family Haggadot since the 1970s

The Jacobs family Haggadot since the 1970s

This year my folks gave the OK for me to try my hand at leading the Passover seder. I had gotten to feeling that I needed to create a seder experience for the kids that was not defined by how we had always done things. Happily a Haggadah author came by our temple not too long ago pitching his new Haggadah–includes handy seder planner for all ages!–and I invested in “A Night to Remember,” a Haggadah translated from the Israeli Hebrew version and oriented towards contemporary lefty-ish people.

Me, Miss E and some frogs

Me, Miss E and some frogs

Preparing for the seder, I looked back at the Leonard Baskin Haggadah my family has used for 20+ years, and also the Rabbi Alfred Kolatch version we’d used further back in time. Pictured above you can see a certain lightening of artistic mood across the ages, and it was kind of a stunner to see a special prayer for Soviet Jewry in the Kolatch edition–essentially the only modern or social reference in the whole megillah, compared to the tons of poetry, social reflections etc. in the Night to Remember. More poignantly, seeing the notations written in the margins of who read which passage in 1985 reminded me of those we’ve lost. Another reason to get a new set of haggadot and attempt a new beginning.

The beautiful matzoh ladies

The beautiful matzoh ladies

I think with any transition from one generation to the next there might be a certain sense of inauthenticity, of thinking that I can’t possibly be the person at the head of this table. I was grateful for the support of my folks, Amy and the girls, and my cousin and her partner in trying a new approach, one with more interactive moments (i.e. the girls went out the door and did a “knock knock” in traveler’s garb to start the telling of the Exodus), and also with what Amy graciously referred to as a few gaps. Without getting into details, let’s just say that next year we may need to dip our greens four or more times to even things out.

A frog looks out over the inviting matzoh ball pond

A frog looks out over the inviting matzoh ball pond

One of the interesting things that the Night to Remember author mentioned in his “Seder 101″ talk at the temple was the somewhat arbitrary way in which the Four Questions had become the official questions that kids ask at the seder. Turns out (according to him–assume I am wrong about all of this) that the FOUR QUESTIONS were really intended to be representative of a whole variety of questions that could/should be asked as part of fulfilling the one real obligation of the seder: telling the story of the Exodus from Egypt. [Cue Bob rocking the movement of Jah people.]

This was also a week full of reminders that, as they say, in every generation enemies have risen up to try and destroy our people. Just the night before our seder, a leading white supremacist went to the Kansas City Jewish community center complex to try and kill some Jews. And today was the one year anniversary of the Boston Marathon bombings. Some years the seder really feels like a celebration of freedom, and others it feels more like collectively getting through a hard time. I’m reminded of the days after 9/11 when I heard of a rabbi who had told his congregants to celebrate Shabbat to spite the terrorists…there was a tinge of that for me this year. But mostly I was grateful to be able to make some baby steps towards stewarding my family’s traditions and to share in a peaceful, joyous and very filling moment together.

Profiles in Weirdness: Miss A and Amy with Amy's delicious Passover desserts

Profiles in Weirdness: Miss A and Amy with Amy’s delicious Passover desserts

Juliette Kayyem on campaign trail

Juliette Kayem on the mic (Photo: Boston Herald)

Juliette Kayem on the mic (Photo: Boston Herald)

Tonight I was invited to a home fundraiser/meet and greet with Democratic MA Governor candidate Juliette Kayyem. Not content merely to leverage her name recognition off the local favorite hot dog brand (like Juliette, the product of hard-working immigrants), she is pushing an outsider candidacy against two leading Dem incumbents who personify traditional Mass politics. I was impressed and will definitely be supporting her through the primary and general.

Kayyem is very much representative of my segment of Massachusetts. Though born out of state, she went to college and law school here (“at a school near Boston”) and started a career in civil rights law–helping un-”save the males” by fighting to integrate women into the Virginia Military Institute–before moving into domestic security roles in both the Mass. Governor’s office and also in Obama’s Department of Homeland Security. She is from a Christian Lebanese family, but married a Jewish guy and is raising three kids in the Jewish tradition.

All good, but what really struck me about Kayyem was her emphasis on preparedness as an overarching theme for her governance approach, and how she differentiated herself from old-school Mass pols. Kayyem started her pitch by talking about her belief in the ability of government to have a constructive and positive role in our communities–always refreshing to hear in today’s national context. She drew on her experiences to talk about how Massachusetts needs to position itself globally, i.e. by making sure it has the broadband and ports infrastructure to connect our companies/people to the world, while also addressing climate change by preparing (for rising sea levels) and simultaneously changing behaviors/energy sources. Democratic candidates have often justified these sorts of investments and policies as necessary steps towards liberal ideals, and I know Kayyem shares some of that idealism. But she represents a new Obama-era Democrat who is able to draw on science and public/private experience to make this case, and that is a smart approach that appeals to me.

And she closed her pitch by saying that she is having some outsider first-campaign success against two frontrunners, Martha Coakley and Steve Grossman, and that she will win through people believing that they can help shape their state government. That meant something to me, as I have had to seal my whole nose with duct tape to pull the Dem lever for machine politicians in several Mass. elections. Sometimes in the globally-oriented environs of MIT and our little suburban bubble, you can forget just how parochial Massachusetts and its politics have been for centuries, but that is the fight Kayyem is in for this race. I hope she can prevail.

Josh Marshall on writing from within/outside academia

My headshot as "Dr. J" after finishing my PhD, 1997. I'm wearing the Julius Erving Sixers jersey and applying the stethscope to Rich's book. I had an alternate shot in which I wore the mortarboard.

My headshot as “Dr. J” after finishing my PhD, 1997. I’m wearing the Julius Erving Sixers jersey and applying the stethscope to Adrienne Rich’s book. I had an alternate shot in which I wore the mortarboard.

Josh Marshall, the creator of Talking Points Media, one of my favorite politics blogs, is a fellow would-have-been professor who realized that academia was not for him. He has a post up on the latest surge of academia-bashing, which was started by a Nick Kristof op-ed in the NYT on why professors aren’t present enough in public debates on policy or other vital topics. It’s really worth reading if you have ever been in academia…or just wanted to wear a mortarboard! All of it brought me back to my own fortunate escape/rejection from academia, happily not so early that I missed out on taking the righteous headshot you see here.

Josh’s piece takes you step-by-step through the early life of passionate devotion to history, the successful attainment of a top PhD program, and even the early-grad-student successes that would all herald a possible faculty spot. And then the realization that success, as defined by writing for an audience of a couple of hundred people in your field, is just not enough to sustain you through the depressing uncertainties of the serfdom of academia. This passage really rings true for me of what it was like back then, to have the double realization that all this dreaming and success would not be working out, and that even if it did this was not the team I wanted to join for life:

Much has changed and stayed the same since the mid-90s. But consider the sociology of graduate education in the humanities. To get into a strong PhD program you need to be fairly bright and, even more important, you need strong academic credentials. At least then, those attributes gave you a pretty good shot at a life of at least some and maybe a lot of financial comfort and stability. Law school, medical school, consulting, business or other opportunities.

 

In this case, you’re spending at least 5 or 6 years in school with the distinct possibility you’ll never get a full-time tenure track position. Think about it, the better part of your twenties for the chance to get a job. If you do get a job it will likely be somewhere you’ve never lived or wanted to live and your main goal will be working like crazy to build up enough publishing capital to move on to some other more desirable position. Many end up piecing together various contract positions with little prospect of finding a permanent job with a future, benefits or anything. Needless to say, this can be a bit depressing. And all the while folks are seeing their college peers getting their first adult incomes in various professions or business or whatever else.

 

Perhaps unsurprisingly this can generate some pretty toxic intra-group dynamics. And the negativity this involves, I think, pervades a lot of academic life.

He goes on to describe the familiar tropes of self-isolation, questionable relevance and futility that have described academia for so long–but from the refreshing perspective of someone who realized against the odds that the training he was getting could be applied to a different pursuit. As he puts it, “all the incentives of academic life drive against having the time, the need and in many cases the ability to communicate with a larger public.” I think this is a needless tragedy to befall so many committed and smart PhD students, but the forces of self-replication among graduate faculty are strong.

I had my own example of this phenomenon about eight years ago. I was six years into my post-tenure-track-aspirant career as an academic administrator at MIT, and sitting, in fact, as a visiting something or other at Cambridge University while part of a collaboration between Cambridge and MIT that Gordon Brown started.

I wrote a note to the graduate chair of my old English Department to reflect on my path out of the would-be-faculty and into a related career that was using much of what I learned, and which current grad students might do well to at least hear about. He agreed that this would be valuable, and said he’d actually gone and gotten a grant the previous year from the Woodrow Wilson Institute to pilot just such an effort. Two PhDs joined him to lead a class that was intended to teach English grad students something about how they could apply their toolkit (forbidden term in humanities, mandatory in biz world) to interpret and communicate outside of academic research.

This really wasn’t looking to push people too far out of their chosen paths, I don’t think, but just broaden the perspectives of those who were darn well going to stay in academia. Sadly, only a handful of students signed up, and my professor said that he didn’t see any appetite amongst those motivated to get into the department for a career as anything other than an English professor. I can’t imagine it has changed too much since then.

For me, getting nudged out of the professor path by life events and academic hiring practices was very fortunate, because unlike Josh Marshall I didn’t have a strong vision of something else I wanted to pursue. But while his piece is about a debate over the impact of successful academics in the public arena, I think the broader question is how the far greater numbers of people like me who didn’t make it can apply our passion and the analytical tools to make a living and benefit society.

 

 

Sammy’s XXVI

Original members still present for XXVI

Original members still present for XXVI

They thought it would be “too cold” to have the annual Amherst dinner at Sammy’s in New York in the middle of winter…that the bitter winds would blow through the festive schmaltzy basement and congeal the schmaltz in its syrup dispensers…or that the brutal impact of cold, grease, and questionably-sourced meat all at once would leave the remaining members of past Amherst championship dinners unable to finish the 4th quarter.

Really, Tam? Is that what she said about your karnatzlach?

Really, Tam? Is that what she said about your karnatzlach

StuffedCabbage

Welcome to Fantasy Island!

They were so wrong! For the XXVIth Running of the Lord Jeffs on Chrystie Street, five original comrades from Interterm 1989 were present along with eight co-comrades. Now that the long-time owner, Stan Zimmerman (may his memory be a blessing–probably a motzi), has passed on, the Sammy’s experience is really all about Dani Luv, who recently told the Times that he’s played “Hava Nagila” “two billion times, enough to make me cut my veins already.” Honestly he is really a gross person, but he knows how to work the joint and get people up dancing the hora. There was even a special Super Bowl love-fest between a table of 30+ Broncos fans and 12 Seahawks fans. Guess the Broncos fans must have slipped the team some schmaltz…must be some explanation for how the game turned out.

I woke up in a sweat the night after–not for the health-related reasons you might imagine, but because I realized that we HAD NOT BEEN SERVED DERMA! But despite this omission

How it used to be: Tamer and I meet friends at Sammy's IX

How it used to be: Tamer and I meet friends at Sammy’s IX

(probably saving us a lot of emission) the menu was strong overall: schmaltz, always a lovely “Jewish Caesar Salad”; stuffed cabbage, awesome; garlic sausage, which I had sworn not to eat in order to preserve healthy spousal relations, were delicious and irresistible; and the blazing hot latkes, fresh from the fryer, came at the same time as the flapper steaks and left me reeling. I think Sammy’s was on its game that night with all the nudniks from Denver/Seattle as well as the standard “reverse bar mitzvah” (31st birthday party) and stag party crowd. Plus us, still kickin’.

M_SkatingCentralPark

E_SkatingCentralPark A_SkatingCentralPark

I had to add these shots of the girls skating at Lasker Park just to kvell about what beauties they are, and celebrate the amazing NFL-purchased good weather we had. Sammy’s definitely keeps us coming back to NYC and staying close to our friends there.

For history buffs:

Update from Sammy’s XXV

Update from Sammy’s XXIV

Three Days: Jane’s Addiction Reverie / Plant Trek

Happy new year! To my two RSS subscribers, mom and dad, and NSA monitors: sorry for the lack of creative output here of late. Hopefully more to come on this week’s trip, plus my thoughts on a great panel discussion I saw last month at MIT on “The Snowden Affair” and the deep state.

Entering the Cathedral of Rock in middle age

Creado y reado de Los Angeles...Juana's Addicción!

Creado y reado de Los Angeles…Juana’s Addicción!

Today’s theme is Music Appreciation in Adult Life. I have been overall pretty lucky during this phase, which has had a few recent notable concert outings, but one of the few things I miss about my younger self is the freedom to get totally into music. My most intense moment ever of Listening To Music was in September 1990, when I rushed in, all After-School Special-like, with the new Jane’s Addiction CD “Ritual de lo Habitual” to my buddy Bart’s room to reveal to him and Pat the epic song “Three Days.” This wasn’t exactly a Maxell speakers-blowing-my-long-hair situation, but listening to the 10-minute song was as close to pure musical epiphany as I’ve experienced. Before DFW described it in “Infinite Jest,” this was the entertainment that left me closest to a slack-jawed state of pure aesthetic pleasure.

The lineup at the Fitchburg arena: Tuesday: Junior Hockey. Wednesday: Jane's Addiction.

The lineup at the Fitchburg arena: Tuesday: Junior Hockey. Wednesday: Jane’s Addiction.

If you haven’t ever heard the song, I hesitate to recommend you listen to it except in the right circumstances. [If you're ready...here it is] Years passed when I didn’t even have the Ritual CD in my collection. Some vague stirring last year led me to buy it off iTunes, and I realized that the album is now being distributed with a live version of “Three Days.” I have fantastic memories of seeing Jane’s live at the Fitchburg, Mass. ice rink in Spring 1991 and going all maenad-moshpit-nutso during “Three Days,” but the live recordings just don’t capture the Rock Cathedral majesty of the studio version.

But even if a portal to the temple had been open these past few years, I wouldn’t have had too many opportunities to utter the password and enter. I can listen to short post-punk blasts, like Savages’ stuff, during my daily commute and feel momentarily transported (har har) from the no-eye-contact row of fellow T riders around me. But getting truly into Three Days on the D line probably violates public transit community norms around keeping your cool and keeping your biz out of people’s faces. And at home, we are in the oft-bemoaned fallen state of listening to music only through an iPod dock. Nice to have the music at hand, but the sound isn’t going to swallow you up. And my daughters are super sensitive even to my head nodding to music, let alone the thrashing-of-phantom-hair craziness that Three Days risks inducing. Very little tolerance for Dad acting out.

My man Pat stepped in with karmic timing to remedy this situation by sending me his original, 21 year old CD with the studio version of Three Days. And just yesterday I had the rare opportunity to really listen to it while flying to LAX to join my program’s faculty and students on a factory visit. And it was totally amazing. The succession of time changes, unabashedly Heavy guitar buildups and tribalesque drumming all link to Perry’s theme of transcendence—“ALL NOW WITH WINGS”—in a way that completely works for me. Like I said, don’t try this at home unless your partner/kids/parents are either not around or willing to suspend their belief that you are a Cool Cat for 10 minutes and 18 seconds.

Three days of operations excellence

Having nothing to do with the “Three Days” iconography of amor a trois featuring Jesus and two Marys, I’m about to start spending three days with my MIT program’s students during our annual tour of our partner companies’ factories / sites across the US. The students showed their fortitude by getting to their first stop, GM in Detroit, not by flying (b/c the big storm we had cancelled all flights) but by renting minivans and driving through the night! You may recall Detroit was at -11 degrees F with crazy wind and snow, making them surely the only group of 50 people trying like crazy to get TO Detroit that week. Anyway, they then saw Nike headquarters and waffle-sole manufacturing in Oregon, and the Boeing 737 and widebody plants in the Seattle area. The GM/Boeing leg of the trip was what I joined two years ago, and it was a fantastic introduction to manufacturing factories for someone whose heart is normally in writing ephemera like the preceding paragraphs.

This year I am joining the group for three stops:

Today we got to see the Amazon fulfillment center in San Bernardino, CA. Our program’s toolkit around lean manufacturing and operations has had a major impact on Amazon’s growth, in that one of our grads, Jeff Wilke, is the #2 or #3 guy at Amazon and brought a background in chemical manufacturing to the company about 15 years ago. He saw their warehouses as factories, drove the application of lean principles etc. (sorry, I know I have no business saying “lean manufacturing” but bear with me) and allowed them to become the drone-delivery behemoth we know today. Of particular interest at the San Bernardino site is how it represents Amazon’s growing role in local economic development, with Gov. Jerry Brown praising the jobs they are bringing to a really poor area at the same time that Amazon agreed to start collecting local sales tax for CA purchases. Plus we got to see the Amazon Fresh distribution center, one of three sites from which Amazon does grocery delivery (the others are SF and Seattle).

Then, following a bus ride from San Bernardino to Tucson (just got here…it took 7+ hours), we’ll tour the Raytheon missile factory, home of the Tomahawk, Patriot, Sidewinder, and other names that periodically emerge through the news of the last decades’ wars to remind us of the risks/benefits of stand-off warfare. Our non-US citizens in the group unfortunately are not allowed into the site and will have to watch “Top Gun” at a remote location instead. I lived in Tucson from age 3 months to 5 years, and hope to at least wave to the students at my alma mater, Camp Adventure Pre-school.

Weather permitting, we will then get to fly to the next stop, Austin, Texas, where we will see Dell Computer. Michael Dell has taken the time each of the last few years to meet with us as we start our day in Round Rock, and this year should be an especially interesting conversation since he managed to take the company private.

Books of Consequence: Amherst reads Wolf Hall

Best book about Amherst ever? Love the classic cover art

Best book about Amherst ever? Love the classic cover art

I was psyched this summer to hear that the local Amherst alumni club was starting a book club. I’ve never had the chance to be in a book club, and despite the possible Lives of Consequence-having pretension and Mercantile-wearing post-Valleyness you might associate with a roomful of Amherst grads, you could probably expect everyone to bring something good to the discussion. Our first meeting was on The Gods of Heavenly Punishment, by Jennifer Cody Epstein (Amherst ’89 dahling!). This novel intertwines family stories (American, Japanese, and hybrid) through the history of Japanese occupation of Manchuria during World War II and the American bombing raids on Tokyo. Some of the writers in the group talked about what shapes a novel, and we had a most Amhersty exploration of the ethics of writing about cultures and traumas that are not the writer’s own.

Wriothesley "Call-me-Risley" Road, right near my house, keeps 'ol Hilary in my heart every time I run by

Wriothesley “Call-me-Risley” Road, right near my house, keeps ‘ol Hilary in my heart every time I run by

I signed up to organize the next meeting, and offered three unbeatable options: The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, Swamplandia!, and Wolf Hall. I hope we read them all but the first-round winner is Wolf Hall, Hilary Mantel’s brutal, beautiful and eye-opening portrait of Thomas Cromwell, Henry VIII’s consiglieri and fixer. This is a 600+ page, Booker-winning beast of a novel, so no attempts at summary here. There is also a well-known play, A Man for All Seasons, about Cromwell and his enemy Thomas More, in which Cromwell comes out the bad guy. I haven’t read it! But in the hopes of persuading my fellow Readers of Consequence (cue Masterpiece Theater theme song) to pick up finish the book, and for the fun of transcribing some of Mantel’s language, I thought I’d take a stab at talking about some of the themes that run through the book. I was a bit sad to find some book-club bloggers on Wolf Hall were not very impressed, felt it was too long, etc. We can’t have that! So, some Notes Towards a Book Club Study Guide:

“Damn it all, Cromwell, why are you such a … person? It isn’t as though you could afford to be”

“Damn it all, Cromwell, why are you such a … person? It isn’t as though you could afford to be.”

1) One of the obvious strokes of brilliance by Mantel is in writing the book in the present tense, third person, with the Cromwell protagonist addressed as “he.” For me this decision is a big part of achieving such a contemporary and urgent feeling throughout the book. But in a few key moments Mantel addresses a “we” or “you,” bringing readers into a new present-tense that suggests we are still enmeshed in the mythical and real history of Britain. Or, as Faulkner says, the past is never dead; it’s not even past. This passage early in the book, just as we enter into the grim back story of how Cromwell’s first master, Wolsey, fell from grace, brings “we readers” into this continuing connection of a present (ours? Cromwell’s?) to Britain’s history.

Whichever way you look at it, it all begins in slaughter. Trojan Brutus and his descendents ruled till the coming of the Romans. Before London was called Lud’s Town, it was called New Troy. And we were Trojans…Arthur, High King of Britain, was Constantine’s grandson. He married up to three women, all called Guinevere, and his tomb is at Glastonbury, but you must understand that he is not really dead, only waiting his time to come again…[Had Arthur lived] Henry would likely be Archbishop of Canterbury, and would not (at least, we devoutly hope not) be in pursuit of a woman of whom the cardinal hears nothing good; a woman to whom, several years before the dukes walk in to despoil him, he will need to turn his attention; whose history, before ruin seizes him, he will need to comprehend.

Beneath every history, another history (p. 61)

So, reading buddies: how does the time/tense in which Wolf Hall takes place figure into your understanding of Cromwell and of the book’s events?

2) 2) The passage above highlights two other key themes: violence and magic. The book begins with Cromwell as a boy being beaten almost to death by his father, and includes scenes of assassination, burnings at the stake, and torture. Here is the aftermath of a scholar burned at the stake: “At Smithfield Frith is being shoveled up, his youth, his grace, his learning and his beauty; a compaction of mud, grease, charred bone.” (p. 443) Cromwell remembers how as a boy he wandered into the scene of another burning, and that afterwards the martyr’s companions smeared the fatty ash that remained onto Cromwell’s hand to remember her. He is a blacksmith’s son, a figure of physical intimidation and violence, while also steering Britain’s leaders away from war and torture. Here he is talking to the Duke of Norfolk:

“We can’t win,” the duke says, “but we have to fight as if we can. Hang the waste: money, men, horses, ships. That’s what’s wrong with Wolsey,  you see. Always at the treaty table. How can a butcher’s son understand—“
“La gloire?”
“Are you a butcher’s son?”
“A blacksmith’s.” (161)

Reading buddies: how does the violence in Wolf Hall figure in your understanding and/or appreciation of the book?

As you can see in Mantel’s earlier quote about the prehistory of Britain, magic for her percolates below the surface of all that happens in Wolf Hall. It emerges as a threat to the state in the person of the “Holy Maid,” a country girl whose contrived visions of the Virgin and of the king’s downfall are useful to enemies of the Tudors. Cromwell eventually breaks the Holy Maid and forces her public penance, as he says, to dispel the grip that her particular kind of hucksterish and predatory magic has on the people:

It is necessary to break the hold of these people who talk of the end times and threaten us with plagues and damnation. It is necessary to dispel the terror they create. (476)

Right around the time I read this passage, a member of the United States Congress stated that Obama’s policy in Syria was a sign of the end times, which she indeed welcomed as a harbinger of Christ’s rebirth and the apocalypse foreordained in Revelations. Cromwell’s opposition to such ideological world-enders and magicalists is needed in every era. Yet Mantel conveys throughout the book what you might call a rational acceptance that magic exists, that it overlaps the world of the real in various ways that people can exploit or use to find comfort. In this she builds on her earlier novel, Beyond Black, about contemporary women psychics.

My friend Rod who is a lucky BAST*DRDGD about to see the London stage production of Wolf Hall

My friend Rod who is a lucky BAST*DRDGD about to see the London stage production of Wolf Hall

Reading buddies: how did you consider the role of magic in this book nominally about affairs of state? I thought Mantel used magic as a way into reckoning with the lives of royalty, who back then were inevitably both mortal beings and evanescent representations of The State and other virtues. Here’s another passage on Henry and this duality:

The king has two bodies. The first exists within the limits of his physical being; you can measure it, and often Henry does, his waist, his calf, his other parts. The second is his princely double, free-floating, untethered, weightless, which may be in more than one place at a time. Henry may be hunting in the forest, while his princely double makes laws. One fights, one prays for peace. One is wreathed in the mystery of his kingship: one is eating a duckling with sweet green peas. (445)

3) Wolf Hall also finds in Cromwell a much greater capacity for positive relationships with women, children, the poor and displaced than most of the other Men of Consequence in the novel. The stage for these relationships is the household, which is described as not just the home of a family but also a workshop, office, and small fortress. Here Mantel depicts Cromwell’s household and the people in it as his pupils and troops, to whom he needs to impart some of his own ability to see matters from both sides:

The Austin Friars is like the world in little. These few years it’s been more like a battlefield than a household; or like one of the tented encampments in which the survivors look in despair at their shattered limbs and spoiled expectations. But they are his to direct, these last hardened troops; if they are not to be flattened in the next charge it is he who must teach them the defensive art of facing both ways, faith and works, Pope and new brethren, Katherine and Anne. (239)

In all these matters—the inescapable violence of England, and the need to resist it; the nature of the King, as both Monarch and scoundrel—Mantel finds in Cromwell an irresistible bridge between these two tendencies. I don’t know whether her fascination for the character is admiration exactly, but she creates a character for him that serves her amazingly well as protagonist. Here he is inspecting a new carpet that Thomas More has bought:

His hand skims the surface, rich and soft. The flaw in the weave hardly matters. A turkey carpet is not an oath. There are some people in this world who like everything squared up and precise, and there are those who will allow some drift at the margins. He is both these kinds of person. He would not allow, for example, a careless ambiguity in a lease, but instinct tells him that sometimes a contract need not be drawn too tight. Leases, writs, statutes, all are written to be read, and each person reads them by the light of self-interest. More says, “What do you think, gentlemen? Walk on it, or hang it on the wall?”
“Walk on it.”
“Thomas, your luxurious tastes!” And they laugh. You would think they were friends. (211)

Just another great moment in which Mantel’s narrator gazes through the fourth wall to bring the reader of the novel into the scene of “reading” the matters of state and life she depicts. It is fitting that More’s house, a much chillier household than Cromwell’s, is the scene.

Reading buddies: what did you make of Cromwell’s relationships with, and mourning of, his wife and daughters? Do  you think his household is “modern”?

4) Mantel also has a few passages in which she rips off a poetic descriptive rampage, stepping outside the frame of the narrative to deliver an authorly soliloquy that reminds me of Whitman or Melville. Here is a passage that comes after Cromwell encounters Francis, King of France, who of course views one tradesman as just like another. Cromwell, the blacksmith’s son, differs:

One tradesman the same as the next? Not in the real world. Any man with a steady hand and a cleaver can call himself a butcher: but without the smith, where does he get that cleaver? Without the man who works in metal, where are your hammers, your scythes, your sickles, scissors and planes? Your arms and armor, your arrowheads, your pikes and your guns? Where are your ships at sea and their anchors? Where are your grappling hooks, your nails, latches, hinges, pokers and tongs? Where are your spits, kettles, trivets, your harness rings, buckles and bits? Where are your knives? (306)

You have to just bow down to Mantel on this one, which, given the violence throughout the book and in Cromwell’s history particularly, ends appropriately on knives. Seamus Heaney would be happy with this evocative tear conducted primarily in Anglo-Saxon rather than Latinate words.

Reading buddies: what is your favorite passage in the book?

Hendrik Hertzberg and Ta-Nehisi Coates at MIT

Ta-Nehisi Coates and Hendrik Hertzberg at MIT, 10/29/2013

Ta-Nehisi Coates and Hendrik Hertzberg at MIT, 10/29/2013. Love the old-school blackboards and equations.

Tonight I got to see a conversation at MIT between Hendrik Hertzberg of the New Yorker and Ta-Nehisi Coates, Atlantic author/blogger and currently an MLK Visiting Scholar at MIT. This was a talk on the theme of “What’s the “Journalism” in Opinion Journalism?” and focused on the writerly craft of writing opinion pieces, as Hertzberg does biweekly for “The Talk of the Town” and “TNC” does multiple times a week on his blog, and occasionally in the NY Times.

A model of a hacked MIT Police cruiser in the Stata Center festooned with origami

A model of a hacked MIT Police cruiser in the Stata Center festooned with origami

I wrote about TNC on the occasion of his first talk at MIT two years ago, and since then I have felt a unique sense of pride and respect for the work he does on his blog. Pride, in the sense that as part of “the horde” (his blog commenter community, tho I am but a lurker) I see how his own intellectual pursuits have drawn upon the relationships he develops with his public–plus he is at MIT! Respect, in seeing how he has grown as a writer in the 5 years or so since his blog emerged into broader view. Just in the past month he has been cranking out really amazing work connecting his reading about postwar Europe and the legacy of slavery in the US. So it was great to get the chance to see him and a beacon of the opinion establishment talk.

Quick hit: who are Hertzberg and TNC’s favorite bloggers? No big surprises: both follow Andrew Sullivan, Jim Fallows, Jonathan Chait, Talking Points Memo. RH also likes James Walcott, and TNC also reads Grantland and The Toast (woot! nice to see The Awl’s tentacles reach into these precints).

For my jealous homies who wish they could have been there, some fan’s notes:

  • TNC asked whether Hertzberg really had a writing teacher who gave him insights into, for example, the lessons of Orwell on the use of metaphor and avoidance of cliche. RH said that as an editor at the Harvard Crimson all the opinion writers would submit their work to public critique by all the other staff, and that this was the toughest and best instruction he had.
  • RH said he went to college wanting to be a newspaper man, and that his favorite job at the Crimson was laying out the front page. He said his sense of composing a sentence or an essay drew upon that graphic sense of laying out the newspaper, and arranging the elements of his work.
  • On whether opinion writers write beautifully: “Leon Weiseltier’s writing is way more beautiful than his ideas…Beautiful writing attracts readers and gives the possibility of preaching outside the choir”
  • In praising TNC, RH said that he possessed “Sitzfleisch,” or the ability to sit for hours focused on writing, as opposed to RH who is a classic tortured writer, pulling at least one all-nighter on a mattress in his office per column
  • Both talked about blogging as recreation: it allows you to come up with things that writing a formal essay does not (though in his preview of this talk, TNC pointed at the value of writing within a strict form like the Talk of the Town leader).
  • There was a lot of talk about gatekeepers in opinion writing, from the old days with more limited outlets to now where everyone with a Tumblr account is an opinionator, nominally open to the whole world as an audience. TNC said that this explosion of access to the public is part of a broader “end of boredom” environment, in which essay writers need to work even harder to grab readers by collar and say read this, care about this
  • The question was posed as to whether our dire state of politics relates to the dire/cheap/silod state of writing? RH said such claims, i.e. of “epistemic closure” on the right, are exaggerated, and that most of journalism has always been about the current equivalent of the Kardashians.
  • Sounding the same alarm as Fallows, RH says we blame our problems (on climate change, guns, immigration) and failure to address them on everything except the broken machinery of our government. He said he is such a one-noter on the filibuster and its associated problems that it is a running joke in the New Yorker–but that he believes people are starting to come around to his view on that topic.
  • Someone asked about the Snowden/Assange leaks and Glenn Greenwald as “opinionated” journalist vs. “objective” New York Times (along which lines, this interesting debate between Greenwald and NYT ex-editor Bill Keller this week was very interesting). TNC said that he was glad Greenwald raised the question of the Times’ refusal to call US torture by its name, and that such examples show how we hide behind ideas of objectivity and civility to obscure what are in fact very partisan stances.

MIT reactor tour: back to the Nuclear Age

The MIT reactor control room

The MIT reactor control room (Photo: Boston Globe)

My dad and I got to join a tour of MITR-II, the research reactor that MIT has maintained in one form or another on campus since 1958. It was an unbelievable step back in time to an  era when Nuclear was king. The analog stuff in this joint is beyond belief! Not just the control room, with paper reports to be filled out daily, but the airlock doors, the Eye-Ease Green paint  on every surface, and the ancient schoolhouse chairs we sat in for our briefing were all seemingly from a retro sci-fi movie. On a campus where all the new buildings exude the techno cool you associate with the Apple Store, the relic status of Building NW12 is a palpable statement about which sorts of science and engineering have been tops on the priority list lately.

Not so very different from the real control room...

Not so very different from the real control room…

This out-of-time quality for nuclear research was striking in so many ways. Sad, in the sense that you can sense so many possibilities with a bit more focus on this area (not to say it isn’t getting its Federal research $$, just that it has been stigmatized in the popular imagination). The tour guides noted that the MIT reactor supports research towards much safer and more efficient reactor designs. In the archaic control room and in using the Geiger counter after entering the reactor area, I was also reminded of the pervasive fear of nuclear war when I was growing up. The idea of an 18 year old MIT undergrad at the helm of the reactor brought to mind the leaked reports recently that Air Force officers in the Minuteman silos in North Dakota had been caught repeatedly napping while the door of their control capsule was open, or the scary new book on “broken arrow” nuclear weapons accidents by the Fast Food Nation guy. Those nukes are still in the silos, at the ready.

Humans are pretty weak reeds to be entrusted with the keys to the destruction of the whole world. Some say the world will end in fire, and being in the reactor was a strange reminder of how in a few short years we have moved from assuming the fire will be delivered by a bomb with a crazed officer in the saddle to, now, believing it will be simmered up under the carbonous lid of our atmosphere. The great thing about being at MIT is you can at times feel hopeful that people might be able to intervene in humanity’s bumbling towards immolation.

Shanghai travels in the shadow of Ted Yoho

In Pu Dong with the Bund across the river

In Pu Dong with the Bund across the river

As Americans struggled to understand how a small group of people featuring small-time cranks and singin’ funeral directors could nearly destroy the full faith and credit of the US, I went to Shanghai this week to staff a visiting committee for our partner graduate program. These visits always bring up their own fascinating inter-cultural communications issues, though not across quite the gap that lies between me and Ted Effin Yoho (R-FL) [I urge you to click through to this piece by Charlie Pierce, which really sums up why Yoho is the apotheosis of the last few decades of political extremism].

The visiting committee consisted of three MIT professors and two people from US companies who work in their Chinese manufacturing facilities and support our sister program. What made the interaction even more interesting between this group and the Chinese deans, faculty, and students was that the MIT faculty were born in China and Greece, and one of the industry people was Iranian-American. In discussion, I was interested to hear some of the committee members talk about their own bicultural experiences of communications and authority, and having one personality in their native language and another in English.

The China Daily political cartoon on 10/14/2013 depicting the US shutdown and debt crisis

The China Daily political cartoon on 10/14/2013 depicting the US shutdown and debt crisis

What did the Chinese make of our political debacle? Here’s what the China Daily political cartoonist came up with…Halloween theme, frightened Obama scared of three spooky cats labeled Bonds, Payment Default, and Cash Crunch. I would have loved to see the artist’s rendering of Michelle Bachmann, but sometimes a Cash Crunch cat is just a cat. I guess there was a lot of official propaganda talk this week about America’s self-immolation allowing the “de-Americanization” of the global community…and a long-awaited re-Sinification! What’s weird to me is that this cartoon misses the most basic political reality of the situation, which was that it was Obama’s political enemies who made it all happen. If anyone who knows feels like telling me, I would love to hear if the cartoon’s version of things (Obama vs. scary things that came up out of nowhere) reflects a Chinese understanding of The Leader in absolute terms? Elsewhere in the paper, I saw pitch-perfect renderings of China Daily tropes: a story about the “Dalai Lama clique” and its nefarious work to orphan Tibetan children in the 60s, and one about rare brown-and-white giant pandas that raved about how cute they are (because honestly, who doesn’t love a panda? Or, by extension, China in general?).

Doorway in Tian Zi Fang

Doorway in Tian Zi Fang

I also went back to one of my favorite areas in Shanghai, Tian Zi Fang, a traditional alleyway residential area partially transformed into a shopping and gallery district. There are still people living there, their streets set off from commerce with “NO PHOTO” and “KEEP OUT” signs, and each visit I’ve heard the sound of kids practicing their instruments floating down from apartment windows. Perhaps because of those signs, I don’t feel like I’m getting into people’s living space when in Tian Zi Fang.

 

 

Dude with mohawk and camo floppy boots touching up the paint on a mock-carousel horse outside Burberry on Huaihai Rd, Shanghai

Dude with mohawk and camo floppy boots touching up the paint on a mock-carousel horse outside Burberry on Huaihai Rd, Shanghai

But later I was walking on Huaihai Road, where Gucci and Cartier have stores as big as Costcos, and found just a block off the street an even less improved stretch of alleyways, with people washing food in outdoor sinks and sitting on buckets under laundry lines. There was no way to walk down there and not be in people’s space. In its proximity to posher areas, it kind of reminded me of walking along a narrow promenade by the Douro River in the heart of Porto and having to squeeze by the laundry rack sticking out of a window.

This vase is pretty awesome

This vase is pretty awesome

Finally I got over to the Shanghai Museum. I’m the kind of uncultured lummox who generally will not cross the street to see fine ceramics, but the pottery at this museum really had me saying OMG in my head as I turned from one vitrine to the next. What’s more, there was a traveling exhibit of Impressionists and others from the Clark Museum in Williamstown (boo!), featuring none other than Gerome’s “The Snake Charmer,” which as everyone knows was on the cover of Edward Said’s Orientalism. I remembered enough of the book, which found in “Orientalist” art of the 19th C. an aesthetic reification of Middle Eastern peoples subordinated to the West, to realize that seeing its cover art in a giant Chinese boomtown whose leaders had just claimed their right to “de-Westernize” the world made for a very rich textual moment.

 

Larry and Alice Jacobs: 50 years in love

My folks had their 50th anniversary celebration recently. I recognize how fortunate they and I are for them to reach this milestone. We put on a nice dinner at their favorite pre-Symphony restaurant and had friends and family together to kvell. Here is my toast and some photos from the 50 years, including a sweet one of me from the 70s.

Mom and Dad entering their wedding reception at Tavern on the Green in NYC

Mom and Dad entering their wedding reception at Tavern on the Green in NYC

I’m really grateful for the opportunity to be here on such a happy and momentous occasion. Many different forces have conspired together to allow Alice and Larry to arrive at this time still together, still in love, enjoying good health and the company of family and friends, and able to look out on more happy years together. I think we all know how rare it is for a couple to get here and tonight is a celebration of that milestone.

What is it in my parents’ characters, both individually and as a couple, that have allowed them to get to this moment in their lives together? I think in addition to the qualities and values that Amy mentioned, I want to highlight a couple of things through stories from our lives together.

Dad and Mom with a furry young Josh

Dad and Mom with a furry young Josh

One thing I really admire about both my mom and dad is how they have both worked really hard to define a path for themselves, as a couple and family and also in their careers. Apart from being happy and successful, I don’t think either one of them is exactly where their parents might have guessed, but instead have gone way beyond what anyone might have thought achievable.

And I’m grateful that my folks recognized that they had carved their own path, but rather than imposing their new sense of what was successful on me and Aaron, they passed along this sense that hard work can create new possibilities. As an example of this, when I was 17 and up with my dad in Boston looking at colleges—having already put aside MIT, because I didn’t want the Bachelor’s of Science in Literature they offered—I was guardedly expressing to my dad that I probably wanted to major in English or something equally squishy. And he said, basically, that one generation becomes engineers or businessmen so that the next can become poets.

Mom and Dad with me in the 70s

Mom and Dad with me in the 70s

And I took that I think in the proper sense, which was my folks being grateful that they had created a wonderful environment from which I could feel free to choose a path that didn’t actually involve making a living. Of course, long story short, I now work at the MIT Sloan School of Management, so it’s a good thing I have that English major and can define irony.

The other thing that I admire so much in my folks is how they have expressed their love for each other, for me and Aaron, and for so many other friends and family. The generosity of this love made our house growing up a gathering place, for example in an annual Rosh Hashonah party that brought a hundred-odd people to Leigh Mill Road in Great Falls–not a great center of Jewish life–for ten years.

The family together

The family together

The steadfastness of this love is what got us all through the loss of Aaron, and enabled us to keep finding joy in life together. And the strength of this love is what is behind the work my mom and dad both have put into making their local library a real beacon for the community, and has created a wonderful environment for me, Amy and our girls, who are so fortunate to live down the street from each other.

At the Royal Chelsea Flower Show in London, 2013

At the Royal Chelsea Flower Show in London, 2013

I’d like us all to celebrate the love my mom and dad have created in their lives together, and which I hope we will all share in for many years to come.

Another pass at remembering Aaron through the noise of 9/11

MIT Police Officer Sean Collier honored at Fenway Park, August 28, 2013

MIT Police Officer Sean Collier honored at Fenway Park, August 28, 2013

Each year my experience of September 11 starts at some point in the month beforehand. Mine started in earnest a couple of weeks ago when my dad and I went to a Red Sox game, at which MIT Police Office Sean Collier was honored with his family throwing out first pitches. Collier, killed by the Boston Marathon bombers, seems to have been a fantastic human being, and his family always appear to be able to focus on celebrating his life. I was deeply affected by his loss among the Marathon bombings and their aftermath, and to have his smiling Irish punim on the huge display made me think, Oh my God, Fenway, what is it about coming here with my dad that you have to observe national traumas? It was a couple of years ago that we stumbled into a game that began with a ceremony about Osama getting killed, which figured in my first piece that explored Aaron’s loss.

Burns clean, no mess, great customer service: the perfect mourner's implement! 5 stars!

Burns clean, no mess, great customer service: the perfect mourner’s implement! 5 stars!

The next morning, I woke up and realized, “f@ck, I need to buy a yahrzeit candle.” Jews light a 24-hour candle on the evening before the anniversary of a loved one’s death. So I had a very this-is-how-we-live-now experience of going to the Amazon site on my phone, checking out the candles, and wondering, as I bought some, what it even means to have customer reviews of the paraphernalia of mourning.

I thought that writing an Amazon-style review of the yahrzeit candle might be the seed of a poem. But happily for me and the unwitting Amazon users who might have seen something like that, I ended up being inspired (poetry-wise, in part by recently passed Seamus Heaney, Paul Celan, and ‘ol Adrienne Rich, plus The Kinks) to write something that looks at this benign but terribly lifeless object as the means for remembering all of the life Aaron had with me and others. The poem is at the end of this post, and here.

The weather the past few days has been the same bright, clear, cloudless pattern that so strongly evokes that day twelve years ago. But this afternoon summer has come back in, and the memorial service that my mom and Amy will attend tomorrow in Boston will be hot and humid…”9/10 weather,” you might say. The girls are all in school this year (!) and will come home after lunch tomorrow to share some memories and photos of Aaron with me, Amy and my folks. The yahrzeit candle is burning with a pretty strong paraffin smell, as though we were awaiting a hurricane. Not exactly the blank sensory canvas for one’s memories one might expect, though the light flickers nicely and the glass doesn’t feel like it will set the house on fire while we sleep. Three stars?

Aaron and Dad on Compo Beach in Connecticut, c. 1985

Aaron and Dad on Compo Beach in Connecticut, c. 1985

——–

A toast for a yahrzeit

How did this shot glass

So recently shared

Fill up to the brim

With cheap wax and wicking?

 

If memory serves,

This sticker says burn

All day and all night,

A “Girl—I want—to

 

Be with you” chorus.

But the mouth on this—

Its strained, perfect O;

A Day of the Dead

 

Spun-sugar skull, but

Wiped of its friendly

Smile and eye-sockets—

Seems hardly ready

 

To breathe out a song.

It waits to take in

What the fine print says

Is praise of God’s name:

 

To crisp up the words

In this modest flame

And add to the peace

Of Heaven. Oh, blessed

 

And honored—I’ll drain

The milk of those words

To this cup’s bottom

Today, and the rest

 

Of the year, I’ll drink

Something muddier,

Raising to life with you

As if it went on.

 

Copyright © Josh Jacobs 2013

 

Happy Anniversary, Amy!

I was getting all ready to post a ton of photos of Amy in her many guises from the past year when…my hard disk croaked today. A good reminder to always back up, and (in a geeky sort of way) of the fleeting nature of all things. This also has to be a fleeting anniversary salute.

AmherstKale

Rivalry

Growing up in a modern Jewish home, I wasn’t exposed to the notion of being “blessed” in the way it is usually thrown around in America. But that is a word I keep returning to in describing how it is to have met Amy post-college and now to have been together with her for 14+ years, 12 of them legal.

Amy is pretty awesome, and in a self-effacing way ends up providing vital love and friendship to a wide circle of people even beyond me and the girls. I am not exaggerating when I say that this past year in particular, some dear friends found in Amy a combination of love, candor and support that kept their lives on a good course. There are times when the busyness of three kids, many activities led and guided, and this circle of friends leads Amy and I to feel we are kind of ships hugging as we pass folding laundry at night (maritime metaphor listing to starboard there). But throughout I feel incredibly fortunate to be the constant companion of such a force of good in the world. Modestly, I see myself as kind of like the reticent brown dwarf star in a binary with a brilliant Sol-like G, hidden from distant astronomers’ view but detectable by the ever-lovin’ bright star’s orbital path (sorry for the technical astronomy jargon there).

This coming year I look forward to many more orbits around each other and of our wee planetoids around us. Some recovered photos of Amy in her element appear below.

AmyTreeAmy as woodland gremlin

AmyPoolGirlsAmy with the girls, who now can all swim thanks to her and Charles River Aquatics

Miss E with her papier-mache shoe that was the centerpiece of Amy's fabulous art camp she ran last week for nine girls

Miss E with her papier-mache shoe that was the centerpiece of Amy’s fabulous art camp she ran last week for nine girls

An ecstatic song in the face of DESPAIR

The Yeah Yeah Yeahs, the great New York band that Amy and I saw this spring, have a new video out for their song “Despair.” They shot it on top of the Empire State Building with the full support of the owner, who deemed the song “uplifting.” I think there is more to it than that: to me it feels like a kind of Greek-play ecstatic summoning of despair in order to see beyond it.

If you’ve ever despaired, loved, or love NYC, I hope you will take five minutes to watch the video:

Here is the first verse:

Don’t despair
You’re there
From beginning to middle to end
Don’t despair
You’re there through my wasted days , you’re there through my wasted nights
Oh despair you’ve always been there, you’ve always been there, you’ve always been there,
You’re there through my wasted years, through all of my lonely fears
No tears will run through my fingers
Tears they’re stinging my eyes
No tears
If it’s all in my head there’s nothing to fear inside,
Through the darkness and the light
Some sun has gotta rise.

 

I would love to have the feeling the band got in this video of rocking out at the top of NYC, blasting past despair as the sun rises over a changed but still living city.

 

“Boston Strong” is for the living

Today I ran in the BAA 10K, put on by the same group that sponsors the Boston Marathon. The route is from Boston Common out Commonwealth Avenue to the BU campus and back, through some beautiful areas of Back Bay. I was psyched to beat my goal on a hot day.

Greetings from the Eugene Marathon to Boston

Greetings from the Eugene Marathon to Boston

Before the race there were several big banners displayed with messages of support to Boston from different marathons across the country, and of course a moment of silence before the start. After the race I went over to Copley Square to see the spontaneous memorial to the victims of the Marathon bombing and subsequent attacks. I hadn’t been there and knew it was going to be dismantled in a couple of days.

Shoes in the Copley Square memorial

Shoes in the Copley Square memorial

The memorial stands out because of all the running shoes that have been left there as tributes, starting with Marathon runners the day of the bombing and accumulating since then. There are hundreds of pairs, some inscribed to Boston, and many bibs from the Marathon, from the Race to Remember to honor fallen law enforcement officers, and other events. I know even as a semi-runner I’ve been very motivated to keep going since this happened, and the shoes testify to how many others share this feeling.

Tributes to the four people killed in the Marathon bombing and subsequent attacks. Copley Square, June 23, 2013

Tributes to the four people killed in the Marathon bombing and subsequent attacks. Copley Square, June 23, 2013

There is also the more general, less running-focused memorial to the four people who were killed at the race or afterwards. This part of the memorial is more like what springs up at the side of the road or on sidewalks after someone has died. Apart from all the law enforcement badges around the image of MIT Police Officer Sean Collier, there are teddy bears, handwritten notes, religious texts, Rubiks Cubes, and other relics that speak to the American desire to remember (in part) through stuff. The “FEEL BETTER” banner in the background is also something you wouldn’t see in, say, Portugal.

The Marathon memorial at Copley Square

The Marathon memorial at Copley Square

I heard a good WBUR show last month talking about the phenomenon of temporary/spontaneous memorials and how different this is than the typically very slow process of developing permanent, formal memorials to tragic events. The city has to figure out which of these fairly damaged tributes are worth saving, and how or whether to include them in whatever permanent memorial is developed.

Since the bombings/attacks, the “Boston Strong” theme has become pretty widespread, with some suggesting it has gotten away from the original intent–perseverance and community in the face of violent attacks–and become cheapened by being used as a sports rallying cry or with other, less memorial intentions. Adrienne Rich might have covered this ground when she wrote in “Living Memory,”

All we can read is life. Death is invisible.

A yahrzeit candle belongs

to life. The sugar skulls

eaten on graves for the Day of the Dead

belong to life. To the living. The Kaddish is to the living,

the Day of the Dead, for the living.

“Boston Strong” was already about other stuff, and not just a testament to the Marathon bombing victims, from the moment the phrase was coined. The way we remember tragedies is all about us, the living. Even for the survivors of the Marathon attacks and the wounded, I can only imagine that going down to the site of the bombings and to this or the future memorial will be completely different than it is for everyone else who wears the Boston Strong gear. In all of its temporariness I found this to be an effective call to remember those who died and were hurt, and a reminder of how hard it is to keep them in mind once the relics come down.