Wednesday, December 11, 2013

Crosby in December

December 10, 1929. Eighty four years ago yesterday. What a bizarre loss & waste of vibrant life. Harry Crosby (1898-1929).

2014 marks the 100th anniversary of the start of The Great War. A catastrophic war across generations. The media will wallow in relentless memorializing and somber grandstanding. But who among the talking heads will mention Crosby?

Image from the Collection of Southern Illinois University

1924 entry from Shadows of the Sun:*

December 11.  Studied Sufism. ...  " - The human soul belongs to the spiritual world and is ever seeking to be re-united to its source (the Sun). Such union is hindered by the bodily senses but though not permanently attainable until death, it can be enjoyed at times at the state called ecstasy when the veil of sensual perception is rent asunder and the soul is merged in God (in the Sun)"

* Black Sparrow, 1977, pg.63

Scholars point to Crosby's experience as a volunteer ambulance driver in World War I as singularly influential on the course of his life. That's hard to argue with.

Thursday, December 5, 2013

Bruegel in Detroit

How did Pieter Bruegel the Elder's "The Wedding Dance" end up in the Detroit Institute of Art? It was purchased by the city for the museum, true, but whose idea was it to buy it? And what kind of discussions went on in the offices of city power over whether to buy it or not? I would love to know the back story of how it ended up where it did. Unfortunately, whether it stays in that beleaguered city remains to be seen.

Detroit is a broken city, buried in debt. Just yesterday, the New York Times reported on a federal ruling holding that the city could formally enter bankruptcy and that city pensions were "not inviolable." Now, the city's creditors and a host of economists, politicians, art world professionals, and lawyers are vying for a say in what happens to DIA's collection. They say the art collection is a city asset and selling it to raise capital to service the debt should be considered. If legally binding pensions are in jeopardy, is there any doubt the art is going to the auction block?

DIA's director, Graham W. J. Beal, thinks not. He stated so in a September 2013 post on DIA's blog, writing that the museum has " intention of breaching the most fundamental tenet of the art museum world: that art in the collection can only be sold to acquire more (and better) art." Unfortunately, when it all plays out, the director may be powerless in deciding what happens to the collection he oversees. And what happens in Detroit may have wider ramifications. Other cities across America will no doubt face similar dilemmas in the future. It's not too far a stretch to think that other major public collections around the country could one day end up being sold to pay down city or state debt.

What will happen to "The Wedding Dance" or to the great Diego Rivera murals that adorn the walls of the building itself?

The Wedding Dance, 1566

Monday, November 18, 2013

The Kraus Project

I'm no fan of Jonathan Franzen, at least not his fiction. I didn't care much for Freedom. But wait. That's the only fiction by Franzen that I've read, so it's unfair of me to say that I don't care for his fiction. All right, point taken - let's just say that, though I read the whole book, I did not like nor enjoy Freedom.

His essay "Farther Away" (it first appeared in The New Yorker and later was included in the eponymous volume, Farther Away) I found brave and engaging. That he would dare convey personal negative thoughts about David Foster Wallace in print was scandalous (to some). I found it refreshing, and interesting. Other essays in the same book are appealing as well. Franzen writes clean prose and his thinking is not trite nor his observations banal. He is a writer worth reading.

Yet he seems to be a lightening rod for animosity. Critics, offended women writers, amateur literary commentators and bloggers, all loathe him. In particular, the techies despise him and heap scorn upon him for criticizing the internet, social media, the fetishization of gadgets and technology. Oh, and heavens, he's a birdwatcher too. Scorn! Caustic flame attack! Ridicule!

His latest publication, The Kraus Project, hadn't been out a week before its contents had raised a firestorm of invective and condemnation. Shame on Franzen! He criticized Rushdie for using Twitter. He dared suggest that the internet and social media were NOT the greatest cultural advances since the printing press. He took Amazon to task for its destructive impact on independent bookstores. Heresy!

Yet lost in all the derision was any discussion (that I read, anyway) of what seems to me the most interesting thing about The Kraus Project, namely the concept of the work itself, and the form it takes. Basically, he presents two essays by the Viennese curmudgeon, writer, critic Karl Kraus (think fin de siecle Vienna) that he, Franzen, translated from the German. Okay, if you're a Karl Kraus fan (and there surely are some out there) or if you're a German lit major or a translator, you might come at this volume from your singular perspective. But if you're like me, who'd never heard of Karl Kraus, who doesn't care about the adequacy (or inadequacy) of Franzen's translation (it turns out that Kraus wrote deliberately opaque & difficult prose), then you'll come at this book from another angle. Or not pick it up at all.

I'm enthralled with it. I can barely read two pages at a time. I don't understand most of the Kraus stuff. And I'm only 40 pages into it. But you know what? It's fascinating! Why? Because the form is very different, very innovative. (Okay, sure, someone has to have done something like this before - who can possibly do anything completely "original" anymore?). Well, this work seems very new and fresh to me.

As I see it, the translations are simply a platform from which to jump off into a wide array of other topics; memoir-ish recollections, social criticism (the aforementioned condemnation of our gadget & internet-obsessed cultural moment), literary history, historical anecdotes, etc. It's collage-like and divergent, informed and curious. It meanders. It rants. It elucidates. It praises.

These days it's as if people who write about books, who review books,  people who read & discuss books, all seem hell bent on either smarmy, wise-ass put-downs, or hyper-critical analysis, all very serious and edgy and pointed. After a point, I get sick of it all and have to throw up my hands with an expectorated "WTF?!" At least when it comes to Franzen, everyone tries to one up the next person in their ability to lay waste to the man's work (or reputation, or hobbies, or choice in glasses or whatever).

Be that as it may .... I recommend this odd book. Even if you know nothing about Karl Kraus and don't care a thing about essays in translations. Actually, it might even be more interesting if you know nothing about Karl Kraus and could care less about the accuracy of the translation from German into English. It's a quirky original dalliance, the best of eccentric intellectual sketching.

Oh, and the footnotes. What I don't mention above is that the Kraus essays seem like just material that Franzen can hang his footnotes on. This is not a bad thing. This is the oddity of the work, the weirdness that makes it so intriguing. The heart of the book are the footnotes. In the footnotes, we get the memoir stuff, the human connection stuff, the divergent interesting literary aside stuff. In short, we get the stuff that transcends the stuffy huffing and puffing of Karl Kraus on, per the first essay, Heinrich Heine.

But what did Franzen think when he decided to go all in with the footnote set-up? Surely he must have been aware that people would call him out on their use and infer that he was aping David Foster Wallace. Oddly, I have not seen that particular complaint leveled at him (though I stopped reading the carping reviews after a few). For what it's worth, I love footnotes. And David Foster Wallace, for all the fame (or infamy) his extensive use of them engendered (technically-speaking, in Infinite Jest, they are endnotes, not footnotes, but they function the same), he did not invent the footnote. He used them to great effect, and Wallace's are brilliant, engaging and, I would argue, essential to the character of the works in which he employs them. But they are not solely Wallace's domain.

So I'll give Franzen credit for crafting his own book around them, it's a courageous undertaking, one that, in my opinion, earns The Kraus Project enthusiastic accolades.

Saturday, October 5, 2013

Stone Wall in Autumn

October. Lemony leaves in citrus sunlight. The stonewall. New England woods. The spirits of dead animals, of colonial homesteaders, of Native Americans long ago, hundreds of years, countless generations of white-tailed deer, black bear, moose, the smaller creatures of the forest floor and canopy, squirrels, fox, fisher, and the fluttering forest birds of ever more - pileated woodpeckers, red-breasted nuthatches, eastern kind birds, mallard ducks in the beaver pond. Small forest sounds, a branch snapping, a hickory nut falling to the dried leaf cover.

And through these woods, a century old stone wall in the slow process of being resurrected. Too bad the back and arms not strong enough to move the biggest stones; not enough time for the stone worker to ply his amateur stone wall builder's skills. The wall like a horizontal monolith, an arboreal spine, an eccentric artist's riff on impermanence, a stony declaration of Being.

There is no wall but wall.

The stones once scattered by glaciers now coalesced into geologic and geometric symmetry. These things take time. Forests have time. Poets and sculptors not so much.

Friday, September 27, 2013

500 Words about the Moon

No storm comin’ just a crazy moon half bent and two thirds full, yellowy like a jaundiced eye, a bruise, a banana peel promise dense in the black hours of dreamy afterthought. Hanging above the wave lap and palm rustle, hanging like an embarrassment, a taunt, out of reach and completely indecipherable. La luna loca, ambiguous, a sea turtle’s gurgling death breath, fetid and morose on an ocean of dark matter and galaxy dust, marauder of time and marker of wave. Man in the moon, the moon shot, the fickle moon with a pitchfork and a monocle, the harvest moon, the moonlight serenade, the moon and sixpence, the moon like a porcelain suggestion of geometry, circular in disgrace. The waxing moon, the waning moon, which is which? Half shafts of mad light sparkling on wave shimmer. Catastrophes of cloud, gray gashes spectrally seeping across the sky’s haughty banner of star gleam and depthless black. Pride swells in the universe, a billion years’ accumulation of entitlement, the lie of God explodes in the death of stars. Satiric moon, heartless moon, moon of disconcertion. Only the moon to hold your hand. Only the moon to give cosmic sup to the hopelessly weak. All other symbol and metaphor inadequate. The black shade of slumber’s hour, black feathered silhouettes hanging in the wakening dawn sky. What if the moon a giant clam? A cartoonish ribbed orb swallowing underwater megalopolises? Basho’s moon, Kerouac’s moon, the tin cup moon in the kitchen sink. The sit down moon, the moon that faced the dawn and shrugged, the moon that spat bats in a fluttery flux of midnight coaxing. Eye in the soil of the sky. Drain of fake infinity. Imposter. Powder puff deity in a timeless sphere. The moon’s crusade. The moon’s quiet joke of permanence, Australopithecus dreams of wild provender, emaciated harems waning in apocalyptic heather. There is no freedom in ignorance, no enlightenment in loss. Heaven is an orifice. Gravity hoodwinks the angels into delusions of grandiosity – the halo, the aura, the weightlessness! - while mortality whispers like a curbside huckster promising the moon. The moon is the sense that something has gone wrong. A sickle moon in the hands of the Grim Reaper. The dark side of the moon. A total eclipse of the moon. The moon has run away with the spoon. There is no moon but moon. The lark and the squirrel and the midnight moon. No fool ever drank the moon. Only the moon lives, destiny is a cold dark place with no oxygen. You cannot hide from the moon. If only the moon would realize the holiness of spheres, the oddness of orbs. If only to be carried away by the moon in a basket of thatch and regret, of vestigial abasement before the All Knowing. You cannot run away from the moon. The cow jumped over the moon. The moon ran away with the mortal spoon. Ah but a woman’s reach should exceed her moon or what’s Heaven for?

Lescaret Reading 500 Words about the Moon
Sept 18, 2013

Saturday, August 31, 2013

Pine Ridge Reservation, Part II

A carefully hand-lettered red wooden sign marks the Wounded Knee Massacre site at the confluence of Highway 28 and Big Foot Trail (Highway 27). It fronts a dusty parking area while its backside faces a row of ramshackle makeshift shelters under which jewelry vendors proffer their wares to the handful of visitors who pass through. The day we stopped there were only two vendors out, one of whom was being harangued by a pair of Christian missionaries.
Lakota Vendors

When the missionaries left, we ambled over and spoke with the woman, a grandmother selling the wares of her son, Hehaka Tiospaye. Yes, the missionaries were annoying, and yes they were insulting. She looked off across the empty parking lot and sighed. She was friendly to us, told us that we should visit the small cemetery and memorial across the street, that we could walk along the creek a few hundred yards down the road, that we were welcome by the Lakota people.

The massacre commemorated by the sign occurred in 1890 and marked the end of the American cavalry's war on the native peoples. Ostensibly a mission to "disarm" the "Indians," when the operation was over some 150-300 men, women, and children lay murdered in the frozen wastes. It was the last of a long list of atrocities visited upon the Plains Indians by the United States government, the conclusion of a decades-long campaign of what we now call ethnic cleansing.

Though designated a National Historic Site, the Wounded Knee Massacre Memorial site seems, like the reservation surrounding it, impoverished, ignored, forgotten by the outside. Ignored except by the Christian missionaries, that is.

Commemorative Marker
We took the Lakota woman's advice and visited the memorial and cemetery. On a small hilltop, a stone plinth inside a small chain link fence reads: "This monument is erected by surviving relatives and other Ogallala and Cheyenne River Sioux Indians in memory of the Chief Bigfoot Massacre Dec. 29. 1890". As if to perpetually shame the cavalry officer responsible the plinth also notes "Col. Forsyth in Command of U.S. Troops."

More recent graves surrounded the plinth itself and reminded visitors that history is not static, that Lakota men and women continue to live and die here, that, though a way of life was exterminated, the people were not, despite the inglorious efforts of the U.S. government.

Just below the cemetery sits a round building with a sign declaring Indian Holocaust Museum. Inside, homemade displays documented a more recent history at Wounded Knee, the siege and assault by the FBI in the 1973 (sometimes referred to as the "Wounded Knee Incident") and the resistance of AIM, the American Indian Movement.

Museum Building center right
The small museum was staffed by what appeared to be teenage Lakota girls. After going through the displays and noticing no mention of Leonard Peltier, I asked one of the girls why that was so. Leonard Peltier, of course, was an AIM leader who was implicated in and, by most accounts, wrongly convicted of, the murder of two FBI agents, and who is now serving life in the Federal penitentiary in Leavenworth, KS. (For an excellent account of the Peltier/Wounded Knee Incident, see Peter Matthiessen's "In the Spirit of Crazy Horse"). The girl had never heard of Leonard Peltier. I still wonder about that, how it could be possible that in a museum dedicated to the memory of AIM and the events of 1973, there could be no reference to Leonard Peltier.

At the Leonard Peltier Defense Committee you can sign an Amnesty International petition for his release and also see exactly how long Peltier has been incarcerated (at this writing he's been in prison for 13,720 days 8 hours 22 minutes and counting).

Leonard Peltier
You can write to Leonard at:
Leonard Peltier
USP Coleman I
P.O. Box 1033
Coleman, FL 33521

Saturday, July 27, 2013

Pine Ridge Reservation, South Dakota, Part I

Rt. 40 Heading South Toward the Pine Ride Reservation, SD

Ian Frazier, in the opening paragraph of his book On the Rez (2000), writes: " 'Bleak' is the word attached in many people's minds to the idea of certain Indian reservations, of which the Oglala's reservation is perhaps the best example. Oddly, it is a word I have never heard used by Indians themselves."

This is not surprising, I suppose. For those people not from Pine Ridge, particularly the proverbial white middle class American of mixed European ancestry (like myself who bears traces of Irish, French, German, and Danish bloodlines), Pine Ridge IS bleak. Long dun-colored plains and rolling hills stubbled with clusters of dark green tree growth. Vast swaths of emptiness. Occasional homesteads, often a trailer, surrounded by the debris of poverty - broken pick-up trucks, plastic buckets, piles of rusting machinery, haphazard fencing, clothes lines, scattered boards, masonry, other construction material, leaning sheds. Weary-looking towns like Pine Ridge itself, its main street ornamented by a Shell station and a Subway, piles of sand in the gutters.

The Town of Pine Ridge

While the landscape itself betrays a sort of exquisite wild beauty, the fact that all this formidable emptiness is not some National Wilderness Area but is actually the 'reward' the Lakota got in defeat, the place where they're supposed to make their livelihood, makes "bleak" an appropriate adjective to use in describing it all. And certainly for many of the non-Indian visitors who sees it as bleak, shame no doubt informs that impression.

ND and I drove south from Rapid City on rt. 41, a long straight empty two lane bereft of traffic. Just after Red Shirt we pulled over to see the wares of a Lakota jewelry seller. He sat under a makeshift shelter on a bluff overlooking an expansive gash of Badlands that appeared where the grassy prairie fell away abruptly. We'd no sooner stopped and exchanged friendly greetings with the man when, from the opposite direction that we'd been going, a caravan of cars and vans pulled up in a calm-shattering hubbub of gravel-crunching and dust. The vehicles disgorged a chattering gaggle of doughy white people who proceeded to swarm around the small display of jewelry and then quickly fanned out across the overlook. Most of them gathered on the bluff overlooking the Badlands vista and arranged themselves into a "team" photo.

The suddenness of their arrival was jarring, their gaudy-colored clothes and their chattering shattered the silence, quashing the quiet, almost spiritual reverie that ND and I'd both felt when we'd initially stepped out of our car. They were Christians. Missionaries, actually, from Chattanooga, TN. Disturbing on so many levels. ND and I shrank into the background and watched the missionaries idly handle a necklace, some earrings, and make cursory sales talk with the Lakota man who responded in friendly tones and a kind expression. Eventually, the few shoppers went off to join their picture-snapping cohorts and we approached the jewelry maker again.

Tom the Lakota Artisan (right) with Lescaret
His name was Tom, he lived in Red Shirt and he & his wife made Lakota necklaces & earrings that they sold here at the scenic overlook. Tom spoke in a soft and friendly tone, forthcoming and without a trace of rancor or suspicion. ND and I both were appalled by the Christians and said as much and Tom, without explicitly agreeing with our condemnation, stated that he himself was a full-blooded Lakota and that he lived and believed the Lakota ways. Our conversation was easy and friendly and Tom was more or less unguarded in offering his opinions.

On Leonard Peltier: "He took the fall. He didn't kill those FBI agents, the guy who did admitted it in prison, he was in for something else, but that guy is dead now. Leonard took the fall."

On the Crazy Horse Memorial being carved from a mountain near MT. Rushmore: "They were supposed to build a school for native people and they never did." And, about the profile of Crazy Horse (which is all there is yet): "It looks like George C. Scott."

On the Pine Ridge Reservation: "They took the Black Hills and gave us this ..." (gesturing out across the eroded fissure of Badlands).

On the symbolism of the turtle (used in several of his necklaces): "It means 'woman' because they carry the load on their backs."

On alcohol: "All it gets you is jail or detox, and I've had both."

We bought a few pieces of his work and asked him what a Lakota would say when saying good-bye.

"Dok-sha," he said, "it means 'we may meet again'."

Saturday, June 1, 2013

USSR in Color 1963

A collection of photographs of the USSR in 1963, in color. Photographer unknown. A long line of people waiting to see the embalmed body of Vladimir Lenin. It's hard to think of the USSR in color. Enemies are always black and white.

Red Square, Moscow, 1963, photographer unknown

Friday, May 10, 2013

Atop Mt. Wachusett

Small patches of disgruntled snow still crusted some of the ski slopes but the main road to the summit (repaved last year) was clear. A fine spring day for climbing. Blue sky. Boston and Worcester visible in milky haze. The CIA and weather towers, fenced off, held no real menace. No raptors seen soaring on the thermals. No one else on top, a late Tuesday afternoon.

A Difficult Decision

View from the Summit

Monday, April 29, 2013

Repairing a Stone Wall

An old stone wall runs along the north edge of some 15 acres of woodland I've inherited. I grew up on this land and played on the wall many times and, as an adult, marveled at it periodically when I would return to the homestead and go walking on the land. When my father passed away and the land came to me last year, I began to see it differently. I began to see it as it could be if tastefully managed, if care was given to piling brush and making walking paths.

And as if seeing it for the first time I saw the wall almost as an organic being, something once completely formed but that has since suffered the ravages of decades. In many places, it had crumbled and the stones that had fallen out were buried under years of decayed plant material. Someone had once put enormous energy and vision into the wall's construction; it occurred to me that I could repair it. So I started.

Four hours completely focused, a joy of Zen mindfulness, doing the real work until my fingers (though gloved) were sore from scratching the forest humus to get at the heavy granite and shale stones, and hefting them back into place. I learned that repairing a stone wall teaches you how to build a stone wall. I peered inside the wall, into openings not peered into for a hundred years or more, I cleared away matted detritus several inches thick and meshed with tiny roots, I pushed away the husks of pine cones long ago eaten by grey squirrels. I smelled the forest, listened to birds, and completely forget that I was there.


Saturday, April 27, 2013

Big Spring Ride Through Childhood Places

Squannacook River, mile 19
In the end, it was 43.50 miles, over three hours in the saddle, most of the morning and into the afternoon. En bicyclette. Through time and place. Lemonstar to Shirley, home town, past childhood split level ranch house and on up the road then down the road into West Groton and then to the wildlife management area, the Squannacook River swimming hole where I spent many summer afternoons and evenings with Tom and friends and where I hurled into space on a rope swing and dropped into the cool tea colored waters, and where, in high school years, we partied and called the spot "Silky's", I don't know why, now fly fishermen know the banks well and there isn't a piece of garbage to be seen and the big tree with the rope swing has vanished, the bank eroded away by the river's inevitable hunger.

Pepperell, Mass, mile 22
Onward, into Pepperell and a visit with friend TS who hails from Lowell, the nephew of Jack Kerouac, his aunt Kerouac's third wife, TS met the besotted writer genius tragic Boddhisattva fool a couple of times, TS now archival specialist, learned book man, musician, big-handed Greek, generous, gentle, welcoming. And then onward, back roads in the woods, New Englanders on a sunny April morning raking their yards, burning leaves, waving back if I wave, whiz down Heald St. and into the center of Pepperell aka Pepperville, old town blighted by fast food plastic and scruff streets, a river flows through it though they tore down the big brick mill long ago aside the rushing waters.

There's a rail trail in Pepperell, it goes north into New Hampshire and south toward Ayer, I picked it up and headed south, it's a mostly flat trail with gradual inclines south toward Groton and then a gradual declination after that, I huffed it and tried to keep my cadence firm, tried to maintain around 17 m.p.h., occasionally fatigued I dipped the speed to 15 m.p.h or so and occasionally other rail trailers caused me to slow too and I'd call out "passing on your left!" At one point along the eight or so miles that I was covering of the trail I glanced behind me and saw someone oncoming, someone using me as their rabbit so I "dug into my suitcase of courage" (to borrow an inimitable Paul Sherwenism) and picked up the pace to 20 m.p.h. and kept the predator at bay until I bailed off the trail and headed for the road that crosses behind the old Fort Devens airport, I've always called it River Rd but that's not really what it's named, nevertheless it does follow the Nashua River and I enjoy this stretch, many, many years ago my father trapped muskrats along this river and I would often go with him to check the trap line and  I recalled those days as I pedaled with growing fatigue along the pavement (flat) toward Devens, and the Main Gate, across from which the road ended.

Nashua River, mile 31
Devens used to be Fort Devens of course, the largest army base in New England once-upon-a-time, I spent many, many hours on the base, in fact I was BORN on the base (though the hospital has long since been torn down), I'd buy albums at the PX, enjoy summer swims in the outdoor pools, go to the movies at one of the three theaters ("Destroy All Monsters" 1968 was a favorite, "Taxi Driver" 1974 I was too young to see but saw it anyway, "Slap Shot" 1977 we lived for hockey), today the fort is just the town of Devens though there is a Federal prison hospital and the news just came that the scurrilous wretch Dzhokhar Tsarnaev has been transferred there, I rode across Devens anyway (going nowhere near the prison facility) and exited back into Shirley and from there rode on with weary legs past my elementary school (Lura A. White School) and down what we used to call "Tummy Tickle Rd" because of its ups and downs, and then finally atop Rice Hill and Gove Farm from which point you look across one of the very last apple orchards in the city that birthed Johnny Appleseed down into the city of Lemonstar.

Rice Hill and Gove Farm Looking Toward Lemonstar, mile 40
Then three miles or so through the 'hood and back to the home neighborhood and, famished, a focused effort in the kitchen & at the grill and in no time (well, within an hour of getting back), a big grilled ribeye steak from the CSA in Groton, sauteed mushrooms, grilled onions, roasted cauliflower, two glasses of pinot noir from Oregon, two pints of water, and a cup of Russian Caravan tea ... and the ride was duly finalized.

All That's Left

Wednesday, April 17, 2013

One Runner Who Died

Lawrence Academy Cross Country Team 1972
(Tom is 3rd from the right)
I was never a runner, though my brother was - my brother who died in 1979 of a brain tumor, just 22 years old. My brother who never made it out of the 1970s but who ran with grace and grit and elegance and urgency. Some of those who ran with him on those cross country teams at Lawrence Academy in 1973, 1974, and 1975 remain close friends today.

When someone you love dies young and you outlive them by decades, from time to time you pause to consider all the things that came after their brief sojourn here. The good and the bad. Tom never watched Larry Bird play basketball, never read a book by David Foster Wallace, never got to see the Miracle on Ice at the 1980 Winter Olympics at Lake Placid, never saw the Berlin Wall come down. He also never witnessed the September 11 attacks, never anguished over our country's war crimes in Iraq, never fretted and seethed over the Reagan and Bush presidencies.

Tom (center) running cross country
Lawrence Academy, 1974

And he never felt the anguish and anger that we've just experienced at the Boston Marathon on April 15, 2013. 

For me, there is always a part of him that lives on, that runs with great determined strides, his long black hair flying back, sinewy arms pumping. He would have cried with the rest of us this week. And he probably would have started training for next year's Boston Marathon. He wouldn't abide despair. And neither, I think, will Boston itself. 

Sunday, March 31, 2013

The Wachusett

The mountain is not called "The Wachusett" here in Not-France. 

The Goal on the horizon, March 31 2013
This early in spring, an eager cyclist cannot achieve the summit. 

Denied the summit
Our ideals remain on the perpetually shifting horizon. We pedal in the direction we think best. We seek elevation and hope not to fail when the raw side of incline kicks sharply upward into the steepness.

Friday, March 29, 2013

One Cyclist Training to Climb Mont Ventoux

A cyclist who goes by the name Monsieur Scrod has set to documenting his training for a September climb of the fabled mountain, Mont Ventoux. Scrod rides out of Frankfurt, Germany. Photos of early spring roads taken on a ride in the quiet German countryside and posted on his website ventouxcalls are poetic. His prose, on the other hand, is spare and matter-of-fact. This is a good thing. I imagine it like his pedaling style - lean, straight ahead, unapologetic.

Sunday, February 10, 2013

While the Ukraine Starved

While Stalin deliberately starved the Ukraine in the 1930s, Intourist, the Soviet tourist agency, created alluring travel posters in the hopes of attracting visitors to the worker's paradise.

See more vintage Soviet travel images.

Sunday, February 3, 2013

The Evil Empire

When Ronald Reagan, in a speech to the National Association of Evangelicals in Orlando, Florida in 1983, referred to the Soviet Union as "an evil empire," it seemed like just more of Reagan's hyperbole. Reagan, after all, was full of political bluster and calculation; the assignation of a phrase from a popular science fiction movie to America's Cold War enemy bordered on the puerile, and many took it as such.

Very few people on the Left at the time harbored any illusions about the lack of political, personal, and artistic freedom in the Soviet Union, or any of the Eastern Bloc countries. But it was impossible at the time, at least for the American Left, to applaud Reagan for his anti-USSR stridency. There was something to be mistrusted in his hubris and it was already clear by 1983 that, in the name of anti-Communism, Reagan was willing to unleash the most undemocratic forces and countenance unthinkable atrocities carried out by US allies like El Salvador and Guatemala. There was something distinctly unpalatable about a man willing to engage in such high level moral posturing while egregious human rights abuses were being carried out in Central America with his Administration's complicity.

However, now, with the clarity of hindsight and buttressed by contemporary scholarship, we can say that Reagan was certainly right in his characterization of the Soviet Union as an "evil empire." At the same time, condemning the means that Reagan employed to combat said evil empire (by waging proxy wars in Central America, for example) remains as valid today as it was then. The East/West battlegrounds in El Salvador, Guatemala, Nicaragua, Grenada still do not fit neatly into the Cold War paradigm; each country's internecine struggles must be analyzed independently, taking into account the particulars of each country and each country's regrettable histories of colonial genocide, capitalist exploitation, and entrenched poverty. To categorize the struggles in those countries as a global Communist conspiracy emanating from and directed by Moscow, as Reagan did time and again, even today does not hold up to honest scrutiny.

Yet still. The Soviet Union was an evil empire and two recent works of scholarship document, with unsparing detail and exhaustive research, just how evil it was.

Anne Applebaum's Iron Curtain: The Crushing of Eastern Europe 1944-1956 thoroughly documents the Soviet-led subjugation of Eastern Europe in the aftermath of the second world war. She pays particular attention to the fates of Poland, Hungary, and East Germany and uses extensive recently available archival evidence to document the extent of the terror employed in enslaving these countries. The book is grim and compelling, enraging and depressing, but it manages to do what I imagine an historian always hopes for her book to do - it enhances understanding and greatly expands the knowledge of its subject.


If possible, Timothy Snyder's Bloodlands: Europe Between Hitler and Stalin is grimmer and even more shocking than Applebaum's work. In Bloodlands, Snyder sets out to document how "[I]n the middle of Europe in the middle of the twentieth century, the Nazi and Soviet regimes murdered some fourteen million people." Where this mass slaughter occurred "extends from central Poland to western Russia, through Ukraine, Belarus, and the Baltic States," what Snyder names the "Bloodlands." In a feat of commendable journalistic skill, Snyder manages not only to situate the scope and scale of these mass killings in the historical record but personalizes the atrocities as well. Snyder, too, uses much archival evidence that has come to light since the fall of Soviet Communism and includes many personal stories and individual experiences of the indescribably heinous, yes Evil, acts perpetrated on such a massive scale by the USSR.

Snyder's book, as its title suggests, focuses on both the Nazis and the Soviets and those two towering pillars of Sadism, Adolf Hitler and Joseph Stalin. Though Hitler is often held up as the exemplar of Pure Evil, after just a few chapters of Snyder's book one could be forgiven for coming to believe that Stalin was very much Hitler's equal, that he was in fact perhaps the worse of the two. Stalin, for example, surpassed Hitler in the sheer numbers of people murdered and was equally obsessed with destroying entire populations. Though perhaps longevity accounts for Stalin's "success" (he ruled far longer than Hitler), still it takes a special kind of evil to put in place policies that, for example, in the Ukraine in the 1930s, deliberately induced famine that resulted in upwards of a million deaths by starvation.

Both these valuable books narrate crimes against humanity committed on a scale that, but for the documentary evidence, are unimaginable. Yet they occurred. And while it is irrelevant who was worse, Stalin or Hitler, what both authors make perfectly clear is that the Soviet Union truly was "an evil empire."