Martin Luther King, Jr. Day, Observed

One of the things that made the biggest impression on me at the Civil Rights Museum in Memphis was a short film that plays in the theater just inside the museum’s entrance.   The film takes the visitor back to the night before Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s death — the night he delivered his famous “I’ve Been to the Mountaintop” speech.  April 3, 1968 was a dismal, stormy night in Memphis, but despite the weather, the church where Dr. King was speaking was packed.

Death was on Dr. King’s mind. The wind rattled the windows and doors of the church eerily as he spoke:

You know, several years ago, I was in New York City autographing the first book that I had written. And while sitting there autographing books, a demented black woman came up. The only question I heard from her was, “Are you Martin Luther King?” And I was looking down writing, and I said, “Yes.” And the next minute I felt something beating on my chest. Before I knew it I had been stabbed by this demented woman. I was rushed to Harlem Hospital. It was a dark Saturday afternoon. And that blade had gone through, and the X-rays revealed that the tip of the blade was on the edge of my aorta, the main artery. And once that’s punctured, you’re drowned in your own blood — that’s the end of you.

It came out in the New York Times the next morning, that if I had merely sneezed, I would have died. Well, about four days later, they allowed me, after the operation, after my chest had been opened, and the blade had been taken out, to move around in the wheel chair in the hospital. They allowed me to read some of the mail that came in, and from all over the states and the world, kind letters came in. I read a few, but one of them I will never forget. I had received one from the President and the Vice-President. I’ve forgotten what those telegrams said. I’d received a visit and a letter from the Governor of New York, but I’ve forgotten what that letter said. But there was another letter that came from a little girl, a young girl who was a student at the White Plains High School. And I looked at that letter, and I’ll never forget it. It said simply,

Dear Dr. King,
I am a ninth-grade student at the White Plains High School.

And she said,

While it should not matter, I would like to mention that I’m a white girl. I read in the paper of your misfortune, and of your suffering. And I read that if you had sneezed, you would have died. And I’m simply writing you to say that I’m so happy that you didn’t sneeze.

And I want to say tonight — I want to say tonight that I too am happy that I didn’t sneeze. Because if I had sneezed, I wouldn’t have been around here in 1960, when students all over the South started sitting-in at lunch counters. And I knew that as they were sitting in, they were really standing up for the best in the American dream, and taking the whole nation back to those great wells of democracy which were dug deep by the Founding Fathers in the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution.

If I had sneezed, I wouldn’t have been around here in 1961, when we decided to take a ride for freedom and ended segregation in inter-state travel.

If I had sneezed, I wouldn’t have been around here in 1962, when Negroes in Albany, Georgia, decided to straighten their backs up. And whenever men and women straighten their backs up, they are going somewhere, because a man can’t ride your back unless it is bent.

If I had sneezed — If I had sneezed I wouldn’t have been here in 1963, when the black people of Birmingham, Alabama, aroused the conscience of this nation, and brought into being the Civil Rights Bill.

If I had sneezed, I wouldn’t have had a chance later that year, in August, to try to tell America about a dream that I had had.

If I had sneezed, I wouldn’t have been down in Selma, Alabama, to see the great Movement there.

If I had sneezed, I wouldn’t have been in Memphis to see a community rally around those brothers and sisters who are suffering.

I’m so happy that I didn’t sneeze.

Because Dr. King didn’t sneeze, he was in Memphis that night, showing his support to the city’s sanitation workers, who were on strike.  Two months before, 2 sanitation workers had been crushed to death on the job.  It was raining heavily and they had tried to take shelter in their truck, but its compactor mechanism accidentally went off, killing them. On the day of their deaths, 22 black sewer workers had been sent home without pay because of the bad weather — while their white supervisors were paid for the day’s work.  Those events pushed the overworked, underpaid sanitation workers — young and old black men who “worked like dogs” (one man remembers his starting salary as $1.03 an hour) — to go on strike.

Dr. King didn’t sneeze, but on April 4, 1968, an assassin’s bullet found him on the balcony of the Lorraine motel anyway. He did not live to see the end of the sanitation workers’ fight in Memphis, but on the Monday after her husband’s death Coretta Scott King led the march he’d planned to attend.  The workers’ demands were simple: Bargaining rights and better wages. Their slogan was even simpler: “I AM A MAN.”  More than 40 years later, it seems hard to imagine a more eloquent rallying cry — or starkly poetic cause — for Dr. King’s last battle.

 

photo by me: the Lorraine Motel in Memphis

Percolating

It’s been a busy week back in New York and back at work.  Here’s a round up of this-and-that, including a few follow-ups on things I’ve blogged about before:

– An interesting New York Times story about rehabilitating Tolstoy caught my eye.  In her diaries, Sofia Tolstoy expresses a great deal of concern about how she’ll be judged by historians. But it never occurs to her that her husband could himself be remembered in a mixed light.

– A piece attempting a humorous take on yoga from NPR’s Sandip Roy irked me.  One commenter summed up the problem nicely: “A man who identifies as belonging to a particular ethnicity, paradoxically ignorant of a particular tradition of said ethnicity, is by virtue of said identity assigned to write an article communicating nothing so much as said ignorance.” Right.

– In this week’s New Yorker, a very enjoyable review of The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo series puzzles over its popularity. “The jokes aren’t funny. The dialogue could not be worse. The phrasing and the vocabulary are consistently banal,” Joan Acocella writes.

– The ever-sharp Elif Batuman reflects on interpreting entrails and suggests prognostications help us find out who we are in this great little essay.

– Earlier this week, my former PW editor Marc Schultz wrote about a new edition of Huckleberry Finn that replaces “slave” for the n-word. The piece set off a cascade of debate on censoring Mark Twain (The Takeaway invited Morehouse’s David Wall Rice to weigh in; he made a strong case against the NewSouth edition).  But one thing that seems to have gotten lost in the discussion is that editor Alan Gribben’s decision to drop the n-word wasn’t part of any agenda — it grew out of countless conversations with readers and educators across Alabama who told him they were staying away from Huck Finn because of the n-word. “For a single word to form a barrier, it seems such an unnecessary state of affairs,” Gribben told PW.  So why not make an alternative edition available?

– Ben Yagoda takes on The Elements of Clunk. Someone should publish a set of stylebooks on the essential conventions of writing for broadcast, print, the ‘net, email, G-chat, Facebook walls and text message.  And then make them into an iPhone app so I can put them all in my pocket.

– Over at The Awl, Heather Havrilesky beautifully sums up a modern malaise (which I, for one, suffer from): Personal Branding Disorders.  “Do you want to be a part of the next wave of rich personal self-promotion, or do you want your child to grow up not knowing what really good sushi tastes like?” she asks.  Okay, okay. I give up on the sushi.

Happy New Year!

photo by Jay: my morning coffee (back in California)

Books of 2010: A Round-up

Presenting the ten best books of 2010 that I’ve read:

The Big Short (Michael Lewis) This book was essential to my understanding of the financial meltdown. Michael Lewis approaches the topic of the housing crisis and short-selling with an insider’s grasp of financial products and derivatives and an outsider’s sense of the absurdity of Wall Street.  What results is a very clear explanation of what drove the economy’s collapse, peppered with colorful anecdotes. While I was reading this, I couldn’t stop recommending it to everyone I knew. I would loan it to you but I’ve given away both copies I had.

The Devil’s Star (Jo Nesbø) I violently hated The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo. But this is Scandinavian crime fiction worth reading.

Diaries of Sofia Tolstoy (edited by Cathy Porter) Sofia was her husband’s secretary, proofreader, editor, housekeeper, agent, and nurse – the person who darned Leo’s socks as well as the person who proofread the first draft of War and Peace.  Spanning 57 years, these diaries chronicle the mundane (“Lev Nikolaevich [Leo] is better today; he has moved his bowels and is no longer in pain, and my soul is relieved of a terrible anxiety”) but also bear witness to her struggles. Sofia yearns for the pleasure of her own creative pursuits, often questions her fate, and sometimes contemplates suicide — but (luckily, for generations of Tolstoy’s readers) she never doubts her husband’s genius or wavers in her commitment to his legacy. By the end of the book, Sofia’s frayed nerves and endless crying scenes had nearly worn me out, but for most of it, I was entirely captivated by her world.  Her life raises difficult questions about feminism, marriage, and the price of greatness in the arts.

Dolly City (Orly Castel-Bloom) In the early pages of this book, I was really put off by Dolly’s perversity.   But as the plot kicked in, the book began to follow its own internal logic and I was completely gripped.  For a taste of Castel-Bloom’s brilliance, check out “My Fallow Years,” a short piece published online by Words Without Borders.

Fordlandia (Greg Grandin) Henry Ford was an odd guy. The story of Fordlandia, his never profitable but truly colossal rubber-growing outpost in the Brazilian Amazon typifies his oddness, as well as his supreme self-confidence and stubbornness. This book is a portrait of a spectacular (and forgotten) failure brimming with historical trivia.

How Does it Feel To Be A Problem? (Moustafa Bayoumi) The last time a TSA agent asked to search my suitcase, he was confronted with the following: 50 packets of Quaker instant oatmeal (embedded in a weekends’ worth of outfits), 2 ceramic soup bowls, 2 grapefruit spoons, 1 ZipLock packet of fresh Pongal rice, 1 set of stinky gym clothes, 1 pair of heels, 1 bag of toiletries … and a hardback copy of How Does it Feel to Be a Problem? with big bright red Arabic letters on the cover.  Rather appropriately, reading this book on an airplane and on the subway cars  turned into a bit of an exercise in seeing how it feels to be an object of misplaced, inchoate suspicion — I always have a bag full of strange items when I return from a weekend in Poquoson, but never before has there been anything that might peg me as Muslim or Arab-American.  Though this book was published 2008, I’m including it on this list because it didn’t become topic of national debate until this fall.

I Curse the River of Time (Per Petterson) I’m starting to notice that this list is heavy on less-than-sunny material, but so be it.  This brooding book sees protagonist Arvid Jansen through the midst of a mid-life crisis (“There was a fissure in my life, a void, and that void only beer could fill”). He’s unpleasant company, but his self-loathing has the virtue of a searing clarity.

Negative Space (Robert Steiner) This book traces, in elegant, obsessive detail, the dissolution of the narrator’s marriage of 20 years over the course of one evening. As they sit on their French terrace overlooking a 300-year-old olive grove, drinking wine and smoking, the narrator’s wife begins to explain to him that she has been unfaithful.  The narrator feels flattened: “… I became the husband in a novelette devoid of martyrs or fevered Russians.  No booming voices, no Bach, nothing of an epic scale — instead small, brutish, unsympathetic.” Infidelity is an old theme, but the single-mindedness of the protagonist’s introspection is what makes this book fascinating — and what elevates the crude betrayal, jealousy and loss at the center of the story into something far more rarefied.

Tail of the Blue Bird (Nii Ayikwei Parkes) A lovely detective story set in rural Ghana, Tail of the Blue Bird draws heavily from folklore and — though it follows a number of modern whodunit conventions — isn’t afraid to leave some things shrouded in mystery. The book ends up being a gentle critique of story-telling in all its forms. As a tribal hunter tells the forensic pathologist, “On this earth, we have to choose the story we tell, because it affects us – it affects how we live.”

The Tiger (John Vaillant) I’m reading this now.  The book follows the trail of destruction left by one man-eating Siberian tiger in the farthest reaches of eastern Russia.  My favorite line so far: “As the encyclopedic reference Mammals of the Soviet Union puts it, ‘The general appearance of the tiger is that of a huge physical force and quiet confidence, combined with a rather heavy grace.’ But one could just as easily say: this is what you get when you pair the agility and appetites of a cat with the mass of an industrial refrigerator.”

 

To be fair, more than half of these were assigned to me (what can I say? I’m lucky to have editors who have good taste). To round out the list, here are 5 more books/editions released this year which I’d like to read, but have not yet: Freedom (Jonathan Franzen), The Finkler Question (Howard Jacobson), Prejudices (H. L. Mencken), The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks (Rebecca Skloot), Let the Great World Spin (Colum McCann).

How Does It Feel to Be a Problem?

“Opposition to my book seems more symptomatic of our moment than produced by its contents,” Moustafa Bayoumi, writes in an October Chronicle for Higher Education article.  I just finished reading How Does It Feel to Be a Problem? and I agree. It’s not a “radical” book. It’s a multifaceted celebration of the contradictions of Arab-American youth, seeped with a love for New York City and respect for the country at large.  But the content of the book is not what set off the controversy surrounding it. The New York times reported:

The seeds were planted last winter, when professors in the [Brooklyn College] English Department, with Donna Wilson, the dean of undergraduate studies, chose this year’s ”common reader”: a book given to all freshmen and transfer students in an effort to provide a common experience at the outset of the school year. The books are generally memoirs set in New York City, by authors available to speak on campus.

In past years, the committee has selected Frank McCourt’s ”Angela’s Ashes” and Jonathan Safran Foer’s ”Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close.” This year it picked Dr. Bayoumi’s 2008 book, which profiles seven Arab-Americans in the wake of Sept. 11, 2001.

The young Arab-Americans profiled in the book have a range of aspirations and conflicts.  There’s the Iraq War veteran, the high school student who launches a legal battle with her school’s student council, the rebellious Iraqi teenager who runs away dozens of times before growing into a conservative, devout Muslim herself.  The book is interested in the roadblocks these young people hit on the way to adulthood — and the negotiations they make with their background in the process.  It’s a coming of age story particularly relevant in these times and in this city: The young men and women in the book are interested in school, friendships, dating, their families, and their careers, as well as politics, current events, and religion.  They’re figures most 20-somethings can relate to, making their clashes with contemporary culture all the more thought-provoking for a college-aged audience.

But when the English Department announced it had picked How Does it Feel to Be a Problem as its common reader, Bruce Kesler, an alumnus living in California (writing in a blog post entitled “I Just Disinherited My Alma Mater”) blasted the book as an attempt to inculcate political views in Brooklyn College’s entering class.   “I just updated my will and trust,” he wrote, “and, with heavy heart, cut out what was a significant bequest to my alma mater, Brooklyn College.” The post went viral, sparking widespread opposition to Bayoumi’s book and prompting plenty of other objectors.

“My first reaction was one of disbelief,” Bayoumi writes. “Wow, I thought, is my writing really that powerful? But on closer inspection, it became clear to me that my detractors hadn’t actually read the book.” Reading the book weeks and months after the crisis’s peak, I see why Brooklyn College picked it in the first place. Spirited and opinionated, it’s written in colorful accessible language.  It’s an easy read, but not a light one.  This is a book that wants (and deserves) to be talked about.  So I’m glad to see Bayoumi hasn’t dropped the topic yet because, as  The Daily News reports, neither have New Yorkers:

Last Thursday, a [book club] discussion of Moustafa Bayoumi’s “How Does It Feel to Be a Problem? Being Young and Arab in America,” quickly turned personal.

Kerry Sahadi, 38, a blond married to a Christian of Lebanese decent, explained how she and her husband were both pulled over for speeding while following each other. Her husband was ticketed. She wasn’t.

Brooklyn-born Thikra Esa, 25, wearing traditional Muslim dress, admitted to anger over having to miss her prom and pass on an internship in Manhattan because of her parents’ strictness.

Bay Ridge mom Omayma Khayat, 31, opened up about her decision during college to cover her hair and her less-religiously strict mother’s embarrassment over it.

Muslims in the heavily Arab-American area are often reluctant to branch out of their tight-knit community, fearful of being rejected amid images of them as terrorists, said Linda Sarsour, 30, the Arab-American Association’s co-founder and a book club member.

“This is an opportunity for people to have a regular conversation,” Sarsour said. “If this can happen in Bay Ridge and be successful, it can happen anywhere.”

Festival of Lights

photo by Jay

Deepavali, Diwali, Deepawali, Divali — another year has passed and it’s time to again celebrate the festival of many names, traditions, stories, and observances.  As one explanation so artfully puts it:

More than a religious festival or the festival of a community or race, Deepawali is perceived as the battle of light against darkness – a tiny lamp’s determination to illuminate the earth and the sky setting them free from the all-enshrouding darkness. Deepawali celebrates this victory of the tiny lamp, its humble effort to fight out the gigantic darkness. People see in the effort of the tiny lamp their own effort to wade across the ocean of adversities, and this sense fills them with renewed confidence and fresh vigour for the days to come.

Happy Deepavali!

On The Rally to Restore Sanity/and or Fear

I’m back in New York today, rallying to restore lost sleep after one of the more exhausting weekends I’ve had — and trying to wrap my head around around the politically inspired Halloween-themed media critique that was Saturday’s Colbert/Stewart event.  I’ve been to Washington, DC countless times but the crowd the Rally to Restore Sanity and/or Fear drew on Saturday completely transformed the city.  Cellphones become unusable; the Metro shut down (the DC transit authority reported 825,000 trips, more than double its usual load); the crowd stretched on as far as the eye could see.  Subversive but anodyne, “cool” but family-friendly, it was really more of a polite, ironic spectacle than a politically charged rally.

Because I was on assignment, I missed most of the live speeches and performances (I caught up online late last night).  But working my way through the crowds to shoot photos, I got a good feel for the sideshow.  And what an civil, reasonable sideshow it was — the outlandish costumes and pithy slogans couldn’t mask an underlying earnestness.  When I finally watched Jon’s main speech, what stood out to me was its guilelessness:

Most Americans don’t live their lives solely as Democrats, Republicans, liberals or conservatives. Americans live their lives more as people that are just a little bit late for something they have to do. Often something they do not want to do! But they do it. Impossible things, every day, that are only made possible through the little, reasonable compromises we all make.

It would be disingenuous to overlook the fact that Stewart/Colbert fans are overwhelmingly Democratic.  But a celebration of “little reasonable compromises” isn’t exactly what one would expect as a party rallying cry on the eve of midterm elections.  Coming from a political satirist, the talk of compromise and rationality was especially disarming.  Capturing votes (and legislative seats) takes — and creates — one kind of power. But capturing a national mood and moment has a power of its own.

 

photo by me: soundbites suck! at the Rally to Restore Sanity

The Persistence of Procrastination

I have often asked myself whether those days on which we are forced to be indolent are not just the ones we pass in profoundest activity? Whether all our doing, when it comes later, is not only the last reverberation of a great movement which takes place in us on those days of inaction …

-Rainer Maria Rilke

One of my favorite notions about procrastination is the idea of incubation — the belief that quietly putting off a task when you just don’t feel like doing it is just a way of ensuring that when you do get around to it, it turns out great.  It’s a pleasant wives’ tale about inspiration and productivity that for the most part, I manage to dismiss in favor of lists, deadlines, and something like “sensible” time-management.  But the tricky part about this construction of procrastination  — and the reason I still cling to it — is that where creative tasks are concerned, I find it’s often true.  There is such a thing as productive delay, and it lends itself to thoughtfulness.  More often than not, setting aside an idea, a question, an argument, or theme for a while lets the mind do a bit of digestion and unconscious problem solving on its own — and results in better work.

Salvador Dali's Persistence of MemoryThe problem with this outlook is that as the stakes get higher, the impulse to allow for more and more “creative downtime” grows.  It’s procrastination at it’s most thrilling, debauched and clinical.  The Takeaway explored the topic morning in a segment on procrastination featuring Chrisoula Andreou and Mark D. White, co-editors of  The Thief of Time: Philosophical Essays on Procrastination.  What intrigued me about the book is its apparent endorsement of the “great movement” philosophy of procrastination I hold dear.  As the New Yorker review of the book puts it:

You may have thought, the last time you blew off work on a presentation to watch “How I Met Your Mother,” that you were just slacking. But from another angle you were actually engaging in a practice that illuminates the fluidity of human identity and the complicated relationship human beings have to time. Indeed, one essay, by the economist George Ainslie, a central figure in the study of procrastination, argues that dragging our heels is “as fundamental as the shape of time and could well be called the basic impulse.”

Basic impulse, indeed! Co-editor White takes a different view. He suggests that the key to understanding and controlling the desire to procrastinate is treating it like any other struggle of willpower: make rules, exercise some discipline, keep the larger objective in mind.  Stay the course; resist the urge to reach for the short-term payoff.  But where’s the magic in that?  I’m inclined to keep looking to the literary giants, who have a great tradition of procrastination, for definitive instruction on how to postpone the task at hand.  E. B. White couldn’t have gotten it wrong, could he?

Delay is natural to a writer. He is like a surfer — he bides his time, waits for the perfect wave on which to ride in. Delay is instinctive for him. He waits for the surge (of emotion? of strength? of courage?) that will carry him along. I have no warm-up exercises, other than to take an occasional drink.

image: Salvador Dali, The Persistence of Memory