Remembering Photojournalists Killed in Misrata

I never met Chris Hondros.   But he took my photo once, on a very cold day two years ago when  I was part of a media gaggle outside Bernie Madoff’s Upper East Side apartment, waiting for the Ponzi-schemer to return home from a court appearance.

When I first saw that photo, the novelty of it tickled me. The camera had been turned on me — a media peon with a very minor role in the Madoff drama. It was slightly flattering and slightly funny, in part because it documented me holding my favorite travel mug, a souvenir from the Greenberry’s coffee franchise in Charlottesville. I never noticed Hondros specifically, and I’ll never know if he had been assigned to document the media scrum that day, or if this particular shot was just one he took while waiting for Madoff, bored like the rest of us.

Since hearing news of the deaths of Hondros and British photojournalist Tim Hetherington in Misrata yesterday that photo has taken on a completely new meaning — and I haven’t been able to stop thinking about it.   In light of Hondros’ death, the photo is a reminder to me that the world — and I don’t just mean the world of journalism, or its New York microcosm — really is quite small and interconnected.  And it reminds me that journalists everywhere, every day, can be made to pay a steep price for doing their jobs.

When Madoff’s car arrived that day, the crowd was caught off-guard.  CNN got the shot it wanted — mostly because of the good instincts of the photojournalist I was field producing for, who at the last minute stationed me as a lookout so I could signal which way the car was coming. In the chaos of the stakeout, I left my prized Greenberry’s mug on Madoff’s stoop, and the photo used to remind me of the mug I lost that day. But of course now the loss it conveys is much heavier.

(For more on Hondros and Hetherington, check out The Takeaway’s audio remembrance, either of these — one and two — New York Times slide-shows, or this video diary).

“It’s safe, but”

As I was waking up for work early yesterday morning, on the other side of the globe Japan was observing a moment of silence for the victims of its twin natural disasters.

When I arrived at the office that day a month before, 32 people had been killed from Japan’s earthquake and tsunami. By the time I left work that day, the estimated death toll was between 200 and 300– a nearly tenfold increase.

Just one week later, the number of people dead or missing from the disaster had risen to more than 20,000– almost twice the population of my hometown.

Now that number is closer to 25,000, and I’m no less stunned by the effects of the disaster.  In the past weeks, The Takeaway has heard from nuclear experts, relief workers, professors of Japanese culture, and even Yoko Ono, but there’s no getting around the basic incomprehensibility of the damage.

Yesterday as I was thinking about how the story has unfolded, I stumbled on this moving poem by Tadashi Nishimura:

“It’s safe, but” / they say over and over / that’s worrisome

Watching the story develop in the role of a journalist, my eyes have been trained on the facts (many of them numerical in this “level 7” disaster).

But poetry cuts past the numbers — the thousands dead or missing, and many more without electricity or water, a home or word from their families; the hundreds of millisieverts of radiation being emitted; the billions of dollars in economic losses — and pierces the heart of the catastrophe’s uncertainty.  It emerges from the rubble of destruction, confusion, and misinformation to describe the very things which evade measurement: loss, blame, guilt, fear, upheaval, meaninglessness.

Another thing about poetry is its eerie timelessness.  From an anthology compiled in 13th century Japan:

Like a driven wave,
Dashed by fierce winds on a rock,
So am I: alone
And crushed upon the shore,
Remembering what has been.

When the Killing’s Done

Knowing that Jay is a fan of novelist T. C. Boyle, on Friday one of his Daily Beast colleagues (who works in the books section) gave him an extra copy of Boyle’s latest novel.

When the Killing’s Done is officially is out tomorrow, and Boyle will be on The Takeaway to talk about some of the environmental questions it raises.  Over the weekend, I decided to give the book a read ahead of Boyle’s interview. I borrowed Jay’s copy and blogged about the book for The Takeaway:

Boyle gets around the difficulty of dramatizing environmental issues by dramatizing the environmentalists themselves. To drive home the tension between their positions, he draws out the similarities between Alma and her nemesis David. Alma and her biologist boyfriend Tim Sickafoose are vegetarians, and so are David and his girlfriend Anise Reed. They all live in the Santa Barbara area, they all drive white Priuses, and they all grapple with the quandaries of consumption while listening to the same hippie folksinger—and the similarities don’t end there. Like Alma, David’s girlfriend Anise has matrilineal ties to the islands: Her mother worked as a cook on an island sheep ranch in the 1970s.

Though their philosophies on what’s best for the natural world around them clash perfectly, Boyle makes it clear that both the Alma/Tim and David/Anise camps are equally motivated by a mix of childhood sympathies, inclinations of personality, and adult life politics. Our approach to moral questions about the environment, Boyle seems to suggest, is as complicated as the environment itself.

The full post is at The Takeaway’s blog.

One small thing I left out: I was more than a little bit annoyed at Boyle for making one of his character’s conversion to meatlessness come at the hands of a proselytizing Hindu.

Alma won’t touch the bacon– she hasn’t eaten meat since her conversion to vegetarianism in the seventh grade under the influence of her best friend, a girl from India whose parents were both doctors and who persisted in wearing a red caste mark on her forehead through the end of junior high …

Of course this is the only mention that this nameless character and her persistent “caste mark” get.  And of course, my annoyance comes from personal recognition of this particular bundle of stereotypes.  I stopped eating meat at age 10; my mom applied a small dab of kumkuma on my forehead every morning before school, after we said our prayers; my father is a physician.  But preach vegetarianism?  That kind of “girl from India” would know better.  So should Boyle.

Revolution in Egypt

It took eighteen days (or was it thirty years?) but finally the man who once said “I have a PhD in stubbornness” has stepped down.

Undoubtedly, Egypt’s struggles are far from over — there are still too many unknowns at this stage — but for those of us watching from the other side of the world, what an exhilarating ride it’s been.

There’s also still no single answer to the question I posed last week — why now? — and President Hosni Mubarak’s resignation only raises more questions.  What will the military takeover mean for the country? Can the army make good on its promise to ensure fair and peaceful elections? Will the crowd that’s organized so bravely on the streets be able to find solid political footing in the halls of parliament? What will become of mid-level government officials who supported the old regime? What will become of Mubarak himself? Who will step up to fill the vacuum of democratic leadership? How will the United States reposition itself towards the new Egypt? How will Egypt’s economy regain its footing after three weeks of this $300-million-dollar-a-day disruption? What will this upheaval mean for the rest of the Mideast?

So far, Egypt’s revolution has been the most-covered international news story in 4 years — and it looks like the story is just getting started.

Winter and Their Discontent

Another winter storm, another revolution.  With more terrible weather expected overnight, I’ve packed up for yet another stay in a hotel across the street from my office — keeping tabs on Al Jazeera’s ongoing Egypt coverage all the while.  If today’s developments are any indicator, this week’s looking to be another very busy one at work. News from the Middle East has been nothing short of riveting, and I’ve been proud to be part of The Takeaway’s standout coverage of protests in the Middle East (including the brand new podcast launched today).

I’m still gathering my thoughts — and, like everyone else watching developments in Algeria, Yemen, Tunisia, Jordan, and Egypt from afar, “monitoring a very fluid situation,” to say the least — so for now, I’ll leave this post with just one question that’s been on my mind. It stems, in part, from an anecdote relayed by Wendell Steavenson, blogging for The New Yorker from Cairo:

A girl who had collapsed with stomach pains was brought in, carried in the arms of an Army captain. Her parents had taken their four children to the square in the morning and the family had been there for six or seven hours. Her father, Amr Helmy, a former Army officer, told me that he believed it was important that they see the demonstration. “They need to start getting used to them!” he joked, “so they learn that they don’t have to be afraid. Our generation wasted our life in nonsense.”

A courageous sentiment.  But why now?  That’s what I’ve been wondering.  It’s also the question that was posed on The Takeaway this morning by Shibley Telhami, Anwar Sedat Chair for Peace and Development at the University of Maryland:

For me as a political scientist, I’ve always said (and I’ve repeated it over and over again), the puzzle to me has never been, ‘are there reasons to revolt?’  The puzzle has always been, ‘why haven’t people revolted already?’

I’ll be mulling this over as events in Egypt unfold — and maybe when the storm passes, the answer will be more apparent.

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