‘General’ Posts

Entrepreneur

Friday, March 28th, 2014

In today’s business news:

My co-editor Barbara Barnett and I have incorporated as Critical Lens Media Ltd. and acquired the web magazine Blogcritics, for which we have been freelance editors for some years.

Congratulations and/or sympathy gladly accepted.

Park Odyssey Press Release

Wednesday, October 27th, 2010

FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE
October 27, 2010

Jon Sobel, a Manhattan-based writer and musician and Co-Executive Editor of Blogcritics Magazine, has embarked on an unprecedented adventure: visiting and blogging every New York City park. He plans to document all 1,300 green spaces within the five boroughs.

“I already spend a lot of my spare time walking around the city, especially the parks,” Sobel says. “It’s astounding how many parks there are within the city limits. So this project combines my life as a writer, with my life as a lover of the outdoors. And nobody has ever done it before.”

Why 1,300? The roster of NYC Parks goes far beyond the famous ones like Central Park, Prospect Park, and Battery Park. The five boroughs are festooned with hundreds of parks of every shape, size, design, and purpose. Looking over the Parks Department’s website and other resources, Jon identified about 1,300 properties that seem to rank as actual parks (as opposed to pure playgrounds or mere grassy strips). He’ll visit, photograph, and blog about every park that’s at least partially laid out for passive enjoyment of the outdoors.

The more than 30 parks already featured on the blog, with text and photos, include:

-> Manhattan’s oldest park, Bowling Green, where it all began…
-> Brooklyn’s cannon-decked John Paul Jones park in the shadow of the Verrazano Bridge…
-> The city’s most celebrated green space, Central Park, captured in the winter snow…
-> Chinatown’s Seward Park, named for Lincoln’s Secretary of State (whose statue can be found much farther uptown in Madison Square Park)…
-> The fast-developing landscape of Governor’s Island, where preserved military housing stands side by side with cutting-edge art exhibits…
-> Gantry Plaza State Park on the Queens waterfront, where you can take in some of New York’s storied industrial history along with the sun’s rays…
-> And quite a few more.

“When I first conceived the project last year, I imagined that I could cover all the parks in one long summer season,” Sobel says. “Then I started to look into it more seriously—and upped my estimate to two years. And now that I’ve actually begun, it’s looking more and more like a multi-year exploration. But so is life, and what could be better than spending as much of life as possible outdoors, while still being right here in the greatest city in the world?”

Read the Park Odyssey blog here:

http://parkodyssey.blogspot.com/

Read the introductory post here:

http://tinyurl.com/3ypw677

Contact Jon Sobel at: orenhope@gmail.com

Two Weeks in Greece, and Butch Walker

Sunday, May 23rd, 2010

Part 1 and Part 2 of my series “Two Weeks in Greece” about our recent trip are available for your reading pleasure over at Blogcritics, along with a review of a Butch Walker concert (and I don’t go to too many rock concerts any more, so get it while it’s hot).


The Stoa of Attalos at the Ancient Agora, Athens. Photo by me.

Woman: See Man

Friday, February 12th, 2010

Oh, the things Web research can reveal.

Woman: See Man

The Unbeliever’s Dilemma

Monday, October 26th, 2009

A new atheist ad campaign hits the New York City subways this week. A group called the Coalition of Reason is sponsoring posters declaring that "A million New Yorkers are good without God. Are you?" The campaign aims to give non-believing New Yorkers assurance that they're not alone. This seems unnecessary in New York; the anonymous donor might have spent his or her money better in some Bible Belt city, someplace where nonbelievers really do feel marginalized. But it did get me thinking.

The "million" figure comes from the famous 2008 American Religious Identification Survey, which found 15 percent of respondents claimed to have no religious affiliation. In terms of New York's population, that points to roughly a million people. While the numbers may lack precision, there are certainly millions of Americans who don't believe in God. President Obama's acknowledgment of nonbelievers in his Inaugural Address was a small but significant gesture towards recognition of this population.

But awareness campaigns can go only so far. Nonbelievers in a country dominated by religious people will always labor under the near-impossibility of being able to prove a negative.

The term "atheist" and the question "Do you believe in God?" pose an oppositional conundrum similar to what occurs when I ask, "Have you stopped beating your wife?" In asking the question that way, I'm stipulating that you have beaten your wife at some time in the past, regardless of whether you have since stopped. Similarly, if I say "I am an atheist" or "I don't believe in God," the very phrasing puts me in opposition to something I don't recognize as existing – theos, a god, a supernatural being.

Hence the term "atheist" defines me according to a belief system I don't accept; it places me in a world in which there may be an entity people refer to as "God," and in which I am something like a scientist who doesn't accept a certain theory because he believes the evidence is inadequate or has a rival theory. But that picture does not accurately describe a naturalistic worldview. In my conception, a naturalistic worldview by definition does not stand in opposition to some competing worldview. It isn't one of a number of possible theories posited to explain some phenomenon; rather it has defined a supernatural worldview out of existence. "Naturalistic" means "with reference to what is." In nature, in the world, in the universe, there are things that are. Of course, there is much that is unobservable to us, and perhaps some things that we will never observe. Still, these things are. Anything else is speculative or imaginary.

Saying "I don't believe in God" is somewhat better than using the term "atheist," because it at least refutes the superstition implied in the term "belief." But it suggests that the alternative, "believing in God," is somehow of equal logical weight. The oppositional conundrum still applies. The term "belief" itself is weighted. In its religious sense, "belief" means trusting in the existence of supernatural beings and events that one has not personally observed (and which, since they are supernatural, are also, to a naturalist, nonexistent, hence unobservable). To a pure naturalist, this kind of "belief" is an almost meaningless concept. Opposing it is like arguing with the wind.

Miracles are a prime example. These are fictional phenomena that, by definition, defy natural law, or else real phenomena that witnesses could not explain because the necessary scientific knowledge is or was not yet available. "Believing in" miracles means accepting a supernatural origin for (currently or formerly) unexplained phenomena. This was understandable in pre-scientific cultures. It is far less understandable today. Angels are another example – fictional characters firmly "believed in" by some of the same adults who are just as sure Santa Claus and the Easter Bunny are made up. As with miracles, there is no logical explanation for such beliefs. Logic isn't relevant – people believe these things on faith. Thoughtful theologians often have no problem admitting as much.

Ideally, there should be (philosophically speaking) no conflict between science and religion. They operate on different mental planes. Unfortunately our terminology too often doesn't let us – believers and nonbelievers – see that. Instead we see things in terms of opposition and conflict. We "atheists" and naturalistic thinkers continue to struggle to find accurate and acceptable terms with which to describe ourselves, using a language whose very terms deny the reality we perceive.

To follow a lively discussion on this post or leave a comment, please click over to where it is posted at Blogcritics.

The Time Traveler’s Life

Friday, October 2nd, 2009

Over the summer I traveled back in time.

To my brother's place, to be exact.

He lives in a college town, but we weren't there to teach or learn; we were there to make an album. The recording studio was pretty state-of-the-art. My brother isn't.

He doesn't have a digital recording device or MP3 player.  Or a computer at home. Or cable or satellite TV (though he does have an idiot box on which he can watch rented movies).

He doesn't want these things.

He reads books he borrows from the library. I went with him to the creaky, homey old library a couple of times, to take advantage of its free wireless internet. I don't live in the past (unless you count the fact that I don't have a smartphone yet). I'd brought my laptop. I'm a freelancer and I have to stay in touch even when I'm away from home, in case any work comes up. And I have to be able to do the work, if it does.

More amazingly, for someone who lives in a small town in Vermont, my brother doesn't have a car. He walks to the school where he teaches. He takes commuter buses up and down the state when he wants to go somewhere. He rents a car now and then when a big trip is necessary.

On reflection, though, that doesn't conform to the theme of living in the past. It feels more like living in the future. But that's a story for another – a future – day.

After our studio sessions, back at his house, we went even further back in time: to our childhood, when we read books about dinosaurs. Only in those days there were maybe ten or twenty dinosaurs pictured in the books. Paleontologists have since discovered many, many more dinosaurs. I realized with amazement, paging through my brother's thick, heavy new dinosaur book, that every dinosaur we knew of as kids – tyrannosaurus rex, trachodon, triceratops, allosaurus, ankylosaurus, what used to be called a brontosaurus – is now known to be a whole family of sauropods, dozens or hundreds in each group.

Makes sense when you think about it, with evolution working on these creatures for tens of millions of years.

So there we were, two guys in our 40s, reading books about dinosaurs. Just like when we were six, seven, eight years old. Traveling back in time.

After our second and final studio session it was Friday night, time to celebrate having completed the basic tracks. I wondered if the brewery in town had a Friday night tasting. My brother had never been to the brewery at all, though it was practically in his back yard. It was about time. Sure enough: Friday night tasting! Complete with a cask ale. So there we were, standing at the counter in the brewery, drinking cask ale. Traveling back in time alcoholically too.

So here's to both kinds of dinosaurs – the ancient beasts who once roamed the planet, and the humans who stay just a little bit behind the curve, taking things a little more slowly, leaving time to contemplate.

The Re-Education of a Road Trip Nation

Friday, August 7th, 2009

I've been driving a lot this summer, but getting behind the wheel is feeling more and more like a Last Days scenario.

I don't mean the end of the world, although of course that's possible. I mean the end of an automobile-centric way of life. No one has come up with a convincing solution to the dual problems of finite fuel and climate change. One way or another, it seems likely that we're going to be giving up our cars — if not this generation, then next.

Being a city dweller, I have a car mostly for weekends and vacation trips. I also need it for work, but only sort of; if I weren't a part-time working musician, with heavy equipment to lug around to gigs, I'd probably be like most Manhattanites and not own a car at all.

And so, despite being a car owner, I'm a public transportation snob. I think that if you are a patriotic American, or (more important) a patriotic citizen of Earth, and you are not a farmer, you should be living in or near a city and taking public transportation to work. If that's not practical now, you should be actively planning for it. And the governments of the world should be using carrots, then (eventually) sticks where needed, to aim societies in that direction.

Yet there's this nice house in the country, see…

Since my mother retired a couple of years ago to her house in Vermont, I find myself imagining retiring there too someday, assuming the house stays in the family. This actually takes quite an effort of imagination, because the prospects of my actually retiring, at any age, seem quite dim. But still. These dreams and pleasures lie deep in our natures.

Having a spread of land that's our own, whether real or just an aspiration, appeals deeply to our territorial side. Having access, and means, to hit the open road and go where we please when we please, whether it's to visit distant friends or relatives, spend time with nature, or just get away from something — that goes very deep as well. Perhaps it's a manifestation of our essential internal conflict. You know the one: between our earthbound reality and our mental capacity to dream to infinity.

Wherever we get them from, these ideas are not easy to give up, especially for Americans. Our foundational frontier tradition and our Eisenhower Interstate Highway System make sure of that.

So if these kinds of dreams have to die, they will die hard. The white picket fence, the second home in the country, the family road trip… whenever I turn the key in the ignition and roll off this once-Dutch island into the vastness of the mainland United States, I can't help thinking of these hopes and dreams grinding to a halt.

This View of Life… Or That One

Tuesday, June 23rd, 2009

Dotting the fields by the road around the Caribbean island of St. Kitts are hundreds of white birds. Marveling at the beauty of these graceful, long-necked animals, we asked Solomon, our hotel's driver, what they were.

"Egrets," he replied. "They look pretty, but they're damn nuisances. They shit all over my pool."

It's all relative. Here in New York we've got open-air double-decker tourist buses all over the place. When I'm walking, I like to see the buses. It's fun to watch the tourists gawking at the skyscrapers and famous sights that to me are just part of the everyday scenery. It's useful, and enjoyable, to be made aware of different points of view.

When I'm trying to drive downtown, though, the buses are a nuisance, clogging up the intersections like mis-oriented vitamin pills in your throat. So: another point-of-view shift, this time all within one person, pedestrian vs. driver. Every conceivable point in space or time is (theoretically) somebody's point of view, and all those points of view are out there criss-crossing and opposing, separating us from one another and dividing us internally too.

Somewhere, terrain-wise, between a small, underdeveloped Caribbean island and the heart of Manhattan is the suburb I grew up in. It was a good place to be a kid. A few years later, it was a boring place to be a teenager. It hadn't changed; I had. Now I've shifted yet again, looking down my nose at suburbs altogether.

Yet even though I haven't lived in one in decades, when I visit suburbs in other areas I feel superior and defensive about my own home town: we had sidewalks, why don't you have sidewalks? What if someone wants to go for a walk? Who planned this town? Meanwhile someone from that sidewalkless community is probably driving through my old town thinking: how can people live in a place that doesn't have any hills?

It's amazing, when you think about it, that we function and get along as well as we do. Sure, there are always wars going on, and people stereotyping, despising, and oppressing other people, countries, races… suburbs. But countries survive for centuries. And we have not blown up the planet, nor wiped ourselves back to the Bronze Age, despite well over half a century of capability.

We may have point-of-view problems, but we did evolve as social animals. That gave us the smarts we constantly use to both help and hurt ourselves individually and collectively. The fact that people can live in small groups or large ones, in every kind of terrain, and within a wide variety of social institutions, tells us something important:

There's hope for humanity. There's hope for the Earth. There's even hope for some of the beautiful creatures we share the planet with.

Just as long as they don't shit in my pool.*


*Metaphorical. I don’t have a pool.

Signs o’ Spring in New York City

Monday, April 20th, 2009

Daffodils, of course. (These are in Madison Square Park.)

From Signs o' Spring

A robin, of course. (Prospect Park.)

From Signs o' Spring

And it certainly wouldn’t be spring without a game of Flags ‘n’ Pigeons. (Ah, that brings me back…)

From Signs o' Spring

Top Six Reasons I’m Resisting Twitter

Monday, April 13th, 2009

If Twitter is the new way people are finding out about things, I guess I’m going to have to start doing it eventually. But so far I’m resisting, and here’s why.

6. I already have to “hide” three quarters of my Facebook friends because I don’t have time to read their announcements of “I’m off to the Post Office” and “I’m making lentil soup tonight.”

5. Speaking of food, I don’t know if I can afford another mouth to feed. With Facebook, two Myspace pages, a professional website, professional blog, personal blog, band websites, rehearsals, hustling for work, etc., etc. — not to mention those holdovers from a primitive era, actually working and having a social life — it’s hard to swallow the idea of hooking up yet another needy pipeline I must pump full of something on a regular basis.

4. Unless I’m talking about birds, I refuse to do anything requiring me to use the word “tweet.”

3. I like to maintain an inflated sense of my own importance, so I’m worried that no matter how many (or few) people might follow me on Twitter, it will never be enough.

2. Just to be plain ornery.

And the Number One reason I’m resisting Twitter…

1. Look outside — it’s a beautiful day!

No Kidding

Monday, April 13th, 2009

Photobucket

Music Review: Indie Round-Up – Mosher, Cleaves, Terry

Thursday, April 9th, 2009

Manda Mosher, Everything You Need

Manda Mosher's airy but sultry alto is a refreshing change from the little-girl voices that dominate pop music, and crop up a lot in today's rootsy music too. Mosher's sun-baked pop-rock doesn't fall easily into a genre either, though decades ago we could safely have simply called it "rock."

Mosher's dobro plucking and Dylanesque harmonica playing nod to the front porch, but her songs, especially in these keyboard-heavy arrangements, hark back more to 1970s arena rock (especially Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers) than to anything current. The sole cover, however, is a lovely acoustic rendition of Pete Townshend's sweet, slightly precious "Blue, Red, and Grey."

Though reasonably well-crafted, Mosher's songs are a little pallid, lacking in excitement. As if trying to make up for this, producer Guy Erez has overproduced the tracks, and they are recorded on the CD crazily loud. These choices don't serve Mosher's subtle vocals well. She's not a brash Kelly Clarkson or a squeaky Taylor Swift, she's more of a smoky Christine McVie or Joni Mitchell. But this CD tries to hit you over the head with her. I suspect I'd enjoy her music more if it were in a more intimate setting.

Slaid Cleaves, Everything You Love Will Be Taken Away

Slaid Cleaves is one of those consummate songwriters whose stuff would sound great coming from almost any singer you can think of. But like Kim Richey (of whom he reminds me), his own voice, though not a powerhouse instrument, wraps perfectly around his words and melodies.

Cleaves' first new CD of original material in five years is the kind of album it's hard to write about because the music doesn't invite much analysis. It's like trying to grab hold of an object so smooth and frictionless you can't get a grip on it. Gurf Morlix, one of Americana music's great unsung producers, keeps things spare and simple, as befits the literate but straight-arrow songs.

Cleaves' stories and vignettes range from workingman's plaints, like "Tumbleweed Stew" and the Springsteen-esque "Hard to Believe," to grim ditties of war and death like "Green Mountains and Me" and the relentless, Townes-sad "Twistin'." Although there's a lot of negative imagery in the lyrics, the music has an unprepossessing, almost dancing quality even when it's slow. This makes you lean into the lyrics to see the vivid pictures. Good-looking music, this.

Jesse Terry, The Runner

Here's an expertly crafted, beautifully produced CD of poppy country-rock from a singer-songwriter with an open, engaging, emotionally powerful voice and a knack for melodies. But the lyrics take it down a peg. Cliches and sentimental storytelling are OK in songs up to a point, of course, but only if they're put together in original ways, or if they sit perfectly with the melodies in that indescribable, magical way that turns a competent song into a really good one.

These lyrics too often disappoint in that sense, even edging into cheesiness at times, as with the title track. In other songs, like "Edges" and "Ghost Town," good setups with well-conceived tunes and imagery don't lead to strong musical payoffs.

Where Terry does connect, for me, is in his acoustic ballads, where rather than forcing his way to attempted big choruses, he seems to be simply saying what he wants to say. "Noise," "A Refuge," and the exquisite "Africa" flow with complete naturalness, like songs by the Beatles, Don Henley, or Kevin So.

Ancient History

Thursday, March 26th, 2009

history

Editing Test

Monday, March 9th, 2009

Prooof

Four Finger John

Tuesday, March 3rd, 2009

Slowly but surely our new Whisperado CD project is progressing. This will be our first full-length recording, with a song count in the double digits! We’ll finish recording later this spring, and soon after that we’ll have a hot little product ready for download – and even available on old-fashioned plastic discs in break-y transparent jewel boxes!

But in the meantime, during a lull in the Whisperado recording process I went to Tom White’s studio in Schoharie County in upstate New York music and recorded three acoustic songs: a very tardy tribute to the late John Entwistle of the Who, a (seasonally speaking) very early Christmas song, and a folksy version of “Hand-Me-Down.” So it’s not really an album – more like an extended single, or a really short EP. Whatever you want to call it, it’s yours free – email me at music / at / whisperado / dot / com for the link to download the songs.

Winter in New York

Friday, January 30th, 2009

A few snapshots thereof. Berries, birds, and the like. The berries and birds are from the Upper West Side of Manhattan. The fence below is from farm country in upstate New York.


nyc

nyc,nyc

Winter Scene

Burning the Future: Seeing the Lights Go Off On Broadway

Friday, October 24th, 2008

The powerful new documentary Burning the Future: Coal in America explains how critical coal power is to the US economy and to Americans' energy-greedy way of life. It also focuses on the terrible effects modern mining has on the lives of people who live in Appalachian coal country. Specifically, the film documents the contamination of the water supply and its effects on human health. It also condemns mountaintop removal mining in no uncertain terms.

This modern form of coal extraction relies on heavy explosives to get the coal from the tops of mountains, rather than using large numbers of miners to burrow underground for it. There are some who defend mountaintop mining, but a quick glance at a few photos is enough to convince many that the practice should be outlawed.

The economics and science of coal and coal mining are complex, but in terms of cost to the environment it's safe to say that coal is a dirty source of energy. Most environmentalists believe the US should wean itself off coal.

However, the film raises another, related issue. One certainly sympathizes with people whose lands and water are being polluted, whose children are being sickened, by nearby coal mining operations. But enjoying a modern, comfortable way of life while living in relatively remote areas just might not be sustainable in the first place.

Two scenes in the film brought this home to me. Both occur on a trip to New York City taken by several courageous West Virginia environmental activists who have been invited to testify before a UN commission.

The final leg of the activists' journey takes place via New Jersey Transit. Sitting on the train, one of them observes that she's never been on a train before. To someone who grew up in the northeast, that's almost unbelievable. Never been on a train? Not an Amtrak, a commuter train, a subway train? Never once?

But where she comes from, you have to get everywhere by car. Simple as that. And there are far too many people in this country who have to get everywhere by car.

The second scene occurs when the leader of the activists, the admirable Maria Gunnoe, stands in Times Square, looks up at the huge, brightly lit advertisements looming everywhere, and cries out for New York to turn out these lights. Don't New Yorkers know that their incessant demand for energy is ruining the land elsewhere in the country?

It's a powerful moment. One could, of course, point out that the bright lights of Times Square are one of New York's biggest tourist attractions, and the city depends heavily on the tourist trade. But one can understand Gunnoe's reaction, and one feels in one's bones that she's – at least a little – right.

No, the bigger point the scene raises is that, however much energy might be "wasted" keeping Times Square "Times Square," city residents have smaller carbon footprints than people who live on houses with land.

People who live in houses need cars, every day. They have more rooms to heat and cool than city dwellers do. They might have the proverbial white picket fence, but inside their fences suburbanites waste huge amounts of water keeping their lawns artificially green. People who live in the suburbs or the sticks get none of the economies of scale that come with apartment living. And that was all fine when populations were smaller, gas was cheap, and the effects of our material prosperity on the planet were less well understood. I don't think it's fine any more.

In the film, one of the West Virginians worries that by the time his kids grow up, pollution may have made it impossible for them to continue living where they were brought up. I hope they can, he says.

From a family standpoint, that's sad. But in a way, I hope they can't. I'm certainly not cheering on the pollution, the destructive mining, or the continued dependence on dirty energy. Unless mining and burning coal can be made truly clean, phase it out, for the sake of the planet. But also for the sake of the planet, those country kids should move to a city. In fact, I'll go out on a limb: by the year 2040, unless your business is farming, your family ought to be living in a city.

By then, I hope it'll be really, really hard to find an American who's never been on a train.

A Visit to Fort Totten

Monday, October 6th, 2008

New York City Parks Department tours kick ass.

A few weeks ago we had a special bus tour of Fresh Kills, the huge Staten Island landfill, now closed, capped, and being planted in preparation for eventual conversion to parkland, but not generally open to the public at this point. This weekend, another Urban Park Ranger took us through the old fort at Fort Totten, a Civil War-era granite fortress on the Willets Point peninsula on the north coast of Queens.

A short distance across the water from Fort Totten, on a spit of land jutting south from the Bronx and now in the shadow of the Throgs Neck Bridge, is Fort Schuyler, which dates from the 1830s and is now the SUNY Maritime College. The two forts were built to defend against a British naval attack on New York City from the east via Long Island Sound.

In the War of 1812 the British had burned Washington, DC, not New York. But the former New Amsterdam was too important a mercantile center to risk leaving vulnerable. During the Civil War the North feared a British alliance with the Confederacy. Hence the sense of urgency. Fort Totten was hastily built – as far as it went – in 1862.

New York City's basic character – tolerant, money-centered, socially and ethnically polyglot – hasn't changed since the 1600s. It's still the financial nerve center of the nation, for one thing. That makes it target number one. The feared British attack never came, but Osama bin Laden took up the gauntlet in 2001, with nightmarish results.


Old Fort Totten Archways
Archways at Fort Totten are made of huge granite blocks quarried in Maine. The white "drippy" stuff is limestone. The floor is made from the same bluestone as you can still see on some sidewalks in neighborhoods like Park Slope, Brooklyn.

We bounced back from that. But today Wall Street has dug itself another grave, this time by outsmarting itself with smart-ass credit tricks. (Good thing we rebuilt DC after the War of 1812 so the Feds could bail out the financial firms in 2008.) New York will climb out of this hole too, of course – we always do. Four centuries of history say so.

So old Fort Totten was never used. In fact, it was never finished. Though it was a state-of-the-art fort at the time, military technology was changing very fast. The invention of rifled cannons made even the thick granite walls of a fortress like Fort Totten penetrable. Like a 21st century electronic device, Fort Totten was out of date before it could even go online.


Fort Totten Officers' Club
The old Officers' Club, almost completely restored, is now the home of the Bayside Historical Society.

However, the site became extremely important for defense and research. Underwater mine technology, for example, was developed there. (Mines were deployed off Fort Totten only once – during the Spanish-American War.) During World War II, Fort Totten became the headquarters of the Anti-Aircraft Command of the Eastern Defense Command, and later the HQ of the North Atlantic region of the Air Transport Command. During the Cold War, it became headquarters for more than half the country's Nike missile sites.


House at Fort Totten House
This old house… not so restored.

Today an Army Reserve Command remains, and the Fire/EMS department uses part of the site for training, but much of it is a park. Some of the buildings, like the Officers' Club, which dates from 1870, have been restored to glorious condition, but on the whole the site has that tumbledown, half-abandoned feel of a left-behind presidio. It has grand officers' houses, humbler dwellings, a chapel, and named streets, and people are working and playing there, but no one really lives there anymore, so it feels half-abandoned.

Over time, if will and budget allow, Fort Totten Park will be fully repurposed for recreation. But in the meantime it stands as a half-ghostly monument to the culture and achievements of the United States Military, and at the same time a demonstration of the way the human animal will instinctively repopulate and re-use a patch of land whose old function has passed.

The Politics of “Why”

Monday, September 22nd, 2008

Children are always asking "Why?" They want to understand what they observe. They want to know what lies behind things. They want to be able to read some order and sense into the world.

As adults, we get out of the habit of asking why. Why? Because "Why?" can be a very uncomfortable question. Growing up means learning to function in society, which requires keeping our relationships with the people around us running smoothly, avoiding offense. That's great for greasing the gears of surface society. But it's bad for real mutual understanding.

Those of us who are politically engaged find ourselves arguing repetitively during election cycles and times of controversy. Back and forth we pitch our opinions, our arguments, even allowing them to devolve into insults and spitefulness. Why?

Maybe because we've grown out of the habit of asking why.

Instead of taking offense at one another's convictions, let's ask each other why. Why do you believe what you believe? You seem so sure of it. But how is it possible that you are so sure of your position, while I am equally sure of the exact opposite position?

My view seems so obvious to me that it shouldn't even need explanation. Yours seems the same way to you. Clearly, we're both making false assumptions about what's self-evident and what isn't. So let's stop assuming. Let's put our cards on the table. Let's be honest with those we're talking with, and with ourselves, about why we hold our opinions.

Have we thought them through? Or did we just inherit them from our parents or fellow students or teachers? Do we like them because they're aesthetically appealing? Because they come from rhetorically gifted writers or politicians or fake newscasters? Because they appeal on an emotional level? Or because they make logical sense?

Are they based on current information, or on old information?

While we're at it, let's go further. Let's not be ashamed to admit the validity of an opposing argument. It's not a sign of weakness, it's a sign of using our brains. An argument can be valid, yet weaker than an opposing argument. Just because I'm convinced I'm right doesn't mean everything you think is idiotic, and vice versa.

What makes us disagree about, say, tax policy? If we both possess basic common sense and a normal amount of compassion for the unfortunate – and let's assume we do – what makes you so sure a certain tax policy is beneficial to society, or fair, and me so sure that your policy is hurtful or unfair? Both of us can marshal some evidence to support our positions. But what is it that puts my argument over the top for me, and yours for you? What's our reasoning behind our opinions? And what are our feelings? Feelings are valid too – we're emotional creatures.

To take an even more divisive example, it's "common sense" to me that if a being can't survive outside its mother's body, it's not an individual, so a woman should have the right to end her pregnancy. And even if we do grant the fetus some rights, they obviously have to be subordinate to those of its mother, who is already a functional, independent human being.

I say "obviously" – but what that really means is, it's obvious to me. It's obviously not obvious to everyone. Some people believe that "life begins at conception" – that as soon as there is conception, there exists a new individual being with the full rights of any born person. But if that belief comes from a religious interpretation, which it usually does, wouldn't enshrining it in secular law be imposing your religious beliefs on me? Can't you understand that? I hope you can, because I've just explained the why behind my opinion.

On the other hand, if the law of the land allows abortion, and you believe abortion is murder, how can you help but oppose that law and want to change it? Can't I understand that? Sure I can, since you've explained why.

Let's try to understand. And without getting angry.

We may never agree on some issues, but if we lay out where our convictions come from, we ought to still be able to be civil to each other, get along, and maybe work towards, say, reducing the number of abortions by discouraging teen pregnancy. Or coming up with a tax policy most of us can live with.

It all starts with asking why.

9/11: In Me For Good

Wednesday, September 10th, 2008

9/11. I don’t know how to get it out of me.

It’s been seven years since I watched, from across the river in Brooklyn, that acrid smoke billow into a sky-overwhelming blot. By the time the buildings fell, they were no longer visible from Flatbush Avenue, where I had gone out to watch. I did see the towers fall, but inside, on TV, behind the head of a shaken newscaster. Soot and stink and tiny pieces of paper and who knows what else swirled onto our windowsills, but our direct view to Manhattan was choked off entirely.

Where I live now, near Union Square, I have a north-facing view of the Empire State Building. I love the sight of it, especially in the very late afternoon when the light over the city turns gorgeous shades of aquamarine and bronze. That view comes with a slight pang, though. The apartment across the hall, where my fiancee lived when we started dating, used to have the corresponding southward view of the World Trade Center. No longer. New York has its beautiful, overbuilt Art Deco emblem still. But that less beautiful, yet just as iconic pair of towers is – still shockingly, after what feels to me more like seven months than seven years – gone.

The other night I got home late from a gig and my fiancee was watching Paul Greengrass’s powerful film United 93 on TV. I’d seen it when it came out in 2006 – I’d hesitated, but then decided it might provide some sort of catharsis – and I then assumed I’d never want to watch it again. But last night I couldn’t pull my eyes away. For once I was thankful for commercials. The raw energy crackling out from the TV and into my spinal column was spurring me to get up and stride about the apartment as often as possible, thinking up unnecessary little errands: check email, wash a mug, make a note to call so-and-so tomorrow.

As the movie ended, with the passengers rushing the cockpit and the plane spiraling down, she and I were both in tears. United 93 was the plane that went down in Pennsylvania, the only one of the four hijacked airliners that didn’t reach its terrorist target. Greengrass’s reconstruction of events on the flight was speculative, of course, but that didn’t matter to us. The tragic shock of the events, combined with the pride in our fellow citizens who fought back, had gotten us both in the gut. Again.

9/11 is still as alive today in me as it was a week, a month, or a year after the event. Days go by when I don’t think about it. But all it takes is a few images on a screen, or, sometimes, a glance out the window to bring it all back.