Tuesday, June 30, 2015

the last book I ever read (Sally Mann's Hold Still: A Memoir with Photographs, excerpt nine)

from Hold Still: A Memoir with Photographs by Sally Mann:

His drawling voice, his wrinkled face, the gap between the front teeth—Cy is right here. Cy, who hated to be photographed, is still vivid in my memory. I hardly have any pictures of him, although he gave me this one that Robert Rauschenberg made of him at Black Mountain College, and showed me where he wanted it placed on my desk.

I am convinced that the reason I can remember him so clearly and in such detail is because I have so few pictures of him. That’s unusual in itself, in this era of ubiquitous camera phones, but imagine a time a mere 170 years ago, when there was no mechanical way to preserve a face, an important experience, or the beauty of the natural world.

Before the invention of photography, significant moments in the flow of our lives would be like rocks placed in a stream: impediments that demonstrated but didn’t diminish the volume of the flow and around which accrued the debris of memory, rich in sight, smell, taste, and sound. No snapshot can do what the attractive mnemonic impediment can: when we outsource that work to the camera, our ability to remember is diminished and what memories we have are impoverished.

Monday, June 29, 2015

the last book I ever read (Sally Mann's Hold Still: A Memoir with Photographs, excerpt eight)

from Hold Still: A Memoir with Photographs by Sally Mann:

Ordinary art is what I am making. I am a regular person doggedly making ordinary art. But as Ted Orland and David Bayles point out in their book Art and Fear, “ordinary art” is the art that most of us, those of us not Proust or Mozart, actually make. If Proust-like genius were the prerequisite for art, then statistically speaking very little of it would exist. Art is seldom the result of true genius; rather, it is the product of hard work and skills learned and tenaciously practiced by regular people. In my case, I practice my skills despite repeated failures and self-doubt so profound it can masquerade outwardly as conceit. It’s not heroic in any way. To the contrary, it’s plodding, obdurate effort. I make bad picture after bad picture week after week until the relief comes: the good new picture that offers benediction.

The early success I enjoyed in this new project gave me a false sense that not only would the good pictures come easily, but also that I understood my reasons for doing them in the first place. In general, I am past taking pictures for the sake of seeing how things look in a photograph, although sometimes, for fun, I still do that. These days I am more interested in photographing things either to understand what they mean in my life or to illustrate a concept. This work with black men, though inchoate and not yet even printed, seems to be a little bit of both.

Sunday, June 28, 2015

the last book I ever read (Sally Mann's Hold Still: A Memoir with Photographs, excerpt seven)

from Hold Still: A Memoir with Photographs by Sally Mann:

I had been undeviatingly photographing the kids since 1985, remarking once to a friend that my passion for those pictures was so intense and blinkered that I could drive right past the moonrise at Hernandez that so dazzled Ansel Adams if I was on the way to get a good picture of the kids. But on that July day, I was overcome with farm lust, wordless and undeniable. Driving with the camera from the cool river to the sweltering upper fields, we followed the animal pathways through the grass, stopping to make an occasional picture.

At the time, I didn’t care whether the pictures I was taking were any good, or how I was going to inscribe my deep love of place, this time with photography, in a way that could begin to explain it. I hadn’t made a picture in the landscape for at least a decade, although recently I had found myself swiveling the camera away from the kids just to watch the randomly edited tableaux pass across the milky rectangle of ground glass. Often a beautiful landscape would surprise me there, ambushing me with the allure of its self-sufficiency.

Saturday, June 27, 2015

the last book I ever read (Sally Mann's Hold Still: A Memoir with Photographs, excerpt six)

from Hold Still: A Memoir with Photographs by Sally Mann:

The modest wedding ceremony, which, according to the newspaper accounts, “surprised their many friends,” was held on June 12, 1909, at Saranac Lake, New York.

Five months later Julie Keller Evans died of tuberculosis in his arms.

Their honeymoon and married life together, it turns out, had been spent at a sanatorium. She died on her twenty-ninth birthday. On that page of her daily calendar, carefully saved by my grieving grandfather, she noted in her unwavering handwriting, “I don’t have any more birthdays.”

Friday, June 26, 2015

the last book I ever read (Sally Mann's Hold Still: A Memoir with Photographs, excerpt five)

from Hold Still: A Memoir with Photographs by Sally Mann:

It’s not easy working in the South. Playing on a southern pronunciation of “Beaux-Arts,” H. L. Mencken once dismissed the South as “the Sahara of the Bozart,” and he had a point. Urban museums have little interest in artists who live down here or those who don’t live in a city. We lack a collector base, and enjoy little support or artistic fellowship. As my friend Billy Dunlap remarked the other day, the rest of the world seems to love us only when we act like characters out of a Tennessee Williams play.

Cy would have loved that quip, and I miss not being able to tell him, to hear his snort of merriment. I miss his almost childlike glee at the most elementary human gaffes. Every time we would leave his house and catch a glimpse of the neighboring Reid White house behind the trees, one or the other of us would repeat our favorite line from a story my mother used to tell about the occupant of that house, Mrs. Breasted White. That’s what I swear I remember her saying: “Mrs. Breasted White.” But now, writing that name, it somehow seems highly improbable.

Thursday, June 25, 2015

the last book I ever read (Sally Mann's Hold Still: A Memoir with Photographs, excerpt four)

from Hold Still: A Memoir with Photographs by Sally Mann:

Lying on the empty beaches of Paros, the remote Greek island where we washed up that spring, we stared out at the storied Aegean while homesickness sucked our starving hearts right out of our chests. Even after all we had seen in our year of travel, Rockbridge County was still the most beautiful place we knew.

We were certainly not alone in this opinion. Travelers on I-81 frequently pull off at the Lexington exit to get fuel, and, while gassing up, gaze in wonder at the landscape. Then not a few of them restart their cars and head directly to the realtor’s office. It is a testament to the allure of the area that the artist Cy Twombly, who lived and traveled in some of the world’s most beautiful places, chose to live half the year in Lexington, his hometown.

Wednesday, June 24, 2015

the last book I ever read (Sally Mann's Hold Still: A Memoir with Photographs, excerpt three)

from Hold Still: A Memoir with Photographs by Sally Mann:

“She goes to Bennington??” they had asked incredulously, responding to the news of our romance as if he had found me in a leper colony outside Baton Rouge. Implacably, Larry said yes. Bending to his unexpected defiance, they offered a grudging invitation for me to visit. When Larry and I arrived over Easter, his mother placed a Lilly Pulitzer outfit on the bed in my room as an alternative to my 501s and Frye boots. I decided right there that she was a ring-tailed yard bitch. The feeling was clearly mutual.

Tuesday, June 23, 2015

the last book I ever read (Sally Mann's Hold Still: A Memoir with Photographs, excerpt two)

from Hold Still: A Memoir with Photographs by Sally Mann:

So, there I was, age seventeen, holding my dripping negatives to the lightbulb, and voicing to my parents in exuberant prose my roiled-up feelings. Maybe I didn’t know it at the time, but I had found the twin artistic passions that were to consume my life. And, in characteristic fashion, I threw myself into them with a fervor that, from this remove, seems almost comical. I existed in a welter of creativity—sleepless, anxious, self-doubting, pressing for both perfection and impiety, like some ungodly cross between a hummingbird and a bulldozer.

Not so different, really, from the way I am now.

Monday, June 22, 2015

the last book I ever read (Sally Mann's Hold Still: A Memoir with Photographs, excerpt one)

from Hold Still: A Memoir with Photographs by Sally Mann:

The young novelist Carson McCullers, burdened by the meteoric success of The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter and recovering in Lexington, was once hauled out of a bathtub at a mutual friend’s house, fully clothed, drenched, and drunk, by my mother. Thinking about it now, it’s probably a good thing that my mother is not around to receive the unwelcome news that her oft-told stories about Edward Albee writing Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? while in Lexington are likely apocryphal. Not only that, but she said he did so in a cottage on the grounds of my childhood home, Boxerwood, while visiting its occupant James Boatwright. I’m pretty sure her assertion that the Albee characters George and Martha had been based on a local faculty couple famous for their bickering and alcohol consumption is incorrect, too, but that probably wouldn’t stop her even now from deliciously persevering with it. Besides, it’s still believable to me, for I well remember the sounds of the drinking and bickering during Boatwright’s late-night literary parties at the cottage drifting down to my open bedroom windows during the early sixties.

The eye-filling Reynolds Price visited Boatwright often (as did, at various times, Eudora Welty, Mary McCarthy, and W. H. Auden), and on the night I attended my first prom at age fourteen, he and Boatwright emerged from the screen porch to drunkenly toast me, calling me Sally Dubonnet, a term I find baffling even today, as their gin rickeys sloshed over the glasses.

Saturday, June 20, 2015

the last book I ever read (Mislaid by Nell Zink, excerpt nine)

from Mislaid by Nell Zink:

The wizard opened the door on a room that was relatively quiet, relatively bright, and not the least bit smoky. There were many boys, and a few girls, sitting in costumes on sofas arranged in squares. Three boys were playing a complicated board game while others looked on and commented. A handsome boy stood in a corner of the huge room by the fireplace, one foot up on the hearth, playing a Violent Femmes song on a baritone ukulele.

Friday, June 19, 2015

the last book I ever read (Mislaid by Nell Zink, excerpt eight)

from Mislaid by Nell Zink:

“Tennis never gets boring,” Meg said. “It puts you in a trance. That’s what we should do! Play tennis!”

Lomax blushed, warming to her vision and spontaneously admitting its profound truth. He said, “You know, a tennis court would fit perfect on the old bowling green, and it wouldn’t bug the squirrels none. I like sports. I went duckpin bowling once. Sports would be a nice change from falling down. Flea!”

She padded through the swinging doors, ankles jingling, licking the spatula. “Break out the champagne!” Lomax called out. “We got a new action plan. We’re giving up drugs for tennis!”

Thursday, June 18, 2015

the last book I ever read (Mislaid by Nell Zink, excerpt seven)

from Mislaid by Nell Zink:

Temple knew he was weak in math and science, so he checked on his Governor’s School application that those were his main interests. He ended up being assigned for the monthlong session to Virginia Polytechnic Institute, socially isolated and misunderstood, surrounded by people who had never heard of John Barth, who wanted to major in hydraulics or agriculture, and with a crush on a girl who programmed computers in Fortran and—to his profound fascination—was learning to speak Russian from her father, a diplomat. Temple came back from Blacksburg intent on two things in life: to learn Russian and to become a diplomat.

Wednesday, June 17, 2015

the last book I ever read (Mislaid by Nell Zink, excerpt six)

from Mislaid by Nell Zink:

“Welcome to the No South.”

“You mean New South.”

“I mean No South. You can’t have ‘New’ and ‘South.’ It’s oxymoronic. I’m talking about the No South. The unstoppable force that’s putting in central air everywhere until you don’t know whether it’s day or night. Fat boys used to spend their lives in bed and only come out to fish and hunt. Now they go into politics and make our lives hell. One little thing, all by itself—AC—made the South go away overnight.”

Tuesday, June 16, 2015

the last book I ever read (Mislaid by Nell Zink, excerpt five)

from Mislaid by Nell Zink:

For reasons no one understands, otherwise intelligent young people are often drawn to illicit mind-altering drugs. A cross section of society would probably show comparable interest among the brightest and dullest young people, but at The University it was a matter of public record that the young men not drawn to drugs were less bright: Thetan House had the highest mean, median, and mode GPA on campus, and its students were concentrated in the most challenging majors. Possibly it takes a great deal of intelligence to ace school stoned. Byrdie liked their soundtrack, and if nothing else, he was going to need cheap rent after he’d sat out the first-year campus residency requirement.

So he joined.

Monday, June 15, 2015

the last book I ever read (Mislaid by Nell Zink, excerpt four)

from Mislaid by Nell Zink:

Meg’s financial situation was delicate. Her expenses were low. She had a thousand dollars of capital left in her emergency fund. If something worse than that came up, she’d cross that bridge when she got to it. She had no rent, no utility bills, and a daughter who could survive on a noodle a day. Karen ate dutifully, not with feeling. But sooner or later she was going to get her growth spurt and start liking food. And there was the little matter of clothing. The county had a thrift shop. Like thrift shops everywhere, it specialized in the leavings of the elderly dead. People always had acquaintances who needed children’s things and seldom donated them. Well-off children wore late-model hand-me-downs, but to get in on the action, Meg would have had to join a church. And although she was prepared to accept that the world was adopting stodginess as a fashion trend—that girls were putting away their mules and feather earrings and donning prim sweater sets like Lee’s mother—she could not face praising Jesus in song to put Karen in Pendleton kilts. You have to respect your boundaries.

Sunday, June 14, 2015

the last book I ever read (Mislaid by Nell Zink, excerpt three)

from Mislaid by Nell Zink:

Lee was serious about poetry. He thought America was where all the most important work of the 1960s was being done. He really meant it, and could explain it. John Ashbery, Howard Nemerov, and his favorite, Robert Penn Warren. Then the Beats. He had met them all in New York, and they all had a weakness for handsome Southerners who owned counties.

At first Lee had nothing to do with the college. But then a poet friend remarked that a girls’ college in the middle of nowhere sounds like something from Fellini, and he got an idea. He asked the English department to pay for a visit from Gregory Corso.

Poets came all the way from Richmond to hear him. But the girls stayed cool and distant, even through “Marriage.” Corso went back to New York and told people Lee lived in a time capsule where Southern womanhood was not dead. Two publishers and a novelist transferred their daughters to Stillwater.

Saturday, June 13, 2015

the last book I ever read (Mislaid by Nell Zink, excerpt two)

from Mislaid by Nell Zink:

The campus was a complete universe. You never had to leave. There were visiting boyfriends and girlfriends from other schools, parties and mixers, intercollegiate sports, a mess hall and a commissary, even a soda fountain. As self-contained as an army base. But no basic training. No cleaning, no cooking. The work you had to do consisted of things like ponder Edna St. Vincent Millay. If you screwed it up, they didn’t criticize you. They invited you to their offices, offered you sherry, and asked you what was wrong.

Friday, June 12, 2015

the last book I ever read (Mislaid by Nell Zink, excerpt one)

from Mislaid by Nell Zink:

Stillwater College sat on the fall line south of Petersburg. One half of the campus was elevated over the other half, and the waters above were separated from the waters below by a ledge with stone outcroppings. The waters below lay still, and the waters above flowed down. They seeped into the sandy ground before they had time to form a stream. And that’s why the house had been named Stillwater. It overlooked a lake that lay motionless as if it had been dug with shovels and hand-lined with clay. But the lake had been there as long as anyone could remember. It had no visible outlet, and no docks because a piling might puncture the layer of clay. Nobody swam in the lake because of the leeches in the mud. There was no fishing because girls don’t fish.

Thursday, June 11, 2015

the last book I ever read (Harvey Pekar's The Quitter, excerpt four)

from The Quitter by Harvey Pekar:

In 1962, I met a nineteen-year-old collector who’d just moved into town from Philadelphia, by the name of Robert Crumb. He was a cartoonist too, and his buddy urged me to look at his stuff.

Wednesday, June 10, 2015

the last book I ever read (Harvey Pekar's The Quitter, excerpt three)

from The Quitter by Harvey Pekar:

Actually, I’ve been thinking about writing something for them about Fats Navarro. A couple of their writers have indicated that he was just a copy of Dizzy, but he was way more original than that. How could he have influenced Clifford Brown so much if he wasn’t original?

Also, I’d like to do something on Thad Jones. There’s nobody out there with a style close to his.

Tuesday, June 9, 2015

the last book I ever read (Harvey Pekar's The Quitter, excerpt two)

from The Quitter by Harvey Pekar:

For a while, I even took up playing trumpet, but I couldn’t get enough time to practice, so I let it go, like I have so many other potentially constructive pursuits.

Monday, June 8, 2015

the last book I ever read (Harvey Pekar's The Quitter, excerpt one)

from The Quitter by Harvey Pekar:

Popular novelists included Jack Kerouac, William Burroughs and Henry Miller. I thought Miller was kind of a blowhard in some ways, but dug his autobiographical style.

Sunday, June 7, 2015

the last book I ever read (American Warlord by Johnny Dwyer, excerpt nine)

from American Warlord: A True Story by Johnny Dwyer:

The new indictment detailed the events of the early morning hours of July 24, 2002, in Monrovia, referring to Dulleh simply as “the Victim” and to Yeaten as the “co-conspirator,” but implicating Chucky, under his four aliases, as the son of Charles Taylor and the commander of the Anti-Terrorist Unit.

“This marks the first time the Justice Department has charged a defendant with the crime of torture,” Assistant Attorney General Alice Fisher said in a prepared statement. “Crimes such as these will not go unanswered.”

It was a strange quote coming from the Bush administration Justice Department—in particular from Fisher, who would later become embroiled in the scandal surrounding the Office of Legal Counsel’s interpretation of the very statute that Chucky had been indicted under. Fisher’s connections to the interrogation practices used on detainees in the war on terror stretched back to 2002, when she had joined a delegation that toured Camp Delta at Guantánamo Bay (incidentally just weeks after Dulleh was detained by the ATU). According to journalist Jane Mayer, the lawyers on that junket sat in on an interrogation of a detainee. Later, in 2005, Senator Carl M. Levin, who was looking into detainee abuse allegations, briefly held up Fisher’s nomination for assistant attorney general. Following her confirmation, the issue continued to dog her. The Justice Department’s Office of Professional Responsibility probed whether in her prior role as deputy assistant attorney general she had sanctioned the use of torture, or—as the Bush administration referred to it—enhanced interrogation methods on terrorism suspects.

Saturday, June 6, 2015

the last book I ever read (American Warlord by Johnny Dwyer, excerpt eight)

from American Warlord: A True Story by Johnny Dwyer:

Baechtle was a rookie who had only recently joined Immigration and Customs Enforcement, or ICE, as it was then becoming known. He’d been assigned to the Arms and Strategic Technology Investigations Unit (ASTI), housed in the agency’s Washington field office. When he walked into work, he looked like a clean-cut, well-mannered fraternity brother, twenty-three years old with jet-black hair, a placekicker’s build, and a bemused smile. Customs enforcement wasn’t the obvious career path for Baechtle. None of his family members were in law enforcement. (Nor were any of his fraternity brothers, for that matter.) He didn’t expect to get rich in this line of work, but he’d always had an interest in solving crimes. He split his childhood between Kingston, Jamaica, where his father worked for Colgate-Palmolive, and Monmouth County, in what he fondly called “the greatest state in the union,” New Jersey. When it came time to go to college, he already knew the direction he wanted his life to take. He enrolled at the University of Richmond, majoring in criminal justice.

Friday, June 5, 2015

my conversation with Nate "The Great" Thurmond

I had the great, good fortune to speak with former Golden State Warrior, former Cleveland Cavalier, forever Basketball Hall of Fame member and gentleman Nate "The Great" Thurmond last week on behalf of the fine folks at Vice Sports.

the last book I ever read (American Warlord by Johnny Dwyer, excerpt seven)

from American Warlord: A True Story by Johnny Dwyer:

The truth of the matter was, Liberia was dying from the inside. Displaced Liberians poured into Monrovia fleeing the fighting in the countryside, while others fled into Sierra Leone. Meanwhile Liberians in Ivory Coast began to return en masse to southern counties in Liberia, running from that country’s civil war. The situation would have been alarmingly complex for any nation to face, but for a government that had devoted none of its energy to the well-being of its people, the crisis threatened a humanitarian disaster. Taiwan, motivated by Liberia’s recognition of its nationhood, had again stepped into the breach for Taylor, shipping approximately ten thousand tons of rice and undertaking projects to restore water and electricity to the capital.

Thursday, June 4, 2015

the last book I ever read (American Warlord by Johnny Dwyer, excerpt six)

from American Warlord: A True Story by Johnny Dwyer:

Taylor’s path to the presidency in Liberia was also obstructed by the army of his former commander Prince Yormie Johnson. Johnson hardly presented the image of a disciplined military leader: he entertained journalists and onlookers with renditions of the reggae spiritual “By the Rivers of Babylon,” complete with his own backing band; he also executed looters and fired into civilian vehicles with little warning. At an impromptu meeting with the commander of a newly arrived Nigerian peacekeeping force, he ambushed Doe’s security detail, capturing the president after his men had been gunned down. In one of the most macabre moments of the war, the gruesome torture of President Doe, in the hours leading up to his death, was chronicled on video. Johnson oversaw the episode, sitting by nonchalantly drinking a Budweiser and trying to raise the U.S. embassy on a radio, as a shirtless and bloodied Doe begged for his life.

Wednesday, June 3, 2015

the last book I ever read (American Warlord by Johnny Dwyer, excerpt five)

from American Warlord: A True Story by Johnny Dwyer:

Not long afterward, in early July 1990, the war arrived in Monrovia, tearing at the very fabric of Liberian society. Thousands of refugees streamed out of the city to avoid the fighting. The civilians who remained found themselves caught between the two factions, Prince Johnson’s INPFL approaching the city from the north, Taylor’s NPFL from the south, and Doe’s ragged and hunted government force caught in between. Effectively under siege, the city became host to a humanitarian crisis. There was little food or protection from the fighting; Doe’s control over the capital—and country—shrank to a few blocks surrounding the Executive Mansion.

That month several hundred civilians sought refuge in St. Peter’s Lutheran Church, a large chapel along Monrovia’s main thoroughfare. The church, a short drive from the Executive Mansion, is located directly across the street from a popular hotel. According to witnesses, soldiers loyal to Doe entered the church’s compound and set upon the refugees with knives and machetes, then eventually opened fire into the crowd. While exact numbers of the dead are unverifiable, the U.S. embassy reported immediately afterward that “the 186 persons killed in the massacre at the Lutheran Church remain where they fell. After six days, the bodies can no longer be moved, and MSF [Médecins sans Frontiéres, Doctors Without Borders] Belgian doctors hope to find means to blanket the place with a caustic solution or to burn the bodies which would probably entail burning the church itself.

Tuesday, June 2, 2015

the last book I ever read (American Warlord by Johnny Dwyer, excerpt four)

from American Warlord: A True Story by Johnny Dwyer:

The U.S. government gave Taylor a platform to pursue power at any cost. This was not by design but rather through indifference, negligence, and a failure to grasp who Taylor was. In the early 1990s—as genocide in the Balkans and Rwanda were confounding the international community—Taylor introduced the world to a new type of violence. Indelible images began appearing in the media: fetish-clad fighters and child soldiers fighting African peacekeepers on the outskirts of Monrovia; survivors of rebel attacks in the diamond fields of Sierra Leone, appearing in Freetown with their hands severed, lips cut off, and the initials RUF—for Taylor’s proxy army, the Revolutionary United Front—carved into their chests. The violence was unspeakable and unstoppable.

Monday, June 1, 2015

the longest piece on Fun Home: The Musical ever

Once upon a time I was fortunate to interview Alison Bechdel as part of my 49ers project.

I've been a fan ever since and, as The Fixx once sang as they were trying to Reach the Beach, one thing leads to another, and now I've published, thanks to the fine folks at Consequence of Sound and Aux Out, the very lengthy Fun Home: The Oral History of an Undersized Broadway Orchestra in an Underdog Broadway Musical.

If you've ever pondered, wondered, considered, contemplated, or questioned what goes on within a Broadway orchestra, you'll probably find it interesting.

the last book I ever read (American Warlord by Johnny Dwyer, excerpt three)

from American Warlord: A True Story by Johnny Dwyer:

The leader of the coup, Samuel Kanyon Doe, could not have been a starker deviation from Liberia’s traditional government leaders. He was young—just thirty—educated only through eleventh grade, and coming from the Krahn tribe. He hailed from Tuzon, a village in Liberia’s Grand Gedeh County, along the southeastern border with Ivory Coast. Though he was from a relatively remote corner of the country, American influences reached him from an early age. His village benefited from a stream of Peace Corps volunteers from the early 1970s, and by the time Doe joined the Armed Forces of Liberia in 1969, the military was an American-style force, supplied, trained, and in part funded by American taxpayers.

As president, Doe morphed from a suggestible and illiterate soldier into a paranoid, superstitious, and insular despot. He relied on two sources of power, in arguably equal parts: the Reagan administration and tribal magic (juju). Among his earliest orders of business, as the first indigenous Liberian head of state, was the public execution of thirteen largely Americo-Liberian government ministers charged with treason (only four of who received even perfunctory trials). In April 1980, before a crowd of international press and other observers who had been invited hours earlier at a government press conference, the men died facing a firing squad of drunken soldiers. In the first fusillade, many of the gunmen missed their mark, and the survivors had to be executed at close range. The soldiers then implored the media to photograph the corpses. One State Department official described it as “one of the most grisly and horrifying things ever seen.”