Monthly Archives: June 2013

Build, Baby, Build.

I love soccer.

I love playing it, I love watching it, I love reading about it.

(I’m horrrrrible, I rarely see games, and I do so very slowly to “practice” my equally horrible Spanish, respectively.)
photo from FIFA.com

FIFA.com

So I was thrilled that Jozy Altidore came through big against Honduras Tuesday night and got us/U.S. one step closer to a World Cup berth. (Chances are bad they’ll do it in one more game, but great they’ll do it in two.)

I’m also enthralled by all things Brazilian, so this World Cup is especially exciting for me. At one point some years ago, a bunch of us were planning to roam through Brazil together, see some early round games in the smaller cities, and try to just be in Rio or Sao Paulo for the finals.

But there are some serious protests going on in cities all over Brazil, and I gotta say, I kind of see where they’re coming from. Protests started over a 20-cent bus fare increase, and then BLEW UP after rather brutal reactions by various police forces (unlike Turkey, the media’s covering the heck outta Brasil’s protests).

Most apropos to this post’s lede, the demonstrations are also fueled by general indignation over the high costs – both financial and personal – of preparing for the very 2014 World Cup that I was planning (until life happened) to attend.

A Copa do Mundo next year, and the Summer Olympic Games two years after that. According to the WaPo, stadium and public transportation construction costs are estimated at $14.6 BILLION for EACH the World Cup and the 2016 Games. True, the construction projects will employ a lot of people – 3.6 million between the two projects – but they’re only temporary jobs. And there’s not really any space for these facilities, or at least for the ones that’ll be right in town, and the people that are being moved to make room for those new facilities are, as usual, the poor and powerless. And not just asked to leave for a bit before coming back after the Games – I’m talking entire favelas being ‘dozed to make room for new facilities.

In Rio.Image by Flickr user JorgeBRAZIL

In Rio.
Image by Flickr user JorgeBRAZIL

This is the case everywhere, right – whenever there’s a GIGANTOR sporting event, people get displaced. Even in Atlanta, where it seemed like there was still plenty of room, in the good ole rich-and-wealthy USA where everyone’s treated with the utmost respect and dignity, Olympic construction still wrecked major havoc on people’s lives. While not nearly as many people were displaced in Atlanta as in Seoul (725,000) or Beijing (as high as 1.5 million), those whose neighborhood was destroyed were still among the city’s poorest. Thousands and thousands of people living in public housing sandwiched between the Coca-Cola plant and Georgia Tech were packed on buses, given a one-way ticket out of town and wished the best of luck, in order to make room for the Olympic Village and the housing of 10,000 athletes. Only 7% of those people returned to their old neighborhoods and the rebuilt homes promised them by Team USA and Atlanta city planners. Basically, the Olympics gave the latter the opportunity they’d been waiting for to “wipe out blight” (read: relegate poor blacks to the sticks) and complete the gentrification of certain neighborhoods.

Even in London, where the 2012 Games were, most of the people displaced and/or affected by stadium construction and the influx of new residents and attention were from the other side of the (both proverbial and literal) tracks. Check out Zed Nelson’s great photos of London’s rough-edged Hackney to see what I mean.

But Brazilians aren’t taking this action lying down.

A 6/21 UK Guardian article goes into more detail.

vale-gray-olympics-23_525

Photo: Cintia Barenho from “The Displacement Decathalon” article at the Design Observer site.

If you want more info on this whole Olympic displacement stuff, Lawrence Vale & Annemarie Gray have written a thorough and detailed examination of what they’re calling “The Displacement Decathalon” over at Design Observer. (If you’re an equal housing opportunity type person, I highly recommend reading with a sturdy G&T and at least three stress balls close to hand.)

Much of this might not be news to you. What interests me is what people think of it.

AthensPool

This is the diving well built for the 2000 Athens Games. Nice, right?
Click for a NatGeo slideshow of others.

Economics aside, is it worth the hassle?

I know it’s ethically wrong (or at least terribly disagreeable) to displace entire communities to make way for a fancy gym that the world’s elite* will use for a few weeks. Especially when those facilities crumble into disrepair in a matter of years after the event has ended.

On the other hand,

I believe in sport and international competition.

I swam until age 22, and growing up – this was before more than one or two people could make a living swimming – the Olympic Games were THE ultimate goal for me and everyone I knew. For those I know who’ve gone to the Games, they’ve lived up to every promise, every hope, every dream. The brotherhood, the camaraderie, the very idea of the Olympics – and the World Cup, and any other international competition – are some of the most inspiring things I can think of. And let’s face it – the world likes being inspired on the scale of spectacle.

But is that inspirational spectacle ultimately idealistic, rosy-glassed and unrealistic? Are those heartwarming/-wrenching Bob Costas stories of tribulation and triumph that we all love so much really kind of just self-indulgent, if the very place where one triumph happens is also the site of another – and likely worse – tribulation? A tribulation planned for and arranged by plastic-smiling organizers pandering to TV markets and big-big wallets.

But what are the alternatives? Are there alternatives?

How much of a difference would it make if the Games were held in the same place every year?

To Olympians? To spectators?

By the time I was 13 and knew what a travel meet entailed, I didn’t care where a competition was. Fargo or Fort Lauderdale or Florianópolis, you’re really just shuttling between your room and the pool.

But if the spectacle disappears – and it’d at least diminish with a static venue – and the money disappears, would the Games and other international competitions disappear, too? That’s not a problem if you don’t think that sport does anything, but if you think like I do that sport has great potential to encourage civil rights, then the disappearance of international competitions is something to be quite concerned about indeed.

Better yet, let’s get the UAE to build some ridiculous portable underwater and/or floating facilities that could be moved every few years to just offshore of and/or into the airspace above a different country. I guarantee you, a hovering Olympic Village wouldn’t let down a single athlete. And plenty of people would tune in to see.

From FutureNerd. Click to go.

From FutureNerd. Click to go.

floating-city

From HomeDecorDream. Click to go.

What do you think?

Where’s the balance between spectacle and respect?

Do you care where various Games/Cups/games are?

*Almost all of them are athletically elite, and many are also “elite” in the way Americans use that word to mean “filthy rich.”

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Hatred, Bosnian Style

Having been out from under the beneficent yoke of academic tutelage for a little while, I’ve been left to my own devices to figure out what to read.

This has and has not been what you’d call a problem – not having multiple syllabi to guide me has hardly cut down on the number of books I buy, but it has more or less obliterated any semblance of An Approach to Literature.

At first I reveled in this, bouncing from Arlt to Zamyatin and everywhere in between.

AtoZ

But I realized after a time that as in life, so in reading lists – I needed to get some structure STAT or things were really gonna start unwinding. So I decided to focus my efforts, and after considering a few methodologies, I settled on a geographical approach.

First up is the Adriatic – the Western Balkans, plus some northern Italy, maybe an Austrian or two for good measure, since despite their distance from the actual sea, they did exert a bit influence at one time or another over the area. I’ll probably reach down into the Ionian for some contemporary Greeks and Sicilians, too, just to round things out.

Adriatic             photo_11110_landscape_large

So, if anyone has any Yugoslavian/Austrian/Greek author recommendations

(besides Aleksandar Hemon), I’m all ears.

Anyway, the Adriatic to start. Specifically Bosnia, because I’ve always found the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand in Sarajevo in 1914 (which arguably provided the catalyst for the First World War) to be one the most interesting points in European history. What I know of it boils down to a string of facts. But recently I’ve become more interested in the stories that surround or transcend the various groups of facts that I know, the implications of the facts for the people who have to deal with them or the life they created, the impact of those facts on people’s psyches and on culture in general. One of the places to turn for this is literature, which is one of the reasons I developed my reading lists geographically – in the hope that maybe I can get a general sense of what life or some various fractions thereof are like in these places that have, in the course of voracious-news-consumption-modern-life, become places on the map where “victims” and/or “threats” are reported on by CNN.

Gavrilo-Princip

Anyway, realizing that I have no real idea what life must have been like for Gavrilo Princip, the “Yugoslav nationalist” who shot Ferdinand and his wife, I started with a man of Princip’s place and age: Ivo Andrić, the Yugoslavian writer and winner of the 1961 Nobel Prize in Literature.

Ivo-Andrić-2

Ivo Andrić

Andrić was born in Travnik, in what is now Bosnia-Herzegovina, in 1892, about two years before and a hundred miles east of Princip. Back then, the whole area was “united” under the Ottoman Empire, though everyone – Bosnians, Serbs, Slovenians, Montenegrins, Crotas, Albanians, Macedonians, etcetera – knew who one another were and had been and would be again. Living side by side, often within the same “ethnicity,” were (are) Catholics, Eastern Orthodox Christians, Muslims, and Jews. For some people, religion meant more than origin or language – for others, political worldview trumped any kind of ethnicity. This is the same in many places, of course – those of us who celebrate difference (like the US [ostensibly] does) consider it a strength of a country or region. But the cheek-by-jowlness of the mix in Yugoslavia seems more interesting because of the volatility involved – the volatility, and what Andrić called “the hatred.”

TheDamnedYardIn his collection The Damned Yard and Other Stories, I hoped to get a feel for what early 20th century Bosnia must have been like. While there wasn’t that much insight into what might have compelled Princip, man, what a world Andrić paints. Myths and legends from the days of yore, rivalries and grudges centuries in the making, medieval rituals and modern thought carried out throughout the country, from tiny village to small town to big city. 

Underneath it all, though – and this is the beauty of literature, the very reason why I read it – are things I recognize about my own life, my own circumstances, and my own prejudices. In particular, the following excerpt from “A Letter from 1920.” Andrić was very specific about his settings, so the fact that this was from 1920, a year and change after WWI officially ended, when Bosnia was licking its wounds and half-optimistically-dreaming-about and half-mortally-fearing-for the future, is rather important. It’s narrated by a man who runs into a childhood friend in a train station in the middle of the night, and from whom he gets a letter several weeks later. The friend is an emigré, a European who grew up in Bosnia but fled for a doctor’s life in France after WWI – was in the middle of fleeing the night he and the narrator ran into one another. Their meeting was strained, and the letter he wrote after was an attempt to clear things up. What follows is part of that letter, the crux of his explanation of why he couldn’t stay in Bosnia, why he felt compelled to abandon his homeland:

TrainStation

“Yes, Bosnia is a country of hatred. That is Bosnia. And by a strange contrast…it can also be said that there are few countries with such firm belief and elevated strength of character, so much tenderness and loving passion, such depth of feeling, of loyalty and unshakable devotion, or with such a thirst for justice. But in secret depths underneath all this hide burning hatreds, entire hurricanes of tethered and compressed hatreds maturing and awaiting their hour. The relationship between your loves and your hatred is the same as between your high mountains and the invisible geological strata underlying them, a thousand times larger and heavier. And thus you are condemned to live on deep layers of explosive which are lit from time to time by the very sparks of your loves and your fiery and violent emotion. Perhaps your greatest misfortune is precisely that you do not suspect just how much hatred there is in your loves and passions, traditions and pieties. And just as under the influence of atmospheric moisture and warmth, the earth on which we live passes into our bodies and gives them color and form, determining the character and direction of our way of life and our actions – so does the strong, underground and invisible hatred on which Bosnian man lives imperceptibly and indirectly enter into all his actions, even the very best of them. Vice gives birth to hatred everywhere in the world, because it consumes and does not create, destroys, and does not build; but in countries like Bosnia, virtue itself often speaks and acts through hatred. With you, ascetics derive no love from their asceticism, but hatred for the voluptuary instead; abstainers hate those who drink, and drunkards feel a murderous hatred for the whole world. Those who do believe and love feel a mortal hatred for those who don’t, or those who believe and love differently. And, unhappily, the chief part of their belief and love is often consumed in this hatred. (The most evil and sinister-looking faces can be met in greatest numbers at places of worship – monasteries, and dervish tekkes.) Those who oppress and exploit the economically weaker do it with hatred into the bargain, which makes that exploitation a hundred times harder and uglier, while those who bear these injustices dream of justice and reprisal, but as some explosion of vengeance which, if it were realized according to their ideas, would perforce be so complete that it would blow to pieces the oppressed along with the hated oppressors. You Bosnians have, for the most part, got used to keeping all the strength of your hatred for that which is closest to you. Your holy of holies is, as a rule, three hundred rivers and mountains away, but the objects of your repulsion and hatred are right beside you in the same town, often on the other side of your courtyard wall. So your love remains inert, but your hatred is easily spurred into action. And you love your homeland, you passionately love it, but in three or four different ways which are mutually exclusive, then come to blows and hate each other to death.”

KostaHakman1 KostaHakmanSlikar HakmanMujerAcostada

Three by Kosta Hakman.

I don’t want to say too much about this (shocker, I know) and risk spoiling it, but I can’t help but emphasize again that first sentence I bolded – “virtue itself speaks and acts through hatred.” How much like jihad and Fundamental Christianity and anti-choiceism and uber-American-nationalism does it sound to make a mortal sin out of something you don’t agree with?  Andrić implies that there is another way to do things. I don’t know whether he thought people could change – he, or at least his letter-writer, certainly seems to think that Bosnia hatred is endemic – but for me, it’s enough to pause and wonder, how much of what I consider virtue is based on hatred or even dislike of that virtue’s opposite? I’d like to say none, but am I really as breezy as I like to think I am?

How much of what we consider good is rooted in opposition to what we consider bad?

How open to different opinions/lifestyles/worldviews are we really?  

Where do those judgements come from? Are they legitimate?

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PS – There are some who say, apparently, that Andrić’s work is being dusted off and employed for anti-Muslim purposes. This I find very unsettling. It seems to me that, as this passage indicates, the vitriol he felt for his native country wasn’t directed at any one group of believers, but at the whole lot of them. If anything – and being the good Communist he was, this isn’t a stretch – he disagreed with people of all faiths, and used the various faiths of his homeland as vehicles by which to examine or expose the ridiculousness, the futility, the inherent malevolence of blind allegiance to anything.

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The Perseverance of Memory

What do a sea snail and a scratch awl have in common?

Aplysia

Not much, you wouldn’t think. But, as Reb Arye-Leib would say, “You’ll find out if you listen.”

I wrote about Eric Kandel the other day in that post on spontaneity, and I’ve been thinking about him since. The thing that Kandel did to so capture my imagination was establish a neurobiological understanding of how the brain creates memory.

He did his primary research on Alypsia, that fancy-looking sea snail slug right up there. It has the simplest brain and the biggest neurons around, and he basically stuck electrodes into the neurons, poked the snail to make it ink, and recorded what happened. (I mean, it’s a bit more complicated than that, but I’ll leave the experimental details to him.)

InSearchOfMemoryBut the stuff about the snail isn’t (for me) the most interesting part of In Search of Memory. It was Kandel’s search for one of his own memories – his dedication to that search, and the weight that memory has – that was so compelling.

Little Eric Kandel grew up in Vienna in the 1930s. His dad owned a toy shop, and one day in late 1938, he brought nine-year-old Eric this little blue, mechanical car. Dr. Kandel remembers playing with it after dinner, zooming around under the dinner table on his knees. And it’s this – the blue car, the underside of the table – that was imprinted on his memory like a stamp. For while he was playing with that brand new car his father had brought him, there came first the sound of boots outside the door, and then of fists upon it. And then his dad was taken away.

Kristallnacht came a few days later, and a few days after that, Eric and his brother were on their long and winding way to Brooklyn.

The Kandels were spared the worst, and were all reunited in the US. But that instant with the car crystallized in Dr. Kandel’s mind, and became a locus of identity, a connection to other people, a symbol of his homeland and childhood and identity and history and the way the world works. It became something of a lens through which everything he did and experienced was filtered. He struggled to accommodate it and not hate it and not have it define him. He worried about everything that it meant — but he never had to worry about forgetting it, and its persistence became a puzzle. Not the why of it – that’s easy enough to figure out – but the how.

The how drove him through medical school and graduate school and years of research, all the way to the Nobel Prize in 2000. That image fueled his life’s work.

Which segues us into another casualty of that historical era who was interested in the persistence of memory: Bruno Schulz.

SchulzSelfie

The official Schulz web site.

I mean “casualty” literally: a Nazi officer shot him, in a tit-for-tat killing, in the back while he walked home from the baker’s with a loaf under his arm. Up until that murder, Schulz spent much of his artistic effort teasing out the metaphysical implications of certain childhood memories. Or not so much memories, per se, as images that, as he put it, he “acquired” in childhood: a horse-drawn carriage racing through the moonlit snow; his father’s enema tube looped on its hook in the bathroom; the baskets of fruits and vegetables his family’s maid, Adele, would carry on her arm as she returned home from the market. Throughout his teens and twenties and thirties and forties, before he was murdered at age 50, Schulz went over and over and over these images, in pencil drawings, in charcoal, in oils, and in fiction.

In a public letter to his friend S.I. Witkiewicz, Schulz wrote, “I don’t know how we manage to acquire certain images in childhood that carry decisive meanings for us. They function like those threads in the solution around which the significance of the world crystallizes for us.”

SchulzCarriage

This links to a great Schulz art site.

He went on to say, in one of the better descriptions I’ve seen of the motivation to write – or paint or sculpt or compose or whatever – that, “Such images amount to an agenda, establish an iron capital of the spirit, proffered to us very early in the form of forebodings and half-conscious experiences. It seems to me that all the rest of one’s life is spent interpreting these insights, breaking them down to the last fragment of meaning we can master…[Artists] do not discover anything new after that, they only learn how to understand better and better the secret entrusted to them at the outset; their creative effort goes into an unending exegesis.”

I love in particular the idea that the truth contained within certain memories is a “secret,” and that we’re entrusted these secrets in childhood. The whole thing gives this treasure-hunt mystery, this Pan’s Labyrinth feel to existence. And how nice is that? Why not cultivate a little bit of mystery? Especially those of us who weren’t raised in the church, or have grown tired of someone else’s centuries-old mysteries, or are overly logical and rational. Life’s complicated enough and impossible to figure out anyway, so why not think of it as a little bit magical, too?

InSearchOfLostTime

All six of these books are In Search of Lost Time.
All six.

The example par excellence, the author and work this post would be remiss not to mention, is Marcel Proust’s A la recherche du temps perdu, or In Search of Lost Time.

In case you hear Proust’s name and feel like maybe you should know what people are talking about but don’t, and don’t want to ask, but absolutely don’t want to read a book full of four-page sentences (seriously) to find out, here’s what you need to know about Proust’s book: when he was a kid, Proust – or his avatar – would visit his sick aunt, and she would share her madeleines, which she dipped in her tea, with him. It’s the memory of this as an adult, or more precisely the shock of the memory and the subsequent desire to tease out the ways in which his childhood prepared him for that memory and the ways in which that memory and innumerable others influenced the rest of his life, that impels the adult Proust/Proust-avatar to write his opus.

Here’s the famous passage:

“No sooner had the warm liquid mixed with the crumbs touched my palate than a shudder ran through me and I stopped, intent upon the extraordinary thing that was happening to me. An exquisite pleasure had invaded my senses, something isolated, detached, with no suggestion of its origin. And at once the vicissitudes of life had become indifferent to me, its disasters innocuous, its brevity illusory – this new sensation having had on me the effect which love has of filling me with a precious essence; or rather this essence was not in me it was me. … Whence did it come? What did it mean? How could I seize and apprehend it? … And suddenly the memory revealed itself. The taste was that of the little piece of madeleine which on Sunday mornings at Combray (because on those mornings I did not go out before mass), when I went to say good morning to her in her bedroom, my aunt Léonie used to give me, dipping it first in her own cup of tea or tisane. The sight of the little madeleine had recalled nothing to my mind before I tasted it. And all from my cup of tea.”

It goes on like that pretty much forever.

Now, to the scratch awl.

ScratchAwlOne thing any seven year old knows is that one thing these things are really good for is throwing into the dirt.

I don’t know if I did this regularly, or just did it once, but I remember holding that long slender pointed piece of steel in my hand and flinging it end over end to get it to stick straight up out of the grassy backyard ground. I don’t remember, however, putting it back after my final toss.

I don’t remember, because I didn’t.

Which is why I do remember the lecture I got from my dad the next day upon his discovery of the awl’s faded-blue-paint handle poking up out of the grass.

I also remember – very distinctly – the look on his face when I told him I hadn’t done it. That confused and questioning look. Not confused about who then could possibly be the culprit, but confused as to why I was lying, and questioning why in the face of such overwhelming evidence I would continue to lie.

“Anyway,” he finally said, just going past the ridiculousness of my insistence that it wasn’t me, “you can’t leave tools out like that.”

I don’t know that it was the first bald-faced lie I told, but I know it’s become something of a symbol to me, that action and the lie. I imagine my dad’s refusal to listen to anymore foolishness was supposed to be a lesson about the futility of such obvious lying. You would think that’d be enough, right? “You got caught,” I imagine myself saying in his shoes, “Don’t be an idiot.”

But I proved to be incorrigible. My proclivity to lie expressed itself in all sorts of ways – exaggeration, denial, pure invention. I once told a friend of mine in fourth grade that the girl he had a crush on lived behind me and that we’d meet under the shaggy avocado tree in between our two yards in secret and talk for hours upon hours, and sure, I’d be happy to put in a good word. She actually lived in a completely different subdivision.

I also told that same kid that I had videocassettes of Howdy Doody that my parents recorded as kids in my attic. Besides the anachronism of VCRs in the 1950s, I didn’t even have an attic.

I never felt bad about these lies – I just hated getting caught. Which to my weird little brain was motivation for one thing: becoming a better liar.

Eventually, as those who know me know, the lies kind of pretty much completely took over, and I wasn’t even aware of the extent that I was lying to myself and living in a world that was pure fantasy.

I didn’t mean for this to devolve into confession and self-analysis. Suffice it to say that one of the things I’ve had to do in recent years is learn how to restrict my fabrication-of-reality to the page, to channel that energy and creativity, that compulsion, that narcissistic, egomaniacal belief that I can bend reality and create worlds — and then to make something of what I remember, whether it happened or not.

Proust saw memory as inevitably partial. Schulz knew that memory was like beauty and was in the eye (or mind) of the beholder. Kandel was sure it could be mapped. They all proved in their various ways that the act of remembering  can be as influential on the shape one’s life takes as the memory itself.

What memories carry “decisive meaning” for you?

What is that meaning?

What do you do with the memories? With the meaning?

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