Back when I was writing for Chelsea Now and trying, at the height of the bubble, to figure out how it all worked (and wondering whether I needed an MBA), my colleague Albert Amateau told me a story. I was getting headaches trying to sort out how it could all be legal that the air above your building, the years until you die, were all being “monetized” at such a rapid pace. A few years ago, said Al, he’d been offered a chance at a job writing for a newsletter entirely about derivatives, those malleable catalysts of much market hysteria. It didn’t work out, said Al, one of the best craftsmen in the business, but it told him that people like he and I had wasted our talents studying literature and poetry. It was people on Wall Street that had learned how to really make money with fiction.
If you squint hard enough, you can see that the derivative-driven economy of the past decade has always, in a way, been about counterfeiting. At their most basic level, innovations like the ones that triggered the global collapse — credit-default swaps and collateralized debt obligations — were employed for the primary purpose of synthesizing out of thin air those revenue flows that our dying industrial economy was no longer pumping into the financial bloodstream. The basic concept in almost every case was the same: replacing hard assets with complex formulas that, once unwound, would prove to be backed by promises and IOUs instead of real stuff. Credit-default swaps enabled banks to lend more money without having the cash to cover potential defaults; one type of CDO let Wall Street issue mortgage-backed bonds that were backed not by actual monthly mortgage payments made by real human beings, but by the wild promises of other irresponsible lenders. They even called the thing a synthetic CDO — a derivative contract filled with derivative contracts — and nobody laughed. The whole economy was a fake.
Oliver Stone got it right the first time, though many took his movie as a spur to enter the casino: I can’t wait to see what the new movie says.
Writing about war, frankly, is far more straightforward, with bodies you can see even though the good and bad guys are sometimes far more blurred.
go here, from now on. As the book’s publication year approaches, I need to give more energy here to its concerns. But I did want to let you all know how the move came out!
I’ve mentioned, methinks, that I’ve had a longstanding not-so-secret crush on the City of Brotherly Love (and sisterly affection) for more than ten years, a side grace note to my torrid love affair with the city of my birth. New Yorkers (and I’ll likely call myself one till I die) like to feel with Colson Whitehead that “I was born here, and thus ruined for anywhere else…..” The first Pelham in the subject line is Pelham Bay, the Bronx neighborhood from which I [was] sprung.
But I’ve always had a soft spot for small cities, and when I first got to know Philly I was living in San Francisco, which is even smaller, and came here because my organization had an office here. Philly struck me as a cross between Baltimore, where I once moved to heal from divorce, and that other colonial town where the Lenape first met Europeans.
Of course, as you know I actually moved nearly a year ago from Manhattan, to which I moved in 2000 an exultant new lover. The circumstances even made the papers. But it wasn’t until a couple of months ago that we felt able to look for an apartment here — and less than a month ago, had the incredible luck to find a place in Mount Airy, not the first Philly nabe I fell in love with (that honor goes to Old City) but a place that already feels almost as much home as did Washington Heights/Inwood, where we lived for six years, or my long-cherished Mission District. (Those two years in Greenwich Village were dreamy, but always felt borrowed.) I do feel a little like a stereotype, being so happy about the food co-op, the lesbian-owned bookstore, but there we are.
Mount Airy, where we live now, is none of those places: it’s completely itself. Its history is slightly younger than NYC’s, though settled first by Germans in the 1680s (and first called by the English “Beggarstown,” which feels kind of appropriate for us if not the actual neighborhood).
The major street nearest to me also bears the name of Pelham, an estate owned by the Revolution’s hardest-working engraver (or someone else in his family). We don’t live in one of the nabe’s stained-glass beauties, but a Victorian that has its own deep charm
I’m writing this now as a transitional post between this and New in Philadelphia. There, I might feel more free to include quieter observations, like how it feels to be reunited with a cat or why I’m beginning to suspect that I’m actually in Berkeley.
I first met Knox Martin two years ago. For one of my first Chelsea Now stories, I wrote about his “Venus” mural on 19th Street and the West Side Highway, since obscured by Jean Nouvel’s 100 Eleventh Avenue condominium complex. When I learned Martin, still fighting for his new anti-war mural “Killing the Whales,” was a veteran of Omaha Beach, I knew I had to talk to him for the book; we sat in his Washington Heights apartment, where he showed me the clipping at left – which was the only way his mother knew, in 1945, that her younger son was alive.
Below are some highlights of what he told me, which my paper published that August for the 60th anniversary of the war’s end.
You mirror your dad, pioneer aviator William Knox Martin, in that you’ve embraced both art and science.
Yes. My father’s uncle was putting him through art school at the University of Maryland, when he walked out of his house one day and saw this thing flying through the air. Very primitive—the airplane had just been invented in 1906. And he said, “This is what I want to do with the rest of my life.”
I was going to be a scientist, too. I went to DeWitt Clinton High School in the Bronx, a school known for graduating scientists. I was doing a lot of drawing while at school and was drawing for a WPA project. I was also an avid reader. I was so advanced, I dropped out of the school because I thought, I’m not learning anything here I don’t already know. My father then died, and my uncle asked me to come to Virginia.
You were 19 when Pearl Harbor was hit. Did you know right away that you were going to war?
I knew it was coming: I was an early reader. I read the paper and thought, How can this be, about Hitler? We were at a wealthy family’s house in Scarsdale, N.Y., where the owner was for Hitler. When everyone was out on the lawn, I took every piece of furniture and wrote “Death to Hitler” on the bottom of each one. Then when the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor, It felt like a deep wound.
I didn’t go in right away. After my father died in 1941, I went to work for the Northwest Railroad, traveled through Virginia and Ohio. In the morning, you’d see for miles upon miles telephone wires glistening with spider webs. And the people were unbelievable! Living in pre–Civil War lives! But then I got into a fight with a supervisor and came home to New York. And everyone was in the service.
Why the Coast Guard?
My stepfather was a commercial fisherman, so we grew up around boats. He’d been in the reserves for years, so they made him head of this boat pool at Ellis Island.
We did boot training at Manhattan Beach, marching, gas masks, everything. Then we put in for a sub chaser and were sent to Mystic, Conn., to one of the most beautiful ships in the world: the 83-500. It was dark like a submarine, would submerge and turn itself upside down, depth charges underneath and rockets on the bow. We did this “bombing run” practice in Florida. They said there were German submarines in South America, but fortunately we never met one.
Normandy—it was an armada, you said.
We’re crossing the Atlantic and as far as you could see: cruisers, battleships, every kind of craft. The water was just full of ships. And the sky was blackened by planes going over, wave after wave after wave.
The Germans had a fantastic machine gun, and guys were dying everywhere all over the place—the water was littered with bodies. The invasion was threatened by a storm, so they made a harbor by sinking ships—a breakwater, 40-some-odd liberty ships. None of us slept for two nights; we were frazzled and hysterical and crazy. Then came that morning on the beachhead, lit up like the Fourth of July. There was this feeling, of being one organism with one goal, to get up on that coast and crush this thing: tyranny.
I do have to say, one of the greatest things was the atom bomb on Hiroshima. They had this little island—I saw it—where the Japanese fought to the last man. They would have done it; millions would have died. And before the bomb was dropped, the Russians were coming from the North, ready to invade. You would have had a Berlin wall of Tokyo.
You were discovered as an artist in a veterans’ hospital!
The first day when I came back, my mother greeted me—the tears. She was happy to see me but then said, “Your brother Morris, he’s gone. He was killed flying over Japanese waters.” How could this smart, great guy be gone? It wasn’t that I was divorced from reality, but the meaning of things changed, and I began to draw again. A guy came by the hospital on a project to work with “wounded veterans.” His name was Victor Kandel. I showed him what I was doing, and he said, “Hey, you’re a real artist. I would advise you to take private lessons.” So, I went to the Art Students League on the GI Bill.
In those days, everyone there was a Communist. It was my opinion that we were next going to fight the Russians. My uncle was in military intelligence: I knew what Stalin had done—how many mass graves. They would ask me, “Knox, why don’t you join the Party?” I said, “Ask me again, and I’ll see you in a rifle sight.”
Your mural, the one you’re still fighting to get made, was started as a statement about the Vietnam War.
Here’s what happened. The war starts; we’re after the Commies. It was great! Hit the Communists! Then, all of a sudden, on Sunday afternoon, what do you get on the TV? The war. It’s not an abstraction. A girl, a civilian, running from napalm. One guy, another civilian, sitting at a table, a soldier shoots him in the head. We all burst into tears. That’s why there was protest at all.
The young Knox Martin at the Art Students League
After my so-called success with the 19th Street piece [“Venus”] in 1972, I did the first maquette for this [current] mural. I tried to get it done everywhere. I figured I’d done the other one, Geraldo Rivera on the scaffold, and it would be a slam dunk! But—nothing.
You thought you had it this time, after Community Board 2 said yes and Cape Advisers [the developer of Jean Nouvel’s project] agreed to pay for it.
Two years of work, hundreds of people involved, and this one person—Michelle Cohen [of Art in the Schools] said, “This can’t be built now, or in the future.” She said, “It is not the content, not your credits.” What is it, then? Silence.
When I first talked to her, the first words out of her mouth were: “We have no funds.” I came up with the funds, and she said, the building can’t be touched for four years. I said, “The contractors working on the school say now’s the time to do it, not when the park is finished.” She said, “It’s dangerous for students.” I said that it’s on the back wall, away from the students. She said, “You can’t hang from the scaffolding; it’s too dangerous.” I said, “I’ll get a very slim cherry-picker, not me the fat guy.” She said, “Not on DOE property!” I don’t know her real objections, but it’s not over.
Any last words? Overall connections between the artist and the veteran?
After 9/11, maybe we’ll see the world waking up from 5,000 years of religious wars.
This is the infancy of Planet Earth. You don’t join a group, an army. Just be kind, look around you, and you straighten yourself out! You become a light unto yourself.
The Associated Press starts with Sotomayor’s compelling biography: “Sonia Sotomayor’s path to the pinnacle of the legal profession began in the 1960s at a Bronx housing project just a couple blocks from Yankee Stadium, where she and her family dealt with one struggle after another.”
In its May 15 profile, the New York Times calls her “Baseball’s Savior” for her role in ending the 1994 baseball strike. The Times also noted that she runs what lawyers call a “hot bench,” demanding of attorneys that appear before her bench at the Court of Appeals: “questions come fast and furious and lawyers have to be fully prepared.”
About that whisper campaign, which is likely to continue (as with all nominees): It began early with a much-discussed piece in the New Republic, which quoted comments from a judicial handbook and anonymous law clerks and questioned her intelligence and painted her as domineering, even though writer Jeffrey Rosen admitted that “I haven’t read enough of Sotomayor’s opinions to have a confident sense of them, nor have I talked to enough of Sotomayor’s detractors and supporters, to get a fully balanced picture of her strengths.”
For Sotomayor, being a sharp interrogator and requiring lawyers to be “on top of it” are negative qualities. These traits are not negative in most men, certainly not white men… In Scalia, toughness is positive; in Sotomayor, it is nonjudicial. If Scalia asks irrelevant questions, he is just being a dutiful “law professor” trying to hold the attention of his class. If Sotomayor does the same thing, she is just interested in hearing herself talk. When Scalia duels harshly with litigants, the “spectators” watch in amazement. If Sotomayor asks tough questions, she is seen as difficult, temperamental, and excitable. The disparate treatment is too dense to deny.
As I said when I posted this on WVFC, we’ve been rooting for every woman on the shortlist. But I’ll be keeping extra-close watch on the cable-TV noise if they try to pull the “too aggressive” or “fiery Latina” or “affirmative action” card and try to stop her confirmation. And now it’s time to call my oldest friend, who first taught me that one doesn’t mess with brilliant kick-ass Puerto Rican girls.
Because people keep asking: yes, that’s me. I’d volunteered to talk to Joyce Wadler mostly hoping for some free publicity to Women’s Voices for Change.org, not realizing that my little joke about the commercial made me quotable enough to be the lede of the story.
For the record: she mistook my monthly net pay from Chelsea Now for our rent (it was a lot lower), and she sharpened the contrasts I’d described. e.g. I’d told her only that R and I had “fratboy tendencies,” for example, not that we always went there. And she didn’t mention the story’s happy ending; that now that Rache has a job and we’ve saved up a deposit et al., we were by then actually starting to look for a Philly place of our own.
But I’m sure I’ve done worse as a journo without knowing it. In any event, let’s hope that when my book is published, the Times will pay enough attention to consign that clip to comedy, as it deserves.
My bankruptcy lawyer, among others, is quite aware of my financial illiteracy (something I’m not proud of). Which has likely made it amusing, for the five to ten regular readers of this blog, as I worried about having to get an MBA in order to understand NYC’s then-peaking real estate market. I wanted to simultaneously get a Ph.D. in philosophy, so that I could find a way to articulate that whatever allowed these guys to get away with what they were doing, it was wrong.
Now, thanks to the invaluable Sullivan, I learn that the degree I was really missing? I could have written their kind of lucrative fictions – but I needed to use advanced mathematics.
I can’t wait for the episode of the show above entitled The Gaussian Copula.
Before it gets too old: Paul Schindler at Gay City News (one of the hardest-working and most brilliant journos I know) sends this report from the weekend’s Human Rights Campaign dinner, where Keith Olbermann (above) schooled the lawmakers in the room:
In an evening when the governor of New Jersey made his most forceful statement to date in support of marriage equality, the new Senate majority leader in New York State pledged to make gay marriage a reality here, and New York City’s mayor once again promised to lobby the Legislature in Albany to help get that done, the crowd’s heart at the February 7 Human Rights Campaign gala in Manhattan’s Hilton Hotel, it seemed, belonged to a cable television political commentator.
In honoring Keith Olbermann, host of MSNBC’s nightly “Countdown,” with its Ally for Equality Award, HRC took particular note of a “Special Comment” he made about California’s Proposition 8 six days after the election. As Olbermann was poised to take the stage Saturday evening, a clip from that “Special Comment” was replayed to a hearty standing ovation.
The rest of the piece is a must-read: Schindler explains the complexities of gay and progressive politics with his usual elegance. He also includes video of Majority Leader Malcolm Smith wading into those complexities.
More completely disparate bits, on the same principle as the last.
First — Forget NYPIRG, President Obama was that same rare species as I – a 1980’s college peacenik! Luckily, the snarky press only recently hold of this earnest student article in a Columbia U magazine, whose eager framing of its subjects reminds me of my first tries at that kind of writing.
The issue’s dated March 1983, which empowers me to play that game of “where were you then?” I had just started that internship I mentioned in that NYPIRG post, and probably had attended conferences of that Students Against Militarism group he mentions in the piece. I guess Barack had good reason to fly back to Chicago after NYPIRG. He was in danger of turning out liike me — a writer with an obsession with war and peace, and thus few career prospects.
A few of us, in Binghamton, New York , stood in a circle and sang this song the day after Lennon died. We were already stunned by an electoral victory like last month’s, but in the reverse direction. We felt that we had just begun the worst of times.
Last night, Elizabeth reports at my other shop, Yoko One was in Tokyo, memorializing John along with thousands of Japanese youth too young to remember, but who know the Beatles playbook by heart. Go see – and you’ll find Ann Northrop and Liza Minnelli, too,
Another cross-post, but of work dear to me: a personal essay I first wrote a couple years back, when asked for something in the category “strange bedfellows.” You get to decide who the bedfellows are. (And if you click on the second page, you find out who the mouse is – with video!)
A blast from the recent past: Queens Boulevard had its usual martial look after a snowstorm. City snowplows had made quick corridors, long since finished off by relentless traffic, while sculpting on each side massive walls of hard-packed snow, some shaped like the cars they’d buried. On each corner, pedestrians stomped the snowdrifts into slush, occasionally even breaking the ice underneath. Great, I thought as I descended the subway stairs. Two great problems that taste great together.
Wrapped in a down coat that made me look at 41 like an overgrown toddler, I also carried a hefty backpack, the kind that turns into a rolling cart on clear ground. All of which made crossing the street a comic challenge even for a normal person, if you could really call normal a community college instructor who carried reams of paper on her back like some demented Sherpa.
The first corner took me about seven minutes, using my sight to find the first place to step and then trying to manage each slide across the bulk, hurling my pack across at the last moment. On the second corner restless students passed me, as if I were a tree that had come half-unmoored. At the third, and mercifully last before I got to the school doors, the drifts were smaller, but icy patches made it treacherous, passage still slow. For a normal person, navigating that snow would be tricky. But for me, whose feet felt wrapped in cotton wool on good days and almost numb on bad ones, it was asking a deaf person to sing a subtle tone poem, with broken bones the penalty for getting it wrong.
Suddenly, to my right, a petite woman of about 70, hair and lips a defiant orange, reached for my pack and offered a shoulder. I nodded gratefully and let her lead me across the ice, letting go at the other end so quickly she barely allowed time for me to thank her.
I waited till I got to school to start laughing, not at the unexpected good Samaritan but at myself. This is what MS means, I thought. You’re so slow, ladies 20 years older than beat you down the block.
I suddenly wished some of the people who told me, “I wish I had your energy” had seen that. Being outwardly Type A had its uses – especially in the department, which thought little of piling on more classes for me to teach (an advantage for an adjunct). I didn’t necessarily want to remind them of the limits to that energy, and they might not get why I was laughing. Hire the handicapped, they’re fun to watch.
If twenty years of this hadn’t given me a sense of humor about it, I thought, that fact would be a tragedy worth a telethon. Or something.
* * * *
I’ve stopped teaching since then, at least for now, but mornings like today — when the mercury is teasing with near-frost –make me think of that week in Queens. Unlike most people with multiple sclerosis, my symptoms don’t get worse in the heat: it’s lower temperatures that turn my body numb, make my fatigue worse than ever, make my handwriting even more like shorthand than before. It happens indoors, too, sometimes with air conditioning: I still don’t know what Manhattan’s Community Board Five thought when they first saw this reporter drag herself along the wall of their meeting room because she couldn’t feel her legs (“Is that girl drunk?”) When you’re diagnosed at 22 with a chronic illness, you feel life just handed you a big, sour lemon. But the key to getting through it for 20 years has been, at least for me, making lemonade (or maybe lemon martinis?) out of that lemon.
A bit of history, first: the lemon’s, and then a bit of mine.
Multiple sclerosis means, literally, many scars — a name coined in 1868 by Dr. Jean-Martin Charcot, the father of neurology, after the death of a woman who had come to him with tremors and slurred speech. In her brain, and those of patients like her, he found lesions smaller than a fingernail, threaded and knotted through the gray matter. He tried strychnine, electrical stimulation, injections of liquid gold, but nothing even helped.
Even for most of the twentieth century, all researchers were able to accomplish was to learn more about how the disease operates: the body’s immune system jumps up and attacks for no apparent reason the myelin sheath, the mix of proteins that line the nerves. The disease flared without apparent warning, and often receded, though each flareup often left patients worse off than before. And throughout most of the century, treatments were few and far between. Physicians were thus, understandably, cautious in their approach. Right up until the 1980’s, many MS patients were discouraged from exercise, or regular employment.
When Olympic gold-medal skier Jimmie Heuga came down with the illness in 1970, his doctors advised him to stop training and rest. But when staying sedentary didn’t help him improve, Heuga took their advice and flipped it 180 degrees, going back into training – if not at Olympic level – and starting a center for people with MS to devise structured exercise programs. In 1987, his center also began to fund research to challenge the conventional wisdom and promote a rehabilitative model for MS, one that employed exercise and physical therapy as equal partners with medication. Meanwhile, one December night back then, I was hurtling to Manhattan frommt home in upstate New York in the middle of the night, hoping to learn what was wrong with me. As the car raced down Highway 17, the darkness was pierced in places by bursts of holiday lights, some towns decking their halls early and sending bits of red and blue across the relentless green of New York highway signs.