Category Archives: Philadelphia

100 million castaways, demanding a home

100 million: That’s how many people who felt as I did last week. Or at least as many as stood up yesterday to say: Not in our America.

Using the skills that were so essential to the election of the current president, a handful of kids-with-broadband organized the event in cities around the country. They used email, Facebook, Twitter, and Youtube to provide a single, coordinated answer to the question so many were asking: “What do I do now?”

In Philly, the weather complied, with 70-degree temps warming the crowd of 5,000 clustered by City Hall. A group as diverse as my new city, in both ethnic composition and age. Families with small children, parents,  ministers joined folks like myself and Rachel, or the guy with the sign “No More Mr. Nice Gay.” Or like white-haired Cass McGough, 72,  who eyes were a soft match to her carved earrings, and whose sign said simply: I’M TOO OLD FOR THIS SHIT. I didn’t ask her if she knew Harvey Milk, who would have been proud of the day.

“I never thought I’d live to see a black President,” McGough grinned as the crowd gathered. “But I also never thought they’d leave us so thoroughly out of this moment, either.”

Even more heartening, to me, was the Cataldi family — South Philly types who wouldn’t have looked out of place among my Bronx relatives. Dino Cataldi brought his entire family, whose signs were among those made famous on TV and here: A GAY MARRIAGE IS JUST AS IMPORTANT AS MY FIRST, SECOND AND THIRD STRAIGHT MARRIAGE. When I asked one of them why they’d come, he said “My brother-in-law!” and pointed to Dino, a burly guy with wavy hair and muscle-y arms.

Upon learning his last name, I told Cataldi about my own Italian family, and that my coming-out process felt at best incomplete. “You wanna know how I came out? My father asked me one night at dinner, Are you queer?  Before I could say anything, my brother answered for me: He’s not queer. He’s  gay.” In other words, not creepy, not other. For all my San Francisco-bred comfort with the term ‘queer,’ the story moved me, and I wished I could tell one just like it.

Meanwhile, the kids just kept coming. I felt like I’d seen them canvassing for Obama, and they’d just gone on to the next logical goal. They were passionate about not, as columnists did,  targeting not any demographic group, not even the Mormon Church — instead targeting the indifference of those to whom think gay and lesbian civil rights are a side issue, not worth showing up for.

Now, of course, comes the hard work of making even future protests share a goal. I’ll watch, and show up when I can. This could be the 21st-century ACT-UP, though so far we don’t have the artists to show for it.

(The video is from the 1981 Secret Policeman’s Other Ball, a benefit for Amnesty International. My title’s quote from The Police feels suddenly pretty on-topic.)

Notes from a swing state

Walking along this suburban-ish street today, I kept seeing young people with clipboards. Using cell phones. I giggled; this is what democracy looks like.

Those who know me well, or even knew my old blog shop, might feel puzzled that I almost never blog about electoral politics  – especially since I moved this summer to Pennsylvania, which both candidates treat as their jogging track. I didn’t blog Springsteen’s free concert in Philly, or Joe Biden’s frequent invocations of Scranton, or try one whit to write something comparable to the folks crowding my Google Reader — Sullivan, or Ezra, or Coates or Aravosis, or the brilliant Lindsay, who writes in 10 places at once. Because they all do it so well; because I’ve been spending as much time as possible working on the book, and trying to help propel the nonpartisan site that gives me my current day job. I didn’t even think of my feelings the day we lost last time, or how I talked to my students about the long haul – how only organizing could prevent it from happening again.

I didn’t know that day that someone who didn’t lose his Senate race that day, who had once worked at the very same college where I was now subjecting them to writing drills, would prove an uber-organizer.

I wonder if this week, any of those students are doing what those kids I saw today were doing. Maybe even today.

I do know that not a single canvasser, in my usually-leans-Republican Northeast Philly neighborhood, was doing so for John McCain. I’m just saying. (Update, Mon: The others were, apparently, part of a 1.9-million-voters-strong weekend.)

So much for the loneliness of the long-distance runner

National Novel Writing Month? Me?

Normally, I’m one of those skeptical of the enterprise, the idea that a jillion people checking in online and pushing out 50,000 words had anything to do with producing quality work. Still, over the years I’ve thought of doing it, worried about it, then as I put aside the idea that fiction is what I do, mostly cheered on a friend or two from way on the sidelines.

But now, if I’m going to fulfill my contract with University of California Press, and deliver a 110,000 word nonfiction narrative by January 1 – desperate measures are called for. So when I got a note from the online community Red Room about participating in NaNoWriMo, I had one question: “Does it have to be fiction?”

The FAQ says nothing about nonfiction, so I decided to take the plunge.

After all, I just stopped calling myself a “novelist” three years ago. My book has plots, characters, more themes than you can shake a stick at and is as vivid as I can make it considering I can’t make shit up.

I’m hoping that adding the structure and mass mutual cheerleading of NaNoWriMo to my daily practice will add to my determination to produce against all odds – with little else that matters. I have six chapters, a prologue and an epilogue nowhere near drafted – and that doesn’t count fact-checking and revision. It’s still impossible. I’m still determined to do it. If it takes a jillion writers in a jillion cities, well, I never did put much stock in all that stuff about the loneliness of the long-distance runner.

older cities of dreams

Which of these venerable, beloved by artists (and thus too costly for most), old streets came first?

Philly’s Old City, where I sit now (in a cafe I already love)?

Or its jealous cousin in my hometown?

I suspect the latter, due to the Dutch assault on the Lenape land predating the days of William Penn.

However, both bow down to their ancestor above, in the country of *my* particular forefathers. I’d love to live there too.

diving into the wreck

A post of re-entry: the task of moving while doing the newsblog for Women’s Voices and finishing up my responsibilities at Chelsea Now was pretty punishing, and pushed me almost entirely away from the book. Now I sit on the back porch of my in-laws’ house in northeast Philadelphia, birds chatting away about the unexpected cool weather, the occasional visiting bunny rabbit not yet making his confused appearance. (Think of it as Bread Loaf w/o the fellow writers, or the alcohol.)

And after some necessary re-immersion, I may be finally ready to commence my necessary 20-week writing marathon, treating this place as an enforced writers’ colony. At least mostly. (I do still want to see if I can find someone to hire me to write about   IVAW at one of the political conventions at the end of this month.)

When I thought of writing this post, I knew the title, and found the Adrienne Rich poem a bigger gift than I’d thought. Though her quarry was patriarchy, the psychological/creative task feels the same:

First having read the book of myths,
and loaded the camera,
and checked the edge of the knife-blade,
I put on
the body-armor of black rubber
the absurd flippers
the grave and awkward mask.
I am having to do this
not like Cousteau with his
assiduous team
aboard the sun-flooded schooner
but here alone….

I came to explore the wreck.
The words are purposes.
The words are maps.
I came to see the damage that was done
and the treasures that prevail.
I stroke the beam of my lamp
slowly along the flank
of something more permanent
than fish or weed

the thing I came for:
the wreck and not the story of the wreck
the thing itself and not the myth
the drowned face always staring
toward the sun
the evidence of damage
worn by salt and away into this threadbare beauty
the ribs of the disaster
curving their assertion
among the tentative haunters.

“The wreck and not the story of the wreck.” Multiple meanings in my project, since so many of my characters are also storytellers. Not to get distracted even by Ambrose Bierce’s powerful description of Shiloh, or Fred Marchant’s incredible Vietnam poems — though all are useful, even essential in undercutting the predominant story of gung-ho, mindless soldiering.

My task here is that weird combination of journalist, historian (not one but try, like my role model Adam Hochschild, to play one on TV) and novelist. To look closely at my characters, at where their lives fit into the shape of their wars (the ones they fought in, the ones they dissented about, not always the same). And now, the trickiest part: to be Dante’s Virgil. To tell their stories, and the overall story, smoothly enough so that it goes down now like hard medicine but like whipped cream. Sounds easy, doesn’t it?

We circle silently
about the wreck
we dive into the hold.

we are the half-destroyed instruments
that once held to a course
the water-eaten log
the fouled compass

We are, I am, you are
by cowardice or courage
the one who find our way
back to this scene
carrying a knife, a camera
a book of myths
in which
our names do not appear.