Writer’s Block

A writer not writing is practically a maniac within himself.
F. Scott Fitzgerald

Since Christmas, I have published just two new blog posts. I wish I could say it was because I was slaving away on the Great American Novel. I wasn’t. Something depressing happened: I lost the joy of writing.

It didn’t happen overnight. Rather, it was a gradual process over the last eighteen months. I still spent part of many days with an open document on my screen. However, my thoughts stopped jumping from my brain to the page. I increasingly doubted the wisdom of every paragraph, every sentence, every word. Nothing was ever good enough: the analysis was too shallow, the humor too facile, the logic too slack. On the rare occasion that I finished something, I hesitated, or declined, to post it. Once I began doubting the value of my creative ideas, the creative ideas dried up. My mind became a battlefield between my desire to write and my sense of futility, and futility won.

This is not a problem for anyone but me, of course. I am well aware that if I never produce another word of prose, the world will not notice. However, like many who spend dreary days pushing papers, ringing up cash registers or manufacturing dispensable products for a living simply because they require a paycheck, I need a creative outlet, something I can point to and say, “I did that.” I don’t have a green thumb, I’m tone-deaf, I can’t draw a straight line, I can’t cook, I’m too poor to travel, jogging bores me and my wife is prepared to call 911 whenever I pick up a hammer and nail. Slinging words is all I’ve got. I take it seriously. Without it, I feel adrift.

I always wanted to be a writer. A compulsive reader since childhood, I briefly majored in journalism at college before choosing a career path with a steadier income, a decision that I often lamented. When I began writing on a whim twelve years ago, it was like reconnecting with my high school sweetheart and learning she still carried a torch for me. I felt decades of suppressed inspiration bubble to the surface. It was strictly a hobby because I had a well-paying day job and my only readers were my immediate family, but I had no ambition beyond that. It was the happiest I’ve ever been.

When I started a blog five years ago, after my well-paying day job ended, and suddenly had an audience that didn’t share my DNA, I was buoyed by the feedback. I felt like I was developing a clear, distinguishable voice. I enjoyed all phases of the process, from the initial outpouring of words and thoughts to the discipline of sculpting them into a final form. I couldn’t imagine writer’s block because I had more ideas than time to write. Although I recognized that having 30-40 readers in a world of seven billion people meant I was in no danger of being stopped for autographs, I was satisfied.

“You should write a book,” several people told me. “You should be marketing yourself.” I had made a little bit of money from writing – enough for a couple tanks of gas, an oil change, and hey rotate the tires while you’re at it – but it was accidental, not part of some career strategy. In fact, I had no career strategy and no plan to develop one. At my age (I recently turned 63), the scraping and hustling required to earn probably meager rewards held no appeal for me.

However, I gave it a shot. I had written several political satires, so I decided to write more and collect them into a self-published book for the 2012 Presidential election. Though I was reasonably satisfied with the result, I knew the subject matter ensured it a brief shelf life. Further, the aftermath required business skills – marketing, salesmanship, self-promotion – that are not part of my genetic makeup; I’d rather chew glass than persuade someone to buy something he doesn’t need. As a result, the book’s readers were mostly the same people who read my blog. I was disappointed but accepted it.

I continued to post political satires, but by Election Night, I had grown sick of it. Ridiculing politicians felt like picking low hanging fruit. In fact, I was weary of political discussion, with its partisan rancor, constant outrage and snarky commentary. I no longer wished to contribute to it. I also realized that by relentlessly mocking Republicans, but not the liberal pieties that also sometimes bugged me, I was tailoring my writing for the approval of my friends, validating their pre-existing beliefs. Subtract the entertainment value, if any, and it seemed like a pointless endeavor. That troubled me. I decided to cut back on blogging and return to writing for myself first and worry later about readers, if any.

I wanted to try my hand at fiction. I wrote one short story (posted on another website) that I liked, but nothing else I produced seemed satisfactory. I knew I didn’t have the chops to write a serious novel, but I had an idea for a comic one and read some comic novels – The Magic Christian, A Confederacy of Dunces – hoping they would inspire me. They didn’t. I started writing anyway but quickly sensed that the idea wouldn’t justify, say, 75,000 words and I would be spending months toiling on what would be one more piece of disposable trash tossed upon the 21st century content landfill. Whenever I spent an hour on it, I hated myself. I abandoned the project.

I began writing first-person essays, which I’ve always enjoyed. They were long and personal, too much so for blog posts, and I doubted the wisdom of spending so much time on things that might never see the light of day. Worse, I couldn’t finish them. There is no sense writing about yourself if you are not going to be honest, and I questioned the accuracy of my memories. I second-guessed every sentence – which is normal and healthy – but I also third-, fourth- and fifth-guessed them, like a person with OCD constantly checking if the stove is turned off. My writing folders slowly filled with projects in varying degrees of incompleteness.

My struggle deepened when my wife lost her job. Writing immediately dropped low on my list of priorities; it now seemed an inconsequential, unprofitable, and ultimately masturbatory activity. My wife encouraged me to keep writing but I found it difficult to concentrate. Besides the frequent interruptions – I had always been able to block off a few uninterrupted hours of solitary time for writing, but no longer – I felt guilty about having an enjoyable pastime while she was feeling miserable.

As she joined the group dispassionately dubbed “the long-term unemployed,” I thought her plight might be a good subject for an e-book. We have friends in the same boat, people in their AARP years who have been abandoned by the economy and forced to drain their retirement savings too early, and I thought I could provide a voice for them. However, I froze. My reticence about opening up our lives to public discussion proved daunting. I was also aware that, as a white, heterosexual male, America had given me advantages that had been denied to many others – our worst year was better than many others’ best year – and I feared that my complaints would sound like privileged whining. Instead of composing a cogent narrative, I just scratched out some random sentences or phrases, like a bored student doodling in the margins of his notebook. I abandoned that project too.

What had been a labor of love was now just labor. Few ideas were bubbling; my mind seemed as flat as an open can of day-old Pepsi. My humor muscles had atrophied. I felt out of sync, like a baseball player who had developed a hitch in his swing, flailing at curve balls and not swinging at fastballs he used to knock out of the park. I confessed my quandary privately to a couple of my writer friends. Their advice, essentially, took the form of aphorisms like “follow your heart” and “take it one step at a time;” well-meaning but useless, like telling a depressed person to start his day with a smile.

I made one last attempt to stimulate my creative juices by going through my old writing. My plan was to choose the best things I’d ever written and winnow it down to 25. But I had trouble winnowing it up to 25. Few pieces seemed as good as I remembered them. When I read the rare one that met my approval, it was like looking at a picture of your younger, slimmer, more confident self and wondering: Whatever happened to that guy?

I told a couple of people that I was taking a sabbatical from writing, hoping my frustrated urge would eventually overpower my doubts. In fact, I was actively avoiding reminders of my failure. During the day, I embraced any distraction from my growing inventory of unfinished writing projects. But at night, when I should have drifted into a peaceful sleep, I tossed and turned obsessing about my absent Muse.

I keep expecting the joy to return. It hasn’t. (For example, this essay has been languishing on my laptop for weeks, waiting for me to conquer my procrastination and apprehension enough to finish it, though maybe the fact that I did finish it is a good sign.) In the grand scheme of life, my loss is pretty damned unimportant. But I expected writing to play a major role in the rest of my life. I had spent much of my adult life lamenting its absence. If I have an average life expectancy, I might have twenty good years left. I don’t want to lament them too.

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I Don’t Live in Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood

Mr. Rogers

(I first posted this back in February 2009. Reason for repost at the end.)

I wish we could all be more like Mister Rogers. Five days a week for more than thirty years, he invited viewers into his neighborhood, where it was always a wonderful day. It was no coincidence that he was a contemporary of my mother, who often told me stories about growing up during the Depression, sitting on her front stoop and playing with the kids in her neighborhood. Even in her later years, she could remember all of their names. In my own youth, I would join regular pick-up games of touch football or wiffle ball with my neighbors in the streets in front of our homes.

This all sounds quaint to me now. Our mobility has weakened our bonds to our community. The street where I played touch football is now lined with so many cars that the kids couldn’t play there even if they wanted to. Technology has shrunk our world, but too often, we get more outraged by injustices on the other side of the world than we do at troubles in our own backyard. Our interaction with our neighborhood consists of walking from our front door to our car and back again. We shield ourselves from our neighbors behind double-locked doors and shuttered blinds.

Mister Rogers entered my mind last week, shortly after I received a W-2 in the mail. It had my street address, but not my name or that of anyone in my family. Realizing that it would be futile to simply return it to the post office, I opened up the local phone book to randomly call local residents with the same last name, hoping to personally deliver the tax form. Fortunately, my daughter recognized the name as that of a high-school classmate who lives in another section of our development.

I live in a co-operative, a series of connected brownstones, four to eight per building. This particular family, which turned out to have an unlisted phone number, lives three buildings down from me and across the street. I still didn’t know their street number, so I chose an apartment at random in that building, and asked the woman there if she knew the family. Not only did she not recognize the name, she said, but she didn’t know any neighbors with a teenage boy.

Three doors down from her, I found the right family. (It turned out that the employer mistook a “2” for a “7.”). After handing over the W-2, I shook my head and wondered how oblivious you have to be to not know there’s a teenage boy living less than fifty yards from you.

I quickly realized, however, that I am no less oblivious. Once I get home, I block out my surroundings and immerse myself in TV or the computer. I carry on nightly e-mail chats with my daughter in Boston or my brother in Baton Rouge, but when I pass one of my neighbors outside, conversation rarely extends past, “Good morning.” If I’m feeling particularly chipper, I might add, “Nice weather we’re having.”

My wife and I have names for our neighbors, but not the ones their parents gave them. Instead, we’ve assigned them nicknames based on their possessions or appearance. There’s “Jaguar Guy,” “Cat Lady,” “The Young Blonde” and “Pete Seeger,” who’s a dead ringer for the famous folk singer. There’s “Crazy Spanish Lady,” who, when she runs into me in the laundry room, always asks me, “You speak Spanish?” and even though I tell her, “No,” proceeds to deliver a lengthy monologue en Espanol.   There’s “Ted,” the strange neighbor we’ve named after serial killer Ted Bundy. There’s the elderly jogger I’ve dubbed Dead Man Running. The woman who frequently walks up and down the block, I assume for fresh air, we’ve dubbed “Irma,” after the streetwalker in Irma La Douce. In only a few of the cases do we know their real names.

And the indifference is mutual. Many of our neighbors are young couples who have bought a starter home, from which they’ll upgrade once they start having children. The co-op makes periodic attempts to organize a block party, but it usually peters out from lack of participation. Its annual meeting, where officers are elected, struggles to attract members from 1/3 of its households, the minimum requirement for a quorum.

This seems to be a generational phenomenon, because my older neighbors are far chattier. Mary, the retired nurse who lived two doors down from us, walked everywhere and talked to everyone. When she passed away two years ago at age 90, we lost our best source of local gossip. Whenever I run into June, a great-grandmother who lives in the next building, she always asks for updates on my older daughter’s wedding plans and my younger daughter’s college search. Few of the others show any such curiosity about my family, nor do I about theirs.

Eventually I have learned some things about them. “Jaguar Guy” works in the same building as my wife, but until he ran for our co-op board, we didn’t know his name or that he was a biomedical researcher. Until I saw his name on a memo, I didn’t know that “Pete Seeger” worked for the same corporation as I did. It was by accident that I learned that another neighbor grew up in the Bronx with one of my best friends. “The Young Blonde” participates in a local roller-derby league. “Ted,” who has Parkinson’s, is always one of the first with a shovel after a snowstorm. And “Crazy Spanish Lady” seems to be such a devoted grandmother that I wish I did habla Espanol. My obliviousness is a shame, because people are always more interesting and complex than the imaginary pigeonhole we assign them to.

Mister Rogers would have understood.

(Postscript: This morning, I read the obituaries in my local paper, a habit necessitated by growing awareness of mortality. I was startled to see an obituary for the neighbor I had dubbed “Cat Lady.” Her real name was Renate. She was only four years older than me and since she was much slimmer, she seemed outwardly healthier. Though I am scornful of aphorisms like “live every day as if it were your last” – if I had followed that advice, I would have lived my last day decades ago – the obituary reminded me of the unpredictability of life, that careful planning for success and health only slightly tilts the odds in your favor. I didn’t know Cat Lady’s interests, her cultural tastes, her politics. All I know is that on the few occasions I chatted with her, she seemed kind. Being thought kind by passing acquaintances is a good way to be remembered.)

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Kiss Me, I’m Irish. I Think.

(First posted on St. Patrick’s Day 2010.)

Today, as on every Saint Patrick’s Day, I’ll don the only green shirt I own (a New York Jets jersey – hey, they used to have a quarterback named O’Brien), put on some music by the Chieftains, maybe watch The Quiet Man if Turner Classics is showing it, and pour myself a couple pints of Guinness to toast my Irish heritage.  At least, what I know about it.  Which isn’t much.

I do know that both of my grandmothers were directly descended from Ireland.  John Howe, my great-grandfather on my mother’s side, came over from Ireland with his family at age four during the Potato Famine.  (Reminding me of the old joke: How could the Irish starve?  They live on an island, surrounded by water filled with fish.)  They settled in my current hometown of Ossining, NY, where John opened a successful grocery store and in 1885 fathered my grandmother, Mary Howe Jennings Fritts.

My paternal grandmother, Molly Flanagan, arrived at Ellis Island on October 23, 1916 at age 18, after leaving her County Roscommon home and setting sail from Liverpool, leaving her parents and her sole sibling behind.  If she traveled with anyone, I’m unaware of it.  She too settled in Ossining, and four years later, she married my grandfather Irving Brown, and three years later gave birth to my father, also named Irving.  (Good Irish name, Irving.)    

Beyond that, my ancestry gets a little hazy.  My maternal grandfather was adopted – a serious roadblock to genealogical research – and although I’ve traced my paternal grandfather back a couple of generations in upstate New York, the online databases are of limited help when your last name is Brown, and I’ve spent many an hour on wild-goose chases.

Even my Irish history, pre-immigration, contains a lot of gaps.  I have no idea which Irish county John Howe’s family left behind. I have two completely different maiden names for my great-grandmother.  In the section of the cemetery where John Howe and his family are buried, there are other graves with unknown Irish names (in-laws, perhaps?), as well as those of children who died in infancy (nieces and nephews?)  When my grandmother died, we found among her papers two curious documents, both from 1881, four years before she was born.  One concerned a lawsuit filed by her father against a man named Charles Seitz; the other was, mysteriously, Charles Seitz’s divorce decree. I have no idea who Charles Seitz was.  I suspect that Seitz’s ex-wife became my great-grandmother, but so far, I’ve been unable to prove it.

Molly’s ancestry is even hazier.  The only information I have about her family is a 1966 letter that her niece sent after Molly died.  Last year, I believed that I had tracked down an address for the niece’s daughter and sent her a letter; so far, I have not received a reply.

It makes me sorry that I didn’t probe for all this information when my ancestors were still alive.  But as a young man, I wouldn’t have been interested.  Whenever relatives came over on a holiday, I hid in my room as much as possible, as teenagers are wont to do.  Family history was something to shun, not embrace. My blue-collar Irish Catholic background was different from those of my WASPy and Jewish school friends, and my young conformist self wanted to stress how we were the same, not how we were different.

As I have aged, though, and seen my own face turning into my father’s, and seen genetic characteristics recurring in my own children, I’ve realized that your ancestry is a crucial part of your identity. In fact, we are all the same in that we are all different.

We are descended from people who came to America from somewhere else.  Though we describe ourselves in terms that emphasize that descent – Irish-American, Italian-American, African-American – our heritages get mixed over the generations as we marry those of different backgrounds.  Eventually, we morph from distinct breeds into mutts.  My wife’s ancestors, for example, came from 19th century Sweden; my brothers married a Southern belle and a woman who’s a mixture of Italian and Romanian; my older daughter married a Dominican.  I’ve come to take extensive pride in my increasingly messy, mixed-up ancestry, because I recognize it as truly American.  However, like many Americans, my knowledge about my ancestry only goes back two or three generations, and this ignorance about my heritage makes me feel incomplete.

In the PBS series Faces of America, host Henry Louis Gates Jr. traced the ancestry of twelve celebrities and what he found was often intriguing.  Gates discovered that he was related to the half-Jamaican writer Malcolm Gladwell – through white ancestors.  Stephen Colbert, whose DNA defined him as 100% Caucasian, was related to the African-American poetess Elizabeth Alexander, who was in turn directly descended from Charlemagne.

For all I know, I could be descended from some king or great explorer, but I may never know.  At least I know I’m heavily Irish, right?  Well, maybe not.  Last year, I received, from my county’s Department of Records, a copy of Molly Flanagan’s marriage certificate from 1920, and what I read startled me.  In the section about her parents, her father is listed as having been born in England, and her mother as having been born in the U.S.A.  Is it possible that I’ve been exaggerating my Irish heritage all these years?

That’s a question to be addressed another night.  Bartender, another round of Guinness, on me.

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Kitty Genovese, 50 Years Later

Fifty years ago today, a horrific and infamous crime occurred in Queens. When Kitty Genovese was murdered while returning home from work in the early morning hours of March 13, 1964, it was merely a blip on the local media radar, one of 636 homicides recorded in New York City that year, a random street crime that engages the tabloids for a day or two until the next lurid tale screams for attention. Five days later, after Winston Moseley was arrested and confessed to the crime, it seemed likely the story would follow the path of most murders, forgotten by all but family and friends.

The following week, however, New York Times city editor Abraham Rosenthal, who had only allotted the story four paragraphs, had lunch with Police Commissioner Michael Murphy, who mentioned a disturbing lack of response by eyewitnesses to Genovese’s murder. Intrigued, Rosenthal assigned a story to writer Martin Gansberg, and on March 27, 1964, a story appeared on the front page of The New York Times that began:

“For more than half an hour 38 respectable, law-abiding citizens in Queens watched a killer stalk and stab a woman in three separate attacks in Kew Gardens. Twice the sound of their voices and the sudden glow of their bedroom lights interrupted him and frightened him off. Each time he returned, sought her out and stabbed her again. Not one person telephoned the police during the assault; one witness called after the woman was dead…”

Overnight that local media blip, thanks to the imprimatur of the Gray Lady, became an international story, appearing in newspapers as far away as Russia and Japan. As Kevin Cook writes in his new book, Kitty Genovese: The Murder, the Bystanders, the Crime That Changed America, “[T]he Kitty Genovese story prompted months of local and then national soul-searching.” The residents sounded like Romans watching Christians being fed to the lions in the Colosseum; for the first few anniversaries, someone reportedly showed up at the murder site and screamed, to remind the residents of their collective guilt. The story tapped into our growing paranoia and distrust, as well as our fear of the urban jungle, with its racial and sexual overtones. Many psychiatrists set up experiments of “the bystander effect,” which demonstrated that the more witnesses there were to an event, the less likely one would be to intervene. The outrage inspired novels, TV movies, short stories (Harlan Ellison’s “The Whimper of Whipped Dogs”) and songs (Phil Ochs, of whom Genovese was a fan, wrote one titled “Outside of a Small Circle of Friends”).

The problem was that much of the story was wrong. In the years that followed, many media outlets, including the Times itself, debunked most of the details of that lead paragraph, proving them either untrue or greatly exaggerated.  The true story was much more ambiguous.

The “thirty-eight witnesses” referred to the number of witness statements taken by the police (they actually interviewed 49 people). The prosecuting attorneys, however, quickly determined that only six people had any relevant information, and only two knew that the victim had been stabbed. Nobody saw more than a few seconds of the assault; most saw nothing and assumed the noise was from a domestic quarrel from a couple leaving the neighborhood bar.

There were two attacks, not three. The first occurred on a dimly lit public street at 3:15 in the morning, with Moseley stabbing Genovese twice. One man, the superintendent of the apartment building there, had a clear view of the assault but did nothing. However, Robert Mozer, hearing Genovese scream, opened his 7th-floor window and yelled, “Leave that girl alone!” This startled Moseley, who fled. Moments later, Genovese got up and began walking, albeit shakily, toward her home. It was over in less than a minute and by the time many of the residents got to their windows, both attacker and victim were gone.

There was at least one immediate phone call during the first attack. Fourteen-year-old Michael Hoffman, who grew up to be an N.Y.P.D. officer, watched his father call the police after Genovese screamed. In those days, one had to call the precinct directly and the answering officer was often unresponsive, as Hoffman claimed it was in this case.

The second, more prolonged attack, which occurred 15 minutes later at the bottom of a stairwell, had only one witness, who did call the police, though belatedly after cowering in fear and crawling out his window into a neighbor’s apartment. One resident, after hearing about the attack from the witness, ran to the scene where she held and comforted Genovese until the ambulance arrived. (She died en route to the hospital.)

The facts are far more complicated than the Times article claimed. Two witnesses acted with clear cowardice, but some others tried to intervene. Most saw nothing and heard little. Still the legend persists. Cook notes, “Of the ten most popular social-psychology textbooks of 2005 [41 years after the murder], all carried accounts of the Genovese case, with all ten accounts maintaining that thirty-eight witnesses watched Kitty die without lifting a finger to help.”

Initial misinformation quickly becomes accepted as fact – see Dave Cullen’s book on Columbine for an incisive exposure of one such case – and corrections to front-page stories are typically buried in the corner of page 19, well after we’ve stopped paying attention.  There are reasons why books and articles with titles like Lies My Teacher Told Me and “Everything You Know About American History Is Wrong” are popular – and often necessary.

The media has always been drawn to conflict and to outrage; ambiguity just muddies the water and only appears in the closing paragraphs, if at all. Even the best newspapers have agendas, of course, but so do readers.  As Nicholas Lemann wrote in The New Yorker, “The real Kitty Genovese syndrome has to do with our susceptibility to narratives that echo our preconceptions and anxieties.” It’s always dangerous to blindly accept information from a single source. (Including this blog post. To keep it to a manageable length, I’ve made my own omissions and oversimplifications.)

Cook does a good job of explaining the revised narrative, though I wish he had presented a more straightforward chronology instead of jumping back and forth; it’s not until the final chapter that you get an uninterrupted account of the murder. One thing he does admirably, however, is discuss not just the death, but the life of Kitty Genovese: a Catholic girl who, after high school, insisted on staying in the city rather than moving to Connecticut with her family; a vivacious young woman who enjoyed the Greenwich Village folk music scene; a chatty woman who enjoyed arguing for LBJ’s civil rights agenda with the patrons of the Queens bar she managed.

Much of this insight comes from Cook’s interview with Genovese’s partner, Mary Ann Zielonko.  It wasn’t revealed until many years later that Kitty was a lesbian and that her roommate was also her lover. (March 13, 1964 would have been the one-year anniversary of the day they met.)  Zielonko, still alive and living in New Hampshire, gives a vivid account of what it was like to be in a same-sex relationship at a time when homosexuality was illegal in most states, including New York. Public displays of affection were unthinkable; gay bars had to be on constant alert for vice squad raids. Publicly, Kitty and Mary Ann had to maintain the fiction that they were both just young single gals sharing expenses until each met her Mr. Right.

The hostility toward gays was apparent in Mary Ann’s treatment after the murder. Within three hours of Kitty’s death, Mary Ann was considered the lead suspect – because detectives thought homosexual romances were more likely to trigger jealousy – and she was questioned aggressively about not just the nature of her relationship with Kitty, but about their sexual practices. The detectives brought these same invasive questions to neighbors, many of whom hadn’t known Kitty and Mary Ann were a gay couple, and to friends, many of whom were also gay and scared of exposure. As a result, many of Mary Ann’s acquaintances began to shun her. At the funeral, Kitty’s family insisted that Mary Ann remain in the background, where people would not see her grieve publicly for the woman she loved.  After testifying in the murder trial, Mary Ann left New York for good.

It’s ironic that Rosenthal, who was later executive editor of the Times, made Kitty Genovese a household name because he was known for his hostility to the gay community; one story he approved shortly before the Genovese murder had the headline, “GROWTH OF HOMOSEXUALITY IN CITY PROVOKES WIDE CONCERN.” (His gravestone’s epitaph, “He kept the paper straight,” has a double meaning that is hopefully unintended.)

Even the revisionists, however, agree that the sensationalistic coverage of the Genovese murder had a positive outcome.  It revealed the unreliability of the city’s crime reporting system and spurred the creation of the 911 system. Mayor John Lindsay installed brighter streetlamps in residential areas. The murder inspired Good Samaritan laws that compelled witnesses to help and often shielded them from potential lawsuits. It gave everyone an awareness of how groups respond to danger; Cook wonders if it played an indirect role in how Flight 93 passengers reacted on 9/11.

There was one more ironic twist to the story. The police did not apprehend Moseley through dogged investigative work. They had few clues and no suspects, and when they arrested Moseley for stealing a television five days after the murder, they had no idea he had a connection to the crime and when he confessed, they were surprised.  In fact, Winston Moseley, a man who had murdered two women and would undoubtedly have murdered more, was captured during the robbery because he was spotted by, and confronted by, neighbors who called the police – exactly the behavior that, a few days later, the New York Times would accuse Kitty Genovese’s neighbors of not doing.

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Talkin’ Pete Seeger Blues

(Pete Seeger’s death Monday night at age 94 reminded me that five years ago, I had started writing something about Seeger but never finished it. In finishing it, sadly, I had to change the verbs from the present tense to the past.)

I’ll be all around in the dark. I’ll be everywhere. Wherever you can look, wherever there’s a fight, so hungry people can eat, I’ll be there. Wherever there’s a cop beatin’ up a guy, I’ll be there. I’ll be in the way guys yell when they’re mad. I’ll be in the way kids laugh when they’re hungry and they know supper’s ready, and when the people are eatin’ the stuff they raise and livin’ in the houses they build, I’ll be there, too.
-          Tom Joad (Henry Fonda) in the film version of The Grapes of Wrath 

Everyone has held an opinion that, in retrospect, seems indefensible. One of mine: For a long time, I didn’t like Pete Seeger.

I didn’t dislike him, of course. How could you, unless you were nostalgic for McCarthyism, labor exploitation and segregation? He stood up for all the right causes. One of my best friends knew, and had performed with, Seeger and assured me that Pete was a kind, generous, humble man. I saw Seeger a few times on the train between New York and his home in Beacon, NY, standing tall and erect with his trusty banjo, and I marveled that one of the most recognizable men in the country could mingle in such a public setting without a trace of self-importance. I had a healthy admiration for Seeger the man.

My problem: I didn’t like folk music. It felt tame and musty, an anachronism like tintype photos or silent movies. I developed an aversion to the banjo that lasts to this day (sorry, Mumfords). Songs about hammer-wielding, steel-driving working men had no resonance for a middle-class suburban kid who expected to work his whole life with clean hands in an air-conditioned building. While I respected Seeger’s environmental activism, I thought of nature as something to tolerate while walking from my house to my car.

I loved the noisy, lusty impurity of rock-and-roll. I was an excited five-year-old when Elvis gyrated his hips to “Hound Dog,” a devoted Beatlemaniac at thirteen, a 14-year-old Dylan acolyte when he plugged his guitar into an amp at Newport (supposedly much to Seeger’s chagrin, though he always downplayed it, reminding interviewers that he had already enjoyed Howlin’ Wolf’s electric set). I dutifully sang along with the anthems during my college activism days, but my antiwar song of choice was Country Joe and the Fish’s “Fixin-to-Die Rag,” not “Where Have All the Flowers Gone?” Folk songs felt like Grandma nagging me to clean my plate and wipe my feet; they made me want to mumble, “Yes, ma’am.”

So when, five years ago, I picked up Alec Wilkinson’s slim biography, The Protest Singer: An Intimate Portrait of Pete Seeger, I did so because I wanted to clarify why I didn’t respond to Seeger. What it clarified was my myopia.

The book included a charming anecdote about a Seeger appearance at a local elementary school. As far as the kids were concerned, Seeger could have just been someone’s grandfather, but the world-famous performer reveled in the anonymity, clearly enjoying the sing-alongs with the children as much, if not more, than collaborations with established musicians like Arlo Guthrie and Bruce Springsteen. It seemed admirably egalitarian.

Wilkinson fleshed out the stories I knew: his censored performance of the antiwar “Waist Deep in the Big Muddy” on the Smothers Brothers TV show, his participation in the Peekskill Paul Robeson concert that ended in a riot (far more dangerous than I knew).   Then there was his appearance before the House Un-American Activities Committee in 1955 (Wilkinson includes the entire transcript).

I knew about Seeger’s HUAC appearance and subsequent blacklist – apparently, his brief membership in the Communist Party 70 years ago is still enough to drive some people batshit crazy - but it wasn’t until I read Wilkinson’s book that I appreciated his bravery. Some witnesses named names, of course; most others pleaded the Fifth Amendment. Seeger did neither, knowing full well it risked a contempt of Congress citation, but he refused to act as if he had something to hide. He took a principled stand without losing his sense of humor (asked whether he sang “Wasn’t That a Time” before a Communist group, Seeger offered to sing the song for the HUAC committee, while admitting, “I don’t know how well I can do it without my banjo”) and he demonstrated contempt for the hearing without being rancorous. It was a dangerous stance, resulting in a one-year jail sentence (overturned on appeal), and it severely impacted his ability to earn a living for over a decade. Reading Wilkinson’s account, what stood out for me was Seeger’s unflappability at a moment when many of us would have looked for an easy way out or wallowed in angst.

I still had little desire to sing along with “Kumbaya” or “Guantanamera,” but the book inspired me to seek out Seeger’s 1940s recordings with the Almanac Singers (which included Woody Guthrie). These songs were not tame or fusty at all. Many of them were pro-unionization anthems featuring sardonic lyrics and a compassion for the working poor that evoked Tom Joad’s famous speech.

I was particularly struck by a song called “Talking Union,” performed as a talking blues, in which Seeger, in a voice more sneering than you’d expect, portrays a vision of a labor-capital struggle which is downright corrosive. He describes a stool pigeon who steals coins from a blind man’s cup and sings about the cigar-smoking boss, “He’s a bastard / unfair / slave driver / Bet he beats his wife.” Ouch. In the final verse, he warns explicitly of the tactics management would use to beat down the union: Red-baiting, stool pigeons, vigilantes, race hatred. It reminded me that the men and women who took those principled stands had done so at the risk of their freedom and safety.

It made me think about my father, who spent many years as the member of a union before taking a management job as an engineer (remember upward mobility?). People like my father were able to earn a living wage, provide sufficient meals to his family and purchase a comfortable home – things I had taken for granted – because people like Pete Seeger had stood up and fought for them.  If they had improved my father’s life, then by extension they had improved mine, providing me with access to a better education that allowed me a career with clean hands in an air-conditioned building.

I read Wilkinson’s book in 2009, when the American economy was in free fall. The timing reminded me that social and economic advances are never irreversible, and can only be maintained and improved with constant vigilance. Like Pete Seeger had always done. From that day, I only saw him as heroic. I found myself wishing I could see Seeger one more time on the train, so I could approach him and thank him for everything he’d done and would continue to do (a declaration that he would have deflected with self-deprecation). Sadly, that will never happen.

When I learned of Seeger’s death, I felt sorrow out of proportion to my feelings for his music – not just because the country had lost a major figure, but because I understood the irony of the American media extolling his greatness at the exact moment when the country is rapidly retreating from the principles for which Seeger long stood.

There is one thing I’ve failed to mention.  His work with the Clearwater, which occasionally docks at my Hudson River town, had an enormous impact on raising environmental awareness and cleaning up a river that, a few decades ago, was disgracefully polluted and unsafe. They are building a new bridge across the Hudson a few miles south of my home, and there is a movement to name it after him. While I would love to see Seeger honored, I suspect he would have been displeased to have his name associated with something that encourages the suburban sprawl he mocked in “Little Boxes.” A commenter on the Seeger obituary in The New York Times, however, wrote that “when you think about it, we should be renaming the RIVER after him. I cannot think of anyone who has done more for that body of water.”


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Christmas: The Top Stories

BETHLEHEM – A couple identified only as Joseph and the “Virgin” Mary were arrested last night by Bethlehem police and charged with child endangerment. According to the arrest warrant, they had left their newborn son Jesus outside in a manger at night, exposed to the elements and surrounded by wild animals. The baby has since been turned over to Child Protective Services.

“The conditions were absolutely squalid,” said Matthew, a local resident. “There were sheep, llamas, donkeys and oxen there, and they left fecal matter everywhere. That’s no environment for a small child.”

Packages were seized from a trio of men who called themselves the Magi and will be tested on suspicion of containing controlled substances, possibly chemical weapons. In addition, a small boy was ticketed for violating a noise ordinance and had his drum confiscated after neighbors complained about the constant “rum-pum-pum-pum” coming from the manger.

NORTH POLE – Santa Claus will be making two additional trips to the United States next year – to appear in court to face lawsuits.

One suit, filed by a coalition of Jewish and Muslim organizations, accuses Claus of discrimination on the basis of religion. The suit alleges that the defendant only brings gifts to Christian children while ignoring children in non-Christian homes.

The second suit, filed by hundreds of American women, charges that Claus is a serial sexual harasser, sneaking into private homes late at night through the owners’ chimneys, and kissing mothers under the mistletoe near Christmas trees.

Questioned by reporters, Claus responded, “I cannot speak to the details of the lawsuits on advice from my counsel, but I deny all the charges and intend to fight them vigorously.” He also refused to confirm or deny a published report that he had been compelled by court order to turn over his naughty and nice list to the National Security Agency.

Claus is currently appealing rulings that his treatment of elves violated labor laws and that forcing reindeer to carry him from rooftop to rooftop constituted animal abuse.

WASHINGTON, D.C. – The U.S. Chamber of Commerce announced that it has awarded its first Lifetime Achievement Award to Ebenezer Scrooge.  In a press release for the organization, S. Robert Walton, current Chairman of Walmart, stated, “We honor Mr. Scrooge for his creative business thinking in having his employees work on family holidays. In this innovative approach, which emphasized the bottom line over respect for labor’s human dignity, Mr. Scrooge was truly 150 years ahead of his time.”

LOS ANGELES, CA – A new campus drinking game has arrived just in time for Christmas, warned Janet Meltzer, President of Mothers Against Drunk Driving, at a press conference yesterday.

The game, said Meltzer, involves college students listening to a recording of “The Twelve Days of Christmas” and drinking a shot every time the phrase “partridge in a pear tree” is sung. She urged Congress to ban the song from the airways, noting, “Frankly, even I can’t listen to that song all the way through unless I’m drunk.”

NEW YORK, NY - Frosty, the snowman beloved by children everywhere, died Sunday after a short illness. According to sources, Frosty broke up and then melted during a brief trip to the Arctic to visit relatives. His family is requesting that, in lieu of flowers, you honor Frosty’s memory by sending a stovepipe hat and coal to Congress and the White House as a protest against their continuing inaction against global warming.

WASHINGTON, D.C. – In a letter to supporters, Sen. Ted Cruz (R-TX) urged them not to watch Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer, the 50-year-old Christmas special, because “it promulgates an anti-American message that teaches children to wait to have things delivered to them, turning them into future Democratic voters.”

Cruz, however, did compare himself to Rudolph, claiming that, like the title character’s nose, he is “providing a beacon of light to cut through the dangerous fog created by American liberalism.” He further reminded supporters that “Obamacare is truly the Island of Misfit Toys.”

Informed of Cruz’s comments, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (R-NV) sighed and said, “Isn’t it bad enough that he ruined Green Eggs and Ham?  Now he’s ruining a beloved Christmas cartoon. Has the man no shame?”

NASHVILLE, TN – In shocking news, the grandsons of Bing Crosby and Nat King Cole were arrested yesterday and charged with attempted murder. According to the indictment, Bing Crosby III and Nathaniel “Prince” Cole were alleged to have driven a rocket-powered sled and run over Elmo and Patsy, singers of the Christmas novelty hit, “Grandma Got Run Over By a Reindeer.”

“Our grandfathers recorded iconic Christmas songs that celebrated family and friendship and honored the warmth and generosity of the season,” Cole told a reporter as he was being taken into custody. “But every time we set foot in a mall, all we heard was Elmo and Patsy’s loathsome piece of crap. We just couldn’t take it anymore. You’d have done the same thing.”

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The 2013 Year-End News Quiz

Have you kept up with the news in 2013? If so: they let you access the Internet from your mental institution? Test your knowledge below.   

1. What plummeted suddenly from the Russian sky on February 15?
a. Edward Snowden
b. The members of Pussy Riot
c. The legal rights of gays and lesbians
d. A meteorite

2. Which book did Ted Cruz read aloud during his 21-hour Senate filibuster?
a. The Vagina Monologues
b. Das Kapital
c. The Idiot
d. Green Eggs and Ham

3. President Obama shopped at a local bookstore for Small Business Day. What was one of the books he bought?
a. Good Tidings and Great Joy by Sarah Palin
b. A pre-order of No Place to Hide: Edward Snowden, the NSA, and the U.S. Surveillance State by Glenn Greenwald
c. How to Win Friends and Influence People by Dale Carnegie
d. Harold and the Purple Crayon

4. J.K. Rowling revealed that she published a novel, “The Cuckoo’s Calling,” under the pseudonym:
a. Carlos Danger
b. Richie Incognito
c. Banksy
d. Robert Galbraith

5. What was the subject of the film 12 Years a Slave?
a. The waiters for a wedding planned by Paula Deen
b. The only black resident of the planned all-white town in North Dakota
c. Julianne Hough’s Halloween costumes
d. Who cares? The RNC reminded us that Rosa Parks ended racism!

6. What was compared to slavery in 2013?
a. The Affordable Care Act
b. Abortion
c. The national debt
d. Yeah, all of the above

7. According to Twitter, who is Nina Davuluri?
a. Miss al-Qaeda
b. Miss Terrorist
c. Miss 7-11
d. Miss America

8. Washington Post columnist Richard Cohen wrote, “People with conventional views must repress a gag reflex when considering:”
a. Corporate behavior that led to J.P. Morgan Chase being fined $13 billion
b. The use of chemical weapons in Syria
c. The rape in Steubenville, Ohio
d. New York mayor-elect Bill De Blasio’s interracial family

9. The biggest threat to privacy is:
a. The NSA
b. Domestic drones
c. Google Glass
d. Privacy? What’s that?

10. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid invoked the nuclear option, which meant:
a. Launching a nuclear missile at Iran
b. Forcing all states to build nuclear power plants
c. Teaching George W. Bush to stop pronouncing it “nuculur”
d. Making a change to filibuster rules for some Presidential appointments

11. What did we learn from Rush Limbaugh this year?
a. That filibuster reform is like rape
b. That Obamacare is like prostitution
c. That women are abortion machines
d. That “learn” and “Rush Limbaugh” should never appear in the same sentence

12. What did Rand Paul do for 13 consecutive hours on the Senate floor?
a. Tried unsuccessfully to log into healthcare.gov
b. Researched his next speech in Wikipedia
c. Prank-called Rachel Maddow
d. Filibustered against the CIA Director’s nomination until the Obama Administration clarified its position on the domestic use of drones

13. Anthony Weiner, Bob Filner and Rob Ford walk into a bar. The bartender says, “What’ll you have?”
a. Weiner says, “Pour me a stiff one.”
b. Filner says, “I’ll grab anything you put in front of me.”
c. Ford says, “But no food. I have enough to eat at home.”
d. Thank you, I’ll be here all week.

14. Which of the following was Justin Bieber not accused of doing in 2013?
a. Defacing hotel walls in Brazil and Australia with graffiti
b. Writing in the Anne Frank House guestbook that Anne “would have been a belieber”
c. Urinating into a New York restaurant mop bucket, then spraying cleaning fluid on a photo of Bill Clinton
d. Damn, we’re already at d? Because I didn’t mention his bodyguards carrying him up the Great Wall of China, or kicking the Argentine flag, or stiffing a skydiving facility on his $1,600 bill, or getting his pet monkey seized by German officials for lack of health documents, or …

Bieber China

                                  (“Hey, let’s spray some graffiti on this Great Wall!”)

15. Which of the following is true?
a. “Biogenesis” is a best-selling book about Adam and Eve
b. “Ken Cuccinelli” is an anagram of “I like cunnilingus”
c. “The Knockout Game” is a hot new indie band
d. “North Korea Chic” was identified as a fashion trend by Elle magazine

16. Which of the following happened in 2013?
a. A San Francisco TV newscast aired several racially offensive phrases as the names of the crew members on a crashed Asiana Airlines flight
b. A Chicago sportscaster covering the Stanley Cup champion Blackhawks was fired after saying on air that the team had “a lot of sex” instead of “a lot of success”
c. Social media identified innocent men as the perpetrators of the Boston Marathon bombing and the U.S. Naval Yard shootings
d. Thanks, Obama!

17. Which of the following are true?
a. A Dekalb County, GA online juror questionnaire included “slave” as a possible occupation
b. Qatar built a stadium for the 2022 World Cup that looks like a vagina
c. A man in Sweden broke out of prison a day before his release to go to a dentist, then turned himself back in
d. You can’t make this stuff up

Qatar stadium

                                      (Let’s hope the soccer fans use condoms.)

18. Which of the following are true?
a. A study of recorded customer service calls showed that the callers most likely to curse are from Ohio
b. A study showed that there are 2,481 backyard pools in Beverly Hills but none in Watts
c. A study by a condom company showed that the highest percentage of large condoms is sold in North Dakota
d. It’s good to know that research money is being spent on important things

19. What did Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia call “legalistic argle-bargle?”
a. The Obama Administration’s justification for drone strikes
b. Emphasizing the “militia” clause of the Second Amendment
c. Sonia Sotomayor’s memoir
d. The Court’s overturning of the Defense of Marriage Act

20. According to Cardinal Timothy Dolan, what is the reason gay marriage is increasingly legal?
a. People believe that same-sex couples should have the same legal and financial rights as heterosexual couples
b. People believe that loving adult relationships should not be regulated by the government
c. People really like Neil Patrick Harris and Ellen DeGeneres
d. His side got “outmarketed”

21. Fox News commentator Stuart Varney said, “I wish to keep politics out of the pulpit.” What issue triggered this comment?
a. Abortion
b. Gay marriage
c. ACA coverage for contraception
d. Pope Francis’ criticism of capitalism

22. A Walmart store in Canton, Ohio asked its employees to:
a. Petition for a higher minimum wage
b. Unionize
c. Take Thanksgiving off
d. Contribute to a food drive for their fellow employees

Walmart drive

                                                           (Who needs food stamps?)

23. McDonald’s created a McResource website for its employees, with financial advice and a “Practical Money Skills” budget. What are some of its best tips?
a. Breaking food into pieces often results in eating less and still feeling full.
b. Sell unwanted possessions on eBay or Craigslist
c. Budget $20/month for healthcare
d. Why are you reading this website when you should be at your second job? 

24. IKEA announced that it would open a new store near Valencia, Spain. How many job applications did it receive in the first 48 hours?
a. 500
b. 1,000
c. 2,000
d. 20,000, causing its website to crash

25. President Obama made an appearance at an Amazon warehouse in Tennessee, touting the new jobs. Which of the following is a quote from his speech?
a. “Yeah, I know the jobs are pretty crappy, but the American worker is screwed anyway.”
b. “These jobs are only temporary until Amazon can replace everybody with robots and drones.”
c. “Yes, the economy is still pretty sluggish, but hey, you remember when I killed bin Laden, right?”
d. “So this is kind of like the North Pole of the south right here. Got a bunch of good-looking elves here.”

26. In a Black Friday email to supporters, Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker suggested that instead of spending their money on Christmas gifts “that will undoubtedly be outdated, broken, or lost by the next Holiday Season,” they should:
a. Donate it to a reputable charity to help the needy
b. Spend it at mom-and-pop stores rather than the big boxes and chains
c. Deposit it in an IRA or 401(k)
d. Contribute it to his re-election campaign

27. Who are James Everett Dutschke and Paul Kevin Curtis?
a. Two of the six people who successfully signed up on healthcare.gov the first day.
b. The first gay couple to be married in New Jersey.
c. The two names used by the man interviewed by Lara Logan in her discredited 60 Minutes report on Benghazi
d. Two Mississippi men involved in a strange feud that led to ricin-tainted letters being sent to President Obama and other public officials.

28. Which one of these couples is it safe to invite to your dinner party?
a. Liz Cheney and Mary Cheney
b. Miley Cyrus and the guy who invented the foam finger
c. Jonathan Franzen and anyone with a Twitter account
d. Dennis Rodman and Kim Jung-un

29. How many people did George Zimmerman kill in 2013?
a. None
b. As far as I know
c. But the year’s not over yet
d. Hold on, let me Google him again

30. Who was the most famous baby born in 2013?
a. North West
b. Carmen Gabriela Baldwin
c. Duh! George Alexander Louis, the Prince of Cambridge
d. Uh oh, we just pissed off Kanye West and Alec Baldwin. Run!

31. Who became a vegan in 2013?
a. Anthony Bourdain
b. Paula Deen
c. Ronald McDonald
d. Al Gore (No, really.)

32. The Oxford Dictionary’s word of the year is:
a. Thanksgivukkah
b. Manscaping
c. Buttfumble
d. Selfie

33. What will finally close in January 2014, after years of public criticism?
a. The detention center at Gitmo
b. Ann Coulter’s mouth
c. Tax loopholes favoring the wealthy
d. The Spider-Man musical

34. Who did not win a championship in 2013?
a. Boston Red Sox
b. Baltimore Ravens
c. Miami Heat
d. Any of the teams I root for

Essay question: Choose one of the following movies from 2013: Gravity, Captain Phillips, Lost at Sea. Explain how its plot – drifting after losing communication with one’s base, having your mission hijacked by an unyielding gang, helming a leaking and rapidly sinking vessel – is an apt metaphor for Obama’s second term. Minimum: 500 words.

Bonus points: Connect Esquire political blogger Charles Pierce’s nickname to the appropriate “gobshite”:
a. Huckleberry J. Butchmeup
b. Princess Dumbass of the Northwoods
c. The zombie-eyed granny-starver
d. Crazy Uncle Liberty
e. Perhaps the dumbest mammal to enter a legislative chamber since Caligula’s horse

1. Paul Ryan
2. Ron Paul
3. Lindsay Graham
4. Louie Gohmert
5. Sarah Palin

Answers (multiple choice): all d, at least when it matters.

Answers (bonus points): a-3, b-5, c-1, d-2, e-4

Computing your score: Wow, you take these things way too seriously.

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