Wednesday, September 21, 2011

"Kill Your Fears"

Been listening to track 10, "Kill Your Fears," for much of the day, and I'm still not sick of it. The song falls somewhere between Chill and Trip Hop. OK, so it's more Trip Hop than Chill, as embarrassing as it is to fess up to that. Still, really good groove music. We'll see if the rest of the album grows on me. Give it a listen and see what you think.

Public readings

I need to go to more book readings. I never realized before last night how much fun they could be.

Yesteday it was reading by Steampunk / urban fantasy author Cherie Priest and two of her friends--authors Mark Henry and Richardson--at the gorgeous Mcmenamin's Kennedy school. The event was moderated by the award-winning Mary Robinette Kowal, and laughter filled the venue during Priest's reading--a section from her most recent urban fantasy work which was essentially twenty minutes of dick jokes, all deftly executed in the context of her character's snarky conversation.

I know, dick jokes. Really.

Well, yes, but as previously mentioned, well-execute and totally appropriate to the characters.

Unfortunately I've never been able to get into Priest's Clockwork Century steampunk novels, despite trying. It's a shame as obviously a lot of readers have, so we'll call that a personal failing on my part.

The Red Report series, however, is one I will be picking up.

 I know, I am a weak person, but I can certainly use a good literary-driven laugh now and then.

Monday, September 12, 2011

World Trade Center photojournalism essay

9/11: how the twin towers were built

I was going to skip writing anything about the tenth anniversary of 9/11. The attacks that day had a tremendous negative impact on my life, despite being an ocean away at the time. In many ways, the fallout from that Tuesday is still too raw, even after a decade.

Then I came across a beautifully put together BBC photo essay on the construction of the original World Trade Center towers and their Post-9/11 replacements. Examining how things are made, or their history, sometimes serves as a restrained emotional point of entry into difficult topics. It's an approach that encourages a philosophical view towards the implications of events, rather than a recall of immediate emotions and first impressions.

Emotions and reactions are of course messy things, and often hard to capture in words.

Because of my circumstances on that tragic day in September, I don't really have a definitive moment in which I learned of the towers' destruction. Instead there were a series of clues that something had gone disastrously wrong.

My then girl friend and I had spent the day at the modern art museum Louisiana, roughly an hour north of Copenhagen in Denmark. I had left the military thirteen months earlier, after three fantastic years spent living in Germany and short stint in the Balkans. At the time I was looking forward to spending much of the rest of my life in Sweden with someone I loved.

Sadly, it wasn't to be after that day.

The awareness that something had happened first set in while walking across downtown Copenhagen in late afternoon, on our way back to Malmö, Sweden. The day was beautiful, and earlier we had taken advantage of the sunshine to lie outdoors on the grass at the museum and enjoy the view of the shimmering blue Öresund Strait between Denmark and Sweden. I can't recall the content of the conversation we had on the lawn, but I most certainly remember the tone: We were both young and very much in love and happy to be drawing near the full summer of adulthood in our late twenties.

As we walked across bustling downtown Copenhagen, bubbles of English floated up on the surface of the sea of nasal twangs and partially swallowed vowels that is spoken Danish. The most common phrase, complete with distinctive, flat American r's was "World Trade Center."

At first I thought it was one of those pattern recognition things. A friend mentions the word blue, and after that you notice blue things for the rest of the day as your brain hons in on them amid the chaos of your surroundings. Then two American teenagers walked past in the opposite directions, one of them saying "well if you build something like that, then it's only a matter of time until someone hits it." The words were delivered with all the certitude available at that stage in life, when we believe ourselves to be experts on all things.

My first thought was that something like the 1993 February truck bombing had taken place, which had damaged one of the towers' parking structures and killed a handful of people. Just over a month earlier, while on my way to Sweden, I had sat in a Lufthansa jetliner on the tarmac at Newark, looked at the twin towers across the Hudson River, and felt grateful that neither structure had toppled six years before.

It wasn't until we arrived back in Sweden from Denmark that I had my first hint of just how bad things were on the far side of the Atlantic. In place of the normal handful of customs officers for the entire train station there were six or seven lined up outside our train, watching all of us who disembarked with fear on their faces.

On a city bus, my girlfriend listened to the news on the radio and explained that it sounded like something major had happened in New York. We arrived back at our tiny 1930s brick flat in one of the city's predominantly immigrant neighborhoods, and the first image on our gigantic 1970s television was that of the first tower's collapse.

My initial thought was the horrified realization that someone might be nuked in retaliation for this. At the height of the workday those towers held around 50,000 souls.

Fortunately the attacks had taken place before most of the workers had arrived, and even ravaged by fire, the wounded skyscrapers stood long enough for everyone to evacuate the levels below the impact sites. Whatever their aesthetic shortcomings, the twin towers were marvels of engineering, and worth every penny of their construction costs. If the death toll had been in the tens of thousands--comparable to an attack with a weapon of mass destruction--the long-term consequences could have been far worse for everyone involved. Perhaps one of the most important act of leadership during those days afterward was Mayor Giuliani's refusal to speculate about the final casualty count.

For about two weeks after September 11th there was a great deal of sympathy in Sweden. Many friends and even acquaintances reached out. It felt good to know that in the face of inhuman evil that decent people would seek to make a very human connection. Then, after two weeks it was like someone flipped a switch and plunged us all into darkness.

When going out with friends, I started to hear them describe in frighteningly gleeful tones how many Afghan civilians had been reported killed by American bombs. This rendered the United States every bit as criminal as the Taliban or al-Qaeda in their eyes. The bombings, according to my hosts, were driving the Afghans closer to Bin Laden, and anyways the US was only there to drill for oil or to build that still famously absent pipeline across Afghanistan to the Indian Ocean.

It was a quick descent into what I normally describe to friends in the States as the acid bath of petty hatred, an environment which characterized much of the next three years I spent in Sweden. It took me almost a year to realize what I had stumbled into. Below the the innocent and friendly surface of 1990s Europe lurked a cultural reservoir of Vietnam-era memes. A perspective that many Western Europeans born after World War II use to define the US as the opposite of their own societies in all things.

Needless to say, it was not a healthy environment for young love.

Ten years on now, and it feels like a lot of history has flowed by under the bridge that is life. One of the wars that came about in 9/11's aftermath is quickly winding down, the other looks like to do so as well, though if it's for good or for ill it's far too early to say. Personally, I have deep worries about leaving Afghanistan during this stage of the conflict.

Here at home, the prospects for the immediate future look bleak given the damage done to our economy and the number of unwise structural changes that we made to it over the past twelve years. Still, it does feel like the chapter of life most directly influenced by the events of September 11th is drawing to a close, as other historic forces take center stage. We are no longer dealing with the event that ended the Post-Cold War period, but rather cascading secondary effects that have taken on lives of their own. And there is the continuation of other forces, like the emergence of China as a global power.

Part of what gives me this sense of closing up one stage and even a feeling of hope for the next are the photos of the new World Trade Center buildings going up in New York. They look gorgeous, the business plan behind them seems practical, and the memorial for the fallen is the kind of tranquil public space for remembrance that memorials should be.

All of this, this design that integrates so many elements, came out of a process that was divisive and contentious.

While the past decade split the country and produced divisions on a scale we haven't seen since the late 1800s, there is still hope that we may be able to similarly salvage some good from it. I've spent much of the past past few weeks working on a project about the American Declaration of Independence for a client. It's involved a lot of reading about Continental Congress where that Declaration was written, as well as the constitutional convention that followed over a decade later. Both provoked fierce arguments and left wounded feelings at the time, but both undertakings also produced documents that despite their flaws have provided us with a wealth of good over a span measured in centuries.

So here's hoping the new towers are similarly successful, and that in the coming decade we can reclaim unity from division and reinvention from destruction.

Sunday, September 11, 2011

Love letters

Historians spend a lot of time reading through dry and humorless documents. Many of the most reliable sources we have available to us to reconstruct the past do not make for light reading. Tax records, the tedious minutes of long, boring meetings, accounting files, journal entries written by influential people obsessed with recording the the minutia of the weather or plant life rather than the major historic events that they were enmeshed in, and so on.

But there are most definitely times when the opposite holds true, and we find ourselves with a wealth of material that takes us into the hearts and emotions of people lived long before us but loved in much the same way we do. In US history the collected letters of John and Abigail Adams (the second president and second first lady who were deeply involved in American Revolution and subsequent events) are one of the most valuable and pleasurable bodies of primary source documents to read through.

Forty years of abiding affection, insights, wry commentary, teasing, references to classical culture, art, philosophy, and religion, as well as much talk about the leading figures and the events of the day.

By way of example, John writing to Abigail not long before their wedding:

Oh, my dear girl, I thank heaven that another fortnight will restore you to me—after so long a separation. My soul and my body have both been thrown into disorder by your absence, and a month or two more would make me the most insufferable cynic in the world. I see nothing but faults, follies, frailties, and defects in anybody lately. People have lost all their good properties or I my justice or discernment.

But you who have always softened and warmed my heart,shall restore my benevolence as well as my health and tranquility of mind. You shall polish and refine my sentiments of life and manners, banish all the unsocial and ill natured particles in my composition, and form me to that happy temper that can reconcile a quick discernment with a perfect candor.

Believe me, now and ever 

your faithful Lysander

BBC News - Japan six months after tsunami

An excellent narrated photo essay on a tsunami-devastated farming community on Japan's northeast cast, and the struggle of the people there to rebuild their community as well as its way of life. Wonderfully well done.

BBC News - Japan six months after tsunami

Friday, September 09, 2011

The Post-911 Soldier | Kit Up!

An interesting look at the Post-9/11 evolution of the infantryman's loadout over at

The Post-911 Soldier | Kit Up!

Thursday, September 01, 2011

A monkey named Schadenfreude

In hindsight, I wish that I had named a monkey Schadenfreude. The various species of monkeys and varieties of rhesus have a spectrum of personalities much as humans do, and there were a few for whom Schadenfreude would have been a perfect fit.