Interpretations: Bl’ker

by Steve Tignor

IPhotof you live in New York, there are, theoretically, an infinite number of reasons to vary your route home from work. Dozens of neighborhoods, hundreds of shops, thousands of bars can be explored with only the slightest detour from your particular beaten path. So why do I rarely, if ever, take the opportunity? Call it inertia, or lack of imagination, or, more realistically, the result of nine hours of staring at a computer and circling a mouse around. After that, whatever path gets me to my apartment and into a drink the fastest is the one I’m going to follow. More than once I’ve convinced myself to make a post-work side trip to, say, a book store in Union Square, only to emerge from a daydream and find myself walking up the steps at my normal stop in Brooklyn anyway. The best-laid plans are powerless in the face of the daily habits of the 9-to-5er. The upshot, sadly, is that the city where I work is seldom the city where I explore—it’s not the city where I see.

My office is in Murray Hill and I live in Cobble Hill in Brooklyn, which makes my best commuting option the 6 train to 14th St., and then the 4 to Borough Hall, a wobblingly reliable 20-minute express shot down the east side. Late in the evening, though, the 4 can be exasperatingly slow, so slow that on some nights I’m compelled to throw routine to the wind and take the 6 two more stops, to the Bleecker St. station, where I can catch the F to Brooklyn.

Bleecker is less a proper station than a decaying, half-finished interstice that serves as a connector between the subway’s formerly competing systems, the IRT (i.e., the numbered trains) and the BMT (the lettered trains). It’s the only stop in the city where you can transfer between lines on one side—downtown—and not the other, a flaw that’s currently costing the MTA $134 million to rectify. The space’s most notable landmarks are two large, blue mosaics that date from the system’s proud opening in 1904. “Bleecker Street” is carved out at their centers with a beaming, capitalized pride that mocks the dilapidated state of the station today.

Jarring as they may be, those mosaics weren’t what caught my eye one recent evening after work.

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Monday Poem

“These are tears of joy. I can die a happy woman. Though I don't feel much like dying today… Think harder. Write faster. Please take your time and hurry if you possibly can.”
–from reader F.M. on a previously posted poem: A Politically Incorrect Ode to Whitman

Steep Sigh

Walt Whitman’s ready nearby Night table
tucked humbly among authors
I keep close upon my night stand
for the waking of my
night eye

You'll see him in this drawing
I made years ago, still stacked
(a bedrock source) while others
cycled in & out of this small
proximate collection
like many million moments
that have blindly come and
slid by

Yesterday I found a poem
which said well some things
I've thought as days have
gone by;
…….;…of Whitman
and the subject he so expertly
unravels and so surely
pins and spins and

And funny you should mention
tears since this morning
without reason I
………………….had a sudden sob-fest
returning from the dump
after dropping off our rubbish in
my weekly, sloughing,

It might have been the singer
in the dashboard or
the adolescent female walking
sadly postured
plying the left shoulder as I
whizzed by
………………(a clone of my granddaughter?)
or— ……….who knows what existential lever
I'd leaned upon too deeply in a
steep sigh?

by Jim Culleny, 7/26/09

Night Table; drawing by Jim Culleny, 1997

Economic Recovery for Whom?

Michael Blim

Heard enough about those “little green shoots” of economic recovery? Not finding them in your backyard garden? Not popping up in between the cement slabs on your stoop?

Perhaps this is because the only place the green is sprouting is on Wall Street and on the balance sheets of several mega-banks. The Dow Jones has hit 9,000 again. Goldman Sachs and JP Morgan reported hefty profits. Seems like old times.

But these are new and perhaps even better times for the masters of the money universe. They now operate with a full and explicit federal guarantee against failure, and many have made back their government loans at little or no expense. Even though the banks and big financial firms working through them laid us low, the Obama Administration seems to have passed out “get out of jail cards” to their operators. Unless Andrew Cuomo decides to play spoiler, the miscreants who triggered the world financial crisis will be back living large in no time. This is also because the proposed Obama financial regulation regime is so weak that it is even described as toothless by that paragon of 18th Century classical liberalism, the Economist.

Walk off Wall Street and you hit upon another world. Never mine no green shoots. There is instead massive die-off, as if the economic eco-zone had been ripped up by a financial Katrina and been left to molder.

The rot and decay of a near-dead economy lie all around us. There is universal acknowledgement that we will reach 10% unemployment in the fall. Every occupational category has been hit thus far, with rates of unemployment doubling since 2008 in computing, architecture, engineering, community and social services, health care technical services, construction, maintenance, repair, manufacturing, mining and transport. Already in double digits are food services, buildings and grounds maintenance, construction, farming, fishing, forestry, construction, mining, manufacturing and transport. In addition, state and local governments are laying off workers at unprecedented rates.

The unemployed are running out of benefits – an estimated 600,000 have run out of benefits since the recession began, and the rate at which workers will lose their benefits is growing exponentially as the stimulus package extension of benefits runs out.

I also counted 9 states and Puerto Rico as having forced furloughs of varying lengths on their workers thus far.

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The Owls: A Deuce and a Half

By Alan Koenig

George “Cousin Georgie” Mayer, the last living member of my family to fight in WWII, died earlier this summer. In February of 1942, at the age of eighteen, he was drafted and spent the entire war fighting in the Pacific theater under General Douglas MacArthur.

Georgie saw continuous action — except for two periods of convalescence after contracting malaria — and his eventual return to Chicago after an absence of three years is a hallowed chapter of family legend. He died after a thirty year battle with leukemia. What’s unusual about his story is we know how it got him.

In late August or early September of 1945, on only his second day in occupied Japan, a “deuce and half” truck from his unit pulled up and some soldiers asked Georgie if he wanted to visit Hiroshima. In one of those historically haunting moments in which future consequences are unknown, he accepted. While recalcitrant about many of his battle experiences, Georgie was more forthcoming about visiting Hiroshima, mostly because there wasn’t all that much to tell.

“There was simply nothing there. All day long we walked around in dust, nothing but dust.”

Highly radioactive dust. The first atomic bomb had been dropped only about four weeks before his unit’s macabre visit. By the time Georgie was diagnosed in the late seventies, the VA administration was tracking the soldiers from that fateful truck as well as many other luckless American military tourists. A strange corollary to the epochal tragedy of Hiroshima: The VA deserves credit for the intensive care they gave him over three decades, care widely believed by my extended family to have extended his heroic life.


Alan Koenig is a Ph.D. student, teaching fellow, writer, and political analyst living in Queens, NY.


The Owls is a literary experiment that cross-posts here by the generosity of 3Quarksdaily. “A Deuce and a Half” forms part of an ongoing project called “Stamps” featuring writing and images about places. Other recent posts in the Stamps project have included a photograph by Frederick Schroeder, a poem by Kirsten Andersen, and an essay by Sean Hill. If you would like to get updates from The Owls, send an email with the word “Subscribe” to owlsmag[at]gmail[dot]com.

James Ensor: Keepin’ It Surreal

Ensor_selfp:title Self-portrait with Masks (detail), 1899, Menard Art Museum, Komaki City, Japan

Elatia Harris

James Ensor, the Belgian painter, died in 1949, having done his last searing work half a century earlier. The man in the sea of masks, above, was wrapping it up in the studio even as he painted this self-portrait at age 40. In two decades of furious industry, he had cast himself as Christ, as John the Baptist, as an insect, a skeleton and a herring. Crucified, beheaded, rattling but undead, made a meal of by critics or simply subhuman, he spared a thought for how he might appear a century after his birth. My Portrait in 1960, below, is an etching on woven paper. It's no self-portrait — the actual sight of his remains would necessarily be recorded by some other guy. This is just a nudge.


Ensor kick-started Surrealism and Expressionism, driving Flemish painting forward from its roots in the Renaissance to its foundational place in Modernism. In him, Bosch, Bruegel and even Rubens found an heir who would poke holes through the possibilities of paint, and figure forth a vision powerful enough to impel artists a century later to engage with it en route to terra incognita of their own. And that's not all. While it is common to feel repelled by art considered in exquisite taste in the late 19th century, uncommon it is for an artist of that era to step neatly outside taste once and forever, offending a certain high idea of painting with lasting sureness of touch. As the song, Meet James Ensor, written by They Might Be Giants, urges us — “Appreciate the man.”

With the first major Ensor show in the United States in more than 30 years, the Museum of Modern Art in New York makes that very easy to do, through September 21. I have had a lifetime with James Ensor, one of my mother's art gods. Mother was a Southern lady, the kind that naturally thrills to the transgressive in art. And I am brought to my knees, again and again, by this painter so utterly uningratiating.

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The foundations of NYU Abu Dhabi

From The National:

Bilde As the foundations of NYU Abu Dhabi come into view, John Gravois concludes his two-part series on NYU's new campus by examining the university’s efforts to translate grand ambition into reality – and the many challenges that remain.

Read part one of this series

To reach the offices of the Executive Affairs Authority – one of Abu Dhabi’s several modernising brain trusts – you ride a glass elevator up through the atrium of one of the city’s more upscale buildings and then walk to a set of unmarked doors. These open onto a minimalist, ivory-coloured lobby, as elegant as it is Apollonian, whose dominant feature is an immaculate bank of windows overlooking several desert islands to the north.

The office sits more or less on the edge of Abu Dhabi, with its back to the inhabited parts of the city, so its view to the unpopulated north is hushed, unobstructed and otherworldly. Across a blue-green waterway, half-skeletal towers rise out of the sand on Reem Island (slated for commercial and residential development) and Sowwah Island (financial, medical). Further off in the distance, you can see the first big power lines stretching out to Saadiyat Island, the planned site of Abu Dhabi’s Guggenheim and Louvre museums and the future home of New York University Abu Dhabi.

If the view from the Executive Affairs Authority has the feel of a command post, it is not undue. A number of the projects at the heart of Abu Dhabi’s growth fall under the authority’s quiet direction. NYU Abu Dhabi is one of them. For the past year, a handful of strategists here – along with NYU’s own small ground team, working out of a converted condominium across town – have been fine-tuning plans for the new university and overseeing its first pilot projects. From this exquisite office, they have been mapping out what some see as the masterstroke in Abu Dhabi’s future as a high-cosmopolitan capital of ideas.

More here.

On Iran, Do Nothing. Yet.

Fareed Zakaria in Newsweek:

Zakaria_237-covermedium What is happening in Iran? On the surface, the country has returned to normalcy. Demonstrations have become infrequent, and have been quickly dispersed. But underneath the calm, there is intense activity and the beginnings of a political opposition. In the past week, Mir Hossein Mousavi, the candidate who officially lost last month's presidential election, has announced his intention to create a “large-scale social movement” to oppose the government and press for a more open political system. Mohammad Khatami, the reformist former president, has called for a referendum on the government. Another powerful former president, Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, has criticized the regime's handling of the election and post-election “crisis.” All three have demanded the release of politicians and journalists imprisoned over the past month and held without charges. (Those prisoners include Maziar Bahari, NEWSWEEK's Tehran correspondent, a Canadian citizen, and an internationally recognized documentary filmmaker.) These are not dissidents in the wilderness. Between them, the three men have been at the pinnacle of power for most of the Islamic Republic's existence.

More here.

Can 21st-century Twitter rescue the wordplay mastered by 1st century Romans?

Our own Morgan Meis in The Smart Set:

Morgan, Greg, Jennifer, etc 084 People find a great deal of satisfaction worrying about attention span, at least for a little while, and especially in the realm of popular culture. Twitter is the latest culprit. It's recent importance in organizing Iranian street protests notwithstanding, the 140 character posting limit on Twitter makes a certain kind of person nervous. Such persons (such as Baroness Susan Greenfield, a scientist at Oxford University) wonder whether tweeting and other such activities “encourage instant gratification and make young people more self-centered.” She goes on to say, “My fear is that these technologies are infantilizing the brain into the state of small children who are attracted by buzzing noises and bright lights, who have a small attention span and live for the moment.”

Unfair to the inherent joys of buzzing noises and bright lights, the statement is particularly galling to those of us who are rather fond of the moment, and living therein. One wonders during which time period the Baroness would prefer we live. I will leave wholly without comment the fact that Baroness Greenfield is also a Patron of Dignity in Dying.

More here.

Finding the ‘I’ In Life

Michael Dirda in The Washington Post:

Book When young, we are all aesthetes, eager to enjoy a wondrous world full of beauty, promise and reward. The experience of life itself seems enough to keep us busy and happy. So we fall in love and go to work and find success or not, and the decades roll by. In later years, however, we become unwilling philosophers. A parent unexpectedly dies. The now-grown children go off on their own. Work suddenly loses its savor. Before long, we are taking long walks and wondering about the old perplexities: What makes for a meaningful life? How should we pass our too few days upon this Earth? What really matters?

Keith Thomas's “The Ends of Life” examines the ways that people answered those questions from the early 16th century to the late 18th. To do so, this cultural historian — author of the classic “Religion and the Decline of Magic” (1971) — investigates six areas that have traditionally supplied aims for purpose-driven lives: Military prowess, work and vocation, wealth and possessions, honor and reputation, friendship and sociability, and fame and the afterlife. In each case, he presents his evidence largely through quotations from contemporary letters, memoirs, court testimonies and other documents. As Thomas's own connecting prose is graceful and sometimes crisply epigrammatic, “The Ends of Life” is a pleasure to read.

More here.

Your brain in drive

From The Boston Globe:

Driveinside__1248524670_1022 For all the indignities that the elderly suffer, they aren’t typically accused of being a menace to society. Until, that is, they get behind the wheel of a car. Here in Massachusetts, a spate of high-profile accidents involving older drivers – a 92-year-old man who killed his wife by backing over her in a parking lot, an 88-year-old woman who allegedly hit and killed a 4-year-old girl in a crosswalk in Stoughton last month, a 93-year-old man who mistook the gas pedal for the brake and drove through the entrance of a Danvers Wal-Mart – have triggered calls on Beacon Hill for measures that would take older drivers off the roads as their abilities decline. Within families, it has heightened anxieties about whether it may finally be time to take the car keys away from elderly parents or grandparents.

The risk is real. While there is a wide variation, people for the most part grow measurably worse at driving as they age. They experience a steady erosion of physical capabilities like strength, eyesight, and hearing. And perhaps more importantly, they also lose the specific cognitive skills that driving requires. Even a healthy aging brain suffers a declining ability to respond quickly, to take in one’s surroundings and identify potential dangers, and to balance and coordinate all of the different tasks that merely backing out of a driveway can involve.

And yet it also emerges that, as a group, elderly drivers are in far fewer accidents per capita than those in any other age group. Older people, it turns out, have a second set of skills that helps them make up for the ones that have diminished. For many people, old age brings a growing awareness of their own limits, and they compensate by driving less and avoiding situations that overtax their abilities. They don’t drive fast, or at night, or on the freeway, or during rush hour. They certainly don’t text and drive. Consciously or not, older drivers become savvy at working with what they have.

More here.

Jon Stewart: The Most Trusted Newscaster in America… Be Afraid, Be Somewhat Afraid

S-JON-STEWART-largeTime Magazine conducted an online poll, asking “Now that Walter Cronkite has passed on, who is America’s most trusted newscaster?” Jon Stewart received 44% of the vote, 15 percentage points more than the second most trusted newscaster, Brian Williams. Stewart came in first or second in every state, except Vermont.  And he won more than 50% of the vote in Rhode Island and Massachusetts, but also surprisingly in Idaho, Utah, Arkansas (where he won 63% of the vote). Jason Linkins in the Huffington Post:

Well, in a result that he will probably accept as downright apocalyptic for America, The Daily Show’s Jon Stewart has been selected, in an online poll conducted by Time Magazine, as America’s Most Trusted Newscaster, post-Cronkite. Matched up against Brian Williams, Katie Couric and Charlie Gibson, Stewart prevailed with 44 percent of the vote. Now, if we’re being honest, he probably managed to prevail as the winner precisely because he was the odd man out in a field of network news anchors. Nevertheless, I think Jim Cramer should feel free to SNACK ON THAT.

Brian Williams drew the second largest percentage of votes, with 29 percent. Gibson and Couric finished third and fourth, respectively, with 19 and 7 percent of the vote.

[H/t: Mark Blyth]

Rape of the Congo

Adam Hochschild in the New York Review of Books:

As if eastern Congo had not already suffered enough, seven years ago Nature dealt it a stunning blow. The volcano whose blue-green bulk looms above the dusty, lakeside city of Goma, Mount Nyiragongo, erupted, sending a smoking river of lava several hundred yards wide through the center of town and sizzling into the waters of Lake Kivu. More than 10,000 homes were engulfed. Parts of the city, which is packed with displaced people, are still covered by a layer of purplish rock up to twelve feet thick.

Far greater destruction has come from more than a decade of a bewilderingly complex civil war in which millions have died. First, neighboring Uganda and Rwanda supported a rebel force under Laurent Kabila that overthrew longtime dictator Mobutu Sese Seko in 1997. Soon after, Kabila fell out with his backers, and later Uganda and Rwanda fell out with each other. Before long, they and five other nearby nations had troops on Congo's soil, in alliance either with the shaky national government in Kinshasa or with a mushrooming number of rival ethnic warlords, particularly here in the mineral-rich east. Those foreign soldiers are almost all gone now, but some fighting between the government and remaining rebel groups continues. For two weeks in June, I had the chance to observe the war's effects, with the best of possible traveling companions: Anneke Van Woudenberg, senior researcher for Human Rights Watch, whose reports have been an authoritative source of information on the country for years.

More here.

Re-Engineering the Earth

As the threat of global warming grows more urgent, a few scientists are considering radical—and possibly extremely dangerous—schemes for reengineering the climate by brute force. Their ideas are technologically plausible and quite cheap. So cheap, in fact, that a rich and committed environmentalist could act on them tomorrow. And that’s the scariest part.

Graeme Wood in The Atlantic:

ScreenHunter_07 Jul. 25 21.48 If we were transported forward in time, to an Earth ravaged by catastrophic climate change, we might see long, delicate strands of fire hose stretching into the sky, like spaghetti, attached to zeppelins hovering 65,000 feet in the air. Factories on the ground would pump 10 kilos of sulfur dioxide up through those hoses every second. And at the top, the hoses would cough a sulfurous pall into the sky. At sunset on some parts of the planet, these puffs of aerosolized pollutant would glow a dramatic red, like the skies in Blade Runner. During the day, they would shield the planet from the sun’s full force, keeping temperatures cool—as long as the puffing never ceased.

Technology that could redden the skies and chill the planet is available right now. Within a few years we could cool the Earth to temperatures not regularly seen since James Watt’s steam engine belched its first smoky plume in the late 18th century. And we could do it cheaply: $100 billion could reverse anthropogenic climate change entirely, and some experts suspect that a hundredth of that sum could suffice. To stop global warming the old-fashioned way, by cutting carbon emissions, would cost on the order of $1 trillion yearly. If this idea sounds unlikely, consider that President Obama’s science adviser, John Holdren, said in April that he thought the administration would consider it, “if we get desperate enough.” And if it sounds dystopian or futuristic, consider that Blade Runner was set in 2019, not long after Obama would complete a second term.

More here.