Archive for November 2012


November 27th, 2012 — 2:26pm

I enjoy the blessing, or curse, of residing in two of the most self-conscious places on the planet, though of the two Brooklyn has the edge, solipsism-wise, in part because it’s so much more populous than Vermont and in part because so many people have at one time or another made it their home, if only on the way to somewhere else, like a tract suburb on Long Island or a medium-sized city in the Midwest where you could start over clean and cheap.

What does it mean, exactly, that only the dead know Brooklyn?

Perhaps it’s because there are so many Brooklyns. East New York, New Lots and Canarsie don’t have much in common with Park Slope, DUMBO and Brooklyn Heights. And then there are all the microclimates no one thinks about unless they’ve fetched up there, like Boerum Hill or Gowanus or Sunset Park. Windsor Terrace, for that matter.

Still, what gives the dead special knowledge of the Borough—the notion that their souls may roam freely across it after their passage, and that they’re drawn back to the light and warmth of all those people going about the daily business of being alive? That might explain why the dead wouldn’t drift away to any number of more hospitable climes, like Hawaii or Paris or Portofino, even if, as the author of Dracula asserts, the dead travel fast. (They can skip the TSA lines, for one thing.) Maybe, by some arcane law of the afterlife, the dead aren’t allowed to roam far beyond their boundaries in life and, given the prodigious number of people who have died and are buried in Brooklyn, there’s a large contingent of them there with a lot of time on their hands in which to become more intimately acquainted with the place in which they spent their lives.

There’s something that just feels true about this assertion. Maybe it’s just the poetic cadence of the phrase, or the incomprehensible vastness of the human endeavor going on across the East River from the Center of the Universe, which of course would be Manhattan. Nobody says “Only the dead know Manhattan.” Perhaps that hypercaffeinated borough just seems that much more knowable; it’s not a city that knows how to keep its secrets in the way we might think of Chicago or San Francisco or, of course, L.A. It’s better lit, for one thing. Manhattan is all glittering, humming surface. And to say that only the dead know the Bronx or Queens or Staten Island doesn’t pass the straight-face test. Also, in the first and third instances, it doesn’t scan nicely.

One could say, I suppose, that the expression is true because Brooklyn is where the bodies are buried, if you’re thinking of activity among the shadier elements, but that could just as easily apply to Hoboken or Bayonne or other spots in the swamps of Jersey which nobody has ever claimed that only the dead know.

The phrase is the title of a story by Thomas Wolfe, who was a Southerner and came to Brooklyn relatively late in life. The crazy big guy in the narrative, with the map and the determination to visit all of Brooklyn’s neighborhoods, is probably the author himself as seen through the eyes of a native Brooklynite. Wolfe was a man who asserted without fear of contradiction that “You Can’t Go Home Again,” although surely that isn’t always true either. And if it isn’t, then who’s to say that in fact only the dead know Brooklyn? Brooklyn natives, especially those whose families have lived there for generations, may surely be allowed to claim knowledge of the place. Someone like my friend Bob, for instance, whose grandparents lived in Brighton Beach and who himself grew up in Flatbush. I’d take that non-ghost’s word for a thousand pound.

Maybe it’s that Brooklyn is ever-changing, ever evolving, so that no one now alive can claim full knowledge of the full sweep of what it once was and what it is now and what it will become. That’s true of anywhere, you could argue, but you can also argue that Brooklyn changes in more interesting ways than other places, attracting a particularly artsy and literary breed of cat, disposed to tell the truth but tell it slant with an edge that will only later become fashionable in the tonier climes across the East River (and, come to think of Whitman’s famous “Crossing Brooklyn Ferry,” which may well have inspired Wolfe’s story, what was the name of the Ferryman?).

The Brooklyn intelligentsia are the makers of manners, the innovators, who toil in conducive obscurity until they’re eventually discovered and installed in SoHo galleries or sent on national book tours and thereafter sought out by the fawning and fashionable doyens of Uptown salons. So there are always interesting future phenoms for Brooklyn’s dead to be keeping an eye on.

This all gets me wondering if there are places only the living know. Las Vegas comes to mind. There seems absolutely no romance in the notion of being one of the dead of Las Vegas. It may be the fastest growing city in America, but surely that’s about sprawling, featureless, artificially hydrated and ultimately temporary suburbs, where no ghost would ever find a comfortable roost, much less learn anything worth knowing. The same would be true for anywhere that’s been a wasteland hitherto and is only recently something with any kind of identity, like Dubai or Disney World or—I was about to say the Yucatan Peninsula, but in fact that’s an odd hybrid of places only the dead could truly know, like Chichen Itza and Tulum, and nouveau, artificial places only the living could relate to, like Cancun and Playa del Carmen. Same for Singapore.

Come to think of it, though, there are an infinity of contenders for the designation of Place that Only the Dead Know, among them Rome, Venice, Paris, Istanbul, Oxford, Edinburgh, Jerusalem, Boston, maybe even Québec. Most of these are places that I, as a living person, would far rather spend time in than those that only the living know, like Brasilia and Bonn and East Kilbride and Tel Aviv and Welwyn Garden City.

Our Brooklyn place is two blocks north of the vast memory-park that is Green-Wood Cemetery, which for me was even more of a selling point than its being four blocks south of Prospect Park. Find me a town with an old, old cemetery or two and you’ve found me a place I’ll happily haunt myself. Brooklyn definitely qualifies.


Comment » | Brooklyn, Vermont and Brooklyn


November 8th, 2012 — 5:34pm

Around the middle of October, I began waking up in the small hours, heart pounding, gripped by panic at the thought of America sliding into the abyss if Mitt Romney got the car keys. I’d lie awake for hours with my gut churning, feeling as if my head were in a vise, sick with guilt for doing nothing to prevent this from happening.

I thought I’d sworn off politics when my first husband and I parted ways. He held public office at the state level for many years and, as a good supportive wife, I dutifully allowed myself to be dragged into weeks of knocking on doors, stuffing envelopes, and the other grunt work of getting somebody elected in a rural state where such “retail politics,” rather than mass-media advertising, wins elections. Repressing my inherent introversion for at least one Presidential campaign in the 1970s, I developed a phobia about calling up strangers, even though most of them were polite and friendly about the intrusion. Which is more than I can say for my own behavior with telemarketers, whom I usually hang up on.

My second husband is also a former public officeholder; the repetition compulsion, as Freud taught us, is a powerful force. In his case, though, I made it clear before we married that I Wasn’t Gonna Do That Stuff Any More. His current status, though there isn’t a Facebook category for it, is “recovering politician.” He is, however, subject to intermittent lapses, especially in Presidential years. Though he hasn’t yet followed through on his threat to run for the State Legislature, his political reflexes are more easily triggered than mine, and he just can’t bring himself to sit idle when there’s a big fight going on.

We both came close to it this year. But by Halloween, we could stand it no longer. The polls had Obama and Romney neck and neck. I was haunted by memories of the 2000 electoral debacle and the eight grim and ruinous years of the Bush hegemony that followed, during which I almost lost faith in my fellow Americans forever. I kept remembering that, if Al Gore had only won our neighboring New Hampshire, history would have been rewritten. Those four electoral votes, and three thousand votes the other way, would have rendered Florida irrelevant and made all the difference.

With that perennial swing state and Ohio again hanging in the balance, and with dark rumblings of voter suppression and tampering with voting machines threatening to turn narrow wins for Obama into fraudulent wins for Romney, the potential for New Hampshire, another “battleground,” to decide the election (its paltry four electoral votes notwithstanding) began to loom large in my consciousness.

As I’ve told anyone who’ll listen, I would rather eat live snakes than call total strangers on the phone, no matter how lofty the cause. I feel only slightly less averse to knocking on strangers’ doors, even if they’ve been identified as on Our Side. But I was becoming convinced that if I, Personally, Did Not Get Over There and Do Something, Obama would lose New Hampshire, and hence the election, and the ruin of the country under Romney would be All My Fault. In the small hours of the night, when the rational faculties are dormant and things creak and go bump, I was utterly convinced of this.

Ludicrous it might be, but it was far from the most egregious example of magical thinking to haunt this campaign cycle. As I understand that term, it refers to an irrational belief in a non-existent causal connection between one event and another. The childhood classic, “Step on a crack, you’ll break your mother’s back” is often our first exposure to the phenomenon. In the realm of electoral punditry, such cause-and-effect items of received wisdom as “No one can win the Presidency without winning Ohio” are probably not much more valid than a prediction in 1804 would have been that “No one south of Maryland can be elected President without owning slaves.”

Some forms of magical thinking cling stubbornly to life despite massive empirical evidence to the contrary. Indeed, the entire Romney plan to “revive the economy” was premised on the long since discredited (and fortuitously named) Laffer Curve, a curiously convenient economic theory cooked up in the Reagan era, which predicted—incorrectly—that the more you cut tax rates, the more economic growth would result, and—presto!—the more tax revenues you’d collect. Cut taxes and you’ll end the Federal deficit.  Well, that didn’t work real well under George W. Bush who, by cutting taxes for the wealthiest and putting two wars on the credit card, managed to take the Federal deficit to unprecedented heights.

The remarkable thing isn’t so much that politicians continue to preach this rubbish as that a large proportion of the American electorate continues to believe in it. And there’s a corollary: if you give rich people tax cuts, the money they keep will “trickle down” into the larger economy and benefit everyone. With the widest income gap in modern history for countering evidence, you’d think this one would have gone away with the flat-earth hypothesis. Then again, over 40% of Americans believe that God created the earth about 6,000 years ago. Somebody planted all those “fossils.”

It’s not as if the Obama camp is exempt from magical thinking. It’s all too evident in the promises of any Presidential candidate to “create jobs.” Presidents don’t create jobs, nor do their policies. They can create climates in which productive economic activity is more rather than less likely to occur, but a complex combination of factors, probably chief among which is consumer demand along with an assessment of whether a capital investment can “perform” a job more cost-effectively than a live human being, determines how many “jobs” there will be. At least, that’s my Economics for Dummies understanding of it.

And neither of the candidates seriously addressed the implications of the huge structural change in our economy brought about by digital technology over the last thirty-five years ago and only accelerating. The notion of a “job” as we’ve known it may some day be as meaningless as it would have been in Europe before the Industrial Revolution. The big question for the future is how to ensure that we all have means of livelihood we can count on. I don’t think anyone in the political realm has a clue about that. I sure don’t.

The other infamous example of magical thinking in this campaign cycle was Republican Senate candidate Todd Akin’s astonishing assertion that women don’t get pregnant from “legitimate rape,” because a woman’s body has ways of shutting down that sort of thing. This was no doubt news to the American Congress of Obstetricians and Gynecologists; thankfully, it was also a wake-up call to millions of Missouri voters who unceremoniously Threw the Bum Out on Election Day. (As for Indiana Senate candidate Richard Mourdock’s opinion that a pregnancy resulting from rape is “something that God intended,” it may be dubious theology—I’m sure not interested in worshipping a deity who aids and abets violent criminals—but it’s not magical thinking).

Anyway, by Halloween, with spectres of this sort looming, we decided we had to do something. A fortuitous e-mail from a friend in Nashua, New Hampshire started an exchange that let to our crashing on her living room floor and showing up at Obama HQ to be put to work, self all the while stubborn in refusal to go near a telephone. I managed to spend a good part of our first morning there cleaning up the campaign office, replacing soured, tarry pots with fresh coffee and hot water for tea, sanitizing the telephones for those who were willing to dial for votes, and changing spilled-over trash bags, thereby earning the gratitude of a harried office manager trying to cope with an influx of volunteers.

Eventually, I’d cleaned and tidied everything I could. It came down to phones or door-to-door canvassing. So, joined by Mary, our gracious and generous-hearted hostess, who professed actually to be grateful for being dragged into the madness, spouse and I spent much of the next two days going door to door in the working-class sections of Nashua, trying to make sure Obama supporters would actually get their collective butt out to the polls. Mary and I teamed up for moral support and left my beloved, who as an extrovert turns into a canvassin’ fool in these circumstances, to knock on doors by himself. He says he’s doing people a favor by reminding them to act in their own best interests.

Most people weren’t home, which was fine with Mary and me. And with the exception of one Willie-Nelson-gone-to-seed lookalike who closed the door on us with something between a mumble and a snarl, those who did answer were polite and in many cases friendly. Several mentioned that we were the third or fourth set of Obama people who’d come by in the last couple of days. This was by design, said the campaign higher-ups to whom we reported making a nuisance of ourselves. Don’t worry about annoying people so much they’ll stay home or vote Republican; they understand we’re just telling them how much their vote matters to us. Sure…!

Back at HQ, the senior citizens making the phone calls were running into what I’d feared: people on the other end who were sick and tired of the non-stop harassment. “Well, I’m so sorry to have disturbed you,” I heard more than once. “Since you’ve already voted, we’ll try to make sure you don’t get called again.” Still…could it make a difference at the margins? Maybe, but I wasn’t going there.

Once our canvassing shifts were done, my still-energized spouse had the bright idea of doing “visibility”—standing at a busy intersection with Obama-Biden signs and waving to people. This is a bit like being put in the pillory except that you aren’t actually confined, but thankfully we did get more friendly honks and thumbs-up than jeers and middle-finger salutes. (Someone should do a study of car brand ownership and voting preferences. Priuses, of course, were Dem; Lexuses, GOP).


This magical thinking stuff gets hold of you like a mental illness. Though I argued that we’d Done Our Bit, as the Brits said of serving in the trenches of Verdun, my spouse insisted on Election Day activity, so we drove to nearby Littleton for more canvassing and for sign-waving in the freezing cold at the elementary school, where people went to vote. And came back home to stand at our local polling place with signs for our friend who ran for Auditor of Accounts (and, happily, got elected).

So when New Hampshire came in solidly blue, and our newly re-elected President looked into the TV camera at his victory rally and said, “This is all about you. It wouldn’t have happened without you,” I smiled and said, “You know what, Mr. President? You’re absolutely right.”


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