January 24, 2016

The subtle and deadly change of heart that might occur in you would be involved with the realization that a civilization is not destroyed by wicked people; it is not necessary that people be wicked but only that they be spineless.

The Fire Next Time
by James Baldwin

“The treatment accorded the Negro during the Second World War marks, for me, a turning point in the Negro’s relation to America. To put it briefly, and somewhat too simply, a certain hope died, a certain respect for white Americans faded. One began to pity them, or to hate them. You must put yourself in the skin of a man who is wearing the uniform of his country, is a candidate for death in its defense, and who is called a “nigger” by his comrades-in-arms and his officers; who is almost always given the hardest, ugliest, most menial work to do; who knows that the white G.I. has informed the Europeans that he is subhuman (so much for the American male’s security); who does not dance at the U.S.O. the night white soldiers dance there, and does not drink in the same bars white soldiers drink in; and who watches German prisoners of war being treated by Americans with more human dignity than he has ever received at their hands. And who, at the same time, as a human being, is freer in a strange land than he has ever been at home. Home! The very word begins to have a despairing and diabolical ring. You must consider what happens to this citizen, after all he has endured, when he returns—home: search, in his shoes for a job, for a place to live; ride, in his skin, on segregated buses; see, with his eyes, the signs saying “White” and “Colored,” and especially the signs that say “White Ladies” and “Colored Women”; look into the eyes of his wife; look into the eyes of his son; listen, with his ears, to political speeches, North and South; imagine yourself being told to “wait.” And all this is happening in the richest and freest country in the world, and in the middle of the twentieth century. The subtle and deadly change of heart that might occur in you would be involved with the realization that a civilization is not destroyed by wicked people; it is not necessary that people be wicked but only that they be spineless.”
(pp. 54-5)

“It is rare indeed that people give. Most people guard and keep; they suppose that it is they themselves and what they identify with themselves that they are guarding and keeping, whereas what they are actually guarding and keeping is their system of reality and what they assume themselves to be. One can give nothing whatever without giving oneself—that is to say, risking oneself. If one cannot risk oneself, then one is simply incapable of giving. And, after all, one can give freedom only by setting someone free.”
(p. 86)

“Time and time and time again, the people discover that they have merely betrayed themselves into the hands of yet another Pharaoh, who, since he was necessary to put the broken country  together, will not let them go. Perhaps, people being the conundrums that they are, and having so little desire to shoulder the burden of their lives, this is what will always happen. But at the bottom of my heart I do not believe this. I think that people can be better than that, and I know that people can be better than they are. We are capable of bearing a great burden, once we discover that the burden is reality and arrive where reality is.”
(pp. 90-1)

“Life is tragic simply because the earth turns and the sun inexorably rises and sets, and one day, for each of us, the sun will go down for the last, last time. Perhaps the whole root of our trouble, the human trouble, is that we will sacrifice all the beauty of our lives, will imprison ourselves in totems, taboos, crosses, blood sacrifices, steeples, mosques, races, armies, flags, nations, in order to deny the fact of death, which is the only fact we have. It seems to me that one ought to rejoice in the fact of death—out to decide, indeed to earn one’s death by confronting with passion the conundrum of life. One is responsible to life: It is the small beacon in that terrifying darkness from which we come and to which we shall return. One must negotiate this passage as nobly as possible, for the sake of those who are coming after us. But white Americans do not believe in death, and this is why the darkness of my skin so intimidates them. And this is also why the presence of the Negro in this country can bring about its destruction. It is the responsibility of free men to trust and to celebrate what is constant—birth, struggle, and death are constant, and so is love, though we may not always think so—and to apprehend the nature of change, to be able and willing to change. I speak of change not on the surface but in the depths—change in the sense of renewal. But renewal becomes impossible if one supposes things to be constant that are not—safety, for example, or money, or power. One clings then to chimeras, by which one can only be betrayed, and the entire hope—the entire possibility—of freedom disappears.”

(pp. 91-2)

January 22, 2016

One week ago today.

I stood face to face with Patti Smith as we both remained temporarily stuck in the crowded aisle of the Ziegfeld just as HBO's VINYL premiere was about to start. Work for me: ushering people in the theater this portion of the night. I was on my way up and she down & hundreds of people around us were trying to find their places. I couldn't believe it. Hardly do I get starstruck but my mind raced in the two minutes before the crowd dissipated and left me without an excuse to stand in her way. I write this because one week later, I am still kicking myself for not mustering up the courage to express my admiration. Given my revelation about her work the past year, it felt surreal that she should be right there in that moment. But I could say nothing of substance. Instead, the only words that came out of my mouth were, "Can I help you find your seat?" She was fine, thanks.

Unfortunately, this is a way less cool retelling of a celebrity encounter compared to the ones Patti had while she was young.

January 19, 2016

Take no one's word for anything, including mine--but trust your experience.

The Fire Next Time
By James Baldwin

This first excerpt is from A Letter to My Nephew, but the entire letter, here, is exceptional.

"Take no one's word for anything, including mine--but trust your experience. Know whence you came. If you know whence you came, there is really no limit to where you can go. The details and symbols of your life have been deliberately constructed to make you believe what white people say about you. Please try to remember that what they believe, as well as what they do and cause you to endure, does not testify to your inferiority but to their inhumanity and fear. Please try to be clear, dear James, through the storm which rages about your youthful head today, about the reality which lies behind the words acceptance and integration. There is no reason for you to try to become like white people and there is no basis whatever for their impertinent assumption that they must accept you. The really terrible thing, old buddy, is that you must accept them. And I mean that very seriously. You must accept them and accept them with love. For these innocent people have no other hope. They are, in effect, still trapped in a history which they do not understand; and until they understand it, they cannot be released from it."
(p. 8)

"There appears to be a vast amount of confusion on this point, but I do not know many Negroes who are eager to be "accepted" by white people, still less to be loved by them; they, the blacks, simply don't wish to be beaten over the head by whites every instant of our brief passage on this planet. White people in this country will have quite enough to do in learning how to accept and love themselves and each other, and when they have achieved this--which will not be tomorrow and may very well be never--the Negro problem will no longer exist, for it will no longer be needed."
(pp. 21-2)

"White Americans do not understand the depths out of which such an ironic tenacity comes, but they suspect that the force is sensual, and they are terrified of sensuality and do not any longer understand it. The word "sensual" is not intended to bring to mind quivering dusky maidens or priapic black studs. I am referring to something much simpler and much less fanciful. To be sensual, I think, is to respect and rejoice in the force of life, of life itself, and to be present in all that one does, from the effort of loving to the breaking of bread. It will be a great day for America, incidentally, when we begin to eat bread again, instead of the blasphemous and tasteless foam rubber that we have substituted for it."
(pp. 42-3)

"It is not too much to say that whoever wishes to become a truly moral human being (and let us not ask whether this is possible; I think we must believe that it is possible) must first divorce himself from all the prohibitions, crimes, and hypocrisies of the Christian church. If the concept of God has any validity or any use, it can only be to make us larger, freer, and more loving. If God cannot do this, then it is time we got rid of Him."
(p. 47)

January 03, 2016

We all remember the parts of the past that allow us to meet the future.

The Night of The Gun
By David Carr

Zipped through this one without ever writing a page number or notation--that's how engrossed I found myself--but I skimmed through to find the passages that lingered with me days after.

David Carr will be dead one year next month. These passages of course don't encapsulate the memoir: his drug and alcohol addiction, raising his two twin daughters, his journalism career(s). I am so impressed by his ability to delve so deeply into the fog & pull out the truest version he could of his life. I knew him best for his work at The New York Times, and am saddened he's no longer here.

Memory is a theme I'm drawn to time and time again:

"Shakespeare describes memory as the warder of the brain, but it is also its courtesan. We all remember the parts of the past that allow us to meet the future. The prototypes of the lie--white, grievous, practical--make themselves known when memory is called to answer. Memory usually answers back with bullshit. Everyone likes a good story, especially the one who is telling it, and the historical facts are generally sullied in the process. All men mean well, and clearly most people who set out to tell the truth do not lie on purpose. How is it, then, that every warm bar stool contains a hero, a star of his own epic, who is the sum of his amazing stories?"
(p. 23)

"Memory is the one part of the brain's capacity that seems to be able to bring time to heel, make it pause for examination, and, in many cases, be reconfigured to suit the needs of that new moment. Long before TiVo, humans have been prone to selecting, editing, and fast-forwarding the highlights of their lives. Even if every good intention is on hand, it is difficult if not impossible to convey the emotional content of past events because of their ineffability. Even in an arch me-as-told-to-me paradigm, the past recedes, inexorably supplanted by the present.
Memory remains an act of perception, albeit perception dulled by time, but it is also about making a little movie. Remembering is an affirmative act--recalling those events that made you you is saying who you are. I am not this book, but this book is me.
Episodic and semantic memory each lie in different ways, but each is eventually deployed in service of completing a story. Stories are how we explain ourselves to each other with the remorseless truth always somewhere between the lines of what is told. In this way, memory becomes not a faculty but a coconspirator, a tool for constructing the self that we show the world."
(p. 183)

All words can be meaningful:

"Eden House was brimming with slogans. This was the main one: "The answer to life is learning to live." We would say that, loudly and with a great deal of emotion, at the conclusion of each group meeting.
This is the point where the knowing, irony-infused author laughs along with his readers about his time among the aphorisms, how he was once so gullible and needy that he drank deeply of such weak and fruity Kool-Aid. That's some other book. Slogans saved my life. All of them--the dumb ones, the preachy ones, the imperatives, the cliches, the injunctives, the gooey, Godly ones, the shameless, witless ones.
I lustily chanted some of those slogans and lived by others. There is nothing ironic about being a crackhead and a drunk, or recovery from same. Low-bottom addiction is its own burlesque, a theater of the absurd that needs no snarky annotation. Unless a person is willing to be terminally, frantically earnest, all hope is lost."
(pp. 192-3)

Because I love love & when people unabashedly express it***:

"Everything right about her was wrong for me. I had generally gone out with women who had a lot of dark hair falling into their faces, bee-stung lips, and remarkable leather jackets, with more tattoos than jewelry. As my friend Eddie once observed, "The women you date don't just look bitchy. They are." This Danish-Icelandic-Norwegian-Irish girl had worked in the U.S. Senate for a Republican, had her own house in South Minneapolis, and was just coming off a sales job and getting ready to go to grad school to become a teacher. Not. My. Type.
My kind, though."
(p. 312)

New York:

"When I moved to New York, I asked my pal Amanda how she thought I'd like it. "It's a fight. And if you want the fight, it's great. And if you don't want the fight, it sucks."
I liked the fight. Unlike Washington and Los Angeles, where people rise and fall based on some secret chart, New York is a place where the wiring diagram is very visible and fundamentally, oddly, just. If you are good at what you do, work hard, and don't back down, you can make a place to stand on the island.
The trick of enjoying New York is not to be so busy grinding your way to the center of the earth that you fail to notice the sparkle of the place, a scale and a kind of wonder that put all human endeavors in their proper place."
(pp. 336-7)


"I now inhabit a life I don't deserve, but we all walk this earth feeling we are frauds. The trick is to be grateful and hope the caper doesn't end any time soon."
(p. 382)

***In ways that are not cheesy or corny, but poetic and true.