Showing posts with label history. Show all posts
Showing posts with label history. Show all posts

15 April 2021

Historical Bastards Revisited: Aristagoras-Tyrant of Miletus


[Today's entry is the latest in my on-going, on-again-off-again miniseries cataloging infamous bastards throughout history. For previous entries, click here, here, here, and here.]

While the cities were thus being taken, Aristagoras the Milesian, being, as he proved in this instance, not of very distinguished courage, since after having disturbed Ionia and made preparation of great matters he counseled running away when he saw these things (moreover it had become clear to him that it was impossible to overcome King Darius)...                                                                                                                        

                                                                            — Herodotus, The History

How’s this for cynical: yesterday’s tyrants becoming today’s liberty-loving embracers of democracy?  We’ve seen a lot of this during the modern era; Boris Yeltsin in Russia for example, rejecting communism out of convenience rather than out of conviction, and being catapulted to power as a result.

But it’s hardly a new story.

Take Aristagoras, Persian-appointed tyrant of the semi-independent Ionian Greek city-state of Miletus, the guy whose push for home-grown democracy touched off the so-called “Ionian Revolt” of the Greek city-states along the coast of western Asia Minor (modern Turkey) in 499 B.C.; a conflict that led to the loss of thousands of lives, and served as the precipitating event in a wider conflict between the Greeks and the Persians over the two centuries that followed.


Bastard-in-Law

Aristagoras owed his position as tyrant to his father-in-law, Histiaeus.  Histiaeus had been tyrant before him, and had done his job so well that the Persian great king Darius appointed him to his own governing council.  When Histiaeus went east to the royal court at Persepolis, he recommended Aristagoras succeeded him.  Later, when Aristagoras was attempting to foment revolt among the Greek cities of Asia, Histiaeus secretly helped him, hoping that a rebellion led  by his son-in-law would lead to his own being appointed to re-take the city and re-establish himself as Miletus’ tyrant.

The modern-day ruins of the ancient Ionian Greek city of Miletus

Hardly a born-and-bred defender of personal liberty, Aristagoras’ opportunism was born of the most instinctive of human impulses; self-preservation.  Here’s how it happened.

Naxos, with the ruins of the temple of Athena in the foreground
The Proposal & The Vig

Shortly after he’d become tyrant of Miletus, Aristagoras had been tapped to help the empire pick up some new real estate in the form of the Greek island of Naxos, a strategically placed island in the middle of the Aegean Sea.  In exchange for helping with this, Aristagoras was to receive a large portion of the anticipated loot to be taken when the island fell.

In anticipation of this, Aristagoras took out a large cash loan from the local Persian satrap (governor) in western Asia, in the city of Sardis.  With this money he hired mercenary soldiers and ships to help with the conquest.

The Crash

The only problem was that Aristagoras got into a major personal feud with the Persian admiral set to lead the expedition which became so ugly that the guy scotched the whole deal by secretly warning the Naxians of an invasion on the way.  Not surprisingly, the whole venture failed.

But, in a set-up that 20th century mafia bosses would admire, Aristagoras was still on the hook to the Persians for the money he’d borrowed, regardless of the success or failure of the invasion.  Desperate to save his own skin, Aristagoras set about quietly stirring a rebellion in Miletus and the neighboring cities, inviting such mainland Greek cities as Sparta and Athens to help their cousins across the Aegean Sea.

The Results

The Spartans not surprisingly refused (it was too far from home for these xenophobes).  But the Persian king had just succeeded in really pissing off the Athenians by baldly interfering in their internal politics and insisting that they take back the tyrant (Hippias) they had given the boot (with Spartan help) a decade previously.  So they agreed to send a fleet of ships to help.

And with that the Ionian Revolt was born.  The immediate result?  Sardis, the western-most provincial capital in the Persian Empire (and home-base of the satrap who had strong-armed Aristagoras in the first place) was sacked and burned by the Greek rebels.  The Athenians, horrified by the wanton destruction of the ancient city (and the Persians' western capital), withdrew their forces and went home.

The longer-term results: After a five-year-long campaign and the investment of much, time, effort, blood and money, the Persians crushed the Ionian rebels at the battle of Lade. Then they spent the next year picking off the Ionian cities one by one. By 494 BC, all of the Greek cities of the Ionian coast were back under the Persian yoke.

And then the Persians turned their attention toward the interlopers from across the western (Aegean) sea. As it turned out, just because the Athenians were finished supporting the Ionians, that didn't mean the Persians were finished with the Athenians.


The resulting conflict would rock the ancient world. All of the Greek cities on the Greek mainland, on the islands, and even along the Ionian coast, were drawn in. On both sides of the Greco-Persian struggle. And by the time it was over, in 479 BC, the unthinkable had happened: Persia had lost, thousands of her soldiers slaughtered, hundreds of ships sunk or captured, millions in treasure spent. All to upstart barbarians clinging to the western edge of the known world.

And Aristagoras?  Still fearing for his own skin, he relocated to Thrace, where he tried to establish a colony from which to continue the war against Persia, and was killed trying to strong-arm the locals (see how this sort of thing just keeps running downhill?).



11 April 2021

Anti-Asian hate crimes


If I told you that there’s a crime spree going on and you can stop it, would you? 

The rise of anti-Asian hate crimes in Canada - yes, Canada, the land of the multiculturally smug – are crimes we can all stop. The first step is always understanding it.

Many have blamed the former U.S. President Trump for the rise of anti-Asian racism because of his racist rhetoric, but he was simply repeating a long historic tradition of targeting Asians. Kim Yi Dionne, a professor of political science at the University of California-Riverside, explained that “America has a long history of immigrant exclusion on the basis of disease.”

Trump was feeding into the biases that some people already had and doing it to restrict immigration certainly, but also to deflect blame for any illness or death of Americans. As those deaths increased, so did his rhetoric.

Canada also has a long history of restricting Asian immigration and using anti-Asian rhetoric to do it.

In 1885, Canada imposed a head tax on Chinese migrants before admission into Canada, the purpose of which was to discourage more Chinese coming to Canada. The anti-Asian sentiment was in full force in the 1902 Royal Commission on Chinese and Japanese Immigration that stated that the Asians were "unfit for full citizenship … obnoxious to a free community and dangerous to the state.”

Despite the drop in Chinese and other Asians entering Canada, there were many violent anti-Asian riots on several occasions to protest Asians in Canada.

During the 1918 pandemic, Asian Canadians were once again targeted as disease ridden and were even excluded from treatment at “white” hospitals.

During World War II, the federal government put Japanese Canadians in internment camps and sold all their property.

It was only in the 1960s that Canadian immigration legislation and regulations were changed to allow Asians to immigrate to Canada on equal footing with whites.

This history explains why anti-Asian racism has risen so rapidly: the narratives and attitudes fed into prejudices some people already had and, although Canadian politicians have largely avoided xenophobic blaming of Asian Canadians, we are not immune to these narratives. The pandemic has given rise to all sorts of conspiracy theories and the internet knows no borders. Canadians so inclined have been drinking in anti-Asian rhetoric and spewing it out against Asian Canadians.

Of the 1,150 instances of anti-Asian racism reported between March 10, 2020, and Feb. 28, 2021, it was, “found that elderly people, young people and those in low-income jobs or who did not speak English were more vulnerable to attacks. According to the data, most incidents occurred in public spaces such as parks, streets or sidewalks. Restaurants, grocery stores and other food-sector locations were the site of nearly one-fifth of the incidents. Nearly ten per cent of the reported cases took place on public transit.”

This is crucial: these incidents occur in public spaces. In plain sight.

The worst message we can send is that verbal or physical harassment of Asian Canadians is OK. This is why the Government of Canada “offers bystander intervention training on their website, with safe and positive options to prevent harm when there is a risk of violence.

The goal of this training is to send a message that hate, including racism and xenophobia, is unacceptable in all of its forms.”


Since this problem started with the Government of Canada and the citizens of Canada condoning and augmenting anti-Asian rhetoric, it is fitting that together we end it.

It is also fitting that the internet – used to promote anti-Asian rhetoric – can also be used to fight it. The same principle applies, don’t let Asians be harassed. If this happens, report the account and say something too.

Ultimately, like hate against any group, the only way to stop it is to learn about the history, understand what to do if we see it and support organizations that are helping.

Canada should not be a country in which Asian Canadians feel unsafe and unwelcome. Multiculturalism requires the actions of each generation to protect it.

10 April 2021

How It Happened In Tennessee: The 19th Amendment


This one has it all: feuds, sudden victories, shock defeats, smoke-filled rooms, betrayal, transcriptionists. And we open to 1920 and a young Jewish woman scouring the East Tennessee mountains.

Anita Pollitzer was a Charleston-born photographer and force of nature with a drawl. In her twenty-five years, Pollitzer had already turned the New York art world onto her pal Georgia O’Keefe. Pollitzer's second famous act was unfolding over a country tour rounding up legislator assurance for women's suffrage. She'd had leapt through the National Woman’s Party ranks as a crack organizer, and winning the vote anytime soon had come down to the Tennessee Legislature. Yes, Tennessee. The Woman’s Party, forever cash-strapped, sent Pollitzer to secure the eastern delegation. All of them.

Niota, Tennessee sits in the ridgelines between Knoxville and Chattanooga. In 1920, Niota was the home of Representative Harry Burn, a rising Republican star and relationship banker. Try as she might, Pollitzer couldn't be everywhere. A stop in remote Niota ate through precious time and scarce funds. Fair enough. Pollitzer cornered Burn on the telephone, and when Pollitzer had someone cornered, they knew it. Burn pledged his vote for the Suffs. Pollitzer moved to corner the next guy.

Cut to Nashville and one Edward Bushrod Stahlman, an ex-L&N Railroad exec turned newspaper publisher. Stahlman had forged the afternoon Nashville Banner into a regional conservative powerhouse. In non-unrelated business, he remained the railroads’ go-to lobbyist around these parts. As prickly personalities and successful businessmen will do, he’d made enemies.

Such as Luke Lea, publisher of the rival Tennessean. In 1913, Lea had gone from U.S. Senator to ex-U.S. Senator thanks to Stahlman backing an ouster. Lea had gotten it in his head to investigate the railroads' political influence and possible local corruption. Lea seemed to loathe Stahlman so much that many a morning The Tennessean portrayed Stahlman as a disloyal German, Lea being just back from distinguished service in WWI. Lea held such a grudge against things German that he’d tried– actually tried– and failed a caper to kidnap the exiled Kaiser. Lea ran The Tennessean as a progressive voice that strongly backed– wait for it--popular election of U.S. senators. Also Prohibition and now women’s suffrage. Pretty much whatever Lea was for, Stahlman and The Banner were inclined to be against.

Edward Stahlman
(Nashville Library Special Collection)

Mind you, Stahlman had backed Tennessee's 1919 partial suffrage bill passed while Lea was off chasing the Kaiser. And Stahlman professed support even for making suffrage universal--until he was against it. A states rights guy, what bothered Stahlman wasn’t women voting per se but Washington mandating that women could vote. It was the principle of thing, see?

Also, there was money to be made. Big Railroad wanted their, ahem, investment in the Legislature protected. Big Liquor feared pro-temperance Suffs who’d already slapped Prohibition on everyone. Big Manufacturing thought women voters would push through dangerous and radical ideas like child labor laws. Well-funded lobbyists organized a fierce--and whiskey-soaked--persuasion campaign, with The Banner as their afternoon voice.

Though not always the loudest voice. The Anti's logic went that, if you’re going to convince women not to push for voting rights, you have to make it appear like most women don’t want voting rights. Enter Josephine Pearson of Monteagle, an Anti writer of scathing editorials and a former college dean installed as President of the Tennessee State Association Opposed to Woman Suffrage. Well-regarded and accomplished, she was the sort of successful career woman her speeches warned America about.

Here came the broadsides. The rough-and-tumble of politics would corrupt womanly virtue. Politics would overtax the female brain and thus shrink the womb. Thus, suffrage doomed motherhood itself and by implication America, hot dogs, apple pie.

The Hermitage Hotel, 100 years on
Both sides threw everything they had into the War of the Roses. Suffs pinned yellow roses to pledge lapels. The Anti pinned (paper) red ones on their supporters. The swank Hermitage Hotel, a mere plaza away from the Capitol, became ground zero for charm offensives, pay-offs, sex traps, fist fights, death threats, fake telegrams about dying children, and Big Liquor's 24/7 Jack Daniels speakeasy on the eighth floor. It became impossible to find a legislator sober enough to lobby.

The Anti strategy was working, despite a quick loss in the Senate. The doomed womb and states rights arguments provided cover for House members worried that women voting also included black women. Bribes didn’t hurt, either. Suff support collapsed in the House, and Rep. Burn of Niota was among the defectors.

They thought they had it won, Pearson and old Stahlman. By a narrow margin, sure, but they didn't need a blowout. Stahlman himself delivered a seal-the-deal address on the House floor condemning undue influences meddling in Tennessee's business. The Antis had underestimated a few things, though.

One was Anita Pollitzer.

Pollitzer took no for an answer poorly, especially after she’d been promised a yes. Pollitzer and the Anti leaders stalked Capitol Hill and the Hermitage Hotel and anywhere a legislator might try to hide. Lost pledges were blistered with appeals to better natures and epic guilt trips. Rep. Burn got a full dose of Pollitzer's drawled fire and was left stammering in her wake.

Febb Burn
Here, famously, motherhood actually did step in. A conflicted Burn was on the House floor during the make-or-break session when he received the most mom-like letter ever written from his mother Febb back in Niota. Febb, a diehard Suff, softened her boy up for a few paragraphs and then sank the maternal dagger over his Anti pledge. In dramatic style, Burn re-switched sides on the spot. Boom, Suffs cheered from the gallery, Antis shouted for blood or at least recounts.

Well, Burn had to beat it quick out a Capitol window. Later that night, the Antis tracked Burn down at the Hermitage Hotel. Top Anti strategists had mapped out a double-secret plan to torpedo the Amendment by legislative maneuvering. There would be the usual rallies and propaganda and intimidation, but the showpiece of the brainstorm went like this: Blackmail the snot out of Burn. Once he re-re-switched his vote, the Antis would yet win the day.

And the Antis had proof. Proof!

Witness affidavits claimed that shortly before the dastardly vote switch, Burn had been hauled off into a cloakroom and given ten grand to go Suff. Recant, the Antis warned Burn, or tomorrow afternoon Stahlman and The Banner run this nugget and end that promising career. Never mind that Burn hadn't been hauled anywhere. He’d been in full view agonizing over Febb's letter. That wasn't the Anti's biggest problem.

No, they'd picked the wrong affidavit stenographer.

Pollitzer and Burn shaking hands,
1920 (top center)

The stenographer knew dirty pool when she heard it. She recorded not only their statements but also how operatives coached the sort-of-witnesses into framing Burn. And the stenographer turned the whole thing over to Luke Lea at The Tennessean. Stahlman would’ve been prepping for his crushing afternoon edition when someone drew the short straw and slid over The Tennessean’s morning scoop blowing up the blackmail scheme.

That, friends, was how Tennessee came around to seal the Nineteenth Amendment of the U.S. Constitution. Like I said, this one had it all, including– in the end– a win for justice.

01 April 2021

Drake's Plate: Happy April Fools Day!


The so-called "Drake Plate"
In 1936 a sales clerk named Beryle Shinn blew a tire while driving in the north end of San Francisco Bay, not far from the prison at San Quentin. Shinn, a decidedly "free spirit," decided not to waste a sunny afternoon changing a flat. So instead, he hiked to the top of a nearby hill, and stumbled across a most unusual cast-off: a square brass plate with a hole punched in the lower right hand quarter, and covered in peculiar writing.

Thinking he might find a use for it, Shinn took the plate home with him, where it languished in his garage for several months until he decided the writing on it might mean it was valuable. So in February of 1937 he took it down the road to the University of California, in Berkeley, on the advice of a friend who had been a student there.

Professor Herbert E. Bolton
Shinn wound up in the office of Herbert E. Bolton; director of Berkeley's Bancroft Library, who also held the Sather Chair in American history, and was a leading expert on the history of early California. Bolton deciphered the writing on the plate, and became visibly excited.

Bolton offered to purchase the plate from the bemused Shinn on behalf of the university. When Shinn agreed, Bolton informed Shinn that he had brought him an artifact of singular historical value, and insisted on settling on him the princely sum of $2,000 (Nearly $38,000 in inflation-adjusted 2021 dollars). The university board of regents approved the purchase based on Bolton's expert recommendation. (Interviewed decades later Shinn spoke of how grateful he was to Bolton. The two grand he got for the plate allowed him to buy a house and propose to his sweetheart.).

And just like that, the University of California acquired the legendary Drake's Plate.

Statue of Sir Francis Drake in Plymouth
In 1579 English privateer and explorer Sir Francis Drake became the first Englishman to captain a ship into the Pacific Ocean. In his ship The Golden Hind, he navigated the treacherous southern passage through the Tierra del Fuego at the southern tip of South America, ostensibly on a voyage of exploration, on orders from Queen Elizabeth of England herself.

Of course the voyage was a thinly-disguised excuse to prey upon Spanish shipping, and Drake captured and looted a number of Spanish vessels while working his way up the western coasts of first South American and then North America. It is widely believed that one of his final landfalls before heading west across the Pacific toward Asia was at the bay which still bears his name, just north of San Francisco Bay.

Upon making landfall at Drake's Bay, Drake claimed the land in his monarch's name, and dubbed it "New Albion." To commemorate the event, so the story went, Drake had made a solid brass plate, with an English sixpence embedded in it as proof that the plate's creators were English. Then he had the plate mounted somewhere along the coastline of Drake's Bay, and sailed off, eventually circumnavigating the globe and returning to England fabulously wealthy (and with a hefty share for the queen herself, as well, of course.).

A modern replica of Drake's ship The Golden Hind
Bolton, a scrupulously honest, hard-working and prolific historian, was intimately familiar with the legend of Drake's Plate. The long lost artifact was a well-known obsession of his. For decades he had admonished undergraduates with weekend or vacation plans including trips to the region of Drake's Bay to keep their eyes peeled for Drake's Plate. (It is possible that one of Shinn's neighbors, a former student of Bolton's was the one who eventually steered him in Bolton's direction).


Upon deciphering the writing on the heavily weathered plate Bolton became more certain that it was authentic.It was at this point he began negotiating with Shinn to purchase it on the university's behalf. Electroplating testing conducted on the plate helped convince Bolton that it was the genuine article.

The inscription reads:

BEE IT KNOWNE VNTO ALL MEN BY THESE PRESENTS.
IVNE.17.1579
BY THE GRACE OF GOD AND IN THE NAME OF HERR
MAIESTY QVEEN ELIZABETH OF ENGLAND AND HERR
SVCCESSORS FOREVER, I TAKE POSSESSION OF THIS
KINGDOME WHOSE KING AND PEOPLE FREELY RESIGNE
THEIR RIGHT AND TITLE IN THE WHOLE LAND VNTO HERR
MAIESTIEES KEEPEING. NOW NAMED BY ME AN TO BEE
KNOWNE V(N) TO ALL MEN AS NOVA ALBION.
G. FRANCIS DRAKE

But if Drake had left the plate somewhere along the bay near Pt. Reyes, how had it made its way nearly thirty miles to the east to that hill overlooking San Quentin? That remained a mystery during Bolton's lifetime.

It has since come to light that the plate was originally discovered near Drake's Bay by a chauffeur named William Caldeira. Caldeira later discarded somewhere along the road near San Raphael, and somehow it made its way from there another ten or so miles to the hilltop near San Quentin.

Which brings us to the question: "Is the Drake Plate genuine?"

Of course not.

The plate is the product of an elaborate hoax perpetrated by several members of "E. Clampus Vitus," a “historical drinking society or a drinking historical society,” of which Bolton himself was a member. Light-heartedly dedicating themselves to "the erection of historical plaques, the protection of widows and orphans, especially the widows, and having a grand time while accomplishing these purposes," the "Clampers," as they dubbed themselves, included many prominent California residents, and were infamous for the practical jokes their members played upon each other.

George Ezra Dane- The Mastermind
Keenly aware of Bolton's obsession with the Drake Plate, Several of his fellow "Clampers," including such prominent historians as George Ezra Dane, Carl Irving Wheat and George H. Barron, former curator of American history at San Francisco's famous De Young Museum, decided in 1933 to play a joke on Bolton. 

The hoax was originally Dane's idea, and he quickly recruited several of his fellow Clampers to assist with the prank. With the possible exception of Barron (who, it was later reported, secretly nursed a grudge against Bolton for supposedly being instrumental in Barron's eventual dismissal from his position at the De Young), the intent of the Clampers involved in the hoax seems to have been to have a bit of innocent fun pranking a friend. Either way, things got out of hand.

They bought a piece of brass at a San Francisco shipyard, and one of them tapped the words of the inscription into the plate with a cold chisel. But they also left hints that the plate was a fraud: the group's initials, "E.C.V." painted on the back in paint that would only be visible under ultraviolet light. George Clark," the "chisler" of the inscription, even added his initials to it. Bolton took the "G.C." to stand for "Captain General," a rank which did not exist in Elizabethan England.

Carl Irving Wheat- Fun Guy
Then the Clampers planted the plate out near Drake's Bay and waited for it to be found. When it turned up in Bolton's office nearly four years later, with Bolton believing it to be the genuine article, the members of the group realized the joke had gone too far.

But rather than come forward and potentially publicly embarrass their friend Bolton, the Clampers anonymously joined the ranks of those who challenged the plate's authenticity. They even "satirically" wrote an article hypothesizing how the plate could have been faked in precisely the manner in which it actually was. They faked another plate, this one clearly a forgery, with a satirical verse, poking fun at the authenticity of the original, inscribed instead of a supposed proclamation by Drake.

Nothing worked. Bolton was undeterred by any of the criticism of his analysis, and died in 1953 still believing the plate Shinn brought him was genuine. And apparently none of the Clampers who were in on the joke had either the nerve or the heart to come forward blow the whole thing up. They all also eventually took the secret of their prank gone horribly wrong to their respective graves (Dane, the mastermind of the entire prank, wound up dead of a gunshot wound in Golden Gate Park, just a few years later, in 1940, aged just 36).

The plate itself resided on public display in the Bancroft Library for decades, even as the doubts as to its authenticity lingered in academic circles. Eventually, with the 400th anniversary of Drake's voyage looming, the plate was tested again, using new technology, and was proven to have been rolled- a modern process, rather than hammered, as would have been the case had it been forged in the 16th century.

UC Berkeley's famous Bancroft Library

It was not until 2002 that the secret notes of one of the members of E. Clampus Vitus kept about the perpetration of the hoax were discovered (in, where else? The Bancroft Library!), that the Clampers's connection to the whole affair actually came to light. A group of historians published their findings based on researching the notes in California History in 2003. They announced those findings at a press conference in a room at the Bancroft, where the fake Drake Plate was still on display, under glass.

And yet many historians still believe in the existence of the genuine plate, and that Drake left in the bay which bears his name. And it continues to be the subject of intense speculation in academic circles to this very day.

As one of the co-authors of the 2003 article, marine historian Edward P. Von der Porten, noted at the time: "There is still a plate of brass out there."

And on that note: Happy April Fools Day!

See you in two weeks!



22 April 2020

The Unreliable Narrative


Preface
My apologies. This is unavoidably political, in the larger sense, but not a polemic. It's about grief.

***

Something is happening in this country, with regard to the coronavirus. If it were fiction, we could call it multiple POV, a chorus of voices competing for our attention.

The unreliable narrator is a longtime convention, in mysteries particularly, a famous example being The Murder of Roger Ackroyd, or more recently, Gone Girl. All the same, in fiction as (we hope) in life, our suspension of disbelief depends on accepting certain ground rules, and at the least an agreed-upon reality, a common yardstick.

So the question is, how do we engage, how do we maintain a sense of balance, or of structure, if the narrative keeps contradicting itself? In other words, how do we manage doubt? To return to the fictional model, mystery stories are inherently conservative, in that the crime, usually murder, violates the social contract, and resolution restores it. Even in noir, retribution is orthodox and rigid, a setting-right, with something almost Greek in its penalties, the appetites of the Furies satisfied. But if no weight is put on the scales, and no balance is required, nothing is restored. Order is relative, not absolute.

We have, in this strange political theater, not so much an unreliable narrator as an unreliable narrative, a story taken out of context. Exit, pursued by a bear. And this isn't simply one or the other, my way or the highway. It's a hall of mirrors, reflecting many alternatives.

In fiction, again, in fairy tales or fantasy, dystopian or post-Apocalyptic, mysteries, thrillers, cozies or Gothic or paranormal, the most outrageous or outlandish conceits can be convincing, if they're internally consistent. This is the most basic rule. You can bend time, or the laws of physics, you can disregard every convention except the one: that similar acts have similar consequences. 

We each and all, of course, believe we see reality. We might very well believe we see the only reality. This is certainly delusional, but it's comforting nonetheless. We have very little tolerance of ambiguity. Quite probably our belief systems are grounded in self-image, or our sense of self is reinforced by belief, two things integrated. I suspect we choose a reality out of necessity, and yours can conflict with mine, because they're mutually exclusive.

Darwin may sort this out for us, survival of the fittest being adaptive, not necessarily predatory. Then again, you might not believe in natural selection, you might prefer a different model, that we are Chosen. Either way, the rough numbers come out about the same.

The astonishing thing, to me, is that unlike a fiction, life is essentially messy, and has no shape or storyline, other than what we impose. To imagine that reality - as an absolute, not a construct - pays any attention to us is no more than vanity. And to pretend that we can pick and choose which reality we inhabit is foolhardy, although that seems to be the human experience, if history's any judge. More astonishing is the lesson fiction teaches us, in that we use stories to impose order, that narrative, or history, is necessary. Like sunlight, physically and psychologically.

All the crazier, then, that what we're seeing in our body politic, and the breakdown of our national conversation, is that chaos is self-inflicted. We've agreed to it.

***

Postscript
This, from The Atlantic, may be paywalled. I recommend it.
https://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/2020/06/underlying-conditions/610261/

04 August 2019

Sorry, Sorry Night


by Leigh Lundin

Vincent van Gogh, self-portrait with bandaged ear
Vincent van Gogh
self-portrait, bandaged ear
Everyone knows the story of Vincent van Gogh. In desolation and desperation, he sliced off his ear and gave it to a love interest, a local prostitute.

Much of that tale is problematic, even outright false. I have a simpler theory:

He missed.

Wait, wait… I’ll explain.

First, let’s correct one fact right off. Not every one who works in a church is a priest, pastor, or parson. Likewise, not every one who works in a whorehouse is a prostitute. Van Gogh presented the ear to young Gabrielle Berlatier who worked not as une fille de joie, but as a maid, serving, sewing, sudsing the laundry.

Women were the least of Vincent’s problems. His trip to the south of France hadn’t worked out, his paintings weren’t selling, and he was dependent upon his younger brother Theo for a small monthly stipend. Naturally, when a person pays money to another, they feel entitled to offer advice.
Sunflowers
van Gogh – Sunflowers, 1 in a series
van Gogh – Sunflowers, 1 in a series
van Gogh – Sunflowers, 1 in a series
van Gogh – Sunflowers, 1 in a series
“Vinnie, Vinnie. What am I going to do with you? Sunflowers? Who cares about sunflowers. In my dreams, I hear a voice chanting, ’Take a leaf from O’Keeffe.’ Don’t know what the dream means, but there you go.”

“But Theo…”

“And that weird thing, Drunken Fireworks on Bastille Day, title it Starry Night. Listen, I’m an art dealer. I know these things. You with me, bro?”

“But Theo…”

“Look, a healthy guy ought to paint nekked women. Look at Manet, look at Georgione, Gérôme, and hey, your buddy Gauguin. Naked people, now that sells; flowers not so much. Try to be more, well, like Toulouse.”

“Too loose for what?”

“Vinnie, Vinnie. Check out other artists, man, keep your ear to the ground. You so got that Dutch yardstick-up-your-klootzak thing. That peasant who models for you, what’s his name?”

“Er, something with Zach, maybe Balzac, Shadrach, Mezach, Prozach, I dunno.”

“That’s enough to depress anyone. Gotta go, bro. That argument with Paul, get over it. Gauguin’s a good guy. Tell him to send me some work. See ya, Vin.”
Van Gogh was one down-and-out dude. No luck selling his works, no luck with women, no job, no money, no friends– Van Gogh found himself beset with problems, especially depression.

On the 23rd of December 1888, he underwent a nasty row with his roommate, Paul Gauguin. Hours before Christmas, Van Gogh found himself abandoned, alone except for a bottle, actually a case of bottles.

He drank. He drank a lot. He followed Gauguin and waggled a straight razor at him. Gauguin sensibly fled to a hotel.

Vincent, truly alone, a man and his bottle… and a device commonly called a cutthroat razor.

The very drunk, very depressed artist decided to take his own life. He unfolded the blade. Intending to deliver a huge, decisive stroke, he raised the razor high above his shoulder, above his head. He hesitated, then whipped the blade down in a dramatic slash toward his quivering throat and…

Gaugin - Fatata te Miti (By the Sea)
Paul Gauguin - Fatata te Miti
Missed.

Gashed his ear, slicing it nearly off. Momentum lost, the blade glanced off his neck.

The inebriated artist botched his suicide.

The shock of blood and pain brought Van Gogh partially back to his senses. Woozy, he wrapped the ear and staggered to the brothel. There he unsuccessfully begged the teenage seamstress to sew it back on for him, a job too much for the girl.

Vincent van Gogh hadn’t deliberately cut off his ear. He’d intended to cut his throat and bungled his suicide.

So says my hypothesis. What’s your take?

22 May 2019

War & Remembrance


The Caine Mutiny put Herman Wouk on the literary map, among the war writers Norman Mailer, James Jones, Gore Vidal, John Horne Burns, and Irwin Shaw. Wouk and Shaw were the most commercially successful, by far, which drew a certain amount of snobbish condescension. I'm a big fan of Irwin Shaw's, as it happens, but today it's Herman Wouk, who died just this week past. 


The Winds of War was published in 1971, War and Remembrance came out in '78, and somewhere in there I remember my dad and a friend talking about Wouk's authenticity. Both of these guys were Navy vets, WWII, and while they admitted it was a little convenient that Victor Henry or somebody in his family circle managed to be present at so many historical turning points - Roosevelt, Churchill, Hitler, Stalin, and a host of lesser lights, all had cameos - they were impressed by the fluency and momentum of the novels, the gathering darkness, the furious consequence. They thought Wouk had gotten it right, that the books were absolutely convincing. (My dad thought Catch-22 was pretty accurate, too, if for different reasons.)


For me, that was a strong recommendation, and when I got around to reading The Winds of War not long afterwards, the fact that it was so resolutely old-fashioned worked very much in its favor, and I read War and Remembrance because I wanted to see how the story came out. My dad used to joke that he and his crew must have seen Part V of Frank Capra's Why We Fight a dozen times, but he never found out how it ended. We know now that they Allies beat Hitler and the Japanese, but Wouk is skillful enough that we want to know whether Natalie and her uncle Aaron survive the Nazis. You could do worse as a writer.


Wouk's model is of course Tolstoy; his title gives it away. It might be worth pointing out that Tolstoy's title in his native Russian is Vojna i Mir, and the second word, mir, means both 'peace' and 'world.' You could almost translate it as Repair, or chaos made whole again. There's a lot of this in Wouk. The narrative and moral arc of War and Remembrance is return. We're delivered from an unnatural order, entropy or chaos, its power over us denied, the balance restored. You could almost call it biblical unity, if not for being reminded how little comfort history is.


The best obit was the Hollywood Reporter, and there was an extraordinarily clear-eyed piece by Anna Waldman in the New York Times. Wouk was a guy who deserves consideration.







14 December 2018

Fleshing Out The Past


Ladies and gents, we are delighted to introduce our newest SleuthSayer. Lawrence Maddox will be appearing every third Friday, and we are delighted.

I met Lawrence at Bouchercon in Long Beach years ago and we hit it off. His gripping and eccentric stories have appeared in 44 Caliber FunkandOrange County Noir. He scripted the Hong Kong kickboxing flick RAW TARGET andthe indie musical OPEN HOUSE (and how often have you read about those two genres in the same sentence?). PUBLISHERS WEEKLY called his FAST BANG BOOZE (published earlier this year by Shotgun Honey),"offbeat noir." I called it "a wild ride."Please give Larry a warm SleuthSayers welcome! - Robert Lopresti

FLESHING OUT THE PAST

by Lawrence Maddox


Ian Fleming once surprised a Polynesian dancer by reaching out and touching her while she was performing. It’s not noted where, exactly, he touched her. As for why: he was doing research. Through travel, research, and first-hand knowledge, Fleming loaded his Bond novels with sumptuous detail. He was one of the first authors to use actual product names in his fiction. Fleming was a master at describing the world he lived in, but what are the tools an author uses to flesh out the past when, unlike Fleming’s dancer, it’s no longer there for one to touch? I asked crime fiction authors Christa Faust, Robert Lopresti and Paul D. Marks how they brought the once-was into the right-now.

Before New York’s Times Square was cleaned up in the 1990s, it was a sleazy and dangerous place. Travis Bickle’s “All the animals come out at night” monologue from Taxi Driver sums it up. Christa Faust, Gary Phillips (and artist Andrea Camerini) faithfully recreate Times Square, circa 1986, in their thrilling graphic crime comic Peepland (Titan Comics, collected as a paperback, 2017). Roxy Bell is a Times Square peepshow worker, performing one-woman sex shows behind a glass window. Powerful forces will stop at nothing to retrieve a criminally incriminating VHS tape that has fallen into her hands.


“Peepland is based on my own lived experience as a kid growing up in Hell's Kitchen and as a young woman working in the Times Square peep booths,” Christa says. I consider the rich and authentic rendering of Times Square, and ask Christa if she needed to do any research for Peepland. “No research was necessary, just memories.” In an interview with Crime Fiction Lover, Christa explained that “all of the characters are based on real people I met while working in the peep booths. The central main character Roxy Bell is definitely semi-autobiographical.” In the same interview, Christa succinctly said why memories of Times Square were all she needed to create Peepland: “It’s in my blood.”

Roughly two miles away and two decades earlier, Greenwich Village was the epicenter of American folk music, a movement in sound that put political dissent on the airwaves. In Robert Lopresti’s evocative murder mystery Such a Killing Crime (Kearney Street Books, 2005), coffeehouse manager and war vet Joe Talley sifts through the many characters circling the folk revival scene in search of the murderer of his friend, an up-and-coming folk singer. Robert gives a sightseeing tour down MacDougal Street, detailing the people and points of interest along the way. Folksinger Tom Paxton, who makes a cameo, said of Robert’s writing, “If I'd known he was watching us all so carefully, I'd have behaved much better.”


I ask Robert how he brought 1963 Greenwich Village back to life. “Since I’m a librarian the obvious answer was research. That was more challenging than I expected because all the New York City newspapers were on strike that spring. The Village Voice was the main source of information.” Robert says he also spent hours at the Lincoln Center branch of the New York Public Library scouring the main folk rags of ‘63, Sing Out! and Broadside. Robert was after more than just facts in his research. “I got to interview several people I knew who lived in that time and place. That was partly to get facts but mostly to get feelings. What was it like? What did they remember the most vividly about that time? Then there was the matter of trying to think like an early sixties person. Women were ‘girls,’ whatever their age. Smoking in a hospital was perfectly normal.” I ask Robert if his research forced him to rethink past assumptions. “I was well into editing before an article in a recent newspaper pointed out that back in 1963 women were not allowed to drink in most bars in the city! After confirming that with a woman I know who went to school there I had to rewrite a whole lot of scenes. But part of the fun of the book is showing you this strange and distant culture.”


Paul D. Marks explores early 1990s Los Angeles in his two Duke Rogers private eye novels White Heat (Down & Out Books, re-issued 2018) and Broken Windows (Down & Out Books, 2018). In White Heat, Duke finds himself in the heart of the 1992 LA riots while investigating the death of an actress. Broken Windows, occurring two years later, has the Prop 187 battle over illegal immigration as the backdrop. Marks grew up in Los Angeles, and his Duke Rogers books explore how myth and memory are at odds with the often violent, seedy and corrupt LA that Duke encounters while plying his trade.

“The Internet, as well as memory, comes into play to try to get the reality of that time, but even with a good memory it’s wise to verify with multiple sources.” I ask him if there were any challenges recreating the not-so distant past. "In some ways it’s
almost harder to write that than something set in the more distant past.” Earlier in the 20th century “there were no cell phones, personal computers, answering machines or televisions at home. But all of that stuff existed in the ’90s, but in very different form than we have today. So, while someone might have had a cell phone it looked different and worked differently – some of the early ones were as big as walkie-talkies. Same with computers. So you have to be careful if you lived through that era not to transpose modern versions of the technology onto the tech of that day.”

I had similar issues with my novel Fast Bang Booze (Shotgun Honey, 2018), which takes place in the early 1990s as well. I had to rethink a lot of what I thought I remembered about cell phones from that period. A fun cell phone fact: the first commercially available handheld cell phone (made by Motorola) was nicknamed “The Brick,” and cell phones pretty much kept that design until smaller flip phones came along in the mid-nineties.


Paul D. Marks and I are both native multigenerational Angelenos, and we’ve had that “Do you remember” conversation a few times. LA, as well as being a sprawl, is also the kind of city that lets a legendary place like Schwab’s get torn down and be replaced by a Crunch Gym, so sometimes the landscape of our memories doesn’t overlap. When I’ve met fellow Angelenos and we realize that we’ve both been to the same forgotten dive bar or long-gone taco truck, there’s a bond. We belong to a dwindling club, and when the last of us shuffles off, it will be like a point in time and place has been wiped off the map.

When I wrote Fast Bang Booze, I wanted to impart what it felt like to be young, barhopping, and maybe a little out of control in the early ‘90s in LA. I just couldn’t do it all from memory, because my protagonist (a grungy twenty-something with a fantastically souped-up nervous system) is a fictional construct, and my tale is pure pulp. I had to do my research, which included buying old issues of LA Weekly and re-reading old diaries. Like Robert Lopresti, I even interviewed people. I wanted the facts and the feel.

I drove to Salt Lake City some years ago for a job. When I unlocked the door to my hotel room and stepped in, I was hit with the odor of cigarettes and Glade air freshener. It struck me in a way I still marvel at today. I would walk to my Grandmother’s house everyday from elementary school, and that was exactly how her place smelled. I swear for a moment I could picture all the objects in her living room, down to the glass fish statuette with the green tint. However briefly, I could feel the past. A piece of writing that can accomplish what Glade and cigarettes did for me, bringing the past alive, is powerful indeed.

09 May 2018

What They Ate


Not on the subject of crime, but partly on writers, more particularly on food - and the relationship of women to food - and simply because it's an utterly fascinating book, I might suggest Laura Shapiro's latest, What She Ate.

We were briefly colleagues at The Cambridge Phoenix, in what might have been a more innocent time, and then Laura moved on to Newsweek. She published Perfection Salad in 1986, which took as its baseline the late 19th century Fannie Farmer cookbook, and then took flight. It was a meditation on America's relationships with food, a social history, a political document, an attitude, a conversation with the reader. It was an eye-opener. I gobbled it up, and argued back the whole time I was reading it. It turned what was familiar and comforting inside out.  



Food writing has undergone an enormous change, and I think a lot of the credit goes to M.F.K. Fisher, although it's condescending to diminish Fisher as merely a 'food writer,' although maybe it's the reverse - we shouldn't diminish food writing as something suspect and domestic and below the salt. For sure, this is true of Laura Shapiro, whose eye, like Fisher's, is drawn to the telling detail, and how food is a reflection of our desires, carnal and otherwise. (Her second book, Something From the Oven, picks up the themes of Perfection Salad, but it's rather about the food industry than the community of the kitchen, and she wrote a lively and gracious portrait of Julia Child as well.)

What She Ate is a sort of group portrait. An approach to the canvas, so to speak, looking at six women through what they brought to the table. It appears to circle in, from the peripheral, but that's inexact, or even demeaning. As if to say, food is peripheral, or food is women's work, the kuche in between kinder and kirche. In other words, that this most basic of human activities is somehow less than serious. It's very much lose-lose. If the table is central, though, to family, to tribal instinct, to our sense of commonality, if it nourishes us in both express and literal ways, as well as the unexpressed, then what we sit down to is celebration. The breaking of bread is by no accident sacramental. How To Cook A Wolf, indeed.

The six women we're invited to sit down with are, in order of appearance, Dorothy Wordsworth, the poet's sister, the famous Brit hotelier and caterer Rosa Lewis, Eleanor Roosevelt, Eva Braun (!), the novelist Barbara Pym, and publisher and master of self-invention Helen Gurley Brown. It's enjoyable company, for the most part, although we don't quite imagine a dinner party with all six of them in the same room. We can, on the other hand, imagine being seated next to each of them on turn. The exception being Eva, who doesn't come across as being particularly interesting in her own right, and the guest list puts you off your feed, but the reason Eva's in the nearest chair is that this was likely her only means of self-expression. 

"Extraordinary circumstances produce extraordinary women," Shapiro remarks in her introduction, "food makes them recognizable." The point here being the intimacy of food, how we prepare it, and serve it, how we take it into our mouths. That we digest its nature, whether that be its earthiness, or meaty sinew, or leafy crunch. That it's in fact very much a domestic pursuit, homely in both sense of the word, does it no discredit.

The voice in What She Ate is companionable. Engaging, a little skeptical at times, but sympathetic. She seems to coax her subjects into the light, or encourage them to reveal themselves, and they can be not always self-aware. The mix is a challenge, and a bit of a puzzle, but it works. Mostly because the author is curious, and generous, open to surprise, sly and funny. What it is, is chewy.



11 September 2017

The Moments We Remember


Jim Howard, a former Hartford police officer whom I see more often than not at open mic gigs, is one of those rare people who can play harmonica and guitar simultaneously. Today, he turns 71 (Happy Birthday, Jim), which makes him almost exactly six months older than I am.

But that's not how I remember his birthday.


We all have a handful of days we remember, and they change from generation to generation. Some are good days: meeting your future spouse, for example, or the day you won some award.

There are other days we remember because they changed the way we look at the world. Forever.

One Friday afternoon in 1963, I sat in my Latin III class when the principal came on the PA to tell us that President Kennedy had been assassinated in Dallas. The next few minutes are hazy. I remember feeling like the floor had dropped out from under me, and the gorgeous German exchange student whom I never had the nerve to ask for a date turning to the boy next to her and asking him what "assassinated" meant. He answered with tears pouring down his face and most of us cried along with him.


I was sixteen. That may be the moment when I began to comprehend what I now identify as "evil."
Years later, my wife and I met Laurent Jean, a fine actor and director with whom we worked on many theatrical productions. Laurent's mother went into labor on November 22, 1963 and he was born the next day. I remember his birthday easily, too.

Five years later, I was shaving for a date with, coincidentally, another young woman from Germany when my next-door dorm neighbor burst in to tell me Martin Luther King Jr. had been shot. I watched the play that night, but I don't think either my date or I could have told anyone about it the next day. By the time I walked her back to her dorm, we could see the orange glow dancing in the sky over Pontiac, Michigan as the town went up in flames five miles away.



Barely two months later, Robert Kennedy was shot, too. The year I turned 21 featured both those killings and the riots at the Democratic National Convention in Chicago (Where former CT Governor and JFK Cabinet member Ribicoff infuriated Mayor Daly with his comments about police "Gestapo tactics" against demonstrators), not to mention the escalating Vietnam War.

By then, most of the shaping had been done and I was probably about 90% of the person I am now, for better or for worse.


One of my former students was in pre-med classes at George Washington University hospital when the Secret Service rushed Ronald Reagan into surgery after John Hinckley wounded him. He wrote me later to tell of his shock and horror when men in suits rushed in waving weapons and badges. This was his first life shattering event.

In January, 1986, I was producing a play and sat in the lobby of a local theater trying to reach my set designer on the pay phone (remember them?) and watching a portable TV replay the Challenger explosion. My director, a former Vietnam pilot and then an aeronautics engineer, watched a dozen replays and finally called the local news station to suggest what might have gone wrong. The subsequent investigation confirmed his suspicions. We didn't rehearse that night. A few people may have wired up speakers or focused a few lights, but most of us sat in the half-assembled gallery and cried for the astronauts and their families.


In September, 2001, I was teaching five classes--two for the first time--and still learning the names of 125 students. I cut through the media center toward the teachers' lounge and saw dozens of people jammed around the TV set near the AV department. They were still telling me what had happened when we watched the second plane slam into the World Trade Center.

To my students in 2001, the World Trade Center was what Kennedy's assassination was to me, and I remember feeling the curriculum shift slightly for the rest of the year.

Every generation has a horrific event that shapes it. Right now, we're dealing with several natural disasters: Harvey and Irma, the earthquake in Mexico City, tropical storm Katia, the fires in the northwest (Nope, no climate change, uh-uh). But I tend to give the man-made events more weight. We know that Nature is immense and implacable, but the assassinations and explosions remind us over and over (and we never learn, do we?) of our own hubris.

And that's what we all write about. No matter whether we write crime, romance, sci-fi, poetry, or anything else, our material is the shattering events in peoples' lives. The events that force them--and us--to surmount and survive.

The events that make us remember for too short a time that we are all human.