Saturday, March 10, 2007

One Boy's New York

Photos by Dylan

Do you know how many taxis you might pass during a trip from W. 78th & Central Park, say, to E. 28th & Madison Avenue? I didn't either, but my informant informs me that the answer is 214.

From the Upper East Side, and the Met, acrosss the park to the Museum of Natural History to Murray Hill, and back up to Times Square, and the Lego-sculptures at 44th & Broadway, in and out of delis, cabs, the subway, coffee shops, up and down elevators in our classic old hotel, we enjoyed a warming trend in the City today.

I got to see the City through the eyes of my ten-year-old partner:

* "I know where we are, because I recognize that newsstand. It's the one with all of that inappropriate content."

* "The only thing that scares me about New York is the cockroaches."
(me: 'Have you seen any cockroaches?' him: 'Well, no, but they still scare me.')

* "The thing about this place is they even charge you for a glass of water here. Also, the prices seem to be rising. Yesterday I bought a donut and it cost one dollar. Today, I bought another donut in the same deli and it cost $1.60."

* "This is a great town for pigeons." (Translation: This is a great town.)

* "This is a good place for Sidewalk Images , because there are lots of people and they throw stuff away, like at home."

* "But Silicon Valley isn't a good place at all for Sidewalk Images. It doesn't seem like anybody lives there, it's just filled by people working on computers and they never throw away any trash."

* "Wow, look at all of those people. You're not going to see that many people anywhere but in New York."

* "Everybody wonders why I always wear this hat. Well, you lose 70% of your bodyheat through your head, so that's one good reason. But I also wear it in summer, when it's hot."

* "I guess I'm one of those people who likes to be hot becausse I definitely don't like to be cold."

* "I always like your friends, because they are brilliant, that's one reason. I like Nan, she's really nice; and Michelle and Jeff. I like Katrina, (the editor of The Nation), and I like Norman (Birnbaum)."

* "Norman has the coolest tie, it is a replica of an old religious text from medieval times. I really like that."

(Note: I believe Norman has about 72 years on Dylan, but they share certain appealing traits -- directness, a strong sense of humor, appreciation of the oddball in all of us, and a love of history. One difference is Norman is an eminant historian with vast knowldege, and Dylan is a little boy just beginning to explore history. He has read a lot about Germany between and during the two world wars and about Hitler. So, he was suitably impressed when Norman told him he had friends who were part of the anti-Hitler German resistance during the war."

I haven't yet been able to sort through all the ideas we discussed at The Nation yesterday, but we did attain a type of consensus that there has recently been a turning point that may now favor those who recognize climate change and globalization as the driving forces that may begin spawning a newly global politics soon.

The would-be Superpower is starting to lose its swagger. There will be no victory in Iraq, of course; the only question, just as in Vietnam a generation ago, is what kind of defeat we will suffer, and when.

The politics of the moment suggest Al Gore may get another chance to win election as President -- he is the logical choice -- though who knows whether he would be allowed to take office this time, or once again be pushed aside by fiat.

Dylan's explorations of the military past consumed most of our museum time this trip, but next time we'll have to visit MOMA.

There, he can view some of the work of his favorite painter, Jasper Johns. When I asked him why he loves museums so much, his answer was simple and to the point.

"They give you just enough information so your imagination can do the rest."


Friday, March 09, 2007

Chair of the Board

As you can clearly see from this photograph, young Dylan Weir, just 10.9 years old, was at the center of the table at today's editorial board meeting of the most venerable weekly magazine, which is now not only the oldest (142 years and counting) but the only (since the sad sell-out by The New Republic two weeks ago to Canadian owners) independent weekly news magazine in America.

You heard that right: the only one. Its name is The Nation, and if you do not yet subscribe, please do. This may be the only publication left that will tell you the truth about the post-Katrina Gulf Coast, as well as why the U.S. remains in an unholy alliance with Israel; why the Democrats should win the White House next year, and why they should not...

If all of this becomes too confusing, please email me, and I will ask Dylan to answer your questions...


Thursday, March 08, 2007

Breath Vision

Hello from New York, where the temperature is sinking to 11 degrees tonight. It's too cold for many people to be out on the streets past midnight, but those who do venture out can see their breath.

The country still looks so vast and unsettled from the air, no matter how many times you've criss-ccrossed it.

Always, I try on clear nights, like tonight, to glimpse my homeland from five miles up -- Michigan, with its distinctive outlines carved by the Great Lakes.

But I can never be sure.

This fine old hotel, marble and wood, fountains, and low lights, is magestic.

My travel partner is sleepy.

So am I.


Wednesday, March 07, 2007

All we have is the time we spend

Here I sit, in one of the most desirable cities in the richest country the world has ever known, among people so privileged and isolated from global realities that most of my fellow Americans don't have even a vague idea of what a pampered existence they have come to take for granted.

I do know, but only because I refused to go to fight in the Vietnam War when I was drafted in 1969; instead, I escaped this country as a Peace Corps Volunteer to Afghanistan. By the time the draft board caught up with me, I was in Kabul, and the Peace Corps, bless them, ruled that it was up to me to decide whether I wanted to voluntarily return to the U.S. and go into the military, or remain in one of the most remote of all Central Asian countries to teach English for two years.

Not a difficult decision. We were studying Dari, the local dialect of Farsi (Persian), which was at that time was the main language of government, education, and business in a fragile emerging democracy (actually a benign kingdom) that was Afghanistan in that era.

I scored the highest in our group of Volunteers on the language proficiency test after the three-month intensive training, and my wife scored second highest. Our reward was that we got to pick the part of the country where we would be stationed, so we chose the most remote town available -- Taloqan -- in the far northwest, not far from the wild region where China, Russia, Kashmir, Pakistan, and Afghanistan all come together, along the narrow Wakhan Corridor.

In those days, this area was an ungovernable mountainous tier where rival groups of marauders -- Kirghiz, Kazakh, Uzbek, Turkoman -- not to mention various nomadic tribes, the kochi, the gypsies -- all raided each other and all of the towns along this stretch of the ancient Silk Route made famous by Marco Polo with such regularity that no one dared travel the roads at night unless they were heavily armed.

In our time in Taloqan, we witnessed what it is like for a tribal society to try and make the transition to a modern democracy. Largely a Sunni country, Afghanistan was far more receptive to a separation of church and state than neighboring Iran, where the Shia majority insists on a merging of government and religion, which upon a close reading of the Quran, is arguably the correct interpretation of Islamic theology.

Illiteracy was so much the norm in Taloqan that even as a semi-fluent (3+ on a scale of 5) Dari speaker, my primitive writing and reading ability in the Arabic script that was used by Dari-speakers in letters and reports was probably better than 90% of the local population.

Therefore, there were professional letter-writers in the town's bazaars to serve the local population's needs to communicate with relatives or friends in distant cities.

And so much more. But I fear I am growing tired tonight. The title of this post refers to a sense I have that the more conscious we become about how we actually spend our time, day to day, the better we will feel as our time to exit this life approaches.

Most of the people I knew in Taloqan of any age, perhaps all of them, are now dead. Yet I live on, for now. Vivid memories of faces are small comfort in the knowledge that those lives have almost certainly been squandered.

We live here, in the fattest and most entitled of lands. How can we find our way to the place we need to go -- adopting a modesty, an asceticism, a sustainable lifestyle, a smaller footprint than we now so grossly create through our wasteful consumer lifestyle?

When will we see our way forward clearly? When will those with SUVs sporting environmental messages finally pull over to the side of the road, abandon their climate-destroying machines, and start again walking on foot toward the future that otherwise will never arrive for our children and grandchildren.

Will it take an eco-disaster for us to act? The answer to that question is truly, Bob Dylan, "Blowin' in the wind."

And, ask not for whom that final wind blows, my friend, because you already know the answer. As Katrina blew into the Gulf Coast of Mississippi a year and a half ago, destroying all that residents there held dear, this global climate change wind blows toward you and toward me.

There will be no escape.


Tuesday, March 06, 2007

Life's joys and tragedies

veggies for dinner

One of my favorite things in life is to discover a new startup company that has the potential to make it in this competitive economy of ours. Even more satisfying is the startup that doesn't only have as its objective making money but helping transform our society from its current imperfect iteration to something new, special, transformative.

Think of the beauty of a truly sustainable society, one whose extractive activities when weighed against its renewable inputs net nets out at zero. Ecotopia!

Today, in the old Flood Building on Market Street in San Francisco, I had the pleasure of meeting the founder and the staff of, one of the most hopeful developments on the web in my memory. James Elsen and his colleagues are committed to using modern technology to build a social movement that just might, in the end, help save our sorry species' ass on this planet.

Because, make no mistake about it: we are heading toward ecological disasters of unimaginable proportions. The first big one has already happened -- Hurricane Katrina. We can hide if we wish but we cannot avoid the truth, which is that this was the greatest "natural" disaster in our nation's history.

The scale of damage is so far beyond anyone's ability to describe that the only way you can hope to grasp what happened down there on the Gulf Coast is to go and see for yourself.

Sadly, Katrina is just the first of the Monster Storms that will be visiting our shores now we have unleashed a warming of the oceans. Thankfully, Al Gore's documentary, An Inconvenient Truth, won an Academy Award; hopefully more people will rent it and consider its implications, because we need each and every person to get involved if there is any hope at all of avoiding an eco-collapse that will wipe out 90% of the globe's human population.

It is inspiring to know that there are those, like, on the frontlines of our collective battle to save life on earth. You are either part of the solution or you're part of the problem.

Let's do this altogether.


Tonight, my 12-year-old athlete played like the hero of mine he is. His basketball team made the playoffs, and although he played only a few minutes in the first half, his teammates clung to a small lead, 8-7. At some point on the third period, his coaches put him in, and he played all the rest of the way in a game that ended up tied 21-21. In the process, he drove to the basket and made a key lay-up, and dragged down a ton of rebounds, plus a few steals, blocks, and assists. He was the designated passer on every inbound pass down the stretch and he successfully executed them all.

In overtime, he and his mates prevailed for a thrilling 25-24 victory, in easily the best basketball game at any level I have ever seen.

I suppose you have to be a parent, and to have a son who plays sports, to fully appreciate how this feels. Suffice it to say that I am extremely disappointed that I will miss their championship game Friday, as I'll be in New York.

But today, I witnessed the competitive spirit in my son that gives me a deep-seated pride, as a man and a father. It is hard to explain, and may be at first glance inconsistent with my environmentalism, as expressed above. But, no, we need males and females both, at their best, to do this thing -- save our planet and ourselves.

True heroism comes in many forms, but it always is dedicated to the greater good, whether a JV basketball team or a global environmental movement. In the end, our goal should be that we all can be heroes.


Monday, March 05, 2007

Half Empty and Burning

There is so much misunderstanding between us, the common members of a human race. Little slights mushroom into huge disputes, often based on nothing at all.

You do this, I think that.

I say this, you infer that.

You imply this, I hear that.

It sometimes seems as if our cup can only be half-full, given our conditioning, no matter who we are or where we grew up. Even if this is one of the last moments in history where it is true, we are still tribal people, casting around anxiously for others who seem familiar.

Thus, tonight, in honor of our collective predicament, worldwide, I am burning a candle in a half-bottle. Its odd configuration represents our uncertain purchase on this planet. None of us can be certain who we are anymore, or how that connects with our individual family histories.


Last night, after they were all three asleep, I went into my living room, where my kids have insisted on sleeping since before Christmas, when I allowed it out of a wish to help that season feel magic to them, as it did to me in my childhood, in Royal Oak in the '50s.

It was Dylan's turn to sleep on the couch, and once he'd completed his art project, which was the object of my previous post today, he snuggled in under the covers and fell into a deep sleep. His gorgeous red curly hair stuck out from his blanket, on our rare warm night. After all, as he so precisely noted earlier last night, "we lose 75% of our body heat through our heads," which is one of his explanations of why he always wears his Russian Red Army Cossack hat at night, at day, and usually at all points in-between.

But last night he didn't, thus my view of his angelic curls.

Meanwhile, on the mattress on the floor slept Julia (8) and Aidan (12), side by side. These two have such a chemical aversion to each other at times that the tension is palpable. Until very recently, they often broke into violent fights -- kicking, hitting, yelling -- followed by the inevitable tears and protestations that the other was the one truly at fault.

I don't know if they are maturing, or if they sense my inability to handle their fights any longer, but this past weekend we had no fights -- that's right, zero!

Sleeping next to each other last night they looked like the most innocent of angels. They even agreed to switch sides so each one had the side of the mattress (s)he felt most comfortable on.


When I was a child, my mother went through a particularly difficult stretch when she seemed to feel that everyone was out to hurt her feelings. I listened to her stories and I felt sorry for her, and silently I seethed with anger at those who had offended her.

Slowly, however, I began to perceive that these were her battles, not mine. I'm not sure she sensed the change in me, because in her eyes we were truly fused. Thus, when I started liking certain girls in my teens, she immediately saw that and made a point to surface my attractions to the whole family.

That was the kiss of death to my feelings for any girl. There was no way I was going to substantiate my mother's theories. Thus, did my sexuality migrate underground.


All of us, in our 30's, 40's and 50's, experience the inevitable loss of friends and lovers. Life seems to spin us around in circles, sending some of those we love most out of our grasp, much like an astronaut whose lifeline has been snipped fades away into endless space, soundlessly.

There are no words as we lose each other; there are no sounds.

Just the empty sadness and regret at what seemed to be combined with what we imagined might have been.

My advice, tonight, as a half-bottle holds my white candle burning brightly in this strangest of nights, is this: Don't turn away from your feelings. Don't turn away from the people you love.

Resolve to bring the other half of your bottle to the party, and make both of you whole again. Life is so short! What are you going to do about the wildness of it all? What?

As for me, I burn this candle in the night, as I eat comfort foods and listen to comfort music. Later I will read uncomfortable books and maybe watch The Daily Show, for relief. Of course, my glass remains half-full, but that doesn't mean I can't laugh about it...


Secret Agent Man

It's l0 pm on a Sunday night, and a ten-year-old boy can't get to sleep. Instead he sits up in bed, with a small lamp on over his shoulder, and draws. His concentration is formidable; he barely even notices me studying him from across the room.

He has his knees drawn up, wrapped as he is in one of my oversized T-shirts (or what we call Night Shirts), this particular one is bright red and has a Detroit Red Wings insignia, signifying my family roots in Detroit and Canada, lands of the northern ice.

To grow up where I did, you had to learn to ice skate. During much of winter freeze, we could skate to school, to the store, to each other's houses. We also could transform the cornfields to hockey rinks, albeit with an unusual number of hazards in the form of dried, bent corn stalks pushing up here and there.

We'd strap on our skates over wool socks, long underwear, and jeans, shirts, sweatshirts, gloves, scarves and wool caps. Everyone had a hockey stick. As we divided up into teams, we'd pick as our identity one of the six professional teams:

Montreal Canadians
Toronto Maple Leafs
Chicago Blackhawks
Detroit Red Wings
New York Rangers
Boston Bruins

That's all there were. Hockey was a game strictly known in the north, in places cold enough for kids to grow up skating and pushing the puck along the ice ahead of them.

As a teenager, I rebounded from my earlier bout with rheumatic fever and became big, strong, fast, in love with the outdoors air. I could skate as fast as anyone but I couldn't stop very effectively, which led to a pretty out-of-control playing style.

Hockey is controlled insanity at best, with vicious checking and collisions and the ever-present danger you'll be knocked senseless by that hard rubber puck flying around at speeds that easily broke windows, bottles, and bones.

It helped to be fearless in the way testosterone-enriched young boys are. I don't remember ever getting badly injured, just bruised and cut up enough for the whole thing to have felt like "fun."


Last night's young artist was obsessing about a different kind of excitement -- the intrigue of "investigative reporters" and "FBI agents," he later told me. By the time he was done with his drawing, turned out the lamp and rolled over to sleep, he'd completed an evocative little scene, with details to tell his story.

I've reproduced it here; clicking on reveals an enlarged version where the details become clearer through a smoky haze, almost the a scene from an old black-and-white movie...


Sunday, March 04, 2007

Heat-seeking pocket

My idea of entertainment today, a still, hot day in San Francisco, was watching Al Gore's documentary on global warming, and reading Lawrence Wright's The Looming Tower: Al-Qaeda and the Road to 9/11.

It's not that I am terminally serious, or that I don't know how to have fun. But absorbing non-fiction becomes habitual to a journalist. I've written and edited stories about climate change since the '70s; and about Osama bin-Laden since the '90s; about terrorism since the '80s and about environmental issues since 1968.

So, you could argue, enough already -- I probably already know more about these subjects than is going to do me or anyone else any good. But synthesizing these new sets of facts about two dreadfully depressing topics seems to be one of my favorite forms of brain exercise.

At least until basebaall season returns!

Walking around the neighborhood, smelling blossoms and snapping photos, I found myself wondering who so many people I've known throughout my life turn away from knowledge. I first became aware of the anti-intellectualism in my native Midwest in the '60s.

There was a deep-seated distrust of "eggheads," closely related to fears about Communists, homosexuals, Jews, academia, and complicated ideas.

I worked in a dairy plant in the summers when I was a teenager, among men with little education and sore backs. Some were men of very few words. Oddly, there were two sets of brothers in the plant, and both were estranged from each other. These brothers never spoke to each other, and when I asked others about it, they shrugged, "Been that way for years."

Sometimes, it was comical when their jobs required them to communicate with each other. They would stand there helplessly until someone stepped in and handled the information exchange.

My little basketball star is ready for his playoff game this Tuesday. He practices shooting hoops over and over. Not long ago, I could compete with him in the old game called "21." Yesterday, I thought I had started out pretty good with a 14-point run. Aidan then reeled off 44 straight points. During his shooting streaks the ball never even touches the rim.

It's all net.

Tonight, we have our windows open for the first time in many months. It is almost errie when the winds that normally build each afternoon stay away. "Earthquake weather," that's what the old-timers call it.

After eating pork roast, mashed potatoes, snow peas, persian cucumber, and either ice cream or cookies, the kids all had baths and shampooed their hair. We're all ready for another week. It's school at 8 for them, and 101 South for me, and my office by 8:30.

New York is just days away. Maybe this warm spell will visit there, too, helping leaves burst out in Central Park?