Categories Bookshelf, Comment

In Sebald’s book “Austerlitz” it isn’t until you’re more than halfway through that you find out what you probably knew a lot earlier, that Austerlitz left as a child during WWII, that whatever life he’d had before the war was gone, in reality, and in memory too.

Only after unlayering the years of his childhood, and then his years as a student, and then a professor, and then a loner wandering through London and talking with strangers on trips to Brussels, do both we the readers and Austerlitz himself go back to find his past.

It’s then when he’s talking with Vera in Prague, Vera being his nanny as a child and a friend of his parent, that she tells him everything he had repressed.

Vera tells Austerlitz what his father Maximilian told her about his trips to Germany in the 1930s, about the “positive horror” it filled him with, watching the country become ready for greatness. It’s hard to excerpt this part, because the effect of the way Sebald writes is its buildup, over pages, and the sentences that don’t end but that you can trace through the pages. Here’s how he begins a description of a Hitler rally in Nuremberg:

Hours before his arrival, the entire population of Nuremberg and indeed people from much further afield, crowds flocking in not just from Franconia and Bavaria but from the most remote parts of the country, Holstein and Pomerania, Silesia and the Black Forest, stood shoulder to shoulder all agog with excitement along the predetermined route, until at last, heralded by roars of acclamation, the motorcade of heavy Mercedes limousines came gliding at walking pace down the narrow alley which parted the sea of radiant uplifted faces and the arms outstretched in yearning. Maximilian had told her, said Vera, that in the middle of this crowd, which had merged into a single living organism racked by strange, convulsive contractions, he had felt like a foreign body about to be crushed and then excreted.

What emerges from these pages is not that Maximilian saw it coming, but that he knew what he was witnessing. But Maximilian didn’t need to know the future—he didn’t need to know the camps and the gas and the dead children and the death marches—to know that these crowds and their need for Hitler’s promises; their worship of them, was its own evil. And all because, in Maximilian’s words to Vera, repeated to Austerlitz who then tells them to the narrator and the narrator to us, he recalls Hitler’s speeches coming through the wireless, “drumming into the Germans the notion that the promise of their own greatness was about to be fulfilled.”

And their wild, hungry, bottomless acceptance of it.

Maybe you don’t need 1939 to be held accountable for 1933.


Two Orlando stories

Categories Comment, Journalism

As it turned out I wrote two very different stories about Orlando this week. One about the past, one about the recurring present.

For Timeline: In the 70s, Orlando’s gay bars catalyzed a community

It’s a story that deserved to be told better. Which it was to some extent by the memory palace, in a 10-minute tribute to White Horse, the maybe-oldest gay bar in the United States. It’s been around since the thirties.

Listen. A White Horse.

For CJR: The Fundamental dilemma of covering the Orlando shooting

It boils down to this:

But ultimately, with as many answers as we report and confirm and document, one unanswerable question will remain: the question of why a man would pick up a gun and shoot 100 people while they danced.



Categories Comment, Half of Myself

That we’re aware of it (and by we I mean I) does not absolve us of signing away our lives. What has happened now that the childhood virtue, the long hours in rebellious books, is temptation and escape?

Which is it? A life to take and take the best of music and wisdom and sentences, or to add to the beast? Consume or create, the only options.

Who is being hurt? Are we depriving ourselves of the world or depriving the world of us? The answer is among friends. I’ll send you a letter and then publish it for all. Am I a writer or a millennial? Am I enriching myself or drowning?

The redemption is a world submerged in water, engulfed and breathing truth, knowledge and light. Says Maimonides. A frightening image in some ways, if you’re afraid of water. I wonder if we’re not already there. There is no need to wake up, except for better dreams.

We are not prepared for infinity, but it has found us.

Consume and be consumed.

The exodus story

Categories Half of Myself

If you’re reading this (don’t worry it’s not too late) you’re probably someone who has come across an exodus story in your life. It’s the story of a religious person, preferably a Hasidic Jew, that finds the world, embraces it, and leaves their community.

It makes for a great story. It’s amazingly American. The search for freedom and the willingness to sacrifice for it. It’s a great reminder for those who grew up with only freedom what it’s like to breathe it, to have it be your air.

It’s also, like all skeletal plots, overused, oversimplified, probably less dramatic and definitely less linear than described. So let me walk you through some of the tropes. Actually, it’s just one trope. It’s what I get asked most often. And that’s how my family’s taken it.

Let me explain to you why that’s not the most important part.

1) There is no dramatic excommunication. Usually, the family figures out how to adjust itself to accommodate you and vice versa. They love you and you love them and in a way it makes it tougher. You know in your heart how much you’ve disappointed them but they won’t tell it to your face, and you know how tough it is for them not to ask you when you’re getting married when they deeply believe that that’s the only way you’ll be happy.

It’s probably a lot more similar than you realize to leaving your rural conservative hometown and coming back a raging liberal New Yorker, or what happens when you’re 29 and you’ve only just settled on a career that you’re not entirely happy with, or when the little brother that looked up to you surpasses you in everything. Every family has its drama that happens completely undramatically at a kitchen table, or in the phone calls about Christmas plans, or the quick weekend home, or when your parents move out of the old house where you grew up, and what’s left is only an old couple with memories that may or may not be real.

2) Some of it is not drama at all. It’s boring shit like how do I get a college degree when I’m 23 and I’ve never heard the terms elective, major, general ed, as they relate to college degrees? How do I choose a career when I’ve never even met a journalist or a biologist? How do I pay for college if I have no skills except reading Hebrew? How do I know what size jeans I am? How do I order a drink at a bar? How do I know when a boy is flirting with me?

3) This isn’t only about community. This is about an entire worldview. If you’ve ever had your heart broken over a love you thought was real, and you truly believed you’d devote the rest of your life to, and then it falls apart and he turns out to be a jerk, you know what it’s like to wonder if you’ll ever trust yourself again. Try losing trust in yourself, your parents, your community, your books, your way of examining the world and interpreting and digesting it. Try telling yourself that all those things you love — the songs and the tales and that feeling when you enter the hushed women’s section during services and the men are intoning a familiar part of the prayers — are a liability. Tell yourself that you need to abandon that for now because it’s too seductive.

Later, you’ll learn to be okay with the human need for familiarity and belonging, but by then it will be too late. Because by then you won’t belong, and then the intonations and the aphorisms and the shared intellectual foundation will be shells. They’ll be a way to visit a once populated land. They’ll be museums and monuments, a way to mourn a civilization you once knew.

Now that we know everything

Categories Comment, Journalism

Once, journalists knew some things, but not all things. So they reported on some murders, the ones that raised eyebrows. They wrote about some events around town, and some that happened far away. They wrote most stories about the unordinary and occasionally questioned the ordinary.

Now we know everything. We know every murder in Los Angeles, ever person who’s been killed by police in 2015, every mass shooting in 2015, every mass grave found in Mexico uncovered in the last 10 years and how many bodies in each one. We even know every insult Trump has made on Twitter in the last 7 months.

Sure, there are limits. We know every school shooting in 2015 as Vox defines it. We know only as much detail as we’ve chosen to collect, within the timeframe we’ve chosen. And we sometimes use words that no numbers at all can explain. If a man is black, what makes him black? If a man is unarmed, what makes him unarmed?

Certainly, knowing the tally is not everything. There are other questions. About why it happened and what’s to be done about it, and who were the people before they were in the spreadsheet, and who are they now.

Somehow though, reading the ‘Every Time This Thing Happened, Mapped’ stories feels like an ending instead of a beginning. The definitiveness feels heavy. Like we should take a moment just to recite the names, and that will take up all the time we have.

This isn’t true only of journalists by the way. There are fields now for computational sociology and computational criminology and computational everything else. It’s another way of saying big data. Ocean big data. Space size data. Data data data.

It’s so enticing, this notion of knowing, of capturing the squirming human psyche in a gridlike model. But have we?

Already in 1921 Walter Lippman was lamenting the impossiblities of knowing everything and the weakness of applying the certainty of physics to the haphazard knowing of the social sciences, which sounds remarkably like journalism. He writes, ”If you are going to Armageddon, you have to battle for the Lord, but the political scientist is always a little doubtful whether the Lord called him.”

What a wonderful way to describe it.

Maybe as time goes on we’ll find out that with enough data even the human is knowable, but at least for the foreseeable future we’ll continue to elude ourselves.

Review: Between the World and Me

Categories Bookshelf

Between the World and Me
Between the World and Me by Ta-Nehisi Coates

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I don’t feel qualified to review this in my own words, but here are some of Coates’ own that struck me.


On writing/thinking:

“She also taught me to write, by which I mean not simply organizing a set of sentences into a series of paragraphs, but organizing them as a means of investigation.”

“It began to strike me that the point of my education was a kind of discomfort.”

“I remember watching her eat with her hands and feeling wholly uncivilized with my fork.”

“They gave the art of journalism, a powerful technology for seekers.”


On race/identity:

“My great error was not that I had accepted someone else’s dream but that I had accepted the fact of dreams.”

“The violence rose from the fear, like smoke from a fire.”

“According to this theory “safety” was a higher value than justice.”

“We know that the authorities charged with investigating the shooting did very little to investigate the officer and did everything in their power to investigate Prince Jones.”

View all my reviews