For Vinod

March 3, 2023


I only met Vinod Hopson in person once, when he was our guide and friend for FotoFest 2012 – taking me and other journalists around the galleries and his Houston, engaging us with the Russian curators and artists for a show that like many Fotofests, has come to define international artistic exchange – it was an unprecedented  exhibit of modern Russian photography – spanning the decades from 1950 to the present –  an endeavor based on years of developing deep connections with Russian curators and galleries, relationships and care that were clear in the shows themselves and in the confidence the foreign curators had in Fotofest to carry out a vision of their life’s work. Such an expansive and ambitious biennial could not have worked without it, and in a world of proliferating festivals, remains so singular and meaningful. 

Vinod brought us into the beautiful orbit of Wendy Watriss & Fred Baldwin ( Fred passed in 2021), and his own beautiful orbit. I don’t know FotoFest as well as others, I only attended that one, and wrote a preview of another about photography from the Arab world, but I stayed in touch with Vinod and Fotofest, and I suspect as much as anyone, he helped Wendy & Fred ensure that their intentions for Fotofest were realized. Vinod helped design and enable their legacy of creating the kind of open and generous, deep and ongoing, collaborations that nurture art and create enduring relationships – maintaining the highest of standards for art while remaining open and supportive – possessing the kind of confidence in taste, talent and potential, with an enormous vision. Wendy, Fred, Vinod and the rest of the Fotofest team brought worlds and talents together for the long term, creating a far-reaching meaningful community. 

Vinod was and will remain the gold standard of how to become a vital part of the art world, of any world, while remaining a sincere, warm and magnanimous person, by making it a given rather than a virtue, by making it an obvious strength that set the tone for others. I don’t think he had a choice in the matter, that’s who he was, but he was deeply intelligent and observant, and in the art world, in the rest of the world, long enough to have gained just enough cynicism to know what remaining open and genuine meant – making his a far more meaningful sincerity and desire to connect people, to lead, to open the world to others and encourage, support and never feel like there is something to be lost in giving of yourself. 

 Our last interaction was this past summer when he saw on Instagram that I was headed to London. He immediately connected me with his friend from Houston who had become a curator at the Tate Modern, and I not only then got to meet this friend but see his exhibit at the Tate and learn more about him and his work that will carry forward for future connection. Vinod also sent Miguel Aragon my way when Miguel moved to New York and was looking for a place to stay – Miguel not only became my roommate for several years but is one of my dearest friends. 

But even just that one week in Houston would have been enough to impart his traits of openness, warmth, curiosity and connecting each person with exactly what they needed, it’s rare and it’s tragic he is gone so soon, such a singular person who was able to instill an immediate light and openness to the world in each person he met. 

World AIDS Day & The World We Want

December 1, 2021

Over the past two years, like many New Yorkers, I’ve been preoccupied, at times obsessed, with how the city will reconfigure itself amid the COVID pandemic. Also like many others, I’ve been poring over texts about the city’s past, to search for clues about the present. I often return to a book first gifted to me by my friend Joan a few years ago when we were both working at an urban resilience organization. Sarah Schulman’s Gentrification of the Mind, Witness To A Lost Imagination, fleshed out so many inchoate ideas that I and many others who are either from here or have been here for a long time, walk around with as part of our geographic, moral, and historical compass. They are the vague and sometimes more subtle and substantive flashes of insight about change, gentrification and how and why the city has evolved in the ways it has – the fiscal crisis of the 70’s; the subsequent years of austerity measures and scaling back of basic services; white flight; Reagan; the artists and the marginalized who saw the possibilities within all of that; those who had no choice but stay put; the Bloomberg years and the remaking and rezoning of the built environment– those of us who care deeply have always had our narratives.

Schulman, for me at least, was the first to make the radical but clear link between AIDS, and not only gentrification of the built environment, but with the erasure of the past that has delivered a more passive and less livable present (for all of us). Schulman shows how the years of AIDS’ peak, when tens of thousands of New Yorkers were dying (over 80,000 New Yorkers have now died of AIDS) coincided with the years of massive changeover of tenants, skyrocketing rents, and an untethering to what was displaced, and who was displaced (‘81-‘96). The acceleration of the process by, as she notes, the suburban children of white flight, remade the Lower East Side and East Village especially, in a tide that washed over the differences that provided the area with its historical cultural ferment and vitality.  She engages with the arguments about artists being just as responsible for laying the groundwork for this, she is not naïve. But she makes a very compelling case about how the replacement tenants often engaged with the city so differently, arrived here for such radically different reasons.  She quotes from Penny Arcade’s 1996 performance piece, “New York values”:

Bohemia has nothing to do with poverty or with wealth. It is a value system that is not based on materialism…There are people who go to work every day in a suit and tie who are bohemian and will never had a bourgeois mentality like the loads of people who graduate from art school and are completely bourgeois…There is a gentrification that happens to buildings and neighborhoods and there is a gentrification that happens to ideas. (Schulman, p. 29)

Schulman writes about exactly the definition of privilege that so many people become hysterical over today – moving into and within a space, within a time and place, as if it had no past at all.

I was reminded of Schulman’s book very specifically a few months ago when I first met Jane Friedman (no relation) and Susan Martin. I was lucky to be connected to them and to the new Howl! HA/HA space on the Bowery and learn about the new gallery and archive that helps restore and continue the legacy and lived experience of the neighborhood in the face of its near permanent erasure by gentrification and AIDS.

As I wrote then in The Economist:

The marginal eventually turned mainstream, however, and such hip enclaves drew people back to the city. The price of property increased, and many artistic institutions and long-time residents were forced out by rising rents. The AIDS crisis of the 1980s also decimated the community that had formed in the East Village. Many singular talents died from the disease, taking with them both the spirit and the specific history of the place. Their deaths helped spur the area’s gentrification, as landlords leased apartments in this now-trendy sector to new, wealthier tenants.

Jane Friedman, who did publicity for the Woodstock Festival in her 20s and later managed the career of Ms Smith, says she founded Howl! Arts as a non-profit organisation in 2003 “as a direct result of [her] concern about the loss of East Village history due to the AIDS pandemic” and because of the ageing of the artists. She opened the first permanent Howl! venue in 2015, a space celebrating the work and legacy of Arturo Vega, who had died in 2013 and was known as the “Fifth Ramone”. (He was the band’s art director—see picture—and created their famous logo.) Ms Friedman’s colleague, Susan Martin, one of the company’s creative directors, says that Vega embodied the spirit of Howl! because he “represented someone who was completely immersed in the culture, and also reached out to and encouraged younger creators”.

Schulman’s book is critical for understanding the erasure of a collective past that is central to New York City’s story and yet which remains so underexamined. The lives lost to AIDS remain mostly an unindividuated mass without an appreciation for their impact on the city and the role of memory. This near-criminal oblivion (homophobia, racism, classism, blame and then subsequent oblivion of the marginalized led to far more deaths than would have occurred otherwise) spurred an erasure accelerated by death and a replacement by many who do not see a past in their present world. The value of the individual lives lost and our collective ability to feel that value concretely (say as concretely as we feel the deaths of those who died on 9/11), must be an ongoing effort if we are to reclaim a more active role in our present history, as it continues to furiously unfold before us.


May 13, 2020

RIP JoeyKid*

dumont sign


Like so many of us, Joseph began shaping my life before I ever met him. Most Fridays in the springs and summers of 2001 and 2002, my cousin Greg and I would have dinner at the charming neighborhood restaurant near Greg’s place on Powers Street in Williamsburg. I’d emerge from the Lorimer stop on the G, my eyes automatically scanning for Dumont’s vertical green neon sign – a new landmark quickly internalized as part of my city map.  Neither an upstart, nor a striver, Dumont seemed simply to have quietly arrived, only announcing itself in contrast to the glare of Kellogg’s Diner across Union Ave. And then in contrast to the scores of new bars and restaurants mushrooming around it in the years that followed. It was my go-to, especially for close friends visiting from out of town, whom I wanted to take to the parts of the city that were an extension of my home. It even had different rooms I could choose from depending on the occasion, or the company, and when I did meet Joseph a few years later, I told him I could never forgive him for redesigning the middle room and taking it away. A small nook with a bar, in the hallway between the front main dining room and the large garden in back, time seemed to stop in that small space. One day I arrived and it was “paved over” – refitted with a few rows of more seating. Through the years I also witnessed the garden grow from an informal gravel-floored back yard with fairy lights, to a beautifully landscaped and highly designed outdoor area that rivaled the front room as the heart of the place.  I can’t remember my last meal there, but I do remember convincing my dad and his sister Debbie to have a family brunch at Dressler, Joseph’s new creation. On Broadway, not far from Diner and Peter Luger’s, it also happened to be around the corner from where my grandma Ethel grew up and where the Blum family candy store once stood. I was very excited to share our experience with Joseph.


Joseph and I only hung out in person a handful of times over the years. But both because of the intimacy and immediacy of social media, and his personality – present, immediate, generous – he was a large presence. He shared himself and told great stories, which included his own bio – an Irish-Italian kid growing up in Williamsburg in the 70’s and 80’s, in a building on Grand Street that most of his extended Italian family eventually left – his dad reluctant to follow because of his beloved pigeons. Ultimately, this brilliant and energetic artist and visionary realized the potential he saw around him, and helped catalyzed the transformation of the borough of Brooklyn. I’m sure he had mixed feelings about that, and did eventually decamp to his place upstate, but we never completely got into it, perhaps a pact native New Yorker’s have with each other (at least for me, why ruin a nice moment).

I last saw Joseph at the new beautiful world he cultivated for himself near Woodstock. His voracious appetite for reading, for riding (motorcycles), for people, for the world, and his energy to take it all on, continued (and continue) to inspire. I feel so lucky to have crossed paths with him and can’t completely believe that a life force like his was human and extinguishable.


*Joseph Foglia passed away last month. I had’t seen him in a couple of years and we didn’t speak often, but his personality did not allow you to feel anything but close. And he had a  huge impact on my life and my experience of New York, as he did on pretty much anyone who’s lived in NYC over the last 20+ years, whether they are aware of it or not. His restaurant designs and visions for the potential for his borough, even (especially) during the rough and tumble of the 70’s, 80’s and early 90’s, have had an impact that is almost impossible to measure. And he was more personally central to so many lives, whether through art, design, cycling, motorcycling, or just being an irrepressibly curious and caring person. Such a loss, still hard to believe. (Just a note: his personal bio is based on my memories of his stories from years ago, if I have gotten anything wrong, please let me know).


Pandemic Pangs: May 1, 2020

May 1, 2020

Sorry We Missed You, American Factory, and the ever-elusive dignity of work and a living wage in America


sorrywemissed youboxes


In February, in that land before time, a friend and I attended a New America Foundation Social Cinema event, at Betaworks Studios, around the corner from the Whitney Museum. A warm and sleek open space, Betaworks was both a perfect and slightly off-putting venue for the screening and panel that followed. It is a start-up incubator, a place for innovation and disruption – two words now almost completely perverted by the unintended consequences of a tech gold rush that has enabled so much of our current broken labor model (and the belief that solutions are best left to the private sector).


That night, a hundred or so gathered for a preview screening of Ken Loach’s most recent production, “Sorry We Missed You” (now available as a rental from Film Forum) about a family in Newcastle caught in the purgatory of “independent contractor,” gig economy, struggles. Loach, one of the more strident Cassandras of socially engaged narrative cinema, has, since the 1960’s, been producing unflinching portraits of the economically, politically, and socially disenfranchised. He sends up broken systems through the lives of the individuals navigating them. Thankfully there’s ( just enough) intimacy and charm to make these unrelenting stories engaging  (But I really don’t recommend watching more than one Ken Loach film at a time – they are so bleak that they either paralyze you completely or have the opposite of their intended effect, where you just shut off because you are being barraged with a “message”).  This great Guardian list ranks all of his 37 movies, for a quick snapshot of his prolific output. He does not like to leave many stones unturned.


In “Sorry We Missed You,” we find Ricky and Abby Turner, parents of two, still recovering from the 2008 crash, in which they lost their house and incurred unbearable debt. Critically,  many of those laid off in 2008 and its aftermath, were never hired back full time. Instead, they returned as independent contractors, allowing businesses to avoid having to pay for health insurance and other basic benefits. Gig work filled this vacuum without any attendant government protections. The Freelancers Union did arise to meet some of these needs but its umbrella could not cover many classes of workers.

Grasping for work in this new landscape, Abby and Ricky turned to the new economy’s promise of autonomy and entrepreneurship. They decide to sell Abby’s car so that Ricky can buy a van to become an independent warehouse delivery worker (not unlike an Amazon warehouse – an order fulfillment center where workers are essentially held hostage by scanner guns recording their every move). The eventual reward would be outright ownership of a delivery franchise. In the meantime, he gets paid per delivery. Abby, who works as a home health aide, paid per visit, has to trust that the added difficulty of traveling to her patients on public transportation will eventually pay off.

We soon see that as independent contractors they seem to have none of the autonomy and all of the risk; none of the security afforded by having an employer, such as sick days, set hours, or a minimum wage, but all of the obligations of being beholden to quotas and others’ schedules. And in Abby’s case, not only does this structure degrade her, but her patients as well – the independent contractor structure provides very little incentive for home health aides to spend ay significant amount of time with them before rushing off to their next paid visit. This degrades Abby further. She refuses to treat her clients as anything less than human, and it is at her own and her family’s expense.


A warm and loving family, we watch as the stress and unrelenting schedules fray the Turner family unit. The physical and emotional exhaustion is palpable, and the toll it takes easy to foresee. In his patronizing review in the New Yorker, Richard Brody wrote that the dramatic device in “Sorry We Missed You” seems to be Murphy’s Law. But of course, as we now all plainly see, so many are just one small crisis away from having it all go completely wrong – there is no room for error. And the irony for American audiences watching this bleak downward spiral is that at least the Turners wouldn’t go bankrupt from any medical issues (the drama of Ricky’s injury in the film is that he does not have the time to tend to it properly, leaving the hospital before being seen; an American worker would envy that Ricky had a choice at all).

The film illustrates one of the gig economy’s central issues: misclassification. By incorrectly classifying workers as “independent contractors,” individuals don’t receive the protections afforded “employees.” In the U.S. (UK experts can chime in), minimum wage does not apply to those classified as independent contractors, and the NLRA — National Labor Relations Act — specifically excludes them. However, some states have made headway in addressing misclassification. California has already passed a law — AB5 — that sets a new standard: a three factor “ABC Test” that places the burden on the corporation to give the worker certain conditions in order to allow him or her to be classified an independent contractor. If they do not meet these then the worker is considered an employee. The NY Direct Coalition is trying to achieve the same here. And of course, the ripple effect of misclassification is that those classified correctly have less leverage. It is a completely unsustainable model for any that want a society based on more than mere survival. The hard-won workers’ rights that so many fought for, for so long, seemed institutionalized and taken for granted.


We see this plainly in “American Factory” (now streaming on Netflix), this year’s well-deserved documentary Oscar winner. The desperation of the American worker – and whom he or she should look to for any solutions – is beautifully and tragically portrayed. Reinventing the rustbelt, and America’s languishing manufacturing base, are for many the poster child for America’s labor and economic woes (they are certainly the face of the Midwest voter being fought over).

When a Chinese company reopens a shuttered GM plant near Dayton, Ohio, it seems one answer to the devastation of America’s industrial base. However, along with broader culture clashes, some quite hilarious, early optimism gives way to resignation and defeat. While incredibly grateful that they have a job again, the workers have to contend with much lower wages, unsafe working conditions, and punishing work schedules and expectations. A non-union shop, the American managers and Chairman Cao (the factory owner) are extremely displeased when Senator Sherrod Brown – invited for the grand opening – encourages the workers to organize if they need to.

Steven Bognar and Julia Reichert tell the story masterfully – with the nuance and context it requires.  Living outside Dayton, they have been observing and living in this post-industrial landscape for years. This film revisits their 2009 short, “The Last Truck: Closing of a GM Plant.” Few are better positioned, committed, and talented enough to capture this portrait of American labor. We should be incredibly grateful for their work.

The pitfalls of the gig economy, and “share price above all” corporate dictates, have been crystal clear to many, but the coronavirus and quarantine have helped ensure the rest can no longer pretend or look away. The American apparatus that ensures basic workers’ (and basic human) rights is broken. A living wage, health insurance, and reasonable working conditions are just no longer part of the social contract. And strangely, as government oversight and protection have eroded, the market and private interests have not filled the breach.

Pandemic Pangs

April 27, 2020

On Trying to Write During Corona & Quarantine

Film Forum has enabled a rental streaming service for its current run. I decided to rent and watch Down and Out in America, Lee Grant’s 1987 Oscar-winning documentary. I thought it would be a good place to start writing about all this. By all this, I mean the the dramatically different effects the coronavirus and quarantine have had on the less privileged, underemployed, underinsured, those whose professional value and personal dignity have been eroded by the gig economy and other not-inevitable economic forces — those generally overlooked and those who don’t quite realize just how badly they needed those safety nets they thought were meant for others — amid some musings that people will finally understand why we need government. Also, the quite intentional and near-fraudulent forces that led us to a place where so many sincerely believe that government has been the problem (I do believe it is something close to fraud — if you need a reminder of how intentional, disingenuous, and systematic it has been, read or reread Dark Money by Jane Mayer and Transaction Man by Nicholas Lemann).

Can these forces be undone? How? Can we make people understand that it’s about them? Like the film makes clear, no one is immune from poverty in this country (and makes it clear it wasn’t always the case — in 1979 a team of doctors travelled the country and then were able to declare that hunger had been eradicated. In 1985, the time of the movie, approximately 20 million Americans did not have enough to eat). And yet the average Trump voter still identifies with the rich because he or she would like to believe he is one lucky break away from becoming one, and why begrudge anyone their fortune (you know, by regulating water pollution or for instance; logical right?). And/or resentment is misdirected by respective criminally misleading news outlets.

And I’d still like to write that. But sheesh. It’s just so damn depressing. And all too close to home for so many of us right now (hard to write about people on the verge when you’re worried about your own job). My focus is torn between the urgency of what’s relevant, and a complete need to escape. In the meantime, my brain is just firing in every direction.




Shooting the Mafia

November 10, 2019

Shooting the Mafia, Film by Kim Longinotto

A Documentary Misses its Mark but Finds Another

Ida Post Mafia

The Sicilian photographer Letizia Battaglia (b. 1935) – glamorous, iconoclastic, talented – should make for a story that tells itself. She devoted her life to staring down the Sicilian Mafia, defying a deeply conservative society to do so. With her shocks of blond hair, grand quips such as “Success is a terrible thing, I prefer love,” a parade of younger lovers (the gap seems to grow with her age – at the time of the film she is involved with a photographer 38 years her junior), and commitment to the truth at great personal risk, this is a woman who has lived passionately, fearlessly, as close to the surface as life allows.


Battaglia escaped an expected early marriage and children to become Italy’s first female photographer for a daily newspaper. She and her partner, Franco Zecchin (who like another lover is awkwardly brought into the movie for a sort of reunion) would produce some of the most iconic photos documenting the violence of the Sicilian Mafia. Until 1990, as photography director of L’Ora, Battaglia was personally present (or if not, would send a substitute) at every major crime scene. According to the film, some of those years would see more than 1000 murders at the hands of the Mafia. Especially as a woman challenging these men, and a body of work that is stark, tragic and often stunning, this film should have an excess of searing images, emotion, and appreciation for her work and life. That it doesn’t is not completely hard to understand – Battaglia is physically present as an interview subject but is not especially forthcoming. Though for some reason, the filmmaker has not shared nearly enough of Battaglia’s images as she could have. One or the other (and certainly both together) could have provided a deeper sense of this trailblazer, including the sacrifices she had to make to forge a path in an especially hostile environment.


While the movie does not give us a three-dimensional Letizia, it does something else. Perhaps out of necessity. It provides unsentimental portraits of both war photography and the Mafia. That the name Corleone frequently arises is a helpful reminder of the many ways the Mafia has been portrayed over the years. It is true that many have created their versions of correctives to any reverie for organized crime. “Gomorrah” is unflinching, and “The Sopranos” showed the rot at the core. And certainly “Goodfellas” exposed more venality than somber allegiance to Omertà. And yet, the scale of the cost, and the depth of the tragedy to an entire society still, it turns out, merit better representation.  Perhaps as long as the story and camera train their eye on the criminals, it’s near impossible to avoid connection to even the most depraved anti-hero. “Narcos,” both the Pablo Escobar and Mexico seasons, are good reminders of that. In “Shooting the Mafia,” the individual Mafia dons and henchmen are always secondary to their crimes. And the beautiful and rugged Sicilian landscape is barely perceptible as such – we mostly see poverty, bloodshed, grief and fear. As compared to when Apollonia dies in “The Godfather,” and we are mostly left remembering her stunning beauty and what seemed like a disappointing end to Michael’s gap year in Sicily (I say this is as an absurdly huge fan of both GI & GII).

Ida Post Mafia Apollonia

In “Shooting The Mafia,” we do watch those who confront their fears to try and bring some kind of justice. This is ostensibly what the film is supposed to be about – Battaglia’s work in the face of this immense personal danger. We see when she decides to exhibit their photos in the Corleone town square. The photo display is a direct indictment of the local crime boss Liggio – with images of both him and the bloody trail he has left behind. At first, we see crowds approaching the images. But then, as they realize what they are looking at, they recede until disappearing completely, leaving an empty square. It would have been great to see longer takes and footage from this moment, of the radical boldness of the exhibit and the fear that sent a whole town running from it.


However, this detachment ultimately provides an important unsentimental portrait of the Mafia’s violence. Footage of the trial that ended with the conviction of more than 300 men remains focused on the cold-blooded nature of this business. It does not elevate any individual personalities. And the tragic but unsurprising assassination of the prosecutor, and then of his deputy, continue this portrait of historic and systemic violence. Crowds of protesters and grieving widows in churches,  helps us zoom in and out of this tragedy.


In documenting Battaglia as a crime photographer, the film also undermines any prurient sensationalism. That is difficult to do. Thinking of someone like Weegee while looking at these images feels downright perverse.


And there is just enough Letizia for us to get a sense of this woman’s outsized mark. Maybe another film – or preferably, a retrospective (she does not seem inclined to offer more in person; her images are our best bet)– can bring us closer to her.


Vera, Vilna, and Portals to the Pre-War Past

October 31, 2019

This past October 2nd, we lost one of the people central to my family’s life — Vera Winograd (née Silin). She was 95 and passed away in her home of 55 years in Jerusalem. l’ve actually written about her here before, in a long post devoted to That Pesky Jewish Question. I often call her my “great aunt,” but that is really just shorthand for who she was to us, especially in those family trees, like my mother’s, violently cut down and uprooted during the War. Those who remained after the war became perhaps even closer than family — they represented the human connection necessary for survival in a new shattered world, and also the only links to the whole one that was lost. And since that world was Vilna, the Jerusalem of the North of mythic proportions, Vera was one of the last living links to almost all that it represented and promised. She lived with a fierceness that only began to ebb in the last couple of years. Below is the short eulogy I wrote for her on my and my siblings’ behalf, hopefully endowing her legacy with at least some of what she brought to life.




Few people embodied the fullness of the world quite like Vera. Some harness its physical energy and move through life with the force of nature. Some are keen students of human behavior and the human spirit – often quietly observing from the side. Others are able to take in literature, languages, the events of the day, history, and absorb them in a way that enables them to become integral parts of society and the world. Vera was all of these things. It was always through her that I felt like I could physically enter the world of pre-war Vilna, and what I imagine so much Jewish intellectual life in pre-war Europe to have been – Vera was a portal to the Viennese Café, to the Warsaw and Vilna parlors, drawing rooms, concert halls, and fervent youth group debates, eagerly confronting all of the big questions of the world, including the Jewish one – knowing the answers, from the political to the creative, were essential to their survival. And while Vera was unique, that she came from a long line and community of brilliant and commanding women also places her among a particular pantheon of Jewish life. In his biography of Stalin, Simon Sebag Montefiore spends a whole chapter on “Stalin’s Jewesses” — the most vital of which were Jewish Polish and Lithuanian (Vilna, although the capital of modern-day Lithuania, took turns in many different empires, and was famously a Polish and Jewish intellectual capital).  Like many others, Stalin knew these women brooked no foolishness, either in substance or in style – they were always alert, all-seeing, curious, informed, and deeply caring. It is from this caring that their passionate countenance derived its force. While she could sometimes be challenging, mostly because she demanded you match her level of passionate engagement with each and every point (sometimes you just don’t want to argue about the pogroms or Siberia, or whether the musical Fiddler on the Roof is dreck that illustrates Jews have lost their way), she instilled in me, Michal and Jonathan the understanding that there was no choice but to engage. There was no pass to being passive as the world unfolds before you.


Because Vera never had children, and also because of the loss of her sister  — something she really never spoke about – and because my mother is who she is, and got to live with Vera as a young adult while attending Hebrew University, I feel like my mother was able to give Vera, until the very end, one of the only things Vera could not give herself. Her imprint on our lives is so firmly embedded, that like Vera, it transcends time and space and has entered the realm of the imagination, more interesting than some celestial heaven – she is eternally part of this earth, of all she cared about.

The Smartest Boy Urbanist in the Room

June 5, 2016

Lisa Schweitzer

The Smartest Boy Urbanist in the Room knows Things. About Cities. And how they work.

The Smartest Boy Urbanist in the Room knows that cities run like little clockworks, and that if People Would Just Do As He Says, cities and every service, space, or interaction in them would be So Much Better;

The Smartest Boy Urbanist in the Room spends a lot of time on the internet sending dumb wimmins and Joel Kotkin emails and tweets that start that out with “Actually…Teh Facts Are…” that usually involve cherrypicked statistics he got from Another Smart Boy Urbanist;

The Smartest Boy Urbanist in the Room knows what bicyclists need, all bicyclists, everywhere, and what they need is Amsterdam. He knows what women bicyclists need, too, because Amsterdam;

The Smartest Boy Urbanist in the Room can give a two-hour long lecture on the GM Streetcar conspiracy;

The Smartest Boy Urbanist in the…

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Reading Year in Review, Part II

March 17, 2014



Books, Plays, Films:

Country Girl, Edna O’Brien

August Is A Wicked Month, Edna O’Brien

The Collected Stories, William Trevor

Charming Billy, Alice McDermott

Paddy Clarke, Ha Ha Ha, Roddy Doyle

A Star Called Henry, Roddy Doyle

Watching the Door, Kevin Myers

Ghosts of Belfast, Stuart Neville

The Graves Are Walking: The Great Famine And The Saga of The Irish People, John Kelly

The Famine Plot: England’s Role In Ireland’s Greatest Tragedy, Tim Pat Coogan

My Left Foot

The Crying Game

What Richard Did

DruidMurphy plays by Tom Murphy (Conversations On A Homecoming, A Whistle In The Dark, Famine) (The NYRB essay by Fintan O’Toole)

The Talk of The Town, Emma Donoghue 


Teasing out romance from reality seems the most undesirable exercise when it comes to Ireland.   A long memory for loss, tyranny, and tragedy, laced together over time with whiskey and poetry — why unravel that? But the romance lingers over the less savory parts of Irish culture as well, such as often unflinching support of the IRA by Irish America, long past when it was beneficial to the future of Ireland; the grip of the Church; and the idolatry of too much booze. Not to mention problems with objectifying any one culture – on the other side of the coin where the flattering impressions lie are the more insidious ones, both bereft of nuance.  I’ve often tried to reconcile my love for so many things Irish with how I feel when a Gentile loves a Jew (not as in one individual gentile or Jew, a general love and admiration for the People), imbuing the object of desire with a mythical historical aura extending far beyond the one individual. So is it ok if I treat the Irish with a similar embrace?  A self-conscious one, but still, I am not of them. I am very aware of how I caught the bug, and for that I blame Irish-Americans. It’s hard growing up in Rockaway and not internalizing the romance of the Irish Diaspora, and as a recent arrival from a totally foreign culture, in 3rd grade, trying to fit in, and ultimately assimilating in unpredictable ways.

I’ve taken my Irish homework pretty seriously, and after years of reading, listening, watching, I finally made the pilgrimage. My two weeks there took me to Dublin, Belfast, Ballina, Galway and Inishmore and not long after I wrote an article about two new books about the Famine. My cocktail party conversation at this time was a bit monomaniacal. But thankfully diving deeply, very deeply, into the Irish past, and traveling through its present, has helped add missing layers of history and perspective.

Mssrs Maguire

Along with achieving a more nuanced understanding of Ireland, I’ve finally reflected on my blinkered romanticization of the Roman Catholic Church, it hasn’t helped me in life that some of my favorite writers converted, similarly possessed with the mystical aesthetic of the church, though as an atheist the aesthetic part is foremost for me, for them, an already heightened sense of sin, guilt, fear and sanctity led. I have less than a socially acceptable intolerance of religious Judaism, and yet, with the Church, I’ve dismissed the “bad” parts as  antiquated vestiges that hardly matter. But they truly still do, and with abortion, homosexuality, the non-ordination of women, and celibacy of priests, not to mention the abuse, there is much I should not ignore as having already passed. Seeing the movie Philomena recently with remembering the very real and very common negative aspects of the church’s past, and also Ireland’s (Magdalene Sisters certainly helped with that as well). Edna O’Brien’s memoir spends most of its first third in less than morally liberated Irish territory. There was a reason O’Brien and others fled to freedom when they could, at that time. Though O’Brien’s recollections of her time in a convent school were also quite lovely, especially her descriptions of one nun she and most of the other girls were quietly in love with. There is so much to hold on to in O’Brien’s book, and her writing epitomizes that rare natural talent for economy of words, and which stories to leave in, which to leave out.  I was tempted to put down the book at the point when she finally arrives as a full fledged success and enters all the right circles in London and New York, but her story-telling defies any semblance of gossip or highlighted glamor (or at least savors them in just the right way); her descriptions of Norman Mailer, Phillip Roth, and so many others, are sharp and often sweet.  I might recommend staying away from her novels if you are a single woman though. Mostly because she nails it. Especially how girls, and the more guileless among us, fumble our way towards womanhood, after much wisdom is gained. Too much wisdom.


And, an antidote to Ben Affleck, and the rest of Hollywood’s, love for Southie and other similar Irish American caricatures, is Alice McDermott. Charming Billy especially. But all of her work takes up Irish America, and it is a long thoughtful look each time, without diminishing the charm and pride that Ben Affleck also loves.

Nixon, The Home Movie

December 18, 2013

Nixon’s Bright Young Men


The Super 8 seems to have been invented to capture the nostalgia of unchastened idealism and youth. When Richard Nixon entered the oval office in 1969, he brought with him a small team of young, ardent acolytes – Dwight Chapin, HR (“Bob”) Haldeman, and John Ehrlichman –who came equipped with their Super 8’s, obsessively filming everything for posterity, for history to hold witness to how they changed the world. A recent documentary, “Our Nixon”, uses footage from these reels to show us the tragic trajectory of these bright, young men, who entered the White House with sincere if somewhat naïve ambitions and convictions, and ended up in prison, co-conspirators in an affair that traumatized a nation and helped undermine the sanctity of the American presidency.

Much like the Nixon tapes, unsealed to the public in 2011, these home movies – 500 reels only recently released by the National Archives – let us peer into the machinations and idiosyncrasies of Nixon and his inner circle. There are few presidents who continue to elicit such a morbid curiosity and desire to climb inside another’s head, to understand how and when Nixon’s ambition and distrust of “the liberals”, Vietnam protesters, and the New York Times and Washington Post, turned into delusional paranoia, lies and criminal acts. A few years ago, the English playwright, Peter Morgan, wrote a play and  movie Frost/Nixon, which revisited this fixation with Nixon’s states of mind, his understanding of his own guilt and the motivations for his actions. “Our Nixon” does something similar, and casts a wider net, giving a fuller picture that includes those who worked around Nixon and very much enabled and abetted him.

The almost campy home movies, of the groundbreaking trip to China, nervous backstage smiles at the inauguration, a meeting with the pope in Rome, sitting with the President as he watched on television the landing on the moon and phoned to congratulate Neil Armstrong, dignitary dinner parties, and Sunday poolside idylls, give us a gauzy view of Eden before the fall.  We see genuine camaraderie and sense of purpose, an eagerness to capture every moment of this great long ride into changing the world.

As a poignant counterpoint, the film uses archival footage from the era and from subsequent interviews with the three men, after their terms in prison for their roles in Watergate, when famous talk show hosts, such as David Frost and Mike Wallace, asked the questions on everybody’s mind. The ambition and lack of any real healthy skepticism or irony glimpsed in the home movies come through for Haldeman and Chapin especially, who even in the latter day interviews seem to sincerely believe they were on the side of right. In one interview, in the early 1980’s, when asked about the crimes of Watergate, Chapin says, “I just don’t see it that way,” that is was some kind of a “sinister era of criminality” or that people in the Nixon White House were trying to “rape the country of its democracy.”  Mike Wallace and other interviewers’ questions are often delivered with explicit incredulity and indignation – everyone seemed to take Watergate as a personal betrayal.

Nixon did also employ more skeptical and world wise advisors, including Henry Kissinger and Leonard Garment, the latter a liberal Jewish lawyer from Brooklyn who has just passed away and was for years assumed to be the real identity of Deep Throat because of his more sophisticated and less dogmatic attachment to President Nixon. Both provided a dimension to the administration that seems significantly missing from the inner circle portrayed in the film. It wasn’t a completely isolated echo-chamber filled with lackeys. But Nixon, from within a thickening fog of paranoia, increasingly only listened to those most keen to please him, his trio of young men. They would continue to prop up his growing angers and delusions, and perhaps before they realized it, he would ask them to resign for doing just that.

While the film does not offer any new insight into “what actually happened,” nor intend to, it does provide a portrait of young, ambitious, unfettered ideas about power and government and the role of the president, and much in the film resonates with power and policy today. But it also importantly, reminds us, both through these men and the event of the day, that the  late 60’s to early 70’s marked an era of so much shattered idealism and seemed to have ushered in a more cynical resentful political dynamic. Watergate, and these three men, embodied both the heady idealism and its near total destruction.