October 21, 2018

It’s Okay to Stop and Stare

Sojourner Truth

Sojourner Truth

The chunk of metal that came flying off the flatbed in front of me failed to knock me off the road. The next morning I noticed the missile made a ragged crack on the windshield. When I turned on the defroster to clear off some Boon (winter to the Light Skinned like me), the crack spread across the windshield like the Great Mystery was drawing on it. The glass experts advise that cracks more than twelve inches might cause the car roof to collapse from structural weakness should the car happen to flip. This crack was about three feet. I wasn’t worried about flipping until the stop sign on the country road forced me to hit the brakes and spin six times. The road was two lanes, with little traffic, except the train in front of me, explaining the stop sign and the necessity of stopping at train tracks. There were deep ditches on both sides of the road but I was spinning slow enough to remember to keep the noggin down if the car flipped into the ditch. Then hold my breath while submerged in the water, cold water that causes hypothermia and death. Finally all set, wait upside down for the Great Mystery (the Creator) or sheriff deputies, depending who’s the first responder, to rescue me from my imagination.

The Saginaw Chippewa tribe were believers in the power of storytelling that’s passed on through blood memory, connecting all of us to Creation. The prophets told the Chippewa tribe to following the Setting Sun, their Great Walk taking them from Niagara Falls to the Detroit River and through Michigan’s Upper Peninsula to Canada. The Chippewas used winter time, which they called Boon, to share their stories.

I have a new resolution to stare and the Chippewa museum in Mount Pleasant was one of my stop and stares.The storytelling was romantic at the start. There was a distinct loss of romance and brusque harshness by the end of the brief tour. The museum is next door to the casino and the local college football team is nicknamed the Chippewas. The Great Walk had become the Great Fall, leaving a trail of blood and tears and slot machines. Near the end, there’s a poem in a glass case. A Chippewa from Michigan who had fought in World War Two is given credit for writing it during the war. His name was William Graveratte and he became a prisoner of war in the Battle of the Bulge. The poem is called “Our Hitch in Hell.” Another resolution of mine is to check sources. “Our Hitch in Hell” seems to have many people claiming authorship. The original was supposedly written by a soldier in World War One and spread in many versions. Now “Hitch in Hell” is hanging on the museum wall in Mount Pleasant, alongside the biography of a Chippewa POW, the poem written on paper in his scrawl. Here it is the chain letter from Hell, written in the blood of man following the Setting Sun, pass it on.

Abolitionist Sojourner Truth’s Great Walk to the Setting Sun was listed as “around 105” years on her grave in Battle Creek. The more official account is 86 years with a question mark. Sojourner Truth said, “Give ’em land and an outset, and hab teachers learn ’em to read. Den they can be somebody.” She asked God, her Great Mystery, what’s wrong with the Constitution, and “He says to me, ‘Sojourner, dere is a little weasel in it.'”

The windshield held in one piece across the state to Battle Creek where I had a stop and stare at her twelve foot monument. We’re always told that we shouldn’t stare, making it more difficult to find the weasel in the truth. There’s a second hand store near the Sojourner Truth monument. A cheap six foot replica of the statue of liberty was in front of the store. A weasel looking nervous guy in a jean jacket and hood and smoking a cigarette was leaning against the door, nodding with his cigarette dangling from his lips to the statue of liberty that it was a good deal. Miss Liberty was in a bull market. The other guy was standing close enough to give Miss Liberty a kiss on the mouth. His head was cocked and he stared into her mouth like he saw a cavity. The Truth was feeling neglected in the snow. Headquarters for the Kellogg Company was nearby and a burst of expensive cars went past the second hand store. It was getting late and corporate executives were going home. These two guys bartered probably fifty, forty, thirty, twenty dollars over the statue of liberty, six feet of dirty gray Dumpster art. I had come to get a look at Sojourner Truth and instead I was staring at these two guys trying to pawn liberty. I was feeling the same vibes here that I got at the museum, a curtain call for Our Hitch in Hell. I stared at the crack in the windshield the whole way home, thinking maybe I should put off a stop and stare in Detroit.

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Memorials to the Past and Future

Air Force pilot Michael Young memorial

Late in the evening of November 30, 2011, I decided to just keep going. This old lighthouse at the top of Michigan’s thumb near Port Hope was several miles north and I was already late going home, and home was south and west. The park was closed and a pack of maybe fifty deer ran around my car. You could hear the waves from a long way off. Three pictures from that evening became my “signature” photos. My favorites that expressed my attitude. The lighthouse rising above the trees and facing out to the harsh elements; the waves rolling in at shore, unrelenting; and the third one as I was leaving, a front picture of the lighthouse with a small cross and tiny flags in the yard. In the lonely, harsh environment, there was a whiff of defiance to the cross and flag. We got licked but we haven’t quit. We’re still here.  There was just enough to make me curious for more.

I got there too late to see why the cross and flag. Earlier in the day on November 30, 2011, the squadron commander for the 180th Fighter Wing flew his F-16 from the Ohio National Guard Base in Swanton, Ohio to the lighthouse in Port Hope to commemorate twenty years. Air Force pilot Lt. Michael Young of the 180th Fighter Wing had crashed his plane near the lighthouse on November 30, 1991. He ejected and the strong fifty mile an hour wind blew his parachute far into the freezing water of Lake Huron. Rescuers fought Mother Nature to reach him but the wind was too strong. After chasing him in the water for twelve miles, they lost him. Lt. Michael Young, age 28 with a wife and two month old baby, was never found. The memorial’s for the pilot with the Bible passage of going out on the wings of eagles. I searched his name in Google and found the article in the Air Force News:

“To mark the 20th anniversary of Lt. Young’s passing, Lt. Col. Tim Moses, 180th FW Operations Support Squadron Commander, carried with him an American flag and a United States Air Force flag and flew up the coast of Lake Huron and over the crash site, where a memorial in Lt. Young’s name now stands. The Air Force flag was presented to the Young family in honor of their sacrifice all of those years ago.

The American flag will be presented to the members of Amvet Post 115 on behalf of the 180th FW for their unwavering support of the Young family and for keeping the memory of Lt. Young alive for the last 20 years. The Amvets maintain the modest memorial in Young’s honor and conduct a small ceremony each Memorial Day, near Port Hope, MI., ensuring that he is a hero not to be remembered every 20 years, but every day, forever.”

Every day is a lot. Forever is a long time. A lieutenant in the Air Force isn’t English royalty and Amvet Post 115 in Port Hope isn’t Hilary Mantel. The old vets at the Amvet Post 115 are losing friends and family who will remember them. But I’ll remember.

A New Yorker article on Hilary Mantel last fall gushed the dead are real. Flannery O’Connor said it better about the dead, and the living, with The Violent Bear It Away, the last word in strangers passing through the centuries of violence, shattering the silence of the dead. The boy Tarwater finally throwing his face in the dirt of the uncle’s grave, the last word singeing his eyes and becoming a seed in his own blood. The past, like the dead, can’t be buried deep enough for the living to escape its seed. The corpse of royalty from a distant century might become this century’s pothole in a strip mall but the world was made for the dead more than the living, and the great pen of Flannery O’Connor and Hilary Mantel.

While driving through farms and small towns the other day, Fort Custer National Cemetery suddenly appeared in the windshield. All the flags were gone and dozens of deer were running in the snow, their mutiny against the military’s imaginative names like Army Street. Michigan native George Armstrong Custer was in command of the Michigan Calvary Brigade, known as the Wolverines, and fought at Gettysburg and Appomattox. Custer isn’t buried at the Fort Custer National Cemetery near Battle Creek, or Custer’s National Cemetery in Montana where the Battle of the Little Big Horn was fought,or Arlington, or Fort Leavenworth. There is some confusion about where Custer was buried. His last fight left enough body parts for multiple grave sites. After the Battle of the Little Big Horn, most of his mutilated remains were transported to West Point at request of his wife. German prisoners of war from World War Two are buried at Fort Custer National Cemetery. Abolitionist Sojourner Truth is also buried in Battle Creek. I didn’t find a street named “Unknown,” like the military put on the sign over the remains of the privates at Little Big Horn.

In Detroit, where “cemetery porn” is ruin porn for the dead, scrappers are plundering the graves for something to sell. Just like writers and historians.

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Going out in the cold

2013 Snow Fest Frankenmuth

John le Carré’s 1963 novel The Spy who Came in from the Cold made famous the phrase “to come in from the cold.” The cold refers to living undercover or as a spy, or in an environment of hostility, surrounded by adversaries with cold feelings. Life in the cold is meant to be a hardness to others, a lack of empathy or compassion. The cold front around here has moved on, timed perfectly for the completion of the Snowfest in Frankenmuth. Going out in the rain in January doesn’t quite give the warm fuzzies.

In the greatest spy novel, coming in from the cold seems an impossibility. It requires an excellent pension and then corrosion of the man or woman who has been “put on the shelf.” The best games are played in the cold. You just have to keep moving to stay warm. The great coach of the Minnesota Vikings, Bud Grant, once said players who are not in the game shouldn’t have heaters to keep them warm. He didn’t want his players to feel comfortable watching from the sidelines.

The spy returns to the cold, now in battle with Control (his bosses in London) and the Communists on the other side of the Berlin Wall. The watchtower’s searchlight sweeps across the Berlin Wall and sirens wail and shots are fired. His companion, the girl, is struck with bullets and falls so close to the Wall. He is safe but he has lost her. The girl, where’s the girl? He climbs back down the Wall into the cold to die with the girl.

We’re now in the Age of Empathy according to Harvard psychologist Steven Pinker who is a perennial on those Top 100 Thinker lists. He credits self-control and empathy, coming in from the cold so to speak, for the decline of violence and the rise of our better angels. But he also writes in The Better Angels of Our Nature that life can’t be warm and fuzzy feelings all the time. A cold spell every now and then is healthy. A healthy presence of police also helps. While homicide rates continue to decline in New York and Washington, the murder rates are going up in Chicago and Detroit. I thought the constant threat of terrorism helped Washington and New York. Those cities seem to have cameras everywhere. There’s not enough left in Detroit to prevent the homicides.

Control is in charge of John le Carré’s novel. The manipulation is deft, more subtle in his pages, with Big Brother always observing. Secrecy News is a good website for staying informed of what the government is doing these days. The site is a Federation of American Scientists publication. Their latest post might explain the drop in crime:  “The number of inmates under the Bureau of Prisons’ (BOP) jurisdiction has increased from approximately 25,000 in FY1980 to nearly 219,000 in FY2012.” Secrecy News also reports that the Pentagon has doubled the number of lie detector tests in the last ten years.

In an experiment explained in The Better Angels, users of a garage rock band website followed the herd when able to see the number of times a song had been downloaded. The popularity of a song created a positive feedback loop, distorting the difference between hits and duds. When users were blocked from knowing the number of downloads, the popularity gap was much smaller. Pinker explains that these emotions are contagious. The Department of Defense and Homeland Security have provided funds for research on “social diffusion events” and the ability of individuals to influence their social networks. In other words, lead an uprising that might spoil the Age of Empathy.

I still have David Foster Wallace’s massive Infinite Jest that’s collecting dust on a bookshelf. I couldn’t find the willpower to ever finish it. The heavy weight could be useful in the trunk of a car when crossing the Mackinac Bridge in high wind. At the time of his death, he was said to regret his difficult literary style. He listed several genre novels among his favorite books. It was a great year for those kind of movies. David Foster Wallace was one of Aaron Swartz’s heroes. Maria Popova writes on her Brain Pickings site of going to a memorial for the young genius and activist who, like Wallace, committed suicide. They read a passage from David Foster Wallace’s Kenyon College commencement address:

“The trick is keeping the truth up-front in daily consciousness. Worship power — you will feel weak and afraid, and you will need ever more power over others to keep the fear at bay. Worship your intellect, being seen as smart — you will end up feeling stupid, a fraud, always on the verge of being found out. And so on.”

The fog and rain were brutal on the late night drive home from the land of the Amish and farmers in northern Michigan. Cars were on the side of the highway with flashers. The night so dark and fog so thick, you couldn’t see the road. I was determined to follow the lights of the vehicle in front of me. If he went into a ditch, I was coming in right behind him. I wanted winter to be cold again. Staying warm in the cold is easier than living in a fog.

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You Have Been in Grand Rapids, I Perceive?

Grand Rapids

One of my favorite pictures from 2012 came late in the year, with this one in downtown Grand Rapids. The picture reminds me of a setting for novels and movies before the storyteller’s utensils went high tech, or even the theme of 2012 and the decade- the fight between the bulls and the bears. There’s a contrast between the office buildings of the future and the rust and decay of yesterday’s commerce. Winners and losers. Around the time I took this picture, the Gallup blog was forecasting that the future of America will be decided in its cities. The Grand Rapids skyline and cloud cover in the picture provide a murky forecast.

You have been in Grand Rapids, I perceive?

Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes, very keen on the power of observation, makes the famous declaration about Afghanistan. I can only claim Grand Rapids, not Afghanistan. But as Flannery O’Connor would say, the human race all comes out of the same slop. To appreciate the great mind of a Flannery O’Connor, try writing in longhand a passage from some of her best stories and then type it on the computer. Then do it from some other great ones. The genius is in their clarity and hardness of thought, like a hard fastball, or in Hemingway’s case, a hard punch. Imitation and pretense are interference.

Tiny Grand Valley State is nearby in downtown Grand Rapids. NFL personnel officials would come here to scout an occasional prospect and came away more impressed with the school’s coach. The administration and marketing departments at the big football programs were reluctant to hire a coach from a school like Grand Valley. The schools’ fear of hiring a coach with small credentials forced him to keep persisting one step up at a time until Notre Dame, failing with every big name coach, finally felt it politically okay to hire Brian Kelly.

One of boxing’s greats, Floyd Mayweather Jr. came from nearby and learned to box at the Grand Rapids gym around the corner from his home. From a May 2012 interview with the Los Angeles Times : “The last time I checked, this is what the American dream is,” Mayweather said. “Who doesn’t want to be rich, and make this kind of money? They told me when I was growing up that dreams come true. I dreamed it, and made it happen.

His boyhood friend and assistant trainer from Grand Rapids said, “This is a person who understands you can have anything or nothing in life, that anything can happen to you. You can make millions. Be broke. Or be in jail.”

Or become President of the United States like Gerald Ford. His presidential museum is nearby. Ford is considered by historians to be the greatest athlete among the presidents. He was also a veteran of World War Two with heroics in the Pacific, particularly during Halsey’s Typhoon. A friend’s father served alongside Bush 41 in the Pacific and had good stories about him. These stories are fading with the rust of time but will live on digitally at the museums and archives.

Sally Field edited the prize winning 1979 Letters of Flannery O’Connor, writing O’Connor accepted and embraced her destiny with strong habits of art that grew to become habit of being. While in the middle of an interview with a reporter from the New York Times, Mayweather Jr. punched the heavy bag 1,000 times in 90 seconds. Your habits become your being. In a letter, O’Connor scolds a friend: “What I hate to think of is you with your talent wasting your energy fighting with idiots and crooks and such trifling people as you appear to have to grabble with to get anything done in the theatre.” She warns of a “lack of learning that would put you in a larger framework than just your personal problems.”

Another boxer from Grand Rapids, Peter “Kid Chocolate” Quillin, just became a world champion. He was raised in terrible poverty, drugs, crime, the familiar story. Kids ridiculed him for his ragged clothing and he learned to fight them off until he became such a good fighter, the kids used him as the enforcer for their gang fights. A friend finally scolded and warned him that the “idiots and crooks” he was fighting would one day kill him if he didn’t stop. His story is told in a fantastic video on the Grantland Network. He fights because his “whole life has been a fight.” Everyone is a fighter, regardless if they box in the ring. After winning the title, Kid Chocolate thanks Grand Rapids for making him a fighter, and New York for making him a man.

Flannery O’Connor has strong criticism for Ayn Rand in another letter to the same friend, Maryat Lee. “I hope you don’t have friends who recommend Ayn Rand to you. The fiction of Ayn Rand is as low as you can go re fiction. I hope you picked it up off the floor of the subway and threw it in the nearest garbage pail. She makes Mickey Spillane look like Dostoevsky.” She knew many of her own critics would compare her stories to a ride on the “glass bottom boat” and miss the message.

Martin Dempsey, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, has a master’s in English from Duke. Failing Sherlock Holmes, I can’t say I knew it. But if he knows his Flannery O’Connor, he’ll appreciate the fact that everyone comes from the same slop.

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Look for the Eagle in Your Windshield

Soaring Eagle

The 2013 Statistical Abstract of the United States reports that liquor stores outnumber book stores three to one. There are 23,000 book stores nationwide, 5.7 million members of a book club, and 5.8 million avid bird watchers. I’ll throw in another number: 25,000 eagles, about the same number as book stores. If the eagle lands in Vegas, it will be surrounded by 197,000 slot machines. The eagle was to be the nation’s symbol of freedom and bravery. Soaring dreams are for the birds and book worms. It’s become a roll of the dice to the casino nation.

I’ve been reading a minimum of one book per week for as long as I can remember. I usually try for a “high brow” novel- the kind that win prizes or get a good review in the New York Times, a genre novel for my Lee Child or Michael Connelly fix, a history book, and either current affairs or, gasp, something on self improvement. I could ask for a refund on the self improvement. I’ve read four good books in about a day and a half, a history book by Eric Foner on Reconstruction in one day because the history professor read it in a day and I thought if he can do it, so can I; and Tolstoy’s War and Peace every year for one year because John Updike read War and Peace every year and I thought, well hell, if Updike can knock it out every year, I can give it a shot. I faltered on War and Peace, like with the self improvements.

I suppose everyone has their favorite saying or quote. Mine is from Isaiah:

They will soar on wings like eagles;
they will run and not grow weary,
they will walk and not be faint.

I really like the last line after signing up for a marathon in Traverse City at the end of May. I was planning on running the half marathon but it filled so damn quick. Maybe I can blame the marathon entry on a fat fingered mistake. The race course is along Lake Michigan, which makes the race one of the most popular in the country. The date means winter running to prepare. Global warming has quite a few degrees to go before I’ll stop feeling like Napoleon’s army on the retreat from Moscow.

The school massacre in Connecticut had a group of us talking about school violence and the plight of the schools in general. Some of them had experience teaching in the most violent and poverty stricken districts in the country. I’m convinced the most important story of the post World War Two era is the demise of the Great Society. The school massacres don’t happen in one dramatic moment like the Connecticut shooting. The casualties go on all week for years until a memorial of 15,000 miles, the number of miles of  neon lighted tubing on the Vegas strip, is needed to include every name. One of every 50 was on food stamps in the 1970s. Today the number is one of around six people requiring food stamps. More than one million public school students are homeless. Almost fifty percent of Americans are either defined as low income or living in poverty and more than one hundred million of working age do not have a job.

That’s the bad number column. The good news, from the perspective of my 182,000 mile bug splattered car windshield, is that the spirit of the bald eagle is still here. Economics professor Mark Perry writes in his popular Carpe Diem blog that the average price of college text books has risen 812% since 1980. The housing bubble had an average price increase of 325%. Health care has increased 575%. The consumer price index has increased 250% since 1980. Slate has published articles on college professors making millions on textbooks with a shocking sticker price over $200. Now the information revolution is pressuring the cartels and gatekeepers.The greatest failure of the Great Society has been in its leaders, the defenders of the working class who always made certain they were at the head of the class.

Tom Peters recently recommended Daniel Coyle’s The Little Book of Talent. I recommend that everyone should have Tom Peters in their windshield, along with his compatriots Seth Godin and Daniel Pink. The Little Book of Talent asks a very important question: what’s in your windshield? A few years ago South Korea didn’t have any female golfers on the LPGA Tour. Now there are 40 South Koreans playing on the LPGA. The power of the windshield. The girls watched one of their own have success and suddenly everyone set goals to follow their favorite role models. It’s much harder to soar like an eagle if there’s nothing but turkeys in the windshield.

The Little Book of Talent uses examples from sports and the arts to emphasize the importance of “deep practice” and embracing the struggle. Coyle writes, “We each live with a windshield of people in front of us; one of the keys to igniting your motivation is to fill your ‘windshield’ with vivid images of your future self… Studies show that even a brief connection with a role model can vastly increase unconscious motivation.” Coyle quotes Albert Einstein that “One must develop an instinct for what one can just barely achieve through one’s greatest efforts.”

Then make landing space for the eagle between the slot machines and liquor stores.

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Fishing in the Deep for Stories

fishiing pole on Lake Michigan pier

The Muskegon pier on Lake Michigan doesn’t have warning signs. Only a memorial near the end of it for those who lost their lives on the pier, and for those who tried to save them. Memorial signs of that type are very effective, at least from my perspective. Unlike the river in Grand Rapids, there was only one guy fishing here. He was smoking a cigarette and watching the sun go down on his fishing spot. He hadn’t caught anything. The Great Lake was going to beat him on this night.

I was on a Lake Huron pier last March in fifty mile an hour winds and holding a rail so I wouldn’t get blown into the water. There weren’t any memorials on that pier. Lake Huron is more rugged than the Gold Coast. A friend from the area in the Thumb had been diagnosed with a serious illness. She vowed to beat it, stoic about the slim odds. Her fight ended in November. The rugged land is the hard fought memorial over there. I quoted James Q Wilson in the post last March: “Order exists because a system of beliefs and sentiments held by members of a society set limits to what those members can do.”

Machine politics have set limits on what people can do and now the machine is bankrupt. Ernest Hemingway wrote this in The Sun Also Rises: “How did you go bankrupt? Two ways. Gradually, then suddenly.”

Detroit doesn’t have the cash to survive December. Machine politics filtered opposing views for fifty years. The ten cities with the highest poverty rates have followed the same course, restricting what its citizens can do and see on the horizon. The UAW leadership in Michigan was willing to block construction of a new bridge to Canada. Then the unions went down, like the great fighter Manny Pacquiao in the fight with Juan Manuel Marquez. Right to work legislation delivered as a right hand punch from Marquez.

Hemingway wrote sentences as tight punches. He learned the craft as a reporter and columnist before turning to fiction, with columns such as this one in 1923 for the Toronto Star Weekly about the Spaniard Don Tancredo:

“No. He was neither an opera singer nor a five-cent cigar. He was once known as the bravest man in the world. And he died in a dingy, sordid room in Madrid, the city where he had enjoyed his greatest triumphs…

Don Tancredo himself tried to learn to become a matador. But he found himself up against a competitive profession in which his rivals had been trained since they were five years old. He proved slow on his feet and not particularly graceful.”

The dingy rooms can be the most profound memorials. The collapse of mass production industry has created a lot of these sad testaments. Union organizers and their political allies are too slow on their feet to compete against this fast moving opponent. Acting as a gatekeeper, opposing the construction of bridges to the future, is a bad bet.

While most reporters still with a decent paycheck chase stories on the union protests, John Carlisle has done it again with more great writing for his Detroitblogger column. He only writes it once every two weeks. “Last Days” is the simple title to his most recent post. He writes of an elderly couple who own the most lonely dive bar in Detroit. The man and wife, in their 80s and failing health, live above the empty bar. No one comes in for a drink anymore. The voices of mentally ill homeless are heard in the street. The casinos have taken the customers and now even the casinos are hurting for cash. As Hemingway wrote about the last days of Don Tancredo- “It takes money to sit in a café.” The casinos are more expensive than the dive bar.

Gradually, then suddenly, it will be over for Detroit. The people of Detroit will have to start over, like Billy Durant who went bankrupt in the Great Depression after creating a company called General Motors. The gatekeepers will move on to some other business where the cash flow is more dependable than the lonely dive bar.

Detroit Deeply can be the American edition to Syria Deeply, a news outlet set up for group reporting on the war and humanitarian crisis in Syria. This was written two days ago on the Syria Deeply blog:

“The whole world has abandoned Aleppo. We are left between the cruelty of the regime and the indifferent mobs of the opposition. But above all this, I cannot blame anyone but ourselves, because those who are raising the prices of fuel, electricity generators, coal, bread and all basics are also people from Aleppo. They are our new warlords, who are making fortunes on the expense of the poor people. I cannot ask the world to sympathize with Aleppo, when we are the ones who are starving each other and leaving each other in the cold. Our children are dying slowly while some people are using the chaos to make as much money as they can. And that is haram, haram money (cursed or forbidden money).”

Substitute gatekeeper for warlord and its problems could be translated into nearly every United Nations language.

Syria is becoming the 21st century Spanish Civil War. Hemingway’s For Whom the Bell Tolls, about the Spanish Civil War, had this:

“You and your safety! Did I live nine years with three of the worst paid matadors in the world not to learn about fear and safety? Speak to me of anything but safety.”

Going beyond the warning signs might not be safe but that’s where you’ll find the great stories and storytellers.

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At Curbside for the Bulls and Bears Street Fight

The roadside sign is probably for an offer and not an order. I didn’t count five houses down the road to find the egg salesman, failing to fulfill the duties of a citizen journalist. The citizen journalist is a new occupation that includes everyone. Urban farming is spreading with the weeds and ruin porn in the bear market zip codes. The bull market zip codes are a little more technologically advanced in the social media. But whatever works. The sign for eggs got my attention.

Detroit is the epicenter for the Bulls and Bears. Last year, the Society of Professional Journalists voted John Carlisle of “Detroitblogger John” fame as metro Detroit’s journalist of the year. His blog about mesmerizing stories of Detroit’s citizens has attracted the attention of out of town writers who have come to Detroit to cover the great industrial collapse. Just think what someone like John Steinbeck, Theodore Dreiser, Sinclair Lewis, George Orwell, or Ernest Hemingway could have added to their storytelling if they possessed the technological tools available today and in the near future.

History Press published “Detroitblogger John” Carlisle’s book last year that’s a compilation of stories from his blog. Life in the Motor City, Detroit City is the Place to Be, and documentaries like Detropia are putting citizen storytellers at the front lines of this American tragedy. The Detroit Free Press has a remarkable series on the Packard Plant that was built in Detroit in the early 1900s. The plant’s abandoned ruins cover thirty-five acres. The reinforced concrete and asbestos make the cleanup of three million square feet an urban Marshall Plan that’s well beyond the scope of a bankrupt city. The Free Press is asking Detroit’s citizen journalist for help with photographs in turning this massive ruins into living history.

The History Press explained its decision to publish John Carlisle’s book as support for living history. Several of Carlisle’s interview subjects had died before the book was published in the fall of 2011. Life on the streets is hard and the life history of these people is for the weeds, not the bookshelves of historians earning tenure in the bull market zip code. Carlisle’s matter of fact reporting is what makes his stories mesmerizing. It’s  a combination of old school reporting with the new tech tools. Another citizen journalist blog Deadline Detroit, with the tag line homegrown media revolution, posted a story “My Grandma, the Urban Farmer” in November. The eighty year old woman is one of many now using vacant urban land to farm. Her home has security bars on the windows and she’s surrounded by abandoned homes and decay, and much crime. The grandmother-urban farmer told the blogger everything will in time return to its past. This fate makes The History Press a natural media outlet for the citizen journalists. The History Press published Remembering Flint in August from another citizen journalist, Gary Flinn.

The enemy of time is beating at the walls of the newspaper headquarters and all headquarters. More cutbacks and layoffs will make the large, imposing newspaper headquarters acres of ruin like the old auto plants. I was at the Dow headquarters in Midland a few weeks ago and took a picture of the display of flags for all the nations in its business empire. A security guard came up to me and said that I didn’t have permission to take the picture. A public relations official had to be there before permission was granted. While the citizen journalists swarm over the battlefield ruins of Detroit’s commerce, security checks are still required for the living. The dead aren’t as self-conscious about their image. Since I was alone, and didn’t look like a threat, and reminded the guard that pictures were already on the Internet, he grudgingly told me the picture didn’t have to be deleted in his presence.

In the bull market zip codes around Ann Arbor, the main hazard was walking into a telephone pole while reading the smartphone. The conversations were very different than overheard in the bear market zip codes. Businessmen were discussing risks of the fiscal cliff in Washington at the table next to me in the Grand Traverse Pie Company.  People in the bear market zip codes had already gone over the cliff. If the country goes over the fiscal cliff, we might get a great deal on brown eggs that would at least put the egg salesman in a bull market.

The New York Times’ Bill Keller has written a column on the critical importance of being there. All the cutbacks in foreign affairs coverage and risk averse mentality behind the immense headquarter walls are damaging to both news gathering and policy. The first online news stories about the attack in  Benghazi were written in America, not Libya.

Some photos of Detroitblogger John really show his determination to get a good spot at curbside for this fight between the Bulls and Bears. He resembles an urban war correspondent in some of the shots, smoking a cigarette and wearing a knit cap pulled down. There’s a great picture of him in the Metro Times. He’s standing next to a Detroit city limit sign and holding up a scrawled sign to buy his book. He’s wearing the knit cap and gloves with the fingers cut off. There’s just that aura of old school determination, like some of the photographers and reporters killed in the Middle East and Afghanistan in recent years, and an ambassador.

A cold, dreary December rain forced everyone to vacate the streets on the way home. Only one person was on the street at dusk. He was wearing a bandanna and holding the MIA-POW flag on his shoulder as he ran. No matter the weather, he’s out there putting in the miles with the large black flag. A cop drove past, lowered the window, and gave him a fist bump, some recognition for always being there.

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Teaching A Man to Fish the Urban River

Public relations and politicians love the big shiny buildings pointing a finger at the moon. We’re number one on this property. A cool city, although no one knows what that really means. Urbanist Richard Florida wrote a book in 2001 about being urban and cool- The Rise of the Creative Class. Rolling Stone writer Mark Binelli’s new book  Detroit City Is The Place To Be offers an answer to the cool city question. It’s kind of cool not to get murdered on the way to work. Binelli’s book “dilutes the brand, dude.”

The ring of decay surrounding the business districts can make the beautiful architecture resemble the hood ornament on an old Chevrolet in the junk yard. Several men were fishing the river in downtown Grand Rapids, across from the Gerald Ford Presidential Museum. A few of the fishermen looked like retirees. A group of younger men were fishing farther down the river. They were gathered in a tight spot. Some of them smoked cigarettes and flicked the cigarette butts in disgust when their lines came back empty. They glanced at me suspiciously. The retirees didn’t even acknowledge my presence, completely at peace with their spot in the river. The younger guys worked the river harder than the retirees. There was a sense of need in every flick of the line. A homeless man with wild long hair surprised me as I went under the bridge to the fishermen.

It’s a very common urban scene. The bustle of a business district and just a few blocks away…the ruin porn. A native of metro Detroit and Michigan grad, Binelli’s best writing is when he’s following the Detroit bloggers. One of the bloggers drives around the city in search of good copy which is abundant as the acres of abandoned property. A Detroiter from Lebanon (where else?) is robbed so often, he surrenders and decorates his yard with everything inside that’s worth stealing. He hangs shirts on the trees. Take the shirts. Take everything.

The street view in Google maps shows a guy on a porch in Detroit aiming a shotgun at the Google car doing the mapping. A dead baby was found in the closet of a Detroit home this past year. It was the same home. But Twitter is opening an office in Detroit!

Although Binelli lives among the people in Detroit for the assignment, there’s a feeling of detachment, an outsider’s perspective. He can leave anytime and will when the job is finished. He isn’t trapped. His writing of a community meeting with mayor Dave Bing has a different undertone than the Detroit blogger who captures the true desperation in the shouting and heckling and demands to know if Bing’s staff lives in the city. Skin in the game is the game changer.

Detroit had a big celebration on the 200th anniversary of the War of 1812. Fort Detroit surrendered to the British two hundred years ago without a shot. I alternated reading Bernilli’s Detroit on the Kindle and an old paperback of Philippe-Paul De Segur’s Defeat. I read and skimmed the Kindle and turned off everything while reading Defeat, a good title for the plight of Detroit as well as Napoleon’s Russian campaign. Two hundred years ago this month, Napoleon’s Grand Army was destroyed after taking Moscow with almost as much ease as the British took Detroit in 1812. Nature and the rivers trapped Napoleon, with help from the marauding Cossacks. The desperation was chronicled with extraordinary passion in the diary of Philippe-Paul de Segur who truly had skin in the game with the hundreds of thousands suffering and dying on the retreat from Moscow.

When one of Napoleon’s generals confronts him with the terrible conditions, Napoleon says, “Why must you disturb my peace of mind?” The general repeats the message of his certain demise. Napoleon softens his tone, and says again, “Why must you disturb my peace of mind?” Napoleon knew his Grand Army was destroyed.

The problem with books about the demise of Detroit is that they disturb the peace of mind without offering a way out. Napoleon raged against the generals who simply recited their problems.

Defeat is a classic. You don’t read this kind of story on a Kindle where the story is thrown back into the Amazon river when finished. “Women were seen among the floating ice sheets with children in their arms, holding them higher and higher as they sank. When their bodies were under water their stiffened arms still held the little ones up… Then in the column of desperate men crowded together in the one narrow way of escape, a monstrous struggle took place, in which the weak and the ones nearest the edge were forced into the river by the strong; and the latter without so much as turning their heads, carried away by the instinct of self-preservation, pressed savagely on, deaf to the cries of rage and desperation of their companions or officers whom they were sacrificing to their own ends.”

De Segur blames an excess of inequality and misery for the selfishness. But in the terrible suffering, there are stories of heroism and sacrifice. A baby held above the frigid river in the arms of a dying mother is grabbed by a soldier who tells the baby, “Don’t cry. I didn’t save you from drowning just to leave you on the riverbank. I’ll see that you’re taken care of. I’ll be a father and family to you.”

An excess of inequality and misery on the banks of the urban river is forcing retreat. Its story shouldn’t be thrown back in the Amazon river.

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Signals, Noise, and the Amish Buggy

Amish buggy after collision with a truck

The week began with a Black Swan event and I was the Black Swan. His mouth was open, head tilted right and up. The little Amish kid had the most amazing expression of curiosity and bewilderment on his face. He couldn’t take his eyes off me, or close his mouth, or breath in and out. I smiled, amused, and kept walking. The Amish kid kept looking. I turned around and smiled again. “Mama,” he said to his mother, dressed in the black Amish clothing. Mother and son talked quietly. I could tell that she was trying to explain the stranger in his life. She grabbed his hand and led him out of the store. I smiled. She scowled. They left the store and took the buggy home. There are several Amish communities in Michigan. Although the Amish are leaving in some areas of the state, the stronger communities are resilient. Until the modern truck collides with their buggy.

This is the land where Ernest Hemingway formed his famous bullshit detector. If you look and think hard enough, you can discover some extraordinary secrets hidden in the mundane of life here.

There weren’t a lot of political campaign signs in the rural areas like around the cement jungles south of here. The political messages targeted to the cement jungles were about fear and grievances. Nate Silver is the new social media hero of the Big Data era. He learned how to work the numbers first in baseball before crunching the numbers in politics.  He took his Moneyball statistics to the New York Times, replacing Jonah Lehrer in the brainy social media lineup.

There isn’t much noise where the Amish live in Michigan. A vast darkness covers everything at night. Fur with eyeballs darted in front of my car. I drove over it and heard the loud “thump, thump.” It felt big and heavy. I didn’t see anything in the rear view mirror for a hundred yards and finally caught the glimpse of the fur with eyeballs tumbling dead into a ditch. I didn’t stop. The two lane country road was too dark and lonely and way too far from the noise of the city. I turned up the volume on the radio for the football game. The signal wasn’t strong.

Nate Silver’s book The Signal and the Noise is climbing Amazon’s sales ranking fast with his success in predicting the outcome of the election. His father is a political science professor at Michigan State and took him to Tiger games. Fantasy baseball is where he first learned to apply statistical analysis. I used to study the baseball stats religiously for our fantasy league back when Bill James and fantasy baseball were just becoming popular. In those days, we used the stats from the Sunday newspaper and calculated everything with pen and paper. I knew the minor league stats of every ballplayer that I was scouting for my fantasy team. I was in a tough league. My friends were ballplayers and smart. One was drafted and recruited to pitch in the Ivy League. Another bet he could pass the Mensa test. He qualified, although our fantasy league didn’t quite meet the Mensa objective “to identify and to foster human intelligence for the benefit of humanity; to encourage research into the nature, characteristics, and uses of intelligence; and to provide a stimulating intellectual and social environment for its members.” I just wanted Ricky Henderson to run like hell.

We read and watched everything. I knew the strength and weakness of the minor leagues, which was a pitching league, and which was a hitters league. The ratio of strikeouts to walks was a biggie to me. It was the mark of promise and peril for the pitching prospect. The stats didn’t tell the whole story. You still had to watch their form and athleticism. A baseball and football star at Michigan was considered the top baseball prospect in the country when he was recruited to play both sports in Ann Arbor. Drew Henson wasn’t the first two sport star to fall short of what the scouts projected. This star, a wide receiver, never took the bat off his shoulder when he played against Michigan State and I instantly knew he wasn’t a pro ball player. Kirk Gibson had destroyed college pitching as a two sport star. So did Bo Jackson.

Intuition isn’t given enough credit. There is science behind the intuitive feel. The science just hasn’t been totally developed yet. Steve Jobs was not a fan of waiting for the numbers to confirm everything. The problem with the Nate Silver type of analysis is that it doesn’t go far enough into the darkness. It cuts and measures what’s seen in the light. Nate Silver dumps a lot of state polls into his brew to make his projections. A poll in Michigan just a couple of days before the election showed Romney trailing by 6-7 points in Michigan. I deduced Romney was trailing by half of that in Ohio. The margin in other states could be also be calculated by that one poll, like Seabiscuit’s trainer able to project the horse’s potential on a single muscle because that one muscle is connected to everything else. More importantly, you have to go into the darkness to understand  why. Voting is about self preservation, not self identity. No one wants to have their buggy run over by the truck.

The Atlantic has a story on Noam Chomsky’s criticism of artificial intelligence- our failure to “decode ourselves.” The reliance on statistical analysis and data creates a shallow interpretation and poor understanding. They’re riding an Amish buggy on a dark road.

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Earth, Wind, and Stretch Limousine On Fire

Gale winds on Lake Michigan and thirty foot waves on Lake Huron haven’t inflicted any damage like what the East Coast has gone through with the hurricane. But the wind coming hard off the Great Lakes serves as a reminder, and warning, that Mother Nature, unlike the generals, can open up a second, third, fourth front, or whatever she pleases. And when Mother Nature’s in a foul mood, she becomes very hard to please.

The central air and PowerPoint have seduced the leadership into believing She can be tamed. Climate control, cap and trade, click, click, and She’s submitted her power to the leadership that until an ocean of water flooded their boundaries were regulating the belch of a 16 oz soft drink. She can’t be treated like that but the leadership is like the generals in the recent Atlantic article by Tom Ricks who have been promoted out of the mud and into the penthouse. Two centuries ago Napoleon made his generals of mud. Mother Nature buried his generals in the Russian snow. This past week large swaths of property on the East Coast have been lost at sea. The leadership, these computer commandos, went down like Napoleon’s generals.

A relative in West Virginia with the nickname The Great Communicator hasn’t been in communication since the massive snow storm hit that state. Earth quakes are rattling the West Coast. I can hardly wait for Iran to get the Bomb.

On Michigan’s Gold Coast- Lake Michigan- there was a sign warning the structure wasn’t built for the public access. Proceed at your own risk. A news crew was on the beach, filming a story about the storm on the Great Lake. A photographer was sprawled out, his legs wrapped around some rocks as 50 mile per hour wind gusts and cold waves hit him in the face.

Nature understands no jesting. She is always right and the faults are with man- the generals and computer commandos. Johann Wolfgang von Goethe said it two hundred years ago, when Napoleon’s generals and men were dying with his glorious dream – “Nature understands no jesting. She is always true, always serious, always severe. She is always right, and the errors are always those of man.”

The kind of risk that is warned of here is not for the urbanologists, until Katrina or Hurricane Sandy come into town. The warning signs along the roads are about deer, as if the deer obey the crossing signs. Urban areas have signs warning of dogs- the attack kind, not the lap poodle. Signs of icy roads, always helpful in the summer heat. Soccer moms have stuck signs in the front lawn warning of children- specifically theirs- at play. I passed a mother and her child riding a horse. It was a beautiful fall setting. The child was wearing a helmet and clutching his mother as the horse eyeballed me in the other lane. The latest research is questioning the need to wear a helmet, whether for riding a horse or a bike. The helmet is creating both a false sense of fear, and security.

Neither the professional photographer wrapped around the rocks, nor I with the camera phone right behind him, needed a helmet or public service announcement that proceeding another three feet was risking a very cold bath in Lake Michigan. Mother Nature was sparring with both of us, hitting hard enough to send a message that she can hit much harder.

On the beach a young woman was running alone against the wind. She reminded me of the girl in northern Michigan that I saw running home from school in a cold rain. The grin on her face contrasted with the grumblings of everyone else complaining about the rotten weather. I guess guys are never too old to get inspired by teenage girls.

Time to leave this inspiring setting for more urbanology.

The limousine driver on the side of the expressway probably began his sweet ride with a big ole grin. Cocky little snot all dressed up and forcing travelers to put wary commuter eyes on his sweet trophy limo. He cut in front of me and took the expressway exit. I got caught by the light and watched him ride into the sunset. Both of us were leaving a factory town so his ride would definitely turn heads here. No gas shortage or passenger restrictions was going to ruin his ride.

I was watching the sunset and wishing I was on the Gold Coast instead of hitting pot holes out of this factory town. A white cloud of smoke was up ahead and squinting through the windshield, I noticed a tire bouncing and rolling directly at me. A big flame shot up through the smoke. I drove around the tire as it rolled behind me and across I-75. Neither the fire or the tire were done. The tire bounced and spun back across I-75 to its rightful owner in the smoking hot (literal) stretch limo.  The limo driver jumped out, running pants on fire laps around his burning hot hot hot limo. His limo was on fire and some prized cargo (non-human) was about to go up in flames with it. He was lifting something as flames spread around the back axle and darn near the gas tank which would go BOOM! and I believe get him FIRED! by the owner of the important cargo waiting impatiently for its delivery.

The Boss Bruce Springsteen is helping the people affected by Hurricane Sandy. The limo driver can only console himself with “Stretch Limousine on Fire” by Catie Curtis. The suspense for another sunrise goes on. Take the risk and laugh.

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