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I just started watching “Lost”, for the first time, pilot, season one, and am spelunking around the web to account for its claim to be the best television series of all time. One New York Times television critic sort of said so, in kind of another context, and his pop-out quote will be attached for eternity to one of television’s most self-referential spectacles. Some suit conceived it, he claimed, listening to Autistico on the beach in Hawaii. Saw it as a mashup of Lord of the Flies, “Survivor”, “Cast Away” and “Gilligan’s Island”. I thought so too, when that idiot Mary Ann chick still had lip gloss six days after the holocaust. Ditto the Sayid/Spock/Abed Nadir/Zabu generic south Asian geek trope.

And, ditto, the Ross and Rachel sexual tension. And, ditto, the enemies in the jungle, the faux-intellectual portents and the sci-fi tropes as lame as Luke Skywalker’s jejune pinball machine intergalactic jet battle. I got nervous when the critter snatched the pilot out of the cock pit and drenched the windshield with blood. That was hott. I got nervous the first two times they showed the plane crash in somebody’s flashback. All those bodies being sucked out the back of the fuselage in mid air! That was hott. Not quite as good as the eye-gouging scene in King Lear, which is the hottest, but I guess prime-time television has its standards. Out, vile jelly! has got to be the best eye-gouging line, if not the best line, of all time. No committee of suits and their script girls will ever top it.

By the second half of ep two of “Lost”, however, I was done with being manipulated by the same lip gloss formula that was old when Spielberg became Spielberg by producing “Jaws” with malfunctioning neoprene shark puppets. Since I joined the International Association of Genocide Scholars in 1994, somebody made me go see “Schindler’s List”. It had a wet t shirt scene in it.

I’m always aware, since Fitzgerald went to Hollywood tanked and let it destroy him, of the Hollywood ethos that writers are basically script girls. The tale of the creation of “Lost” is especially fraught for the script girl. The suit pitched his Flies/Survivor/Gilligan idea to a writer who came up with something they didn’t like. Another writer Big Footed his way into the key, “created by”, Chuck Lorre billionaire role in developing the five-year story line — the “mythology” for five years was developed almost before shooting began, an interesting insight into the meta-narrative process as influenced, perhaps, by Netflix. Then, most annoyingly, actors auditioning for the part of Sawyer were written into the storyline because the suits liked them. They liked the guy who plays Jack and changed it so he survived ep one. They liked the Korean chick who auditioned for Kate and wrote a Korean chick part for her. And so on.

The idea that actors are in charge of scripts has always annoyed me. One of the most epic battles on this front was between Streisand and Redford in “The Way We Were”, according to the best Hollywood/Broadway memoir of all time, Arthur Laurents’. (He wrote the book for “West Side Story”, lived to be 90, and slept with all the men in Hollywood.) It can be summed up in the great line of Klaus Kinski, when a snag in the story line had developed, who asserted that all the scriptural problems could easily be solved with one simple expedient. Keep the camera on me. The process by which Redford relentlessly screwed Streisand out of a role, a character, a plot, Laurents had written that was perfect for her should be required reading for every script girl. Altering my work of art to accommodate Redford’s feral and derriere garde aesthetic — movies (and religions) are about solitary men who are heroes, the idea which was the number one casualty of the concentration camps — strikes me as the epitome of bad taste, and slavery too.

To think a work of art should have its plot and characters tailored to actors’ physical styles annoyed me until I started thinking how many romans a clef there are in literature. And painting wouldn’t exist if Mona Lisa had not. Still I think the fine arts — let me think about how Shakespeare or Dickens universalized the portraits of real people they portrayed — or indeed, the roles Shakespeare wrote, as a working theatrical script girl, explicitly for Richard Burbage — and my knickers begin to untwist.

I suppose it’s worth the money to do Redford-dictated rewrites and watch him intimidate Streisand. If you’re sleeping with all the men in Hollywood. Arthur, Arthur, Arthur. I’m not sure Farley Granger was worth it.

Copyright (c) by Jeannette Smyth, all rights reserved.

I grew up hearing about Humboldt and his 6,000 mile trek through Latin America and the Humboldt current and living in Humboldt latitudes. Did you know he has more places named after him than any other figure in history? Eleven towns in the U.S. and Canada, a mountain range in Antartica, and a sea on the dark side of the moon. There are 12 species named after him, from squid to penguins, orchids and willows.

Mare Humboldtaneum

My father could have been a mini Humboldt, was smart enough, had the education and the energy, but I think the Depression took the starch out of him.


In any case, Humboldt has always been on my list, along with other queer desert wanderers such as Melville, Lawrence, Thesiger, and Tobias Schneebaum, and I remember reading a lengthy review of something about him back in the ’80s or ’90s and saying, as he went to Uruguay or Paraguay with his faithful French companion Bonpland and hung out with the Indians for months and months longer than was strictly necessary, this man is queer. One of the things about growing up in the Humboldt latitudes is one’s expat gaydar is almost congenital. There are all kinds of strange people in Monrovia, Liberia, at Luke the Belgian’s hotel. I was not the only one.

Hotel Country Club

Me, foreground, at Luke the Belgian's Hotel Country Club, Monrovia, Liberia. I am taking her hand off my shoulder.

Daddy thought Luke was a blood diamond smuggler. I was so bored I set fire to the tablecloth, probably because I wasn’t drinking. The flames were extinguished with my Coca-Cola, and not the Tuborg. I was incensed.

Whatever. Being a third culture kid sharpens the eye for stranger-ness in people devoted to romance on the road. There is often a reason they don’t want to be back in Belgium, being just plain Luke the Flemish thug.

So I have been persuaded about Humboldt for years and finally have gotten to the point, where I am calm enough to pick up my reading life from where it went down the tubes and into cartons two and a half years ago with my books. Many did not survive the sea change. So I got a 50 cent bio of Humboldt from Ama. And guess what it says on page xii?

Drinking lazos in the bar of the 16th century royal land grant hacienda, La Cienega, off Ecuador’s Avenue of the Volcanoes, named by Humboldt, and near the 20,565-foot peak of Chimborazo, nineteen thousand feet of which Humboldt, unaided by oxygen tanks, got up and set an altitude record for in 1802 which lasted 30 years and inspired the ascents of the Alps and Himalayas, the author is surprised to find his guide Andres and his brother Nelson speculating about Humboldt’s sexuality. How sophisticated and well-informed are these aborigines! As if Humboldt were the first sex tourist to cruise the Avenue of the Volcanoes.

La Cienega, Cotopaxi, Ecuador. Humboldt slept here, in 1802. For anyone who grew up in the Humboldt latitudes, climbing eucalyptus trees and going home smelling like a cough drop, La Cienega's eucalyptus allee is Proustian in its affect -- the bark, the way the high-altitude, equatorial sun comes through the leaves and trunks.

On page six, we have Humboldt’s older brother noting, around 1780, that the 10-year-old would “never be tranquil, because I cannot believe that any real attachment will ever steal his heart….A veil hung over our feelings which neither of us dared to lift.”

I was thinking the author would skip the whole problem. But no, it was addressed by a gay activist in 1908 who retailed gossip about Humboldt’s participation in Berlin’s gay underworld before his death nearly half a century earlier. A German-speaking biographer, De Terre, in 1955 quotes a more reliable source, passionate letters written by Humboldt to men. A few letters survived and the author quotes them, noting “[t]hese were not typical expressions of male friendship, even by the standards of eighteenth century Europe. Indeed, Alexander himself was disturbed by such feelings….”

On the very next page young Alexander falls in love with a theology student, and a few years later with a young Army officer. Humboldt, born and raised in Prussia, wrote the army officer, on the occasion of the officer’s marriage, with all the passion the age of romance and revolution could contain:

Two years have passed since we met, since your fate became mine….I felt better in your company and from that moment I was tied to you as by iron chains. Even if you must refuse me, treat me coldly with disdain, I should still want to be with you….Never would I cease to remain attached to you, and I can thank heaven that I was granted before my death the grand experience of knowing how much two human beings can mean to each other. With each day my love and attachment for you increase. For two years I have known no other bliss on earth but your gaiety, your company, and the slightest expression of your contentment. My love for you is not just friendship, or brotherly love — it is veneration, childlike gratefulness, and devotion to your will is my most exalted law.

No permanent attachment was his brother’s prediction, and it became true. Unimaginable to me is Prussia’s early nineteenth century queer community and how Humboldt became perhaps the greatest celebrity of the first half of the nineteenth century by substituting six years on the road, the continent of South America, and 60,000 botanical specimens for the body of Reinhard von Haeften. I’m getting sweaty just thinking about the last panoramic shot of Humboldt, Bonpland, and their Ecuadorian Sherpa, Carlos, turning back, altitude sick, hill happy, a thousand feet below the peak of Chimborazo. To return to — no Reinhard. A world of no attachments.

Chimborazo, aquatint by Humboldt and Bonpland. Chimborazo's summit is the point on the earth farthest from earth's center.

Just think about Reinhard’s shako, and the rise, in Humboldt’s time, of the Prussian army. And Humboldt’s long tenure as the world’s greatest man. Direct inspiration for Darwin’s Voyage of the Beagle. Friend of a founder of modernity, Goethe. Friend of the liberator, Bolivar. And of the author of the Declaration of Independence, Thomas Jefferson. Transcendentalist. Humboldt is probably the millenium’s most influential queer. Or Reinhard was.

Early 19th century Prussian army uniform, modelled after Frederick the Great's simple blue soldier-king uniform.

Copyright (c) Jeannette Smyth, all rights reserved.

Every day I check a certain list of craft blogs, wifey blogs, green, off-the-grid and home renovation blogs written by people with a wide variety of motives, many of them spiritually bankrupt and sociopathic.

I have strong green off-the-grid tendencies, and a political and emotional commitment to living in the democratic space of the city. I’m interested, if not physically able to manifest, old fashioned rural skills  like composting, hog butchering and chicken keeping, which are the ingrained lessons of my father’s childhood as the scion of academics in Appalachia. There is a photograph, ca. 1917, of my father’s five siblings each holding a basket of apples or a chicken or a hoe, to signify their life of abundance in Blacksburg.

I have pushed off my list of daily blog visits people whose blogs I was originally attracted to on account of the self-sufficienct, the off grid, the Appalachian. The crazy peak oil religious fanatics. The autism-lurks-in-household toxins urban homesteaders for whom turning the thermostat down to 60 during the day is a competitive mean girl mommy sport. Is your child ill, or is he just freezing to death? The greenery is belied and the anorexia underscored when we find these ladies writing long essays about how hard it was to give up $50 a bottle hair conditioner. We are blonde first, and green waaaaaay down the line. That blonde in the 12-miles-per-gallon SUV giving you the finger in a thong-induced fit of road rage? Is heading home to blog about how to sew your own menstrual pads.

I deleted entirely the dipshit millenarians who stake their baby goatschickenspigletscalves out on hillsides roiling with circling coyotes and hawks. I actually called the humane society in Montana or wherever the hell one set of animal-abusing sovereignty assholes was and turned them in. There’s another poultry and goat abuser in France I’m thinking of siccing Brigitte Bardot on to.

The Brigitte Bardot Greenpeace/Sea Shepherd vessel.

Then there is the urban farmer who posed, at Christmas time, as the Madonna, with her new baby in one arm, and a squirming baby goat tightly held against its will in the other. The father of the baby is squatting beside this unholy trinity pursing his hiply scruffed lips to kiss the Madonna’s cheek. It would work, maybe, if the lady in question were more modest in her pictorial allusions, and if her chin did not resemble the Winklevoss twins’. If you’re going to do butch Madonna, dude, you gotta let the goat go.

And lest you think I am biassed against the Zoolander be-chinned, it is the holier-than-thou thing, rather than beauty itself, which seems to be the family resemblance among the foremost urban farm bloggers. The blonde hair conditioner freak, who is a babe, thinks she’s approaching beatitude for foregoing the Frederic Fekkai Kool-aid and cooking her own hair conditioner. I think she’s touting cider vinegar, used by great-grandma Flora Judd (nee 1862) on her knee-length natural blonde Belle Epoque tresses, as the latest hair rinse.

Off the grid self-reliance has many spiritual and political implications. Self-reliance is, ultimately, impossible. We live and die in community, if only with the animals and God. One of the litmus-test issues for living off the grid in blissful solitude, rather than sociopathy, is meat, how humanely to live with animals we are going to kill. It is a problem addressed at its loftiest by the Nobel Prize winner for literature, if not vegetarianism, I. B. Singer in his genocide-related 1967 short story, The Slaughterer. Two farm bloggers, who are both old school and new, whose attitudes toward their meat animals are neither sentimental nor narcissistic are Paul Camilli, over at Life at the End of the Road, and the Matron of Husbandry — a Grange reference — farming the land she was born on, at Throwback at Trapper Creek. Both Camilli and the Matron, too, have the endlessly concatenating creative energy which is the single most attractive component of the home-centered blogs I read daily. It is the element present in the artists’ and travellers’ blogs I read too.

My father had it, even if it was not precisely directed toward home, or the part of it that buying furniture entails. My mother had, famously, to finance bureaus and night stands, sofas and armchairs, curtains and carpets, out of the grocery money. I grew up sleeping on a mattress so bad I thought waking up in the morning with a backache is what all teenagers did. The generosity and elegance of real frugality, as opposed to panicky tightwad sociopathy — a tried and true method of controlling your women folk — is one of the sub-texts both Camilli and the Matron address. Like Soviet-era survivors, Third World hustlers, visionary artists, African-American yard artists, and Rumpelstiltskin, Camilli and the Matron can make anything out of anything. The key is the willingness to spend real time and money on fences, to keep the predators, the floods, the neighbors, off your animals and their pasture. If you haven’t got the money to keep animals safe, to buy real medication and veterinary care, or are too cheap to buy good wind turbines and mattresses, you need to think again about the true nature of home and solitude.

The bloggers I read seem to be connected to chi, you could call it, the spiritual energy Henry Adams addresses in 1900 in The Dynamo and the Virgin.

No more relation could he discover between the steam and the electric current than between the Cross and the cathedral. The forces were interchangeable if not reversible, but he could see only an absolute fiat in electricity as in faith.

Some of us think it’s God, and mystics can see that universal concatenating energy radiating from stones and teratomas, iguanas and angels. Somebody was telling me about hiking in the mountains and pausing just as he was about to set his giant boot down on a three-inch sand-colored iguana. It looked back at him, all-comprehending, bigger than the view of the Continental Divide from Sandia Peak.

The blogs I like and check every day are disparate. They range from a lone Scots wife making stone soup and mopping her floor “for the menfolk” with washing soda, Bible verses and a drop of geranium oil, to a variety of people, some of whom have overcome amputation and strokes with needlework, wallpapering, rock breaking, blogging. Blogging, qua creative concatenation, was identified, and correctly, I think, by Stephen Duncombe, as the 21st century equivalent of the zine movement.

Other bloggers I visit daily, like Camilli, the Matron of Husbandry, who are in their 50s, or Benita Larsson, newly divorced, in her 40s, thirty-something Lucy in Yorkshire with rainbows atAttic 24, and John and Sherry Petersik, of the millenials generation, at Young House Love, don’t habitually refer to any personal catastrophe. They just keep on trucking in a way that means not only a beautiful and peacefully ordered home, to me, but resurrection itself. That’s what recycling, upcycling, thrifting, organizing your coupons, installing your own dishwasher and darning strike me as, and I can see it more clearly in digital photographs than I can in real life.


The Petersiks, who quit their New York City jobs in advertising to move near family in Richmond, make a living from their blog. One of its subthemes is the very focussed energy and professionalism with which the young parents work at home together to produce two detailed and colorful posts a day with fresh DIY material as they renovate their second house. It’s better than HGTV because it’s their money on the line and their fingernails which get smashed by amateur tool-handling skills. One of the threads I discern in the blogs I visit daily, especially the Petersiks’, is the brio with which each writer attacks and solves a problem in each post, from how to deep straw your chicken house, to how many threads you encompass in counted cross stitch, to knitting pattern graphs, to how to fabricate fences to move so your cows are on new pasturage every month, to how to crochet a stem and a leaf with veins, to how to strip paint off hundred-year-old redwood woodwork, to how to keep a poorly runt piglet alive — and, every day, though Kate Davies, who I think of as the Intelligent Craftafarian, seldom mentions it, learning how to walk again after a stroke. Again, the life and death confrontation — not precisely with meat, but with the ordering of matter — is the struggle here. It ranges from learning a tiny filet crochet stitch from a resurrected 1893 pattern, to Greg of Mount Petchmore single-handedly mounting a stepladder to paint, in several tasteful and painfully chosen tones, the many Victorian textures, surfaces, nooks and crannies of that worthy opponent, Petch House. What is so compelling is that the struggle with the eternal cussedness of things, as Twain called materiality, takes place in real time. Which is where I live.

Resurrection and resilience is what the creative concatenating is of someone like Larssen or Yvonne Eijkenduijn at  Yvestown, or Lucy, who woke in midlife to find herself in too small a house in wuthering, grey Yorkshire and covered the house in a rainbow of crochet. Eijkenduijn is a Guyanese/Dutch woman with the same northern light aesthetic that imbues many of the British knitting bloggers, as it does Larsson, a Swedish designer — a hunger for white rooms with a very few touches of color. The British mod silvery all-white rooms is a trope that is not new; but they glow in the northern light, and even ramshackle or medieval interiors look groomed when covered with a lick of white paint. The banishment of darkness is one subtheme here, and while Paul Camilli or Greg at Petch House never go on about decor, Camilli does go on about laying pipe across an inhospitable grade in the Hebrides to create a hydroturbine for — you guessed it, light. Greg of Mount Petchmore in foggy Eureka, California, kept me rivetted with his account of liberating from a demolition site and then cleaning tile, each one, individually, with a toothbrush, from a light-starved northern California saloon Jack London could have frequented.

Overcoming winter was actually the subject of a British blog circle and Flickr group; the best blogging I’ve seen on that subject is from Alicia Paulson. After the longed-for adoption of a baby fell through, Paulson made one post about it, and proceeded with her standard posts on making a grey-toned quilt, a dark counted cross-stitch sampler, nature walks, and most cathartically, the dark and silver tones of late winter in Portland, when tiny sprigs of things she collected and photographed in the northern light, against a black background inspired by the famous Mrs. Delaney’s flower collages, are just beginning, under the mulch, in the forest, to green. Her forebearance in complaint and the mountain of meticulous and beautiful work she undertook to achieve stasis gives that post about the sprigs real luminosity.

Marx’s Bubble Wand

It’s the same immanence that electrifies you when Marx launches into his famous disquisition on a table, or Des Pres, the scholar of concentration camps, writes about how to concatenate safe space in extremity, or Virginia Woolf writes precisely what it is Mrs. Dalloway feels when she crosses the threshhold into her home.

While the concatenation of home in dark and hostile climes is heroic, something I miss my Daddy for, less male or female than it is generative, being at home is itself the antidote. The resting in the bloggers’ beautifully ordered spaces, as well as the ferocious energy it takes to make them, is what I’m after every day. To think about the energy emanating from the configuration of things — as when someone says, I haven’t changed her bedroom since she died — whether it is actually form-conferring, or, alternatively, unacceptably proscriptive, is something I seem to have been doing on the down-low all my life. My ears prick and my eyes brighten in the presence of the concatenation; one of the things I most regret about a lifetime of moving and purging is throwing out the stack of 1970s House and Garden magazines which had in it the one with the spread on San Francisco designer John Dickinson’s 1893 firehouse apartment, with the Victorian painted lady rowhouse facade reproduced on his closet doors.

His was the most beautiful interior ever, witty, clean, comfortable, with touches of Afro and beach chic — all demolished now. I studied those pictures, and those of New York City designer Sister Parrish, because unlike other decorators, they knew that the placement of furniture and the color of the walls was about two things — conviviality and sensuality. Was the furniture conformed to conversation? Was there a table for every seated conversationalist to set her Stinger down, or her Earl Grey, with no tongue-dulling cream, but rather a thin slice of clove-studded lemon? Was there seating for as many people as fitted around the dining room table? Would the food and the ladies’ decolletage look good against those wall colors? I love HGTV and the terrific eye for upcycling, rock and roll, and Miami styles that Henderson, Ballatori and Bromstad are channelling upwards from the grassroots, but every time one of them sticks a useless chair into a corner to “style” it the ghosts of form-conferring conviviality weep. I actually spent two days tracking down the only remnant of the John Dickinson spread — lacking, sadly, the shot of those immortal closet doors (!) — and paying a pretty penny for quite a stupid book which features that long ago Utopia.

John Dickinson's iconic living room.

Without any question, this concatenation of home is both Utopian and political, at the very center of the most profound political economy of the last millenium. When Marx started his famous disquisition on commodity fetishism in Capital, he did not use, as an example, anything so frivolous as a bottle of claret, of which he was very fond, or a labor intensive filet crochet lace edging hooked from Jenny Marx’s tears. They could afford little else. Marx chose a different domestic partner, a companion of interiority to evoke a world of Platonic ideals and German transcendentalism. Derrida writes:

It is a great moment at the beginning of Capital as everyone recalls: Marx is wondering in effect how to describe the sudden looming up of the mystical character of the commodity, the mystification of the thing itself — and of the money-form of which the commodity’s simple form is the “germ.” He wants to analyse the equivalent whose enigma and mystical character only strike the bourgeois economist in the finished form of money, gold or silver. It is the moment in which Marx means to demonstrate that the mystical character owes nothing to a use-value.

Is it just chance that he illustrates the principle of his explanation by causing a table to turn? Or rather by recalling the apparition of a turning table? This table is familiar, too familiar; it is found at the opening of the chapter on the fetishism of the commodity and its secret (Geheimnis). This table has been worn down, exploited, over-exploited, or else set aside, no longer in use, in antique shops or auction rooms. The thing is at once set aside and beside itself. Beside itself because, as we will soon be surprised to see, the s id table is a little mad, weird, unsettled, “out of joint.” One no longer knows, beneath the hermeneutic patina, what this piece of wood, whose example suddenly looms up, is good for and what it is worth.

The way the configuration of furniture confers form or proscribes it — the way it morphs, adds or subtracts value — is the subject not only of Marx’s transcendental table but of materiality and political economy itself. How you can go from living in Marx’s ghost house to living in Philip Larkin’s sad house — from aspiration to acedia — is one subtheme of the blogs I don’t like. The pinny porn bloggers, whose things are aspirational and whose crafts are consumerist, fill me with anger and the desire to buy:

Home is so Sad
by Philip Larkin

Home is so sad. It stays as it was left,
Shaped to the comfort of the last to go
As if to win them back. Instead, bereft
Of anyone to please, it withers so,
Having no heart to put aside the theft

And turn again to what it started as,
A joyous shot at how things ought to be,
Long fallen wide. You can see how it was:
Look at the pictures and the cutlery.
The music in the piano stool. That vase.

Must have that vase.

The homes of the bloggers I like do have the heart. They’re not philanderers valorized by the ferocious concatenation of Dystopia, like Larkin was, and the concatenation of home they create is satiety itself. Reading Lucy’s encomia to crocheting with hot color is its own reward. Should she juxtapose a “teal/maroon/orange combo? Shall I run up through the lighter colours with the aqua/celery/mustard combo? Or shall I do something quirky and unexpected with the pale green/magenta/maroon combo?” Just thinking about those aqua/celery/mustard color vibrations takes me to the place where Utopia is built. Into the flow.

The homes of the bloggers I like are filled with their own energy, and whether or not I like the brackets the Petersiks put up in their kitchen, or Lucy’s unorganized “Shelves of Doom”, or the flotsam and jetsam Camilli has stacked in his yard for upcycling, or Greg’s staircase carpet, or the scary way the Scots housewife talks about her isolation and the endless rain, or Daniel’s strict MCM orientation at Manhattan Nest, or the Zerbeys’ fixation with mustard in Seattle at Chezerbey, or Morgan Satterfield’s brutalist thing in the meth capital of the San Jacinto Valley, Hemet, CA, at The Brick House, or Anna’s shaved head side in Newburgh, NY at Door Sixteen, I know that each one of these people is paying attention to making life go forward, what I’m calling the conviviality. Kyle Zerbey, a young architect, taught his candyass how to weld so he could fabricate the perfect ladder to the tiny loft space in their tiny working class bungalow. Yeah, baby.

It is no accident that Generation X academics, like Kate Davies, the punk generation, lead the millenial arts and crafts movement in apocalyptic Britain. She teaches and practices engagement with materiality,

Schoolgirl damask darning sampler from the Ackworth Quaker school.

While she would certainly deny it, Dr. Davies writes, and crafts, with more than a touch of Marxist materiality and a sharp iconoclastic eye for pinny porn and commodity fetishism. I was struck recently by the sharpness of Davies’ eye and its freedom from socialist asperity when I saw Marc Jacobs’ fall 2012 collection. It seemed ganked from the unsung, narrow-shouldered-punk-Mary-Poppins-thrift-shop-inspired-coat school of dressing Davies manifests, and from her favored fashion house, Cabbages and Roses.

Marc Jacobs, fall collection 2012

Cabbages and Roses Barberry coat.

Flowers of Darkness

My college buddy Bob told me that Virginia Woolf had committed an “intellectual suicide”. This untruth was catnip to a sensitive coed and in the late 1960s I took Virginia Woolf up as a cause. There is a passage in To the Lighthouse which confirmed for me that the way I experienced the world was worth writing about, something the professors of world literature, my major, were not professing even at that late date. Jane Austen was a minor writer because, Dr. Baizer said, she did not write about war. May he roast eternally in the pit of Dante’s Inferno (that was taught by nice gay Dr. O, who wore a cape and a cameo ring) which rotisseries teachers who betray their pupils. That was not a million years ago, that was 1968, news of which apparently did not penetrate the backwaters of upstate New York until later.

I’ve never regretted my good acquaintance with the canon — it is important to have read the entire works of Richard Crashawe — on the guileful principle that once you know the rules and know them good — Crashawe! — you know how to break them. It did teach me how to write and gave me entree into the world of writing.

But Woolf I had to learn on my own, and a few years later as a young reporter I realized in order not to be crazy I needed to stop knowing a little bit about everything, stop being a mile wide and an inch deep. I decided I would know everything about Virginia Woolf, and 43 years later, I do.

The passage from To the Lighthouse which showed me both modernity and that a woman’s real interiority could be written about, I read in the summer of 1966 or 67:

Raising her eyebrows at the discrepancy — that was what she was thinking, this was what she was doing — ladling out soup — she felt, more and more strongly, outside that eddy; or as if a shade had fallen, and, robbed of colour, she saw things truly. The room (she looked round it) was very shabby. There was no beauty anywhere. She forebore to look at Mr Tansley. Nothing seemed to have merged. They all sat separate. And the whole of the effort of merging and flowing and creating rested on her. Again she felt, as a fact without hostility, the sterility of men, for if she did not do it nobody would do it, and so, giving herself a little shake that one gives a watch that has stopped, the old familiar pulse began beating, as the watch begins ticking — one, two, three, one, two, three. And so on and so on, she repeated, listening to it, sheltering and fostering the still feeble pulse as one might guard a weak flame with a news-paper.

It changed my life. Ten years later, as a young reporter, I wrote a story for the Great Metropolitan Daily about how 20 per cent of all the readers of the Berg Collection at the New York Public Library — a four-century panoply of manuscripts — were reading Woolf’s papers. I was on to something; you read it here first.

Like the blogs I visit every day, Virginia Woolf — though the daughter of the most famous atheist of the Victorian age and the wife of the toughest-minded Fabian socialist — imbues the home her characters live in with the immanence of glory. In thinking about what it is in those blogs that attracts me, passages of Marx, of Des Pres, the scholar of concentration camps, and of Woolf’s Mrs. Dalloway immediately spring to mind, out of all the shelter porn I’ve been reading for four decades, as explaining the real reason for home. The fourth great authority whose insight I often think of is Carl Bernstein, the Watergate reporter, almost as famous as a reader of shelter magazines as he is for other accomplishments. It was either Bernstein, a red diaper baby, or an alter ego inHeartburn, the roman a clef novel written by a furious ex-wife, who pointed out that shelter magazines were about Utopia.

Virginia Woolf, her shared interest with Bernstein in socialism and atheism aside, has Mrs. Dalloway cross the threshold into her home after an epic walk through London.* The contrast, and the pause, or stasis Mrs. Dalloway achieves as she exits the public streets and flow of modernity, comes home, and stands in the hall, and sinks deep into safe space, has always struck me as both the religious and secular explication of Des Pres’ theory of civilization. Home is civilization, and Mrs. Dalloway’s pausing in the hall fills in the blanks of Des Pres’ definition. While the city, and modernity itself, may enact Marx’s explosive dialectic — thesis, antithesis, synthesis, all that is solid melts into air — while the epic flaneurism of  Mrs. Dalloway (1925) preceded Walter Benjamin’s Arcades Project (1927-1940) by years* — the verities are at home.

“What are they looking at?” said Clarissa Dalloway to the maid who opened her door.
The hall of the house was cool as a vault. Mrs. Dalloway raised her hand to her eyes, and, as the maid shut the door to, and she heard the swish of Lucy’s skirts, she felt like a nun who has left the world and feels fold round her the familiar veils and the response to old devotions. The cook whistled in the kitchen. She heard the click of the typewriter. It was her life, and, bending her head over the hall table, she bowed beneath the influence, felt blessed and purified, saying to herself, as she took the pad with the telephone message on it, how moments like this are buds on the tree of life, flowers of darkness they are, she thought (as if some lovely rose had blossomed for her eyes only); not for a moment did she believe in God; but all the more, she thought, taking up the pad, must one repay in daily life to servants, yes, to dogs and canaries, above all to Richard her husband, who was the foundation of it — of the gay sounds, of the green lights, of the cook even whistling, for Mrs. Walker was Irish and whistled all day long — one must pay back from this secret deposit of exquisite moments, she thought, lifting the pad, while Lucy stood by her, trying to explain how
“Mr. Dalloway, ma’am”—
Clarissa read on the telephone pad, “Lady Bruton wishes to know if Mr. Dalloway will lunch with her to-day.”
“Mr. Dalloway, ma’am, told me to tell you he would be lunching out.”
“Dear!” said Clarissa, and Lucy shared as she meant her to her disappointment (but not the pang); felt the concord between them; took the hint; thought how the gentry love; gilded her own future with calm; and, taking Mrs. Dalloway’s parasol, handled it like a sacred weapon which a Goddess, having acquitted herself honourably in the field of battle, sheds, and placed it in the umbrella stand.

The safe space in which even a woman’s spirit may effloresce — home, A Room of One’s Own — and the obligations within it of communitarian obligation to one another as repayment for the way one can resurrect oneself at home, are either the foundation or the apex of civilization.

That a woman who wants to work at writing or anything else requires a homemaker,  is a discussion for another venue. That home requires a cook and a parlormaid is the subject of much obloquy against Woolf and her novels.

I feel bound to disagree with Mrs. Woolf’s assumption that running a household and family unaided necessarily hinders or weakens thinking …, Q. D. Leavis wrote in her famous review of Woolf’s Three Guineas (1938). And, she continued, I see no profit in letting our servants live for us. Q. D. Leavis was the most vicious of Woolf’s many baffled critics, oddly anti-feminist herself. Mrs. Leavis had been a brilliant undergraduate who married her professor, worked her tail off cooking and cleaning, wrote angrily about Woolf’s feminism. She never quite — well you know. Never wrote Mrs. Dalloway. Or even A Room of One’s Own. Never came home.


*Scholars of Woolf have only recently begun to analyze her engagement with the city. A 2009 conference at Fordham, called Woolf and the City, marks the beginning of institutional engagement with Woolf’s Marxist city walks some 80 years after the publication of Mrs. Dalloway’s odyssey (1925) and  the establishment of Benjamin’s Frankfurt school of critical Marxist theory (1923). Food for serious thought, however tardy, on Mrs. Dalloway walking through the city, if not going home, can be found in the papers from that conference.

(c) Jeannette Smyth, all rights reserved.

Why I could never get black beans to taste like they do in Cuban restaurants was another mystery of life. I thought water and beans, no salt until they’re cooked, or maybe even broth and beans, was enough.

I was weaned in Puerto Rico on cafe con leche and rice and beans, you comprehend, so this is a matter of real just-post-mommy-comfort-food, if not precisely the iconic red kidney beans and rice I was fed, along with all the other Puerto Rican babies, when the time came to let my mother off the hook. I had vainly searched, at least since the 1970s, for a cookbook of Caribbean food. You understand that none exists which could evoke the latitude of my first memory, which is of lying in my mother’s arms in the rocking chair in San Juan, looking out the window, seeing the billions of stars twinkling robustly, and thinking that the robust throbbing tones of the tree frogs was the sound the stars made. Proust asserts, I suppose, that there is such a cookbook, and all the Cambodians I know spent the genocide years, when they had as little as a half a cup of rice a day to eat, sitting around the campfire discussing pork stir-fried with garlic and lotus root.

Me, on the beach, in San Juan.

I have the 1970 Time-Life Foods of the World Caribbean cookbook, and can remember the disappointment with which I regarded, for example, the two-page spread of the Jamaican chef Lucille Tyson making a piece montee out of pumpkin, shrimp, and coconut milk in a chapter called “Tourism: Mother of Culinary Invention”. She is photographed making Cinderella’s coach and coachmen out of a pumpkin and some shrimp, for which she won a big prize.

Ms. Lucille Tyson

Then there was — I recall this was a feature of a lot of Michael Field’s/Time Life’s approach to cooking, French technique and the Gentleman Gourmet’s addition of vodka to every possible dish — like 20 pages of rum drinks. Got it. Then there was the essentially dreary slave flavor of things like breadfruit vichyssoise vs. memories of badly butchered curried goat. I’m sure breadfruit vichyssoise is delicious and it’s what you’d do if you had breadfruit to eat every day of the year. Maybe.

The Foods of the Caribbean Islands

Then I discovered Steven Raichlen’s Miami Spice. First of all, he loves south Florida and eats everywhere, from Little Haiti in Miami, down the Keys. He, unlike Time Life, does genuine grassroots cooking anthropology. He asks for recipes when someone else has done a good job, instead of applying culinary-ass school principles to delicious poor white and poor black people food.

He rejiggers the traditional recipes so that they taste good, and not depressing. A lot of grassroots Caribbean cookbooks are of the stone soup genre, which would be valuable were I to live there and cook foraged food over a brazier made out of an old oil can. I did that for a year after the weaning, on a boat with my parents. Another early memory is looking down upon my mother through the hatch, watching her cook sausages over a Primus stove. No fish caught that day, I guess.

Then, while providing real insight into and technique for the soul food stuff, Raichlen takes those amazing flavors — as well as the Florida cracker cuisine to which I am devoted — to a logical upscale conclusion, like baby back ribs with guava barbecue sauce or swamp cabbage (hearts of palm to you, Yankee carpet bagger) with pancetta and cream. How is this different from breadfruit vichyssoise, less horribly colonial, less depressing working for the Yankee dollar? Because it’s about the breadfruit, and not about the vichyssoise.

I’m just swooning right now over his grits with tomato gravy recipe to go with fried fish. Mmmmm. Shrimps and smokies: U-peel recipe from the Mucky Duck on Captiva Island. Poached in beer with kielbasa and coriander is classic cracker James Lee Burke boat captain fare. Those ole boys kin cook.

It’s exactly how I want to eat this stuff, and I finally realized why my black beans — and nor Michael Field’s or any Cuban cookbooks’ — don’t taste right. This is your method. Please note how he addresses, without fanfare, many of the mysteries of bean cookery. How much soaking water, and do you cook them in it? Ditto cooking water and how, for soupy beans, they should be submerged. Ditto add no salt until the end of cooking, while other flavorings are applied, and freshly reapplied at the end, during the cooking.

I have had fascists of the newly-converted-to-soul-food school of cooking tell me only white people add any seasoning to beans before the end of cooking, on the same principle as no salt until the end (it makes them impossible to soften). SNAP. 

This is an essay on cooking beans, erudition lightly worn and obviously learned from traditional cooks. The pinch of sugar at the end, for example, brings out the sweetness of the vegetables you boiled with the beans and removed, as supermarketty and home-withered in the refri as they were. Raichlen credits all kinds of cooks throughout.

Steven Raichlen’s New Florida Cuisine Soupy Black Beans
1 lb. dried black beans, washed and picked
1 small onion, cut in half
4 cloves garlic, peeled
2 bay leaves
1/2 green bell pepper, cored and seeded
About 1 t cumin
About 1 t dried oregano

2 strips bacon, cut into 1/2-inch slivers (optional)
1 T olive oil
1/2 small onion, finely chopped
2 cloves garlic, minced
1/2 green bell pepper, cored, seeded, finely chopped
3 scallions, trimmed and finely chopped

2 T dry white wine
1 T red wine vinegar, or to taste (<——- this is the essential key, along with bell pepper, cumin, oregano)
1/2 t sugar
Salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste

1. In a large heavy pot, soak the beans in cold water to cover by at least 3 inches for no less than 4 hours, or overnight. (If omitting this step, add about 1 hour to the cooking time.)

2. Add the halved onion, garlic cloves, bay leaves, bell pepper, cumin and oregano to the pot of beans and soaking water. Bring to a boil over high heat. Skim off any foam that rises to the surface.

3. Reduce the heat, cover, and gently simmer the beans, stirring occasionally, for 1 hour. Add water as necessary to keep the beans submerged. Remove the onion, garlic, bayleaves and bell pepper with a slotted spoon and discard.

4. Meanwhile, prepare the sofrito. If using bacon, brown it in a heavy frying pan over medium heat. Pour off the fat.

5. Add the olive oil and the remaining sofrito ingredients. (If not using bacon, heat the olive oil in a frying pan, add the sofrito ingredients, and continue with the recipe.) Cook over medium heat until just beginning to brown, about 3 minutes. Stir the sofrito into the beans along with the wine, vinegar, sugar, salt and pepper. Cover and continue simmering the beans, until very soft, about 20 minutes.

6. Just before serving, correct the seasonings, adding salt, pepper, cumin, oregano, or vinegar. The mixture should be highly seasoned. Spoon the soupy black beans over rice.


(c) Jeannette Smyth, all rights reserved.

The retool of the Chicago News Cooperative, if not its demise, will be interesting to watch. It’s a group of Chicago newspaper journoes, of the big public interest story type that newspapers and wire services themselves now seem unwilling to fund. They covered Chicago, with a large grant from the MacArthur Foundation and a commitment from the NYT to publish two pages of news twice a week in the NYT Chicago edition. They were, in short, sustained by their commitment to be the NYT Chicago bureau, and the idea that a charity-supported news organization would the the outsource of news for the nation’s newspaper of record has a number of shitty ideas attached.

Before the NYT lept in and agreed to fund the coop, the coop had other ideas for supporting the gathering of big public interest news stories, one being the cultivation on the website of discussion groups the CJR piece below is calling “social media” groups, of people interested enough in particular issues — and stimulated in said interest by communication online with editors and reporters — to pay, as individuals, for coverage of said issues. Ie., flashmob or Kickstart-supported artistic projects. The story with the most votes would be crowned Homecoming Queen and literally monetized. The problem is that internet culture is notoriously self-policing, libertarian, male, predatory and bullying.

Flashmob-supported news isn’t so very different from the current model newsroom at the Washington Post, where the number of hits your piece is getting, in real time, is apparently posted on a scoreboard in the newsroom. Nor would it be different from the robust business model of the wire services, where purchase and play by clients is literally the bread and butter of the news. At least their clients are newspapers, and not lobbyists. Or Grover-Norquist-list-serv flashmobs and CPAC-funded dirty trix by James O’Keefe. Put on your pimp hat, baby. ‘Cause we’re goin’ out tonight.

Well you see where this is going. I like a closed system for journalism. I don’t like your having a micro-loan interest, or a macro advertiser or lobbyist interest in what topics are covered. You should not be able to buy a dinner with Katharine Weymouth and the reporters and editors of the Washington Post who cover your beat at Weymouth’s house. Nor should you be paying even a micro-slice of Woodward and Bernstein’s salary. Public interest journalism is not about popular, or populist, values. Often it is about injustice meted out by the majority to minorities. Ethics and not the number of reader hits are the essence of public journalism, and the question is how the only redeeming social importance for journalism is now to be monetized.

I’m always up for a good tip, but an enormous part of journalism is the two or three editorial meetings a day in which story ideas are argued, their newsworthiness attacked, with the survivors being what you see on page one. My experience of them is that icons can be smashed, to a certain degree; with war always taking precedence over allegedly “softer” news about causes and trends. That’s an argument that’s been going on for 40 years to my knowledge and certainly still is . The maudlin encomia for (the very untimely and totally unnecessary death of ) Anthony Shadid (asthma attack sneaking into Syria) make the point that his coverage of war was, as it was, in truth, extra special because he spoke Arabic, could eavesdrop and observe actions and nuance for example in the crowds and tumult of Tahrir Square to which Lara Logan was, to her serious detriment, tonedeaf. His coverage featured the vignettes of individuals doing things which contain answers about causes and trends, and tipped me off, early on, in paragraph 47 on page C98, that the Muslim Brotherhood was at the heart, large and in charge of the soccer thugs, and would prevail.

You read it here first:

Sameh Saber, another anti-government protester, started running toward the battle line [in Tahrir Square] with a tree branch.
“Put it down,” an older man implored.
“Three of my friends are bleeding inside,” Mr. Saber yelled back, “and my friend lost an eye!” But he put down the branch.”

I don’t see a flash mob being expert enough in knowing what the news is to support that kind of career. Learning Arabic and having it pay off 20 years later.

The other big trend in the news today is how the millenial males consider humor — Youtube shorts — more important to their “self-definition” than music. This demographic is the one advertisers want. If you want them to be part of your successful Chicago News Cooperative, you need to be making Jon Stewart your model and not newspaper reporters. And then you’d need to be in a different business.

But the channel also realizes that comedy is popping up on alternate screens, and the men Comedy Central wants to reach are spending more time downloading funny videos. As one buddy group participant put it, “Tosh.0, he does what I like to do: watch YouTube videos and make fun of them all day.”

I have read the paper every day since I started working for one, in August of 1969. It was a way of seeing how your story had been edited and played, and what your colleagues were up to. Somebody once pointed out that if you don’t learn from how you’re edited, you don’t have a job in six months.

It was, in addition, to some degree about the news, which in those days and in that place was pretty interesting. I don’t love politics or the game of reporting. One seminal event I tend to forget is going to the Coke machine in the Nixon White House press room — allegedly built over JFK’s swimming pool, the one in which he seduced Fifi or whatever her name is. I put a quarter in the machine and turned to look at the pictures, like class pictures, of the White House press corps along the walls. The one by the Coca Cola machine was the class of 1943, guys in fedoras sitting on bleachers squinting into the sunshine in front of the Capitol. Their names were written by hand in tiny print underneath. Being a wonk for names and people, I read them carefully.

The only name I recognized, some 30 years after the picture was taken, was that of Merriman Smith. He was a young guy in the picture, and had covered the White House for UPI ever since. He had recently, after being the senior wire service reporter who said, ending every press conference, Thank you, Mr. President, after inventing the phrase “grassy knoll”, and enjoying a career many in the newspaper business would consider at the top of his field, committed suicide.

Merriman Smith

I had never heard of the names of any of the other 50 guys in the picture. Watergate was just beginning, and that, with the Martin Luther King assassination riots of 1968, was the final death knell, as far as I was concerned, for the idea that anything like news was coming out of the White House. The White House was where the news wasn’t. What was at the White House was lies. I remember staring at Dan Rather’s mutton chop sideburns and thinking, this is who this beat is good for — getting on the nightly TV news every night. I still wonder how [Redacted], who replaced me at the Great Metropolitan Daily, can get it up after all these years. How can she possibly care? What’s wrong with her?

Now I read a long story in the NYT today about how the Washington Post is changing from a print medium to the website, with a 24/7 news cycle driven by immediate feedback chronicled on a big fat scoreboard in the news room. Recently Brauchli, who seems, in fact, to be a journo, convened the old bulls of the newspaper — curiously not including Bradlee — to ask them about how to keep the paper viable as the source of fine journalism. I think he’s right to do that; one thing I took away from the long piece is that the website is driven by blogs. I think news blogs are bullshit; it keeps reporters tethered to updating Twitter logs — “news” — instead of covering enterprise stories. One of the great things about not being in the White House press room was wandering around the city looking at stuff. Like how it was a city of black people, not politicians.

Washington, D.C., Martin Luther King Jr. riots, April, 1968

While I subscribe to the Macondo Manana [TILDE!!!] as a matter of principle, I do not read it. Which is a shame, because it’s a good paper and does a good job.

I am feeling more and more decathected from what people call news, not least as the result of the news blackout I imposed on myself after I started foaming at the mouth around the invasion of Iraq and the downfall of [Redacted]. [Redacted] who, I may have pointed out in this space, I last heard of like 40 years ago on her hands and knees in front of my old editor’s house, pounding the sidewalk with her fists and saying something like, Why won’t you love me? Dude.

My other great epiphanies about the News — I went into the business to write, not to be a reporter — were the day I spent six hours trying to break the back of the NYT Sunday crossword, and which I did do. And the Sunday I spent two hours reading the Sunday Times and not realizing that it was the previous Sunday’s paper, delivered by mistake, and apparently not recalled in any detail by me.

I observe with a sinking heart what all my contemporaries have come to; at best, a Pulitzer prize for work on a beat tactically invented to garner said prize, in a field full of charlatans and not showing any inclination to stem the tsunami of bullshit. [Redacted.] Colleague #2: honorably teaching the craft to undergraduates [Redacted]. Colleague #3, at worst, editing for the wangers, anti-feminist tirades because — well, [Redacted]. Colleague #4, one book, fantastically well-reported, about people whose media-insider story was a.) of little interest outside the Metroliner chattering classes and b.) over when the contract was signed — [Redacted]. And #5? Writing a book about [Redacted]? He’s been itching to write this very, very bad idea for 15 years, basically because he is the star of the movie.

I can’t even talk about my own productivity. I’ve written five unpublished books since I quit the newspaper business. I have to do something about that.

So what is it all about, all these years of reading and writing for the paper? A sea of facts, rhetorics, narrative arcs that break free from the Aristotelian heroic canon and are not (!) predicated on the values of dead white men, always heavenly to dive into. The hookah cafe on Steinway Street in little Egypt, Astoria, Queens, page A29. The rattle of the paper, the smell of the ink and the coffee, the freedom to throw away the A section and find out what’s really going on in Tahrir Square by reading the reporter’s eyewitness account in paragraph #47 on page C48. My fellow humans. People watching. Still interested.

There are a few Republican documents which can be credited with the destruction of the U.S. democratic process, including the disappearance of real political issues from the discourse. These are

  • Lewis Powell’s famous 1971 memo;
  • the invention by Terry Dolan, Paul Weyrich and Richard Viguerie of hot-button single issues to get the wangnut vote out (abortion, for example, which is not a political issue and which most Americans either don’t care about, or are inclined to say is a private matter)
  •  — Dolan also invented political action committees, which circumvent caps on political contributions;
  • and the Frank Luntz talking points war of words which brought you the weasel words “climate change” and so much else.

Now comes evidence that trash-talking your opponent while actively avoiding political issues is the invention of Newt; though I suspect Weyrich — famous for enunciating the New Right’s anti-democracy tactic, we don’t want people to go to the polls, we win when people stay away — had a hand in the invention of the ad hominem campaign ads and strategies. These are sometimes fingered as culprits in keeping people from voting.

New Right Founder Weyrich Condemns High Voter Turnout

I think Newt’s trash talk tactics, which he characteristically touted via tapes you could listen to in your car, take their place in these apocalyptic strategery documents, and I look forward to their surfacing in the months to come.

I am also waiting for the Republican enemies Bob Michel warned Newt against to come forward. I’m not holding my breath. Bob Dole, whose bipartisanship I always respected, even when he was known as the meanest man in the Senate, has endorsed Romney. If this is what they mean by the Republican establishment coming forth to support Romney, my fears for the continued existence of the democratic process — in which, let me emphasize, people of good will should disagree — are not abated. Under this libertarian right wing regime, the economy and the political process itself have imploded as a matter of their strategy.

By this time, Mr. Gingrich had already taken charge of Gopac, a once-sleepy political action committee dedicated to electing Republicans. Mr. Gingrich pumped it up into a fund-raising machine and a training organization in which Republican candidates were given step-by-step information on how to run for office. He produced seminars and a series of cassette tapes; today hundreds, if not thousands, of Republican officeholders in states around the country can recall riding around in their cars listening to Mr. Gingrich’s formula for winning.

Mr. Edwards, the former Republican congressman, described the tapes as “all about how to demonize the opposition, how to use invective and scary language,” adding: “It wasn’t that he trained them to have a better understanding of foreign policy, or economic policy. They were techniques in how to wage a nasty partisan war against your opponent.”

Here is somebody’s senior thesis on Newt and the GOPAC tapes.

Gingrich recalled “Pete Du Pont approached me in the fall of 1984. Du Pont founded GOPAC with the idea to raise money for local candidates. He was beginning to look at a presidential race and he wanted GOPAC to survive so he would be seen as an institution builder. He had the choice between me and Dick Cheney and I guess he chose me because I was more of an activists. There was a high dollar fun fundraiser in 1985 and I walked in and saw the amount of wealthy friends that Du Pont had. I saw so much potential that this organization and this wealth could provide. In 1985 and 1986 I studied and saw that the party needed a training institution, not a funding institution. The problem was that I did not know how to change it. A few months later, I was out in Lansing, Michigan doing a tape series and it suddenly hit me that most legislators spent long hours in the car. If we had a training and recruiting system that could reach them while they were driving, we would have their full attention. They would be bored and would like to listen to us. It was a constant and mobile training program.”53

Newt’s 1996 GOPAC memo, listing words with which candidates are to demonize opponents:

abuse of power

 anti- (issue): flag, family, child, jobs







“compassion” is not enough





criminal rights











failure (fail)

















permissive attitude


 punish (poor …)


red tape









status quo







urgent (cy)



People’s eyes start sliding off you when you hit about 50. Man or woman, one becomes invisible, negrified, and it requires some assertion to be seen and heard at all. My Old Hell Freezes Over Friend and I decided 25 years ago to make non-threatening eye contact with every person of color we passed on the sidewalk, for those very reasons. I remember running into a guy sitting on the steps of my apartment building in D.C., hundreds of people passing him within inches on the sidewalk, well-dressed, not exactly panhandling but in obvious distress, not least of it around his invisibility. He said to me, You’re the only person who has looked at me all afternoon. I remember walking Acey on the pedestrian path in Rock Creek Park, and stepping off the path as a clot of runners came toward us. They weren’t running together, and the guy at the head of the pack was a black man. He was frowning as he approached, apparently because a white woman and her dog had lept off the path as he approached. I made appropriate eye contact and said, Good morning, and his face broke into a smile like the sun’s.

It’s one reason, I have realized, for the decision some old babes make to become polychrome — Iris Apfel being the goddess of the polychrome old babes. I think she probably dressed like that all her life. It’s a way of making yourself exist by getting people to look at you. The old babes street fashion blog, Advanced Style is just getting to that ontological point.

Old Babe Iris Apfel

It can be clownish, however. It certainly violates Edith Wharton’s sharp-eyed stricture to the effect that dressing as if you were ugly is just as wrong as dressing as if you were beautiful.

Certainly no one need have confessed such acquiescence in her lot as was revealed in the “useful” colour of Gerty Farish’s gown and the subdued lines of her hat: it is almost as stupid to let your clothes betray that you know you are ugly as to have them proclaim that you think you are beautiful.

It gets harder to leave the house. Everything is beautiful in here.


Seven Corners site of the shooting of Linda Franklin by the D.C. snipers.

Seven Corners, a shopping mall, was almost Jetson-like in its modernity when we moved to northern Virginia in 1959. It was the first mall in what was just then starting to be the megalopolis around Washington. We lived in what was then still dairy farms and Seven Corners, 10 miles down what was then a rural and very old road – I think that Leesburg Pike in places was a Native American track – to the mall at Seven Corners. It was a property first put together by an ex-slave, Frederick Foote, who helped guide Union soldiers through northern Virginia to the first Battle of Bull Run.

His descendants sold the 30-acre plot to the mall developers for three-quarters of a million dollars in the early 1950s, and the developers put $25 million into it. It had branches of all the swanky downtown department stores – in 1959 there was still a swanky downtown in Washington, anchored by department stores. It was planned as the largest mall in the metropolitan area and my mother would drive us, in her huge 1950s boat cars, there for a new back to school outfit and other special occasion new clothes.

I went there yesterday. It has the nearest Michael’s craft shop in the area. Going to the suburbs to shop, instead of downtown, is something I’m sure a lot of people do. There’s parking. I can get everything I need in one store, as opposed to driving all over D.C., and parking (or not) looking for the simple high-low combination of cheap wrapping paper, expensive ribbon, kitschy (bridal party favor) organza bags, those glittery glass pebbles used for anchoring flower stems in a vase, Christmas themed sequin confetti, and artificial pine boughs that the presents I want to wrap require. Here in the city you couldn’t find the ribbon in the same place they sell the organza bags, which wouldn’t have the paper, which wouldn’t have the confetti. And in the same mall they have – not the traditional edge city strip mall tenant, a Hispanic evangelical storefront church, but a post office where you can get your Christmas card stamps. Here in the city – fugeddabout it.

Seven Corners is the site of a pentimento of my life –  layers circa 1961, 1968 and 2002, each event having strangely to do with guns. Of one kind or another.

The suburbs were burgeoning so fast when we baby boomers went to school there in the early 1960s that I went to a new school every year for four years. One of them was a venerable turner out of Ivy League matriculants in one of the top five wealthiest counties in the country. It still is. I was there so briefly I don’t even know if its Seven Corners connection is true. It is this. The prettiest girl in the freshman class, whose name I remember as well as my own, was dating the handsomest senior boy. It was like Prince Charles and Lady Diana.

She disappeared, and the rumor was she’d gotten pregnant, they had to get married, and went to live in one of the pokey garden apartments on the highways around Seven Corners. This would be 1961, just as the pill was being invented, and about six years before everything we had been taught about who we could be and who we couldn’t be, if we had sex, flew out the window. I was brought up, rightly, to iron shirts. My mother told me never to learn how to type, because they’d force me to be a secretary. To think that a girl something like me, gently bred, pink cheeked, saddle-shoed, a junior varsity cheerleader, as I recall, who at 14 had grasped the brass ring of the only American society that counts, high school, could have been reduced to living in a dark apartment at Seven Corners, like Tess of the d’Urbervilles, filled me with a real sense of the connection of Eros to Thanatos. It was, simply, the end of Merry Ann. Every time I went to Seven Corners after that I thought of her,  even though I left the high school, and my life there, and its society, in which I was beginning to succeed just as another raw red clay high school building required my baptism. I see her walking down the halls of the high school, holding hands with her boyfriend, her beautiful pink smile and dark curls, the two of them smiling at me, as if it were yesterday and her child – if there was one – were not 42 years old. Shotgun weddings. In 1961, they still happened, and her name and her fate – I always saw her pregnant in a dark apartment, looking out the window and waiting for her seventeen-year-old <i>husband</i> to come home – struck me as the very saddest thing I knew.

I found his name, only half of which I had remembered, on an Internet alumni list for the class of 1962.  I searched for her name in every year for a decade after, spelled every which way, and could not find it.

By 1968, centuries had passed, I was even tougher, tragedies abounded, and I was sitting behind a card table at Seven Corners listening to the Musak all day long. RFK had been shot with a handgun; it was as unimaginable as his brother’s death five years previously. Martin Luther King had died just a few days earlier; the outlaw gun deaths seemed both barbaric and apocalyptic. Riots had ended whatever downtown – swanky or not — there was in Washington for nearly 40 years, and the ruins, that June, were still smoking. You could smell it.

I was soliciting signatures on a petition for handgun control. When I went home at night, and got into bed, and closed my eyes, all I could hear was the Musak. I didn’t get a lot of signitures, sitting there on land previously owned by a former slave, but I wasn’t harassed too much either. Except by a pencil-necked geek boy, with a score of cigarette burns on his hands. Like he’d burned his hands with lit cigarettes to prove his manhood. He wanted to talk to me about his right to bear arms.

Seven Corners is where Lee Malvo, parked across the highway, lying in the secret compartment of the car John Mohammed had crafted, pointed his rifle through the aperture in the trunk and shot Linda Franklin once through the head as she was loading her car at the Home Depot.

The sniper, as we called Malvo and Muhammed before we knew who they were,  was the first criminal to exploit the vast network of commuter highways around Washington, D.C., of which at least three meet at Seven Corners. The other killings perpetrated by Malvo and Muhammad mostly took place near a major artery on which they could escape, and they were captured asleep in their car parked in a highway rest stop. The suburban malls and bus stops and schools are easy pickings for car-assisted shootings. What I remember most about the weeks when the sniper was picking off people at will was getting out of my car in the Safeway parking lot in Arlington, as I have hundreds of times before, and suddenly feeling I had to turn and look at the roof of the garden apartments behind me, the ramp leading down into the basement loading dock of the building, the new construction across the highway. I had to the scan the horizon. The other thing that instantly became clear, that year after the 9/11 attacks, was how one terrorist could shut down the entire region by creating a crime scene at a nexus of many highways. People sat in their cars for as long as six hours after Franklin was dead, while the police jammed the highway by the Home Depot and fruitlessly – since they didn’t know what they were looking for – blockaded the ramps to the beltways.

That the bloods were mostly all carrying guns was something that occurred to me here in the city about 15 years ago. Two incidents made me vow never again to intervene in an altercation for fear of being shot. I was walking down M Street toward Connecticut and some kids got into a fight in front of a parking lot. I don’t know if I heard pops, or if one of them said something, or if the crowd around them vanished behind bulletproof walls, but it was all of a sudden clear to me that black boys brawling on the sidewalk were to be stayed far away from. At about the same time, two guys in two cars ahead of me at the stoplight jumped out of their cars and started fighting each other in front of my windshield. I very slowly and gently locked the doorsand sank low in the seat and looked elsewhere.

That sense that at least half the people around me are armed never came to me in the parking lots of suburbia. I don’t consider them peaceful – if I were starting out as a reporter, I’d spend a lot of time in them and find out what drug deals, sexual initiations, teenage hanging out, Latino car swaps and other back channel economy Blade Runner transactions were going down. But I never considered them a place where my life was on the line on account of gunfire. I’ve long known that the suburbs are not lily white. They are now the place where the entry level immigrants in this area live – for reasons related to the bloods and the riots, I guess, immigrants don’t live downtown.

They live at Seven Corners. The girl at Joann’s Fabrics looked like a North African, and wore a big black headscarf tied low, and jeans. The postal clerk’s name was Phuong and her colleague was from Eritrea.

Seven Corners has been retooled as a downscale shopping center, with a Home Depot and craft stores and fat ladies’ clothes and Payless shoes. The two story garden apartments in which I have imagined Merry Ann’s fate these 40 years are no longer raw red brick. They are freshly painted in colonial Williamsburg colors to resemble townhouses. Their picket fences along the highway that was an old old road [Edit:9/12/04 — an Indian track may be –] are white. And the lawns behind them are brown, treeless and well trodden. There is not one tree or flower there. A clear shot.

Originally published in a private blog December 8, 2004.

Copyright Jeannette Smyth, 2012, all rights reserved.

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