Autobiography /Memoir in 365 Parts (9.0)

21 Mar
YIPPIE (Youth International Party) logo circa 1968

YIPPIE (Youth International Party) logo circa 1968

in memory: Danny Schechter (1942-2015

21 March 2015

Chronological age is a misleading metric when considering literary journalist Robert Birnbaum. For example, it is the case that some years are of longer duration than others. In Birnbaum’s case 1968 was,uh, a transformative year. Political activism was at a high pitch: a big wave of consciousness raising was rolling over the First World and right wing hysteria was evolving from its incubus form to what we have today. Having witnessed the State at work in Chicago’s streets and at Grant Park in August, 1968 and also Eugene MCCarthy’s greeting to the throngs assembled across from the Conrad Hilton hotel, “Greetings to the government-in exile”, his commitment to campaigning for social justice became life long imperative

Just Talking: Me & Anthony Doerr

20 Mar
All the Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr

All the Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr

This conversation took place on May 14 2014 at my one time favorite neighborhood place The Keltic Krust (gone now). Anthony Doerr’s most recent novel,All the Light We Cannot See was a finalist for the 2014 National Book Award and (for what its worth) named one of the ten best books of the year by the New York Times Book Review. As is my way, Tony and I spent a pleasant and engaging hour chatting about this and that. The account of which you can read below:


RB: What do you want to talk about? Have you spoken with a lot of people?

AD: The book came out eight days ago—so yeah, I’ve been talking a lot. I usually am skilled enough to deflect conversation away from myself. I get tired of it. I am flattered. It’s a lot better than having no one interested your work.

RB: Is this the first time you have done a book tour?

AD: I came to Boston for the 3rd book—Four Seasons in Rome. For About Grace (my 2nd book) I went to a bunch of cities. The Shell Collector won a prize (Barnes & Noble) and so I went to 20 cities-or-so cities visiting B&Ns.

RB: Here’s a personal question—what’s it like living in Boise, Idaho?

AD: It’s not a personal question. I love it. It’s great. We always feel we need to crank up the drawbridge and not tell people how great it is. It’s a beautiful little town. I can ride my bike to work. 300 days of sunshine a year.

RB: Where is work?

AD: I’m just a writer as my work. But I rent an office for $150 a month, outside my house.

RB: You can’t write at home?

AD: Even before we had kids it was too difficult. My wife would be at work and I would just do things at the house. Productive procrastination—it’s not like I would lie down. I would clean the garage meticulously.Fold every piece of laundry very carefully. And as hours ratchet by, I start to get more and more upset with myself and anxious.

RB: Why wouldn’t you go to the public library?

AD: I did at first, before I could afford this office. My problem is I have to pee every few hours—

RB: —the library doesn’t have lavatory?

AD:They do but it’s more of a laptop issue. Especially when I am in a good place, the last thing I want to do is pack up everything in my carrel and go to the bathroom. Then I come back and the carrel is gone. For me, fiction is often this house of cards you are building and if the kids come in or my wife wants me to do something or someone interrupts me–the phone rings–the house of cards falls over.

RB: Do you put things on a wall as visual aids?

AD: I do. There were a lot of photographs that I used writing this book. I covered a couple of walls.

RB: Did you travel to Germany?

AD:I did. I went to Europe three times. Germany, France. Normandy—Saint Malo. I visited three different times.

Anthony Doerr {Photo: Robert Birnbaum]

Anthony Doerr {Photo: Robert Birnbaum]

RB: Lets get back to Boise— Gail Collins wrote a column on state legends and mentioned Idaho. Was the potato a part of the state motto?

AD:I don’t know. The potato I would understand. The university football team plays on blue turf.

RB: Yeah, what’s up with that?

AD: And then you get the white supremacists.

RB: Well, who can forget Ruby Ridge and its aftermath?

AD: That’s 9 hours north of our house—of course the reputation was earned.

RB: I met one other Idahoan, singer/songwriter Josh Ritter who is from Moscow Idaho.

AD: I’ve never met him but I like his work.

RB: I met him because he wrote a novel a few years back.

AD: You interviewed him—I read that. I hadn’t give him a chance as a novelist (which wasn’t fair because he is a wonderful songwriter) because I tend to be skeptical of someone who is really good at something and then they try to do something else. But his novel is good.

RB: Back to you—what determined the way you structured this story? Do you decide the form before you started the actual writing?

AD: : A lot of those decisions are not conscious. You are just kind of fumbling around, trying to figure out how this scaffolding will be built. But if I look back and start thinking about it critically, I realized that I’ve been building larger narratives our of little title pieces for a decade or so now. I think at least three of the stories in my last book, Memory Wall were long stories built with titled sections. “Memory Wall,” itself, the title novella is built from sections, each a little less than a page and each section has a title. What I liked about it was that it allowed me to move between points of view and employ a narrator who can go on little runs of lyricism and then you can give the reader a rest, some white space, between them.

RB: Janet Maslin commended you for doing that.

AD:Yes, she did. Which was surprising. She found an interview I had given at Powell’s and pulled that out. I was glad — I am getting a lot of questions about it. I didn’t think it was so unique or different; I’m certainly not the only contemporary writer to do it; Anne Carson, Jenny Offil, etc. I am getting a lot of questions like, ”Is it a response to short attentions spans?” Or Internet culture?

RB: That’s a reasonable question. Francine Prose’s recent book uses different forms —letters, book excerpts—to advance the narrative. You did the same—

AD: I wanted to make a symmetrical pattern and then occasionally disrupt it and see what that would do for a reader and try to keep in a reader’s head. See if she can keep both of these narratives—its almost as if I spat two lines straight up towards the sky and just inclined them slightly toward each other. . I want a reader to intuit that they are going to intersect and start anticipating that. And hopefully that builds some narrative momentum.

RB: And there are echoes of Rashoman — 2 people looking at the exact same thing…

AD: Yeah, thanks. I love that. Certainly that’s true for radio in the novel. Radio plays a different role in each of their lives. It’s both a curse and a gift.

RB: Philip Kerr, who has a novel series about a homicide detective in Nazi Germany says when he is finished with one of those novels, he feels like “he is climbing out of a dirty basement.”

AD: : I totally understand what he was saying. It felt so good to finally take those photos down. I had photos of the Hitler Youth in my office; I’d have friends come over and they’d emphatically ask, “What are you doing in here?” And I was beating myself up any time I read something that wasn’t about World War II or written in German around that time—something that I couldn’t qualify as research. For almost a decade, anything I was reading, I felt it should bend itself toward this project. So it felt so nice just really in the past three months to move into this Panama piece or start reading things about another time in history. Part of the reason that All the Light took so long was the psychic damage of reading incessantly about the destruction of human beings, especially when you read about the Eastern front and the Ukraine and this ravine called Babi Yar.

RB: ‘Killing fields’ before the term was coined.

AD: Unreal. The most destructive conflict you can imagine. And even forgetting what happened to Gypsies and disabled people and Jewish people, just what happened to soldiers on both sides —the level of violence and brutality in those two winters—‘42 and ’43 was obscene So sometimes reading those things I would have to stop. That’s why I wrote two other books. Partially as procrastination because this book was so difficult to put together. And partly because psychologically it was really difficult to live in the space for so many months..

RB: So, you first had the idea for this story and then you began to research? Or you began research about something and it got a little sharper and you researched more…

AD: Mostly the latter. You write yourself into these unknowns and you realize, ”I need to understand what a kitchen in 1939 would look like in Brittany.” So now I have to go figure that out. My problem there is you have to avoid letting that balloon into a kind of research/procrastination. Because after while I’m like, “Ooh maybe I ‘ll look at some more photos.” (laughs) It’s a lot easier than writing new sentences.

RB: Did you read all of [Joseph] Goebbels’s* writing?

AD: No, no, mostly his speeches in translation. Everything that is on Werner’s radio as a boy is real. I’m not making it up. All those slogans — that’s at that NAPOLA school (National Political Institute of Education at Schulpforta). Yea, that stuff is so sinister.

RB: You read memoirs of students who attended that school?

AD:: Yes, a lot of that is in German, which I cannot read, I had to punch them into some god-awful Google translator. But those schools were real and sometimes in the novel I am toning down the punishing nature of those environments—I don’t really want to shine the light so brightly just on violence. That’s true, too, in what happens to Jutta [Werner’s sister] very late in the novel. In all likelihood, in real life, that would have happened to her many, many more times.

RB: Were you relieved to finish this novel?

AD: Yeah. At some point I had so many colored note cards out on the floor and I felt like: If I get hit by a bus my poor wife is never going to be able to piece this thing together.

RB: You could have an editor like Michael Pietsch who put together David Foster Wallace’s post humus novel.

AD: I know. But for a couple years there, I don’t think anyone could have assembled that mess into something functional. But later there’s that amazing moment when you can print the thing off and you don’t have to worry about your computer crashing or a your auxiliary hard drive crashing. That feels good.

RB: So after you complete the writing part, how long does it stay with you?

AD: For me its kind of like painting. Maybe it’s a forced metaphor, but the paint starts to dry after a couple of weeks if your subconscious isn’t working on it. That’s true for really any project—even if you are halfway through it. For me even little things like Thanksgiving or a family vacation for a week —if I am away from the work for even that short of a time, the ice really starts to form over it. It takes a week of chopping away at the prose before you can get back into it Because for me the times I am most happy and working well is when I am getting 3, 4, 5 sometimes 9 hours a day of working and then you do something like this—you come to a coffee shop or you walk the dog or you go to your kid’s baseball game, and suddenly your subconscious solves one of those problems you’ve made for yourself. Or you read something in the newspaper that seems totally unrelated, but it’s not—when you’re working a lot, everything starts to become relevant. But if your brain moves on to something else, it takes a couple of weeks. And then it seals over.

RB: There is that oft-repeated truism that writers write even when they are not writing.

AD:Yeah, you interviewed David Mitchell once [actually 5 or 6 times]? He compared writing to farming “there are a lot of different activities that comprise farming,” he said, or something like that. I like that—writing is not just confronting a blank white page all the time. You’re reading through what you’ve got so far. Or you’re seeding the fields by looking for other ideas. Or you are polishing your tools, or flipping through the seed catalogs.

RB: It’s a total life experience —for some people. I was watching True Detective and I was thinking that that’s another occupation or calling that is total.

AD: That’s part of the reason I have that separate space. To my family when I am home I am home. I’m present. Even if that means I get up at one in the morning to work on a piece. When my kids are around and they need help, I try to be there. And if I am not at home I am at work.

RB: How do you get along with people?

AD: I love people! They’re fascinating. There are times—I don’t have a sign on my door and I wear headphones like a chain saw operator—so there are times when I am being anti-social probably, just because it takes so long to get something done. Some of the chapters in this book, I have probably combed over hundreds of times. So, you do spend hours away from your family and friends.

RB: Really when you think about it, writers are abnormal. I find it difficult to gauge to what people are paying attention. If your interests are literary or about narrative and thoughtful, how do you deal with people who follow the Kardashians or whatever the latest trivia dominates the news cycle? Or spend their time sending selfies?

AD: My wife helps me try to be a less judgmental person and to try to understand everybody’s following a story and even the Kardashians, for some people are some kind of narrative they are following. I can relate to it terms of sports—I follow the narrative arcs of games but also of seasons and players within a season, coming back from injuries. So for some people it might be movie stars or whatever—they’re still big narratives that are interesting to them. I try to appreciate that.
RB: Am old Jew, Philo of Alexandria offered, ”Be kind, everyone in life is in a great battle.”

AD: Dr. Sherman Nuland said that in one of your interviews. It’s a beautiful quote.

RB: Have there been any negative reviews of your new opus?

AD: There has been one so far. In the Sunday Times. It was painful—William Vollman wrote it. The rest have been really good. Vollman did not enjoy Werner’s trajectory as much as Marie’s. His argument is a little cluttered to me but that’s because I didn’t like it. He says that spend more empathetic effort making Marie an individual and relied more on stereotype for Werner. And the next review will say the exact opposite.

RB: I don’t see that as a criticism as much as statement of taste.

AD: Yeah.

RB: But it still bothered you.

AD:I wish it didn’t. (pause)That is a really important thing for me to struggle with— I try to pretend, to myself, that I don’t care. But I am also skeptical of the writers who tell me they never read reviews of their own work and they don’t care how their books are received. You make this thing alone for so long and it goes into the world and the point of it is optimistic—to hope to connect with a stranger. To hope that somehow there is something inside this language that meets a reader and the reader has to meet you halfway. And so you’re curious to find out how readers will respond to it. At least I am.

RB: That’s an articulate way of saying we want to be acknowledged and liked.

AD: Another way of thinking about it is that you are an engineer and you are making this machine and you want to find out of the machine is working.

RB: Maybe your best hope is people read the whole book.

AD: (laughs)

RB: I read a review of a biography of Ted Williams by Ben Bradlee and it stated that there should be no 800-page book a bout a sports figure. So immediately I am wondering if the reviewer read the entire book. I thought the same thing — I don’t think anyone merits an 800-page biography. But having read entire book I thought Bradlee made it work.

AD: I think you can write 800 pages on weeds and the lawn if you are good enough at it. Nicholson Baker could probably do that. With that length you are announcing: I know a lot about this and it’s going to be really interesting. Your reader has to come into it with a lot of skepticism, and if you win you reader that’s an achievement.

RB. On the other hand you have the case of Robert Caro on LBJ.

AD: Yeah, amazing

Anthony Doerr {Photo: Robert Birnbaum]

Anthony Doerr {Photo: Robert Birnbaum]

RB: That’s good example of how much information is contained in many lives. We are so packed with all the stuff that happens and if you are world historical it has more valence.

AD: Of course, any life you can unspool a day for a thousand pages

RB: Mostly we don’t pay attention too much of it.

AD: That brings me back to your saying that writing is a way of living. I got into reading because I didn’t want to sleepwalk my way through life. But you can’t stay awake and alert to the majesty every day, every minute. Occasionally if you train you mind to pay attention, slowing down and looking at things very deeply, you do get to focus a little more. I don’t believe in reincarnation. You get one trip and if you are lucky you get 80 years — so why not pay attention to every thing that you can and learn as much as you can while you are here.

RB: True dat. You never know when you are going to come across a good story or storyteller. I marvel that there are people who claim to be bored and played out in life—essentially dead. I don’t know how that happens.

AD: Me neither. I feel like the world is way too interesting—just say yes. That’s what I tell young people, my students—somebody asks you to do something say yes, even if you are tired. If they want you to go mountain biking I in the middle of the night. Or they want you to scrape and paint a mural on a wall, go do it. You might learn something and you might run in to the storyteller you were talking about. And helps you recast everything I a bright and different light and help you re-see the world.

RB: Have you a prognosis or prediction for the world of literature?

AD: Oh man, no. (both laugh) No, I am so grateful that people read my work and I’m reading a lot of interesting and vital writers who are alive right now.

RB: That’s quite true—it seems that the people who are perpetually grousing about all the crap being published make too much noise. But so what— if there is a lot of good work being published?

AD: Maybe there is a greater need for gatekeepers, maybe curators is a better word. I like the ‘Readings’ section of Harper’s —anything that helps me find beautiful, important pieces that I have missed.

RB: Literature is not disappearing in the foreseeable future

AD: We still crave narrative. People maybe turning to True Detective instead of William Gass. And that may be something to mourn but I think True Detective is a really interesting piece of work.

RB: Yes, created by a novelist, Nic Pizzolatto.
(Brief interlude discussing the Wire) The cable channels have provided writes with great opportunities.

AD: Yeah, pretty nice. I didn’t know much about it but Nic Pizzolatto. He had two books with Scribner before he made True Detective.

RB: Galveston was one.

AD: [writer] Ben Percy told me he was a pretty good storywriter and just decided to try a screenplay. You can tell he’s read Faulkner and some Flannery O’Connor.

RB: The commercial imperative coming from publishers seems to be to keep grinding out series.

AD: I like the idea of each of the boards of the book closing,and that making its own universe.

RB: Have you read Alan Furst?

AD: No.

RB: His novels cover the WWII era in Europe and they are exceedingly well researched. And his rigor and conscientious commitment to get the fact right is because as he related to me, “Too much blood was shed not to be accurate.”

AD: I felt that too—very much so. For me in this novel the Holocaust is underneath the book all the time. Its kind of a silence between the sentences and there are times when I told myself, “Tony you have to do this with a lot of respect.” Especially because I am not shining a light directly upon the camps—they are just always in the background behind Werner’s childhood.The weight of responsibility to do a respectful reverent job was hopefully achieved.

RB: I came across Peter Matthiessen’s newest book [ After Paradise]which is set in Auschwitz— a group of Buddhists make a pilgrimage—

AD: Long after the fact, you mean?

RB: Yes, yes. It’s a very peculiar entry point to a touchy subject. I loved the first book I read by him back in 1967— At Play In the Fields of the Lord.

AD: He was important to me. The whole Shadow Country Trilogy —those books are amazing. He ability to be in love with the natural world and tell stories about it—he and Rick Bass and Andrea Barrett —those were really models for me, people who care deeply about the environment and use storytelling to communicate that.

Anthony Doerr {Photo: Robert Birnbaum]

Anthony Doerr {Photo: Robert Birnbaum]

RB: Cormac McCarthy also.

AD: Yes, he does have a love for landscape and it’s complicated. It comes, primarily though narrative. And that’s what I had to learn. For years I would just describe what I would see. I loved to backpack .I loved to be outside. It was really Rick and Andrea and reading Mattheissen who started me thinking that maybe I could make narratives out of it. I really infect my characters with interests that I have.

RB: You like to repair radios? [Werner does this in the novel]

AD: I like to play with radios. I am not very good at fixing them.

RB: Speaking of McCarthy, I caught a scene in No Country for Old Men with Tommy Lee Jones and Barry Corbin, which was elliptical but perfectly understandable. It was this gem of a conversation.

AD: You’re looking at the surface of the lake but there is the lake underneath…

RB: Did he write the screenplay?

AD: The Coen brothers did. I have been in love with McCarthy since I was in my teens. That’s maybe not his best novel but it’s probably the best film made from one of his novels. That’s because it was true to the essence of the book without being true to the actual material of the book.

RB: I didn’t recall the hit man[played by Javier Badem] being that dark and evil a character in the novel.

AD: Archetypal—the Devil. This makes me want to go watch it. I should watch the Counselor when I am on an airplane sometime; haven’t seen that one yet.

RB: Yeah, the Counselor is an odd movie—full of ponderous dialogue and speechifying but Ridley Scott always makes watchable movies.

AD: Interesting. I like it in his books—the Judge’s rant in Blood Meridian fascinate me. I am glad nobody has made that [in to a film]. I feel like that book is a book and should remain just a book.

RB: Garcia Marquez famously refused a million dollars for One Hundred Years of Solitude. I read somewhere that he agreed to someone’s offer with the following conditions—each chapter would be presented as 2 minutes in film and each of the chapters would be shown in sequence, each year, for 100 years.

AD: That’s funny (laughs)

RB: That book was important to me as was Pynchon’s— what about you?

AD:So many, although I think of Gravity’s Rainbow now that you mention Pynchon. To the Lighthouse, Blood Meridian, and Rick Bass’s the Watch (his first story collection). So much energy and movement in that book, especially the novella that names the collection. All these bicyclist’s whizzing through the dark. And in love with the magic of nature —fireflies in jars. He has a story called “The Hermit’s Story” about swamp gas erupting under the bottom of this lake, all this magic that is around us. I love that story.

RB: I can’t remember the last time I saw a firefly.

AD: Aw, Robert. We don’t have them in Idaho but when I visit my parents in Ohio, of course.

RB: Or monarch butterflies.

AD: That’s a problem—that’s real.

RB: The Panama Project you mentioned, is that novel?

AD: I don’t know yet. I finished the edits on this book in January [2014]. The published version of the novel is 110,000 words —the original was 170,000. We worked really hard on it. I can get a little verbose so my editor [Nan Graham] helped me trim and prune and gain a little more momentum. The great thing about her is I never feel like she is trying to make the book more commercial; she’s just trying to make the book better. So, I think it will take me about three months or so before I can really get the next thing off the ground.

RB: So while you try to decide what do you do?

AD: Y: You just keep trying to make things, and you see if they can stand up on their own.

RB: Do you do journalism?

AD: I say ‘yes’ to travel magazines sometimes. Often those things fuel my fiction. Especially when I review science books —that stuff funnels back in to my work. Also I go mountain biking a lot.

RB: Do you envision every leaving Boise?

AD: For the quality of life we have and the amount of work I can get done. I never sit in traffic. There are days that go by that I ever get in a car.

RB: I lived South Coastal New Hampshire for a while. I get that. A life where a car is an option not a necessity. Well, it’s been a real pleasure talking with you. Did we talk about everything you wanted to talk about?

AD: Sure. [A brief exchange about moi] Thanks.


Anthony Doerr Tony’s website

Literary Jackpot, Against the Odds NY Times article (not a review) on All the Light We Cannot See

Alan FurstOne of my conversations with Furst

Ben Bradlee My chat with Ben about The Kid.

Philip Kerr A conversation with the creator of a slew of Bernie Gunther novels and a bunch of stand alones.

Josh Ritter The singer songwriter tries his hand at fiction.

Sherman Nuland My chat with the author of How We Die: Reflections on Life’s Final Chapter.

Powell’s Interview

True Detective

Autobiography/Memoir in 365 Parts (8.0)

19 Mar
Robert Birnbaum [drawing by Anthony  Russo]

Robert Birnbaum [drawing by Anthony Russo]

18 March 2015

Based on his countless conversations(well, he has lost count) with authors,journalists,NBA basketball scouts photographers, filmmakers, musicians et al, Robert Birnbaum is renowned for his’ muscular, vernacular and vivid” dialogues. Its possible his memoir of life in the literate lane, Just Talking,Trying to Do Things with Words may yet be contracted by some far-sighted editor.Apparently, “Nobody’s Perfect” is already well represented. Robert is preoccupied with trying to make a verb out of the word ‘mordant’.

Billy Wilder's headstone

Billy Wilder’s headstone

Autobiography /Memoir in 365 Parts (7.0)

17 Mar
Beny : The Power of the Dog [photo: Robert Birnbaum]

Beny : The Power of the Dog [photo: Robert Birnbaum]

17 March 2015

After being formed in the crucible of the great metropolis of Chicago, Robert Birnbaum moved to Boston in 1973 spurred a brief romantic interlude in Wellfleet, Cape Cod. He has come to eschew the soul- sucking, vampiric trappings of modernity —he does not fly,eat in fast food troughs, tweet, selfie or wear a sports team jerseys(though he is a hard-wired Cubs fan). He opines that he baseball cap is one of the United States’s greatest contributions to civilization. He opines that Don Winslow’s magnum opus crime story The Power of the Dog is a textbook analysis on the so-called War on Drugs. He has lived in the Boston area which he considers a cosmic psych test except for a brief interval is South Coastal New Hampshire .

A Great Good Joe: A Howler in the Belly of The Confederacy

16 Mar
The Baffler,Issue 27 [Cover: Chris  Ferrantello]

The Baffler,Issue 27 [Cover: Chris Ferrantello]

Long time and or dedicated readers and visitors to this rest stop on the superannuated blue highway of information will recognize my affection for that marvelous little magazine,The Baffler. Given the thrice yearly publishing schedule (a lifetime in the life of modern ideas and an endlessly churning news cycle) I find the publication of each issue a welcome event in an otherwise sparse journalistic landscape. Which is a longwinded way of saying the newest iteration,Issue # 27 is gloriously available.

As you should know The Baffler is one of a now diminishing population of outposts for an important and meaningful mode of expression —— the long form essay.This particular issue is especially pleasing (to me) as it contains a fine profile of the late and lamented journalist Joe Bageant ,Toxically Pure: Joe Bageant drops out by John Lingan. Bageant was one of few commentators who spoke to and for the biggest oppressed and marginalized group in this exceptional country—the poor white underclass. And so it is understandable, to a point, that you have remained unaware of the finest and most articulately angry social critics of the post WWII generation.The venues that wrote for were (of course, all before the Internet)hardly on anyone’s radar: Military History magazine The Rocky Mountain Musical Express.Winchester (VA) Star The Idahonian. and the seminal industry trade publication, Crop Production Magazine (profitable crops through better management).

In addition, Joe published three books, Deer Hunting with Jesus, Rainbow Pie: A Red Neck Memoir and Waltzing at the Doomsday Ball (two of which ,ridiculously, are not available in this country. But his true legacy, his website which is the repository of his sharp-eyed and stinging essays— contains nearly ninety( by my count), reaching back to March 20014 beginning Howling in the Belly of the Confederacy

How can the region of America that gave us lynching, Jim Crow, Harry Byrd, George Wallace, Taliban Christianity, David Duke, the KKK, Bible hair, Tammy Fay Bakker, congregational snake handling, the poll tax, inbreeding, and chitterlings possibly take another step back down the stairs of human evolution? Beats the hell out of me. But somehow here in the Shenandoah Valley of Virginia we have managed it.

Rainbow Pie by Joe Bageant

Rainbow Pie by Joe Bageant

In addition, Joe published three books, Deer Hunting with Jesus, Rainbow Pie: A Red Neck Memoir and Waltzing at the Doomsday Ball (two of which ,ridiculously, are not available in this country. But his true legacy his website which is the repository of his sharp-eyed and stinging essays—nearly ninety by my count I particularly enjoyed A Mean and Unholy Ditch The Sleep of Reason Amid Wild Dogs and Gin published in January 2005 and remarkable for its continued resonance and clear eyed vision of a despair riddled culture:

The hardest thing for garden variety American liberals to grasp is what a truly politicized and hateful place much of America has become — one long mean ditch ruled by feral dogs where the standards of civility no longer apply. The second hardest thing for liberals is to admit that they are comfortably insulated in the middle class and are not going to take any risks in the battle for America’s soul . . . not as long as they are still living on a good street, sending their kids to Montessori and getting their slice of the American quiche. Call it the politics of the comfort zone.

Ugly as this hateful half or more of Americans are, it’s not entirely their fault. Their beliefs are at least partly the result of a sophisticated propaganda system perfected over decades by a consolidated corporate state media. Saturation has never been stronger. As we speak some 72% of Americans still believe there were WMDs in Iraq, and 75% believe that Saddam was supporting bin Laden. They did not each and independently arrive at such stupid conclusions on their own (if such mindless acceptance can even be called conclusions). Indoctrinated by state propaganda, they then acted and continue to act accordingly — which is to say grotesquely in the eyes of the world.

Deer Hunting with Jesus by Joe Bageant

Deer Hunting with Jesus by Joe Bageant

Bageant concludes:

The world is not a particularly noble place and never was, but it has become truly difficult to underestimate American crassness in these times. Especially our ability to unblinkingly suck up hate like it was free beer, and call it moral values. As I said, I have seen the face of hate in my day, and this is it. Let me close with this:

Byron de la Beckwith, the guy who shot Medgar Evers, had a “downstairs tenant” who was arrested by the FBI a while back. When the FBI busted in on him he was dressed in full Nazi regalia, shiny brimmed cap, those black boots that come up to the knees and a little Hitler moustache, everything spit-shined and shimmering, without a wrinkle or crease. He was just “lounging around watching Wheel of Fortune” dressed that way when the FBI came for him. Next thing you know he is on the Jerry Springer Show, spastic or something (face tremors), declaring himself the DICTATOR OF THE WORLD. Yes, he actually said that. And Hitler’s mother was in the Springer audience, so Jerry goes out amid the jeers and obscenities to ask her what she thought of her son, to which she replied sincerely and in syrup: “I’M JUST SO PROUD HE HAS DEDICATED HIS LIFE TO HELPING OTHER PEOPLE!”

And so it goes. A nation watches with slack jawed attention the spectacle of a Nazi fruitcake and his adoring mom. Matrons in Iowa avert their eyes to our murder of dark-eyed Iraqi children as they stir their tea. And Shuggy the Republican leaves the wine-and-porn shop not with wine, but a video that promises MORE HOT BLACK BOOTY GETTING JIGGY!…

Waltzing at the Doomsday Ball by Joe Bageant

Waltzing at the Doomsday Ball by Joe Bageant

John Lingan writes:

There was a time, Joe contended, when “Americans were concerned with actualizing individual potential,” and that time was the 1960s. He cited the desegregation of schools and colleges, the commitment to social change, and of course the cultural-pharma- ceutical innovations.

‘There was such vigorous electricity in the air, so many possibilities in ourselves and in America, that this working-class boy grabbed his wife one day and said: “Let’s grab the baby and head west, and grow our brains and hearts, read Rilke and Chief Joseph and Rim- baud and Lao-Tzu and burn meat on open fires with cowboys! Maybe even meet Allen Ginsberg!” And we did it too.’

What do we learn from John Lingan’s finely etched portrait of this talented, troubled artist as he yo yo ed back and forth across the continent, finally returning his white blue collar red neck roots, towards the end of hIs life— a life cut short by cancer in March 2011? Joe’s was,as such will always be an endless quest. No less satisfying a quest because the game was fixed, the deck stacked, the system rigged. He could bear it —the millenial decline, the dehumanizing machinery and the seeming epic triumph of a rotting social order—because he held hope as he still encountered glimmers of humanity.

It is the final irony of Joe’s life that he found his largest audience by writing about the dissolution of his community. Raised on the eastern frontier, reborn in the acid-drenched West, and lost all over again in the corporate hinterlands, Joe Bageant returned to Winchester to bury the shame of childhood poverty at last. Instead, he found a battlefield on which he could finally use the full force of his drop-out beliefs on behalf of the people who had taught him to love the land in the first place. These people, of course, didn’t read his book; they barely read anything.

Lingan quotes:

Often at my speaking engagements or readings, I see one or more of them [ the people who had taught him to love the land] in the audience,long gray hair, loose-fitting, sensible, well-worn cloth- ing, soft eyes, and perhaps an herbal amulet around the neck or in the hair….Immediately after the reading or talk or whatever, I seek them out if at all possible (press agents some- times screw this up). Always there is the big smile and the hug And we are again brothers and sisters, as we used to sincerely address each other on the street. And again I have been granted the gift, that brief spark of unquestioned mutual love and goodwill in a darkening time.”

JOR BAGEANT [PHOTO: uncredited]

JOR BAGEANT [PHOTO: uncredited]

Autobiography / Memoir in 365 Parts (6.0)

16 Mar
(Yippie) Youth International Party logo

(Yippie) Youth International Party logo

16 March 2015

For a few years Robert Birnbaum lived in close proximity to the holy site of Wrigley Field, where he attended his first baseball game (which was rained out). He suffered through the Chicago Public Schools and graduated from high school in 1964. He then suffered through years of mediocre undergraduate education, briefly considering graduate studies in Philosophy at the University of Iowa. Instead he work security at the Kinetic Playground until its owner burned it down. He attended the Alternative Media Conference at Goddard College in 1971 where he dropped acid for the first time. Needless to say, he hasn’t been the same since. He lives in United States ‘golden corridor”.

Autobiography /Memoir in 365 Parts (11.0)

15 Mar

28 March 2015

20 year old Robert,New Mexico circa 1967 [photo: Steve Fagin]

20 year old Robert,New Mexico circa 1967 [photo: Steve Fagin]

The first single (45 rpm record) purchased by Robert Birnbaum was “Hound Dog” by Elvis Presley (circa 1956)—the first album (long playing record, 33 rpm) was “The Cannonball Adderley Quintet live in San Francisco” (circa 1960).

The  Cannonball Adderley Quintet live in San Francisco

The Cannonball Adderley Quintet live in San Francisco

The first Cuban (influenced) music he can recall was a recording of “Tin Tin Deo” on a Dizzy Gillespie/Charlie Parker recording “Diz n’Bird” (with Chano Pazo on bongos).

Diz n Bird in Concert

Diz n Bird in Concert

Then followed a heavy dose of Chicago based rhythm and blues followed— The Impressions, Major Lance,Jerry Butler, The Artistics, Fontella Bass, The Dells (and trips to the Regal Theater and radio dial set to WVON and WDAI) to the drug music of the late ’60s—Jefferson Airplane , Jimmi Hendrix, Quicksilver Messenger Service, Moby Grape , Buffalo Springfield…Ravi Shankar, late John Coltrane (and Sundays spent going to the AACM at Lincoln Hall on the South Side). Which blossomed into a full-on free form taste in music. At one time Robert had approximately 5000 lps (which he sold to pay his taxes one year). And before the advent of digital music files he has a little less than 1400 compact discs.Today he has about 5000 files in his music library and innumerable playlists on Spotify.

In memory of

Bob Rudnick (July 31, 1942 – July 23, 1995)

Bob Rudnick (photographer unknown)

Bob Rudnick (photographer unknown)

Autobiography /Memoir in 365 Parts.

14 Mar

14 March 2015

Robert Birnbaum,Quepos, Costa Rico, circa 1985 (photo: Eileen Collins]

Robert Birnbaum,Quepos, Costa Rico, circa 1985 (photo: Eileen Collins]

Robert Birnbaum was born in Bamberg, Germany, grew up in Chicago and lives in suburban Boston.He has traveled to far flung places such as Peoria, Illinois; Corfu, Greece; Dubuque, Iowa; Kibbutz Maagan,Israel; Havana, Cuba; Granada, Nicaragua; Rincon, Puerto Rico; Quepos, Costa Rico; Sedona, Arizona. He saw Jimi Hendrix live at San Francisco’s Winterland. He lives with his pooch, Beny and many fond memories

1000 Times Good Night

13 Mar



I can’t explain it—just one of those things— but I am always confusing Juliette Binoche with/and Julia Ormond. Not a consequential difficulty as both are talented actors and much loved by the camera. As of late, I am given to skimming through the vast videographies of Netflix and Amazon Prime and more often than not, finding a gem here or there that I had overlooked. Or simply had never known about. As an ambient part of this activity, I wonder if my delicate brain chemistry has changed— as I am more habitually looking for quicker payoffs from narratives — which is to say I am not reading as many novels. And I am watching more multi episode series (from House of Cards,past seasons of Justified and my new favorite , 2 seasons of Peaky Blinders)

And so, I am pleased to have come across a brilliant and subtle (if that’s a possible recipe) film 1000 Times Good Night

Rebecca (Juliette Binoche) is one of the world’s top five (as proclaimed by her editor)war photojournalists, braving life endangerment to photograph horrific and tragic images in various zones of belligerence. Fueling her efforts are a deep seated anger at the extent of man’s cruelty and inhumanity which impels to her to fight for a somnambulant world’s attention via horrendous and nightmarish images. At the out set of the story Rebecca is in Kabul, recording the rituals surrounding the preparations of a female suicide bomber. She is seriously wounded and returns to Ireland and her marine biologist husband and her two young daughters— all of whom evidence some degree of trauma from Rebecca’s dangerous calling. Her husband, Marcus (Nikolaj Coster-Waldau), who at one point screams at her that she smells of death, presents her with a choice— give up working in war zones or separate herself from their family. With great and understandable ambivalence she opts for her family. Although at first she turns down an offer to photograph a [safe]refugee camp in Kenya— her daughter expresses a desire to go for her to accept this assignment for a school project. With some effort Marcus is convinced that such a trip would be a beneficial bonding experience. Naturally havoc ensues.


At any give time, on this diminishing planet,there are hostilities wherein one tribe, faction or piece of terra firma is battling another.Apparently, it has always been so and in our great beneficent modernity we are frequently given the opportunity to witness some or all of the subsequent killing fields and broken survivors.Bringing this bad news to people privileged to encounter it in the comfort of their homes or on mobile devices requires that there be people who risk life and limb to add various harrowing goings-on to the human record, sometimes called history

I have spoken with such people—brave and perhaps foolish— who travel and work in the war zones of the world—Jon Lee Anderson,* Sebastian Junger,** Anne Garrels***— I always ask them,almost as an accusation(though it is a perfectly understandable impulse), if they are thrill or adrenaline junkies. All deny it but it is hard for me to accept that is not part of the allure of far flung places.There is certainly enough evidence of the risks involved. The death of photographer Tim Hetherington.The suicide of Kevin Carter, who in 1993 brought the world the indelible image of a vulture on the ground waiting for the death of a young child.

Reportedly,Carter was , the remainder of his short life, troubled by his
‘failure’ to give aid to the subject of his photo

Vulture watching Starving Child

Vulture watching Starving Child

And yet for some people, a life away from concrete jungles and seas of transmission wires, is a life well lived.

I recall a time when a(dubious)condition, disaster fatigue, was offered as some kind of mitigation for the comfortable to pay little of no attention to suffering and depravity in some distant place (not to mention in their own back yards) Author Maaza Mengiste has written about the dilemma of getting attention for various suppurating wounds that dot the terrain of this planet

South Sudan, the world’s youngest country, is expected to declare that it is once again in a state of famine. The crisis has been caused by conflict between government forces and various opposition groups… The situation has been called the most rapidly deteriorating humanitarian crisis today, but without an image startling enough to make the headlines, it has remained invisible. The world’s gaze is being directed elsewhere, towards the devastating news emerging daily from Gaza and the tragic downing of Malaysia Airlines flight MH17….South Sudan is not the only African nation in crisis. There is also the Central African Republic and the Democratic Republic of the Congo. The three cases share one striking similarity: not enough attention is being paid to what’s going on…. It could also be that we have simply tired of African tragedies. If an image must grab our attention before we read an article, then perhaps we have seen enough…Photographs of violence ask us to bear witness to atrocity. Bearing witness begs us to respond. When there is nothing left to do, it is easy to fall prey to numbing helplessness and confusion…But maybe confusion and uncertainty are what we should be feeling. … capacity to bear witness and our need to protect our capacity for compassion. Perhaps there is something to be done even when the appropriate reaction feels unclear.

The war zone journalist, as represented in 1000 Times Good Night,vividly portrays the range of issues entailed in undertaking this danger filled work. Its a world any person with a moral imagination needs to be familiar with.

Jon Lee Anderson*
Sebastian Junger**
Anne Garrels***

Autobiography/Memoir in 365 Parts..

13 Mar
Newton North #58 [photo:RB]

Newton North #58 [photo:RB]

As a 9 year old living in Chicago Robert Birnbaum came under the sway of the triumphant Cuban Revolution. He attended Mather High School in Chicago’s 50th Ward graduating 451st of a class of 551 in 1964. After university worked briefly in the Chicago Public Schools and The Kinetic Playground. His draft lottery number was 311. He left Chicago in 1971. He currently lives in Newton MA where his son Cuba is a captain of the Newton North High School Football team


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