Tee-Shirt Philosophy

1. When I tried to make a leap of faith, I broke my leg.

2. It’s existential thing, you wouldn’t understand.

3. I don’t think, therefore I’m not.

4. I lost Pascal wager.

5. Ockham’s razor has lost it’s edge

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Pat Kranish Writes About Lucy Parsons

Who Was Lucy Parsons?

Who was Lucy Parsons? Bread and Roses, which celebrates the labor movement, posted her picture on Facebook. Taken sometime in the 1870s, the picture shows a sweet-faced woman wearing a wasp-waisted Victorian dress. Her dark hair is in ringlets, her Cupid’s bow mouth is set, and her bold eyes gaze straight ahead. She looks small, feminine, young, and very determined. She is person of mixed race, born near Waco, Texas in 1853, ten years before the Emancipation Proclamation, twelve years before the end of the Civil War. Biographers, with little to go on, say she was born a slave. She never said so. And if she doesn’t say so—she who wrote polished books and pamphlets and delivered hundreds of speeches in her long and productive life—who would dare to speak for her?

She was arrested regularly, and stood up to the notorious Chicago Police (and to the formidable Emma Goldman) and remained an outspoken, unwavering anarchist throughout her life. She has been dismissed as the bitter widow of Albert Parsons. The record shows she was active before he died and remained active until her own death in 1942. In a way, Lucy Parsons leaves the more lasting legacy. Albert Parsons was executed for taking part in the Haymarket Riots of 1886 and posthumously “exonerated” four years later, an anomaly in the murderous and hidden history of the role American Anarchy played in the nascent labor movement. Lucy Parsons, more than an aggrieved widow of a martyred radical, wrote and spoke and was arrested more times than can be counted, yet she never spoke of her life before she met and married Albert. She never said I know slavery because I was a slave, so why do historians repeat it as if it were a fact? Who was Lucy Eldine Gonzalez before she was Lucy Parsons and how did she sprout from the cotton blanched soil of Texas to become Chicago’s most dangerous woman? I suspect it will take a lot of digging to unravel the mystery, but that’s what I want to do. And like an anarchist might say, the rules will outsmart themselves and no longer apply.

 

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OUR SCHOOL

Our School

In Romanian with English subtitles

1 hour 34 minutes

 

Pat Kranish

 

Instead of writing about the film “Our School,” I find myself staring into eight-year-old Alin’s brown eyes in his photo on the film’s web page. In action, he reminds of my grandson Sal at that age, arms and legs whirling with excess energy, antic, awkward, and full of innocent grace. When the other children speak, his mouth drops open slightly as if to catch everything, to make sure it is true and accurate. The mayor of the tiny Romanian town, Targu Lapus, gathers the Roma together at the site of the old “Gypsy” school—and like a villain in a Quentin Tarantino movie, tells them over and over again, wash up because the very next morning they will be going to a real school in the town.

 

What makes this film effective is that both the Roma and the Romanians speak for themselves. There is no all-knowing narrator. You don’t need one. Unlike Americans who would probably be aware of the politically correct way to cover up their disdain for the Roma, these people openly ridicule them. A priest’s wife asks Dana, the sixteen-year-old Roma girl who works for her—apparently without pay—what is two times two.  Dana, scrubbing an outdoor area in the background, answers “5” and the woman mugs for the camera—see I told you she’s stupid. Dana longs to go to school. Her parents encourage her. If there were any Roma in Targu Lapus who didn’t wish for a better life for themselves and their children they are not in evidence.

 

To get cleaned up for this magical journey to real school, they will need water. Unfortunately, the one source of water for their settlement is not working. As a woman says without apparent rancor to the mayor—who claims credit for installing the single but useless spigot—“The Romanians poisoned the well.” Water is finally brought in by a fire truck and in the next scene the kids’ faces actually shine with anticipation as they are combed and scrubbed, readied for their ride into town in a horse-drawn cart, eager to be with “people” as they refer to the upright citizens of Romania.

 

The filmmakers, Mona Nicoara and Miruna Coca-Cozma, recorded over a period of four years, from 2006 to 2010, enough time for their presence to become part of the beautiful landscape of Targu Lapus along with the green meadows, the brown cows, and the dirt roads. For all the good intentions of the European Union to counteract centuries of segregation and exclusion of the Roma, at the end we are left with bitter disappointment. Not one of the children in the film still attends the school that the European Union funded for their integration. The principal, whose close set eyes would be a tip-off in a Hollywood production that he is the villain, says that there are “prize-winning students and children with problems.” He calls it “natural selection.” All of the Roma children who still go to school attend the School for Children with Deficiencies. Yes, that is what it is really called. And a sweet and loving sixteen year old boy sits with a coloring book in a bleak classroom there. The money that was to be used to facilitate the integration of the Roma into the general school population was funneled into rebuilding the old “Gypsy” school where no Romanian and no Roma will ever go.

 

Today I saw a very fine film by Jacques Audiard called Rust and Bone. In a throwaway remark, a character describes a man as a Gypsy who he caught stealing cars. We see this character; he arranges the illegal fights at the center of the film, although he has no lines. A few days ago I read an excerpt from a memoir in Harper’s Magazine about a writer’s experience on a collective farm in 1990 Germany. He lists the warnings he received from the locals, one of which was “Would I remember always to lock the door when I was working in the barn, in case the Gypsies came?” Someone in Our School says, “A Gypsy is always a Gypsy,” using the reliable shorthand for the ultimate outsiders.

 

Our School is an antidote to the casual poison of prejudice. Every teacher should see it, here and in Europe, so that if that smug look of contempt should steal over their faces they will recognize the ugliness seeping from within. When a teacher says of her students, “I tell them they should be more like me,” maybe he or she will see the film and say instead, I have a lot to learn from them.

 

I saw the film on Vimeo. If you would like to see it and you don’t live near a place where the film will be shown, check out the Our School website and contact Mona Nicoara. Wherever you are in the world, it will remind you of home.

 

 

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Old New York

After Hurricane Sandy, we saw many eerie, beautiful photographs of unlit lower Manhattan. The pictures of New York in darkness reminds us that as technology advances we often experience a kind of loss.  Before the early 60s, New York City was truly dark after sunset. Sodium Street Lights, which are much brighter than the old fashioned incandescent lights they replaced, of course made the city safer.  Still, there is a certain romance about walking on the side streets of old New York. You could look up at the sky and see the Milky Way.  A lit cigarette could actually be a significant source of illumination. You could even imagine espionage agents meeting in front of a brownstone stoop to exchange secrets of world historic importance.

The 1960s ended the decades of rapid change in the city landscape. The destruction of Penn Station marked the end of an era. I remember a conversation I had with a friend of my parents. I said, “The new Pan Am building is really ugly.”  He dismissed my complaint, “Progress is inevitable.” People began to realize that new is not necessarily better. Jane Jacobs argued that human scale architecture and neighborhoods were preferable to massive urban renewal projects. Residents of lower Manhattan successfully resisted the construction of new freeways through Washington Square Park. New homeowners in Park Slope and other neighborhoods began a process of renovation and improvement that is still going strong four decades later.  Young artists in Soho started to repurpose the old industrial lofts in the Cast Iron District into chic living spaces.

The movement for historical preservation was so successful that ordinary middle-class people were priced out of large sections of the City.

Pictures of the post-Sandy night skies brought back an old memory from fifty years ago when I was fifteen. The neighborhood I grew up in was developed in the 20s and 30s. In the early 60s, some of the old six-story prewar apartment buildings were torn down to be replaced by white brick high rises.  For a few months one of these old red brick buildings was in ruins. This was my first direct experience of the picturesque. I used to go to the corner newsstand at night to buy a paper for my father. I’ll never forget the rubble of that old apartment building.

The great historian Eric Hobsbawn said in the late 1990s that New York had changed less in the post war years than most large cities. Think about it. The 7th Ave. and Lexington Ave. lines were opened in 1904.   The last major addition to the system, the Jamaica IND line opened in 1937. The New York City Transit System wasn’t built in a day. But twenty-three years isn’t a long time to finish such a massive project  Construction of the Second Avenue subway was started in 1961. It still is not finished.

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Photo from Nov 5, 2012Pat Kranish

November 15, 2012

I missed most of the radio interview of Joanne Macy except for this nugget of wisdom: “There’s a song waiting to be sung through you,” a motivation to listen for the mysterious music that compels the writer in us to share our ideas, whether it is a novel, a poem, or a tweet. The underside of sharing your song is the urge to parrot every random thought that passes through your porous brain. Broadcast the remarkable, the obscure, the arcane: write about the films deteriorating in rusty film cans before they vanish; remind us why books have the power to change the way we think and act; why On the Road never stayed at home, and 1984is forever in the future. Don’t search for factoids and platitudes so that your blogs are never silent. I’m glad to follow my friends on twitter and to occupy ideas about literature and politics, but when a writer acquaintance retweets an article called 40 Simple Ways to Never Run Dry, then it’s time to cap that well.

Last week I wrote about not having a headshot. I finally used an old picture, wearing a black sun hat and supersized glasses that were quite fashionable fifteen years ago and that I still wear for watching TV. This picture fascinates me, staring back and validating my work on The Gypsy Chronicles website. The article, Our Souls Are Deep with Dreams, will reside there from now until the end of time (or until I piss off the editor.) If anyone wished to know more about me after reading it, no one’s told me. But the lyrics to that fateful song—your article will be published—infect my psyche. Seeing what I wrote in the beautiful venue of the Chronicles, I have fallen into the aspiring miasma of the writer, please someone, somewhere, read my work.

And for my next number, encouraged by the publisher Alison Mackie, I want to interview the most famous Romani advocate if all, Ian Hancock. I’ve read his book, We Are the Romani People, and every article available on line, including the 130-page text, The Pariah Syndrome. Here’s the rub, he hasn’t published, at least I haven’t found anything, since 2002. He’s a professor of linguistics at the University of Texas in Austin where his web page says he’s writing three new books—the titles aren’t given. And who am I to ask him anything? Not a Roma, and not a writer who anyone pays to read. I’m writing a three page letter to him (so far), not including the interview questions, hoping that he has the time and the inclination to read and respond to them. The first question I want to ask is, “Do you feel like a voice crying in the wilderness?” I know I do.

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Pat Kranish

Henderson Writers Group Newsletter November 5, 2012

I go over my stats compulsively. Five stories published and one due out next year. Obeying Mark Twain’s admonition about choosing exactly the right word, I rewrite my one paragraph biography with every submission. I’ve done book reviews and author interviews. Designed a chart to keep track of submission guidelines, then forget to look at it. Bookslut turned me down. I’m too bookish and not sluttish enough. (Or vice versa.) Sent out a long interview to Paris Review last week—by snail mail. Secretly hoped that the post office lady would ask me if I was a writer. Submitted the same review to two other anthologies. On a lark, or considering my late night dread, a raven, I queried a blog which looked good and carried interviews. To my great surprise, they want to publish mine. Today. All they want, besides the article, is my headshot, and a link to my websites, you know, for all those people who “wish to read more about” me. The article is ready to go. I do have a head and a camera to shoot it with. But somehow I never got around to building that all-important author’s platform.The innocent request from the “empty pocket” publisher goads me—only slackers and dilettantes fail to promote themselves. I hate my procrastinating, cowardly, genre-dashing, self more than ever. And suppose the Paris Review forgets it only publishes top-shelf, best-selling authors and journalists and chooses little old me? Will I have to rewrite my tiny literary biography to add that I turned down a career building, paying gig, because after midnight, when the only light in the house is cast by my computer screen, it’s the numbers that count: six down, one to go, and the year, and the night, is young.

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Foreign Generals

A couple of month ago, I wrote about the Duchess of Polignac in my post “Was Marie Antoinette a Lesbian?”  In “A World on Fire,”  a book about Britain’s role in the American Civil, by Amanda Foreman, the Duchess of Polignac grandson pops up as a character. Prince Camille de Polignac was a Confederate General. That’s right, a French nobleman commanded a division in the Confederate Army and they were Texans.  He was admired by his troops for his bravery and aristocratic dash. After the war, he returned to Europe. He was an officer in the Franco-Prussian War. He died in 1911, the last surviving General on either side.

August Willich was almost the exact ideological opposite of General de Polignac. General Willich was a Communist and a general in the Union Army. This minor Prussian aristocrat, a traitor to his class, fought in the Revolution of 1848. Friedrich Engels, the co-author of the Communist Manifesto, was his aide-de-Camp at the battle of Cologne. Karl Marx was an acquaintance. He escaped to America and became active in radical émigré politics. He too was popular with his troops, even providing them with fresh-baked bread. After the War he returned briefly to Germany.  He wanted to fight in the Franco-Prussian War. The German General Staff rejected his offer both on the grounds of political belief and age.

For the last 150 years there has been much controversy about the role of ideology in the American Civil War.  I don’t think this question will ever be answered. But it is hard to imagine a Communist fighting for the Confederate or the grandson of Marie Antoinette’s best friend and the son of an ultra-royalist prime minister commanding a Union division.

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