Sunday, October 16, 2011

Zuccotti Park

My black lab Darwin and I often walk through Zuccotti Park in Lower Manhattan early in the morning on our way past the World Trade Center, on to the West Street dog park and then around the bottom of the island. Zuccotti Park is better than most privately-owned public spaces - it's prettier and more inviting, lined with trees, filled with flower beds, with cool light panels arrayed on the ground and benches throughout made of nice smooth stone.  On one side are carts for coffee and pastries and fresh juices, and every week a farmers market sets up, adorning the park with rows of colorful produce.

Darwin enjoys nosing about the flower beds and greeting people sitting at tables eating their breakfast, with the ulterior motive, of course, that they share some muffin with him. Sometimes he chases pigeons or looks up at the little birds out of his reach, hidden in trees. We see people sipping coffee, checking their calendars for the busy day, others obviously dressed in their best, too early for their interview, silently running through their presentation or pitch. Then there are groups of robust construction guys, some chatting and laughing for the last few moments of relaxation before the tough job ahead, others drinking coffee alone, lunch box in hand, pensive.

The park is just across from the World Trade Center construction zone, and thus situated at the edge of doom that awful day, receiving the first blow of that terrible cloud of ash, debris and human remains that rushed through the corridors and covered Lower Manhattan after the towers fell.  The office where I worked in 2001 was a few blocks from there, and after the attack I would walk up to where the renovated park now stands to gaze at the skeletal remains of the twin towers, then sitting atop piles of rubble and toxic smoke.

For the last month, the park has become the site of another ground zero, the vortex of the Occupy Wall Street movement, which has spread throughout the country and beyond.  It has transformed into a setting for the quintessential exercise of free speech: pointed criticism at the powers that be for the way they run the country - in particular by ignoring the inequities that resulted after the economic collapse largely caused by unregulated financial markets. But I'll leave it to them to explain. Mostly young people. The park is filled with their passion and hope and the desperate need to be heard. And they speak on behalf of so many who worked diligently but lost jobs through no fault of their own, suddenly saddled with credit card debt, student loans, and unpaid mortgages while the giant two-faced banks show no mercy - taking in hard-earned money on one side, investing in scurrilous financial products on the other. Make no mistake, all of New York City needs our banks and financial markets to be flourishing, but it will not hurt the economic basis of the city to question and critique the process.

The political and cultural debate started in Zuccotti Park will continue for a long time. Who knows if it will change anything? It has engendered a deeply hostile reaction from those with certain established views and old fears. And many residents of Lower Manhattan are not happy that their neighborhood, newly restored ten years after 9/11, is upended again. Police, already a huge presence around Wall Street due to terrorism concerns, have set up new blockades. Individuals having nothing do to with the policies under protest are mistaken for "bankers" and harassed. Families are bothered by the drums and chanting late into the night.

The Occupiers vow to be there indefinitely, and it may be a very long time before Darwin and I get our morning stroll there again. No matter. The park has changed forever. At some point they will leave, perhaps when it gets too cold, so cold that, as in Paul Bunyan stories, the heated words of their debates over economic and social justice themselves become frozen, hanging in the air, until they thaw in the spring, to the astonishment of Darwin, who will look up into the trees and hear the voices of democracy.

Sunday, July 3, 2011

Father Harrie's Seat At The July 4th Parade

I've been fortunate to have been friends with some extraordinary people, brilliant, creative and kind. Most of them aren't here anymore, like Mom and her best friend, Harrie. Mom, from Korea, my father, from India and Harrie, from Holland, all met when they were students living at the University of Chicago's International House in the late '40s. Harrie and Mom were classmates in art history, and he became close to our family after Papa died.

Harrie at my wedding in 2000

Most people called him Father Harrie, since he was a Catholic priest, but I did not. Mom didn't either.  Ever the rationalist, at dinner she would suddenly ask: "You don't really believe in God, do you?" To which he would simply answer "Yes" and ask for more potatoes. He liked potatoes especially, and cheese, being a Dutchman, and we always had a nice bottle of Scotch at the ready for when he visited.  He lived in the United States for over 60 years and never became a citizen. But he loved and respected his adopted country and he always looked forward, like a little kid, to the local July 4th parade.

To describe Harrie as "a kid" is a bit unusual. Besides being a priest, he was a beloved and esteemed professor of Chinese and Japanese art history at The University of Chicago and generations of his students now teach all over the country. He taught us how to look at a great work of art. He'd take a detail, like a boulder at the bottom of a Chinese landscape painted by a master, and show us how the smallest sequence of brush strokes was full of vitality, whereas the same boulder in a later copy by a lesser artist would just sit there like a dud. I treasure the many happy times we went to museums together, peering into paintings with his pocket viewer, discussing what each of us liked best, me wishing I had his superhero-level vision for art.

He and Mom both shared a gift for recognizing authenticity and they loved to go antiquing on Midwest country roads, looking for early American objects like tools and toys. They often discussed loudly - in Japanese - the quality and price of a potential find, though it was obvious what they were saying to everyone in the store. It was usually "No Good!"

Harrie painted a postcard "The Big Apple" when I moved to New York City in 1995

Harrie had a deep love for the simple and real. He was born into a Dutch farmer's family of 11 kids - one daughter and 10 sons, with Harrie chosen to be sent off to the priesthood, which is what landed him in China before the revolution. He loved to work with his hands, repairing antique pocket watches or restoring a deserving old chair. He painted still lifes and drew whimsical cartoons. Mom and Harrie's best friends were not academics but a retired butcher named Roger, a gentle, large man with a bald head and an anchor tattooed on his massive arm, and his wife Pearl, with whom they shared a love of well-made and well-worn objects. They'd go over to see Roger and Pearl for coffee after dinner on Thursdays.

Harrie's self-portrait "thank you" card to me for a subscription to The New York Review of Books

On the day before the local Independence Day parade, Harrie would be full of excited anticipation, planning on where to set down two little fold-up chairs for him and Mom, worried that they would arrive late. It's not that Harrie and Mom had much grasp of American history. Visiting Gettysburg for me was as close to a religious experience as I can imagine. I was deeply affected by the carnage and Abraham Lincoln's perfect, healing words urging the divided country to unite. Mom's response, with her characteristic Korean directness, was: "Nothing! Nothing there!!" On the other hand, to me a local parade in Evanston, Illinois was nothing special - some local pols and Realtors in open cars followed by a few marching bands. But to Harrie, it was a valued tradition, every year the same ritual that brought people together to enjoy the simple joys of life, with barbecue after and then fireworks by Lake Michigan. Never mind that he and Mom argued about the barbecue - she wanted the fire blazing hot for bulgogi, he wanted to tone it down for the chicken.

Harrie died peacefully of a heart attack in his sleep in 2007, a little over two years after Mom passed. I miss them both. I will not be at the parade in Evanston, but I can still imagine his smile of delight as the bands march by, and I can almost hear the two of them arguing about how hot the grill should be. The meal was always fabulous, even if the chicken was a bit too charred.

Happy July 4th.  I love this country.

Sunday, April 24, 2011

The Thug in the Picture

See that guy walking up on the right side of this photo?  The fellow in the dark slacks and jacket.  You can't make it out, but he's carrying a paper shopping bag, one with handles, looking like one of the many casual visitors to the Beijing University campus that lovely spring afternoon in 1994 when I shot this picture.  I was aiming for the bulletin boards, which don't look like much, but they played an important role in modern history as the spot where students pasted notices of political demonstrations.  I thought it would be nice to show to my Chinese literature students back at Oberlin College, who would appreciate their significance.  As soon as I snapped the picture, though, all hell broke loose.

The man with the shopping bag suddenly rushed toward me, yelling and gesturing menacingly. A crowd immediately gathered, then uniformed guards brisling with guns and bayonets surrounded me. You see, Shopping-Bag Guy was a plainclothes policeman, one of those thugs you've been hearing about so much lately who help the Chinese government keep things under strict control while operating outside official law.  You mess with them, they can beat you bloody and have you thrown in jail with no recourse. I knew that an American reporter had just been beaten up by such a thug, and so when he demanded my camera, I immediately handed it over.  Instead of confiscating it, however, he opened the back and pulled the film roll, without taking it out, just to expose it, then he handed it back to me and stomped away.  The crowd dispersed.  The guards, thankfully, went back to their posts.  It was a grim moment to say the least.

I developed the roll anyway, and only one picture survived.  The very photo worth keeping.

I had for many years been immersed in the study of Chinese literature and culture.  I found some truths along the way, but not the truths I expected.  What I discovered was the universal need to be treated with dignity and respect.  What I also discovered was that those in power, obsessed with their own survival, will go to great lengths to make sure that basic human need is not met.

This fundamental truth is being played out in Egypt and Libya right now. Again and again, protesters say all they want is to be treated like human beings instead of slaves in an authoritarian state.  They want respect for the work they do, to be permitted to enjoy dinner with their family without harassment at the end of the day, to express joy when they're happy and speak their minds at injustice without fear of reprisal. They don't want to be treated like animals or like cogs in a machine.

Last January President Hu Jintao suggested China isn't ready for human rights because they are still a developing country.  But they've long been ready.  They've been ready from the time of the anonymous soldiers in the 7th century BC, whose poems complain of unrelenting border wars, to the Tang dynasty poet Du Fu, who lamented that while in exile he was not able to set the emperor straight. And they're ready today as we've seen in the strong undercurrent of political dissent and the detention of the artist Ai Weiwei, the Nobel laureate Liu Xiaobo and so many other human rights activists.

Even local villagers are taking on instances of corruption and abuse.  In tiny Zhaiqiao they rose up in anger when their village head Qian Yunhui, who had been protesting the unjust confiscation of land by a power plant, was suddenly and conveniently run over by a truck.  The village promptly voted his close relative to the post to carry on where the deceased had left off.

If most Chinese are willing to submit to total government control, why does the Chinese government work so hard at silencing voices of opposition?  It takes an enormous amount of energy and resources to spy on what everyone is saying or thinking and blot out any hint of criticism. 

When I lived in Beijing, my insignificant mail would arrive with a big piece of Scotch tape clumsily pasted over where it had been ripped open and reviewed.  The government is so obsessed with quashing criticism that it goes to ridiculous lengths.  Even Confucius was not spared in the recent crackdown when his giant statue was unceremoniously removed from Tiananmen square under cover of darkness one night this past week.  Guess they suddenly remembered that Confucius demanded ethical and humane behavior from rulers as well. 

The truth I learned in China was that basic human rights, including the freedom to speak up at injustice and abuse of power, were more important than an appreciation of the finest ancient brocade.  I'm now a First Amendment lawyer, protecting the work of journalists to report and criticize government officials and others who affect our lives.  I go to work every day to make sure that our free speech guarantees are preserved and not chipped away.

I have Shopping-Bag Guy to thank.

Friday, February 18, 2011

Readers Without Borders

First a shock and then a rush of blood to my chest - a physical sensation of loss.  What? The Barnes and Noble at Lincoln Center is closing?  That can't be! Where will we go to check out the new books first-hand (even though we sometimes end up buying them on Amazon)?  Where will we go for cards, gift-wrap, maps, magazines and calendars?  What about the wonderful book signings, where I met my favorite theater director, David Cromer, and had the whole cast of Our Town sign my new hardcover copy of the play, after they performed a scene and generously answered questions from the audience?  Where will I arrange to meet friends, if not "on the first floor of the Barnes and Noble, Broadway side"?

It was more than a bookstore. It was a place where people came together - to buy books or just browse around and chat.  It had become as essential to the community as a city park or other public destination.  And it was leaving us.

I recall when I first started going to this particular Barnes and Noble.  It was when I was a law student at Columbia.  This was a second career for me, so I was way older than my classmates, which meant no dates on weekends except with the X-Files on Fridays.  I would often take in a film at the movie house on 68th and Broadway and then walk a block over to the Barnes and Noble to browse the new hardcovers, look at magazines, maybe get a cup of coffee.  I don't drink - alcohol aggravates my asthma - so I don't hang out in bars.  This was a place I could go to by myself, a safe place, and, most of all, there were books.  

At first I was unimpressed.  I'm a snob, you see, having worked in the greatest of all independent bookshops, The Seminary Coop Bookstore, while I was a grad student at the University of Chicago.  We were expected to answer questions with a knowledge of the extensive stock of titles, specialized academic disciplines included, and if we didn't have it, we'd "special order" it.  We did it straight up - no coffee, just books.  

But I gradually warmed to the Barnes and Noble.  I recall when I started going out with Mr. H (we are now married and living happily ever after), we went to the bookstore to do research for a trip to Montreal.  I found a lovely little hotel in one of the guidebooks, showed Mr. H the passage, and said: Okay, let's memorize this."  He looked up from the guidebook and said: "You know, we could just buy it."  I burst out laughing.  As a poor student, I was so used to just browsing, it hadn't occurred to me actually to buy the book!

And now we hear that Borders is closing its stores in Manhattan and all over the country, including the one we frequent in the charming town of Saratoga Springs, NY, where we rent a weekend apartment.  We like Borders stores because they usually have a good local history section.  When we travel to different cities, we make a point to stop at the Borders to look for books on the special history of the place, and we usually pick up some other reading for the trip as well.  The Borders in Saratoga is a large brick structure at the center of the main street.  Often, when we're strolling in downtown Saratoga, Mr. H will run in to to get the papers (which we also read online), while I wait outside with Darwin, our black lab.  Darwin and I see all manner of people going in and out of the bookstore while we wait - old and young, hip and nerd.  Musicians are often outside on the sidewalk, and there's a Seattle's Best with tables inside where people chat over books, news and coffee.  It's a festive scene, rich with human interaction.  With the bookstore gone, there will be a huge gap in the texture of the neighborhood.

We all understand the economic difficulties in maintaining a physical bookstore when everyone, including me, is reading on iPads or Kindles. But I still buy hard-copy books, and not always online.   Sometimes I can't wait for the mail, I want to have the book in my hands right away.  When Mr. H and I make the 3-hour drive up to Saratoga, we listen to audiobooks from my iPad through the car speakers.  We invariably end up going into a bookstore and buying the same book so we can look at the drawings and pictures and look back at some passages I might have missed while napping.  After all, you can't listen to Endurance, the spellbinding story of Shackleton's adventure in Antarctica, without wanting to see a photograph of the tall ship trapped, surrounded by ice, or hear The River of Doubt, without wanting to see what Teddy Roosevelt looked like writing his articles for Scribner's in the middle of the Amazon jungle sitting at a little portable table while covered up by gloves and mosquito netting.  And you can't listen to these books without wanting to have your own copies on the shelf forever because they are so, so great.

Going to bookstores is part of our lifestyle and they offer a special place for people to gather.  Will physical location become less and less necessary as we become more digitized, so that we don't ever need to leave our homes to bump elbows with strangers over coffee, books and records?  (Don't get me going over the loss of Tower Records).  We may end up like the Krell of Forbidden Planet, who became so technologically advanced that they had no need for physical instruments and withdrew into their own minds, ultimately to destroy themselves and their civilization with their own terrifying monsters from the id.

Well, maybe it won't be that bad, but it is a huge loss.  And I am sad.