Dominic Ambrose Blogblot

of words: narrative, film and non-fiction

To not be divided or to not be defeated: That is the question, people.

At the Occupy Wall Street demonstration on Wednesday, October 5, 2011, I was heartened by the incredibly large number of young people out in the streets taking part in their democratic rights in ways that their textbooks, teachers and parents have been mostly silent about. They were marching for their rights…  doing something that until now was only being modeled by a fringe group of right wing bullies called the tea party. In so doing, they are creating for themselves a culture of participation that has been so desperately lacking in America ever since the sold out greed of the Me generation of politics: Ronald Reagan and his ilk.

Because of this gap in people’s movement, there is a need for us all to reconnect on a cultural level. For older people to drop their elitist laziness (I’ve been there, done that… I was out on the street before they were born…) and to get back in the street (because obviously, we weren’t spectacularly successful the first time around). Even more important is for young people to learn about the experiences of our older generation, the success, and especially the ways we went wrong… because they are the ones that must take us forward from here. And there were many mistakes: the surrender to drugs which flooded our movement in a fairly orchestrated way, the flirtation with divisive bolshevik ideologies which sought to create change by destroying America and sending people through even more misery in order to wake them up – the heartless Stalinist approach.

And along the way, they will enjoy the knowledge that they are part of a historical movement that transcends generations, languages, cultures and societies. That’s why I was so upset when I heard a young woman chanting on Wednesday:

The people!

United!

Will never be divided!

It was like fingernails on the blackboard. I corrected her, by shouting The People! United! Will never be DEFEATED! Then when I saw the embarrassment on her face, I felt conflicted, wondering if it was really necessary to correct people when they are expressing themselves… Was I just being a curmudgeonly old school teacher.

So I reflected on it. And came up with some reasons why I stand by my action. First of all, never being defeated is more important than never being divided. There may be issues that divide us, things that we have to work out, and that is fine. But we should be ready to put that all aside when our existence and the strength of our movement is in danger. Divide if you must, people, but please, never be defeated!

And also, it is advisable to remember our history, something that my generation could have done much better. This slogan sounds nice with the “divided” ending because then it rhymes. The original doesn’t rhyme because the original is a translation from the Spanish, which does rhyme:

El Pueblo!

Unido!

Jamás será vencido!

And it comes from the Allende Revolution in Chile, the progressive movement that managed to gain control of the government of that country, only to see it all crushed under the CIA backed coup d’etat of General Pinochet. The wikipedia entry on this slogan goes as far back as a song by the group Quilapayún, a Chilean folk lore group closely associated with the Allende movement. Let’s not forget Chile, a country which has suffered from some of the worst excesses of U.S. interventionism in Latin America in recent decades. They are way beyond that history, and so are we, thank God, but it is important to know that although the present protest, no matter where or when, may be suppressed temporarily, we will always be remembered and our voices will ring out across the years, from land to land. El Pueblo!

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October 7, 2011 Posted by | happenings, politics | , , , | 1 Comment

A Book Festival Grows Fast in Brooklyn

Once again the cultural expansion in Brooklyn was on full display this weekend, this time at the Brooklyn Book Festival. There had been a surprising number of side events at bookstores

BBF at Brooklyn Borough Hall

and beer gardens throughout the borough in the three days leading up, (for instance, the Vin Fiz readings posted about below) but I was still unprepared for the extent and scope of the main event itself on Sunday. It was enormous, with vendor booths and stands stretching throughout the lanes of Cadman Plaza in front of Borough Hall. At each hour from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. there were readings and panel discussions going on at eight different halls, including the courtroom in Borough Hall, the main hall of the Brooklyn Historical Society and the auditorium at St. Francis College. There were a couple of outdoor stages and even the expanses of the beautiful St. Ann’s Church were pressed into service.

There at St. Ann hundreds of people filled the pews under the gothic ceiling to hear an interview with Pulitzer Prize winner Jhumpa Lahiri. It was an astounding sight.

Sheri Holman, Terry McMillan, Nina Revoyr and Bernice McFadden

Star power was certainly on display elsewhere at the festival. Diva power is not one of my favorite spectacles, so I decided to skip Paul Auster, but I did manage to get my nose full of egomania anyway, from some more satisfying providers. Terry McMillan, the author of Waiting to Exhale, was the quintessential diva hamming it up for her adoring fans during her panel, making faces as her fellow panelists read, ostensibly in support of the text, but in the end just making sure that all eyes remained on her. I don’t know much about stagecraft, but I am sure that this is a cardinal sin of ensemble acting. When McMillan read, however, all was forgiven, as her writing is spot-on and her presentation skills were enthralling. She brought the text, from a work in progress, to life with the first syllable. And what a text: the inner voice of a housewife struggling to come to terms with a flawed marriage was powerful and haunting. Another divo who was not above antics to draw attention was Arthur Phillips, who whooped it up at the intro for another writer, again to make sure all eyes were on his chiseled good looks and stubble whiskers which had been perfectly aged to outline his dimples and square, manly jaw. He was the author a few years back, of the gimmicky titled Prague (the novel was about Budapest). And again, it was a case of drop-dead fantastic writing and championship presentation – in this case an autobiographical passage about a young woman throwing herself at his sexy bad self. The writing was tour-de-force brilliant and could even whet the appetite to read more

Kevin Wilson, Jessica Hagedorn and Arthur Phillips

about him in The Tragedy of Arthur. This was a great panel, with Kevin Wilson reading from The Family Fang about a flim-flam family in Atlanta. I instantly liked him when I saw that he was wearing a tie that I own (owned?) that I must have bought for a  dollar about thirty years ago. His reading voice was mellifluous proving how beautifully fitting a Southern voice can be for a thoughtful text. Jessica Hagedorn read from Toxicology about a quirky, aging couple in the West Village. All three were worthy of far more attention than the short hour they had to share.

There were other big draws with some of them, like Edmund White and Bernice McFadden, in the capacity of moderators as well as panelists. There were writers to meet, too. 290 different writers were listed in the program as signing books during the day at various locations! They ranged from the sublime (Joyce Carol Oates at St. Francis) to the slime (Senator Joe Lieberman at Borough Hall).

Amintava Kumar

There were ideas that inspired. I attended the discussion about time travel with Samantha Hunt, author of The Invention of Everything Else, historical fiction centering on Nikola Tesla, and with Diana Galbadon. Galbadon, another big draw at the festival, is the author of the NY Times #1 bestselling series of Outlander novels. With her insight and ironic sense of humor she showed why people are willing to plod through thousands of pages of romance and then beg for more. Unfortunately,  her reading from her latest work showed just how she arrives at thousands of pages – in the excerpt, which consisted of a couple of thousand words, her hero does nothing but look around in one spot of a dark tunnel he finds himself stuck in. I also attended a panel about unreliable subjects in non-fiction writing with a very charming Amintava Kumar (A Foreigner Carries in the Crook of his Arm a Tiny Bomb) and a confused discussion about the guidance that religious traditions can give to a spiritual writer, with Michael Mohommad Knight, a follower of the Nation of Islam (the “Black Muslims”), who tried, I think quite unsuccessfully, to explain why he (who is white) believes that the white man is the devil. Other, only slightly less perplexing apologias were given by Darcy Steinke and Peter Bebergal who spoke about the dilemmas that they faced, tapping into traditions for inspiration, but at the same time attempting to maintain their conceptual autonomy.

The festival was ample proof of how much the cultural life of New York City needed to expand beyond the confines of Manhattan island where the concentration of power and wealth leads each culture event to eventually wall up into a rarefied exercise in elitism. Just compare this totally free festival with the New Yorker Festival where audience tickets range from $30 to $75 and well beyond. The open, free wheeling atmosphere of Brooklyn provides a home where a more daringly innovative approach to the arts can thrive. Marty Markowitz, the indefatigable borough president, who usually hits the mark with his unabashed boosterism (usually – I hate the fuhgeddaboutit sign on the Belt Parkway) says in his short welcoming lines in the official program that this festival is “the most hip, smart and diverse book festival in the Northeast – not to mention the biggest!” You got it, Marty!

The ceiling at St. Ann and the Holy Trinity Church

September 19, 2011 Posted by | happenings, literature | , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Vin Fiz Centennial: the grape soda that flew

100 years ago today Cal Rodgers took off in his Wright Brothers plane from Brooklyn on his way to Los Angeles, in an attempt to win the $50,000 prize offered by William Randolph Hearst for the first air journey from coast to coast in less than 30 days. Rodgers’ flight was sponsored by the Armour Meat Company and his plane was named after the new soft drink they were peddling – the Vin Fiz.

The 1912 advertising image

At the oddest literary reading I ever attended (or was  that the Paris metro reading?) excerpts from E. P. Stein’s Flight of the Vin Fiz  and Eileen F. Lebow’s Cal Rodgers and the Vin Fizwere presented in the little exhibition room at Hangar B of Floyd Bennett Field, near where the Vin Fiz took off. That helped me to see the Vin Fiz as a real aircraft, and not as I imagined it: some kind of grape soda. Alas, there was no Vin Fiz served at the event, since the soft drink never really

an overgrown runway at Floyd Bennett Field

took off (see testimonials below). The other Vin Fiz did take off, but it didn’t quite make it to Los Angeles in 30 days… more like 49, having crashed and sputtered several times along the way.

Afterwards, the attendees were allowed to wander around in the hangar to puzzle over the airplane carcasses in various stages of recomposition there. It is a workshop for the reconstruction of historical aircraft, and there were some marvelous examples there. Afterwards, my friend and I wandered around the disused airport that has sat idle along Flatbush Avenue for decades. It was a beautiful day and we watched as enormous airbuses and boeings lumbered low in the sky as they approached JFK airport just a bit to the east. We also took some time

One of the many planes being restored

to watch the model airplane enthusiasts fly their own tiny aircraft on one weedy runway. It was an interesting day to reflect on the caprices of fate: the beverage that gains immortality as an aircraft, the prize that was never won, the world war two bombers and troop transports that retire to lives as tinker toys and the airfield that still lives, but only vicariously. I have to appreciate history’s ironic sense of humor. It leaves me with one burning question. What did Vin Fiz taste like?

With the wonders of the internet I was able to find out not only where it can be found today (in New Hampshire and Ohio!) and also an idea of its taste, judging from the following testimonials from 1911:

“Tastes like a cross between river water (sludge) and horse slop.”

“You have to sneak up on it to get it down.”

“It has a laxative effect.”

Doesn’t that make you just want to go out and get some? Well, you just missed it. An attempt was made to revive the brand in recent years… but it fizzled out. 

September 17, 2011 Posted by | happenings, literature | , , , | Leave a comment

La Fête de la Musique and the sight of blood

This year’s Fête de la Musique came at an awkward time. When I got up in the morning and looked on the computer one of the first things I saw was the cruel death of Neda on a street of Tehran. It was a sickening sight. This photo is from the beginning of the video, before the blood rushed out of her mouth and nose,Neda leaving her dead within seconds. The other photos on the web are too graphic to post here. One could say that it is a senseless death, a young girl, forced to her death on the dirty pavement of a city street, but it does not have to be seen that way. In the language and symbolism of martyrdom that is such a central element of Shi’a culture, she gave her life for her people, and she died among them, contributing her life force to them and letting it multiply far more than she could ever do on her own.

tambourinesLater in the day, at the demonstration in front of the Iranian Embassy in Place d’Iena, the music was chanting, whistles and speeches, punctuated only by a short burst of drumbeats by a group of people playing Dafs, the very large Persian tambourines. It was a jolting, insistent and fortifyng sound.

Later on, I went to the Institut du Monde Arabe for the concert on the plaza there. It was full of a jubilant crowd, and this was a good way to end the day. The images of Neda and of other bloody victims that I remembered from the demonstration (many people held up digital images taken from the internet), and these new images of happy faces blended in my mind to restore some balance.

The first performer was Makhlouf, a singer from Mekla, a city in the Kabyle region of Algeria. The MC described his style as Andalusian, and I found this curious, and then when he started singing, I could hear the connection. In his handout blurb, it states that he studied at a conservatory of Andalusian music, and the style of his music is called hawzi, which relies on a subtle and masterful vocal art. His compositions were very well received by the crowd.

Makhlouf Aberkane

Makhlouf Aberkane

The obligatory shakey-shake

The obligatory shakey-shake

After that, the next act was Tunisian, a young man at the synthesizer, named Slim. He started out playing music in the clubs of Djerba, but eventually moved to France, where he has been building his career in the Tunisian community. He played Tunisian standards which got an enthusiastic reaction from the crowd,

Slim Ghanouchi

Slim Ghanouchi

who sang along and danced up a storm.

June 22, 2009 Posted by | daily life, happenings, music | , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Iranians pick up where they left off 30 years ago!

mousaviOur friends in Iran have been waiting for their revolution for thirty years and they are sick of waiting. They suffered and bled to get rid of the Shah only to have their revolution sabotaged and highjacked by reactionaries and medieval fools.

For those who live far away, there is very little we can do to show our support. However, one small thing that we can do, that costs us nothing, but means so much inside of Iran, is to finally GET TO KNOW who the Iranian people really are, behind all the propaganda. You can begin right here:

What are the media saying?

The Iran Times

But you’d rather get some SOURCE Information? Try this forum:

iran.whyweprotest.net

Or this progressive news service:

Rooz on line

Citizen journalists:

CNN iReports

The blogs? A good place to start is this report by Omid Memarian on Huffington Post:

Omid Memarian’s Coup Manual

tehranlive.org

What are well known Iranians saying?

Nobel Peace Prize winner Shirin Ebadi.

Persepolis writer Marjane Satrapi.

A gallery of selected photos from the many many many you can find on the web:

There’s lots of raw video on You Tube. An example:

June 17, 2009 Posted by | daily life, happenings | , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

La Fête de la Musique

La Fête de la musique
Thursday June 21, 2007
It started in 1982 when the Culture Minister Jack Lang and the city of Paris invited amateur musicians to come out into the streets between 8:30 and 9 p.m. to improvise a celebration of the beginning of summer. It was an unexpected success, with the Paris Opera Orchestra playing on the plaza in front of the opera house and great numbers of musicians playing way beyond that little half hour.

windowcrooners1

It must have struck some primitive chord, some pagan need to usher in the new season, to witness the shortest night and the arrival of the warm summer sun. It has grown to an enormous popular festival. Melodies and riffs can be heard coming down every street and around every corner, intertwining into a great cacophony of ebullience and excitment. The crowds are everywhere singing shouting, dancing, drinking. The music dies down around midnight, but the crowds stay on, gathering in clumps of shouted laughter, in surging waves of rowdiness. This is Paris, and the youthful populace seems constantly on the verge of revolution, but somehow the energy is contained, controlled, the haphazard encounters curtailed just this side of chaos. Finally in the wee hours of the littlest night, fatigue and the surprising last remnant spring chill in the air set in and the kermesse is over. The crowds wander home, to sleep with the confidence that tomorrow will dawn that much warmer and sunnier than yesterday.

May 4, 2009 Posted by | happenings, music | , , , | Leave a comment