One Day at a Time

It occurred to me only in reading the post of 8.13.09 that "journalism," etymologically, is a daily practice. Stephanie writes, "I wonder whether it is possible to practice journalism that is not so much about hunting down stories as about knowing a place and community and cultural reality deeply, so that one can speak intelligently and even wisely about it even if nothing ‘news-worthy’ is happening there." I am inclined to reply, "Yes! Journalism can be precisely itself by knowing and noting the daily life of a people or a place. Journalism isn’t the same as news, and it can go on productively (fruitfully? more on that another time) when there is no news at all.”

But this reply is too simple, or maybe just wrong. It seems to me that “journalism,” used colloquially, includes all of the following: the news, what we call features, human interest, exposé, and opinion. There are probably other subgenres I’m not thinking of. If this is right, then my idea that journalism can be “precisely itself” looks misleading and absurd. At the same time, I think I’ve stumbled on one of the valuable features of the journal, which of course has the same etymology.

For all the difficulty I have defining journalism, it still seems opposed to the journal in one clear way. While the news elements of journalism can operate on the very limited time scale of the day, as in “day after day” – while they should consist primarily of reportage – the other kinds of journalism I’ve mentioned all strive to build coherent and compelling narratives from events that follow one after another without, in fact, being part of a story. It is the news that resembles the journal, while the other forms of journalism represent the powerful human impulse to impose a story pattern (beginning, middle, and end, say) on unpatterned, unauthored occurences. Journals can be compelling because when we reread them, they force us out of the narratives we’ve constructed. They drop us back into what I’ll call the diurnal mode. They call our attention to the facts of a day, and simultaneously they remind us of the fact that we’ve incorporated those facts, fictionally, into a story of a life.

To return to Stephanie's question: we can practice journalism both by hunting down stories that other people have already shaped or rough-hewn, or we can rely on our own immersion in a place, community, or cultural-reality – and write stories that are therefore more totally our own. They may be wiser, but they also may be no more true.


Products and Fruits

Farmers depend on the sky. Even if irrigation can mitigate the effects of a short drought, hail will ruin a crop of ripe wheat. An early warm spell can trick trees into budding, and the frost that follows can destroy whole years of apples, cherries, pears. In June and July and August and September, when the harvest should be, there will be leaves that look chewed and brown-edged. Apples are hardy and so there will be some apples, but not many, and they’ll be misshapen, with dry brown spots like anti-tumors, where growth seems to have been sucked in, stunted.

Productivity is a machine word; fruitfulness is a plant word. Several years ago I heard a sermon on the difference between them. It is the difference between factory and farm, a difference we’ve been trying to eradicate with pesticides and fertilizers and ever-larger machines. But we can’t get rid of weather. And so farmers either stop farming, or they work hard and develop that horizon-watching squint. You can sow, plow, plant, you can water till the well runs dry. You can do everything right, weed, find tricks to keep crows away from the kernels. And in the end it takes not even a tornado, nothing so dramatic, to kill what was alive, or to render it unharvestable. In Dakota, in a chapter called “Rain,” Kathleen Norris writes that on a hot day, in the afternoon, light rain can burn wheat. Or a long rain at harvest can make cut wheat sprout, and ruin it for sale. It doesn’t even take hail; just wind and a downpour can leave huge swathes clubbed, plastered so flat to the ground no combine can reach them.

Factories are affected by weather too, literally and figuratively: floods and earthquakes, economic swings, consumer fads. And yet their roofs and bright lights, their large paved parking lots, their linoleum or concrete floors and white walls, all block out the sky and the earth, and make horizon-watching difficult at best.

There is an essential humility missing when we call our activity “productivity,” a narrowing of focus that leaves out the scope of the world beyond us, as though this one productive process can be sealed off from the mess and disaster and glory of seasons, oceans, famines, wars, elections, death, birth. “Bearing fruit,” by contrast, is as much something that happens to us as something we do. Bearing children (the most literally, physically fruitful thing a human body can do) is a good example: women are constantly becoming pregnant when they don’t want to, or failing to conceive though they desperately want to. And the changes of pregnancy happen, like the apple blossom turning into fruit. They often include humiliating changes—throwing up, exhaustion, becoming cumbersome, and weepy, and overwhelmed by everything from smells to birdsong. You can practice breathing exercises and birthing techniques, but the contractions will hit when they hit, and you’ll have to take them for as long as they last. You don’t set the time or the duration. It may be like getting hit by a truck. It may be like running five marathons. Or, God help you, both.

Beforehand, we say “she’s having a baby,” but while it’s happening we name the process: pregnancy, giving birth. “Productivity” is a process named after the thing that exists when the assembly line has attached all the parts and sprayed on the last coat of lacquer. The people I know who have worked on assembly lines tell me they are spirit-killing places, that their repetitive action denies what it is to be human at every level, from the body on out. This is true even if no limbs are lost; there is physical, psychic, spiritual danger in making a body do only one action, again and again.

There is also an awkward, machine-y dancing quality to assembly lines in some documentary films. Maybe the “ivity” in “productivity” applies to this dance. There is a mystery in the dance of factory processes that is usually not what I mean when I call something “productive.” It’s the mystery of things-working-together, of whole-that-is-more-than-its-parts. And maybe it is the same mystery that is at work in a hydroponic tomato, grown in a trough of water in a hothouse—which is the same mystery at work in a Sungold cherry tomato bush lovingly tended in a small plot: the wondrous fact of a tomato’s ripening. A plain red-and-green apple (as Chesterton points out in Orthodoxy) has something in common with the golden apple in the fairy tale. And I’d add, with Apple products at their best, elegant in the way of mathematical formulas boiled down to their simple, graceful bones. Even when we can describe the chemical processes (the little machines) that fertilize the bud and let the fruit bulb ripen, producing sugars and juice and a blush on the skin, a fruit (and the part of technology that is usefulness and dance at once) reminds us that we lack the language, the science, the understanding, to explain what makes life alive. And so does technology when it is, at the same time, usefulness and dance.


Standing in the Kitchen

I work at Maxie’s Supper Club, one of Ithaca, NY’s, fine eating establishments, and I love what I do there. Every step of the way I can see what I’m accomplishing in a way that rivals – and sometimes surpasses – the pleasure of seeing word follow word onto a page. The words need work, are never done. But when we “sell” a crab cake platter (put it up for the servers to deliver to the customer), my part is done, and in a few minutes it’ll be eaten, finished, gone.

I’m new at Maxie’s, and I’m training. At some point during every shift one of my managers will say, “Ezra, you hungry?” By now they’ve heard me say a few times, “Don’t ask me that. I’m always hungry!” But my manager is telling me it’s a good time to take a break and order dinner from the kitchen.

Every time I face the decision of what to eat, I freeze up for a moment unless I’ve planned an order in advance; but I love the menu, and I love the feeling of plenty that comes from standing in the well stocked walk-in cooler, dipping into a five-gallon tub of flour or cornmeal, or watching plate after plate come off the line. Today for the first time I actually fried some of my own dinner, a horseradish potato cake. It sat under a rare tuna steak in a slightly sweet glaze, and the whole thing was delicious.

Late tonight, a couple of hours after I’d helped close and clean the line at Maxie’s, I stood in my own kitchen, thinking about a snack. How could I apply what I’ve learned about cooking at the restaurant to my own space? What could I fix for myself? In a flash I envisioned the whole Maxie's setup that is already becoming familiar to me and will soon be second nature (and second home). “Man, I should fry up some green tomatoes,” I almost thought. But it would require a shopping run. It would take an hour. It would be, let's face it, a project.

My freezer is full and my pantry is overflowing; I have a range of spices, and I have a good stove, a nice pan, pots, and so on. But the feelings of plenty and simplicity that the Maxie’s kitchen now offers elude me at home, because the simplicity and totality of the Maxie’s stock presupposes constant and massive turnover; in a word, volume. (Of course, the simplicity at Maxie's is an illusion that hangs on complex provisions management, but I’m still fairly removed from the stock lists, prep lists, and organizational aspects.) As I stood alone in my kitchen at one in the morning, trying to find a snack I both wanted and could extract from my own ingredients, I felt a gulf open between what I’m learning to do and what it would take to do it on my own.

In this way cooking is like writing. It’s one thing to cook for others in a fully stocked and professionally equipped space, to serve up surprising and tasty hot food, carefully done, in a few minutes. This is like editing, or teaching writing, or even just writing for others: “You want a paper on the symbolism of the green tomato? I’ll have it for you in the morning.” But writing for oneself is like looking in one’s own full, familiar pantry and wondering whether anything there will be good.


Berlin Wall

Berlin, 1989 to 2009

The Economist
has a sister magazine called Intelligent Life. In their web publication, I just found this brief photo essay. Seeing pieces like this makes me want to be a journalist: to have been there in 1989, photographing, and to be back in 2009, following up, with an eyewitness sense of what has happened on the ground under my feet. It also makes me realize, though, that while there's luck involved in being in the right place at the right time, good journalism is a serious commitment involving just being there for a long time, in lots of different theres or in one, patiently, with one's eyes open and often very little payoff. In fact, I wonder whether it is possible to practice journalism that is not so much about hunting down stories as about knowing a place and community and cultural reality deeply, so that one can speak intelligently and even wisely about it even if nothing "news-worthy" is happening there.

Which would make journalism much like writing in general: inspiration can't often be scheduled, but "showing up" (whether at a writing desk or camera, or in front of a book, or just by being present to your surroundings with your eyes and brain and pores open) is like maintaining an address where inspiration will know how to reach you. (This is my re-statement of an observation given by so many writers in so many versions that I don't know whom to cite. Somerset Maugham's: "I write only when inspiration strikes. Fortunately it strikes every morning at nine o'clock sharp.")

Salem, 1989

I am in the middle of the small living room. It has pale blue carpet and the walls are cluttered with pictures and shelves. In the corner there is a small TV, and the adults are clustered around it. The TV’s colors are like the colors of the room: bland, slightly bluish. It is a crowd: blurred crowd noise, blurred crowd colors. There are so many faces I can’t even make out separate heads and shoulders in the glimpses I get of the TV between the heads of my parents and my aunt and uncle. Something, I know, is happening, a category of thing that has not happened before in my memory. They are riveted, but they are not cheering. They are talking in low voices. My parents watch sports, but not with this kind of attention, and not this quietly. And there is no little yellow ball on this screen; nothing, in fact, seems to be happening.

“And to imagine this is happening now, the first time in years we’ve been out of the country for more than two months…” my dad’s voice is wry, half laughing, but also half embarrassed at the thought. And his tone is abstracted, as though he’s not actually present with the words, as though they are drawn out of him while he’s not paying attention—as though his mind needs his voice to make a foundation of sound, to give it something to stand on.


Gun Hill

In Ithaca, the hill I walked up in the morning to school, and down in the evening, is called Gun Hill. It’s named that for the enormous hulk of disused factory which sat (until this past spring) across the street from glossy apartment buildings like a transplanted piece of inner-city Detroit. I loved the building since I first saw it for its scarred face. Ithaca Guns were made there, and since production was moved away, the empty building sat on prime real estate, glowering out over Lake Cayuga, untouchable because the lead content in the building and the plot around it were so high there that no one could afford to tear it down and decontaminate the land. They figured something out, apparently, because a developer put up signs for more brick apartments, and a wrecking crew tore the building limb from limb; first the windows, then the walls, then the pillars with their steel supporting cores. When I left town, there were twin heaps of rubble under big tarps, like a massive deformed bikini top. I think the tarps were meant to keep the lead dust down.

It was fall when the building first stopped me dead in my tracks, on the way down the hill in the late afternoon—through the third-floor corner window, I could see all the way down onto the lake, bright as molten metal. The whole top corner of the building was a burning eye. On clear days I began timing my descent in hopes of catching that moment of light. I sat in front of the factory. I photographed it. I painted it. I tried to write it into a poem.

The chain-link fence around the building is (this should all be past tense but it still feels present) too easy to climb to deter anyone able-bodied and curious. The building’s insides are tattooed, painted, crusted with graffiti—stencils of the face of Edgar Allan Poe, “FATE” in black over doorways, huge rainbow bubble-words battling each other in the main ground-floor hall; on the third floor, on a patch of otherwise unmarked drywall, there are three elegant simple cartoons, and in a small side room, a whole wall lettered in hot pink French reminiscent of Rimbaud, about a fish going over a waterfall.

Two years later I’m still working on the poem. It’s nine pages long and counting. The window-eye, I’ve realized, is like the left eye of Christ in the Pantocrator icon from St. Catherine’s in Sinai. Even when I saw it first in grainy photocopy, that icon’s divided face stopped me, unsettled me, just as the factory did. Both the icon and the factory were embodiments, to me, of the connection between beauty and sorrow that Makoto Fujimura describes as the central tenet of the 15th-century Japanese aesthetic movement called mono no aware, “beauty in the pathos of things.”

Knowing What's Coming

We are familiar with the sensation that an unmentioned event or idea is hanging over a conversation, a movie, or a piece of writing. Perhaps we often feel that omitting the real topic is counterproductive, coy, or simple easy; but I’ve just finished William Styron’s fantastic story, “Rat Beach” (The New Yorker, July 20, 2009), which perfectly uses this tactic of omission.

Set in the Pacific in the late days of WWII, “Rat Beach” explicitly addresses its narrator’s fear, having by luck escaped the carnage of Iwo Jima and Okinawa, of having to lead his men in an amphibious attack on Japan. Styron brings this fear to life and carries us along as the anonymous second lieutenant finds ways of easing his fear temporarily, but finally has recourse to the comfort of planning his own suicide before he would have to face the test of battle.

From the moment that Styron identifies the event that his narrator fears, however, we see that the fear will never come to pass. “But President Truman approved the atomic strikes,” we remind ourselves. “Japan surrendered unconditionally without the amphibious assault that fills this second lieutenant with such dread.” And this is essential to the functioning of “Rat Beach” for two reasons: First, our knowing the resolution to the larger conflict prevents our feeling abandoned when the story ends with the officer’s private resolution, rather than with his finally confronting (or fatally eluding) his fear. Second, that knowledge gives the story a wholly different depth by letting us read it as an account of a life saved by the atomic bombings at Hiroshima and Nagasaki. I don’t mean that the story would be shallow without this content. Rather than calling this a new layer of depth, I suggest the analogy of a second ocean of meaning that “Rat Beach” borders.

The device of relying upon an unmentioned fact, though, also suggests a direction for experimentation (I mean in my own writing and thinking). In a story of a different genre and with different aims—a kind of science fiction, perhaps—Styron might have surprised us by bringing this character, apparently safe from his named fears, into contact with them after all. Perhaps this is part of the work that Philip Roth does in a book like The Plot Against America, but I am envisioning a more tightly honed piece that operates by the realization of an historically averted event, or the narrative deletion of an event that the reader will understand to be on its way.