Archive for the ‘In Memoriam’ category

Wha’d You Bring Him In Here For?

April 20, 2014

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Sad news:

Rubin “Hurricane” Carter, the former boxing champion whose conviction for a triple murder was overturned after he served nearly 20 years in prison, has died of prostate cancer. Carter, whose story inspired a Bob Dylan song and a Denzel Washington film, was 76.

Too soon gone; too much life stolen.

Carter fought the good fight — long after his days in the ring were taken from him:

He was active in the movement to free wrongfully convicted prisoners, reports Jon Kalish for our Newscast unit.

“There are far more people who are wrongly convicted than people would like to think about,” Carter said of his activism. “And this is my work because people came to help me when I was in dire need of help.”

Those who talk of post-racial America forget too easily, I think, how ferociously state violence was employed to enforce racial hierarchy here.  For a different story that conveys this, check out Devil in the Grove, and consider how long the sheriff at the heart of the judicial murders documented there held on to terrifying local power.  It’s a little less explicit now — but those days aren’t all gone yet, not by a long shot.  That’s why, in part, Carter’s post prison cause could keep him so fully occupied.

But for now, let us remember Rubin Carter himself.  A 20th century American life.

R.I.P.

Image:  George Bellows, Both Members of This Club, 1909.

Good One

December 13, 2013

The Soweto Gospel Choir and a local Woolworths got together to organize this Mandela tribute/remembrance:

(Lyrics and translation.) (h/t GOS)

Gotta have something of an anecdote antidote to all the crap out there, and this is it for me today.

Enjoy.

Redemption Singing…

February 7, 2013

Bob-Marley-in-Concert_Zurich_05-30-80

Lots of people die young, as the news daily tells us (and as many here, myself included, know from deep personal experience.)

The deaths of strangers don’t strike home in the same way as those of people close to us, of course.  There’s a kind of disembodied quality to any sorrow, a regret at the abstraction of lost years, lost human experience.  But I feel a barb that lodges within a particular vein of sadness — or perhaps better, regret — when a musician’s voice goes dumb too soon.

The reason is pretty obvious.  Mark Knopfler (happily very much still with us) nailed it, I think (about 8:50 in): “…songs are milestones for people in their lives; they use them. They use them to live with.”

I’ve been moved by lots of songs, singers, players.  But I can think of few — none really — who combined the power of music itself with the rush that came with utter, marvelous strangeness that I encountered late in high school when first heard this.

That was (I think — it’s been a while) Bob Marley’s first big hit to chart beyond Jamaica.  I know that it is almost a cliche now — and there are other songs in his catalogue that probably move me more.  But try to imagine hearing that for the first time after a steady diet of (often great) straight rock and roll.  Skull shrapnel ain’t in it; it truly blew one’s mind.

Marley’s suffered a fairly common post-mortem fate for iconic figures:  he’s been mythologized out of recognition.  Gone is the radical, redemptive, political, demanding man who explained why he made it on stage for a concert in support of Michael Manley two days after being shot, saying, “The people who are trying to make this world worse aren’t taking a day off. How can I?”  Now, too often, Marley has become an almost generic figure of benevolence, which is too bad, because I don’t believe he ever lost the sense that there is something of a Manichaean struggle to be waged against those who (still) act to make this world worse.

But this is certain: Marley broke through any niche ceiling to become the first (that I can think of) truly global musical voice to come from what used to be called the Third World.  For that alone, he has had more to do in shaping the landmarks of people’s lives, to give them songs — and a sense of the world within those songs — that we use to live our lives.  Forty years or so on from his breakout, we’ve grown so much richer in our musical lives, sounds from anywhere weaving through our culture, our headphones, one pair of ears at a time.  I won’t go so far as to say that Bob Marley makes Barack Obama possible — but the demographic shift that so troubles the latter-day Republican Party is not simply political.  It’s incomprehensible, I think, to many who came of age in the last twenty or thirty years to know how transformative it was to hear other voices — and not simply as a novelty, or some in-group marker of cool found in a few basements in college towns.  Marley was HUGE from the 70s, and stayed so after his death.

Now his music is the stuff of the shrinking pool of oldies radio — except of course, that his influence and that of his 60s and 70s reggae comrades shoots through our current musical culture.

But even so — it’s hard not to wonder what he could have sung and said if he had managed to beat the cancer that got him in 1981, when he was all of thirty six years old.

Bob Marley would have been sixty eight yesterday.

Bonus full concert (complete w. a fifteen minute bonus opening by Dick Gregory that truly captures some of the deep strangeness of the late 1970s. Trust me; it was far wierder than I can hold in mind most times. This concert, btw, at Harvard Stadium (!) occurred while I was still in college — which means that I could have been there. That’s a regret I’ve nurtured since the day-of):

Image: Bob Marley in concert in Zurich, May 30, 1980

In Memoriam, Aaron Swartz

January 12, 2013

Aaron Swartz committed suicide yesterday.

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Swartz was a prodigy computer science whiz (co-developer of RSS — at 14) and information-should-be-free activist who was facing up to 35 years in jail for downloading the JSTOR archive of about 4.8 million documents.

From The New York Times:

Mr. Swartz was 26, and his death was due to suicide. His body was found by his girlfriend in his apartment in New York, his uncle, Michael Wolf, said on Saturday. He had apparently hanged himself, Mr. Wolf said.

…Cory Doctorow, a science fiction author and an online activist, posted a tribute to Mr. Swartz on the blog he co-edits, BoingBoing.

…Of the indictment, he said, “The fact that the U.S. legal apparatus decided he belonged behind bars for downloading scholarly articles without permission is as neat an indictment of our age — and validation of his struggle — as you could ask for.”

…On Wednesday JSTOR announced that it would open its archives for 1,200 journals to free reading by the public on a limited basis.

Swartz had previously written about the vicious embrace depression could wrap around him, so his death cannot be reducded to a decision  “to take arms against a sea of troubles And by opposing end them” — not that it ever is (say I, as someone whose family has been very hard it by the pathology of depressive illness).

But I will say that whatever miseries led Swartz to this end, I am sorry indeed to live in a society where the crime of stealing  articles on 18th century monetary policy (inter alia, of course) is treated more harshly than the non-offense of terrorizing a public street through the display of firearms.

Last word: As Doctorow told the Times, we have lost someone to be missed.

Swartz, he wrote via email, was“uncompromising, principled, smart, flawed, loving, caring, and brilliant. The world was a better place with him in it.”

ETA:  Cory Doctorow’s remembrance over at BoingBoing is very much worth a read.  He knew and felt deeply for Swartz, and captures some of the spark there, and provides as well a sober and fair-minded account of the various woes that may have ensnared his friend.  Fallows also has good thoughts.

Image: Aaron Swartz at a Creative Commons event, 13 December 2008.

It’s Too Hot To Blog Plus Bonus Kitteh And The Obligatory Link To Charlie Pierce

May 26, 2012

Ponderous here in the Hub of the Universe.  Hot, humid — summer in May.

I’m trying to recover and get a bit done while the munchkin naps.

But as I make my move, what do I find at my desk?

This:

I’m guessing Tikka is saying “Don’t even think about working today.”

Not bad advice, actually.

As for the ritual nod in Charles Pierce’s direction…Charlie has written a truly fine Memorial Day piece.  A sample, his conclusion:

On Memorial Day, when I visit the family plots in the old cemetery in Worcester when they’ve planted my forebears, I always wander over to one of the older sections where lie interred the veterans of the Grand Army Of The Republic, row after row of those round, generic tablets, each of them weathered and indistinguishable now from all the others. Memorial Day, after all, is a product of their war. Abraham Lincoln presaged it in the peroration of his magnificent Second Inaugural Address:

With malice toward none; with charity for all; with firmness in the right, as God gives us to see the right, let us strive on to finish the work we are in; to bind up the nation’s wounds; to care for him who shall have borne the battle, and for his widow, and his orphan-to do all which may achieve and cherish a just, and a lasting peace, among ourselves, and with all nations.

After Lincoln’s murder, the spirit of his remarks took hold in curious ways. On May 1, 1865, freed black slaves gathered to honor the Union prisoners who’d been buried in unmarked graves at the Charleston Race Course in South Carolina. Elsewhere, in the South, what was first known as Decoration Day became essential to the Lost Cause mythology that became so destructive to the descendants of those freedmen who’d honored the Union dead in Charleston. Supporting The Troops always has been a more complicated business than applauding at the ballpark.

The whole essay is more than worth your time.

With that — it’s all yours. What’s on for your holiday weekend?

Just One Moment to Remember…June 6, 1944.

June 6, 2011

Because there are things that happened in the world before most of us were born, a belated remembrance of the longest day:

H/t for a reminder of the date to Paul Krugman, whose pun on this I cannot top.

Images: Chief Photographer’s Mate (CPHOM) Robert F. Sargent, U.S. Coast Guard, official U.S. Coast Guard photograph, 6 June 1944.

The build-up of Omaha Beach. Reinforcements of men and equipment moving inland. SC193082 {PD-USGov-Military}

Photograph by Taylor, American assault troops of the 3rd Battalion, 16th Infantry Regiment, 1st Infantry Division, injured while storming Omaha Beach, wait by the Chalk Cliffs for evacuation to a field hospital for further medical treatment. Colleville-sur-Mer, Normandy, France, 6 June 1944.

Tristan Nitot, The Omaha Beach Cemetery, aka World War II Normandy American Cemetery and Memorial, near Colleville-sur-mer in Normandy, France

A Joyful Voice Stilled: RIP Peter Gomes

March 1, 2011

I got an email this morning telling me that the most purely wonderful voice in Cambridge is now silent.

Peter Gomes died yesterday, of complications from a stroke.

He was sixty eight — younger than I would have guessed, for he seemed somehow outside of time — and much too young to be gone.

As I think I’ve said before, I’m a committedly Jewish atheist, and so the loss a Baptist minister — Peter’s full title at Harvard University was Plummer Professor of Christian Morals and Pusey Minister in Memorial Church  —  whose services I never attended might seem of little moment personally.

Acquaintances die; famous people die, and we note each loss as a marker of time passing; the sadness we might feel could simply be the chill on the back of our necks felt as the loss of those not-quite-known anticipates that moment when we must answer the call.

But with Peter, it’s not that.

I did not know him well, but like a lot of people, I think, I found it very well indeed to know him.  In the decades since we first met I learned not just to enjoy his company — that was easy, for he was an absolute beast (in the best possible sense) of sociablility, a grand companion and an extraordinary artist of conversation — but to admire who he was and what he did in the world.

I (again, like many others) owe Peter a personal debt of gratitude.  We met first in my junior year of college when he led the wedding of a couple of friends.  We happened to sit at the same table for the wedding lunch, and we talked, and he asked me what I hoped to do after graduating.  I wanted to travel, I told him, and in particular I wanted to go to places where I would be absolutely unmistakeably an Other, an outsider and a not-much valued one, because I wanted to learn how to step outside at least a little the envelope of American white, male, fancily-educated status.  I planned to go to Japan, I told him, then Number 1, according to my department head, where there would be no doubt that I would be a possibly slightly pitied someone else.

Peter listened — I can’t imagine with what internal sense of irony as an gay African-American Baptist who had somehow managed to overcome the booby traps and ambushes that Harvard University can deploy.   He gave me some advice…and then, when he turned up, months later and unexpectedly on a committee awarding travel grants to (as I remember it now) unbelievably callow seniors, he elicited my story again, then impressed upon his fellow committee members what he saw as the merit of my application.  I got the fellowship; went to Asia; started first writing, then science writing; and thus found a life-long (so far) delight that others call work.

I thanked him many times after that.  But on a day like this, it seems I never quite said it well enough.  It’s the nature of these things, I suppose.

In the three decades since, I would see Peter here and there. I moved back to the Boston area a few years after my travels, and once there, found myself at lunch with him fairly often.  That’s where I learned to call him Peter, rather than Rev. Gomes, sitting at a table with a half dozen or so folks, where, over a two hour meal and conversation, the Rev. Gomes would draw out and offer given  — he might have said Christian — names.

The talk would move around the table, though often I’d simply surrender to that wonderful sound, and listen to Peter declaim.  He loved to talk, and he had a lot to talk about, and he had that voice.

Have I mentioned his voice?

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His was a bass instrument, resonant.  It had all the power you would want in the bottom range — but also strong overtones a good way up, a voice that could both ground you and cut through the clutter and distraction of the inside of one’s head.  He was a famous pulpit preacher, but at table he could pitch his volume low, and sound almost miraculously as if he were both declaiming and confiding.  He spoke in round sentences, with pleasure in the music of words.  He was, simply, a grand talker.

All this of course, dodges around the blunt, beautiful fact that Peter Gomes was a public man and a good one.

It’s true that part of why this Jewish atheist so misses him — already — is that I loved that his very person gave the lie to the worst mock-religionists and bigots of our public life:

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There he was, an African American spiritual leader of one of the most elite, mostly white congregations in America.  He was gay.  He believed utterly in his God and in his saviour — and he was wise enough to read in scripture the meanings that celebrated rather than condemned his person and his life. He accepted the wages of rage and invective that his words and his existence sometimes evoked.  He found the best revenge:  a life both well lived and deeply enjoyed.

Again:  his faith I never shared. I argued with him when I thought he was poaching — he spoke at an Aspen  conference where I’d been asked to talk a bit on Einstein, and I told him then that I did not buy his particular path through the science-faith minefield.

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He parried with enormous gusto, and a bit of that gift of ironic amusement I’d felt before, because, I think, to him the urgent task was to find ways to be of use and value to others and one’s self.  Which is to say that, at least as we talked, we converged on the view that the point of doing religion was not to buy a ticket on God’s train, but to act well enough in this world so that were such a train to come, you’d be able to get on board.  I believe he simply saw the science-religion wars as rather missing that point, which is a view I agree with in the abstract, though I regret that the faux religiousity of the anti-science crowd among us now makes it almost impossible to escape that particular battle.

Peter had flaws; he was, as the rest of us are, hardly a perfect human.

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But the measure of the man is that he used his public position to preach with firmness in the right as his God gave him to see the right.  He self-described as conservative, but undertook radical action and argument as required — famously coming out publicly in 1991 when incidents of gay bashing at Harvard evoked his sense of duty:

“I don’t like being the main exhibit, but this was an unusual set of circumstances, in that I felt I had a particular resource that nobody else there possessed.”

He was radical too, in his claim that a commitment to Jesus demanded something more than mere fandom.  In an interview on NPR on 2007, he said:

The scandal is the fact that we seem to pay so little attention to the content of Jesus’ teaching and a great deal of attention to Jesus.

So I am proposing here that we might, in fact, look at what Jesus says, rather than who it is that says it, and that might be exciting, and we might find something, by our modern standards, which is rather scandalous.

…I mean, if you look at Jesus in the New Testament, you will discover that he spends almost a disproportionate amount of time with the people who were on the fringes of his society.

And so, if he came back today, we might wonder, who are the people on the fringes of our society with whom he would be spending time? And my guess is he wouldn’t be spending time with most of us who are at church all of the time. I don’t think he’d be spending time with most of the theologians or the radio or TV evangelists.

I think he’d be spending time with those people whom we tend to marginalize. He’d still be spending time with the prostitutes. I think he’d be spending time with minorities of every kind — racial and sexual and others — and I think we might be surprised to discover that nothing on that point has changed, as far as Jesus is concerned.

…Do we practice these things [love thy neighbor, etc.] among people who are very much like ourselves, which tends to be what the church does? Or are we meant to practice them among everybody? And that means people who don’t vote as we do, or who don’t look as we do, or who don’t live where we do, who don’t share all of our values.

It’s Jesus who redefines who the “other” is. There is no other, as far as Jesus is concerned.

I don’t speak Jesus-speak; I don’t go to church; I’m rarely in synagogue these days.  But I get the meaning of what Peter said here in his terms.  It translates just fine into mine.

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I hadn’t seen Peter for at least a couple of years when I got the news this morning.  The last time I ran into him in Harvard Square he told me to rejoin the lunch group I’d left years ago; there was always more to talk about.  I planned to, and I told him I would, but being a father, trying to grab time with my wife, writing, students, moving house, cats to the vet…you know the tune.  It didn’t matter.  The Rev. Gomes was made of granite, and the mighty river of his voice ran through it.  He would be there when I had time.

And now he is not; Peter Gomes is dead, much too soon.

RIP.

Image:  Claude Monet, The Lunch, c. 1874


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