Tuesday, April 28, 2015

Podcast No. 16: An Imagination Too Big for One Life (or One Name)

When an author creates a character, she can churn through as many re-writes as she'd like until she gets it right. This, of course, is in stark contrast to reality, where people get only one shot. There's no going back, no do-overs, only an inexorable march to the end.

But what if life were different? Catherine Webb, under the pen name Claire North, offers two worlds where this is possible. In The First Fifteen Lives of Harry August (2014), she introduces the reader to kalachakra, people who are reborn into the lives they've already lived. The eponymous protagonist, for example, is reborn 15 times at midnight on the cusp between 1918 and 1919.

This is both wonderful and challenging, Webb explains in her New Books interview.

"It's both liberating because he can go through his childhood knowing everything that's going to happen in coming events because he's already lived it, but it's also horrendous because he can be 5 years old on his 11th life being treated like a 5-year-old... and being forced to re-live his ABCs even though he's actually hundreds of years old."

Touch (2015) offers a different way to escape the drudgery of a single, linear life. The main character, Kepler (a moniker assigned by those trying to destroy it), can travel from body to body with a touch. This allows it to live hundreds of years, experiencing the world like a tourist on an endless trip.

Inevitably, the life of a kalachakra or a body-hopping consciousness can become tedious. Harry August struggles with apathy, having seen that whatever he achieves in one life is erased with the reset of his birth. Kepler, too, struggles to find meaning beyond its focus on survival. The ingredients which ordinary people use to measure their lives don't matter to Kepler. For one thing, it no longer has a gender because it can occupy men and women with equal ease. Nor does it have to experience even mild discomfort: whenever it encounters anything not to its liking, it can jump to another body. Even a hangnail can be enough to send it packing.

Webb herself is no stranger to multiple identities. A fan of pen names (she switches among Catherine Webb, Kate Griffin and Claire North depending on the genre and audience), she is as dexterous at changing writing styles as she is at inventing engaging characters and plots, although sometimes she's only aware of the shift in style after the fact, almost as if someone else--her own Kepler perhaps?--had done the work.

"I'm not necessarily aware consciously of a decision to write in a different style. ... The story has its own logic. I let that do the work, and then I'm surprised to turn around and discover that Kate Griffin sounds very different from Claire North."

Friday, April 24, 2015

Murals of Brownsville, Brooklyn

I spent the day in Brownsville and had a chance to visit some of the amazing murals created by teenagers in collaboration with Groundswell and other partners, including the Brownsville Community Justice Center. I was told that people often stop and photograph them, which is understandable, since they're so breathtaking, eye-catching, and each has a story to tell. I figured there was no reason why I shouldn't take my own photos as well.

Sunday, April 19, 2015

People Still Use Payphones to Communicate (Sort of)

Payphones are still part of the street flora in New York City although I never see anyone using them--at least not to make phone calls. They get more use these days as public bulletin boards, attracting flyers, graffiti, and stickers (and stickers with graffiti), like the one below.

The notion of "payphone" will one day pass into history, and with it the memory of a way of life when people weren't connected to the world and everyone they knew via a touch screen in their pockets. 

These days I hate to carry change, and try to avoid it by always using a credit card, but in the 1980s and 1990s, pay phones made carrying coins a necessity. Once when I needed to make a call and didn't have the 20 cents, I asked a passing couple if they could give me change for a dollar. Seeing that I needed to make a call, they handed me a quarter and said, "Keep it." I was amazed and tried to press the dollar on them, but they refused it with a laugh. 

Twenty cents may seem insignificant but the act of giving wasn't. I thanked them profusely, but I've realized since that it wasn't just a quarter they gave me. They also gave me a conviction that people have the capacity to be kind and generous, and you might never know in advance when or how someone will come to your aid. The fact that I remember that brief interaction from 25 years ago speaks to the lasting impression it made.

Saturday, April 11, 2015

'We Invented Social Security & We're Proud'

More often than not Social Security and other safety-net programs get a bad rap. Politicians and reporters call them "entitlements"--which sounds derogatory to me--and popular wisdom says they'll need to be curtailed or they'll eventually break the federal budget. But there's no hint of doom and gloom on Bascom Hill, where this sign proudly proclaims University of Wisconsin Professor Edwin Witte's role in the development of Social Security. And this bold declaration is within sight of the Capitol Building, where Scott Walker, enemy of labor unions and public education, is trying to leverage his governorship into a presidential candidacy. Fortunately, Social Security has lasted longer than the careers of many nay-saying politicians and hopefully will continue to help government secure "the well-being of its citizens" for many years to come.

Thursday, April 2, 2015

Past, Present & Future of Brownsville, Brooklyn

My day job brought me to Brownsville, Brooklyn, today, where I met several life-long residents who shared stories about the neighborhood, past, present and future.

Among the people I met was a grandmother, who talked about learning to swim and sew at the Brownsville Recreation Center and playing games and going to dances at the various community centers in the local housing projects. In those days, anyone could go to any of the community centers, but today, many of the community centers have closed, and those that remain offer fewer activities. Worst of all, the projects where they are housed are divided by rivalries, so that it’s no longer safe for “outsiders” (i.e., someone from another housing project) to walk through them. Projects have their own gangs, or “teams” as one person called them, which zealously guard their territories.

Only a few places are considered neutral, like the Recreation Center and the Brownsville Community Justice Center, which many hope is in the process of inspiring change. The Justice Center has created innovative programs for youth, including art and design workshops, a peer-led youth court and job preparation. The Justice Center is actively trying to change the narrative of Brownsville from the one fueled by media, which habitually portrays the neighborhood as a place of high crime, high poverty, and dense public housing, to one that emphasizes its strengths, like its large, supportive family networks, its many citizens who care deeply about its future, and the vast potential of the its young people, who eagerly grab onto any positive social or learning activity whenever it is offered.

The mural above is the result of one of those activities. Located at the Brownsville Student Farm Project, the mural was created jointly by young people under the supervision of the Groundswell Community Mural Project and Brownsville Community Justice Center. It's one of several murals they've helped young people bring to fruition throughout the community.

This little toy was minding its own business on a window ledge outside one of the Justice Center's offices.