Archive for August, 2010
I do a lot of reading. I’m a reader, what can I say! I read at work, I read when I get home. I read books, I read newspapers, I read blogs, I read magazines. I write about reading magazines. It would only make sense for me to write about what I read in those magazines. And I wanted to! I had a plan and all for a running feature, where I would link to a piece of long form narrative journalism, and highlight the attributes that I consider to be truly masterful. I was going to call it “The Craft.” But then, for all the usual reasons (foremost among them my insecurity about being able to actually comment intelligibly about what makes a piece of journalism actually good), I spiked the project. A secondary reason, though, was the problem of volume. It seemed like every week, I was adding another story or two to the pile of pieces I just had to write about. This led me to doubt my own judgment; ALL of these stories couldn’t be THAT good, could they? Maybe! But the fact remains, I couldn’t have written about one and ignored all the others (and let’s not kid ourselves, precious readers. I just don’t have the discipline to write more than one lengthy post a week about anything, let alone a smart piece of journalism.) So I scrapped the idea.
Then I came across a story that blew me away. The printout came to 22 pages, but by the third one, I knew this story was going to be something special. How did I know? Because it passed what I’m deciding to call, in homage to David Foster Wallace’s opus, the “Infinite Test.” I might be the only person who feels this way, but there are a few reactions that I get when I’m reading a bit of prose. A bad story, I’ll just let go, maybe without even finishing it, because meh. A good story, I’ll blow through as fast as I can, because I want to see how it ends! But a great story? Well, a great story, I’ll read a little slower, draw out a little longer. Partially to savor it, but moreso because I want to spend as much time as I can with more left to read. The piece is called “A Pigeon in Piketon,” by Geoffrey Sea, from the Winter 2004 issue of The American Scholar, and it took me three days to read. On its face, it’s a story about the infamous eradication of the passenger pigeon at the turn of the last century. Sea travels to Piketon, Ohio, where the last passenger pigeon ever seen in the wild was shot on March 22, 1900. A story about the passenger pigeon—a story of hubris and folly—would have been worth reading on its own, and indeed, Sea handles the subject of extinction with the reverence it deserves:
The passing of the passenger pigeon in a cascade of folly, brutality, and denial that stands as the exemplar of extinction made by man is, on the one hand, an episode in discretionary history: a causal chain of casual choices that seemingly could have been broken by any minimally decent decision at any marginally opportune time.
On the other hand, it’s an exercise in predestination . . . When the forest expanse of beech and hemlock and sycamore gave way to defended fields of corn and tobacco, the fix was in—a catastrophe itself bound up with those vast historical complexes that we call the American and Industrial and Agricultural Revolutions. And so we might follow backward, arbitrarily far, the infernal workings of the machinery of fate, until we’d say that the passenger pigeon was damned or (the same thing) doomed before the first bird ever flew.
But when Sea visited Piketon, it wasn’t just as a writer and pigeon historian: it was as a consultant to the union that represented workers at the Portsmouth Gaseous Diffusion Plant, one of the largest facilities for the enrichment of weaponized uranium in the world. With deftness, Sea traces the historical and, for want of a better term, poetic synchronicity between Americans and the passenger pigeon, a species that was wiped clean from the face of the earth at the place where we came closest to planting the seeds of our own destruction.
It’s an incredibly rich story. In the process of telling the twin narratives of the last days of the passenger pigeon and the last days of the Piketon uranium enrichment plant, Sea gives a series of lessons in American history, geology, anthropology, ecology, physics, chemistry, technology, war, and language. I could block quote any of a dozen portions from the story here to illustrate the education that Sea endeavors to provide, but I really think you’re better served coming across them on your own. You might consider this to be a poor sell-job, but if you’ve ever believed me about anything, precious readers, believe me about this: you will learn something by the time you’re done with this story.
If I were to actually give this story the “Craft” treatment, I’d say that what sets “A Pigeon in Piketon” apart is Sea’s facility as a ship’s captain. Over the course of 22 pages, he takes the reader down every possible tributary of history, science, and psychology. The confluence, though, always ends up being the Sargents Grain Mill in southern Ohio, where 10 years ago one of the greatest engines of doom that man has ever envisioned finally wound down, and 100 years before that the only passenger pigeon on earth, in a hail of birdshot, breathed its last.
I dunno, guys. I thought it was a great story. I hope you do too.
“They naturally called it a wild pigeon, as they called us wild men. . . . If the Great Spirit could have created a more elegant bird in plumage, form, and movement, He never did.” —Chief Pokagon
There’s a great couple lines in Douglas Adams’s Mostly Harmless, the concluding fifth installment in the unaptly named Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy trilogy. It’s from a scene where the series’ protagonist Arthur Dent is coming to grips with his place in the universe now that Earth has been destroyed:
The available worlds looked pretty grim. They had little to offer him because he had little to offer them. He had been extremely chastened to realize that although he originally came from a world which had cars and computers and ballet and Armagnac, he didn’t, by himself, know how any of it worked. He couldn’t do it. Left to his own devices he couldn’t build a toaster. He could just about make a sandwich and that was it. There was not a lot of demand for his services.
In that spirit, I’ll pass along this link, containing a .gif that shows you how a sewing machine works. Look at it! How amazing is that!
Sorry, gang. I got into a serious mood to clean up tonight, and I didn’t want to lose momentum. The bad news: the long post I wanted to write tonight didn’t get written. The good news: my desk is finally clean! Here are some cool/interesting things for you to look at.
# I’m always interested in stories by writers who bond with their families over Giants games, but as I was reading this one I sort of felt it was falling short. And yet by the end, I had managed to get a piece of dust in both my eyes. So I don’t know. Just judge for yourself.
# Regular readers of Dangerous, Dirty, and Unfun know about my staunch belief that parking is the hub on which the entire urban experience rests. Here’s another Times piece, this time about the perils of free parking. Expect more of this from your favorite blogger.
# Boston has a lot of squares. Would you believe that not all of them are square-shaped?
If you know what I’m talking about, you know what I’m talking about.
I spent the weekend in sunny Luddington, Michigan, at the wedding of my dear friend Michelle and her new husband Rob. (You’ll remember Michelle as the gal who is responsible for your favorite blog’s name. Without her, you’d probably be reading my second name choice, timmysblogismorepowerfulthangalactusthelivingtribunalandthemadtitanthanoscombined.net.) It was a delightful weekend. Since I’m not really great at expressing mushy feelings of gratitude and joy, I’ll let it suffice to say that I have them and will instead give you my thoughts on some of the extraneous, though still noteworthy, elements of the trip.
# Firstly, the beer. As soon I showed up, I tried an IPA brewed by the Jamesport Brewing Company, which operates a great brewpub in downtown Luddington. It was very tasty! Although probably not so tasty that I can remember its charms four days later. So oh well?
What I DO remember is the beer on tap at the wedding: Oberon, a summer beer produced by Bell’s Brewery down in Kalamazoo. This stuff was great: a little heftier than your usual wheat beer, with a slight orange taste at the front of your mouth, a little bit of spice in the back, and a sunshiney essence in every sip. I can’t stop raving about this stuff. (I also don’t think it’s a coincidence that this excellent beer AND America’s Greatest Hero, Derek Jeter, hail from the same town. Just saying!) It’s distributed primarily in the Midwest, unfortunately, although Nick, the Official Philadelphia Correspondent of Dangerous, Dirty, and Unfun, reports that he’s seen a sixer of it at the store down the block from him. Lucky guy!
# On occasion since I’ve been writing this blog, I’ve presented you with a few great ideas in action. Here is perhaps the greatest one I’ve ever come across.
It was an outdoor wedding, so there was a fancy trailer hitched out back with a men’s room and a ladies’ room. Regular readers of Dangerous, Dirty, and Unfun know I have the bladder of an infant, so it wasn’t long before I was in there, making use of the facilities. Once I was done, I go to reach for the flush, but there was no handle. Hmm? I look around, and I see that attached to the bottom of the toilet is a pedal. A foot-flush pedal. So I pressed it, the toilet flushed, and I was good to go.
The question is, why doesn’t every toilet in every public place have one of these!
The entire bathroom microbe safety system is predicated on two hopes: that people don’t whiz all over themselves, and that everyone washes their hands. This obviously isn’t too much to ask, but people routinely fail on either, or both, counts. What the foot pedal does is eliminate one of the major grossness vectors: if everyone is pressing with their feet, their hands are free to not be engrossened by a flushing handle. The handle on the door to the bathroom is still and issue, but you have to admit, eliminating any contact your hands have with any part of the toilet is a big plus! Let’s get these installed in every bar in town!
# Have you ever heard a song, but for the life of you, you couldn’t figure out the name? Maybe it’s on a commercial or in a movie, and you don’t have an opportunity to find out what the title is. I’ve had one for years. I remember seeing one of those TV-order oldies compilations one time that included it, but I never caught the title. Then I would hear it in some random movie, and it would bug the hell out of me. Infuriating.
I’m at my table, enjoying some appetizers, and the awesome country music band that Michelle’s folks found performed my song. I’m thrilled, obviously. Once they’re done, the singer asks “Does anyone know the name of that song?” And immediately, I hear someone say “‘Sleepwalk,’ by Santo and Johnny.” Yes! That’s it! Give it a listen, and you’ll immediately recognize it.
# I took some pictures, also, which I wanted to include in this post. Of the IPA I mentioned earlier. Of Lake Michigan (you can’t see the Wisconsin side from the Michigan side! It’s a lake!) Of a sign from a Tea Party Republican Congressional candidate. Of the Luddington High School wrestling team t-shirt I bought at a fundraiser. But Wordpress isn’t letting me put them in this post! Your loss!
Anyway, congratulations, Michelle and Rob, and thanks for a great weekend! (They’re two of my precious readers, so I know they’ll see this. That’s part of the bargain, guys: if you feed me steaks and beer, you’ll get a post about your wedding. I do what I can.)
Listen to Will Dailey sing a song about my beloved former neighborhood.
I have no problem saying that if you object to the construction of Cordoba House, it’s up to you to explain how you aren’t a bigot and that you actually believe in the Constitution of the United States
However, comma, if you’re interested in actually learning a little something about local zoning and construction issues in New York City, instead of just recklessly exploiting them for political gain, I definitely recommend this lengthy New York Times report, from the fifth anniversary of September 11, titled “The Hole in the City’s Heart.” It’s old, but it should give you a good flavor of the concrete problems involved in building anything near Ground Zero.
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