Wednesday, 8 May 2013 • 0 comments
Apologies for the staleness hereabouts; my nose has been to the grindstone. I hope to have more exciting news and updates this summer. Meantime:
Megafauna Extinctions. Another nail in the coffin of the overkill hypothesis: “a scientific review has found fewer than 15 of the 90-odd giant species in Australia and New Guinea still existed by the time people arrived.” As in the Americas, climate change is suspected. Fingers still point to human responsibility in the extinction of New Zealand’s moa, however, just as Paleo-Indians probably played a role in pushing stressed mammoths over the edge.
Albert Camus. The first full English translation of his Algerian Chronicles recasts Camus solidly as an Algerian writer, not a French one, a man who wrote explicitly about his birthplace and shared little in common with Parisian intellectuals.
Herman Melville’s House. Arrowhead, the Massachusetts home where Melville wrote Moby-Dick and “Bartleby, the Scrivener,” is undergoing renovations to return it to a closer approximation of its appearance circa 1870. The addition of the porch is odd since it was built after Melville moved out.
Wednesday, 17 April 2013 • 0 comments
Mrs. Kuhl’s attendance was required at a conference in Boston, so the boys and I tagged along to experience Patriots’ Day, enjoy the museums, and give what support we could to the marathoners.
We arrived Sunday afternoon and parked in the Copley Square area. The boys like visiting the original Newbury Comics, and afterwards we walked over to the New Balance store on Boylston where I bought a pair of 990s. There’s a special kind of voltaic excitement generated by a big race and though neither of us was registered, it was energizing to be around the runners in their blue-and-yellow windbreakers, collecting their bibs and convention swag in their yellow Adidas bags. We walked past the finishing gate packed with people taking their pictures underneath, past the empty stands, to the store directly across from Copley Square. Runners were buying last-minute necessities — gloves were in hot demand. We wished anyone and everyone good luck. Afterwards we walked through the square, past the white tents and office trailers to the car.
All the boys wanted from the trip was to parkour Boston — which, it must be admitted, is a very parkourable city. So Monday morning the boys and I parkoured or walked, as the case may be, over to the Old North Church to see the reenactment of Paul Revere’s ride to Concord.
After lunch at Quincy Market, we parkoured down the Greenway to the Children’s Museum.
It was right after we had gone back to the hotel for a swim when the Twitters alerted me to the bombings. I left the traceurs with Mrs. Kuhl, strapped on my serious sneakers, and black-smoked over to photograph what I could.
I love Boston; it’s so much more navigable and compact than, say, New York. I can blink my eyes and go from the Aquarium to the corner of Commonwealth and Dartmouth, almost two miles away. Runners in their foil wraps streamed down Marlborough, away from the square. None looked especially hurt or traumatized.
Commonwealth and Dartmouth was cordoned off but I backtracked to Clarendon and then through judicious use of the Public Alley, which parallels Newbury, and a private alley, which goes perpendicular, arrived at Newbury and Dartmouth, deserted except for police, a Fox 25 van, and just a few passersby. I spoke to a man coming out of his girlfriend’s apartment building on the corner. He said they had heard an explosion which shook the walls. They were running to the window when the second occurred, within seconds of the first. They stood and watched as people shuttled survivors, some with their limbs gone, along Boylston in the wheelchairs intended for exhausted runners. He said there was a lot of blood. He was clearly very shaken by what he had seen.
The cops manning the barricades had no information, so again I backtracked to Berkeley, where I merged with the general marathon bustle. The runners’ bags were laid out, ready to be retrieved.
From there I made my way south, west, and north to arrive in Copley Square itself, behind the barricades and next to Trinity Church. It was empty except for a few police and EMTs. I toyed with the idea of continuing to Boylston to photograph the damage. But I reasoned there wasn’t much to see beyond carnage and gore, and it would be distracting to investigators if they had to chase after some jackass who had, somewhat unintentionally, penetrated a hole in their perimeter. I never know if I’m taking too many pictures or not enough. So I walked south on Dartmouth, slipping outside the barricade, to Stuart.
I hung around the area, asking questions, but nobody knew anything. At one point my phone service died; people said police had turned off cell service to prevent remote detonations, but as we later found out, it was because the systems crashed from overuse. I went to a hotel and charged my phone while riding their wifi. I returned to Dartmouth and Stuart. Emergency vehicles continued to zoom around. State police arrived. Police in camouflage and tactical gear jogged along the street. A finisher, silver cape clutched at her throat, discussed her experience.
I don’t wear headphones when I run, she was saying. I like to be alone and just listen to my body.
Runners. We are all prophets in the desert of the mile.
Eventually I headed back to my hotel, through the banana peels and foil tumbleweeds and garbage of a marathon’s end zone, past cops armed with rifles on street corners, past at least a dozen Mass State Police assembled in front of the State House.
So what does this mean for road racing? For big races like marathons? Bystanders segregated from the course? Security in and out of start/finishing areas, photo IDs, no more garbage cans? Do you know how much trash runners create?
Three dead, over a hundred injured, at least one double amputee — I don’t want to diminish the pain and sacrifices endured by the survivors. But at the same time, I don’t want to give the attackers too much credit. Without listing the reasons why and thereby granting column inches to the latest issue of Inspire, this could have been much worse. The culprits clearly know nothing about road races, and that same ignorance will probably hoist them on their own petard (the FBI has already received thousands of photos from the most photographed fifty yards of the entire course). The explosives appear to be fairly primitive — IEDs, or as a maritime historian might call them, deck sweepers — made with easily procurable components. I suspect that when they catch them, the bad guys will turn out to be one or two men, Faisal Shahzad types: that is, low-level jokers (Shahzad himself, who badly wanted to join jihad, was rebuffed by al-Qaeda affiliates in Pakistan because they thought he was an American spy; they finally gave him basic bomb-making training just to get rid of him). I mean, who thinks they’re going to provoke mass casualties by attacking marathoners? They already have the constitutional fortitude to run over 26 miles. Can you imagine? Half-crazed with euphoria and agony, heads full of endorphins and testosterone, if the police hadn’t ended the race, the wounded would have dragged themselves across the finish; meanwhile the runners halted at Kenmore, even after being told there was a chance of more bombs, still would have proceeded straight into the maelstrom. Look at the video. The explosion occurs and the runners don’t stop.
Because they’re tougher than you.
Put another way: this is no conspiracy orchestrated by some Saudi Fu Manchu in a Pakistani compound. Foreign or domestic, Islamist or lone wolf, the person or people who did this believed it would be bigger than it was. It was an unsophisticated plan using simple methods by outliers looking for attention, for whatever reason. The devil’s best friend, someone who offended all — this was done by losers. Losers hate winners. And anyone who crosses a marathon finish, regardless of their time, is sure as hell tolerant of pain and surprises.
Which is why the 2013 Boston Marathon shouldn’t affect road races. There is no insulator conceived that can dampen the electricity coursing through runners’ veins. Don’t fret about the garbage cans, throw away your bag checks. We’ll show up anyway, bibs safety-pinned to our shirts and singlets, ready to bend and flow over the landscape. Keep your hassles. Mrs. Kuhl is already planning to run Boston for charity in 2014. I’m registered for a few races this year; after Monday, I intend to add more. A bunch more.
Good luck, Boston. Love you. Stay safe. Blue and yellow.
London: kick ass this weekend.
Friday, 5 April 2013 • 0 comments
Mrs. Kuhl expressed surprise upon seeing the fantastic cover of this month’s Calliope, in particular to the “POWs Meet Their Captors” blurb. The story examines three different experiences during World War II: those of German POWs in England, German POWs in the US, and of Japanese-Americans in American internment camps. Her shock is why I adore Calliope — it’s not the pablum like Time For Kids they shovel at my sons’ school.
The entire issue explores such differing perspectives of and within history. Also inside are letters from Pliny and Trajan regarding early Christians, a story about the racism that surrounded the archaeology of Great Zimbabwe, conflicting theories about the peopling of Polynesia, and the arguments that led to the Civil War. I round out the issue by describing some of the comparatively mild disagreements over which sports should be included in the Olympics.
You can purchase a subscription to Calliope at Amazon.
Tuesday, 12 March 2013 • 1 comment
Over at the WSJ, Kevin Sintumuang tells the story of a young man — a young man who goes backpacking through Europe only to return with terrible photos. Get out of my memory hole, Kevin Sintumuang!
In my quest for frame-worthy shots, I came away with a handful of boring ones: A street. A bridge. A church tower. An empty field. Another church tower. … But years later, flipping through the mix of matte and glossy 4-by-6 prints, I experienced my biggest travel-photography epiphany: The more you document seemingly insignificant details on a trip, the more vivid the memories.
See the top right corner of this website? The part where it says I’m “a writer, photographer, and historian?” I sometimes write stuff that doesn’t stink and I’m proud of my accomplishments as a historian, but I often feel the word photographer should be in air quotes. For years I wasted pounds of silver halide shooting empty landscapes from wide angles in an effort to capture the spirit of a place, only to end with distant and impersonal ghost towns that showcased nothing except my own detachment. I actually studied photography in college and though infatuated with Ansel Adams, somehow still managed to make the view from a summertime beach in Biarritz — populated by topless girls, no less — chilly, gray, and blurry, as you can see in the above taken during my 1994 European rove. I filled whole albums with castles and bridges and cathedrals. Cold stones, cold images.
Like Sintumuang, it took me more than a decade of thumbing through old albums or browsing desktop file folders to realize the most appealing shots were those featuring people or animals and often up close, not from some removed point.
Which isn’t to say landscapes aren’t worthwhile — just that I have to do better. I took hundreds of photos on a 1992 trip through the southwest, and yet the best of the bunch is a snap of my brother, diminutive against the vastness of the Grand Canyon:
(I also like, because this is a scan of a print, how age has washed it through a natural Instagram filter.)
And occasionally loneliness is the objective, like this 2001 shot of a foggy early morning hike to Hadrian’s Wall.
So-so, if you can overlook the way too-dark tree trunks.
I remain a poor photographer. I fancy myself a decent composer, yet lighting confounds me and my post-production editing is atrocious. But these days, my more compelling subject matter often offsets my technical shortcomings.
Wednesday, 20 February 2013 • 0 comments
Tomorrow night — Thursday, February 21 — I’ll be speaking about Samuel Smedley, Connecticut Privateer at the Black Rock Yacht Club, 80 Grovers Avenue in Bridgeport, right on the shores of Smedley’s very own port o’ call.
I’ll talk about Smedley, Defence, and how the division of prizes — that is, the proceeds from captured ships and their cargoes — impacted the Connecticut state navy during the American Revolution.
You don’t have to be a member of the club to attend! The presentation begins at 7pm.
Saturday, 16 February 2013 • 0 comments
The theme of February’s Calliope is dictators and tyrants throughout history: men like Peisistratos of Athens, Shi Huangdi of China, and of course, Julius Caesar of Rome. There’s also a fun imaginary debate between Hobbes, Locke, and Rousseau about what government students should choose if the adults vanish from their school, leaving them in a state of nature (the pig’s head was unavailable for comment). I have a feature about modern dictators, some of whom are still kicking and some — like Muammar Qaddafi — who are not.
A one-year, nine-issue subscription to Calliope is available at Amazon.