Blue Roofs

Baptist church, San Juan.

Last month, my oldest son and I spent a week in Puerto Rico volunteering with Mennonite Disaster Service.

I first heard about MDS in 2005 in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. I subsequently learned they have a strong reputation within the disaster-relief world, largely due to the fact that they draw upon the Mennonite community for volunteers, many of whom have hard construction skills. At the time we had a newborn so running off for a week without my family was unfeasible, but I bookmarked MDS in the back of my mind.

Fast forward to 2018, where a combination of headlines, my son turning 16 (the minimum age for MDS work), and my dad’s passing inspired me to sign up. There was something else too. Looking at the world around me I notice the two commodities in scarcest supply are health and wealth, and it’s dawned on me that maybe I need to do more to help those who don’t possess what I take for granted. A common game to play with kids is, If you could have any superpower what would it be? The usual answer is the ability to fly or turn invisible. But lately I’ve wondered if maybe some of us wake up with powers every morning but don’t even realize it.

Somewhere between Cayey and Aibonito.

MDS has ongoing projects in Aibonito and Utuado, both in the central mountains of Puerto Rico, and Ponce, on the southern coast. I had been very concerned about the heat — real-feel temperatures in Ponce can break 100 — but as luck would have it we were assigned to Aibonito, which is nicknamed “the Fridge of Puerto Rico” for its cool climate. We arrived on a Saturday and, after waiting a few hours in San Juan for the rest of our party to arrive, drove into the mountains to Aibonito, 2,400 feet above sea level.

I soon learned Aibonito is home to a substantial Mennonite community, which includes a parochial school and a hospital. Our hosts, Harry and Linda, had restored what was once the hacienda on an old sugar plantation. Linda’s father had been a leading figure in town and she had grown up in the casa. Years later, she returned to the island to learn the house had fallen into bad disrepair; one thing led to another, and the couple stayed to renovate it. I didn’t know what to expect before arriving — I guessed we might be sleeping on bunk beds in a trailer — so to me staying in a historic early 20th-century plantation house was five-star accommodations.

A closed special-education school in Aibonito.

Last year, as a result of its ongoing financial crisis, Puerto Rico closed 167 schools and another 265 are scheduled to be shut down soon. According to the PR education secretary, enrollment is declining by 20,000 students every year and more than half of the island’s schools have less than a 60-percent occupancy rate. We saw three different shuttered schools in the seven days we were on the island.

Only happy when it rains.

Because my son and I were the only ones to bring rain gear, we volunteered to work outside on Monday, which is when “hurricane remnant” Beryl hit the island. Hurricane Maria had torn the roof off the largest building at the Academia Menonita Betania, the local parochial school. Getting the Academia into functioning condition before the fall was a priority, and our project leader John was staring at a hard Tuesday deadline for a pump truck and cement mixer to arrive and pour concrete for the footing of the new roof. Unfortunately, the forms — the molds for the concrete — hadn’t been completed, so the three of us worked in Beryl’s downpour, climbing and hammering on second-floor scaffolds. We finished the following sunny morning and the concrete was poured successfully. Steel trusses will arrive in August with the roof following afterward.

Once the mad scramble to finish the forms was done, we didn’t have much to do beyond stand around and watch the concrete crew work.

The rest of the week we worked with the others in our group (there were five of us, along with John) to complete work at one house — paneling with T1-11, doing finish trim, hanging doors — and install the metal roofing on another. This second house, located in the bush far west of town, was the highlight for me as I’d always wanted to install a steel roof.

Blue roofs are an ubiquitous sight on the island; FEMA has distributed 126,000 blue tarps and the US Army Corps of Engineers has installed temporary roofing on almost 60,000 homes, though neither FEMA nor anyone else can give specific numbers on how many roofs need replacement. Bear in mind that neither FEMA nor the Corps has actually replaced any roofs — that’s been left to either homeowners or volunteers.

We installed the fascias and gutters too.

Because building codes aren’t well enforced on the island, MDS has its own engineer-designed protocols for rebuilding, many of which echo Fortified techniques. Studs are anchored to the foundation and beams are strapped to the studs; plywood is screwed (not nailed) to the beams and joists, and a weatherproof sheeting is laid over the plywood before the steel roof is screwed down with more than a thousand screws. Overkill for sure, but meant to survive any future Cat 5 storm that blows off the sea.

The homeowner was living temporarily in his parents’ house across the street, taking care of both his elderly father and his brother, who is wheelchair bound with multiple sclerosis. He and his wife cooked lunch for us everyday — following it with some of the best café con leche I’ve ever tasted — and they couldn’t have been more gracious. They struck me as good, honest people who’d been dealt some bad cards, and all of us were grateful that providence — or maybe Providence — had aligned the teeth of our cosmic gears.

The beach in San Juan. Actual color.

Strange as it might sound, by the end of the week I felt energized and refreshed, almost as if I had been on vacation and not making forms or screwing down roofing. And, in fact, one of the best ways to help Puerto Rico is for tourists simply to return. While damage from Maria is prevalent, PR is far from any sort of post-apocalyptic setting — one night, my son and I ate at the McDonalds in Aibonito — and unemployment on the island is 9.3 percent, still staggeringly high by US standards but the lowest rate for PR since 2000. MDS isn’t the only relief group active on the island; at the airport we saw Mormon volunteers as well as gaggles of teenagers belonging to various groups, and there are many opportunities for voluntourism as well.

For once I’m too humbled to have any grand takeaways about the experience, though it warmed this shaggy steppenwolf’s heart to be surrounded by folks acting upon their faith to help others in very tangible ways. I truly believe you make the world you live in — if thoughts become actions, then our shared reality is an expression of our individual minds. The implications of this can be both disturbing and hopeful, and while I’m by nature inclined to dwell upon the former, I make it a point to focus on the good.

The Privateers of Black Rock Harbor

On Wednesday, May 30 I’ll be giving a presentation at the Fairfield Museum and History Center on the privateers that sailed in and out of Black Rock Harbor.

There’s a fine line between a pirate and a privateer — and it’s as thin as a piece of paper issued by the government. Come hear how such Fairfield luminaries as Thaddeus Burr, Samuel Smedley, and Caleb Brewster as well as many other “gentlemen of fortune” banded together to attack the British on the high seas during the Revolutionary War.

I’ll talk about the differences between privateers, pirates, and traditional navies; how the booty from captured ships was divided not only between the owners and the crew but between the officers and sailors themselves (a scheme that relates back to the Golden Age of Piracy); and how many of the privateers in Black Rock didn’t sail aboard large ships but rather hunted in wolf packs of armed whaleboats.

The lunchtime presentation starts at 12:30pm. Full details here.

Remember That Thing I Wrote

Woman pouring alcohol from a cane into her Coca-Cola.
Library of Congress, 1922

Here’s a blast from the past: I just learned the entry I wrote on the Prohibition of Alcohol for the Cato Institute’s Encyclopedia of Libertarianism was put online last summer. Way back in 2008, I was asked to contribute a thousand words on the subject as a result of an article I had written in Reason on Prohibition in and around New York City, but until now the Encyclopedia was only available in very expensive print.

America’s discomfort with alcohol developed in the mid-19th century. Previously, alcoholic beverages were an established facet of American society: George Washington operated a whiskey distillery, Thomas Jefferson dabbled in viticulture, and Samuel Adams had his brewery. Hard cider and rum enjoyed mass appeal, and rum was a common barter item in the cash-strapped New World. Even religiously rigid groups such as the Puritans and the Quakers stressed moderation rather than abstinence.

Not long after the book was published, I read a review of it on a libertarian website which spent a disproportionate amount of pixels criticizing my entry. The issue lay in my very different interpretation of how Prohibition’s repeal came about in 1933. The standard libertarian narrative states that repeal occurred once politicians realized they stood to make more money by taxing alcohol rather than banning it, and therefore as rational actors they responded to market incentives and re-legalized booze, albeit under heavy regulatory control.

It’s true there were some politicians at the time who justified repeal to their constituents with such logic, but the real story is a lot more messy and, frankly, human. While in the beginning Prohibition was popular among certain groups of Americans, opinion had turned against it by the end of the 1920s, mainly because of its association with crime and violence. Arguably the biggest turning point was the 1929 St. Valentine’s Day Massacre of seven gangsters in Chicago, which seems quaint considering how habituated we are today to an endless stream of violence, imprisonments, and overdoses in the name of the War on Drugs.

By 1932 — an election year — politicians had jumped upon the issue, which (if you read my entry) ranked higher in people’s minds than the economic crisis. At the Republican convention, Herbert Hoover, who was a staunch temperance man, refused to buckle to overwhelming public pressure for all-out repeal, so as a compromise the Republicans chose a “moist” platform, which called for the legalization of beer and wine but a continued prohibition of hard spirits. Like most compromises, this satisfied no one; the American public wanted full repeal while the Anti-Saloon League and their acolytes wanted to stay the course.

The Democratic convention followed afterwards. Seizing the opportunity, Democrats voted on a full repeal platform, and a group of them opposed to presidential contender Al Smith (who was Catholic and had enemies within the party) offered the nomination to Franklin Roosevelt, Jr. on the condition that he switch his stance from dry to wet. FDR was never one to let personal principles interfere with his ambition and flipped on the spot. Of course, he won the 1932 election, and before the end of his first year in office, the 21st Amendment had been ratified by the necessary 36 states.

I learned long ago to ignore that certain stripe of economist-slash-libertarian who assumes people are automatons single-mindedly programmed to chase dollar bills. My experience in anthropology and history has taught me that while, yes, humans are generally rational, the internal code that dictates that rationality is often a mix of fear, love, sex, vengeance, and a whole host of emotions beyond a simple appetite for monetary advantage. A man who pushes his child out of the path of a runaway car is not motivated by his economic desire to avoid hospital bills.

Anyway, I’m glad to see my entry finally made available to the wider world, even if its dated style has far too many thuses and therefores. Weren’t we just talking about writers being embarrassed by older work?

Let the Dead Bury the Dead

At Electric Lit’s Blunt Instrument advice column, an author asked how to absolve herself from the shame of publishing a book she now feels is “juvenile:”

I saw a tweet a little while ago from someone who said, “I would never forgive myself if I wrote a bad book.” I don’t know if I’ll ever forgive myself, either, and I can’t figure out how to move on. For a time I thought that I would just work hard and write something else that would be so much better and erase the collective memory of my first book (I think I flatter myself to even think there is a collective memory), but I remain filled with doubt. And self-loathing. This might be a better question for a therapist, but here’s the short version: how do you recover from publishing shame?

Elisa Gabbert, the Blunt Instrument’s fount of wisdom, replied in part:

It makes sense that young people, because they lack experience, would tend to undervalue experience and overvalue talent, which may be all they have. It also makes sense that older people would place a higher value on experience, now that they have it. I am not especially young, so you can take my bias into account, but I believe that experience is important, and that more life experience, reading experience, and writing experience are going to make you a better writer.

I don’t disagree with anything Gabbert said and her entire response is worth reading, particularly for her discussion of how the vagaries of publishing often result in a disparity between the fondness an author feels for a work versus its popularity among readers.

Yet what’s significant to me is that Gabbert explicitly underscores such shame being an issue of experience. Writers who are early in their careers — regardless of their age — have smaller portfolios and therefore are more conscious of it. If you only have ten published pieces to your credit and one is awful, that’s ten percent of your bylines; but if you’ve written 100 pieces and one is bad, the stink is confined to a negligible percentage.

All writers produce bad copy — God knows I have. Thankfully most of it is lost to the mists of time, but before you tell me that Google forgets nothing, keep in mind it works both ways: yes, some of my bad stuff has fallen down the memory hole but so have some pieces I’m particularly proud of, even though they were authored in the age of search engines. Publications come and go, and often they take their servers with them. The Internet is no elephant.

If you dug up one of those old pieces of mine, the kind I’d prefer were forgotten, and waved it my face, I wouldn’t be happy. But neither would I lose sleep over it. I have a number of aphorisms I’ve developed over the years. For example: The best response to a piece of bad writing is to create another piece of writing. When I start something and realize it’s not proceeding well, I set it aside and write something else. Sometimes I will cannibalize it for words or ideas but at the very least the act was a warmup, a prelude to a new thing. To the inexperienced, a setback or criticism can seem monstrous but to the jaded rodeo clown it’s like, Meh whatevs.

This subject resonates with me, I think, because this week I’m putting the finishing edits on my current WIP, a 37,000-word novella. Today I think it’s the best thing I’ve ever written, but while I can’t imagine ever hating it, five or ten years from now I may view it more critically. That’s OK because I’d like to think that in five to ten years I’ll be writing even better stuff.

And that, ultimately, is what you have to ask yourself: Does what I’m writing today reflect the best I can do in this moment? Is it a product of my current talent and ability? If not, throw it in a drawer. But if it is, then hustle it, and if your future self doesn’t like it, then tell him to STFU and get cracking on something better. Move forward. Forget the past. Let the dead bury the dead.

Make Mine Wakanda

Let the Dance of Friendship begin!
Fantastic Four 53, August 1966. In the previous issue, Black Panther had invited the FF to Wakanda to test his skills against them. Also, STFU Ben.

My senior year of college, I had a part-time job in the student union. It involved being something like a facilities manager, only I wasn’t an actual manager. I made rounds through the union to keep it clean and functional. If a bulb was out or something was broken, I filed a maintenance request; but if somebody had spilled coffee, I broke out the mop. I counted rolls of toilet paper in utility closets and removed outdated announcements from the bulletin boards. Sometimes I manned the information desk. Those kinds of things.

My shifts began at an awkward time in the evenings after I had eaten in the union dining hall. The difference in time, usually less than an hour, wasn’t long enough to be useful — not enough to study in earnest, although sometimes I would catch up on my assigned reading. Besides, who wants to prep for work by doing work?

Instead, I would watch TV. The union had two TV lounges. At that time of day, one was usually dark and silent. The other was packed so solid some people had to sit on the floor.

The first time I ducked into the popular lounge, I froze in my tracks. The entrance was to the right of the television, so I saw the entire audience illuminated by the glow of the screen in three-quarters profile. Every single face was black.

Now I have to confess what threw me off wasn’t just the black audience — it was also the show they were watching. It was Star Trek: The Next Generation. It had been Patrick Stewart’s baritone, overheard in the hallway, that lured me into the lounge in the first place. I thought to myself, Black people like Star Trek?

In hindsight, it’s not at all strange when you consider Trek history — even Martin Luther King, Jr. was a fan — but this was my first encounter with black fandom, or what’s sometimes called black nerd culture.

Watching TV with this group became a regular habit during my senior year. After dinner I would often stop by the TV lounge, wade deep into the room, and (usually) find a seat against the back wall to watch. Alas, since I arrived after the show began and departed before it finished, I never spoke to anybody. We were all too busy watching.

And this audience didn’t just watch Star Trek. Oh no. There was commentary.

What transpired in that lounge was essentially a live version of Mystery Science Theater 3000, only a thousand times funnier. Before me was the screen broken by the anonymous silhouettes of the people in front, all of them cracking wise at the perils faced by the crew of the Enterprise-D. Imagine watching TV with a room full of your favorite comedians — that’s what it was like. I learned to chew gum while watching so I could bite down sometimes to keep from screaming with laughter.

While they often made fun of the interior Star Trek, the crowd also criticized Star Trek the TV show. There’s one episode I remember in particular. Picard and the gang had beamed down to a planet inhabited by blonde, blue-eyed people. It might have been some kind of shore-leave episode. The natives wore flowey garments and were very friendly to the off-worlders — theirs was a perfect, utopian world, full of beautiful white people with blonde hair and blue eyes.

The room went off.

“Oh, they on the Planet of the Aryans.”

“It’s the Hitler World!”

And on and on. They shredded that episode. I think I might’ve been crying in the back.

But you know what? I had a little epiphany in that TV lounge. The Enterprise crew flew hither and yon across the galaxy encountering all sorts of extraterrestrials with sagittal crests and bumpy nose prosthetics, and yet usually those aliens only had one skin color. Black actors would turn up as Klingons like Worf but even that wasn’t consistent because some Klingons were just white actors wearing shoe polish. Just as every alien planet mysteriously looked like southern California, likewise the aliens themselves always coincidentally had pink skin.

So when I see stories about Black Panther breaking records for advance tickets or Presidents’ Day weekend openings, I get it.

Fantastic Four 52, July 1966, was the first appearance of both Black Panther and Wakanda. Stan Lee wrote the script with Jack Kirby’s artwork at full throttle.

If you’ve read my previous thoughts on Black Panther, it may not surprise you that I was very excited to see Wakanda’s realization on the big screen. I didn’t have to wait long. Early in the film we experience a flyover of the countryside before piercing the shield dome to encounter Wakanda’s main city. The skyscrapers have none of the gloomy spires of Gotham or even the blocky pyramids and temples of Egypt (which might be expected since BP’s tribe worships Bast, the Egyptian cat goddess); instead the rounded organic forms of the skyline strongly reminded me of the beehive structures and asymmetrical curving walls of Great Zimbabwe. There are too many details I could geek about — the dragonfly VTOL ships, the throne rooms, the five tribes’ distinguishing customs and clothing and palettes — but suffice to say, Wakanda makes every Star Wars planet look gray and ho-hum by comparison.

Black Panther is unique in comics in that the character is inexorably entwined with his setting. Even Batman can’t share that claim: the Gotham of the Bob Kane era is indistinguishable from any generic cityscape, featuring none of the Gothic art deco we now associate with the Dark Knight. Meanwhile, the very first appearance of BP in the July 1966 issue of Fantastic Four takes place in his home country. Wakanda and its mashup of African culture and super science was baked into the mythology of Black Panther from the very beginning.

Often the settings in fiction are interchangeable; the action can be switched from city to suburbs to rural country without much trouble. In others, the setting is intrinsic. In much the same way as cutting a major character changes a story, moving a Western to New York City radically transforms the original intent into a very different work. Setting, in other words, itself becomes a main character, a silent player on the stage — excise the character, and the original concept is wounded or at least altered so drastically it becomes something else.

Black Panther would not be as successful a character (or now, a franchise) without Wakanda, and the tightly written script by director Ryan Coogler and Joe Robert Cole understands that. A major theme of the film asks what responsibility does Wakanda have to the rest of the world, and more specifically, to the black world. When you are rich and powerful, is hermitism and quietude a valid strategy of self-preservation or is it complicity with evil? If engagement is preferred, what shape should it take? The film’s plot is an internal monologue of Wakanda the character, expressed through T’Challa and Killmonger. More than just visually depicting the country, Coogler and Cole perfectly communicate the tension inherent in the whole concept of Wakanda.

Jungle Action Featuring the Black Panther 8, January 1974. What’s funny is that this map differs from the map printed just two issues prior in which the Atlantic Ocean is shown in the lower left-hand corner. Now it points to the Indian Ocean, which means north is south and vice versa. This whole geographical slipperiness just adds to Wakanda’s mystique — it’s like the place is so damn secret, even Marvel doesn’t know where it is.

Black Panther is a solid film with strongly defined characters and great acting (I couldn’t decide which antagonist I loved watching steal scenes the most: Michael B. Jordan’s Killmonger, Andy Serkis’s Klaue, or Winston Duke’s M’Baku). Is it the best MCU film yet? I’m still partial to Winter Soldier, but Panther is definitely at the top of my list. I suspect that with its box-office success and the difficult job of introducing a whole slew of new characters behind it — and assuming Marvel keeps Coogler and Cole onboard — the next Black Panther may be the next Winter Soldier. In the meantime, I’ll just have to be patient and go see this one again.

All images taken from Black Panther Epic Collection: Panther’s Rage. Copyright © 2016 Marvel. Fair use! Discussion purposes!

Update: The capital city of Wakanda, so I’ve learned, is Birnin Zana, and Chadwick Boseman has said the cinematic version of Wakanda is based upon the real-life kingdom of Mutapa, the 15th-century successor state to the kingdom of Zimbabwe. Great Zimbabwe, which was built beginning in the 11th century, was the capital of the Zimbabwe kingdom.

Reading Among the Ruins

The World in Winter and The Sixth WinterIn case you missed it, in 2017 I took a deep dive into the post-apocalyptic genre and then posted a mega-review at Medium of what I found.

It wasn’t until I went on J.G. Ballard jag a few years ago that I realized the depth and variety of post-apocalyptic fiction. One book led to two more, and soon what I thought was niche sci-fi turned out to be much richer and plentiful than I had imagined, so much so that I now believe it’s unfair to label post-apoc a subgenre or subcategory of something else.

I scribbled thoughts and impressions as I turned the pages, and eventually I wondered if those notes might act as breadcrumbs to other readers seeking to wander a literary wasteland—especially in these seemingly end times. I present to you the result.

My criteria for the list was often based on obscurity, so there’s no Leibowitzes or Lucifer’s Hammers. Instead, the more off-beat the book, the more likely it appealed to me. There’s some J.G. Ballard in there, naturally, but also some Leigh Brackett, John Christopher, and even Jack London. Still, the list of books I didn’t get to is even longer: Mary Shelley’s The Last Man, Emily St. John Mandel’s Station Eleven, Walker Percy’s Love in the Ruins (which I’m told is more apocalyptic than post-apocalyptic), and on and on.

Strangely, as I read I felt like every book had something to say about the state of America in 2017, so if you’re looking for something to read that speaks to current times without being too on the nose, check it out.