The Birds of September 11 by Brandon


On my way to Ground Zero on the tenth anniversary of September 11, 2001, I stopped for a slice a pizza and to clear my head. The previous week had been a somber one; every anniversary recalls the past, but some make you reflect on what's happened since, and a cloud hung over the intervening years. The nation felt like a different, far darker place than before that fateful morning.

Of course, it's easy to mythologize the past. Even the weather of 9/11, an archetypally perfect fall morning, takes on metaphorical overtones: a time of innocence and bounty, golden and pure, as yet untouched by shadow. Through the lens of memory, the United States was running a surplus, the economy was strong, things were good.

Of course they were not. A year before, the dot-com bubble burst, and with it the fantasy of economic security in an information age. A few months earlier, the Enron scandal surfaced -- a Byzantine mix of accounting fraud, rigged markets, political corruption, ill-conceived deregulation, greed and meanness and outright theft -- perpetrated by people who preached the virtues of free markets, and loaned the President their corporate jet.

Enron, we learned in years to come, wasn't an exception. It was a business model for big capitalism in the early 21st century. The same basic blueprint could be read in the financial meltdown of 2008, when investment bankers -- who rewrote laws that once restrained them, pushed high-interest mortgages at the peak of a real estate bubble, bet trillions of dollars that mortgages would be paid even when they obviously wouldn't, then tried to hide these facts -- crippled the economies of North America and western Europe, and very nearly took down the world.

The consequences were quite different for poor and middle-class people than for hedge fund managers and investment bankers. Within a few years, as unemployment soared and cities went bankrupt, the people most responsible for the crisis were even wealthier than before. And between Enron's stock plunge and Lehman's bankruptcy we'd had two disastrous wars, state-sanctioned torture and surveillance, the body politic's split into alternate partisan universes. Pervading it all was a sense of inescapability. Around and around we went, a society spiraling downward and unable to change course.

I jotted down my thoughts, finished eating and walked to Ground Zero. There I said a prayer for the departed -- I don't believe in God, but sometimes one just prays -- and continued to my evening's destination, the Tribute in Lights, which is projected above lower Manhattan each 9/11 night. You've probably seen the tribute, or pictures of it, twin electric blue beams that disappear in the heavens and can be seen from sixty miles away. It is beautiful and utterly haunting and simply immense. For one night, it turns the rest New York's fabled skyline into a row of votive candles.

The year before, I'd seen the tribute from Governor's Island, just below Manhattan in New York Bay. I'd gone there for a concert, and during the opening act people drifted to the shoreline, where they looked at the tribute in wonder and confusion. There was something unusual about the beams: Sparkling white points of light spiraled slowly inside them, hundreds if not thousands, almost like confetti, but confetti wouldn't have been visible from that distance. It also wouldn't have risen. A few people said the lights made them think of souls.

The next day I learned from a friend that the lights had been birds. New York City sits directly in the Atlantic Flyway, the easternmost of North America's four great migration routes. Each fall, millions of birds fly down the Atlantic coast, a stream of energy and life stretching from Greenland in the summer to Tierra del Fuego, the southern tip of South America, in winter. Along the way the birds funnel down the Hudson River valley, passing mostly unnoticed above the city that never sleeps.

Scientists aren't precisely sure how birds navigate their miraculous passsage, but the general mechanisms are understood. They sense Earth's geomagnetic field, which provides a frame of reference calibrated by the light of stars, sun and moon. Under certain conditions, however, such as moonless, overcast nights when the brightest lights are man-made, these biological compasses spin awry. Birds fly in circles until dropping from exhaustion onto sidewalks or stoops, or escape so drained as to die later in their journey.

September 11, 2010 had been one such night. The waxing moon was a thin, dim crescent. Clouds covered lower Manhattan. Birds had also gathered for days in wetlands north of the city, grounded by storms that blew against them, but finally the winds shifted to the south. In a tailwind flood the birds were released. The brightest light in the region came from the Tribute in Lights, projected by eighty-eight 7,000-watt xenon searchlights into a dull dark sky.

When I called New York City's chapter of the Audubon society, I learned that more than 10,000 birds -- yellow warblers on their way to Central America, redstarts headed to Mexico, probably tanagers and thrushes and orioles, too -- were pulled in over night's course. Five times Audubon volunteers briefly shuttered the spotlights, giving circling birds a chance to escape.

It seemed a noble thing to do, keeping our memorial to tragically lost life from accidentally taking lives; and so, for the tenth anniversary of 9/11, wanting to honor the day with more than remembrance, I volunteered, arriving just before dusk at the rooftop parking garage where the tribute's spotlights are installed.

Night fell. The sky over New Jersey turned from blue to purple to black. The lights hummed. Audubon volunteers lay on their backs, staring into the beams and trying to count the birds. There weren't many. Previous nights had favored flight, preventing the buildup seen a year earlier. Except for a few wispy clouds, the sky was clear, and the gibbous moon would soon be full. There seemed to be more people than birds: family members still grieving, tourists posing, a British man with a burn-scarred face who'd been installing floors at the World Trade Center on 9/11 and who mourned the Muslim lives lost since.

Only once, when clouds covered the moon a few hours after midnight, did birds enter the beams in significant numbers. The clouds soon blew away. The birds followed. As dawn approached, the beams were empty. Six days later, the first protesters arrived just down the block, at Zuccotti Park. Occupy Wall Street had begun.

From The Eye of the Sandpiper: Stories From the Living World. To read more, pick it up on Amazon, Barnes & Noble, Google Play Books or Kobo.

Photo: Dennis Leung

The Value of Dystopia by Brandon

In response to Michael Solana's "Stop Writing Dystopian Sci-Fi—It’s Making Us All Fear Technology," which had inspired "We Need Dystopias Now More Than Ever."

Solana's essential message is, "Technology is our salvation, so why do those pesky Luddites keep trying to challenge progress and scare us?" Science fiction, like life, has always contained both utopian and dystopian themes, optimism and pessimism. If dystopias are suddenly overrepresented — which I think is untrue — it's probably worth asking why they're so popular, and maybe even trying to learn from them.

Perhaps they'resymptomatic of something important: frustrations with roots in very real social grievances, as with the co-existence of extreme poverty and technological near-omnipotence in Elysium; or concern with how tech's extraordinary possibilities are often subverted for cheap and exploitative purposes, like in Andri Snaer Magnason's Love/Star and M.T. Anderson's Feed; or, per Paolo Bacigalupi's fiction, the day-after-tomorrow imminence of resource scarcities and ecological catastrophe; or misgivings about the interconnected, seemingly fragile nature of globalization's networks, which are exposed by so many zombie/outbreak movie plots.

From a certain perspective, The Hunger Games is a parable for a moment when teenagers and young adults struggle to find jobs in a hypercompetitive marketplace. It's also an obvious parable of unconstrained big-government power. Solana's take is, "So what the hell are we supposed to make of the Hunger Games?"

An interesting historical aside is how much dystopian sci-fi — here I use the term "dystopian" loosely, as does Solana, who seems to think any story with conflict, such as Battlestar Galactica, is anti-technology — was written by cyberpunks of the 1980s and early 1990s. Most of those authors, such as William Gibson and Charles Platt and Bruce Sterling, were also early adopters and techno-proselytizers. They had a front-row seat from which to appreciate science fiction's great, lasting lesson: that technology is inseparable from human nature, culture, economics and history.

Antibiotics and washing machines and packet-transfer protocols and high-yield crop varieties are all tech. So are AK-47s and online identity theft and flash-crashes and multiple pesticide-resistant corn. The Google campus is a marvel of technology's possibilities; so was the East German surveillance state. The world is a messy place, as is progress. Sci-fi, and its dystopias, reflect and reflect upon that tension. They nourish critical thought. Rather than embracing tech on faith, as an article of secular theology, we'reencouraged to understand that technology isn't a magic-wand principle that absolves people from the hard work of progress.

Instead Solana sees technology as "perhaps the only thing" that can solve society's most pressing problems. He calls for a Panglossian science fiction, its highest purpose to "prepare people to accept the future without pain," an antidote for those Luddites who "have challenged progress at every crux point in human history."

It's telling how he refers so flippantly to that social movement. (And, the copy editor in me can't help but mention, so nonsensically: "At every point in human history"? Did Ned Ludd, smasher of mechanical looms, also invent a time machine?) Luddites weren't broadly anti-technology, but rather opposed a particular piece of machinery that threatened their livelihoods. I've no idea whether their stance was beneficial to society at large, but calling it anti-progress is a stretch, unless one thinks progress and technology are synonymous, inextricable and very simple. ("Why do we keep writing sad stories about the West African slave trade, when we could be writing fabulous tales about fast ships and cotton gins!")

We need fewer dystopias and more Star Trek, laments Solana. And indeed Star Trek is one ofour most powerfully positive, and flat-out powerful, sci-fi stories. But what makes it so inspiring, apart from the transcendent fun of a good adventure smartly told, isn't holodecks or transporters or photon engines. It's the vision of an egalitarian, multiethnic and muscular democracy, in which great power is wedded to humility and generosity. As for the technology, the Klingons and Borg and other bad guys have it, too.

Image: Enokson/Flickr

Thoughts on Taxidermy, Fashion & Bighorn Sheep by Brandon

Seen on the G train: A bookish young hipster bringing home the taxidermied head of a bighorn ram.

As a kid I saw bighorn sheep several times, though I'm not sure whether the memories are my own or appropriated clips from Marty Stouffer's Wild America. Probably both. Sure-footed and wary, deep-chested rams colliding with an impact that should crack the mountain.

Recent lines from the New York Times: Two interior designers live in a 2,000-square-foot TriBeCa loft featuring "a stuffed baby seal in a glass-encased seascape diorama … and many other taxidermied creatures, including a wallaby, a hawk with a rabbit in its talons and an enormous lion’s paw, claws fearsomely intact."

Less recent lines: So-and-so, directors of the play 69°S., in which white-parka-clad puppeteers on stilts recreate the Antarctic ordeal of Ernest Shackleton's icebound crew, are "the kind of theatrical couple who collect old taxidermy."

It's easy to envision. The mounted deer head, or even a mountain goat; fox on the floor, weasel on a table, beside some early-industrial instrumentation of indeterminate purpose and terrariums made from laboratory glassware.

Maybe so-and-so aren't like this. Maybe they deviate from type. The point is that there is a type, a predictable bohemian aesthetic, a kind of. (One that, should I sound too superior, I happen to share, at least somewhat. Not being able to afford large-animal taxidermy until it falls from fashion and lands in eBay, naturalist prints take their place. A dozen or so. Including one of a bighorn, natch.)

Fashion alters and cheapens what it consumes. If you're not careful, you lose what you buy, especially when fashion and personal taste -- identity -- converge for a time in agreement. When cultural waves recede, they cause erosion. Awareness is a seawall.

There are at least two distinct currents to this mainstreaming of naturalia. Label one the Nineteenth Century Explorer: Spiced with steampunk, evoking an age of mannered discovery, gentleman adventurers launching expeditions and returning with tales to delight drawing-room crowds. A spirit of mechanical marvels and curiosity cabinets, maps drawn well but incompletely, of biological ephemera and naturalists' drawings.

Where does it come from? A rejection of overt consumerism, possibly, inasmuch as natural history seems intrinsically less commodifiable and more authentic than other subjects.

A necessary thrift amidst a stagnant economy and fears of collapse; pressed flowers and folios taken from library discards are, in their non-boutique varieties, reasonably priced.

A psychic escape from the pervasive sense that no space on our map remains blank, that civilization has filled its container and is pushing back inwards. A need for nature in denaturalized lives.

Or maybe the meaning is not so dark. Maybe naturalia frames emerging appreciations of urban and suburban ecologies, or a sense of new, as-yet-unfilled maps arising in digital and social space, freed from old topographies. Maybe it's nothing more complicated than an appreciation of beauty.

Maybe it's all these things.

The second of naturalia's currents is easier to decipher. Hipster rustic, a reclamation of 19th and early-to-mid 20th century white Americana as a rich and authentic source of culture. Then as now, times were hard; people were tough, self-reliant, frugal; naturalia of a piece with the lumberjack henleys and Red Wing boots and engineer jackets.

The fashion industry, as frivolous a professional class as exists, needed for the last several years to clothe themselves in utility. Once that might have seemed like co-option, revolutions drained of power through branding, but it felt more like guilt. If you're going to blow $300 on impulse with unemployment at 10 percent, it should be made of waxed canvas. Go Forth, advises Levi's.

The economy's better now, of course, so fashion has moved on to chillwave hiker. The art school kids walking to class late in winter look like they're off to climb Mt. Rainier in the early seventies. The Chelsea boys look like they've come back and changed for dinner. This summer they'll go on day trips to Yosemite.

Animals are a part of all this, for explorers and hikers alike, but as setting. A sign, a signifier, a t-shirt drawing of a deer based on an image found in the first page of Google's image search. And I can't shake the feeling that naturalia debases nature, turns animals into objects, renders our beautiful, extraordinary living world and its inhabitants as aesthetic commodities with no more or less meaning than paisley or a bright colorway. It's life as accessory.

That pleasant young man on the G train.* A bighorn's head, severed from any sense of its heaving flanks and liquid eyes, its meaning as a species or experience as an individual. It is signage.

I give my gum to the rats and whistle at the mockingbirds.

* Of course, for all I know his dad took him to see bighorn sheep when he was young, and he studies them in graduate school and always dreamed of having one's head and is himself named Ram. Et cetera.

Marilynne Robinson, Subway Ride, Lesson by Brandon

In the opening essay of When I Was a Child I Wrote Books, Marilynne Robinson writes of the miraculous improbability that is every human being: each mind containing more neurons than stars in our universe, arranged in patterns complicated beyond our reckoning, loving and hurting and thinking, floating through a vast vacuum gulf; if from a certain scale even a chair would look like a cloud of energy, what might each of us appear to be....

I'd been trying consciously to keep this in mind, to remind myself (lovely how the word remains ingrained, linguistically guarded from decades of neuroscientific preference for brain) each time I found myself angry or dismissive: How can so-and-so, such-and-such, be so stupid, corrupt, mean, thoughtless? Squint on the inside, see them for a moment as a cloud of light. An effective routine, but easy to forget, and when I stepped into the subway on my way uptown I saw the wool army blanket pile, a sneaker poking out one end, garbage-bagged belongings, a slumbering twitch, smelled it/him, and chose a seat from which vantage he'd be hidden.

Above him was one of those Poetry in Motion subway posters. "Graduation," by Dorothea Tanning:

He told us, with the years, you will come to love the world. And we sat there with our souls in our laps, and comforted them.

Forty-five minutes later, a few minutes late for dinner, I walked fast toward the 72nd street B/C station exit. I passed a boy, maybe twelve years old, black, who called to me and matched my pace and asked how he could get on the 4/5 train. A cloud of suspicion: Maybe he was selling something, thinking of stealing something? Not breaking stride, I told him that he'd have to catch a train back downtown -- to 59th, I thought, I wasn't sure, I could have checked my iPhone subway map but that would have meant stopping -- then ride the E across town to 51st, then take the 4/5 from there. His face fell, he looked as though he were halfway to tears, and then I was up the stairs and on the street, thinking what an asshole I was.

At dinner I checked the phone and realized I'd given him the wrong station. He needed to transfer at 50th, not 59th.

Dinner, wonderful company, movie -- about Moslem immigrants risking themselves to save Jews in occupied Vichy France -- back downtown on the subway. Waiting for the G train at Hoyt-Schermerhorn, a homeless man walking up the platform, asking for money. No singles in my wallet, I shake my head when he passes. On the train, headphones on, I look up and he's passing through the car. This time, finally, I feel in my pocket, find two quarters and hand them over. From no perspective at that moment would I appear as a cloud of light.

Image: Man sleeping on the subway.

A Perfect Bookstore by Brandon

I don't know if a Platonic ideal of bookstore exists. Maybe one's tastes are shaped, as with food or love, by first experience. Whatever the case, my original bookstore is my favorite: Lippincott Books, which I first browsed more than twenty years ago, and which will close this month.

Lippincott doesn't overwhelm, like book barns with acres of indiscriminate titles and foot-aching aisles. Neither is it so small that one risks leaving empty-handed. Its proportions are just right; most any topic merits at least one shelf, enough to satisfy a curiosity or spark another.

The shelves themselves are almost tall enough to be perilous, tops reached by milk crate and tiptoe,  and usually overflowing just a bit. They're so arranged that, once past the store's front, each section feels private; two or three people might fit, but the unspoken browser's code is honored. Comradeship is reserved for friends and books, and it's natural to think of Lippincott's books in personable terms.

Bill Lippincott, the eponymous proprietor -- silver hair, soft-spoken, twinkling eyes -- is a  connoisseur of common and rare alike, a hunter of bequeathed collections and library discards. The result is a smartly curated hodgepodge of old and new, esoteric and classic, highbrow and low, the rainy-day library of a children's book favorite uncle.

My own final forays returned, among other titles, two books on fly-tying; the Larousse Treasury of Country Cooking; short stories by Annie Proulx; instructives on rock gardening, bird feeding and outwitting squirrels; a biography of Meriweather Lewis; several immense natural history tomes; poetry from Seamus Heaney, Edna St. Vincent Millay and Ted Hughes; a collection of regional U.S. folklore, and another of narratives from women captured by Indians; Euell Gibbons' Stalking the Wild Asparagus; a P.D. James mystery. At present rates of distraction, I'll be lucky to finish them in a decade, but completion isn't the only point. An used bookstore is as much about immersion, about embarcation on Pullman trains of thought.

Up front near the picture windows are a pair of reading chairs. One was favored by Kaspar, who died just over a year ago, seventeen years after turning from stray to store cat. Over the years I've seen people fall asleep in those chairs, but not once were they disturbed.

Images of the bookstore from my Lippincott Books set. Many thanks to Bill, Ginger & Nancy for creating such a quietly magical place.

The Other Seasons by Brandon


Even though winter isn't yet over in Maine, spring has signaled its arrival. Evenings are brighter; sparrows are flocking; here and there a warm breeze surprises the cold. But before spring fully arrives comes a period of thaws and rain known locally, for self-evident reasons, as mud season. And then, after spring but before true summer, comes blackfly season, when the cost of a pleasant evening is a ring of itching bites at your sockline.

Thinking on this got me wondering about what other local, vernacular seasons existed, marking life's cycles in richer detail than the standard four seasons. I put a call out on Twitter; this is what it returned, arranged roughly from the present.

California is now more than halfway through mudslide season, which goes hand-in-hand with flood season. In upstate New York, it's partway through pothole season, which will last until the end of spring. On the Hudson, spring brings shadbush season; those bushes bloom in time with shad returning from the sea. In New York City, where city-planted street trees are wind-pollinated, it's allergy season, and fiercely so. In Alaska, it's breakup. Over the course of several weeks, seven months of snow melts in the day and refreezes each night.

From spring until next winter in the midwest it's construction season. In the Pacific northwest, it's still grey season, alternately known as rainy season, which lasts year-round, minus summer. (In Texas, there's almost summer and gone summer.) Summer in Arizona is also monsoon season, and well into Nova Scotia's summer comes mosquito season.

Summer is tourist season in Maine, followed by blueberry season; blackflies are forgotten, but in Arizona it's whitefly season. In Washington it's drought season. Bermuda Longtail season marks the start of college in Bermuda. Around this time fire season begins in California and will last through Christmas, perhaps longer.

In Vermont, after the leaves fall but before it snows, is stick season. With any luck, there will be an Indian summer. Alaska's winter is presaged by freezeup. The arrival of northerners in Arizona is the beginning of snowbird season, ending with their April departure.

In California, it's always earthquake season.

Image: Mud season in full effect, by Dwight Sipier.

Many thanks to @TheFebrileMuse @electriclinds @Grathio @xDD0Sx @ginthegin @Wildlife_of_NYC @rutterkinuk @gospark @Sherry111 @brookgarden @_ami_d @aworldgoesnova @digitaldraco @hectocotyli @WNYPager @cherylhc @NYCWW  @wood757 @little_panther @maugui @vandergoog @akscubaduck @socctty @knotanes @thankascientist @reverendbink @twnstar2 @Grathio @reverendbink @tv @Tiny_Ninja @bfwriter @broseph_P @MauriceSt @daveguy @Earllaks @smpa

On Waldman’s Pond by Brandon

"The water," said John Waldman, "varies between green and shockingly green."

Perched on a thin strip of grass between a road and the water's edge, he stared intently at the surface. On a postcard fall noon it was the color of fresh spinach, the algae and silt so thick that the sun was swallowed just a few inches into the murk.

"Minnows," he said, pointing to a dappling of translucent silver-pink fish several feet from sure. "It's salty, with a sky-high pH, but it's rich and full of life nonetheless." We stood at at the mouth of a short creek between two bodies of water that elsewhere would be called ponds, but in New York City they are called Willow Lake and Meadow Lake, and are faintly miraculous. Like so much of the estuary now entombed beneath the world's eleventh-largest city, it was once a tidal marsh, and still receives the tide. This explained the salinity. The pH — nine, to be exact, same as baking soda — came from coal ash, which residents piled by the creek when Queens was still country. Builders used the ash to line the lakebeds, and it prevents the water from spreading back into the silt.

Waldman, a biology professor at nearby Queens College, hoped the minnows would attract a snakehead. The voracious intruder was found this spring in Willow Lake, likely introduced by an owner exasperated with its boundless appetite, and earlier this fall, Waldman saw a juvenile — evidence that they might have spawned.

"It's still not clear whether they are highly successful," he said. As for whether the snakeheads will eat everything in sight, fulfilling the fearsome though overstated reputations — Snakehead!! — spread by toothy tabloid covers three summers ago, when the air-breathing Asian natives were discovered in Maryland, nobody knows. "Its possible they'll overshoot the food source before reaching some sort of equilibrium," said Waldman.

Overshooting the food source, of course, is a technical way of saying, eat everything in the lakes. Worse yet, a breeding population of snakeheads would threaten any other waters to which misguided bucket-carriers could haul them. The Department of Environmental Conservation has taken control of the situation, but Waldman, who worked for twenty years at the Hudson River Foundation before taking his professorship, still comes by to look. He is a fish junky, a city boy who spent his life exploring, and later chronicling the history of, the waters around New York City — waters that, he and others discovered, are full of life, a life that is surprisingly resilient, clinging to and even thriving in niches shaped by human destruction.

Waldman crossed the street to look for snakeheads on the other side, easily vaulting a concrete divider. At fifty he is still fit and trim, with sharp blue eyes, an angler's grip and a chin of stubble that matches the white of his hair. He wore a brown jacket — herringbone, appropriately — and loose slacks, somewhat resembling the Victorian gentleman who, in a framed drawing on his office wall, carries with aplomb a man-sized fish on a stick over his back.

"The drive for life is really intense. There's an awful lot of contamination in this world," he said, speaking for a moment of life above the water as well. "They may not produce so many eggs as in a pristine environment, or grow as well, but there's still a living to be made here."

Waldman continued up the creek. The leaves had already turned, and many of the fallen had yet to lose their color; thickets of head-high phragmites lined the water's margins with green stalks and loose flaxen heads that waved back the sun's gold. We passed beneath the interleafing of the Van Wyck Highway and the Long Island Expressway, their supporting concrete columns aged by weather and almost as wide around as some of the trees that once lived in the surrounding valleys.

The water's surface vibrated from cars passing above and was boiled by thick schools of minnows that surfaced in flight from our footsteps. A chemical skein floated with lazy iridescence beside a drainage inflow where we next stopped. Littering the water was a collection of trash straight from central staging: milk crates, tires, shopping carts.

"Shopping carts are one of the major features of urban aquatic environments. Another one is the spare tire," Waldman said. Beside one bridge, he said, it is possible to walk across the water on the trash collected beneath it. "Tumbleweed," he said, pointing to a wind-blown plastic bag.

We saw no snakeheads there, or farther along at the locks that hold the lakes in. Nor did we see any other fish, though the water teems with them — sunfish, white perch, carp, catfish, the earlier-seen minnows, which are technically named killifish, and American eels, which despite their name breed in the Sargasso Sea, not far from the West Indies. These fish have survived, even thrived, amidst some of the worst pollution in the world, but now face eradication from the latest offhand transformation.

The snakehead, of course, just a few generations removed from some brackish backwater in northern China, is an unwitting victim in the whole affair, arbitrarily moved by the fate of globalization and human nature. Singling it out as an alien in an already-altered ecological balance could seem unfair — but shaping the development of nature is a power that, for better or worse, people exercise simply by existing.

"The snakehead is a gritty fish, with great survival instincts. It's hard to dislike it," John said on the walk back to the car. "But it just doesn't belong here."

Image: A satellite photograph of Meadow and Willow Lakes.

I wrote this almost five years ago (!) in school, as part of a profile on Waldman that I never did manage to get published. Which is a shame, because John is a gracious and fascinating person, whose work on New York City's aquatic ecology deserves much attention.

If you're looking for a gift or just a fun read, check John's 100 Weird Ways to Catch Fish and Heartbeats in the Muck, his aquatic history of New York City.

Democracy for Sale by Brandon

For anyone who believes that all people are created equal and entitled to a government of, by and for them, it is a dark moment. The Supreme Court's elimination of limits on corporate political speech guarantees that democratic power will now be directly sold to the highest bidders.

There are only two intellectually honest ways to defend the decision. The first is to argue that there should be no restraints of any kind on any speech in any situation. Supporters of the Supreme Court's decision have not made that argument, nor will they. Nobody wants to be trampled during the proverbial joke cry of "Fire!" in a crowded theater.

The second honest defense is to consider people to be fundamentally unequal, deserving of different rights, which justly are distributed to whoever can afford them. This is another way of saying, "There is nothing wrong with slavery; after all, a slave can always buy his freedom."

That being difficult to say in public, or even to acknowledge in one's own soul, supporters of the Supreme Court's decision contort logic, common sense and common decency to rationalize the transfer of power from poor to rich. Many of their rationalizations are contained in an essay by Bradley Smith, a Capital University Law School professor, in National Affairs.1

According to Smith, campaign finance limits are tainted by a regulatory version of original sin: the roots of reform are impure, so its fruit is forever poisoned. "Far from being born of lofty ideals, federal campaign-finance regulations were, from their inception, tied to questionable efforts to gain partisan advantage," he writes. Implied is that opposition to regulation was non-partisan — which is laughably wrong, but would be irrelevant if true. Partisan maneuvering is intrinsic to multi-party politics. Smith may as well decry America's founding by anti-Tory native landowners, or support for emancipation by northern textile exporters tired of competing with cheap slave-made linens.2,3

Smith's disingenuousness allows him to strike a pose of righteous lamentation. He regrets that early reforms "did little to stem the overall flow of money into campaigns, due to weak enforcement mechanisms and various loopholes that could readily be exploited." Neither did the Federal Election Campaign Act of 1972, followed by McCain-Feingold in 2002, have their intended effect. Incumbents who once outspent challengers by half now spend twice as much, or more. Writes Smith, "The effect of campaign-finance regulations has therefore been to help the people who passed them and to strengthen special interests, rather than to cleanse American politics of the influence of self-­interested ­factions."

Such cleansing is not the purpose of campaign finance regulations. It's not possible. The purpose of regulation is to minimize imbalance — a subtle but important distinction. Our Founding Fathers understood this: they knew politics to be inherently dirty, and designed a political system with checks and balances that contained and channeled the corruptions of its members. In the right circumstances, good things can come from a clash between competing self-interests. Conservatives preach this when discussing markets, in which the wealthy have already prevailed — but in politics, where public interests are not entirely aligned with their own, they conveniently develop amnesia.4

Of course, those who think corporations and unions should be able to spend unlimited amounts of money to control political offices would argue that competition is precisely what they are supporting, and that regular citizens can pool their funds to compete with wealthy corporations. This is risible. Ten percent of Americans own one-half of its assets — an income discrepancy unprecedented in modern history, and one that is widening at ever-faster rates. The majority of financial power is concentrated in a tiny minority; conflating finance with politics logically expands the inequality. Smith makes no mention of these numbers, but argues that political power is now distributed unequally because campaign finance limits "elevate those with more free time — such as retirees and students — over those (like most working people) who have less time, but more money." To consider these two inequalities comparable defies reason.5

Smith is at least right that the influence of special interests on American politics has expanded in recent decades, though he fails to consider whether in the absence of campaign finance law it might have expanded even more. This failure is unsurprising: whatever motivates Smith and the conservative Supreme Court majority, it is clearly has nothing to do with democratic ideals or the public interest. If it did, they would argue for improving McCain-Feingold and the FEC restrictions, which at least recognize that corporate and public interests are not necessarily synonymous, and that the "marketplace" is not an ideal space for political debate between supposed equals.

Instead of improving the system, they call for its destruction. Instead of ending existing injustice, they would fuel it. Some people have said that American democracy in the corporate age is on life support. The plug has now been pulled.


1. Overtly absent from Smith's essay — though implicit in its every word — is the assertion that individuals and corporations are equivalent entities. That they are not is almost paralyzing in its self-evidence. As an exercise, I find it instructive to imagine telling Thomas Jefferson that the East India Company deserved the same rights as he.

2. An obvious counter to my example of Emancipation-era northern textile manufacturers is that they show how businesses can act in good conscience. (Smith gives another example: at the beginning of the 20th century, many corporations opposed segregation because they "did not want to pay for two sets of rail cars, double up on restrooms and fountains, or build separate entrances for customers of different races.")  But there's no doubt that corporations can behave well, and cherry-picking examples of either good or bad behavior is beside the point. People should not be forced to rely on corporate grace, and they need political recourse when corporations act against the public interest.

3. I've gone heavy on slavery-referencing examples, perhaps to balance Smith's playing of the race card. The aforementioned corporate champions of cost-efficient racial equality were, he notes, the enemies of South Carolina senator Ben Tillman, an early campaign finance reformer and segregationist. It's reasonable for him to mention this, but also a handy debater's trick: "You support campaign finance reform? Did you know it was invented by racists?"

4. There's an echo in this rhetoric of that ancient political refrain: [Insert state or national capital] is abominably corrupted by backroom deals and insider business-as-usual, and it's time for [insert political candidate] to clean up and restore government to the people. Every now and then someone means it, but usually it's just another sales pitch by someone happy to conduct their own backroom business. But this is more than a cheap political ploy: in the hands of a conservative bent on dismantling government and turning its remnants to corporate service, it's a path to destruction.

Thomas Frank writes eloquently on the infiltrate-loot-destroy tactics of modern conservativism. It sounds so awful and so cynical that one wonders if it's really a conspiracy theory — and then one is presented with the fact that, from 2000 to 2005, under President George W. Bush, Bradley Smith chaired the Federal Election Commission.

5. Speaking of "defies reason," it's worth contemplating the trajectory of Smith's argument: campaign finance reform is a failure because it's allowed wealthy special interests to flood the political system with money. However, money is not actually important to deciding electoral races. Campaign finance reforms have also favored people who have little money, but lots of time — so eliminating reforms will restore balance.

Any combination of these statements is self-contradictory. That Smith describes the arguments of his opponents as Orwellian is, well, Orwellian.

Image: Sjoerd van Oosten

My Dad's Story by Brandon

Roger Charles Keim passed away Saturday night, December 26, at the Eastern Maine Medical Center. He was 67 years old.

Roger was born October 9, 1942 in Phoenixville, Pennsylvania to Charles  and Ruth Keim. Though the region's character and ecology have been largely lost to sprawl, Roger's childhood setting was pastoral, and farm country and culture molded his character.

Happy as a boy to find an orange in his Christmas stocking or play baseball with cow patties for bases, Roger never took small comforts for granted, or failed to appreciate a kindness. Work on his uncle's farm and summer trips to Lake Ontario seeded a love of nature and its rhythms, and of fishing. Trains captured his imagination — the craftsmanship of engines, whistles that hinted of a world beyond his own. So did the Hockey Night in Canada broadcasts he found at night on a crystal radio set. That the broadcasts were in French only made them more romantic; Roger became a lifelong Montreal Canadiens fan, later giving the surname of star player Maurice Richard as a middle name to Brandon, his second son.

A linebacker and kicker in high school, Roger attended Temple University on a football scholarship. He majored in communications, graduated in 1964 and took a job as a general assignment reporter at the Coatesville Record. Shortly after graduating, he married Nancy Hie, with whom he had a son, Roger Alan Keim, born in 1967. The couple divorced a few years later.

After a year at the Record, Roger was hired by the Philadelphia Inquirer, where he became the youngest sportswriter at a major daily newspaper in the nation. He covered the Philadelphia Flyers, Eagles and 76ers, as well as other sports; he relished memories of going to the laundromat with Wilt Chamberlain, taking serves from Arthur Ashe, being saved by Stan Mikita from beer bottles hurled by an angry fan.

In 1973, Roger married Angela Gilladoga, a physician from the Philippines, and moved to New York City. Their courtship included a trip to the Montreal Forum and watching the New York Mets win the 1969 World Series. Roger first traveled to Maine to write about the blueback trout, a rare fish considered by some to be extinct; he caught one, and — as he loved to recall — it was accidentally cooked for breakfast by Angela. They honeymooned in northern Maine at the Red River Camps, to which they returned almost every year for the rest of Roger's life. Enamored by the Maine's rural ruggedness and cheer, they moved to Bangor in 1976 in expectation of the birth of their son, Brandon.

Though new to the state, Roger was soon rooted in it. He enjoyed fly fishing for Atlantic salmon — and, more than fishing itself, telling stories — at the Penobscot Salmon Club. He became active in the local model railroading community, and campaigned to keep passenger rail service in the state. He explored Maine's back roads and forgotten corners, often with Brandon and always with a camera, photographing trains and wildlife and weathered farm buildings.

As Brandon grew older, Roger retired from journalism in order to be a full-time father. He coached hockey, first for local youth teams for which Brandon played, then at Bangor High School and with the River City Raiders, a team founded by Roger and Angela. As a coach, Roger was inspired by the example of legendary Penn State football coach Joe Paterno, known as much for caring personally about his players as for success on the field. Two players in particular — Natan Obed, now working on social policy in Iqaluit, Nunavut, and Brock Soucie, an electrician in Flemington, New Jersey — were like sons to him, and remained close to Roger until his death.

In 1992, Roger and his family moved to their current home on Ohio Street. There he began work on a model railroad layout that, had it been completed, would have been among the largest in the country; covering 2300 square feet, each part corresponded to a place his family had visited during their many trips across the United States and Canada. Much of it was devoted to British Columbia's Rocky Mountains, a region that, like Maine, he treasured for its natural beauty and small-town warmth.

The home on Ohio Street and its environs became Roger's world. He read extensively and loved watching animals in the fields and fishing in the nearby pond with Comet, the family's beloved Labrador Retriever, at his side. In 2005, shortly after finishing his final article — a feature, co-written with Brandon, on the invasion of muskellunge into northern Maine's waterways — Roger was hospitalized with severe heart disease. His heart recovered, but diabetic neuropathy restricted his movements to home. Nevertheless, Roger remained active in the lives of Brock and Natan, welcoming their children as grandchildren. He took great pride in, and gave unflagging support to, the burgeoning journalism career of Brandon, now a science writer for Wired and other national publications. Articles they discussed and researched during Roger's final years, on the restoration of Atlantic salmon to Maine and the anticipated disfiguration of the Moosehead Lake region by corporate real estate developers, will be written. Roger often worried that Angela worked too hard, and encouraged her to relax.

Roger is survived by his wife, Angela; his sons, Brandon and Roger; his sons in spirit if not blood, Natan and Brock; his mother, Ruth; his sister, Molly; and many friends and relatives.

He will be remembered with love.