Mar 17, 2007

At last I remember to post the Memphis trip

I had originally planned to start this blog in January with an account of my trip to Memphis, TN for the National Conference on Media Reform. I ended up sending an email to friends, rather than starting the blog, and I'm glad I did wait until I had more of a focus on the things I want to talk about here. So I'm posting it now, long after the trip, partly for the sentiment, partly to encourage myself. Since that trip I have corresponded with a number of folks from the conference and have gotten involved in at least one project. So here it is as a reminiscence and reference. Looking back at the events since then, I see that things are beginning to change somewhat: more information about the reality on the ground in Iraq is getting into the MSM (Main Stream Media); the Don Imus affair has ended with the network taking responsibility for his belligerent crudeness--though only after the loss of advertising revenue--; I have since found out a good bit more about the involvement of the FBI at the time of Dr. King's murder, and it isn't laudable; some of the Congressmen and Senators have begun to follow through with their promises with regard to investigation of the media, but as usual, things have meandered and wandered. As I am doing right now. Here's the email text from January 16, 2007:

Last night I returned from wet and misty Memphis, the site of the third National Conference on Media Reform. The dreary mid-south weather did nothing to dampen the spirit of the conference. Leaving the hotel, a wonderful man entered the full shuttle--he turned out to be the owner of the shuttle company--to thank all of us for bringing the conference to his city. His words were genuine and moving. He said that he had heard most of the major speakers and was impressed with the warmth and graciousness of the attendees. Most of all, he was happy to have Memphis chosen for the venue, since the city had come such a long way since 1968 when Martin Luther King, Jr. had been assassinated on the balcony of the Lorraine Motel in the southern end of downtown Memphis. Now, he said, the city was trying to move toward a deliberated vision of democracy: all citizens living in harmony and getting down to the real job of making life better for all and educating its children to live together in diversity and democracy and peace as our Constitution intended.

I was traveling with about 10 men and women, most in their twenties, who were returning to Boston. All of them were staff members of FreePress, the non-profit organization founded at the end of 2002, which had sponsored the Conference, and all of us, without exception, had managed to visit the National Museum on Civil Rights either yesterday--the national holiday and birthdate of Doctor King--or on Sunday right after the conference.

No one can visit the museum quickly, there is so much history and so much emotion to contemplate, one panel to another, picture to portrait to quote, from slavery many decades before 1776 , through the Civil War, Reconstruction, Jim Crow, lynchings, burnings, migration to the cities, sit-ins, the marches, the freedom rides, the terrible racist violence that black people in the United States had to bear and struggle against, through the old garbage truck from the Memphis strike in 1968, with its motto on the signs held by the silent statues of garbage workers: "I am a Man."

And then you climb and arrive at that inexpensive motel room #306 of the Lorraine Motel--where black people preferred to stay, even then still finding prejudicial treatment at the better hotels of Memphis. You look out onto the angled balcony where Dr. King fell, then you look out at the building across the street to a metal cage protecting the room where James Earl Ray was alleged to have fired the rifle. That building has been converted into further museum property, and the main building of the museum incorporates the facade of the Lorraine, with two vintage cars, large, befinned gas guzzlers parked outside.

No white person walking through the museum, walking through our shameful history, can do so without weariness and sadness and contrition, and I could see, in the faces of many of the black people in the museum the tightening of jaws, the moist eyes and stiff chins, the explaining to their children why these things were important. You go to the museum knowing you will be saddened, and yet you leave it--after viewing exhibits about Gandhi and films about human rights all over the world with images of Nelson Mandela and Tiananmen Square--with a firmer resolve than ever to preserve what has been accomplished and knowing that there is so much more still to do.

For Dr. King was about more than the struggle for justice for black people and minorities in the United States. In the final years of his life, he spoke out for justice for workers, he spoke out against the War in Vietnam. When he was preaching non-violence in the face of biting dogs and fire hoses, he was admired and only spied upon by the FBI, but when he began to speak out against the war and economic exploitation, he was ignored, vilified, threatened, ridiculed, and condemned.

Had he not been assassinated, he would have been 78 years old yesterday, and I am sure he would have been a speaker at this National Conference on the Media, eloquently decrying the enormous harm that Media consolidation has done to broadcast and print over the past twenty-five years and more. That consolidation has weakened democracy in this country terribly, and 3500 of us went to Memphis to help to return democracy to this country through concerted opposition to corporate damage to the press and public knowledge.

If you do nothing else, please read, listen to or watch the keynote address Bill Moyers delivered on Friday morning. You can find the complete text at, or you can listen at; or you can watch videos of the conference at; (Just a side note: when my friends asked me why I was going to the Conference, I told them I wanted to meet Bill Moyers, one of my heroes, and by golly I did. As I was finishing dinner on Thursday night, I heard his voice, and then when I stood up, saw his shock of gray hair, so I walked up, introduced myself to him and told him to knock 'em dead tomorrow morning. Was I right or what? He made a great speech, and it sums up the battle and gives the facts.)

This movement to reform the media cuts across party lines. It is not a "liberal left" movement, because a whole spectrum of interests, from conservative Christians, Goldwater and Reagan Republicans, the National Rifle Association, center Democrats, as well as Progressives have all united to set limits to corporate expansion, to save the internet from the fate of radio, television, and cable. We are all involved in this struggle to return democracy to the press and the airwaves that are the property of all of us, not just a priveleged few corporations who have forgetten their civic duty.

And to my conservative friends who might be put off by my enthusiasm: ask yourself why Clear Channel makes millions off its use of the public airwaves yet pays less than you do for your drivers' licenses; ask yourself why your cable bill keeps increasing but the Cable Company has yet to find a way to let you pay only for what you want rather than having to buy it as a premium package; ask yourself why you'd rather watch the history channel than the latest reality TV show; why you find commercials running all the time on Public Television; the next time you have to wait an age for something to download, go to this site and find out how your service compares to someone else's in Japan or Europe: (it's an easy test and an eye opener); the next time you get bored by Bill O'Reilly not letting a guest finish a sentence; think of your pet peeve about TV or the news and how you wish for more than homogenized and repetitious viewpoints and opinion; or ask yourself why you can't get country music because a top 50 or "easy listening" format took its place.; or think about why the following happened:

0n January 18, 2002, in Minot, North Dakota, one person died and hundreds were treated for inhalation problems partly because the Clear Channel-owned radio station responsible for being the emergency broadcast channel continued to play automated music as clouds of anhydrous ammonia from a wrecked train spread over the community. The emergency broadcast system didn't work very well that night. Initially no one was at the station to pick up the phone even when city officials called. Citizens breathing in the toxic fumes tuned to the frequency for emergency information and found only music, even as late as two hours after the disaster occurred. The story can be found in Eric Klinenberg's Fighting for Air.

Things are not right, and that's why I went to Memphis.

Mar 9, 2007

For Starters

Years ago before leaving New York, I did woodworking at the YMCA in Manhattan. The class was taught by a man named Maurice, a Canadian, I recall, whose method was patiently to talk us through about a dozen basic lessons about tools and wood, then to give us some plans for a simple project based on some Shaker designs and watch as we struggled through the first efforts to turn a piece of fine wood into a useful item: a guitarist's stool, a step stool with a handle, or a small bench. Only oak was allowed, I remember, since it was relatively inexpensive. Pine was too soft and difficult to work with. Cherry and maple were too expensive for a beginner, though. Other woods were too quirky or expensive or too hard. We had to buy some simple tools--four good chisels, a sharpening stone, a smoothing plane, and a dovetail saw, an adjustable angle, a good steel 6-inch rule, an Exacto knife and blades. A marking gauge was optional, I think. What I liked about the class was Maurice's simple handouts and simple words.

I had heard the adage to "measure twice, cut once" many times, but Maurice was the first person who really showed what it meant to measure accurately. He also taught me not to be afraid to do the cutting. The evening after my first lesson, my wife and I visited my wife's uncle, whom we called "Runk" (from "Hi yer, Unk"). He was an autodidact, never went to college, but boasted of having read the Encyclopedia Britannica cover to cover at least once. He certainly could be condescending and pompous at times, and though he subscribed to the encyclopedia's annual supplement, some of his knowledge was very much out of date and out of touch with reality. We visited him the evening after my first lesson, and I discussed the class with him. He told me that he did not like to work with wood. It was "dimensionally unstable." Metal was his material of choice. He had a small machine shop in his basement in Middle Village and worked on inventions in his spare time.

For me, the quality of wood's instability was appealing. It "breathed," it grew old, and it shrunk, it drank moisture on a rainy day, it had grain and figure and color. Maurice had confirmed for me, that very first day, my love of wood and woodworking. He had also taught me an important lesson: most people think that sharp things are dangerous, but Maurice had taught me that for a craftsman, the sharp tool is the safe tool. On this matter Runk was in agreement. “The sharper tool makes better turnings.” And he illustrated by drilling a hole in a thin piece of metal with first a dull bit and then a sharpened bit. The dull bit howled and burned the lubricant and twisted the metal out of the clamp. The sharp bit whispered a clean hole needing no file work or deburring and only a single drop of the oil.

Years later I visited a woodworker who turned wooden bowls for a living. His tools had to be ultra sharp, for they had to be prepared for the hidden imperfections in the blank or the burl. Especially the burl. Nothing is as daunting as the sudden explosion of a burl that has been worked on for an hour or so. And for the wood turner, goggles and a facemask and gloves are needed as well as the sharp tools.

I am not going to write about woodworking on this blog unless the spirit moves me. I give the story only as a metaphor for the work. I don’t know what “wood” I will be turning, but I do intend to keep my tools as sharp as possible. One more piece of the metaphor and I am done. Over the years I have met a number of woodworkers who are missing digits or whole fingers, and while I have all my fingers, I do have some scars, and probably, before this enterprise is finished, more will appear, both inside and out. I hope so.

A Modest Start

Turnings: shavings of wood or metal resulting from turning something on a lathe.

Truing: to bring an object, wheel or other construction into the exact shape, alignment or position required. (For a good example, read William Carlos Williams' poem, "Fine Work with Pitch and Copper.")

So as I turn some things on the lathe--metaphorically and otherwise--these are the acts that take place. The shavings fall away onto the ground and are ephemeral, but they signify the way into what is being turned. The truing is an act that must take place often as the work progresses.