Saturday, July 26, 2014


I am currently living and working in Middlebury, Vermont, as an Instructor in Environmental Humanities at the Middlebury School of the Environment. For my class "Understanding Place: Lake Champlain" our students are writing final papers on a place of their own choosing—preferably a place that means a lot to them—and reflecting on all the aspects of a place—geological, biological, ecological, cultural, historical, &c.—that come together to make a "sense of place." Last week my students organized an open-mic night in town, and I wrote and read the following poem in response to this assignment.

A Brooklyn scene, May 2014


east river

1843, Mother Russia, Jew
1894, Statue of Liberty
beard swaying, with suitcases
Buenos Aires, Cangallo Street
March 11, 1903, Ellis Island
tongue depressors
Rio de Janiero
187 Franklin Street, Greenpoint

George, Georgio, Jorge
1890, 1891, Buenos Aires, Jew
May 7, 1904, Ellis Island
loud voices whispering
187 Franklin Street, Greenpoint
los estados unidos, nueva york
bananas, Venezuela
1914, Bayonne
2013 86th Street, Bensonhurst
leather shoes and sandwiches

1892, Lower East Side, Jew
26th Street, Bayonne
2013 86th Street, Bensonhurst
leather shoes and sandwiches
Yiddish, people talking

1916, Bayonne, Jew
2013 86th Street, Bensonhurst
Brooklyn College

1923, New Orleans, jewelry, jewish
1367 Shore Parkway
South Brooklyn, 1950s, Jews, Italians
749 Flanders Drive, North Woodmere, Long Island
575 Oxford Road, Cedarhurst
Jones Beach, Mr. Robert Moses presiding
leaving Brooklyn
white flight—eastward to Long Island
—westward to Buffalo
—eastward to Schenectady

1983, Schenectady, who am I?
118 Stafford Lane
Mohegan Road
John Cage and Steve Reich
Woody Allen, Jerry Seinfeld
From San Francisco to Prospect Park
From California to Maine to Schenectady to Troy to Catskill
2009, 17th Street, Mannahatta
Mannahatta with flannel
Mannahatta with coffee
Mannahatta with snowfall
Mannahatta with candles
Mannahatta with people, people dancing, people angry and laughing, smoking, marching, screaming, slippery people—strangers uncaring, straphangers asleep; anonymity; silence within the noise
Mannahatta, Mannahatta

January 24, 2014, Crossing Brooklyn Ferry
I walked fifteen miles in snow, carrying my life
out of Harlem, into Williamsburg
you who will cross one week hence, I see you
you who crosses one year hence, I see you
I see the face of gentrification
I see the face of money and privilege and unknowingness
I see you face to face!
What are you to me, you boisterous borough?
you cacophony of chords struck with skateboards and sharpies
What are you, you skinny jeans? you afros? you grannies? you prayerful? you sinners?
What are you, you Gowanus? you Bed-Stuy? you Bay Ridge? you two and a half million? you nobodies?
One hundred years hence, just as I have eaten pie, you will here eat pie
Just as I have watched the windows blaze red in the ruins of a factory, you, too, will blaze red
Just as I have watched the fish burp, the women in burkas carry their children, the men without shirts, smoking weed, listening to music, smiling, so you will see them
You will see a park with white people on one side and black people on the other
You will see men on bicycles with bags hanging from forearms, taking food to unhungry people
You will see the Jewish kids playing basketball, the Muslim kids playing with remote-controlled cars, the Russian ladies waiting in line at the bank with the beavers and the Indians emblazoned in gold above the tellers' windows
You will see a bag stuck in a tree, flapping in the wind, like some kind of national flag
You will see the mice in the cupboard, the roaches on the counter, the silverfish in the bathtub
You will watch them with your binoculars. You will fear them
You will fear them like the Dutch first feared the Canarsie
they planted corn and stuck it in their walls
they walked our roads
they paved this town with clamshells—white with a little bit of purple in it—the most valuable thing in the world
Jamaica Bay was all and there and you will not see it like that today or ever again
the Dutch came
but where did the Canarsie go?
We grew food here, food for Mannahatta
the English made roads, roads to connect Dutch towns, towns to connect Canarsie roads, roads to connect the forest to the grasslands to the sea
One big meadow
Ablaze, under fire; shining, under the moon

Irish squatters and free blacks
they came; towns united, Brooklyn
from the river to the sea
from the King of England, a county, a city, a place: Brooklyn
Walt Whitman saw them coming east! and west
1890, 1900, Abraham, Joseph, Jack, George, Henrietta
Jewish people
They imagined their great-grandchildren
They imagined me!

dumpster divers
queer dancers
poetry readers
lip rings
dollar slices
herring and
Oh, sea-green beach cruiser: take me where the beards sweep the streets on Jew Parkway!
pants rolled up, cut off, just off
hairy legs, oiled chests, bikini bottoms,
fat-bottomed people amid mangoes and Mr. Softee trucks
churros, and a little Latin music; everyone has got their phones out; everyone is awkward
everyone has a white baby; it doesn't matter what race you are: you have a white baby
they grow like money
but there the baby evicted, the baby hungry, the dead baby
There the prayerful; there the sinners
There the Jamaicans; there the Pakistanis
I sleep under stars at night, guarded by an angry opossum
It is quiet on Tehama Street
the trees whistle as day turns
big bees aim for my head; crows perch on satellite television dishes
they cry out at twilight, as the Chinese characters in neon sing their goodnight song above the railroad, where the man pushes the shopping cart uphill: it's like he will never get to where he is going, and the sun will never again rise

Sunday, July 20, 2014

Planning—No, Finishing—the Dissertation

Arriving or departing? Maritime New York, May 2014

It has been one year since I last updated my "Planning the Dissertation" series. If you missed it, Part I appeared here in May 2012, and Part II in July 2013. Now, with autumn winds approaching—yes, I can hear them whistling on the horizon—it is time for Part III, the last part, the grand finale: Finishing the Dissertation.

As per custom, let's look at the goals I set for myself last summer, and how well I have met them:

Summer 2013:
Research: One month of research at the Huntington Library in California; three weeks of research in Honolulu, Hawaiʻi, at various libraries and repositories. 
Writing: Finish full drafts of chapter 5 (on guano), chapter 6 (on California), and chapter 7 (on sugar).
RESULTS: Done and done: I had my California Research Adventure in July-August 2013, and my Hawaiʻi Research Adventure in August-September. As of July 1, I had full drafts of chapters 5-7, so I'm not even sure why that was on my list of goals for the summer!

Fall 2013:
Research: One month of research at the Bancroft Library in California. 
Writing: Get back comments on my chapter 2 (on sandalwood), chapter 3 (whaling), and chapter 4 (whaling). Turn in chapters 5, 6, and 7. Finish full draft of chapter 1 (on the body) and begin writing the Introduction.
RESULTS: Done and sort of done. I had my California Research Adventure in Berkeley in November 2013. I revised chapters 2-4, but I did not turn in chapters 5-7. I did, however, finish a full draft of both chapter 1 and my introduction. Unexpectedly, I also applied for a few academic jobs and had the good learning experience of interviewing at a few institutions.

Spring 2014:
Research: none. 
Writing: Revising any and all chapters as needed. Finish full draft of Introduction and Conclusion. Now the whole thing, in draft form, has taken shape. Once my advisor begins approving some of these chapters I can also begin to circulate them among other committee members and outside readers for further feedback.
RESULTS: Yes, I have continued to revise and edit my seven chapters and introduction. I started to draft a conclusion, but it is not yet finished. I did share my introduction with all committee members and outside reader, and I have begun to share select chapters with them, as well.

Summer 2014:
Research: Two final weeks in Hawaiʻi to check sources, get help with translations, and otherwise make sure that the dissertation research is solid. (If possible, and if I've also got the funds to do so, I'd like to visit Samoa, site of a possible "second book project.")
Writing: Editing, revising, resubmitting, rethinking, rewriting, lots of tinkering. 
Job prep: Putting together my job portfolio and really, deeply thinking through how I want to present myself when I go on the market. Getting sound advice from others. Making sure my suit fits well.
RESULTS: Well, I got a job teaching at Middlebury College this summer, so that means that I do not go to Hawaiʻi this summer. (I also obviously am not going to Samoa. I did quite a bit of preliminary research for that possible project, but it is no longer on the top of my pile of "second book projects.") I do need to go back to Hawaiʻi one last time, however. More on that later.
As for writing, I haven't touched the dissertation all summer. Really. :)
As for job prep, having gone on the job market last year was great preparation for this year. Academic jobs are now just starting to appear online. Let the games begin.

I also wrote up plans for the 2014-15 year, so let's look at those and see how I might want to change them:

Fall 2014:
No guarantee of funding at this point.
Research: none. Unless I'm crafting ideas for that elusive "second book project."
Editing, revising, resubmitting, rethinking, rewriting, tinkering. Everyone should be reading my dissertation right now: my advisor, other committee members, outside readers.
I hope to defend my dissertation during the fall semester of 2014.
Job prep:
Scanning the academic job market, near and far, high and low, and applying to as many jobs and job-related opportunities as possible.
Funding: check. I have been honored with a 2014-15 Dissertation Completion Fellowship from the American Council of Learned Societies.
Research: I plan to do more reading in secondary literature: more on the Pacific World; more on economic history and Marxist theory; more on the history of poverty and the working class.
Writing: I plan to significantly revise and tighten up my introduction. Otherwise I need to solicit more feedback from readers on the dissertation's seven chapters, and continue to tinker with them. I need to finish drafting the conclusion. I also want to work on revising two journal articles currently in progress, and send them out for publication.
Defense: No. We have decided to do the defense in spring 2015.
Job prep: Yes. Applying near and far, high and low is a major priority for this fall.

Spring 2015:
Finish up everything that ever mattered (and even the stuff that seems to have no meaning or relevance) so that I can close the book on six years of doctoral study, and seven and a half years of total graduate study. Clean out my department office. Hopefully some employer somewhere contacts me and offers me something, even if it is just for a year...somewhere to go, so that when I box up the hundreds of books in my office, at least I know what to write in black marker on the outside of those boxes.
This is where things get interesting.
I am probably leaving New York City for good circa February 2015. It is not for certain, but I am planning optimistically on the possibility of landing a good academic job somewhere outside of this famous city. It's not what I want to do. I want to stay in New York. But the reality is that I will probably find a job somewhere else, and that is okay.
So, with the winds of a year-long fellowship at my back, I intend to move to Honolulu for at least a month, but perhaps as many as four months starting in February. Here's what it will look like:
Research: Yes. Whatever I need to look at anew or afresh in Hawaiian archives, I can do that in February-March in Honolulu. I also intend to go to Maui for the first time, as there are historic sites there that play a major role in my dissertation. More importantly, with a full draft of my dissertation in hand, I intend to meet with numerous scholars at UH and elsewhere, to get their feedback on my work, to check my Hawaiian-language translations, and to think about where this work is going in its post-dissertation future.
Writing: dotting "i"s and crossing "t"s.
Defense: I should get the full, complete dissertation draft to my committee sometime in February. We can schedule a defense date for anytime between late March and early May. I graduate on May 21. Fingers crossed.
Job market: Interviews at the AHA in January in New York City? Campus visits in February or March? Fingers doubly crossed.

Summer 2015:
I did not include summer 2015 in my earlier plans, but now I know that I have been honored with a fellowship that covers two months' study in four New England repositories. This will take me to Harvard in June and to sites in Boston and Mystic, Connecticut, in July. Yay!

So this is how one finishes a dissertation. It's like a landslide passing through a funnel and all the separate rocks bang and crash together until just one rock—like a big turd—pops out: that's the dissertation.

In the past few years, I have averaged spending three or four months a year outside of New York. It's been a hell of a ride. From my vantage point here in Vermont this summer I can now look forward to six more months in Brooklyn, but those will likely be my last months in New York. In 2015 I am likely to spend just one month in New York City (January), then four months in Hawaiʻi (February-May), then two months in greater Boston (June-July), then five months in who-knows-where.

Is that scary? or exciting? or maybe a little of both?

Sunday, July 13, 2014

My Mohawk

I am currently living and working in Middlebury, Vermont, as an Instructor in Environmental Humanities at the Middlebury School of the Environment. For my class "Environmentalism and the Poor" my students and I each wrote personal reflection essays on the convergence of class, privilege, and environmental awareness and values in our lives. The following is my response to the assignment.

Mohawk River scene, November 2013

My Mohawk

I grew up just a few miles upland from the Mohawk River, but I did not know it. My father, mother, older brother and I all lived in a big house on a road named for the native peoples who once lived here. They were the Mohicans, and our street, plotted on a map for the first time probably in the early twentieth century, was named Mohegan Road. It intersects with Stuyvesant Road (named for the seventeenth-century Dutch governor of this land) and runs parallel to Algonquin Road (named for the larger group of native peoples that included Mohicans but not the Mohawks). As for the Mohawks, they were the “keepers of the eastern door.” They were members of the Iroquois confederacy—the Haudenosaunee—a great polity stretching westward from the Mohawk River to Niagara Falls, and stretching backward in time from the present to at least five hundred years ago. The Mohawk River is named for the people who lived along it. I never met a Mohawk until I moved to New York City, and I did not know that I lived along the Mohawk River. I lived a few miles upland. A river and its people flowed unknowingly beneath me through space and time.

Canal boats, barges, fishing boats, and high school crew teams can be seen going upstream and downstream each day along the river. In high school, my sweetheart participated on the crew team. I once attended one of their matches on the Mohawk. It was my first time actually on the river. Earlier, when we first fell in the love, she drove me down to the river one night and dared me to go skinny-dipping with her. I would not, but I watched her through the cracks in my fingers as she stripped down and made her body mysteriously disappear into the river.

She knew the river through the act of boating on it and swimming in it. I, on the other hand, was afraid to put a toe in it. We grew up hearing from anxious parents and schoolyard rumors that General Electric, the big corporation just a few miles upstream, had dumped heavy metals and toxins into the river for generations. It was not safe to swim in the Mohawk River. This was the narrative I learned and accepted as truth. But people swam in the river nevertheless. When I was older—sometime after college—I moved back to the Mohawk and lived in an apartment on my own for the first time in the city of Schenectady. Sometimes I would go down to the river and enjoy it with my senses from a safe distance. I watched the African-American children wading in and swimming in the inlet, laughing and splashing as they enjoyed the cool feel of the water on their overheated bodies. Were their apartments hot and stuffy, lacking air conditioning and fans? I felt the same heat as them, but why did they cool off in the river and I did not? Were our knowledges of and apprehensions of the level of pollution in the river wildly different? As for me, I was above swimming in the river. I swam at the Jewish Community Center in the chlorinated pool. I could swim at Union College where my dad worked. To each their own toxins: they chose industrial waste streams; I chose chlorine and kiddie pool piss.

One day I saw a swirling eddy of garbage floating in the Mohawk as it wound around Schenectady. I went home, opened a phone book, and called the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation to file a report. The woman on the other end of the line told me that, “oh, someone probably just dumped a load of garbage into the river. Assholes.” I later reflected on our conversation: who was the asshole? Why would anyone dump waste into the Mohawk River?

Downstream of us is the sewage treatment plant. Electricity is utilized to process my poop, separate it into liquids and solids, treat the liquid content, and then flush it all into the Mohawk. I'm not sure if we directly drink that water, but perhaps someone does. The electricity to run the sewage plant once came from the river itself. The Mohawk is dammed up so many times over from its headwaters in the Adirondacks to its outlet near Albany. Old hydroelectric plants sit as ruins along the water's edge. Today much of our energy comes from coal—mined in Appalachia, or perhaps somewhere else. I don't really know. Do the wires above our heads carry the current of hot coal from your river to mine? River currents can only go in one direction, down. Every river must end. But electrical currents go in all and every direction. The Mohawk used to be a corridor for electricity just as it is for water. Now it carries treated poop and heavy metals. No one knows where our electricity comes from.

General Electric began laying off employees at its Schenectady plant in the 1970s. Was it one hundred here and one hundred there, or did they lock out ten thousand all at once? By the time I came of age along the river, only two to three thousand workers still punched their timecards. When tens of thousands left, the population of our city went into free fall, and a neighborhood built expressly for company workers was soon a slum for the city's poorest. African-Americans became a majority of this neighborhood's residents, and white people increasingly stayed away. Anxious parents warned us not to go to Hamilton Hill. On the hill above the flats above the river, the poor, the dispossessed, and people of color got locked in—stuck in situ by the anger and despair of a crumbling white working class, a people on the defensive and in retreat, a people who once referred to the glowing “G.E.” sign above the canal with pride of place.

Globalization was good to our river. General Electric moved production overseas where labor was cheaper and environmental regulations less stringent or non-existent. Their motto, “we bring good things to life,” was unveiled when they left town. G.E. had brought good things to Schenectady—a sparkling downtown; men in fine suits, woman in party dresses; blue-collar men and women marching up and down Hamilton Hill, going to and from jobs that were sufficient and honorable; union meeting halls resounding with the sound of exhortations and proclamations by workers, for workers; marches up and down State Street; socialists taking over City Hall in the 1910s, creating parks for the poor, places of respite for the downtrodden. When G.E. left, the lights turned off. So began the post-industrial apocalypse. The people thinned out, and spread out. The pollution stopped. The river cleared up. People cleaned it up. The Mohawk was brought back to life, and we have globalization to thank for that.

But now men and women walk to work at General Electric-India and General Electric-China, where new rivers are receiving the brunt of our old pollution. We may clean up our own rivers by using compact fluorescent lightbulbs; the dams along the Mohawk can be smashed to smithereens, allowing fish to swim freely up and downstream if we want them to, because we are energy-efficient consumers and we no longer need “white coal” from the river. But who is putting the mercury in our compact fluorescent bulbs? Who is bringing good things to life in the twenty-first century?

I grew up close to, but distant from, the Mohawk River. Later, as I grew older, I came to love it very much. I love it passionately, but passively from a respectable distance. It is an expression of my class and my upbringing, of my station in society and in the world, and of my relationship to (or alienation from) work. I do not swim in the river. I do not boat on it. I try not to drink it. I most certainly poop into it. I don't want to pollute it, and I will do my part to clean it up, but I don't know and I can't care if I am polluting someone else's river to do so. When I turn on the lights in my parents' house, what good things are brought to life, and what good things are destroyed? If the energy we consume is not coming from the river, then where is it coming from? If I can't use the river to get from one place to another, or to power a single light bulb, then what use is it? Three hundred years ago, Dutch, English, and French traders and trappers traveled one way on the river while Mohawks traveled in the other direction. The river was a meeting place—a flashpoint in globalization. Great battles in our Revolutionary War were fought along its shores. The Erie Canal was built tracing its edge. One of the world's great corporations took root in the flats along the river in that great age of steam, iron, consolidation, unionization, immigration, socialism, upheaval, and progress. You never step into the same river twice, and that could easily be said of the Mohawk.

My Mohawk is not anyone else's Mohawk. Mine is an idea. To someone else, it is a river.