Monthly Archives: January 2019

“Under the Wire – Marie Colvin’s Final Assignment” by Paul Conroy

Under the Wire: Marie Colvin's Final Assignment

Journalist Marie Colvin (1956-2012) was an American war correspondent who reported on some of the most violent conflicts of our times – in Chechnya, Kosovo, Sierra Leone, Zimbabwe, Sri Lanka, East Timor and Libya. By the time she reported on the Syrian Civil War with photographer Paul Conroy, she had achieved iconic status. Blinded in one eye by a grenade in 2001 in Sri Lanka, she wore an eye patch and had a reputation for courage and fierce, incredible persistence. Her story has been told in books and a movie.

Conroy’s account of the Syrian Civil War (from the rebel viewpoint) is hard to read. The statement “war is hell” hardly begins to describe the conditions and suffering Colvin and Conroy saw and ultimately experienced. They escaped from the besieged rebel city of Baba Amr, but returned at Colvin’s insistence. She and a French photographer died there. Conroy escaped a second time, with terrible injuries and severe PTSD.

For another look at this book, see this blog entry. The author highlights important aspects of the narrative that I won’t attempt to cover.

Why do journalists do expose themselves to such nightmarish danger? Their answer is simple. They do it to bear witness, to see and to tell the terrible story of human suffering and in particular the suffering of non-combatants and the innocent – children in particular. Throughout Conroy’s book runs outrage and the frantic hope that someone is listening, that someone will intervene on behalf of 28,000 civilians trapped in Baba Amr.

Less idealistically, war zone journalists are adrenaline freaks, hooked on the chemistry of fear and often on other chemicals as well – alcohol, nicotine, etc. But where would we be without adrenaline freaks? Who would rush into burning buildings or fly into space? I don’t “understand” this behavior, but I respect it.

In this blog, dated October 9, 2013, you will find my review of Nicholson Baker’s Human Smoke – The Beginnings of World War II, the End of Civilization. Why does Baker choose that date as the end of civilization? Because it marked the end of a distinction between soldiers and civilians during war. He blames the change on the emergence of aerial bombardment as a primary military tactic.

  • Aerial bombardment was rarely accurate.
  • Each side killed civilians.
  • Accusing the foe of breaking the old “rules of war”, both sides proceeded to bomb cities indiscriminately.

The climax was the American destruction of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. This action was NOT unanimously approved by American citizens.

The Syrian Civil War may be (almost) over, but peace is not assured and any form of “reconciliation” seems remote. The magnitude of human suffering is staggering.

If civilization ended in 1945, what has been going on since then? Civil wars seem more and more common. “Guerrilla” war is a new norm. Wars are no longer declared, and are not fought by countries, but often by “non-state entities”. There’s a great deal of “proxy” behavior. Superpowers are competing for influence and access to resources. The invention, production and distribution of weaponry has become a large and permanent feature of the global economy. What else? I’m not educated enough to take this analysis further.

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The federal government shutdown – day 33 – work without pay

I wrote about the federal shutdown of 2013 on October 14 of that year. That was a 16 day shutdown, and I don’t know if employees worked without pay. 

I work (part time) for a public institution in New Jersey, and it is NOT LEGAL for me to work without being paid immediately. I’m limited to working 944 hours per fiscal year. One year in June, things got busy and I knew I would run out of hours a few weeks before the new fiscal year started. I OFFERED to continue working and collect my pay later. The answer was…

  • NO
  • Against the law
  • Can’t do it
  • Don’t even think about it!

A supervisor (in another department) who ignored this rule and delayed payment of (consenting) part time workers was reprimanded and had a strongly worded letter entered into his personnel file. He wasn’t fired, but he accepted a job offer elsewhere a short time later.

So this is the law in the State of New Jersey. Why it is possible for federal employees to work without being paid is completely INCOMPREHENSIBLE to me.

What’s behind the New Jersey law? It protects the employee.

  • The employee might (for who knows what reason) never get paid.
  • Employees might be pressured into accepting delayed paychecks.
  • A person might work enough hours to trigger mandatory benefits of which they would be unaware (and that the employer doesn’t want to pay).

To me, the present inability of our government to function is very, very ominous.

Atlantic City Women’s March, January 19, 2019

I made my decision to join the AC March at the last moment, on the morning of the event. Before that, I was distracted by family troubles. So I woke up on Saturday, ate well and dressed warmly, and headed to Atlantic City, without a buddy or a single protest sign.

I reached the New Jersey Avenue assembly point early, and the March started late. I got chilled but had fun, greeting many friends among the arrivals, talking to people about their signs, organizations and interests, and doing my usual informal demographic analysis. (I’m always, in some sense, counting and classifying. Is good or bad? Comment below.)

About half the participants came as identifiable members of organizations. These are some of the groups I spotted:

  • League of Women Voters
  • American Civil Liberties Union
  • Sororities – African American
  • Students in Stockton University’s Master of Social Work program. Stockton supported the March with free parking.
  • Young Muslim women, identifiable by head scarves
  • Men (maybe 5% of participants)
  • One Women’s Center (Cherry Hill)
  • Two dance corps
  • Local Democratic politicians
  • At least three unions – CWA, NJ Education Association, and government employees
  • Furloughed government employees – FAA
  • Admirers of Ruth Bader Ginsberg
  • Feminists and “girl power” advocates
  • Families
  • Immigration activists

Atlantic City suffers from poverty and political corruption, but the Women’s March brought out its wonderful diversity and multigenerational energy. I think it deserves the term “intersectional”. Of course, the various “stakeholder” groups have occasional disagreements, but the March was a positive and unifying event. The organizers dedicated it to the honor and memory of Fanny Lou Hamer (1917-1977), one of the leaders of the Mississippi Freedom Delegation that bravely challenged the Democratic Party at its 1964 national convention in Atlantic City.

FINALLY we started to walk. My feet warmed up and I forgot about the weather. We moved south towards Boardwalk Hall by fits and starts. There was some chanting, usually “call and response”, my favorite being

  • “What does democracy look like?”
  • “THIS is what democracy looks like!”

I was surprised by the lack of organizational guidance. I expected to be told “We have a permit and these are the conditions – stay on one side of the Boardwalk, cooperate with marshals and police, medics are on hand…” I remembered marches when no sticks (for signs or banners) were permitted. And no bags or backpacks…

There was no supervision except for an outside group performing some “marshal” type functions. I spotted about 25 women and men, wearing bright orange hoodies with “The PeaceKeepers Global Initiative” written on the back and “I AM PRESENT FOR PEACE” on the front. They were extremely tentative in giving directions about leaving a clear lane for non-participants and emergency vehicles. I wondered if they were in any way ready to deal with the unexpected.

On the other hand, it was unlikely that they would need to. The Atlantic City Police were present in good numbers and seemed entirely supportive of the March. If they had been hostile to it, they could easily have called the whole thing off, since Governor Murphy had declared a statewide emergency based on the expected harsh winter storm. But with his Lieutenant Governor Sheila Oliver a featured March speaker, was that going to happen? Nope. (The state wide march in Trenton, regrettably, was cancelled due to weather.)

I’ve written about my fear of demonstrations – see blog entry dated January 22, 2017 that includes my grim memories of a march that “went bad”. Any public demonstration can “go bad”. There was little at this March to trigger my anxiety. I kept an eye out. The crowd wasn’t so dense that I feared being trampled. There was no counter protest.

But what was it like in Charlottesville, VA? Would I have bailed out because of the huge crowd and the terrible, obvious hostility?

When we got to Boardwalk Hall, I hesitated to enter because I was tired and didn’t want to have a problem getting back out. After most of the marchers had entered, I followed. Upstairs, I finally had a chance to ask one of the orange garbed marshals who they were and how they got involved. I approached a small group and found a man who was happy to talk and who introduced himself and his companions, including a woman I probably should have heard of, a singer. They described themselves as a “local” group that supported community organizations, especially those oriented towards youth activities. He was truly local, and we uncovered some mutual acquaintances in the facilities management field. We might have talked longer, but I really needed a restroom break, and my new friends were able to send me in the right direction.

Refreshed, I entered the Ballroom. (We would have been a very tiny group in the giant main arena used for shows and sports events and national political conventions!) The rally was slow to get underway, and the crowd began to disperse. I circulated, finding more friends to greet and sizing up the speakers on the podium, but I ran out of energy, and left.

I made a quick Starbucks stop to fuel up, and walked alone to my car. Later, a friend offered the opinion that the speakers I missed had been long winded and, in some cases, repetitive. In other words, I’d have been fine if I had brought my needlework!

An event like this March takes so much work! I admire the organizers and think their efforts bore fruit. A large crowd in Atlantic City supporting progressive interests is a good thing, and I look forward to seeing what happens next for my region. New leadership is emerging.

“The Rise and Fall of D.O.D.O.” by Neal Stephenson and Nicole Galland

The Rise and Fall of D.O.D.O.: A Novel

I’ve read four books by Neal Stephenson.

  • Seveneves
  • Anathem
  • Snow Crash
  • Cryptonomicon

All are LONG. I almost bailed out on Cryptonomicon. Too long, too many characters, etc.  (See my blog entry dated September 27, 2017.)

Stephenson benefitted from having a coauthor on this book (or maybe he found a better and more assertive editor, or maybe he just improved). The story had a more comprehensible narrative course. In the middle, the plot began to wander, but the ending was captivating. And “only” 742 pages!

A recurring theme in D.O.D.O. is language. Protagonist Melisande Stokes is a hardworking graduate student in ancient and classical linguistics when she is recruited by a “shadowy government entity” to translate some very, VERY old manuscripts. Everything about her work is “classified”. Soon she is deeply involved with…time travel and witchcraft!

The authors single out academics and government administrators for scathing parody. If you’ve worked in either of those settings, you may enjoy seeing pomposity punctured.

I haven’t read Nicole Galland, but I’m looking forward to checking out her contemporary and historical fiction.

 

My first “binge watch” – “The Good Place” TV series

I don’t watch much TV. A little sports…weather…NO news… But last week my family started watching “The Good Place” and I got hooked!

“The Good Place” is heaven (in the afterlife). Protagonist Eleanor realizes she is there by mistake, and starts trying to earn her way in, retroactively. She studies ethics with Chidi, a deceased university professor. Eleanor and Chidi become friends with Tahani and Jianyu (aka Jason), two other imperfect souls. All are trying to figure out how to be GOOD.

My husband and son watched this as philosophical commentary. Both are academically well grounded in ethics and philosophy. They decided the series would be a useful supplement to a class in ethics.

And it’s FUNNY, full of throwaway lines that cracked me up. They even manage to make the Trolley Problem funny. (I consider “trolleyology” the most pretentious word ever invented.)

After lots of effort at avoiding being sent to “The BAD Place”, the series starts to speculate about “The MEDIUM Place.”

So far, “The Good Place” has run for three 13-episode seasons, and apparently a fourth is in the works. Wikipedia characterizes the show as comedy/fantasy. Check it out!

Upon reflection, I realized that I DID do some earlier binge watching! I watched and re-watched BBC2’s Fawlty Towers  (from 1975-1979) so long ago that we had to buy the VCR tapes. My kids LOVED it! John Cleese might be the funniest actor I ever saw. The supporting cast was hilarious.

Nonetheless, I’m returning to my usual preoccupation with books. But if you tell me what YOU binge watch, I’ll check it out!

“The Last Dragonslayer” and “The Song of the Quarkbeast” by Jasper Fforde

The Last Dragonslayer: The Chronicles of Kazam, Book 1The Song of the Quarkbeast: The Chronicles of Kazam, Book 2

We all need to read something silly now and then! This is some of the best silliness available.

These two books are part of Jasper Fforde’s Chronicles of Kazam. They are listed as “for young readers” and have received awards as such, but the Library doesn’t have them marked as YA (Young Adult). Who cares? I love a good dose of fantasy now and then.

The setting of these stories is vaguely dystopic – a future Britain in which magic happens, but VERY unpredictably. The fifteen year old protagonist is a foundling, an orphaned child working out a period of indenture to pay for her Spartan but survivable upbringing in the vaguely demented convent of an unspecified religion.

In a way, our heroine’s life is what many teenagers would want – REAL work and responsibility mixed with challenge and adventure, and accompanied by friends.

I knew I was going to like these books when our heroine announced that she’d had a driver’s license since age 13, because the driving test was based on maturity, not age! Wouldn’t THAT be a nice innovation??

Anyway, when you need something to read in the doctor’s waiting room or on a train, check out Jasper Fforde. He’s also written The Thursday Next Series for adults, which takes place in The Bookworld and involves lots of time travel.

RIP Natalie Dempsey – the sound of sorrow

I live in the country. It’s very quiet here. Recently, after hearing coyotes, I’ve been listening more carefully at night, hoping to hear coyotes again, or maybe owls. The frogs and crickets are silent in winter.

A few nights ago, after friends visited, I stepped outside and heard something unfamiliar. It sounded like a train or big machinery, mixed with car alarms and sirens. The sound was low in pitch and irregular but steady, coming from the north and seeming fairly close. It was strange and disturbing.

A friend explained. This was the sound of dozens of fire engines and other emergency vehicles, escorting the body of deceased fire fighter Natalie Dempsey from her public funeral. This is how fire fighters and other emergency responders honor and memorialize their colleagues lost in the line of duty.

Natalie Dempsey, a member of the all Mizpah Volunteer Fire Company, died Christmas morning answering a fire call before dawn. She was 21 years old and had recently completed her training. Details can be found in the Press of Atlantic City.

Natalie Dempsey’s death is both a private and a public tragedy. The Mizpah Volunteer Fire Company (assisted by the Galloway Township Police and other agencies) took responsibility for the funeral held six days after her death. Fire companies from New Jersey and beyond sent members and equipment to express respect and solidarity and sorrow. I hope the dignity of the occasion gave some measure of comfort to her family and friends.

I hope I never hear such a sad sound again.