“Honestly, you have been very patient with me.”

I was thrilled to find this letter from a friend as a comment on my piece, “Pollyanna?” Because online comments can easily get lost on a site like this, I moved it here with an OK from its author. I’ve also tagged it as part of my brand-new “Cartwheeling” series. The series is meant to be a place to share stories of places where I and others find hope in the face of the current state of the world. Many entries will be stories of extraordinary things that are already happening. My friend’s letter tells of his own quiet but extraordinary act, here in my own community. I’m grateful for it.

Anne  

 

June 19, 2018

Hi Anne!
Tomorrow is the last day of detention school and I thought I would write a letter to the students. After reading your essay I felt a connection between our themes.

*

To My Students,

Thank you for all that you have taught me these last four months. I have become a better listener, a more patient, forgiving and fearless person. I came into the detention center not knowing what to expect. I made a few mistakes along the way, but each time I tried to correct my missteps. Honestly, you have been very patient with me.

I have been a teacher, tutor, and youth advocate for many years. I enjoy working with young adults. The detention center seemed like a place where my skills might be of some use. Now, I know that is true, and I know many of you have appreciated me being here, because you have told me so.

As the regular school year ends I would like you to consider two things:

First, keep practicing hearing your own, true voice. Your true voice can keep you out of trouble. Your true voice can keep you on the path of becoming a wise and happy person. And, your true voice will inspire you to love and help others.

Second, use every opportunity you are given to strengthen your education. The detention center is a great place to do this! The teachers here are dedicated to your success. Let them in—they have many wonderful gifts to give you.

I believe each one of you has so much to offer your families, your community, and the world. Most of you don’t know this yet! I didn’t know it when I was your age either. I believe the very best about you, and I will continue to work with you to bring that ‘bestness’ out.

OK,
Mr. Carl


Beneath partisan politics – Boting Zhang, guest author

As many of us did, after the 2016 election Boting Zhang asked herself, “What’s a plebian to do?” I’m inspired by how quickly she responded. Since her childhood in China, Bo had carried in mind a dream of America as meiguo, the Beautiful Country. In late 2016, this dream from her childhood compelled her to leap into the polarized space that divides much of this nation. To try to understand the divide and, if possible, help bridge it, she developed a year-long conversation – by phone and online – that engaged 12 people who voted for Clinton and 12 who voted for Trump. What she learned is not what she expected. Instead, as she says, “I learned a few things about our political climate today and a lot more about what it takes to live a fully connected life in our modern age.” In what follows, she tells this story and threads through it glimpses of her own and her family’s experience in China before coming to this country.

Anne Focke


Destined for the Beautiful Country

I was born destined for the opportunity of America. As the only kid in daycare lucky enough to have parents studying in Meiguo – the Beautiful Country – I heard about it constantly. Meiguo sounded like an amazing place. I imagined Americans to be grinning all the time, just proud to belong to the nation that’s best at everything.

Destined for the Beautiful Country

Months before my fifth birthday, my grandparents and I took the two-day train journey to Beijing. There, I boarded a plane alone for JFK. My parents would be waiting when the plane landed. I’d never see my grandmother again.


The American Dream tells us that success lives just on the other side of individual hard work and self-sufficiency. Three decades in, my family has lived that dream. But the proud and happy Americans that I’d expected to find on this side of the fairy tale? Turns out that we’re more complicated than that.

This is also a time when, around the world, cities and their surrounding countrysides find themselves at heated political odds. Many people seem resigned to the conclusion that their political opposites must be selfish, myopic idiots. Researchers and others have analyzed the causes of our political polarization, and I will neither rehash nor dispute these analyses. Our polarization has a complex history.

Through my year-long conversation I learned a few things about our political climate today and a lot more about what it takes to live a fully connected life in our modern age of individual ambition. My question about modern America now is this: How can we find the sense of belonging together that encourages people to work through their differences?

Between Americans1

Twenty-four voters from around the country participated in the year-long conversation online. Half had supported the woman I’d voted for; the other half had chosen the man I didn’t understand. Most participants were strangers to each other, but all were introduced to me by people I know.

At the start, the project was called “Into the Schism.” Then, in a fit of hope, I changed its name to “Between Americans.”

At this time in American history, it takes a lot of hope and trust for people to even come together. My hope was that the year-long conversation would encourage greater mutual understanding. For most participants, the experiment didn’t succeed in the way they, or I, had hoped. It succeeded in a totally different way.

Through mistakes that I made and through what participants shared with me at the end of the year, the project helped me see that political dialogue is hollow if it doesn’t address the creeping loneliness and floundering sense of purpose that lie under our nation’s polished surface.

America the lonely

Underneath a veneer of pearly-white smiles, modern Americans are lonely. Even a former Surgeon General, Vivek H. Murthy, has rung alarm bells about our epidemic of loneliness. He wrote, “The world is suffering from an epidemic of loneliness. If we cannot rebuild strong, authentic social connections, we will continue to splinter apart.” Although “loneliness” implies being alone, my conversations with participants surprised me by making it clear that busy Americans with lively social networks can also be intimately familiar with the feeling.

What’s more, this loneliness, this underlying stress to our collective whole, may be driven in no small part by our own restless individual aspirations for success. We’re industrious, ingenious, and interconnected, but these traits also lead to conditions that keep us apart: an extreme busyness, no room for serendipity, a craving for certainty and simple answers, and a crowded Internet.

Extreme busyness

The Between Americans conversation began in January 2017. Here’s what a few people wrote early in the project.

Immediately after the election, I felt like I needed to get more involved in the political process…. I kept coming back to the idea that I wanted to have a dialogue with people who think differently from myself.” — Participant A

I’ve never seen our country as polarized as it is right now. I don’t think that supporters of either major candidate in the last election are as blinkered as social media memes would suggest. One way to bridge the divide is conversation. So, let the conversation begin!” Participant B

The project planned to use a combination of online writing and phone calls among small groups of participants. Almost immediately, participants and facilitators found themselves swept back into the urgency of everyday life. We only managed to schedule one small-group call with just five participants before everyone became too busy.

Yet, many participants didn’t lose interest. They still believed in the idea and wanted to continue – they just hadn’t expected to be so busy. This led me to wonder about the phenomenon of American busyness itself.

Our nation is home to two kinds of busyness. The first is a busyness of scarcity; many people are still working hard for survival in a nation of abundance. But graduating from scarcity often only brings Americans into a different busyness of abundance. The busyness of each participant seemed essential: responding to family needs or unexpected events in the context of overwhelmingly busy jobs. But in the aggregate, it formed a striking pattern. Something is wrong with our collective capacity for a functioning togetherness. This is a catastrophe that warrants deeper exploration.

To give you an idea of how hard modern Americans work, we forfeited 206 million vacation days in 2016. If an average worker works for 45 years, that’s over 12,500 lifetimes of paid leisure, thrown away in just one year.2


I certainly relate to busyness. Workaholism is in my DNA. My dad grew up in a farming community where poverty and hunger were well-known. Especially in the famine years of his childhood, the purpose and meaning of life was fairly straightforward: to survive, and to help others survive if you can.

My dad and his four siblings grew up in the underground dwelling.

Loneliness was impossible. It was an environment that could only be survived together. His community pooled resources to help my dad become their first college student, to leave poverty behind. After she and my dad moved to this country, my mom cleaned houses and packaged chicken eggs as the two of them worked their way through grad school in Connecticut. That is how, layer by layer, our family made its way into the American Dream.


The opportunities of reaching the Dream present an entirely different challenge: not to survive, but to remain fully connected in community. In the world of the American Dream, neighbors each have separate lawn mowers and kitchen stand mixers. Friends respect each other’s busyness and avoid asking for big favors. We buy insurance policies. We avoid surprises. The farther we move up in the social classes of the ever-less-burdened and more self-reliant, the harder it becomes to see our vital contributions to each other’s survival. But the less immediately necessary we feel, the more deeply we succumb to the stresses of uneasy belonging.

We humans go crazy in solitary confinement. We’re like single cells that shrivel up and wither away when separated from the larger organism of community. To the extent that humans have a baked-in desire beyond survival and sex, that desire is to belong together.

No room for serendipity


Shortly after college, I worked for two years in a guesthouse in a sparsely populated Japanese mountain village. My parents were bewildered at why I’d be so eager for the rural poverty that my elders had labored to leave behind. How to explain that I was enchanted by the serendipity of shared humanity that arises from moments of idleness and curiosity?

The view from Omo’s cypress grove

“Mornin’, Bo-chan!” I heard one early morning, faintly in the distance, as I picked my way downhill through the lingering darkness to our log-cabin office. My eyes searched the empty road and fields until I finally spotted our 76-year-old neighbor, cheerily hanging from the upper trunk of one of his Japanese cypresses, chainsaw in hand.

“Morning, Omo-san!” I yelled back.

“What are you up to today? More emails?” It seemed to always astonish him that there could be so many emails.

Later that day, he stopped by for a visit. Irritated by the interruption, I served tea anyway and paused for a long chat, having learned the hard way that busyness isn’t an acceptable excuse anywhere in this village, and certainly not for Omo. After all, he’s spent entire afternoons showing us how to better tend to our potatoes and eggplants.


Ten years later, these memories are bittersweet when I recognize that I don’t spare that kind of time or curiosity for strangers at home.

We’ve created this culture where there’s no spaciousness in people’s lives to energetically take time, reach out, connect, have community with people outside their immediate philosophical, political, socioeconomic groups.”  — Participant E

In moments of spaciousness, people are almost reliably surprising. In busyness, people rarely are. Thread by thread, busyness tugs away at the serendipity of community until, collectively, we reach a threadbare state of diseased loneliness. Busyness crowds out surprise.

A craving for certainty and single answers

At the beginning of the Between Americans project, I’d imagined my facilitating role to be something like that of an engineer helping shape a river. I wanted to help the conversation land on the right balance of conflict and harmony—not so much conflict that the water becomes turbulent, not so much harmony that the water stagnates.

But it turns out that dialogue doesn’t need such careful physics. Dialogue simply requires the spaciousness of uncertainty and vulnerability.

One of the strongest personal characteristics that any person can have is the ability to be vulnerable. And it’s one of the things that I think as Americans we’re the worst at. We all put on this suit of armor that protects us. And when we talk about politics and community and growth and unity, those suits of armor actually protect us from solving the problems that we have. And I guess with my personal history of poverty as a child, and homelessness…that vulnerability and those experiences, those are strengths.” — Participant F

I once worked in an office where our leaders never agreed on anything. It was a running joke. But our team thrived on these disagreements. Unless something was on fire, we didn’t feel compelled to end every conversation with a resolution. Our disagreements forced us to reckon with the competing paradoxes of efficiency, quality, cost, creativity, relationships, and so forth. Difficult conversations challenged us to find a higher synthesis that could resolve competing needs.

But in the trap of political punditry, ideas are either right or wrong; there is no higher synthesis. When I buy into this trap, I fail to see the point of a conversation that won’t easily end in agreement or a meaningful insight. This also helps the schism grow.

I hate political discussions…. Even when someone sides on ‘your side’, it seems like they still argue with you on hair-splitting issues, just to be argumentative…. It almost makes me afraid to have an opinion on anything.”  — Participant G

Communication lets us borrow each other’s brains so that we can think together. When politics becomes reduced to trading answers back and forth, we lose the full potential of dialogue. We each respond to conflict in our own ways, and each response can hold a piece of the truth. It’s in the very incompleteness of our individual truths that we can reach a wiser togetherness. Having all the answers would be terribly lonely.

By the end of the year, I was learning to be more comfortable with the honest unknowingness of true conversation. In that open space, the conversation made some progress. Along with uncomfortable moments, the river of dialogue began to find its natural flow. Participants shared some daring truths, displaying trust even if understanding was shaky. I was beginning to feel a larger kind of American belonging that I wasn’t finding anywhere else in the political landscape.

A crowded Internet

From the beginning, I knew that phone calls were different from online discussion, but I was surprised at how much more I connected with each Between Americans participant in hour-long telephone exit interviews than in the entire year-long online conversation.

A short excerpt from the online conversation earlier in the year was about environmental issues:

So I have posted some stuff that’s environmental. And there was actually a lot of thought that went behind that…. I would agonize over what I should post … like, what is something that I [can] talk about meaningfully, without getting too emotional to the point where I can’t talk about it anymore.”  — Participant A

Referencing the same conversation in an exit interview, another woman reflected:

I remember there was one, that someone had written about the environment…. I saved part of the post in my notes and I got back to it later…. And I got a very thoughtful response back…. And then I dropped the ball – I think it was the Fourth of July – and I never wrote back. And I was like, ‘Damn … I lost an opportunity to really keep this conversation going and learn about something that I don’t know a lot about.’”  — Participant I

Before these phone calls, I’d forgotten how much of our human complexity remains below the surface of the Internet. When we type, our backspaces and pauses – the vulnerable hesitations that connect us as humans – disappear as unwritten words. And what’s more, the Internet often acts like a crowd, and crowds carry their own distortion.


At the start of the Cultural Revolution, when my mom was 11 years old, she watched from a crowded plaza as student leaders on the stage kicked, hit, and bit her dad’s colleagues in order to force public confessions of academic privilege and oppression. The crowd chanted slogans in support of class struggle.

My grandpa went through several “struggle sessions” like this one, having achieved academic prominence at the wrong time in history.

When my grandfather took his own turn on stage, my mom slipped away from the square. She avoided future “struggle sessions.” Away from the crowd, she got used to feeling alone. Only decades later did she begin to hear how uncomfortable others had also been in these public meetings.


What my mom saw – the people, the emotions, the chants – had been real. As she witnessed, crowds readily amplify extremism. This is the landscape of mass communication. Not only can written conversations filter away our humanity, but the crowded Internet also suffers under the simplifying distortions of crowds. When we forget the limitations of the Internet terrain, when we allow it to draw our attention away from the real people right next to us, we filter out our true complexity, and our loneliness grows. When I forget that we are deeper than the Internet, I conclude, wrongly, that everyone has gone crazy.

Beneath partisan politics

Between Americans was started as a way to understand and perhaps help bridge the polarization that was so apparent in the 2016 election. What I found instead, beneath partisan politics, is a shared struggle to be fully seen through the haze of each other’s busyness, ready answers, and hyper-connected networks. In my exit interviews especially, I glimpsed a tender layer of our nation that wants to know itself better, but that feels stuck, stuck in our polarization. It’s lonely and frustrating to be in a conversation that’s stuck, and yet, we Americans have together created a polarized, disconnected outcome that few of us want..

In Tribe: On homecoming and belonging, Sebastian Junger writes, “Humans don’t mind hardship, in fact they thrive on it; what they mind is not feeling necessary.” Modern ideals of self-sufficiency have gone a little too far.

In this modern world of bewildered belonging, political warfare offers a rare gift – an experience of shared purpose with other people. As Junger also says, in addition to all its destruction, “war inspires ancient human virtues of courage, loyalty, and selflessness that can be utterly intoxicating to the people who experience them.”

 But belonging is a heavy load for politics to carry. Political conversations often echo strains of an exasperated belonging that can’t be solved through politics.

I think we’re actually damaging the structure that allows people to be individuals, because now they have to associate with these labels. Are you a Republican or a Democrat? Are you a feminist or not a feminist? And they don’t even come close to touching on the complexity of the actual human….  I think this creates a sense of isolation and loneliness because here you can name all these containers, but you’re not really known. Nobody actually really knows you.”  — Participant N

As our democracy matures, the very qualities that brought us this close to success – our busyness, our conviction, our production-line innovations – could be the very things that hinder us from moving forward.

Looking back from the future, I hope we’ll see this time in history not as a struggle between competing ideologies, but rather as an awakening to the complexity of our problems and a gradual rejection of ideological answers. Generative, inclusive disagreement isn’t something we need to remember how to do. It’s something we’re learning for the very first time.

My conviction for bridging divides is not about finding peace and harmony, or even common ground. Rather, I believe in talking more so that we can begin to become, perhaps for the first time in American history since colonization, a whole that’s truly greater than the sum of our parts.

 


Boting Zhang works at The Bramble Project, “joyful and conscientious urban development.” Of her work she says, “I work to support collective wisdom and agency in the complex civic and social dynamics surrounding urban change and belonging. I offer ideas for how our polarized society can heal itself in a parallel essay, ‘Our Political Polarization: 
Heartbreak and healing,’ on the Bramble Project blog.”

References

  1. Between Americans began as a commitment to remember how the 2016 election felt. Since art is the only way I could think of to record an emotional time capsule, I committed to an art piece about that election night. My commitment was a seed that grew into this year-long conversation. To see and hear the full art piece telling the story of the year’s project, please go to: Between Americans Timeline. I invented the format you’ll see as a way to display the conversation. Among other things, it includes about three hours of audio. Scroll to the bottom of the page for links if you’d rather listen to it as a podcast.
  2. Being busy can make you rich, but being rich makes you feel busier still.” The Economist, “Why is everyone so busy?”December 20, 2014.

“This is history…and you’re still alive!” – Student reflections on an internship year

An introduction

In which I provide context and describe how the internship came to be.

Wade through history with me.

Since leaving the University of Washington in 1967 as one of its first art history undergraduates, I’ve lived through a lot of history. During this time, I’ve accumulated many boxes of files and ephemera, some of it already in the UW Libraries Special Collections, much of it in my own storage. And all of it in need of culling, sorting, and indexing. You will help me make sense of it. Not only will we learn about archival procedures and working with primary source materials, but we’ll pause as we go through the material to consider what it means, whether it matters, and how it connects with the world we know today. We may also write and host conversations about what we find.

Excerpts from my description of an internship position offered to students at the UW School of Art + Art History + Design for the academic year, 2016-2017

Clearing out my storage unit was part of my plan to make the most of my year as Alum in Residence at the School. The opportunity to work with a student intern would make it possible, and the student would receive course credit for the work. When I began to work through the details with Liz Copeland in the School’s advising office, she asked me, “Well, how many interns would you like?” Whoa! I thought. I’d imagined just one, so I cautiously said, “OK, how about two.”

I interviewed five remarkable applicants that first quarter, and with difficulty selected two … Karen Beech, an art history student, and Jessica Capó, an art student. They continued with me through the entire year and helped me decide that we could handle two more. After another difficult selection process, Zach Heinemeyer (art) and Lizzie Trelawny-Vernon (art history) joined our team in January. Zach graduated at the end of winter quarter, but Lizzie stayed with us. And at the start of spring quarter, Abigail Cloutier (art history) signed on. What a grand gift I’d received with such a team!

The family at Arts Wire, by Lizzie Trelawny-Vernon

Rather than tackle my entire storage unit, I chose one project and carted 9 or 10 of the 16 banker boxes of Arts Wire material to my office at the School. Arts Wire, which I founded in 1989, was an early online network for the arts community nationwide – artists, arts organizations, arts funders, state arts agencies, and more. It introduced many arts folks to this “new” communications technology and provided an essential national connection for us on the often tumultuous issues in the arts community during those years – the culture wars around censorship, the rise of the AIDS crisis, congressional debates about arts funding, and the increasing role of “multiculturalism” (the term of the day). Though Arts Wire continued after I left, my involvement, and hence the materials I have, continued until about 1995.

The intern team took up the challenge of inventorying the contents of the boxes with a ferocious enthusiasm and commitment. Although we didn’t even get through  half the boxes that year, both they and I learned a lot about archives. I now have a better foundation for future work on both Arts Wire’s files and all the other boxes still in storage. We also engaged in many conversations about the material. Among the things we discussed were: How does something like Arts Wire get started? What is an artist? What was life like in the early days of the internet? How has it changed our lives? What is archiving, what’s permanent and what deteriorates? How are our times different from and the same as times 25 years ago, especially for the arts and artists? What is history, when does it start? “This is history, and yet you’re still alive!” Indeed, for this archive project, most of the primary participants are still living and available to answer questions and tell stories that weren’t captured in the files.

The team came to believe that what they were learning is important beyond just the development of an inventory for archives that would go back into storage. As a result, they created ways to share what they’ve learned:

  • They took over the School’s Instagram account and shared their Arts Wire work.
  • They organized an exhibition about the material at Parnassus (the coffee shop in the basement of the UW Art Building).
  • They produced a podcast with 14 episodes consisting of conversations among themselves and interviews with people from around the country (and Bali) who were involved with Arts Wire.
  • They organized, with me, an event in late June at the Jacob Lawrence Gallery in the Art Building. It included an exhibition of papers and other artifacts found in the files, accompanied by a well-attended conversation about Arts Wire.
  • And, they wrote the papers that are posted here.

AND_NOW?

All of these Arts Wire programs were presented under the name, “AND_NOW?” The intern team had clear reasons for choosing this rubric for their projects. They discovered the phrase first when they saw it being used as the opening prompt on Arts Wire’s main screen, the Hub. But it came to mean more than that. In a podcast interview with David Mendoza, Karen explained:

We’ve titled our podcast AND_NOW?

“What comes next?” is essentially the question we’re asking ourselves now. We’re trying to draw that link, from Arts Wire and the culture wars and all the things you’re talking about, to the present moment. And you’ve made that really, really clear in this conversation, of how these things do relate to one another and that we are seeing history repeat itself and that we need to be doing something. Right!  Things were done before that had really positive impacts. They helped to waylay some of the damage that might have been done by the political climate of the time, and we’re needing to take some of those same steps now.

Four of the people who worked with me over the past year wrote essays based on some aspect of their experience as interns. They’ve all agreed to be guest authors and to let me post their pieces on this site:

They follow as separate “guest author” posts, and they all demonstrate the value of mixing history and the present.

Other posts about Arts Wire and the Alum in Residence program include:


 

“Time in a Carpet Bag,” Karen Beech

Arts Wire:  Time in a Carpet Bag

Karen Beech

 

 

 

 

Let’s suppose that the universe is a carpet bag. If you’re not already thinking Mary Poppins, it might help. Our carpet bag technically is a limited space but it possesses unlimited potential. Now let’s suppose that Mary has become an avid knitter and has, at some point, started work on a sweater. A rather frumpy sweater that doesn’t have any shape and whose neck hole is a little too small after the first time you washed it (in warm water because you didn’t know any better) and it doesn’t have any pockets. Not that any of these things matter. It’s just to give a sense of the general sweater-ness of the situation being created here.

We’re talking about the universe, in a carpet bag, in order to talk about time (which is our ultimate goal), since the two inevitably go together in our contemporary concept of reality. The pertinent point is that there is a decent amount of yarn in this bag, enough for several attempted knitting projects that never made it to the second line of the instructions because the project just seemed too daunting. The yarn is a crucial component of this discussion; the string is serving as our physical construction of time.

This is less unusual than it may first appear, for we, as a modern society (and indeed for quite some time), have defined time as linear, progressing one minute after another like little soldiers, marching one behind another towards the future, the moving line an arrow through space. Forward the minutes march, onward, onward, onward.

Our string is exactly that—directional, singular—and yet gives us something to hold on to.

The yarn meanders its way around the carpet bag, twisting over itself, looping back, knotting, tangling, and, on rare occasion, existing in untouched skeins. This string, filling the carpet bag of space, is our perception of time (or real time, depending on how you think of these things). The entire purpose of this trip down the Mary-Poppins’-handbag-hole (deeply related to the rabbit hole of Alice in Wonderland) is to have a sense of time overlapping. We are hypothetically folding time, something that we do relatively frequently. We can, in fact, draw our present moment towards a past moment and touch the points together; one point on the string of time crossing another somewhere in the carpet bag. In order to fold time, one must adhere to a linear progression of time—one must be able to pull two points on a line together, leaving a loop of unwanted (or rather unexperienced) time that hangs useless in between like a bit of unwanted string.

We can, in fact, draw our present moment towards a past moment and touch the points together.

So let’s review our rather unconventional and impractical concept of time, one that has more in common with a toaster oven than a scientific theory. In summary, we have ourselves a carpet bag that represents the universe and a massive quantity of string that represents time. Now, because there are multiple knitting projects that have been riding around in the carpet bag for several skeins of yarn (sticking with the constructed metaphor here), the string has become a bit of a mess. A rather large, colorful, disorganized, tangled mess. For the most part this isn’t a problem (those knitting projects were not being worked on anyway) until we decide that we are going to work on making a sweater.

It is important to note that I am not the one who started knitting the sweater in question. I just happened to rummage around in the carpet bag and get my hand stuck in a project that was already well underway; Anne Focke, and many others, had already been knitting away. Anne & Friends had been knitting a string of time into an Arts Wire sweater long before I arrived. For the fun of it, let’s go ahead and say they were using red string (Anne loves red), and that the present moment is a white string, able to be dyed any color when we have a better sense of what in the world we’re doing.

Anne & Friends had been knitting a string of time into an Arts Wire sweater long before I arrived.

The Arts Wire sweater had continued to ride around in the carpet bag, becoming wrapped up and looped through other strings and other projects, until it found itself subjected to the present moment. Organic confusion and linear folding become one in this conception. Two strings have overlapped, two points in time have come together and, to my great pleasure, since I rather like the Arts Wire sweater, the red and white yarn have been tied together through the Arts Wire files.

What’s the point, you may ask? It’s this: two different points of time, one being our present lived experience (Miss White String), and one somewhere between 1989 and 1995 (Miss Red String, aka Arts Wire), have been stitched together in the interest of a useful object (a sweater, podcast, conversation, personal exploration…).

What is being done now can be understood perhaps as a continuation of the original sweater but is not necessarily in keeping with the original pattern; it is a variation, a shift in the fabric of the sweater itself. The change in temporal moments is clear, with red giving way to white, and yet there is a sense of continuity. A deliberate seeking out of the stitches and an adding on that is intended to highlight, draw-out, and utilize the work that has come before.

The Arts Wire of the past is being knit into the present moment.

Karen Beech received her undergraduate degree in Art History in June 2017 and was a speaker at the graduation celebration for the School of Art + Art History + Design.  With Jessica Capó she worked with me for the entire 2016-2017 academic year. Among other things, she assumed the role of our “on-air” host for the AND_NOW? podcast series.


“A Secret Symphony?” Lizzie Trelawny-Vernon

Arts Wire: A Secret Symphony?

Lizzie Trelawny-Vernon

 

 

 

 


“A Secret Symphony.”
It certainly has a ring to it. Yet, let us step back from the poetry of the statement and ask ourselves a few questions. What did Barbara Earl Thomas, artist/writer/thinker, mean by this, and was Arts Wire really like this at all?

Her vision of the internet and its possibilities is romantic. Her metaphor of music and poetry appears appropriate for an organization such as Arts Wire. The notion of many people chiming together as a united force fits well. Yet, the symphony is secret, perhaps because it is behind closed doors. Barbara implies you might not even know that someone was playing on the instruments next door – after all, the computer was silent.

Nevertheless, her vision for Arts Wire is somewhat contradictory. It proposes a world that is very connected, with “people coming together.” Yet at the same time, they are in “solitary rooms filled with god knows who.” What kind of world is this? Is a secret symphony some sort of anti-social social network?

There was certainly a kind of symphony within Arts Wire. Being “online” meant conversations could happen instantaneously across international and national borders, whatever the distance. Suddenly the world could spin faster; it could actually get on with things quicker. Response time dropped, and people could chime in time, creating a symphony of text voices. In the files we go through as interns, we commonly come across an outburst from an excited user that they “just got online!” – a crash of cymbals, perhaps, in our orchestra theme. Moreover, the connections that Arts Wire managed to create continually added people to the orchestra. For once, everyone was in the same hall, albeit a virtual hall, and could post, edit, and comment to make themselves heard within the orchestra.

There was a conductor at the front, Anne, with her first violins, the Technical Working Group, along with the core staff and a mass of artists, organizations, and other folks taking up the other instruments. As with any orchestra, the instruments varied a lot. In Judy Malloy’s chapter on Arts Wire in Social Media Archaeology and Poetics, she tells how Arts Wire held the “vitality, diversity, and cultural significance” of its individual artists and nonprofit organization members at the core of its collective vision1 (p. 333). There were artists, writers, musicians, dancers, and theater artists chiming in together. Alongside these were the drum beats of critics, arts administrators, and arts funders, such as the NEA.

Arts Wire aimed to “reinforce democratic values and encourage interaction among its users”

Arts Wire, according to its mission statement, would “reinforce democratic values and encourage interaction among its users” in order, Arts Wire hoped, to “develop for artists a more integral place in society as a whole” (p. 335). At its height, Arts Wire hosted more than 100 websites for artists and arts organizations with links to more than 400 more (p.334). The mission of this collective body was to stand against the tides of the era’s culture wars that were pulling arts communities apart through censorship and restricted funding. The need for arts advocacy, as the founder Anne Focke explains, was great at the time. From our podcast interviews with various members of Arts Wire’s team and through examining the files, it seems that the relationships established through Arts Wire were not always harmonious.

Each person had their own personal interests. One big collision we came across was between artists and funders. We found posts that worried about what material was appropriate for Arts Wire with a concern that funders might see what they were doing and restrict their funding. Put into the context of the culture wars at the time, censorship was a fraught issue. In a discussion of privacy during a recent podcast interview, we interns had to question whether it is even right for us to examine all the Arts Wire material when it was never intended for our audience at the time it was created. So, if we’re part of a symphony, who are we performing for?

Furthermore, being online was a complex process that affected people’s ability to read and participate in the collective effort. Today it is simple to log on and have access, but in Arts Wire days, one first needed equipment: a computer, a connection (such as Sprintnet), then a modem, which was not always standard with computers then. You needed to pay to be online. You had to able to navigate the system using text-based commands, such as AND_NOW? And you had to have enormous patience for “the *very* slow connection” that Judy Malloy recalls. It was enormously confusing, the equivalent of a cellist picking up a tuba.

When I asked Anne what she found most challenging about it, she told me that, “It was really just getting my head around where I was, what was I actually doing, what’s happening, how was it all working, where is my message going? At the time there was no concept of the virtual world, and that’s really hard to explain to people today when internet use is so second-nature.” Not to mention, there was the difficulty of typing and navigating on a black-and-yellow or black-and-white screen. Clearly, you needed specific skills and imagination to operate in this virtual world.

Being online was a complex process that affected people’s ability to read and participate in the collective effort.

Immediately one must then think, who had these skills, and how did that affect their presence on Arts Wire? In the files, Arts Wire users complained of “not being able to type fast enough,” or feeling they needed to “read through everything before they even knew where they were or could even contribute to the conversation.” On top of that, people were concerned about their “persona” online: How formal should they be? Who was listening in? Was it even safe? It was at this time that “spam” came into being. (Spam was also present on fax machines, another new technology at the time. On one of our podcasts, former Arts Wire staff member Barry Lasky reported that spam could literally print itself out of your fax machine.)

For all the good the internet does, it’s important to recall that its history, and Arts Wire’s history along with it, is represented by those willing to take the risk and able to invest the time and money to master the tools and the material. Who could play these instruments and meet together in these rooms? And was everyone following the conductor?

Arts Wire was not-for-profit, but one had to pay to be online. For Barbara Earl Thomas to have sent the message above, she first needed a computer. In 1991, a midrange computer with 4MB of RAM, a 200MB hard disk, and 14″ display would cost about $4,300. Cheaper computers were available but none less than $2,000. A considerable expense, would it be worth the money and effort just for a volunteer effort? Then, it cost money to be online. In 1991, a subscription to HandsNet (another early public interest online network) cost $270 annually, not including other connection costs. The costs of using Arts Wire included “choose-your-own” subscription fees of $5-15 dollars a month for an individual or $2,500 annually for partner organizations, plus a monthly fee from MetaNet, whose platform Arts Wire used, and whatever your own local internet service charged, which was usually a charge by the minute. Did the users have to pay these fees? Well, for the majority of users, the answer was yes. This all meant an individual would need to be fairly well off to afford to be online, and it would be more expensive if you were not a fast reader or typist. In fact, we know from Anne’s boxes, that her tactic was to print out posts from online, sign off, draft a reply, and then cut-and-paste it as quickly as possible when back online.

It’s important to recall that the internet’s history is represented by those willing to take the risk and able to invest the time and money.

The fact was that Arts Wire’s user and partnership fees were an important part of its budget, even though it also received foundation support and both in-kind and financial support from its home base, the New York Foundation for the Arts. All of which meant, though, that our Arts Wire community was narrowed to something that, in another context, was dubbed an “elite-internet-culture.” The mission of Arts Wire may have been for artists to have “a more integral place in society as a whole,” but to be an “integral person” on Arts Wire you needed the necessary money and knowledge. Arts Wire’s conversation, its “orchestra,” seems not only to be made up of a special few with access to funds and online knowledge, but each participant could only chime sporadically, not together. They were not in sync, they didn’t keep time. The notion of the instantaneous ‘”chat,” like the emoji we discovered in the files, was truly in its infancy.

Another problem this orchestra faced, as it headed boldly into the computer world, was focus and cohesion. With much enthusiasm, many groups created their own spaces for conversations about their specific interests and to find audiences. Over 80 interest groups were created, according to Judy Malloy. (p. 339). As she notes, this weakened the central place of Arts Wire. The burning fire at the heart of the house was no longer so easy to find. Conversation threads also died out, and their occupants moved away to websites of their own. It was therefore hard to keep up with Arts Wire itself.

This sense of losing track is related to an issue that we interns and Anne spoke about, together and in our podcasts. Today, we face threads from twitter, facebook, tumblr and reddit. It is easy to loose track, to not feel integrated. At the same time, we do not want to feel told that we must live in the virtual world – the anti-social social network.

We do not want to feel we must live in the virtual world
– the anti-social social network.

Sometimes this sense of losing control is not felt just in conversations online but also in the technology itself. Just as today an iPhone 6 is replaced the next year with the iPhone 7, in Arts Wire’s day the technology was also rapidly adapting, and by 1994 the World Wide Web changed Arts Wire’s audience, interface, and outlook. The development of technology, one could argue, even controlled the character, motivation, and drive of Arts Wire. By extension, helping its users continue adapting to the changes would be its greatest challenge. Making sure that if the violin went out of tune, the problem could be fixed without the utter breakdown of the song.

So why did they do it? Why did they bother to exhaust their emotional and intellectual energy learning to use these computers? And what were they getting from it?

Let us set the context. The culture wars under the Reagan administration threatened the funding for the NEA, and the national government did not recognize the full value of artists. The role of the artist in society seemed to be changing, becoming more activist. While Barbara wrote of “solitary rooms,” I think what the artists involved in Arts Wire got was a sense of the wider community and kinship with each other. From our podcast interviews I have picked up on the fact there was a real “family” behind Arts Wire. The reviewer Kenny Greenberg in Internet World observed that, “It is the human spirit that makes Arts Wire special.” For Judy, it was this budding community that made Arts Wire “a lively place” (Judy Malloy, p. 337).

Furthermore, they had to use computers. The pioneers on Arts Wire knew that their world was changing. They were ambitious, and they took the gamble with the technology. They did the heavy lifting for us today and indeed continue to. Ted Berger, Joe Matuzak, Tommer Peterson, Judy Malloy, Anna Couey, Sarah Lutman, Barry Lasky, David Mendoza, and many others we weren’t able to interview have not lost contact with each other, and many are still invested in the art and computer world. By 1991, when Barbara was writing, Anne had already established a national steering committee and linked prospective artists and funders together from all over the country. After Anne left, during Joe Matuzak’s time as director, Arts Wire’s reach became international. Overseas communication was now a reality. These connections really were the crux.

So why did they do it? They were ambitious, and they took the gamble with the technology. They did the heavy lifting for us today.

In comparison to what had come before, this was astonishing. Here was an online group where people from all over the country and all walks of life were commenting in one place, at a time “when the national arts support was in crisis.” (Judy Malloy, p. 336) In theory, the kinship Anne orchestrated was remarkable. As the conductor, Anne recruited a wonderful team of musicians, even if they did sometimes have trouble with the instruments and keeping time.

What about in my own experience as an intern? I believe that this “symphony” metaphor has played out in our lifetimes. As Arts Wire wrote the manual, reached out to non-users, and helped artists on the way, they were “tuning” the instruments that my generation plays today without thinking about it. Despite its virtual presence, what I have been struck by is the memory of Arts Wire among people today. As an intern, it has been my role with my team to do the work of Arts Wire again, bringing its artists and organizers together, in a kind of reunion (albeit easier to do now) to ask them what happened and how they felt. In doing so, I have made my own connections, with Anne, Zach, Karen, Abby, Jessica, and everyone we interviewed.

In a funny way, we have come full circle, with a desire to create an artistic community all over again. We have joined Anne in conducting the symphony.

Today, kinship in the art world will be more important than ever.

The people we have interviewed have such a strong willingness and enthusiasm that they’ve taught me an important lesson. The art world and the UW art department in particular have a vibe of kinship. I do not believe there is anything “secret” about it. From the start, there was nothing “solitary” about the artists or Arts Wire as an organization. Today with the recent threat to the NEA under the Trump administration, kinship in the art world will be more important than ever. If the NEA were to end, it would not be the end of arts. Creativity is grass-roots and it will find a way. Continuing with the orchestra metaphor, I do believe that the show will go on…instruments in tune, or not.

Lizzie Trelawny-Vernon is an undergraduate Art History student who spent a year-abroad program with us this past year and is now traveling the western U.S. on her way home to the University of Edinburgh.

Notes

  1. Social Media Archeology and Poetics, edited by Judy Malloy, MIT Press 2016.

“Arts Wire in the Age of Twitter,” Abigail Cloutier

Understanding Arts Wire in the Age of Twitter

Abigail Cloutier

 

 

 

 

If Arts Wire was ahead of its time, nevertheless participation on Arts Wire provided confidence and experience in working online that greatly contributed to the rich and diverse presence of the arts in contemporary Internet.

– Judy Malloy

 

I received an email from the University of Washington’s School of Art + Art History + Design describing an opening intern position with pioneering alum, Anne Focke. The main purpose of the internship was to create an archive for Arts Wire, a national computer-based bulletin system formed in 1989 for artists, arts groups, funders, and many more to connect online prior to public awareness of the Internet. Meeting with Anne, I was eager to inquire about specifics and learn what it was all about. However, I discovered that my questions could not be fully answered quickly as it would take multiple sit downs with Anne and fellow interns to really begin to digest the work that has been done and, conversely, the work we are doing (or attempting to do) now.

Disclosure: I am still not exactly certain of what it all means. As a technologically “savvy” millennial, I’ve found it hard to wrap my head around Arts Wire: what it was, what it is, who used it, and what we should do with its findings today. But by doing some research, I gain more clarity bit by bit. Judy Malloy, an early and consistent member of the Arts Wire team, described the platform in her book Social Media Archeology and Poetics: “Before Internet usage was ubiquitous, in an era when every time the technology was mastered, it changed, Arts Wire’s strong presence on the Internet, its emphasis on bringing the nonprofit arts community online, greatly contributed to the early presence of the arts on the Internet.” 1

As a technologically “savvy” millennial, I’ve found it hard to wrap my head around Arts Wire.

Arts Wire came into being following the 1988 Orcas Conference: Creative Support for the Creative Artist, a gathering of 200 artists, artists’ organizations, and private and public funders all aiming to find fresh ways of supporting artists both locally and nationally. At the time, “logging on” involved a computer, which not everyone had, a modem, and patience with the technological limitations of the time. Arts Wire created a user manual and found itself at the center of the online arts community, connecting artists, funders, and arts groups from very distant points, geographically and culturally.

While I am beginning to grasp what Arts Wire is, I am just beginning the journey of what it means for us today. Joe Matuzak is quoted in Malloy’s book as saying, “In many ways Arts Wire led the way. That meant we made the mistakes, but it also meant there were a lot of times we mapped out new terrain.” The material we twenty-somethings are reading for the first time is history, but it is still alive and kicking. Seasoned artists like Anne, Judy, and countless others lived through this time of exploration. They cultivated a new field and were determined to find solutions to connect and empower artists and nonprofit communities.

The material we twenty-somethings are reading for the first time is history, but it is still alive and kicking.

Contemplating these accomplishments, I cannot help but consider the ease of our own interactions on the Internet today. In some ways, it is a fulfillment of Arts Wire’s vision to bring about instant communication for varying artistic communities. However, if it weren’t for my seeing the internship advertised by UW, I would never have known of the pivotal influence of Arts Wire and other early online networks on websites like Tumblr, or even Facebook. It may take some time to understand all of it, but exploring what Arts Wire was created to be and what it accomplished has given me a broader appreciation for what it means to work for your right to express your opinions, to share critical information, and to remain engaged in a community you care deeply about.

Arts Wire is living history and this is a lesson that we in the age of instant WIFI, simple URLs, and access at the click of a cursor or touch of a screen would do well to read, study, and acknowledge.

Abby Cloutier is a undergraduate student in Art History who will be returning to the UW School of Art + Art History + Design in fall 2017. She was with us just for spring quarter and wrote this piece after being part of the team for only a few weeks. For the rest of us, it was both interesting and useful to remember what it was like to confront this material for the first time.

Notes

  1. Social Media Archeology and Poetics, edited by Judy Malloy, the MIT Press, 2016.

“Interning with Anne,” Jessica Capó

Interning with Anne

Jessica Capó

 

 

 

 

This internship started with a conversation with Anne where she asked me what it is that I study. When I told her that I studied art, she asked if I was an artist. I replied that I study and practice art, but I do not consider myself an artist. She mentioned that she felt the same way about her writing. This was my first time interacting with Anne, but I already understood so much about the way that she thought.

When I asked what her medium is, she told me this was it. Creating organizations, projects, etc. This was her medium. At first, this was hard to wrap my head around. I am so used to studying artists whose media are plaster, clay, metal, and oil on canvas, but not organizations. How many organizations and projects could she really have created? It turns out, there have been several, and getting to know Anne is the only way to find this out because of how humble she is about her creations.

Anne’s attitude toward creating new projects and tackling anything head on is inspiring to say the least, and I feel it is a reason why this internship has been able to go so far. It has given me, for instance, several opportunities, such as being able to curate my own show, learning how to run a podcast, and even writing and editing a piece like this one to be posted online. She has taught us interns so much about being an artist that we would not otherwise have gained from our classes at the University of Washington.

I have gotten a look into a history where, luckily, my subjects are still around.

This internship turned out to be much more than simple archiving, which the initial description of the position implied. I have had the opportunity to learn skills, such as podcasting, that I have been curious about for quite some time. I have gotten a look into a history where, luckily, my subjects are still around. I have been able to talk to them about the files I have been going through for months on end. Because of our podcasts, I have talked to them about the problems that were occurring at the time and what they felt about it. This is probably one of the most important pieces of the internship to me, because we’re able to create a verbal history of the era.

For many people, the 1980s and 1990s might seem as though they just lived them, but we’re getting to a point where there will be no recollection of the technology they had in those days, like big breathing boxes of computers, dial-up connections, and floppy disks. Being able to talk to individuals who were online so early on and were a part of systems like MetaNet where Arts Wire began is incredibly important. These were some of the pioneers of what arts organizations could have done and built for the community.

It is important to create an oral history, or spoken archive, of such moments in time, especially because of the way this history was built. Almost everything was online or by telephone, and the internet was not yet easily available. It only makes sense to have these memories and moments uploaded for the current internet community to enjoy. It’s hard to imagine a world without these online systems, but that’s just what our interviewees helped us to imagine. What was it like before we were able to type in a simple Google search?

It’s hard to imagine this life, where thinking about typing online just seemed stressful and responses took days rather than minutes or seconds.

Going through the archives, it’s hard to imagine this life, where thinking about typing online just seemed stressful and responses took days rather than minutes or seconds. However, that’s why it’s so important to talk to the people who were there at the time and can recall what was happening then. What was it like to live in these moments where the technology was changing so drastically?

This internship may have turned out to be a lifelong project, since I haven’t had enough time to realize just how I have benefitted from it and what exactly I have learned. The exploration with my fellow interns is still occurring, and I don’t know that there is an ending to it quite yet.

Jessica Capó received an undergraduate degree in Interdisciplinary Visual Arts from the UW School of Art + Art History + Design in June 2017. She was one of two interns who spent the entire year with me. Among other things, she became our “techie,” taking responsibility, for instance, for figuring out how to set up a podcast and then being in charge of setting up the equipment each time and hosting us around her dining table because my office at the School was too echoey.


David Mendoza – The past half-century

This story starts at the University of Washington, heads off to Europe, comes  back to the Seattle art world, then moves on to New York City, the fierce battles of the Culture Wars, and his life in Bali today, while reminding us of our continuing need for vigilance, activism, and courage.


Fifty years ago, David Mendoza and I graduated in the same year from the same university with undergraduate degrees in the same subject, art history.1 As the official “Alum in Residence” at the University of Washington’s School of Art + Art History + Design for the 2016-2017 academic year, I invited David, who has remained a friend, to come back to the school and join me in a conversation about what he’s done with the years since we graduated.

So, on November 21, 2016, he and I sat in the school’s Jacob Lawrence Gallery with an assembled group of students, faculty, staff, and community members. My opening question to David was, “So, what have you done with your art history degree?” As he told us the story that follows, it was clear that he’d given the question a lot of thought in advance. And no one wanted him to stop once he got started.

 A resume can tell you that David has been director of the Foster/White Gallery, executive assistant to the chair of the New York State Council on the Arts, the first director of Artist Trust, the first executive director of the National Campaign for Freedom of Expression, and a long-time board member of Art Matters foundation. He has lived on Bali since 1998, where he produces a line of clothing and home goods with a focus on natural dyes, handmade batik, and preserving traditional craft techniques of Southeast Asia.

But the real story can’t be captured in a resume. It’s full of twists and turns that affect a life forever, of people and events encountered unexpectedly, and of the power of following both your dreams and your intuition and fighting for what you believe in.

You can read his story below or download it here.

Anne Focke


 

David Mendoza in conversation with Anne Focke at the Jacob Lawrence Gallery, November 21, 2016. Photo by Nadia Ahmed.

What did you do with your art history degree? a memoir

David Mendoza 
November 21, 2016

 

Fifty-three years ago today, November 21, was a Wednesday. The next day about noon, and late as usual, I was running across the Quad to a class in Parrington Hall when I ran into one of my pals running in the opposite direction. He said, “JFK has been shot,” and kept running. That was 1963.

DEGREE

I graduated in 1967 during a tumultuous time in our nation and on campus. I started at the UW as a Business major, switched to Architecture, then to Interior Design, and, after being called to a meeting with Professor Warren Hill, switched one more time to Art History. Warren – we became friends later – was a professor in Interior Design, and he, shall we say, urged me to switch majors. I couldn’t draft – same problem in architecture. So I surveyed my accumulated credits. Not only did I have quite a few credits in Art History – including architecture and design history – but I’d earned good grades and loved the subject. So, here I am, all these years later, talking to you as an ancient alum.

I was trying to finish my art history thesis for our brilliant professor, Lawrence D. Steefel, while experimenting with pot and listening to Sgt. Pepper. The topic of my paper was Dada, and in retrospect it was a very Dada time with the Vietnam War (or American War as the Vietnamese call it) and the cultural revolution (the eve of the “Summer of Love”). Studying the Dada artists, their performances, and their anti-war positions all tossed together with the world around me meant that, in early May 1967, I found myself unable to fashion a coherent thesis paper. As the month rolled by and the deadline for turning it in approached, I had pretty much decided that after five years of university and lots of credits, I was not going to graduate and get a degree. My focus turned to how I would explain all this to my parents who had struggled to help pay college costs for me – the first in our family to attend.

The topic of my paper was Dada, and in retrospect
it was a very Dada time.

Probably through a combination of wine, pot, angst, and itchiness to get out of school and into the “real world,” I decided to make an appointment with Professor Steefel. I still can remember clearly that day – nervous, resigned to reality, and eager to get it over with. I actually prepared some notes to try to explain what had happened to me. These included references to lyrics on Sgt. Pepper as well as Dada history. It was a long meeting, maybe two hours. He asked me questions, and we had a very expanded discussion. I thanked him and left, feeling relieved that the meeting and my college career and degree were over.

About a week later, grades were distributed. When I opened mine, I found that Professor Steefel had given me an A and the five credits I needed for my degree. I was in shock. In just a moment, my whole life turned a new corner.

EUROPE

After working as a waiter to make money, I left for my grand tour of Europe in the fall of 1967. It was time to see all the paintings, sculpture, and cathedrals I had only seen projected from slides on a screen. Being the romantic that I realized much later I was, I decided to go to Europe by ship. So I took a train across the U.S. to New York City and Grand Central Station, never having been before. Once there, I immediately got off the train and into a taxi that took me to the 40th Street piers to board the S.S. France. Nowadays, the only place you see the scene I encountered is in old movies – crowds of people, some boarding and some saying good bye to departing loved ones. Like in the movies, the France departed in the late afternoon and, as we passed the Statue of Liberty, we were all standing at the railing admiring New York City.

 •

My eight months in Europe started in London visiting museums and castles and seeing some theater, and then continued on to Amsterdam and Vermeer, Rembrandt, and Van Gogh. My plans to take a train from there to Paris changed at a party hosted by someone I met in Amsterdam where I met a good friend of the host. An American woman, older than me, she had just arrived from Stuttgart where she had bought a new Porsche. Apparently, she did this every year. I told her my plans, and she said, “Why don’t you ride with me instead to the south of France?” I hesitated, but my host said, “Don’t be crazy. Marilyn knows France very well. You would be lucky to have her as a guide, and you’d get a free ride as well!” So I did.

This is just what the doctor ordered for my romantic
“tour de France.”

Marilyn had rented an apartment in a small village near Nice named Haut-de-Cagnes. She had visited several times before and had fallen in love with a woman who lived there. I stayed with her until she helped – pushed – me to find a room. The village was magical, one of the so-called villages perchés, or “perched villages,” high above the Mediterranean. There were no cars, only steep and winding walkways, and a gathering of expats and French, Bohemian and worldly. This is just what the doctor ordered for my romantic tour de France.

One rainy day about a month after I arrived, I was walking across the plaza in front of the Chateau. I saw a black man with a suitcase and typewriter case talking to one of the old French women in black who lived there. As I approached I heard he was American and did not speak French so I approached to ask if I could help. He said, “Oh, are you American? Do you speak French?” I said yes and helped him find the apartment he had rented in the village. He had just arrived via Marseilles from Africa and had come to write a book. His name was Alex Haley, and he was grateful for my help.

Being an “old timer” in the village by then, I helped Alex get settled and, over the next few days, showed him around and introduced him to Marilyn. We three had dinners and wine and chats. Alex told us he was writing a book that traced his African-American ancestors back to Africa before they were brought as slaves to the U.S. Marilyn and I looked at each other skeptically, but Alex was a great storyteller and he proceeded over these meals to tell us bits and pieces of what he had found. His stories were filled with people who had names like Chicken George, Kunta Kinte, and Izzie. While in Africa, he told us, he had recorded griots, storytellers who were the keepers of family and tribal history.

Sometimes, when I visited him for a meal and wine, he would tell me more of these stories sitting in front of the big stone fireplace, and I still found his tales far-fetched and unbelievable. I began to think of him as “Uncle Remus.” At that time, Alex had a reputation as a celebrity interviewer for Playboy magazine and also as the author of The Autobiography of Malcom X. This meant that, from time to time, he had to return to the U.S. to interview someone for Playboy – and to make some money. When he left he offered me his apartment to save money from my travel budget. In exchange I helped transcribe some of his audio tapes on his old typewriter.

One time, when Alex was away the phone rang and a hoarse voice asked, “Alex?” I replied that he was in the U.S. The caller was James Baldwin, on his way to the south of France. He wanted to meet up with Alex who had discussed doing an interview with him. James had a bad cold and was in a bad mood. His French then-boyfriend had left him in London. James was looking for the boyfriend, whom he suspected was somewhere down here near Nice. After that trip, James fell in love with the area and rented a villa in Saint Paul du Vence, a village higher in the hills than Haut de Cagnes and famous for a Matisse Chapel. Baldwin lived there until he died.

 “Thank you for your help and friendship here in Haut de Cagnes
while I am writing
Before this Anger.” – Alex Haley

Although I was very happy in that village and didn’t want to leave, Alex encouraged me to continue my journey and my adventure. He was right. On departing he gave me a paperback copy of The Autobiography of Malcolm X and signed it, “Thank you for your help and friendship here in Haut de Cagnes while I am writing Before this Anger.” That was his original title for the book that later became famous as Roots: The Saga of an American Family.

At Museé Picasso, Antibes, France, 1967

SEATTLE AGAIN

When I returned to Seattle in April 1968, the “anger” that Alex referred to was in full force. Continue reading →