The sin I couldn’t give up: What led me away from my strict Christian commune and back to the world

Church Door

(Credit: Benjamin Haas via Shutterstock)

The Flannery O’Connor stories had grabbed hold of me and I wanted more. It was the mid 1980s and Chicago’s North Side was thick with used book stores, and prices were cheap. A good clean hardback might be as little as a dollar. A few miles south on Clark street was Aspidistra, my favorite shop, which had half-price Mondays. Mondays were our day off, so I would take the bus down and I wander the dusty shelves for hours. I went into a trance scanning titles. All the books stacked floor to ceiling, the yeasty smell of yellowed pages, all those possibilities of something new, the world expanding. Books were also magically portable. I could drop them into a bag and take them back to the Ministry and they would still work even when I was there. In their pages I could sneak out into the world but still remain in the sure circle of my higher calling.

I’d been in the Ministry for over a year. Two months out of high school I drove from my small Appalachian river town to Chicago where I traded in the world for an ideal. What started as a vague desire to serve the poor, to save the world, gradually became a calling to this particular group. We all lived together in a few squat buildings scattered among the poor and run-down neighborhoods of Uptown. The Ministry enforced strict rules for living. Brothers and sisters lived in separate, crowded dorms, sleeping on homemade bunk beds and secondhand mattresses. Married couples lived in one single room with the children mingled together in dorms of their own. We ate from a common kitchen, we lived from a common purse, and we worked only for our common cause. When we went out into the city, we went together — a brother named Ken accompanied me to the bookstore. Each day we invited a few hundred flophouse drunks, homeless psychotics and poor neighborhood families into our dining room to eat beans and rice from paper plates. Sometimes we took in runaways, gave out food staples, or donated clothes. When I wrote home to friends and family I stressed these good works. But over time it seemed that we fed the hungry not so that any one particular hungry person would have a meal, but as proof that the Lord had called us to a better way. Over time the brothers and sisters in the Ministry became more and more real to me, but the hungry and needy slowly turned grey and anonymous. I tried not to let this trouble me and I clung to the facts of our good deeds as hard evidence that, in the Ministry, we had found a way to rise above a materialistic world of selfishness and uncertainty.

But it was not as simple as leaving the world and joining the group. I had to learn how to die to myself and my selfish desires, to lay down all my individual gifts and ambitions for the greater good of our collective vision. I learned fast and I learned well and within a year I became a trusted brother. With this trust came certain rewards. I still remember the day I came before the council of Elders, the way they all smiled down on me in my embarrassment as I asked for the hand of a pretty wide-eyed girl who’d grown up in the Ministry. The Council approved my engagement to the girl and then all ten of them surrounded me, some with long hair and beards, some with tie-dyed shirts, and they laid their hands on me and prayed a blessing over my future marriage. At 19 years old, I’d found my wife, my purpose and the place I wanted to be for the rest of my life.

As I bumped along Clark Street and the physical distance to the main house grew, a slight crack opened between myself and the Ministry. The world around me, usually grey and uninteresting, reignited with faded color. Across from my seat sat a man in a rumpled suit jacket, worn wool dress pants and battered brown shoes. He carried an old briefcase on his lap and his gnarled, big-knuckled fingers lay entwined on the cracked fake leather. Those were laborer’s hands and bony knees and a working man’s weather-worn face. There before me was a man with enough contradictions, who raised so many questions, that his story demanded a certain amount of attention, demanded that I make room for it in my mind. And yet, what room did I have for him? What room did I have for any of the world’s questions that did not belong to the answers I’d already found? Where did he fit into my version of life that had already answered all my questions? Nowhere. He fit nowhere. Flannery O’Connor would have written a story about him, but what could I do, confronted with this big question mark of a man, except to look away?

I tried to guide my thoughts back to the meeting with the Council and see again the approval on their faces, feel their hands on me, lifting and carrying me into the future. But instead, I saw only Nick’s face swimming up into my mind, his eyes hidden behind the glare of his little round glasses and I felt, just as I did when I sat in his presence, suddenly exposed. Nick was what we called my “covering,” the Elder I confessed my sins to, the person to whom I opened my heart and to whom I submitted all important questions or decisions for his wisdom and guidance. When I shared with Nick, his eyes, hidden behind the glint of the glass, bored into me, past all my defenses, past the things I’d done, right down to the truth about who I was. How many times had he told me that pride and arrogance were my besetting sins? “You think you know better than anyone else. That’s your problem. You need to learn to listen to those God has put over you and stop thinking you know it all.” My problem, I learned, was not what I did, but who I was.

Maybe my heart wasn’t true. Maybe I was holding onto a secret ambition I had not yet surrendered. What good would these books do for me? Would they make me a more godly brother? More willing to lay down my own desires? I hadn’t told Nick that I’d been going to the bookstore on my day off. I was hiding from myself the keen intuition that he wouldn’t approve.

Aspidistra organized their chaos of titles into reasonable categories — fiction, history, art — but there was enough disorganization to encourage the thrill of the hunt. Anything might be in those stacks. A first edition. A rare antique from the 1800s. It was nothing to find signed copies of Saul Bellow novels. One day I was scanning the fiction section for O’Connor. I already owned everything she had published, I thought, but I always looked for her name in hopes that somehow, even though she was long dead, something new from her might appear. And on this day it did. There on the shelf was a title I’d never seen before: “The Habit of Being.” I pulled it from the shelf, a large paperback with a plum-colored cover, heavy in my hand, and with that odd title, in an elaborate font, that defied any sense of what the book could be about. Then I saw that it was her collected letters, and I opened it and began reading. The introduction, by O’Connor’s friend, told about her long illness and her life on a Georgia farm with her mother and the farm help. There was no one sentence in the first few letters that stood out, no one quote that gave some profound insight. Instead, what spoke to me was her voice; in it I heard the ease and humor and the non-anxious implacable sturdiness of her view of the world. She wrote about a trip to New York City: “There is one advantage in it because although you see several people you wish you didn’t know, you see thousands you’re glad you don’t know.” A few pages later, she wrote: “I have just discovered that my mother’s dairyman calls all the cows he: he ain’t give but two gallons, he ain’t come in yet… I reckon he doesn’t like to feel surrounded by females or something.” And in another place, she wrote about her first novel, “The book was not agin free-will certainly, which all the characters had plenty of and exercised I felt with deadly determination.” And then, in another place, “I have twenty-one brown ducks with blue wing bars. They walk everywhere they go in single-file.”

Still reading, I walked straight to the front of the store, where the rumpled man with the thick black-framed glasses, puffy eyes and black hair twisting out from the sides of an otherwise bald head was sitting behind a cracked glass case. He scowled at me when I interrupted his reading. Normally I would have stayed half the day, but now all I wanted was to go curl up in my bed and do nothing until I’d read through every word. The few pages I’d already scanned felt as though O’Connor was taking me by the hand and into her confidence. I wanted to be alone with her.

On the way home I read on the bus and while we were walking back to the main Ministry house on Beacon Street. With every page Flannery was becoming more alive. There was, too, something about her voice that had set off a dissonance inside me, but I could not locate the source of the uneasiness. I went straight to my dorm, climbed up into my loft and opened the pages. My hands shook and my breathing was shallow. My body responded to the book like it was a lustful temptation. I was aroused and alert and focused on only my desire.

There was too much to read in one sitting, even with a whole afternoon and evening to do nothing else. I sank into Flannery’s voice — it was immediately familiar, direct, and I imagined her with that lovely sideways smile, as she appeared on book-flap photos. She was unsentimental and yet her words went deep to a place that both hurt and changed me. One sentence knocked me over with its insight into faith and the next cracked me up with a dead-on imitation of a hillbilly farm wife. By the time I read 20 pages, I was in love. But now it was not only her writing, but her person I loved, that glowing definite Flannery that leapt off those pages and fixed herself deep in my heart. I imagined her out on the farm, walking on crutches, then pausing on the dusty path, head cocked, with a wise and bemused smile taking it all in: the peafowl, the fierce blood-red sunsets, the toothless farmhands. All the while she was thinking about “the plentitude of being” and working out a symbol for her latest story and all of it expanding and deepening — a world enlarging and worthy of her wit and soul.

The book also became a way to educate myself. I found an index in the back with all the authors listed that O’Connor referenced. Most of them I had never heard of before, especially the philosophers: Jacques Maritain, Romano Guardini, Gabriel Marcel, Teilhard de Chardin. I photocopied the index and took it with me to stores around the city in search of their books. I figured anything O’Connor read, I had better as well.

I wasn’t sure how all the new things I was reading fit with the Ministry. I felt an uneasy tension as the world in my mind kept expanding, as I kept learning and wanting to learn more. It was like a plucked string vibrating discordantly inside me. Two images set off the discord. One was of Nick pointing at me from across his room as I sat, shame-faced, receiving his rebuke. I could supply his words because I already knew what he would say: “Was your sin in reading the books? No. Your sin was that you did not want to give up the books. Your sin was that you wanted something (anything!) more than the Ministry to which the Lord had so clearly called you.” Then he would drop his hand and shake his head in sadness, “Don’t you understand? Any desire, no matter how small or seemingly innocent, could become an idol, could displace the only rightful object of your devotion — the Lord.” The second image was of Flannery hobbling into the main door of the Ministry, into the dining room where we were all gathered singing and raising our hands. She leaned on her crutches and narrowed her eyes behind those vintage horn-rimmed glasses, a sardonic half-smile beginning to form on her lips. She would see us differently than how I wanted her to see us. Even though I had conjured her from my imagination, still my imagined Flannery looked at us like we were kin to the Southern fanatics that tickled her so. I squirmed under her gaze and felt the presence of a larger world looming up behind her face like a giant halo.

Although I sensed that the world of the books and the world of the Ministry could not fit together, I desperately wanted to somehow mesh them into one reality. Even all those years before I left, I sensed that I was traveling slowly away from the Ministry and not, as I told myself I wanted, deeper into it. Though there were no obvious sins in the words of the books, I could feel their agitation bumping up against the words I already had, the words given by Nick and the Elders — words that made a smooth and seamless garment of certainty. In those words everything fit together. Everything was accounted for. But here was Flannery with her books sending tremors through my peace. Small rips appeared at the seams, which I did not yet know were stitched together by my secret fear of the world. The Lord, I knew, was not satisfied with this divided devotion. The Lord wanted me to lay down my life, give all, and disappear into perfect obedience.

Confessing was part of life in the Ministry, and Nick had told me that if I were to grow in the Lord, I needed to be humble and transparent and I shouldn’t hide anything. Sin, he said, wanted the dark, but he would help me shine a light on it and see it clearly for what it was and not let me be deceived by my natural, fleshly arrogance. Independence and pride, he said, those were my two big sins. If Nick felt that the books were leading me astray, that they were contributing to my pride, then he would tell me to give them up, lay them down for the Lord. I had hidden the reading from him for too long. I was afraid that I was drifting away from my calling and so I finally went to Nick to confess. I knew my confession would stop the dissonance, but I also nursed a secret, irrational hope that he would understand the joy I’d found in the reading. That he would approve and the two worlds might be joined.

In Nick’s room Penny, his wife, was flitting about, moving stacks of papers from one place to another but making no progress in improving the messy piles. Nick followed Penny with his grey eyes when she moved an object, as if he wanted to keep track of what she was doing and where everything ended up. While she was constantly in motion, Nick sat calmly in his chair, often with a heavy, leather-bound Bible on his lap. He kept his dark curly hair tamed into a pile on top of his head, cut short in the back and sides, and with his square jaw and stiff manner, he gave the impression of an old and sophisticated elegance. He was Southern, from a wealthy family somewhere in Georgia, and his upper lip sometimes curled with the disdain of a rich man’s spoiled son. Whenever I came into his room Nick and I talked, but he never included Penny in the conversation. Sometimes she would ask him where an item should go and Nick would take a long time to answer — slowly raising his head and turning a blank face to her before he drew a deep breath, sighed, and then pointed and said simply, “Over there. Over there.”

When I told him the book I was reading was philosophy — Jacques Maritain’s “Existence and the Existent” — Nick’s face went blank. Philosophy was something that seemed to perplex him. He was unsure how to give me firm spiritual direction on the subject, so he was quiet and looked down his nose at me while he chewed at the corner of his lip. He was making up his mind how to handle this new wrinkle in my formation.

“Did you take a buddy to the bookstore?” He asked.

“Yes. Of course. I went with Ken.”

“Ken’s too young in the Lord; if you go at all, it should be with an older brother.”

“OK,” I said. My simple agreement seemed to stump him for a moment and he drummed his fingers on the arm of the chair and then narrowed his eyes at me.

“Did you submit those books?” He asked.

“I didn’t know I was supposed to submit them.” This answer was mostly true. When we were told to submit something, it meant that we should go to the appropriate Ministry authority to ask for approval. But I let my conscience off on a technicality: Although I knew the general rule for submission, I didn’t know for sure that books, specifically, needed approval. But I also knew that if the books were not approved, I would have to get rid of them.

Nick rolled his eyes and sighed, long and loud.

“You’ve been here long enough to know,” he said.

“I will submit them. I just didn’t know who to go to . . .”

“Well, you already bought them, didn’t you? It’s a little late now.” Nick’s voice broke on a high note as he said this, and he shook his dark head in disappointment. He pressed his lips together — like a petulant woman — and waved away my words as I began an explanation. I clutched my bag on my lap, thinking of the titles hidden inside, of all the pages I’d already read and all that were still waiting for me.

I pushed down my selfish desires and said, finally, “I can sell them back to the store.” But the words sounded hollow and insincere. I didn’t want to give them up. I loved the way each new book extended and colored another undiscovered country and how my soul, in turn, was enlarged and mirrored that expanded world.

He held out his hand for me to give him the book. I pulled it out quickly, to show no hesitation, no lack of willingness to be transparent. The book was a thin, brittle-paged paperback that I’d tracked down from the index in “The Habit of Being.” Reading it was like trying to stare through a thick curtain at some brilliant and beautiful scene outside only hinted at by the vague contours of Maritain’s sentences. “Being is… infinite amplitude of an implicitly multiple object which… permeates all things and descends, in its irreducible diversity, into the very heart of each.” I hardly understood a word. And yet I found it beautiful, soul-filling.

Nick took the book, squinted at the title, turned it over and read a few words on the back and then shoved it back toward me.

“What in the world are you reading?”

“It’s philosophy. He’s a Christian . . . a Catholic Christian,” I quickly corrected myself so that Nick would not think I was being deceitful. Don’t keep anything in the dark, I thought.

“I’ve never heard of him.” Nick let the statement stand as a kind of accusation and stared at me, but I only shrugged. Nick took a deep breath, and, as if he were too tired to continue, he softened his tone.

“Show it to Jan at the magazine, I guess. He’ll know if it’s off.” And then he leaned forward and stared into my eyes. “But you really should be spending more time with something that will help you grow. This stuff will only feed your independence.”

“Yes,” I said. “Yes.” I wanted to be true to my calling. I also wanted to grow and I didn’t mean to hide anything from Nick. But, at that moment, all I could think about was retreating to my room and having another go at the bright and hazy light in those pages. I didn’t know it then, but in that moment something shifted inside and I sealed off a tiny corner of my heart that the Ministry would never reach.

“Nick. Nick.” Penny was repeating his name, holding up a shirt from the laundry, as we were talking. Nick finally glanced over, but was staring through her. I could tell he was still thinking of the next thing to say to me. Penny chattered away and I thought of what Maritain wrote about the plentitude of being and how there were inexhaustible depths of knowability even in a blade of grass. I felt for a moment giddy and dizzy with this plentitude. I could feel it out there somewhere, waiting for me. While Nick was distracted, I dropped Jacques Maritain into my bag and slipped quietly from the room.

Maybe if I had hesitated, waited another moment before I made my escape from his room, Nick would have realized what he wanted to say and then I would have given in, and repented. Maybe I would have given over that last scrap of myself so that I finally disappeared into a more perfect devotion. Maybe, but who knows?

I still keep my tattered copy of “The Habit of Being” near at hand. It took years for that tiny space in my heart to lead me back into the world I had rejected. It took still more years for that verdant part of my heart to revive and recolor the world with all the beauty I had overlooked. I keep Flannery’s book nearby and sometimes I pull it from the shelf and hold its familiar heft in my hands so that, once again, I can feel the protection of my unlikely angel.


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Democratic megadonor bankrolls ‘Republicans for Clinton’ super PAC

Democratic U.S. presidential candidate Hillary Clinton arrives to speak during her California primary night rally held in Brooklyn

Hillary Clinton before her victory speech in New York on Tuesday night (Credit: Reuters)

This article originally appeared on

The Center for Public Integrity
Most of the money behind an upstart “Republicans for Clinton” super PAC has come from billionaire Democratic megadonor Dustin Moskovitz, a co-founder of Facebook.

According to a Center for Public Integrity review of new campaign finance filings, Moskovitz has contributed $250,000 to the R4C16 super PAC. That represents about 70 percent of the group’s income through Oct. 19.

R4C16 nevertheless touts itself as “a grassroots movement” of “concerned Republicans who are committed to vote for Hillary Clinton for president to defeat Donald Trump.”

During the final presidential debate last week in Nevada, the super PAC sponsored an anti-Trump mobile billboard with the message “DON’T GROPE. VOTE,” which traversed the Las Vegas strip for hours.

It has also launched an app and website to encourage supporters of third-party candidates to trade their votes to ensure Clinton wins in critical battleground states.

The Center for Public Integrity is a non-profit, independent investigative news outlet. For more of its stories on this topic go to

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The battle of Hastings

Netflix CEO, Reed Hastings

Netflix CEO, Reed Hastings (Credit: James Duncan Davidson/O’Reilly Media, Inc.)

This article originally appeared on Capital & Main.

Brett Bymaster, a Silicon Valley electrical engineer, was optimistic when Rocketship Education, a non-profit charter school chain, began building its flagship Mateo Sheedy elementary school next to his San Jose home in 2007. He and his family lived in a lower-income community, so he figured the new approach could help local kids. “I didn’t know anything about charter schools, so I thought it was a good thing,” he says.

But the more he learned about Rocketship and charter schools, which receive government funding but operate independently of local school boards, the more concerned he became. He was struck by the school’s cramped quarters: over 600 students on a 1-acre campus, compared to the 9.2 acres per 450 students recommended for elementary schools by the California Department of Education. All those students meant big classes; last year Mateo Sheedy had one teacher for every 34 students, more than the maximum allowed for traditional elementary schools under state law.

The teacher deficit seemed to be compensated for with screen time: Thanks to its so-called “blended learning” approach, Rocketship kindergarteners were spending 80 to 90 minutes a day in front of computers in a school learning lab, nearly the daily maximum screen time recommended by the American Academy of Pediatrics. And when the kids weren’t in front of computers, they seemed to be getting disciplined throughout their extra-long school days. Bymaster says he’d constantly see teachers yelling at students. “It’s a military-style environment,” notes Bymaster, who spearheaded a 2013 lawsuit that caused Rocketship to scrap one of its planned San Jose schools. “It’s really a kill-and-drill kind of school.”

Rocketship, which now operates 16 schools in the Bay Area as well as Tennessee, Wisconsin and Washington, D.C., has been praised for using technological innovation to improve test scores and other education measures for its largely low-income and Hispanic student bodies. But its stringent, tech-heavy approach has drawn criticism, while some of those lauded test scores have started to dip. (A Rocketship spokesperson did not respond to e-mailed questions by press time, but the operation published a lengthy defense of its program after an NPR feature detailed Rocketship criticisms this summer.)

Concerns about Rocketship extend to its most prominent backer: Reed Hastings, CEO of Netflix, who has heavily supported the charter chain, including a $2 million donation last year. Rocketship is far from Hastings’ only charter school effort. The one-time California Board of Education president, who declined to be interviewed for this story, helped launch the powerful EdVoice pro-charter lobbying group and so far this election season has donated more than $3.7 million to the California Charter Schools Association (CCSA)’s political action committee. But critics worry that the sort of technologies and efficiencies Hastings used to build his Silicon Valley empire and is now applying to education reform might not work for the nation’s schoolchildren.

These concerns were amplified when Hastings, at a 2014 CCSA meeting, asserted that public schools are hobbled by having elected schoolboards.

“Let’s think large-scale,” says Bymaster, who broke the story about Hastings’ school board comments on his blog. “You have someone who is contributing millions and millions of dollars to local and statewide political races and who was the former president of the state school board whose stated goal is to end democracy in education. That is deeply disturbing.”

Hastings, who growing up attended public and private schools, first became interested in education after college. He ditched his plan to serve in the Marine Corps and joined the Peace Corps, teaching high school math in Swaziland before returning to the States and earning his master’s degree in computer science from Stanford University. “I’m not good at following orders,” said Hastings in a 2015 EducationNext profile. “There were no rules at all [in the Peace Corps]. Just use your initiative.”

After the success of his first start-up, the debugging program maker Pure Software, made him a multimillionaire in 1995, Hastings decided to use some of his wealth to tackle the problems he saw in the nation’s schools. “I started… trying to figure out why our education is lagging when our technology is increasing at great rates and there’s great innovation in so many other areas—health care, biotech, information technology, moviemaking,” he told the Wall Street Journal. “Why not education?”

His efforts began in 1998, when he and Don Shalvey, who’d helped launch California’s first charter school, set their sights on abolishing California’s 100-charter school cap. According to The Founders, a new e-book about the early years of the charter school movement published by the pro-charter news organization The 74, Hastings personally gathered petitions at supermarkets for a ballot initiative to lift the restriction. Instead of passing that initiative, Hastings and Shalvey convinced the state Legislature to act. “Not only did a bill pass that essentially green-lighted an unlimited number of charter schools…but the bill included a provision barely noticed at the time, certainly not by the unions: A single board of directors could oversee multiple charters,” notes The Founders. That provision would allow Hastings and Shalvey, who is now deputy director of education at the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, to launch Aspire Public Schools, the nation’s first charter network, which now operates 40 schools in California and Tennessee.

Hastings had less success when Democratic Governor Gray Davis named him to the state Board of Education in 2000. While president of the board, he aggressively pushed for English-language instruction for immigrant students, adopting a policy that limited federal funding for elementary schools that weren’t teaching at least 2 ½ hours in English every day. That rule, later overturned, was part of what education observers say was a lengthy dismantling of California’s bilingual education programs. Hasting’s stance on the matter caused Democratic legislators to block his reappointment in 2004, despite the fact that he was a key Democratic donor. “Just because [Hastings] and right-wing Republicans thought it was a good idea to force immigrant children to speak only English in school, he gets to derail bilingual education for a decade?” says Karen Wolfe, a California parent and founder of PSconnect, a community group that advocates for traditional public schools. “That’s not disruption. That’s destruction.”

The fact that California Charter Academy, one of the country’s largest charter school operators, collapsed and left 6,000 California students without a school during his board tenure did little to sway Hastings’ enthusiasm for publicly financed yet privately run schools. Along with helping to fund the Rocketship and Aspire charter programs, he’s served on the boards of the California Charter Schools Association and the KIPP Foundation, the largest network of charter schools in the country. And much of Hastings’ school reform efforts have focused on technological solutions. He helped launch NewSchools Venture Fund, which has invested $250 million in education entrepreneurs and “ed tech” products. He’s also been a major backer of DreamBox Learning, which develops the math software used in Rocketship schools, and the Khan Academy, an online teaching video clearinghouse.

But so far, the outcomes of many of these ed tech ventures have been mixed. Khan Academy has been criticized for including fundamental math errors in some of their instructional videos. And while DreamBox recently championed a Harvard University study that found that use of its math software was associated with test achievement gains in grades 3 through 5, the study itselfnoted it could not be ruled out that the gains were “due to student motivation or teacher effectiveness, rather than to the availability of the software.” What’s more, the user data collected by programs developed at Khan Academy, DreamBox and other companies are fueling concerns over student privacy.

More broadly, education experts are worried about the impact of minimally staffed, call center-like computer learning labs on the nation’s students and teachers, especially as these approaches become more commonplace in the name of cost savings and innovation. (In a 2012 Washington Post article, former Rocketship CEO John Danner noted that “Rocketeers” could eventually spend 50 percent of their school day in front of computers.)

“The younger a kid is, the more critically important it is that they construct their own knowledge and figure out how the universe works, and they literally cannot get that from a computer screen,” says Launa Hall, a former Virginia elementary school teacher who now writes and consults on education issues. “Reed Hastings had an opportunity to have a rich and nuanced education and he talks about how the Peace Corps were so awesome because there were no rules. So his heart might be in the right place, but he might have forgotten his own roots in how he came to value education.”

Hastings’ preferred school reforms, such as heavy use of streaming technologies and data collection, resemble the way he built Netflix. And critics say that could be part of the problem. Netflix’s workplace culture, which involves employees taking as much vacation as they like and choosing their own stock-to-cash ratios, has been hailed as groundbreaking. But some say Netflix, like many Silicon Valley companies, offers these perks not because it wants to reform labor conditions across the board, but because it’s a smart business move, allowing it to attract better candidates for top positions. As noted in a widely shared PowerPoint presentation on Netflix company culture that Hastings made public in 2009, “We’re like a pro sports team, not a kid’s recreational team. Netflix leaders hire, develop and cut smartly, so we have stars in every position.”

It’s why when Netflix became the first major U.S. company to offer unlimited paid family leave for both male and female employees, it was criticized for extending the policy only to its white-collar employees, not blue-collar workers in charge of customer service and DVDs. And while Microsoft has required that many of its contractors and vendors provide their workers with sick days and vacation time and Google has demanded that its shuttle bus contractors pay better wages, so far Netflix has ignored calls for improved working conditions for its contract workers, says Derecka Mehrens, co-founder of Silicon Valley Rising, a campaign to raise pay and create affordable housing for low-wage workers in the tech industry.

Mehrens sees a similar class bias in Hastings’ approach to public education. “We see profound consequences, both political and economic, when technology industry leaders take action from a position of privilege and isolation from the very communities they desire to help,” she says. “When tech industry leaders like Reed Hastings call for an elimination of school boards or for more privatization of public schools, they block low-income people from using the one instrument that the powerful can’t ignore – their vote.”

Hastings’ end goal for California appears to be the near-total replacement of traditional public schools with charter schools. In his 2014 speech where he discussed abolishing elected school boards, Hastings pointed to New Orleans – whose school system was largely taken over by the State of Louisiana after the devastation of Hurricane Katrina and converted to the country’s first predominantly charter public school system – as a model:

“So what we have to do is to work with school districts to grow steadily, and the work ahead is really hard because we’re at eight percent of students [in charters] in California, whereas in New Orleans they’re at 90 percent, so we have a lot of catchup to do… So what we have to do is continue to grow and grow… It’s going to take 20-30 years to get to 90 percent of charter kids.”

When Hastings announced a new $100 million Hastings Fund for education grants earlier this year, he named as CEO Neerav Kingsland, who previously helmed New Schools for New Orleans, a nonprofit that helps fund and support New Orleans’ charters. “It’s about backing great educators who want to scale great schools,” says Kingsland of the new venture. “There’s a huge focus on quality education, focusing on doing what needs to be done to serve great students.” He adds that the Hastings Fund is not just about backing charters: “The neighborhood school is this idealistic 1950s idea, but for a lot of people enrollment in neighborhood schools is a sentence into educational disenfranchisement. Maybe charters are not the right answer and there are other ways of getting around it, but to say that what we have is okay is out of touch at best, malevolent at worst.”

By some measures, what Kingsland and others accomplished with New Orleans’ charter experiment has been a success. Over the past half-decade, the city boasted the greatest improvement in test scores of any urban school system ever. But the program still has a long way to go: In 2014, just 57 percent of students in grades three through eight scored a passing grade on state accountability tests, significantly below statewide and nationwide averages. “I am really open that as we built the system, there were mistakes, there were bad apples. But by the end, we figured out how to empower educators and have government accountability,” says Kingsland. “I would say that there were legitimate concerns that we are just not good enough yet, and I hope we get there. But I think it would be wrong to say that things haven’t gotten a lot better.”

Others vehemently disagree with that characterization. “You can say until you’re blue in the face that this should be a national model, but this is one of the worst-performing districts in one of the worst-performing states,” Julian Vasquez Heilig, an education professor at California State Sacramento, told In These Times last summer.

Beyond test scores, New Orleans’ charter system has contributed to citywide upheaval that’s led to a major decrease in diversityof a once largely African American teaching force, struggles with integrating arts education and English language acquisition (ELA) into charter programs and a class-action lawsuit alleging schools were failing students with special needs. A 2015 study found that 18 percent of the city’s youth ages 16 to 24 were unemployed and out of school, a figure that’s markedly higher than the national average and could be contributing to the region’s struggles with child poverty and crime.

“Whatever perceived benefits that are out here, they are outweighed by the harms that have been done, especially by those children with disabilities and the 26,000 kids on the streets,” says New Orleans education advocate and charter school critic Karran Harper Royal. “For those people who came into town after something as devastating as Katrina and turned our school system upside down and took away arts and everything else that makes you a well-rounded student, that did a lot of harm to us as a people.”

Earlier this year the Louisiana Legislature voted to return partial oversight of city schools to local school boards, a move even charter advocates like Kingsland supported. The development is at odds with Hastings’ contention that locally elected school boards are part of the problem.

“This is a part of our democracy,” says Vernon Billy, executive director and CEO of the California School Boards Association. “Whether it’s electing school boards or city council members or congressional representatives, that is our process in this country. It may not be as timely as some people would like, but when you look at the fact that roughly 90 percent of our children go to public schools nationwide and in California as well, and this country is ultimately one of the most successful countries in the world, we must be doing something right.”

Even as supporters continue to pour money into charter schools, critics have succeeded in raising fundamental questions about the charter model, leading groups like the NAACP to call for a moratorium on the expansion of privately managed charters schools. In California, test scores have fallen sharply at some charter schools, including Rocketship and Aspire campuses, while demands for greater charter accountability and oversight have increased.

Undeterred, Hastings and other school reform-minded tech billionaires want to inject the start-up mentality into the country’s schools, using high-tech solutions to replace human labor and disrupting longtime management and oversight approaches in the name of efficiency. But to Bymaster in San Jose, that’s not the right approach. After all, roughly half of all start-ups fail. What happens to the children who get caught in those failures, like the students left without a school when California Charter Academy folded, like the tens of thousands of kids roaming New Orleans streets?

“I have been through several successful Silicon Valley start-ups. I am as techy as they come,” says Bymaster. “But ultimately the problems in our schools are people problems. Technology doesn’t solve people problems. People solve people problems.”

Source: New feed

I’m grateful for my abortion


(Credit: liseykina via Shutterstock)

I sometimes take a moment to recognize the things I am thankful for. I write it in a notebook, or send a text, or occasionally I post it on social media. If my kids are home I pull out our gratitude jar and we all add something. My boys are 4 and 7, and they are grateful for a whole lot, too. We are often thankful for simple things. Music. Friends. Food.

My gratitude practice began when I was in my late twenties and I wanted to stop taking prescription painkillers. I wanted to be able to be in control of my body. I wanted to stop making excuses for early refills. Deep down, I knew that I wanted to be able to become a mom.

I started to wean myself off of the pills, and made a plan to manage my pain. As part of this, I spent three hours each Wednesday, for 12 weeks, at a mind-body class, with about 20 other people seeking relief from extreme feelings, either physical or emotional. The gratitude journal was one of our assignments — we had to write about five things that we were thankful for each day. I resisted, but once I did it, it helped me ground myself within the reality of my life. It made me notice the good things and it made me want more of those things. It forced me to be find something to feel good about, even when my body was in pain.

I fell away from my gratitude practice once I became focused on getting pregnant. Conceiving didn’t happen quickly, and the process was frustrating, but it did eventually happen and I gave birth to a baby boy. We moved to the suburbs. I finished graduate school. I got pregnant a second time, quicker than we had imagined I would.

But the pain of losing that pregnancy after tests revealed a rare genetic disorder wouldn’t fully settle into my body until after my third pregnancy brought a second healthy boy. Once he arrived I was consumed with loving and caring for him and his big brother. But around his third birthday, as I sorted through the baby stuff, I began to cry. The grief of terminating a wanted pregnancy — of having said goodbye to a baby I didn’t meet — finally, truly, arrived.

My head grew with a familiar throb. I breathed through my longing for someone who could understand my pain and give me the medication to make it go away. I had to be with it for a while: the sadness, and my tears. I went to therapy. I had to do things I hadn’t done. I had to find ways to honor her as what she was to me: a baby I carried. I had to name her. I had to find ways of dealing with the gripping anger and guilt I felt about my abortion experience. I had to process the memories of driving by the protesters that rainy September Thursday, and the feeling of the anesthesia taking effect as I realized that the doctor didn’t understand that mine was a wanted pregnancy, the red plastic biohazard box by my feet a last memory of my baby girl.

I had to find new ways of being present in the reality of this very regular life with two sons who don’t want pink headbands or ballet classes. I found my gratitude. I found my truth. My abortion happened so I could be a better mother. It sucked, but I am thankful it happened and that it was here in Massachusetts.

The 2012 election sort of prepared me for life in America after abortion. My loss was still very new and raw, and Rick Santorum’s daughter was a reminder of the diagnosis my daughter had received, Trisomy 18. In my mind I knew she would never be able to have the kind of independent and vibrant life I want for my kids, but in my heart, seeing her made me long to know what my baby would have looked like.

And yet, this election year is worse. The other day I found myself thinking of the boy with the Italian last name who put his hand down my pants at the seventh grade dance, and all of the negative sexual experiences I had as a young woman before meeting my husband. Gross. If I had a daughter, I would never want her to hear the kinds of things that Donald Trump says.

Today I am grateful for Hillary Clinton for standing up to him during the final presidential debate. Trump’s words about abortion made me sick to my stomach, similar to the way I felt in the middle of my pregnancy crisis. I pulled my blanket closer, reminding myself that I can use my senses to stay grounded in my own reality. I thought of others who have also ended wanted pregnancies. Babies being ripped from their wombs. This isn’t even an accurate description of an abortion procedure.

My abortion wasn’t perhaps as late as the women Clinton and Trump were talking about, but my second-term abortion certainly felt like the kind of loss she was referring to. I felt her words — the weight with which she said them actually lifted me. Finally, I thought. The discussion felt long overdue in this debate season.

My brother checked in on me via text and I was grateful for that. He and his husband care about the Supreme Court as deeply as I do. Later, a woman I don’t know all that well sent me a note on Facebook: “I want you to know I am with you. And I am with her.” Amazing, the support we humans can offer each other!

I woke up throughout the night, when the kids needed me and when they didn’t, once in the middle of a dream in which I was conversing with the reality star himself. Donald, have you ever had an abortion? I mean, perhaps you have caused or funded an abortion, but you’ve never had one. Have you given birth, Donald? Because what you described in the debate is a surgical birth, done usually in an emergency situation or as an unwanted intervention. I am a doula now. My experiences losing a pregnancy and carrying and then delivering a difficult subsequent pregnancy made me want to help make this journey better for someone else. So now we are into a different conversation, aren’t we, Donald?

But this is not about maternal health to Trump. If it were, he would be talking about the maternal mortality rate in Texas, which is astronomically high, according to the September issue of the journal Obstetrics and Gynecology. The hike in maternal loss occurred alongside increased cuts and restrictions to reproductive health. It seems safe to say that while anti-choice conservatives in Texas remain intent on limiting abortion care, they have turned their backs on families altogether. It’s important to understand that with a Donald Trump presidency, the problems in Texas could occur nationwide.

Right now I am sitting in the same spot where I sat, wailing, in the days after I learned that the baby I was carrying would likely die. In this moment, I’m grateful for my sons and for the joy they bring to my life. I’m grateful to know this love I feel as their mother. They won’t have dance recitals (probably) and that’s OK. I’m grateful for the chance to raise boys who might want to be police officers or politicians. It’s hard, but I know I can raise them to be so much better than some of their examples on TV. I don’t know when their dad and I will explain what happened with the baby between them, but I feel like if I love them well enough, they will understand completely.


Source: New feed

Fantastic Beasts: Our secret weapon in combating man-made climate change — animals

Elephant Seal

Elephant Seal (Credit: Anton_Ivanov via Shutterstock)

In a viral video released late last year, Koko the Gorilla used sign language to call mankind “stupid” and warn about the dangers of global warming. The video was debunked as a skillful editing job, but it wasn’t so hard to believe an animal of Koko’s intelligence would be pissed about man-made ecological disaster — we’re taking other species down with us. So perhaps it’s only fitting that whales, seals and other imperiled mammals are being recruited by scientists to help save the world from climate change — whether they know it or not. In the fight against global climate change, our collateral damage could become our secret weapon.

We could use the help. If climate change continues unmitigated, global incomes are expected to fall 23 percent by 2100. According to The Nation, the symptoms of global warming — including extreme weather events, increased disease and greater food insecurity — will cost the millennial generation in the U.S. alone $8.8 trillion

Behind this economic disruption is an ecological one. Take the humble jellyfish — warmer oceans have allowed these gelatinous blobs to thrive to the point of wiping out other marine species, clogging nuclear power plants and doing millions of dollars worth of damage to the fishing industry. More than 300 bird species, necessary for the pollination of our global food supply, are considered threatened by global warming. At the same time, rising temperatures are depleting habitat and forcing desperate wild animals, like snow leopards and great white sharks, into more peopled areas. All of this movement has decreased the biodiversity that underpins our economic activity.

In other words, human actions have disrupted the ecological balance to our own peril. And now, we’re relying on the animal kingdom for help.

Consider the narwhal, an arctic whale whose unicorn-like tusk was believed in the Middle Ages to have healing powers. Partly due to melting ice that’s exposed the endangered cestacean to poachers, the world’s 50,000 remaining narwhals are considered especially susceptible to climate change. But while the creatures struggle to survive, they’re assisting researchers at the University of Washington’s Polar Science Center in assessing temperature changes in Baffin Bay, on the southwest coast of Greenland.

Conditions there — frequent storms and an average January temperature of 4 degrees Fahrenheit — have traditionally made this area inhospitable to human researchers. But scientists at the Polar Science Center, funded by NASA, are able to attach card-deck-sized thermometers to the bay’s narwhals during summertime. The animals are then tracked through winter, when they dive nearly 6,000 feet in search of halibut to eat. Before collecting the narwhals’ initial data, scientists had underestimated the bay’s temperature by nearly 34 degrees.

As Michael Steele, oceanographer with the University of Washington, told the journal Nature, the narwhals are filling a “gigantic, embarrassing hole” in temperature databases relied on by climate forecasters.

Meanwhile, Inuit dogsleds in the Arctic are being custom fit with ice-thickness-measuring devices — aka, long pipes with GPS and other solar-powered electronics inside. As the sled dogs travel, data about the changing landscape, which is warming twice as fast as the rest of the world, is beamed to researchers and meteorological centers around the globe, and the information is used to create ice maps and determine weather forecasts.

Near the opposite pole,in the Antarctic, elephant seals are also being outfitted with non-invasive data-collecting sensors — only here, the goal is tracking salinity. In the Antarctic, dense, salty water forms at the bottom of the ocean, and this “bottom water” drives ocean circulation. What the elephant seals have relayed — before shedding their instruments during the natural molting process — is that rising temperatures have diluted this salty bottom water. This has disrupted water currents and, therefore, the transport of heat and nutrients around the globe. How this interrupted flow will affect weather patterns is still being studied.

This type of work has huge potential. Monitoring devices on marine mammals alone have already informed 100 scientific studies and more than half a million vertical temperature and salinity profiles around the world. And we can expect to see more animals engaged by science as technology improves. In recent years, the devices have gotten much smaller — some weigh a little more than a gram — and are safe and undetectable to the animals wearing them. They’re also better able than ever to communicate with satellites. This means researchers can collect real-time data without having to capture tagged animals a second time.

“It is ironic that we’re relying on the same animals we’ve endangered,” Sara Iverson, PhD, Executive Director of Canada’s Ocean Tracking Network, told Salon. Under Iverson’s direction, the research center uses electronic tags to track over 100 commercially important species, including gray seals and northern fur seals, in 20 countries and 16 ocean regions. “But I think it’s also a recognition, perhaps, of past ignorance. These animals can tell us a great deal about the environment, how it’s changing and possibly how to fix it. It’s a concept that is really just beginning to be embraced and recognized for its value. And it really is a win-win situation. The animals are providing information for us about the environment and themselves, while at the same time allowing us to better manage and conserve animal populations in the ocean.”

But not all animals have to wear a gizmo — or live in the ocean — to be helpful. Take the hyrax, a native of Africa and the Middle East that looks like a stubby-eared bunny. A creature of habit, it prefers urinating in the same place, usually a rock surface, as often as possible. As this dried urine — which contains plant traces, pollen, and gas bubbles — builds up and fossilizes over thousands of years, it provides hints about how the planet’s biodiversity has changed over time. One study sample is 55,000 years old.

“We are taking the piss, quite literally,” project leader Brian Chase of France’s Montpellier University told the Guardian. “And it is proving to be a highly effective way to study how climate changes have affected local environments.”

But no matter how many animals we enlist to study a changing earth, or how much data we glean from them, it’s unlikely they’ll ever fully understand their contributions. And yet, as was the case with Koko the Gorilla, it doesn’t make the message she signed any less true: “Time hurry. Help earth. Nature sees you.”

Source: New feed

WATCH: “Before the Flood” director on how “humanity is a mess” and why we can’t ignore climate change

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Academy Award-winning director Fisher Stevens joined Salon to discuss his new documentary “Before The Flood.” The film follows renowned actor Leonardo DiCaprio as he meets with thought leaders, scientists and activists about how to mitigate climate change.

“It’s a very personal film for Leo,” Stevens said. “It’s the first time he’s made a movie where he doesn’t have lines that were written for him. He’s very vulnerable in this film.”

“The objective was to make a film that is engaging, emotional, entertaining and alarming — and hopeful at the end,” he said.

Although Stevens argued that “humanity got us into this mess,” he firmly believes that humanity can help us get out of it.

Although there is still a long fight ahead to combat the growing threat of global warming, “Before the Flood” gives viewers hope. The film introduces characters, such as President Barack Obama, that Stevens said makes viewers realize “how beautiful humans can be.”

“After screening the film to young people, I feel more hopeful because they’re inspired.”

One solution Stevens would like enacted in the future is an effective carbon tax. “We need to tell our leaders that we want to change the way we operate.”

Watch the full interview below:

Source: New feed

Third Eye Blind’s second act: Stephan Jenkins still living that semi-charmed rock life

Firefly Music Festival - Day 3

Stephan Jenkins of Third Eye Blind (Credit: Getty/Theo Wargo)

To some, Third Eye Blind is just another ’90s nostalgia act, an “Alternative Nation” relic. However, very quietly (and perhaps to the surprise of many) the rock band has remained a popular touring and recording entity. More impressive, Third Eye Blind’s fanbase has grown and expanded to include not just original supporters — say, those who discovered them circa 1997’s “Semi-Charmed Life” — but also plenty of people who’ve found the group over the years.

This career endurance is partly due to smart touring: Third Eye Blind has done the college circuit and, in 2015, co-headlined a summer trek with fellow songwriting-geared group Dashboard Confessional. The group also has some vocal supporters from younger bands — including All Time Low, Sleeping With Sirens and Panic! at the Disco — who’ve kept 3EB relevant and in the public eye.

And, of course, it also helps that the band continues to release new music. The band’s recent “We Are Drugs” EP is pleasingly diverse — from the crunchy, guitar-heavy power-pop of “Company Of Strangers” and the slinky electropop of “Isn’t It Pretty” to the modern-sounding pop-rock earworm “Don’t Give In” and “Weightless,” itself a diverse song stitching together roaring guitars and more tranquil, meditative moments. “We Are Drugs” even has a song, “Cop vs. Phone Girl,” addressing the widely shared 2015 video of a Spring Valley High School school resource officer assaulting a teenage girl.

Salon recently caught up with frontman Stephan Jenkins to chat all things 3EB. Besides a round of end-of-year touring, Jenkins says the band has April 2017 plans to commemorate the twentieth anniversary of its self-titled debut. Additionally, he discussed why he felt compelled to write “Cop vs. Phone Girl,” his growth as a songwriter, and why Flume and Tove Lo’s pop hit “Say It” is so “progressive.” 

Your new EP was recorded very fast. Why was this working process the way to go this time?

I think for a couple reasons. One, trust in self. I have come to trust myself more, and it’s not because of any real growth in character or anything like that. It’s because the trust that the audience has shown me has worn off [on me]. It’s affected me. It’s made me more confident. That’s really the answer.

What I do a lot of times is, I will sit on a song for a really long period of time, because its not doing everything I want it to do. Or I’ll second-guess and doubt myself, for whatever reason. And then I’ll come back to it, like, a year later, and go, “Oh, what’s that? I like that.” So it’s really just getting into that place of not judging yourself and not engaging in self-hate. All those usual things that artists tend to do.

I understand that from a writing standpoint. You write something and you’re like, “This is terrible. I don’t want to read this again.”

Yeah, you know exactly what I mean. It’s all the same stuff — like, writers just do it. We all do it. It’s just being like, “You know what, it’s fine. It is what it is.”

“Don’t Give In,” the song on our new record — there’s so much lyrical ambiguity on that track, where I don’t have everything pinned down in the way that I do on a song like “Cop vs. Phone Girl.” On “Cop vs. Phone Girl,” I know that every word there is right to my standard. And “Don’t Give In,” I look at it and go, “It’s not on the same level, but it is evoking a feeling that is working for me.” [In “Don’t Give In”], when I say “It doesn’t work for you,” I don’t know what the antecedent is to “it.” Before, I would just sit there and suffer over that endlessly, instead of being like, “I don’t need to know. I need to know if it’s evoking the feeling that I want to evoke when I sing it.” And that’s kind of a big step for me.

How difficult was that then, once you realized that was happening? How difficult was it for you to let it go?

Easy once it happened. Once it got going, it was like, “That’s fine. You don’t need it.” [Laughs.] Also, I want to increase the tempo of making music, and put it out more often. So that’s what we did. I’m working on sitting down and writing more songs. We’re going to have another [release out] in April. It’s going to be the 20th anniversary of our first record [1997’s “Third Eye Blind”]. And there’s several B-sides — well, they’re songs that I wrote for the first record that we never recorded. I’m going to record those and put ’em on the record. So that’s going to come out in April.

Next month I’m going to start songwriting sessions for an album that we want to put out next summer. And maybe that one will have five songs or seven songs. I don’t know. I’m working more off happiness quotient now.

Which is nice because so many artists can’t write unless they’re miserable. They get writer’s block when they have the happiness quotient.

To me, it’s more like I look for inspiration. I can be inspired by a lot of different things, and when I’m in an inspired state, then I write.

Since you’ve had two decades to marinate on those B-sides, what was your take on them when you looked back in preparation for recording them now?

There’s a song called “Tattoo of the Sun,” and it’s probably the first song I ever wrote as Third Eye Blind. It might be the first song I just completely wrote. It’s still probably the most complete lyric that I’ve written, I think. [Laughs.] Yeah. That was just pent up for a long time: “I believe everything you say/’Cause you’re not frightened the way I’ve been/So I follow you just in case you lose your way/So glad you let me stay around.” That’s exactly my insecurity in that time. I’m looking at this girl — the thing that’s going to bring me some kind of wholeness which is never going to happen. [Laughs.]

Looking back 20 years, you get put right back into that place where you were. It’s weird when that happens.

I was more evolved as a songwriter out of the gate than I thought. I feel good about ’em. I’m just really not good at judging or ranking my songs. I’m terrible at it.

Fair enough. You’re close to them, and you don’t have that perspective then.

Plus, it’s just, I don’t know. I don’t watch myself on TV. I don’t watch things that I do. I listen to my music a lot right up until I put it out, and then after that, I don’t listen to it. I just move on. A lot of artists are that way. There’s this thing with Fred Astaire, and he’s dancing, and he sees a mirror and he shies away from it, moves away from it, because he doesn’t want to be self-conscious.

I like that the new EP was so diverse. Each song has something a little bit different; it’s versatile. It showed that there are so many directions you guys could go in the future.

I like that, too. Of course, you could not like it, and say it’s a lack of cohesiveness. We were in the studio, and… God, we’re such a good rock band. We just really are. There just aren’t very many left. We don’t have any sequencers, and we don’t have any backing tracks. We’ve played for a long time together and developed that empathy as a band. You can hear that in a song like “Weightless,” which is this exploration of a guitar rock band — tempo changes and signature changes. It’s a band that’s really in tune with each other.

And then a song like “Isn’t It Pretty” — we were in the studio, and I told everybody, “I want everyone just to throw out whatever ideas you have, whatever your concepts are. You and your instrument. And let’s just make up a song.” And I had a bunch of lyrics in a notebook, and we started talking about beats and said, “Oh, I like this beat. This reminds me of urban smog before catalytic converters — like, ’70s, ’80s urban thing.” That was the bassline. [Hums the bassline.] Had that almost like [an] Isley Brothers feel to it. Then that discussion prompted the guitar part, and then I started doing slam poetry on top of it.

That all just came in naturally with people not having any preconceived notions, and not saying, “Well, this won’t be anything like ‘Weightless.’” Or, “Do we have any definitions of what Third Eye Blind is?” The answer is, we don’t. We don’t have any; we don’t need any. We just need to be open and musical in a room and shake that around. That was really fun. [Laughs.]

At the beginning of the interview, you mention the trust from your fans. One thing that’s really impressed me about you and the band is how you’ve really managed to amass this multi-generational fanbase. I mean, I listened to you in high school, and that was the late ’90s, but I know people who are 15 years younger than me who are massive fans of the band. I’m really impressed by that. Why do you think that is? How has the band evolved to be able to get this multi-generational fanbase?

I don’t know. It’s not a result of us trying to do that. It’s a result of something that we were doing organically. I think that we are perpetually in a search to find meaning and connection in the context of the present tense. That brings people in perpetually. That’s something that when, you know, when you turn about 15, you start to switch into that mode. Music becomes kind of an identity-generation device. It becomes a search mechanism and a clarifier for identity. And I don’t mean it to be that; it’s not my plan. It’s just what we ended up doing.

I think there’s a lot of seeking out your sense of self, and it’s finding a way to live that has a real sense of aliveness while wrangling with things that are changing. That’s very much what [the 2015 album] “Dopamine” was about. So much of “Dopamine” was about post-feminist politics. Like, the internal politics of post-feminism.

“We Are Drugs” is really kind of just about how surreal things are. [Laughs.] “Cop vs. Phone Girl,” to me, it’s all surrealism. It’s a nightmare, actually.

I was going to ask about that song — obviously, I watched the video that inspired it, and it was horrifying. As a songwriter, what about it made you need to write about it?

Things can irk you, and they’re non-hierarchical. You’ll see somebody who’s unarmed get shot, and you think it’s appalling. And that’s, you know, by any measure, of course, obviously worse than a girl being assaulted by an over-aggressive campus security officer. But that one, for no reason, stuck in my head. The narrative of it made some kind of dent in me. And that’s how I write all my songs. They’re all just based on something that makes some kind of dent, and that dent turns into some kind of lyric landscape. And then I make it fit into my life with music, I guess.

Usually those are about relationships and impact with friends, but sometimes something on the outside really makes an emotional dent. That was the case with “Cop vs. Phone Girl.” Why? I think it’s the surrealism of it. First of all, people expect somebody walking into a classroom with a gun in our society. Just that that’s normal is so fucking insane to me. And then that person who is there to keep kids safe came in there clearly with the intent of teaching a lesson to [a student he perceives to be an] “uppity” girl.

That was just obvious to me. That, to me, is surreal; it’s nightmarish. That the teacher stood by and let that happen — that the kids sat there, and they were stunned. But they expected it to happen. They got their phones out. They knew this was going to happen. This is part of their normal. Do you know when you lose your phone? You probably lost your phone this morning, right?


You lost your phone in the last 24 hours. You misplaced your phone for maybe eight seconds. Remember how you just freaked out?


The next thing you need to know is, “Where is my phone?” That child lost both of her parents, and she’s in a foster home and she has a smartphone. You can imagine — if that’s her connection to the world, you can imagine how important that phone is. That in this fucked-up institution that is a public school, if she turns that phone over, she very possibly wouldn’t get it back. That would be catastrophic to her world. She can’t give up the phone. She cannot give up that phone. She used it in class, she put it away, she sat there quietly, and the guy could not connect with her at all, because his — whatever, patriarchal sense of order could not accommodate that. His fragile sense of authority could not accommodate that. And I think that’s perverse.

It is. It shows the empathy breakdown that has gone on in so many areas with society, it seems, especially this year.

Yeah. I was writing about it — it was an essay actually. I mean, I don’t do it often enough, but sometimes I write pieces on politics for Time or Huffington Post. I kept meaning to write about it, but I kept putting it off. And then I looked at what I wrote, and it was notes. And I just started singing notes, and it just turned into a song. It’s kind of how it came together.

It’s funny, because the audience really loves it when we play it, but radio won’t play it.


No, radio won’t play it. And [W]BOS in Boston was kind of the bravest in this. They would brave the complaints that it got. But [radio] couldn’t do it because they’re all owned by big corporations. And those guys have to answer to big corporate sponsors.

Yeah, they do. And shareholders.

And shareholders. So they couldn’t tolerate it.

You figure, in the ’90s when you were starting out, how much music that was very protest-driven or spoke of important things, was on the radio. You’d learn about those things. People took a stance.

The only social consciousness song that I think is actually on the radio is Tove Lo [“Say It”]. And she sneaks it in. When she sings [sings] “When you say it like that, uh-uh-uh-uh,” and then she says, “Let me fuck you right back, uh-uh-uh-uh,” that’s a social statement, I think. That’s a progressive social statement. She’s assuming a kind of sexuality that has been traditionally reserved for males and is seen as aggressive. She’s presuming that sex is an activity she enjoys as well, which would make her [in the eyes of society] a slut, right?

She’s not doing in a lascivious way. She’s not doing it in a way that’s, like, “I’m trying to tease.” It’s not like, “Give me some beads and I’ll show you my tits” and responding to patriarchy. It has a post-feminist sense to it, in that it presumes its own sense of equality without seeking.

My definition of it is, is that it’s a presumption of equality without taking males into the equation any more than males take women into the equation of their sense of equality. I’ve never once in my life thought that I needed to wrangle with or ponder whether I’m equal to a woman. Not ever. And you can just think . . . I mean, if you were in high school in the ’90s, you can think of thousands of times you’ve done that. How deep that is in your psyche.

So when she says, [sings] “Let me fuck you right back, uh-uh-uh-uh,” in a pop song, she’s sneaking a — what’s the word I’m looking for? — a radical idea into people’s consciousness, and I think it’s interesting that she got away with it. There’s nothing preachy about it. It presumes a state of being, and I think that’s impressive.

Absolutely. That’s exactly it.

Anyway. But we didn’t get away with it. And I don’t think I was being preachy either, I was saying the real account of what’s going on. And then the release of the chorus is almost kind of an imagination of the world as it should be, you know?

People get uncomfortable when you actually spell things out — certain segments of people at least. I was going to ask how your campaign selling the “Raise Your Hand If You Believe in Science” T-shirts went after you guys launched it.

Oh, yeah. We gave a bunch of money to the Hillary [Clinton] campaign, and she said it in her speech.

Did she really? That’s pretty cool.

I mean, I’m so utterly tripped out by this election. I just think that 40 percent of Americans are just terrible judges of character. That’s my sense of it.

Besides the release of the new record, do you have anything else going on that you feel is important to mention?

I work with a group called the Jimmy Miller Foundation, and we take service members, Marines, with PTSD, surfing. Surfing is therapy in itself. We don’t give therapy; we just give surfing. And after I did that, I saw the Republican say . . .  the quote was something like, “Some people aren’t strong like you and me, and they get PTSD.” And it was another one of these moments that really struck me, because his ignorance and casual dismissal and his condescension, and in that the perpetuation that PTSD is a weakness, instead of where it’s like . . . a wound to the midsection from shrapnel is something where you should get a medal for, a Purple Heart, right?


It’s the only time in the whole thing that put vitriolic hate in my heart, because I know these people. I’ve seen a young woman, she’s probably 25 years old, taking her surfing and her rash guard came up out there, and her back had burns all over it. She had a thousand-yard stare on her, that just meant she had seen things that she would never, ever be able to explain. I saw her paddle into a wave that that fucking coward would never paddle into, because it takes martial courage to get in to a wave. I saw her come back, and the look on her face where you could see she was, like, coming home. I know this, because I’ve actually spent time with these people who serve. They’re nothing but strong. That’s part of why I work with them, because it gets me in contact with strength.

That’s what I’m thinking about. That’s what I’m doing right now. And when I think of people who support the military like I do, when I think about people who would vote for this guy, it just — oh, it really burns me up. It’s almost hard for me to talk about. I was having trouble saying that to you, it makes me so angry.

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Werner Herzog in North Korea: “We had a deeper understanding because of the quest for reunification”


(Credit: Netflix)

Werner Herzog, collaborating with Cambridge volcanologist Clive Oppenheimer, takes viewers “Into the Inferno” with his latest documentary. The film’s magnificent opening shot shows people standing at the edge of a volcano while lava cooks below them. It’s a moment of reverie and wonder, and the ever-curious Herzog has filmed the power and danger and beauty of this destructive natural phenomenon.

But as these two men — who met 10 years ago on Mount Erebus in Antarctica, filming Herzog’s documentary “Encounters at the End of the World” — explain, they seek to understand nature not challenge it. Oppenheimer invented a spectrometer that can help save lives (it already has), and Herzog shows how the environment behaves even when humans are in its path and not involved.

“Into the Inferno” showcases fantastic images of magma and eruptions. But Herzog and Oppenheimer are not only interested in volcanoes. There are fascinating side trips to Ethiopia, where a team of archaeologists dig for fossils buried by volcanic ash long ago; to North Korea, home of Mount Paektu; and to the island of Tanna in Vanuatu, where the John Frum cult exists.

Herzog and Oppenheimer met with Salon at the Telluride Film Festival, where “Into the Inferno” premiered, to discuss their new film, their favorite volcanoes and where they like to travel.

My father was an archaeologist and what impressed me most about “Into the Inferno” — aside from the spectacular visuals — was that you showcased how this kind of science is all about doing the lab work.

Herzog: My grandfather was an archaeologist — ancient Greece. This film was made for young people who want to become scientists. It can’t get any better than showing how science should be done.

Oppenheimer: With volcanology, it integrates many other disciplines: archaeology, obviously, anthropology, climatology and the whole hazard and risk side of it. The fun stuff is going on as all these things integrate. You work with archaeologists and climate scientists, and that’s where the real energy and emotion is.

Let’s talk about the risks of your work. Are you adrenaline junkies?

Herzog: No, though I look like it. I’m very prudent.

Oppenheimer: When we were talking at the top of Erebus, I say it’s not worth dying to get a scientific measurement. Of course there are risks, and it’s very difficult to calculate them in a mathematical way. But you do your best. If you have a 1 in a 1,000 chance of being killed, that’s already totally unacceptable unless you are trying to prevent a meltdown that would kill a lot more people. We work with risk and do our best to calculate it and reduce it. We will limit the amount of time spent where we are most exposed.

Herzog: In Sumatra, there are very narrow country roads for miles. You can’t turn the car around, so you [drive] these extra miles and find a side street where you can turn the car around. You know where you put your camera so your car faces the exits. If you film, and 60 seconds after the thing erupts, you jump in your car and you flee.

Oppenheimer: I was watching like a hawk. I remember our sound guy Paul, when we were doing that shoot. He said something like “Would you walk over there,” meaning close to the volcano. And I said, “No, I wouldn’t!” And I think he was quite struck by that. As a layperson, he might wander close to a volcano to get a better view, but he was impressed that we are sensitive to risks, and it was one of the places we didn’t want to hang around.

Herzog: It’s funny how in the long time of me working in various countries and various situations that there is this kind of idea out in the media that I am a daredevil and that I risk the lives of everyone around me, but nobody ever gets hurt on my shoot. Some crew members sometimes, but the actors are OK.

Oppenheimer: It’s irresponsible, particularly as a volcanologist, if I’m encouraging people to do crazy stuff. That makes me morally culpable if anything goes wrong. And there is a kind of halo that — people will follow you in if they see you go in [because] it must be alright. You want to be aware of not giving the wrong impression.

Werner’s films are very much about man versus nature, and nature almost always wins. Here, Werner, it seems you have more of an emotional approach, and, Clive, you have a more scientific one?

Herzog: When I film, there are no emotions. That would be the last thing.

Oppenheimer: Not even the emotion of a poet?

Herzog: No. I don’t see poetry as something that has to do with too much emotion anyway. It has to do with language —

Oppenheimer: [Interrupts] A romantic poet, probably.

Can we discuss man versus nature?

Herzog: There are very, very few films about that. “Grizzly Man” would be a good example but it wasn’t me versus nature. It was Timothy Treadwell, who tried to align himself [with] nature and his understanding [of] wild nature, which was a Disney-ization of wild nature, a deeply conceptual mistake, which unfortunately cost him his life and the life of Amie Huguenard, his girlfriend.

Oppenheimer: Let me answer your question about approaching science without emotion: Yes, when I’m actually making measurements, I’m very focused and I have to be flexible and adaptable. You are not in a controlled laboratory. You need to know which way the wind is blowing, where you can set your equipment up. You are in a very spectacular landscape and you are often alone. So you are left with your own feelings while the equipment is doing its thing.

Let me ask you an emotional question: Do you have a favorite volcano?

Oppenheimer: That’s an easy one. Mount Erebus, where Werner and I met 10 years ago. Scientifically, it’s the most revealing and rewarding volcano I’ve worked on. That’s partly because of the nature of the activity. It’s an open volcano with magma at the surface, so you make very direct observations.

And it is also somewhere where you are not staying at a hotel. You live in a remote field camp and [are] sleeping in tents. You are much more directly in the landscape, and when you are lying in your sleeping bag at night, you feel the tremors and it’s very visceral. It’s a magical and spectacular place to live and work.

Not for me! You have the emotion, Clive. And, Werner, you are unemotional! How does that help your collaboration?

Oppenheimer: We meet in the middle.

Herzog: Somehow, yeah. I do have a favorite volcano, which I have never been to. In northern Chad, the Tibesti Mountains.

Oppenheimer: We have unfinished business with volcanoes there.

Herzog: It’s not an active volcano. It has some bubbling mud. It’s purely my imagination. I tried to go there in the late 1960s, but there was lots of hostage taking. The name of the volcano is Emi Koussi. It’s like a mirage. I’ve seen photos like mirages, in the mountains, 10,000 feet high.

And when you see these gigantic mountains floating in the air, I have this vision of an imaginary place, although I know it exists. I wanted to make a detour to the southern Sahara to Emi Koussi in the Tibesti mountains, but there was tribal warfare and hostage taking and it was just too dangerous. I never made it.

Oppenheimer: Yet.

You still have a chance . . .

Herzog: No, no. Maybe it should stay like that. My favorite place, which is only a figment of fantasy.

Oppenheimer: It’s a fantasy I remember we shared on Erebus, when we met. I’ve been to Chad but not to Emi Koussi. There’s a big volcanic province. The remarkable thing about it is you find rock tombs and rock engravings of giraffes and elephants and cattle, and you find obsidian stone tools everywhere. So 5,000 years ago when it was wetter, it was the water town of the Sahara and a migration route to the Mediterranean.

The film has a lot to do with rituals and spirits, beliefs and traditions. Can you discuss your rituals, spirits, beliefs and traditions?

Oppenheimer: As a volcanologist, you have an interest in the practical, applied side of volcanology, of using a science to protect people at risk from volcanoes. Then you need to understand their belief systems because you need to engage with them when the volcano is threatening, so they can evacuate.

Herzog: It’s fascinating to dig into these belief systems like the John Frum cult. And North Korea has a very striking mythology there. It is influencing the whole nation. 

How do you find the interesting people you present in the film and gain their trust?

Herzog: Gaining trust is not difficult for me. I needed to gain the trust of the North Korean supervisors. One day I shot something I was not supposed to film. Someone immediately stepped in front of the camera and had the request to delete the footage. But I couldn’t for technical reasons; data management was so complicated. It went on for two days.

Ultimately, under the threat that I had to deliver to them two days’ worth of recordings, I just came to them and said, “I can’t delete and I would hate to hand over my entire footage, but I give you my guarantee.” And they said, “What do you mean by guarantee? Something in writing?” And I said, “No, no. It functions differently. Three guarantees, in fact: my honor, my face and my handshake.” And they said “OK.”

We had a deeper understanding because of the quest for reunification. The North Korean people knew that I had traveled around my own country, Germany, which was divided at that time. I spent time, following all of the sinuations of the border, in the mountains, up and down. I thought [about] what politics had abandoned.

For example, German Chancellor Willy Brandt, whom I liked, gave a statement that the book of German reunification was closed. And I said to myself, “This is much bigger than a political thing.” Only the poets can hold the country together, and I wanted to hold it together. The North Koreans knew that, and I think they were deeply moved by this. I saw one of the men crying . . .

Oppenheimer: Because unification is an important thing. It’s an open wound.

Herzog: It’s much, much deeper than politics, and it’s deeper than propaganda.

Would you want to go back to North Korea and make a film about that?

Herzog: Instantly, instantly, but, of course, you can only film what has been accepted as a program. In our case, it was science, but then I started to extend it. And in extending it, they would follow me.

Let’s talk about legacy. Clive, you say in the film that your spectrometer is your baby. What do you want your legacy to be?

Oppenheimer: If I think about legacy, which I don’t, I’d say it’s my students. Both the undergraduates and more directly the graduate students.

When I met Werner, an interesting coincidence, I had a film camera used to make a video installation on a volcanological theme. Doing that made me realize that science is a creative process, but it’s very incremental. I realized that I’d lost the feeling of being creative. But I now know my life has not been lived in vain, having worked with Werner on this movie. It’s not going to be my legacy, but it’s obviously going to be there after I’m not around.

Herzog: What Clive doesn’t pronounce here, but I’ll do it, is when you speak about his baby, this spectrometer, in 2010, half a million people were evacuated [in Indonesia] because of readings from his instrument. The lowest estimate of saved lives would be 20,000 for one single eruption that his instrument predicted. The readings from the instrument forced the evacuation that was very spontaneous. His tool is out there worldwide. I would consider it his legacy.

Oppenheimer: If you have an interest in applied volcanology, you think of how it could be useful to protect populations, but I don’t have that feeling that my legacy is that I have saved live[s] in other countries. I am not on the front lines. As a university academic, I get to retreat to the ivory tower, but people like Sri Sumarti [who works at a lab in Indonesia] were there. Nobody knew if the volcano was going to do something really big. They are the really dedicated people.

Werner, do you have a legacy answer?

Herzog: No, not really. Maybe I should stay a good soldier of cinema.

Oppenheimer: Your children . . .

Herzog: Yeah, but they have their own lives and their destinies. I am too much into what I’m doing in my work.

How much research and organization is involved in making a film like “Into the Inferno?”

Herzog: It’s Oppenheimer. He’s been to North Korea five times.

Oppenheimer: All the places we visited, I had connections to. I had worked there previously. The people we interviewed such as the archaeologists in Ethiopia were part of a self-contained field project that has been going on for 15 years or so. We parachute in. There were a lot of practicalities we had to solve, like carting around an obscene quantity of film gear.

I think in some ways, one of the things I discovered is that you can struggle to get the access you want, and we did fall back on Plan B, but that actually turned out fortuitously to be better than our Plan As. We were going to Eritrea, and Ethiopia was Plan B, but if Eritrea had gone ahead, we wouldn’t have walked into an archaeological dig where they had just found the third most important fossil. So it was serendipitous how things worked out.

Werner, you shoot beauty and danger. Can you talk about how you filmed shooting on the edge of volcanoes?

Herzog: In our case, I’m doing this with very solid, independent, strong men — actually, a team of men, all of them prudent and experienced in life and physically very strong. They wouldn’t be in the wrong spot and fall into the crater.

Where do you like to travel when you are not working?

Oppenheimer: It sounds a bit like a busman’s holiday. But the Aeolian Islands, near Sicily and the toe of Italy — they are all volcanic, but they are magical. For me, that’s a good place to relax, and I don’t have to be working the whole time, even if I’m on a volcano.

Herzog: I wouldn’t like to travel at all. I’ve been too much around. I have two more finished films, “Queen of the Desert,” which was shot in Morocco, and “Salt and Fire,” which was shot in Bolivia. This film was shot in North Korea, Ethiopia and Iceland and [Indonesia]. So I don’t want to travel.

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The sound of New York rock: “Something that comes from the streets, and sounds like the streets”

Julian Casablancas; Debbie Harris; David Johansen

Julian Casablancas; Debbie Harris; David Johansen (Credit: Getty/Simone Joyner/Hulton Archive/ Bruno Vincent)

What is the difference between a New York musician or musicians, whether it’s the Velvet Underground, Suicide, Sonic Youth, Run-D.M.C., Murphy’s Law or the Lunachicks and (yes) The Spin Doctors, and a band from anywhere else on the planet? Writer/editor Steven Blush, best known for the classic 2001 oral history “American Hardcore,” explores this question in his scholarly new publication “New York Rock: From the Rise of The Velvet Underground to the Fall of CBGB” (St. Martin’s Press). Told predominantly by sourcing trenchant and funny anecdotes and observations from the key New York characters of the last five decades, Blush attempts to get close to a kind of source of all that attitude, all those poses, all that leather and street hassle, which is not so easy given that the city’s sounds and scenes are nothing if not ever-evolving.

Here we talk about what binds them all and what separates them, the watersheds and the wasted years and what happens when that voice in your head tells you “it’s over.” Hint: it’s time to leave.

Structurally it’s interesting how the book comes together. It’s an oral history format of various New York musicians and figures discussing a series of concrete topics, but clearly edited from what feels like a large vault of interviews. Tell me about the building blocks you used to put “New York Rock” together. I see from the source notes that much of it is from your own archives?  

I conducted, gosh, close to 200 interviews for this book. I was a journalist and a publisher and an editor for years so I have my whole vast archive. A lot of the other people have since passed away so I didn’t have a chance to speak to them but they said things from secondary sources that I felt was appropriate.

So basically a whole lot of major editing. But it feels intimate.

I have this whole history, not just from the journalist side but also as a kid I was promoter of a lot of shows. I worked with a lot of these bands and I was a deejay at the clubs. I knew a lot of guys who owned clubs and from a very young age I was hanging out, through people who were friends with my dad.

What did your dad do?

He was a printer on the Lower East Side. He was just one of the guys there so he knew all sorts of people from the run. The Lower East Side was a pretty dodgy area back then. It was a kind of mixture of mob and street. So at a very young age I was seeing all that stuff. When I was a kid maybe 12, 13 years old my dad worked at 195 Chrystie Street and there was a band practicing upstairs. I was always a little too afraid to go upstairs but I would see them outside and they had this real kind of weird artistic glare. And I figured out that that was Talking Heads, from what I’ve read. I remember seeing David Byrne looking at us in that weird way as we walked out the door. So you know this is not vicarious, this book.

You’re writing about your life through these people in a way?

It’s not my life, really, but it’s the life of this great incredible music culture that I kind of just fell in with.

It’s interesting that you don’t just dwell on punk rock. You provide a real context. The befores and the afters of punk. It’s not just a “Please Kill Me”-type punk-centric narrative. It’s a full sweep.

You can’t talk about New York rock in a vacuum, so that’s why I talk about the precedents. New York rock is everything from Tin Pan Alley and the Brill Building to heavy metal.

You also delve into what makes a “New York rocker,” as opposed to, say, an L.A. rocker or an English rocker. There’s a chapter simply called “Attitude.”

I was also talking about the character type, yes. The kind of person that makes New York rock.

They are different for sure, New York bands.

Here you had artists making rock that’s really avant-garde. And there’s a precedent of minimalism. You know the Beach Boys could have never come from New York. What we’re talking about is something that comes from the streets and sounds like the streets.

I thought, speaking of “Please Kill Me” — and it’s hard to talk about a New York rock book without thinking of “Please Kill Me” — when I opened the book it would be a sort of redux but it’s very very different, happily so. This is a book that someone could use more as a textbook if they wanted to know about and study the city and its music.

That’s exactly what it is. This book was twice the size at one point. So in other words this could have been like a hugely expensive book.

It doesn’t read like a textbook, of course. I think maybe one of the reasons it’s more comprehensive is that you mention and interview a lot of great New York artists who don’t usually get the spotlight in New York books, like Kembra from The Voluptuous Horror or Karen Black or Theo from Lunachicks. Miss Guy from Toilet Boys. These were and are local legends. It feels really good that they are getting their say and their due.


Everyone knows Debbie Harry, most know David Johansen or Joey Ramone. Lou Reed of course.

Yes, and I think you really get the [New York] feel from all these people.

You have “rise and fall” in the subtitle. Did you want to give a sense of the waves of culture that seem a major part of the city’s scene? One flows into or even causes, in a reactionary way, the next. Punk rock leads to post-punk. There’s DJ culture, Goth culture, hardcore, metal, they all seem to flow into each other somehow and not feel too compartmentalized. It’s all New York. But at the same time, one scene peaks and then plummets and another rises from there.

I really do see it as the two pillars. The rising and the falling. Especially the rise of the Velvet Underground [in the mid ’60s] to the fall of CBGB [in 2006)]. I just kind of kept coming back to that.

The key thing about the Velvet Underground is that they had the connection to Andy Warhol and art. That was unheard of before. There’ve been dalliances of art and music, but basically rock was teeny-bop, you know? And then you have New York — you had really smart people doing it and [being] on the edge of it.

So do you think there are watershed years? Years that are more important that others, just sort of cosmically? Like 2001, you know in that spring you had Joey Ramone passing away, then 9/11 and then the first Strokes record. 2001 changed the city irreversibly and culturally, but so did ’66 and ’68 and ’77 with disco and Son of Sam and the blackout and punk, of course. There are certain years that propel these rises and falls. Then there are years where nothing seems to happen at all.

I was thinking about The Strokes when you were saying that. I think 1982 is a key musical year.

Was that the year the Clash played their residency at Bonds or was that the year before?

Yeah, that’s ’81, ’82.

Another transitional period.

John Lennon gets shot and then the Clash come and then —

There were the first cases of AIDS.

Right. Klaus Nomi. That was really the first [AIDS casualty on the music scene] that I knew about.

Klaus Nomi is great. That’s the thing; you can’t really put your finger on his genre. He’s just a New York artist and they all seem to cross into and influence each other eventually. The common denominator is the city.

Yes. There was the Paradise Garage on King Street. And I use to always drive in with my dad at like 10 in the morning on a Saturday and I’d notice this cross-mixing of punks and queer culture meeting. . . . It was just all colliding, you know? While there were hardcore shows going on, circa ’87. It was off the charts.

Do you think this culture is eternal? I mean, I don’t believe it stops, but I do believe there are people who were a part of it once perhaps who cease to be able to see it evolving.

Well, you’re either on the train or you’re not. There’s always been that old versus young thing, too.

Yes! Patti Smith fairly recently said that it was all over, which made me sad because what I heard was, “It’s over for you.” I just felt like she should know better. I guess the implication was that it’s over for her.

I think once it’s over, you’re over. You know? [Laughs.] I think the truth probably is somewhere in between, in that you know things have gotten a lot easier. I mean, you can’t deny that. Things are so much easier now.

Yes, and safer.

When we were coming up, we had it so much easier than when our parents were coming up. And I’m sure you can just kind of, you know, send it all back to the old country at a certain point. It’s hard. This is a hard-living place and people judge it by how much they went through.

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WATCH: “Black Mirror” creator calls our technology-driven society a multiplayer “video game”


(Credit: Peter Cooper)

Are we living in a digital dystopia? Charlie Brooker, creator of Netflix’s hit show “Black Mirror,” stopped by Salon to discuss how television mimics reality. The show’s executive producer, Annabel Jones, also weighed in on the new season.

Brooker got most of his inspiration from other anthological shows including “The Twilight Zone.”

“If you were doing a show like that today, what would be the preoccupation? If then it was McCarthyism and the space race and things like that, well today it would be technology because that’s something that’s come in and upended all sorts of assumptions we make about the way we live our lives,” Brooker said.

Technology plays a major role in our lives today, specifically in the video gaming world and the way people portray themselves on social media.

“It’s a massively multiplayer online roleplaying game in which you basically play a personality loosely based on yourself in exchange for retweets, likes and followers,” he explained.

Watch the full interview below:

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