Casey Downing

Casey Downing grew up in Colorado, received his BA in English from Colorado State University and has not stayed put since. He has lived and worked in California, Wyoming, Ireland, Argentina, New York and India. Casey spent the past two years in New York working as an NGO consultant on economic, social and human rights issues at the United Nations. He currently lives in southern India, working for a human rights organization that fights human trafficking and modern-day slavery. Still, he thinks poetry is probably more important than lawmaking.

Broken Wheels in Need of Fixing

Several weeks ago, I rode in a Toyota Qualis to a small conference center just outside of Bangalore, India to interview several former slaves. There were 77 people staying there– men, women and children– all of them recently freed from bondage in a brick kiln in Bangalore. All were to return to their homes, small villages in Orissa, nearly 400 miles to the north, within a couple of days. All had come to Bangalore months or years earlier with the promise of work, many bringing their wives and children with them, others leaving their families behind and promising to send their earnings home. But there would be no earnings to send.

Exiting the Quails, I was led up a stairway to an open meeting place. The victims were all gathered together in a large group, sitting on the floor and listening to instructions from the social workers who worked for the organization that had helped to rescue them. Small children clung to their mothers’ saris, and the men were gathered around one of the social workers, speaking Tamil. They had the deeply tanned complexion of rural workers who spend their days in the sun; most of the men had moustaches and wore lungis, a traditional southern Indian garment that resembles a long kilt. Most were likely from working castes, which are positions in Indian hierarchy based on the Hindu religion. Caste discrimination has been illegal in India since its independence, but it still subtly pervades much of society. It is people like these who are most often victims of human trafficking and modern slavery.

After everyone had eaten, I asked a social worker about interviewing one of the men. I’d been assigned by the NGO I work for to do an interview and thereafter prepare a short press release which would eventually be used to raise awareness among Indian government officials about forced labor. They led me to a young man named Achal. He was tall and handsome, and very articulate. Achal was 25 years old and had lived most of his life in a small village in Orissa. Over time, he found it difficult to support himself by working the land his family had farmed for generations. This is not uncommon; as India has developed economically, it has begun to shift from an agrarian to a service-based economy. Farmers increasingly find themselves unable to support their families by working their land alone, and large numbers are migrating to cities such as Mumbai and Bangalore. Achal was one of these workers, and he came to Bangalore and found work in a brick kiln, eventually bringing his young wife to help him with the work.

The owner of this particular brick kiln was from what is traditionally seen to be a higher caste. He also had many powerful friends in Bangalore. As Achal worked for the owner, he increasingly found his freedoms restricted, and his wages shrinking from what was originally promised. Then the physical abuse began.

As Achal told me his story, I could not help but cringe at parts. Achal had been forced by the owner to recruit other workers for the kiln by offering them small loans and then asking them to work to repay the debts. When these workers began being abused, they escaped from the facility during the night, and the owner held Achal accountable for their debts. He was eventually sent back to Orissa without his wife and child to pay off their debts by working for a friend of the brick kiln owner. Achal’s wife and small child were held by the owner as insurance in case he tried to escape or to default on the debt. Desperate to raise the money and free his wife and son, Achal attempted to sell his kidney for fast cash. When his kidney was not approved, he went to the police as a last resort. Several weeks later they organized a rescue operation and pulled out the 77 victims.

Listening to Achal’s story, I was astounded. Yet his story is hardly unique. Human Rights Watch, in a 2008 study, estimated that there are 40 million people in India living in conditions of bonded labor, conditions not too dissimilar to Achal’s. And this is only in India. In Thailand, the Philippines, Cambodia, Costa Rica and countless other countries, young women are frequently kidnapped and forced to work in brothels as prostitutes. If they do not cooperate, they are beaten or their families are threatened. Nor are these problems confined to developing countries. Thousands of people are trafficked into the United States each year, often victims of elaborate deceptions that are designed to leave them powerless and dependent on their traffickers, alone and far from home. Human trafficking is now the third largest income generating activity in the world for organized crime syndicates, after trafficking of drugs and firearms.

The figures can be overwhelming, but there is hope. Organizations such as Restore NYC work to help women who have been trafficked into brothels in New York to heal from physical and emotional trauma, obtain work visas in the United States, receive job and skills training and generally rebuild their lives. Nicholas Kristof, a columnist for the New York Times, recently profiled one of Restore’s clients in his column, bringing attention to the scope and severity of a problem that exists in many American cities from New York to Toledo.

Trafficking is increasingly gaining international attention as well. In 2010 a woman named Anuradha Koirala topped CNN’s list of “Heroes of the Year,” individuals the news network identifies as “everyday people changing the world.” Koirala founded an organization called Maiti Nepal in 1993 that rescues and rehabilitates women who have been trafficked from Nepal into India to work in brothels. Maiti Nepal has helped to rescue and rehabilitate more than 12,000 Nepali women and girls since its inception 18 years ago.

But even with the myriad NGOs working against human trafficking, it is an uphill battle. Their work is vital and thousands of lives have been restored, but the problem of trafficking remains. It is currently the fastest growing criminal enterprise in the world. The trafficking problem is so advanced that it would require institutions to exist in every country with special powers to investigate and disrupt trafficking crime syndicates. These organizations would have to employ thousands of professionals who worked around the clock to fight problems such as trafficking and organized crime. They would require state funding and a national, integrated network of offices in each and every country, state and district in the world.

Luckily, the organizations I am describing already exist in almost every country in the world: the police force. Though NGOs have been able to make headway in the trafficking problem, and to help rehabilitate victims, there is simply no substitute for qualified and well-trained criminal justice systems as a deterrent to human trafficking. The problem, as put forth by a human rights lawyer named Gary Haugen in a recent article in Foreign Affairs, is that public justice systems rarely protect those who are the most vulnerable in society. As Haugen notes, “Most public justice systems in the developing world have their roots in the colonial era, when their core function was to serve those in power—usually the colonial state. As the colonial powers departed, authoritarian governments frequently took their place. They inherited the public justice systems of the colonial past, which they proceeded to use to protect their own interests and power, in much the same way that their colonial predecessors had.” As he concludes, “without functioning public justice systems to deliver the protections of the law to the poor, the legal reforms of the modern human rights movement rarely improve the lives of those who need them most.”

But this is not cause for cynicism. In 2005, with a grant from the Bill and Melinda Gates foundation, the NGO that Haugen founded in order to help develop public justice systems, International Justice Mission (IJM), partnered with the metropolitan police department in Cebu, Philippines on a project to develop the capacity of the Cebu police to combat forced prostitution within its city limits. The initiative, called Project Lantern, consisted of a simple strategy: to provide local police with training and resources to identify cases of forced prostitution, safely conduct operations to rescue victims, and to prosecute the perpetrators of trafficking under existing statutes in the Philippine legal code.

Beginning in 2006, Crime and Justice Analysts (CJA), a research and evaluation firm specializing in crime and criminal justice issues, began an independent study to test the effectiveness of Project Lantern. At the end of four years, CJA found a 79% decrease in the availability of minors for sex in commercial sex establishments and street-based prostitution. The study confirmed that investment in criminal justice systems can have a direct impact in the lives of victims – 225 sex trafficking victims have been rescued over the course of the project. Furthermore, a well functioning police system can act as a powerful deterrent for future criminals. Eighty-seven suspected traffickers have been arrested over the course of the project, and 2010 saw landmark convictions of two trafficking ringleaders. Criminals in Cebu are thinking twice before they kidnap and victimize young women.

All of this should add up to a message of cautious hope. Victims of modern day slavery can be rescued and trafficking itself can be curbed. We simply need the political will to invest in criminal justice systems, which, when given proper resources, have shown a remarkable ability to shut down human trafficking, rescue victims and prevent future abuse. Criminal justice systems exist in every country in the world, they are simply in need of attention. To address trafficking, we do not need to reinvent the wheel; we simply need to fix it.

So Much Depends on Photography

“India is in a constant state of photographic decay– I mean that in a good way,” Jimmy Chalk said to me, stepping over a shredded bicycle tire. He was approaching a wall that had once been painted with Tamil letters, but was now faded and cracking, the paint curling outwards like shards of bark. “You see what I mean?” he asked. “Every wall, every bit of sidewalk, is gradually decaying here, and this gives every wall or shed or storefront a wonderful visual texture, or mixing of colors and composition of these unnatural shapes.” I could see what he meant as he came nearer to the wall, which seemed like a relic from some older, forgotten age. Its bright colors had faded in places but remained in others. There were watermarks and what looked like bullet holes riddling the length of the wall, cutting through the text of the Tamil, which is a script of curved, crossed and house-like images. In the United States such walls would have been painted over years ago to keep the appearance of cleanliness, order, progress. We could only find walls such as these in tucked- away corners that the sanitizing hand of gentrification has passed over. But every surface of every object in Chennai seemed to be like this wall: faded paint, crumbling, pockmarked, rusted – a whole universe of texture and color.

Photo by Jimmy Chalk.

Jimmy had been given the task of guiding me through a crash course on photography for my new job. We went out into Chennai armed with cameras to experiment with different photography techniques. He showed me how to adjust the lenses, the aperture settings, the length of the exposure, the white balance – and what difference it meant to take pictures with the different settings. We wandered to an open playground where a number of children were playing cricket using stacked cinderblocks as their wicket. The red dirt of the field rose into the air from the clatter of their bare feet chasing the ball, creating a surreal orange glow in the air. This was perfect light, Jimmy said. He went over the speed settings, how to frame the shot to catch the batter in action, how to keep the moving ball from blurring in the shots. We waded into the game and tried to take pictures of the action. The Indian children were either flamboyant or shy around the camera and these two American strangers, either waving and laughing or perhaps hiding in the folds of their mother’s sari. Both made equally lovely pictures.

A new student of photography, such as myself, will find no shortage of source material to study on the subject. There are extensive manuals and sources of instruction on camera settings, quality of light, and generally taking good pictures.  There are also a number of more academic treatises on the subject of photography itself as a form of expression. Perhaps the best chronicler of photography in an analytical sense is Susan Sontag, whose 1977 collection of essays entitled On Photography first addressed the implications of a photograph. In a later work entitled Regarding the Pain of Others, Sontag notes that one of the principal things distinguishing photographs from other forms of art is that a photograph purports to represent truth, to be an accurate reflection of the actual realities of the world the moment it was taken. She quotes Virginia Woolf in saying, “photographs are not an argument; they are simply a crude statement of fact addressed to the eye.”

Photo by Jimmy Chalk.

Sontag then spends the rest of the book laboring to disprove Woolf’s glib remark, noting how easily the framing of a photograph, a caption, a convenient lack of context, can obscure or change the meaning of the image. She requires the whole book to make her argument because her position contradicts what reason and experience might suggest: here is a picture before me; this happened; this was real. Photographs present themselves to us as indisputable proof about what stood before the eye of the beholder at the moment the picture was taken. Photographic evidence still carries a good deal of weight in the courts. Even in the age of Photoshop tampering, a good deal of proof is required to demonstrate that the image isn’t true, because the base assumption is that it is credible until proven otherwise. Unlike literature or paintings, for example, the mind assumes the accuracy of the photographic image.

But the photograph is also an impossible object, a captured moment that once was but can never be again. In this way it is perpetually false, a present-time rendering of something that has long since vanished from the world. As literary theorist Roland Barthes puts it, “[w]hat the Photograph reproduces to infinity has occurred only once: the Photograph mechanically repeats what could never be repeated existentially.” Anyone who has seen a photograph has had this experience. Consider Capa’s infamous Death of a Loyalist Soldier, which allegedly captures a soldier in the Spanish Civil War at the moment he has been shot, flung backwards by the bullet, his rifle airborne just beyond his outstretched arm, his shadow behind him on the hill waiting to catch his falling body. This soldier was killed only once, yet his death replays ad infinitum in the consciousness of the world through this photograph. It has taken on its own life, completely separate from his.

Consequently, we take a great weight upon our shoulders when we pick up a camera. In On Photography, Sontag warns that “to photograph is to appropriate the thing being photographed. It means putting oneself into a certain relation to the world that feels like knowledge – and, therefore, like power.” Few of us consider such things as we are snapping photos of our night on the town and posting them on our Facebook profiles. How often do we stop to consider how we are representing the world, what part of the world we are allowing to take a life of its own, to live on forever, when we take a picture?

Photo by Jimmy Chalk.

This may have been the most important thing that Jimmy said as we turned from the cricket game and began walking toward his studio. There was a responsibility inherent in this work. First, to do justice to the people whom we would photograph. And second, to do justice to the world we chose to immortalize, to take great care in the things we chose to transform by photographing them. Consider the composition, the arrangement of objects. Consider the space, the balance of light and dark elements, the shapes. Consider the story. That woman is looking toward something. Shall we photograph her from behind that we too may see it, or shall her gaze in itself be the story? What are we saying about the world that people will believe is true? Should we say such a thing?

So we stepped back through the gates and over the garbage around which a group of stray dogs had gathered to pick the leftovers, and I thought of William Carlos Williams. So much depends upon a red wheel barrow glazed with rain water beside the white chickens. So much depends upon the simple composition of objects in a pleasing shape, the quality of light, shadow, color, texture, the framing of the action to create a story.

In the days following my class with Jimmy, I have found myself studying the world more closely, examining the lines that compose the world, the way objects catch light and then throw it back, and especially, what all of this means. It has reminded me of the remarkable nature of our presence as observers in this world, the remarkable nature of beauty of the world itself. And this is the gift that a photographer can give to the world, and that photography can give to those who would wade into its deeper waters.

What it is About Twenty-Somethings

I am perhaps the only person I know who was a child in the same house in which his father was a child, the house my grandfather built after the war. There is something oddly un-American-in-the-21st-century about the idea of generations staying in the same place and not moving for purposes of jobs or better opportunities. Move-up, move-on, better yourself, improve your lot in life, generation to generation – this is the mantra that we have been taught. My father runs a successful business; my parents could live in a house three times this size, but here they still are, sixty years later.

The author's family home circa 1961.

The house was built on the crown of what once was an empty hill facing the Rocky Mountains on the front range of Colorado. The neighborhood grew up around it, and trees were planted, yards cultivated, and roads paved running to and from the place. The settlers’ graveyard at the end of our lane that my father snuck into as a child was bulldozed and replaced by a park where I played football. Power lines went up, and sheds and houses that now obscure our view of the mountains. But the house is the same. These rooms have new carpet and furniture, but my father wandered through these spaces as a child and so did I. Of course, he still lives here, and I left home eight years ago and haven’t spent more than a few weeks here since. Until this summer, when I came back home to live for a while.

A recent New York Times Magazine article entitled “What is it About 20 Somethings?” examines the phenomenon exemplified by my own situation. It seems there is a recent trend among people in their 20’s who postpone adulthood in favor of a prolonged period of adolescence. The article’s author, Robin Marantz Henig, cites five markers that sociologists have traditionally used to measure when a person transitions from youth into adulthood: completing school, leaving home, becoming financially independent, marrying, and having a child. According to the article, 20-somethings in the United States these days have somehow gotten off track and are delaying or completely skipping one or several of these transitional steps toward adulthood. She argues that our society is,

built on the expectation of an orderly progression in which kids finish school, grow up, start careers, make a family and eventually retire to live on pensions supported by the next crop of kids who finish school, grow up, start careers, make a family and on and on. The traditional cycle seems to have gone off course.

Henig then explores the possible causes and consequences of this new development – our generation’s failure to launch, as it were – by tracking the development of a term being used by psychologists these days called “emerging adulthood.” She concludes that, “we’re caught in a weird moment, unsure whether to allow young people to keep exploring and questioning or to cut them off and tell them just to find something, anything, to put food on the table and get on with their lives.”

Perhaps it is because of my current situation – returning to my parents’ home at the age of 27, unmarried, childless, and still waiting to complete my graduate degree and start my career – that I take issue with Ms. Henig’s article. Both with its premise and its conclusions. Or perhaps it is because she considers a very narrow context and bases her arguments on one specific set of data.

From the New York Times article, "What is it about twenty-somethings?"

Henig is a science writer who bases most of the article on data culled by psychologists from studies on present day college students and recent graduates. Her approach is distinctly one-dimensional, seeking to explain a broad sociological occurrence based on theories of emotional and brain development alone. Her argument is also clearly contemporary and even more clearly the product of an American from the baby boom generation. It contemplates neither our place in history nor our place in the world.

It is true that today’s young people do not follow the trend of our parents’ generation, the baby boom generation, which is also Henig’s generation. A recent census bureau report revealed that 40 million Americans move to a new place every year. The overwhelming majority cited the reason for their move as wanting to live in a bigger house, a more desirable neighborhood or getting a better job. The percentage of people moving to different states rather than staying nearby also jumped dramatically from a similar survey done ten years ago. It seems that homeowners, the majority of whom are of Henig’s generation, do not like to stay put. There are nicer houses and superior jobs out there. Baby boomers have indeed followed the progression: move away, get married, get a job. Get on with your life.

But are these standards, the ones set by the baby boom generation, normal? For the majority of human history, families have tended to stay in the same place. If you were male, you could reliably assume that your vocation would be the same as your father’s, the same as his father’s. If you were raised by farmers, you would likely be a farmer; if your father was a silversmith, he would probably teach you his trade. Children became partners and eventually took over the family business. Shepherds raised shepherds, kings raised kings. Indeed, surnames came about in the English language in order to identify a family with a trade (the names Miller and Smith, for example) or perhaps even to identify you directly with your parents (the names Johnson, Thomson, McDonald).

The American experiment changed much of this. People are able to make a career for themselves based on their interests or desires, rather than who their parents were. We are more likely in this country than in most to judge you by what you do rather than by who you know (but by no means is this always the case). Also, opportunities for women and ethnic and religious minorities are much greater now than ever before – a direct result of the breakdown of the traditional social structure.

Still, for most of American history people tended to stay close to home, to follow the paths of their fathers. It was not uncommon in the early part of the 20th century to have three or even four generations of a family living under one roof. Grandparents were seen as essential to the raising of their children’s children. Neighbors and aunts and uncles all were a part of the process. You grew up in a community that knew you, knew your family, knew your history, the traits and the habits coded in your blood. They knew you in ways you didn’t know yourself. When my father visits the farm in Missouri where my grandfather grew up, the people in town call him Willis, my grandfather’s father’s name, because they see the family in my father’s face.

This mostly changed within the past fifty years. People do not tend to stay in the same job or city for very long. Society has shifted to the expectations listed by Henig – grow up, get a job, move away, get on with your life.

Now families become uprooted. There are marriages, divorces, second marriages, step-siblings, single parents. Grandparents are hidden away in homes for the elderly. Children are raised in daycares or after school programs. By no means am I criticizing our present situation or lamenting the loss of the “good old days” that I was never around to experience. I am simply saying that the ways families relate to one another in this country in this age are different from what they have been historically, different from what still takes place in most of the rest of the world. Henig thinks it strange that my generation is at a loss for our place in society and in our families. I would think it strange were it not so. Only a single generation has led the type of life Henig cites as normal. Those of my generation are trying to make our way in a world no one has prepared us for.

In the end, though, I am not convinced any of this is so bad. What does it mean that we have a generation of people returning home? Perhaps it means that we are rediscovering the odd and wonderful institution that is family. Perhaps my generation is accidentally rediscovering something meaningful by stepping off society’s ladder and returning to live with our parents, unmarried and unable to find our way in the world.

The Pulitzer Prize- winning author Marilynne Robinson writes a good deal on the theme of people returning home to their families, even perhaps as failures or for reasons they did not choose. In her essay “Family,” she writes,

Imagine that someone failed and disgraced came back to his family, and they grieved with him, and took his sadness upon themselves, and sat down together to ponder the deep mysteries of human life. This is more human and beautiful, I propose, even if it yields no dulling of pain, no patching of injuries. Perhaps it is the calling of some families to console, because intractable grief is visited upon them. And perhaps measures of the success of families that exclude this work from consideration, or even see it as failure, are very foolish and misleading.

As she concludes, “Maybe the saddest family, properly understood is the miracle of solace.”

And so here I sit, at my grandmother’s desk where I studied algebra when I was 13. I find it sadly ironic that I am defending staying near your family, returning home, as I have spent the past 8 years living on America’s coasts or abroad – far from this house and these mountains. Indeed, in two weeks I will leave for a year in India, and will miss the birth of my first nephew and his first year of life. I am among the confused and wandering of my generation. The difference between my understanding and Henig’s is my knowledge that my parents would never see me as unwelcome in their home, never see my coming back to them as failure, or failure to launch, even if it was. There would be no calculation or proportion in their welcome, which is perhaps one reason they stayed in this house, in this city all these years. These rooms, where my grandmother sang my father to sleep – the same songs my mother sang to my brother and me, that she will sing to my nephew in the years that come. The holiness of the generations passing through this old house. And me, coming back and seeing it all again for the first time in so many years. I assume other 20-somethings who return home are also reminded. Perhaps this is the beginning of finding our way.

The Great Matter That Still Matters

Toward the final moments of the series finale of The Tudors (Showtime’s original series on the reign of Henry VIII of England), Henry is appraising the final portrait of himself in his chapel when a sparrow enters through a window in the background, flies unnoticed across the room to the window opposite, and exits. This detail might seem unimportant – or even accidental – were it not for the opening scene of the episode, in which a single white horse gallops through a grove of trees to the sound of Henry’s voice paraphrasing the English historian Bede:

When we compare the present life of man on earth to that time of which we have no knowledge, it seems to me like the swift flight of a single sparrow through the banqueting hall…on a winter’s day. After a few moments of comfort, he vanishes from sight into the wintry world from which he came. Even so, man appears on earth for a little while; but of what went before this life or of what follows, we know nothing.

The quote comes from Bede’s religious history of the English people written in the eighth century, and it is especially revealing of Henry’s main preoccupation throughout the four seasons of the show: his own mortality. Indeed, it was Henry’s reverence and even fear of the brevity of life, and the utter mystery of what will follow (and not lust for Anne Boleyn, as is often supposed), that primarily motivated his initiation of the “great matter,” a break with the Roman Catholic Church and the beginnings of the  English Reformation.

History does not exist in a vacuum. One of the limitations of historical dramas is that they must find a place to begin their action, a place which is never the beginning of the story. The Tudors is no different.  The series opens with Henry as a young man, handsome and fit (and played with intensity by Jonathan Rhys Myers). He excels in athletics, drinking, war, and politics, and is popular with women – whom he frequently seduces despite his marriage to Catherine of Aragon. He opens the series as an arrogant, selfish, ambitious, and yet extremely pious young man, who suddenly, due to a near-death experience near the middle of the first season, begins to fear his own mortality and obsess over the matter of producing a male heir.

What the series fails to explain is that Henry’s fear was rooted in his past. As a boy, he had watched his father’s violent rise to the throne through a war of succession known as the “War of the Roses.” He knew full well the price that could be paid was not a full and legitimate succession secured by the bearing of male children. It is this fear, and not his lust (which, make no mistake, was still considerable) that caused him to initiate his divorce from Catherine and consider a break from Rome on the issue of the marriage.

There are also a number of things that are left out in the treatment, such as Pope Clement VII’s fear of the Holy Roman Emperor (who had recently sacked Rome and had imprisoned the Pope) which largely influenced his decision to deny Henry an annulment to Catherine – the Emperor’s aunt. Catherine had been previously married to Henry’s older brother Arthur, who had died young. Citing Leviticus 20:21, Henry believed that his marriage to Catherine was cursed and unlawful because she had been his brother’s wife. This conflict, the authority of the Pope versus the authority of the Bible, was one of the main tenents of the Reformation. A storm begins to brew.

But television shows are not primarily about historical instruction. They are about entertainment and, every now and then, artistic expression. The Tudors succeeds at both.  The first thing one notices when watching the series is the lush cinematography. London in the 16th century has never looked better, with deep colors that do not reflect the melancholy of the weather or the rather bleak living conditions of the time. It is a medieval London reimagined, and that is fine with me. The cinematography (along with the haunting score by Trevor Morris) bring an immediacy to the action and a deep resonance to many of the period sets and costumes. Besides, the characters have no time for stepping over the various diseases and filth of a bleak 16th century London; they are too occupied with sex, power, and especially political intrigue.

There is a temptation in contemporary society to assume that things were simpler “back in the day” than they are now. People were more moral, politics less corrupt, and moral dilemmas less complex. The Tudors illustrates just how untrue this is. Much of it plays like a soap opera– kings making treaties with other kings and breaking them for paltry reasons of ego, queens executed because of alleged affairs with their own brothers, Popes sending secret assassins, and men burned alive for subtleties of Christian theology that most in contemporary society have no knowledge (or care) about.

What is shocking about The Tudors is that some of these things are true. Indeed, after a number of episodes, I found myself going to Wikipedia to find evidence that the bizarre action I had just seen was not made up by the show’s writers. As it happened, the more outlandish the occurrence, the more likely that it actually took place. So much for the good ol’ days.

And yet another strength of the show is that while it is able to show us people and situations that we find bizarre, we are also able to connect with the characters and the action in a profound way. It is absolutely foreign to watch men revere Henry in the way that they do, to give him the benefit of the doubt, and for there to be so few checks on his power. Don’t these people know that absolute power corrupts absolutely? Haven’t they heard of checks and balances? Of separation of church and state?

Apparently not. But for every bit of the show that is foreign and strange, we are able to see ourselves in the plight of the English 16th century. People were living in a time of immense uncertainty– politically and religiously. The characters watch the seismic changes occurring on the continent; they try to control them, and are ultimately swept away by the force of change. The United States may not have witnessed revolution on the scale of the Reformation in the past generation, but we are no strangers to forces for change over which we have little control. Henry tries to navigate his country through wars and revolutions. In the end, he brings about changes he did not anticipate and that he cannot control. And always lurking behind him is the shadow of his past, the mystery of death, and the fear of being forgotten in this world.

Perhaps this is the reason that The Tudors is so significant. It illustrates several very important points to contemporary America.

First: Henry is us and we are Henry. America today enjoys a level of privilege and power in the world that has never before been seen. America is intensely religious, and yet has a hard time balancing the very role religion should play in politics; should belief control our laws or should our laws control belief? America is also haunted by our past, and insecure about our place in the world presently and in the future.

The irony is that the United States owes much of its history, traditions, and thought to none other than Henry VIII himself. Max Weber reminds us that it was the rise of Protestantism that largely brought about both democracy and capitalism in the first place – democracy as a result of the Protestant focus on the responsibility of the individual, and capitalism on the resulting ethos of hard work and thrift on which capitalism relies. Also, we must not forget, the original American colonies were founded by English Protestant explorers – Puritans in New England and Anglicans in the South. Indeed, Virginia, the first colony in the nation, is named for “The Virgin Queen” Elizabeth I, the daughter of Henry VIII and Anne Boleyn. Both camps were devoutly Protestant, and the societies they formed, and the eventual formation of the larger United States, were based largely on philosophy and religious reform of Henry’s era.

But it was not revolution or creating nations that motivated Henry. It was honor, love, self, and fear. He had neither the foresight to understand what he was creating nor the power to control it. In the end, Henry VIII will be remembered by history for his numerous wives, for the way in which they died, for the revolution he accidentally began, and for the ego which led him to think he had much control over any of it.

And yet providence is gentle, and even this man’s sins helped create the wonderful American experiment, and the freedom of worship that has been so important to so many in the generations that followed him. If for no other reason than these, we owe him our thanks. And we owe it to The Tudors as well, for acting as a reminder.

Notes on Leaving the City

new york city evening.
Image by matt.hintsa via Flickr

Everyone can tell you how to move to New York, how to dress, where to shop, where to get a cocktail. But almost no one will tell you how to leave. Leaving the city is a very particular shame that is never mentioned, except with a small sigh of pity, of longing, until the subject changes. The Johnsons got pregnant and moved to New Rochelle. I hear they’re well, but we haven’t really kept in touch.

Preparing to leave, then, is a daunting and lonely task. When I moved to New York several years ago, there were slaps on the back, congratulations (as though I’d already accomplished something noteworthy), and advice. Even when I went back to Colorado, where I grew up, for Christmas each year, my mother and father would introduce me differently. This is our son Casey, who lives in NEW YORK CITY.

The world is proud of you for coming here, but less sure what to think when you leave. Search in any bookstore, and there are dozens of books on how to live in the city. And every uncle, friend, and passerby has something to offer. Make sure you try Grimaldi’s Pizza in Brooklyn, it’s the only pizza in New York I’d eat. Or, don’t buy your suits at Bloomingdales – you can find the same thing at Century 21, though you’ll have to fight the crowds. Every corner or detail of the city is claimed by someone, somewhere, as their own.

The only reliable voice I have ever found on leaving the city came from Joan Didion in her 1967 essay Goodbye to All That, which begins: “It is easy to see the beginnings of things, and harder to see the ends.” I remember when New York began for me, several years ago. I had moved out to stay with a friend for a few weeks before beginning my job working for an NGO at the United Nations. The size of everything was astounding, and so were the prices. I remember getting lost trying to find my way to the headquarters of the organization where I would work, and calling them trying to explain why I was late, but being too embarrassed to say and making something up. I had confused west for east, and thus Riverside Park for Central Park, and the Hudson River for the Jackie O Reservoir. I realized my mistake and took a bus across the park, arriving at the office an hour late. I was briefed by my future boss, after which I hurried to the nearest Duane Reade and bought a pack of cigarettes, my first in years, and smoked three to calm down. It seemed like a city where nothing less than perfection would be tolerated. Was anyone ever so young?

As the months passed by I grew used to the pace, and no longer confused west for east, rivers for reservoirs. Everyone who has moved to New York remembers the first time someone stops them on the street to ask for directions and they are able to give them. With time I felt the deep satisfaction of ritual, familiar rumble of the subway under my feet as I walked down Lexington with my morning coffee, the late night rowdy crowds that would gather at JG Melons on Fridays, just down the street. I came to expect the flowers on Park to magically appear one day in April as though constructed by a team of elves in the night. I found a favorite coffee shop, a favorite hipster bar, the best cheap museums and free events for Saturday nights.

I got used to the late night parties, the blend of red wine or bourbon and cigarette smoke. And someone would usually have access to the rooftop, and so we would make our way up and point out the buildings we knew and watch the city lights reflecting on the river. Or if it was cold we would stay inside and pour another round of gin and tonics, the clinking glasses mixing with chatter of names of friends who we were all supposed to know but who had gone off to study medicine at Harvard or taken that job in London. They always went to Harvard or to London, never to Rutgers or Kansas City. And this just added to the surreality of the city. These weren’t real people, and these aren’t real places.

This seems to be a permanent fixture of New York. That it is a mirage more than a life, at least for those of us who have come from somewhere else. Didion mentions the surreal quality:

You see I was in a curious position in New York: it never occurred to me that I was living a real life there. In my imagination I was always there for just another few months, just until Christmas or Easter or the first warm day in May. For that reason I was most comfortable with the company of Southerners. They seemed to be in New York as I was, on some indefinitely extended leave from wherever they belonged, disciplined to consider the future, temporary exiles who always knew when the flights left for New Orleans or Memphis or Richmond or, in my case, California.

In my case, Colorado.

But New York, more so than other places, is a city of extremes. The ups are high and the downs are low – and they come upon you suddenly. Not too long after I got here, Lehman Brothers collapsed, and then Fanny and Freddy. Friends from Colorado called to ask if people were jumping off tall buildings on Wall Street. I expected they were. And all those earnest and confident young men and women, filling their crisp suits and their sleek offices, began to disappear. First those in finance filtered out of the city, and then the architects and the real estate workers, then the lawyers. Familiar faces at events and parties would be noticeably absent. Suddenly people were going to Rutgers and Kansas City. Elizabeth moved back to Houston to live with her parents. Jimmy lost his apartment and is staying with his uncle in Delaware. NYU Law got a record number of applications this year so Tommy didn’t get in. He took a job at a restaurant in Queens.

Suddenly we weren’t quite so young or quite so entitled. Suddenly the paradise of New York was preparing to cast many of us out. Were we unworthy? Where did we go wrong? This was something that no one had prepared us for.

And I am still not prepared to leave, now that my job has ended, my lease expiring in two weeks, my next job starting in a different city, a different world. Where does one go after living in such a place? No one seems to know. Didion decided one day that she had stayed too long at the fair, and simply left. Perhaps, one day or another, that is what it is like for us all.

Perhaps the best advice on leaving the city came from a friend of mine (we’ll call him John) who has recently left himself. John had a prestigious job with Citigroup until the financial disaster, when they shed a number of high level positions, including his. He stayed in the city, applying for a number of different jobs, interviewing at dozens of places but getting no offers. Eventually he lost his apartment. He moved back to his family’s home upstate, and I didn’t see or hear much from him for about 6 months. His was the fearsome sort of story we only whispered about.

But in those months he started taking classes toward his M.B.A. and is now working on starting a small business. Several months ago he proposed to his longtime girlfriend. It seemed that his job at Citi, his large apartment, and his ambition had been the things keeping him from doing so. Last Saturday, they were married.

The wedding took place at the Union Club on the Upper East Side. I sat at a table with a crisp, white table cloth and more tiers of silverware than I had any idea what to do with. The evening was presided over by the portraits of former presidents who’d been members of the club hanging on the walls. I clinked my glass with that famous movie director and writer, the one who writes such witty dialogue about detachable collars. Everyone wore immaculate clothes and talked about their important friends who do interesting things. It was one of those evenings that can only happen in New York, the kind you dream about when you learn you are coming to the city.

And yet I could not help but think about something John had said to me several months ago, when he had just gotten engaged. While we nursed our bourbons, he warned me about believing the fairy tale of New York, as he had done for so many years. There is the pressure to succeed, to have the right job and the right clothes, to have the right person on your arm, he said. And as much as I want those things, there is a difference between the demands of this city, and my actual life. And getting my life in order has made me see that those demands are kind of silly by comparison.

And so, surrounded by the portraits and the champagne in the crystal glasses and the suits and bowties and gowns, we all got up to dance. It was a scene meant to make an impression. But John was not impressed. Like Didion, he had finally seen that all the pomp and society was really just an illusion, a Xanadu where one does not live, one merely visits. He began to dance with his wife knowing that none of this was real. Except for her.

The Lost City of Z

In New York, run-down and gutted buildings are often considered an eyesore and, unless they have someone like Jane Jacobs to defend them, are torn down and replaced with newer, taller, and more modern structures. But this is not the case in much of the world, and in the western states, where I was raised, there are a good number of ruins – still-standing remnants from the mining and early industrial booms that have fallen into disrepair and were eventually abandoned. The cities grew up around them, but they stand as a testament an older era and the people who came before us who, through these structures, are still somehow among us.

In our restless teenage years, my friends and I would sneak out at night, employing a tool set consisting of ropes, flashlights, crow bars, and camouflage outfits complete with blackface, and break into the old ruins in and around Colorado Springs to see what treasures lay hidden there. Very early one morning our exploration team pried open the door of an abandoned stone school building, built around the turn of the century and abandoned for decades. We explored the ruin from top to bottom, searching for any artifacts that might tell us who had attended this school and why it had closed. We stalked from room to room in the pitch darkness, stumbling across tottering old stairways, the remnants of classrooms, a battered gymnasium replete with basketball lines on the floor, locker rooms with rows of smashed porcelain toilets along one wall, student dormitories.

The building was mostly cleared out, but I remember coming across the seat of a child-sized desk in a basement boiler room sitting in six inches of black standing water. Illuminating it with my flashlight, I noticed the name Alexander carved into the back of the chair with a sharp object. A message, I thought, from some small boy a hundred years ago. I was here once, it seemed to say. Where you now stand. Now I am gone and this place is changed. Whether you know it now, you will someday follow after me.

It may well have been messages like these, connections to people long gone who have left their impression on the places they passed through, that kept us exploring. Or it may have been something inside of us, some drive to uncover the hidden past that lived among us, and thus find something of what was hidden in ourselves. Doubtless, the urges that led us to explore are impulses that have been felt by all people who live among ruins.

Around the same time that Alexander was scratching his name into his desk, another explorer was preparing a trip into the deepest reaches of the Amazon to find what he believed was the source of the legend of El Dorado. He referred to the lost city only as Z. The man was a legendary British explorer and hero of World War I named Percy Harrison Fawcett, and his journey is the subject of a recent book by David Grann called The Lost City of Z: A Tale of Deadly Obsession in the Amazon. In 1925, Fawcett, his son Jack, and a family friend named Raleigh Rimmell departed into the jungle in the hopes of discovering the legendary city. They were never heard from again. Ninety-five years later, the mystery of their fate still remains unsolved.

The Lost City of Z is part memoir, part detective novel, part biography, and part historical inquiry. Drawing on extensive research from British, American, and Brazilian records, including many of Fawcett’s own personal writings, Grann (a staff writer for the New Yorker) weaves a story of several strands: Fawcett and his search for Z, the history of exploration in South America and specifically the Amazon, an overview of the age of exploration, the work of the Royal Geographical Society of London, and even Grann’s own quest to uncover what actually happened to Fawcett, which was a task nearly as daunting as finding Z itself.

 

“Ever since Francisco Orellana and his army of Spanish Conquistadores descended the Amazon River, in 1542, perhaps no place on the planet had so ignited the imagination—or lured men to their deaths,” Grann writes of the South American jungle. To this day much of the forest remains unexplored and unmapped, and the Brazilian government estimates that there are still dozens of indigenous tribes of people living there who have never been contacted by the outside world. The Amazon has also always exerted a particularly powerful influence on the European imagination. As stories began to filter back from the New World about cannibals who shrunk their enemies’ heads, snakes as long and thick as tree trunks, rodents the size of sheep, electric eels, piranhas, river dolphins and other incredible sights, explorers from Europe began to swarm into the thick, uncharted jungle to have a look for themselves. The most compelling tales, of course, were about El Dorado. In 1592, Sir Walter Raleigh wrote that the natives had told him of a vast kingdom where men wore gold powder on their skin, and had constructed roadways and structures to rival those of the Romans. Apparently their capital city floated on a lake deep in the jungle, and was surrounded by treasures and sights the likes of which were scarcely imaginable. Raleigh also sent home accounts of men “with their eyes in their shoulders, and their mouths in the middle of their breasts.”

Grann documents some of the literally hundreds of expeditions who set out into the Amazon in search of the great city, from the conquistadores to the colonial English armies, even on to modern Brazilian and American archaeologists. Most of the expeditions ended similarly—in catastrophe. Explorers died of yellow fever, infection, strange tropical viruses, parasites, starvation, drowning; they were murdered by natives, were eaten by snakes or piranhas, or simply went insane. Some turned to cannibalism. Still, El Dorado remained undiscovered.

And yet Percy Fawcett was undeterred. Fawcett cut his teeth in the Imperial army in Sri Lanka, and then worked as a spy for the English intelligence. Later in his life he became a decorated veteran of World War I, an honored member of the Royal Geographical Society of London, and a world famous explorer. He first ventured into Brazil working for the RGS in 1912, contributing his part to their massive groundbreaking project: the mapping the entire earth. From his first foray into the jungle, Fawcett began to feel its lure. No other place on earth provided such a wealth of new perceptions and discoveries. No other place demanded as much physically and mentally of a person either. Yet the more expeditions Fawcett led into the Amazon, the more convinced he became that it had once been (or still was) the center of a vast, highly advanced civilization.

Even as each of his expeditions to find Z became frustrated by circumstances, sickness, run-ins with hostile natives and even massive starvation among his men, Fawcett continued in his pursuit. He used as evidence shards of pottery that he found on remote Amazonian plateaus where there were signs of ancient roads and causeways, as well as accounts from conquistadores that detailed coming upon villages of natives that numbered in the thousands and that even described roads and buildings deep in the jungle. Even as each successive expedition, and those of his rivals, failed to uncover more evidence of such a city, he became increasingly obsessed with the search, justifying Z’s existence on ever more strained evidence and rationale. All of this led to his fateful 1925 expedition, from which neither he, nor any evidence of his party’s fate, ever emerged.

Fawcett’s disappearance launched its own series of expeditions, first to rescue the missing men, and finally, to try to reclaim their remains. Grann himself describes the temptation to become swept into the mystery of Z and Fawcett’s fortunes. This temptation leads him on his own journey deep into the Brazilian jungle. It also leads him to write an incredibly compelling work of non-fiction.

From time to time while following Fawcett’s journey into the deepest unknown parts of the world and Grann’s journey to find out what happened to him, I thought about myself as a young man, venturing out into abandoned schools, hotels, factories, mine shafts, graveyards and numerous other archaeological gems. What about those relics from the past reaches out to grab hold of men and women, and draw them to come after it? What connection did I share with Alexander, or did Grann share with Fawcett and Fawcett with the conquistadores before him and even the inhabitants of that invisible lost city? Why are so compelled to follow them? The answer to this is written on our hearts, and yet may still be as hidden to us as the golden city, lost and floating out somewhere in the wilderness.

Football as Art

As a young man I used to spend each day after school practicing my footwork in my backyard. 1-2-3 and stop, pivot, turn my knee and push. Again. 1-2-3 and stop, pivot, turn and push. Or perhaps I would leap backwards, and 2-3-4-5, turn, raise arms, twist and pivot shift weight, push arms forward. Over and over I would do these motions, again and again, until my muscles ached and my body did them instinctively, as my mind counted, or hummed music to keep rhythm. In bed at night my mind would repeat the steps, and my legs, arms and back would tense as though going through them.

At times I watch other men doing this dance, men who are much more accomplished than I ever was at such motions. I watch them weave back and forth in carefully choreographed movement, leave their feet, sail into the clean white air, and then collide into one another with all the violence of two great machines of war set against one another. They collide and fall, and the dust rises and they hoist themselves up, shake their heads and arms, and return to their huddles to plan their next opus.

At this point you no doubt see the joke I have attempted. Comparing the steps of a high school quarterback rehearsing his passing drop cannot possibly compare to the grace and skill required for a ballet dancer, as I have suggested. And yet, consider Barry Sanders. Sanders is widely considered one of the finest running backs to have ever played in the National Football League. He rushed for over 15,000 career yards and 99 touchdowns and was recently inducted into the pro football hall of fame. He was also a lifelong student of ballet.

Even novice football fans understand that playing running back requires speed, stamina, strength, balance, and even grace. These are simply the talents of any top athlete. But there was more to Sanders’ game than that. Watching him run with the ball elicited within in me different kind of emotion than a fan cheering for his team (I didn’t really even like the Detroit Lions). Watching him play elicited an aesthetic response, the feeling that there was gravity and beauty in the way he moved about the field. This was more than just a man trying to avoid being tackled. There was a great transcendent yearning in this man that took expression in spin moves, jukes, ducks, and leaps.

I have marveled many times as I watched a school of many thousand sardines move in perfect unison, stopping their trajectory as one coherent whole in a way that seemed impossible for so many beings, and continuing in another direction just as fast, like they are responding to some call or force or rhythm just below the surface of their being.  Watching Sanders is like this at times.

Or consider Peyton Manning. Manning is like a surgeon performing a triple-bypass during a hurricane. There are grave and ruthless forces determined to thwart his every move, to crunch his bones and to foil the work of his hands. But he moves through the bedlam, he watches, steps, waits, and makes his incision.

Sometimes watching Manning reminds me of jazz guitar seminars that I used to attend. The master would teach us that practicing scales was the best method to learn how to improvise. How could this be? we asked. We had come for freedom from the restriction of practice. We wanted to be like Hendrix, to create noise that was free of troublesome scales and key signatures and finger exercises. But he corrected us. The freedom to improvise came after great patience and practice, learning the fundamentals of the theory, disciplining our hands to know when to go where.

This is how Manning plays. He has studied and mastered one of the most complex constructions in all of sports (the Indianapolis Colts’ offensive playbook) and calls his own plays from under the center. Receivers cut and move across a field littered with large men who are aching to destroy him and all he holds dear. Opposing defensive tackles come at him like large boulders down a steep hill. He relies on his steps – leap backwards, and 2-3-4-5, turn, raise arms, twist and pivot, shift weight – the same steps I practiced as a boy, the scales and modes of quarterbacking, and then he improvises. What results is as beautiful as bebop jazz – a man taking a scale and transforming it into a moment by moment experience, pure feel, shared by everyone on the field and every patron in the stands.

There is music in football; there is choreographed movement. In a single offensive play there are backfield motions, coordinated snap counts, pulling guards, gap blocking, quarterback drops, crossing patterns, button hooks routes, block and release routes, passes, catches, downfield blocks. There are spin moves, swim moves, double fakes, quick draws, pump fakes, cornerback blitzes, and fingertip grabs. For a single play to succeed, eleven very large men must each execute a nimble, powerful and precise maneuver, in unison with each other. And all of this while eleven other men are trying at all odds to destroy their plans with maneuvers of their own, equally complex, varied, precise and physically demanding. If the best quarterbacks and wideouts are dancers and jazz musicians, then the best defensive linemen and linebackers are composers of chaos, as ruthless and jarring as Penderecki’s Threnody. And even they can rise to the level of aesthetic awe, as a defensive back lifts into the air to rupture the unsteady line of a poorly thrown pass. Or the perfectly timed hit, the jarring tackle. It may not be pleasant, but it still it is capable of eliciting something akin to an aesthetic response. The physicist Robert Oppenheimer knew well that there is beauty in destruction. So did Francisco Goya. And yet in football they all get up again, they return to their huddle, they prepare again their composition.

Football, like music, like dance, like much of life, is a study of chaos and disorder that men strive and plan and work to overcome, doing so only in moments, in glimpses of something more. This is a great task, and it often fails. But I take a good measure of joy away every time I watch these men make the attempt.

There is another moment from my youth that sometimes returns. My junior year of high school I moved from quarterback to running back. The quarterback would drop, and follow many of the same steps that I had practiced in the years before, and he would hand me the ball and I would run. Before me, hulking young men did battle over a small stretch of turf, my teammates trying to protect me, and my opponents trying to destroy me. I would wait a moment, and the men doing battle would rage and push at one another and dirt would sail into the air and all was lost in a flurry of chaos before my eyes. And then something happened. A space of clear green grass would magically open before me. Through careful preparation and execution, my teammates had pushed and growled an opening in the line of defense. Moments of chaos and terror lifted before me, and all was open and clear. This was more than good blocking, it was revelation. And so I put my head down, and I trusted the ritual of my steps to guide me. All the drills, the motions, the studies, all of them carried me through that hole in the line. Now to the open field, the lights in my eyes like stained glass windows. In the open field, a composer begins to improvise. It was time to play.

And the Mad Waters Rise

There was an advertisement that blanketed Manhattan in July and August. A man – handsome with sharp features, immaculately dressed in a charcoal two-piece suit, straight black tie and dark hair combed to one side – sits in an armchair with his legs crossed and a cigarette in his hand. He stares at the camera as though trying to both intimidate and seduce it, and knows he has succeeded at both. Here was a man completely in control of his universe, and yet, a closer look revealed something more. The office in which he sat was completely under water up to the seat of his chair, drowning his legs and shoes and all but reaching his waist.

The man, of course, is Don Draper, protagonist of AMC’s television show Mad Men. The show is based on a 1960’s advertising agency located on Madison Avenue in New York – the term “mad men” was invented by ad executives as a play on “ad men” and Madison. We see a slice of American history during which the landscapes of business and New York were very different. The only role of women in the agency is as secretaries – constantly harassed as sexual objects and treated like second-class citizens. The men drink scotch on the job, chain smoke, and partake in dalliances with working girls in the city while their homemaker wives, tucked safely away in the suburbs, prepare their dinner and look after their children. All of the clothing on the show is immaculate: the neat, lean suits; the slim ties and pocket squares; fedoras and cufflinks; and the women in pattern dresses with a halo of hair. Every conversation is razor sharp. Mad Men presents a romanticized and corrupt version of sixties life in Manhattan, but also one that is not entirely inaccurate.

But the central appeal of the show is its main character, Mr. Draper. Invented by the show’s creator, Matthew Weiner, and materialized by actor John Hamm, Draper is one of the most engaging television characters to appear since Tony Soprano, and he has certainly imprinted himself upon the imagination of New Yorkers. Banana Republic and Brooks Brothers each unveiled a Draper-inspired line of suits for the fall. Esquire based their fall fashion guide on the man. Hamm even made guest appearances on 30 Rock and Saturday Night Live, giving us a slightly more humorous take on his character. And what’s not to like? Don Draper is handsome, sophisticated, well connected, and rich. He knows exactly what he wants, and he gets it. He has a mesmerizing grasp of language, and when he hits his stride in an advertising pitch, it feels like watching a magician loose doves from his fingertips, from thin air.

This is Draper’s initial appeal, but the core attraction is somewhere deeper. The show is painstaking in its demonstration that Draper and the men with whom he works have every material desire at their fingertips: clothes, cars, watches, expensive vacations, and lavish meals at the finest restaurants, and all of the latest luxuries that money can buy (which is also part of the dramatic irony of the show – viewers can chuckle at what was novel and cutting-edge to consumers of the sixties). But, at the end of the day, Draper understands that all of the sheen and gloss of the Manhattan material success and excess is an elaborate lie.

In the very first episode, he tells a client, “What you call love was invented by guys like me…to sell nylons.” Most of us would cringe at this statement as excessively cynical, but Draper also has a point. Because of his participation in the machine that creates the consumer culture facade, Draper understands the falsehoods of the Manhattan image. We are consumers of an ideal that in turn makes us consumers of products in an attempt to reach that ideal. Men like Draper have crafted this ideal, and although he wears the fine suits and purchases fast cars and the latest housewares, he realizes that the picturesque life he is trying to attain is mostly a fabrication, created to sell something.

Mad Men has two running gags based on this theme. The first is to show us what consumers believed in the sixties due to advertising that has since been discredited (what’s that? Smoking is linked to lung cancer? But how can that be since 4 out of 5 doctors prefer Lucky Strikes?) We marvel at how far we have come, and to wait for the characters to discover for the first time things that we take for granted all our lives.

The second gag is less fun for today’s viewer. We sometimes watch the mad men come up with advertising campaigns that create terms and ideas that we know well, and take for granted. Take, for example, that idea of a disposable tissue. “Don’t carry a cold in your pocket” was invented to sell Kleenex, and effectively eliminated the use of handkerchiefs in American culture. I still hear the phrase repeated if I pull out a handkerchief, though the speaker is usually unaware of its origin. Before the advertising men, people didn’t think twice about carrying handkerchiefs; now we all take for granted that they are disgusting. There is a slight discomfort in watching these men invent slogans and realize that some of today’s accepted truths were invented solely for a company somewhere to stick a hand into our pocket.

This is perhaps the central idea of Mad Men as a show, and the motivation for Draper’s actions. Early on in the series, Draper tells a young woman with whom he is about to have an affair that that he is “living like there’s no tomorrow because there isn’t one.” Don lies to his boss and family, cheats (repeatedly) on his wife, drinks heavily, uses drugs from time to time, and often lets his ego and temper get the best of him.

And yet, Don Draper is still a sympathetic character. He goes to great lengths to hide his humble beginnings from his coworkers and family because they were painful and embarrassing. He loves his wife and children, but his sense of meaninglessness continues to lead him to actions that betray them, for which he is sorry – and which he then repeats. Draper’s existential problem is that once he has unveiled the falsehoods of the material life sold by popular culture, he has no grounded worldview with which to replace them. He is puzzled that the universe he has spurned as indifferent continues to lavish gifts upon him in the form of a beautiful loving family, talent, continued success at work, and material wealth. When these things leave him empty (how could they not? It was men like him who invented the idea that they could make you happy in the first place), he partakes in increasingly erratic and damaging behavior. Draper tries to maintain his world, but there is nothing solid for it to rest upon. And the waters continue to rise.

By the end of the third season of Mad Men, Draper’s world is beginning to crumble. His family has fallen apart, broken first by his infidelities and finally by the lies he constructed to protect himself. Even Sterling Cooper, the firm where he works, has been sold and sold again, and he and his partners finally ransack it, starting again – a new agency from the bottom up, working out of a hotel room with a small number of clients.

Yet I, for one, hold out hope for Don, for his wife to forgive and for his agency to rebuild. There is already evidence in Mad Men, from some of the plights of other characters, that the writers believe in some form of reconciliation, some redemption. Perhaps Draper too can recover from the fact that possessions and success are ultimately meaningless, and perhaps the hole this has left in him can be filled with something more meaningful, some rock to build on when the waters rise. We’ll have to wait till Season 4 to find out.

Blood Cries Out

 

In August of 1989, ten thousand Irish citizens marched from the center of Dublin to the British Embassy, calling for British withdrawal from Northern Ireland. This was part of a larger movement that had been active in both Ireland and Northern Ireland for many years; the more passive side included marches and speeches, and the more aggressive side included bloody riots and bombings.

Twenty-years later, having watched the meteoric rise of the Irish economy, which miraculously lifted Ireland from one of Europe’s poorest countries to one of its richest, it is hard to imagine that things were so bad so recently. In 1989 the unemployment rate of Ireland was 18%, and much of the island was still without basic amenities such as electricity or running water. Another large portion, particularly those living in the northern province of Ulster, lived among the constant tension of violence between loyalists and republicans that could ignite at any moment into bloodshed. Indeed, several Irish Republican Army attacks resulted in the death of Ulster policemen that year, and the retaliatory violence left several notable IRA men dead.

1989 was also the year that Irish playwright Antoine O Flatharta wrote the play Blood Guilty. The title of the work is itself a play on the term blood guilt (the idea that one shares guilt by blood association) and also indirectly suggests the English oath “bloody,” the use of which etymologists attribute to Queen Elizabeth I of England in reference to her older sister Mary, and her “bloody” persecution of English Protestants. The very name of the play, then, alludes to two themes directly addressed in the work itself: the Old Testament idea that the sins of a father may be visited upon his family, and the generational struggle between Protestants and Catholics in England and Ireland.

Recently I had the chance to view Blood Guilty in a revival of the play staged by Bronx Company at Player’s Loft Theater off Broadway. The production was simple and elegant, a one act play running roughly ninety minutes and involving four actors. It begins and ends in a small cluttered room, in a shack shared by two elderly brothers in rural Ireland in 1989.

The younger of the two, Dan, is blind, and passes the time listening to a radio station in French, that he might remember that there is a whole world outside of their isolated little house on the small, poor island. His older brother, Pat, finds this practice intolerable, and threatens to take off to a home for the old and degenerate, and thus be rid of him and his “foreign station” on the radio. At first the banter between these two seems loving, but before long we realize that there is genuine hatred and a genuine threat in Pat’s words.

Soon, complications arise as another couple of men make an appearance at the door, young and rough looking, and who also happen to be brothers. They enter the shack under the guise of selling blankets, but before long are bullying the witless Dan who has let the men in the shack in Pat’s absence, asking for money and making threats. It is clear that the younger of the two strangers, Tom, is uncomfortable with this practice, but the threats of his older brother silence him unto compliance. Before too long, Pat returns and the tension escalates toward tragedy. The sins of the old are visited upon the young, brother is turned against brother and generation against generation, only to be reconciled, in the end, by grief.

It was clear from watching the play how rooted it was in Irish history and theater. The actors (who are all Irish) had a clear understanding of the weight of history their characters bore, as clearly did the Director, Kevin Collins, who studied theater in Dublin for some time. And this weight is significant, as evidenced by the major works of Irish playwrights and poets.

As an undergraduate I studied theater, particularly the work of Lady Gregory, W.B. Yeats and John Millington Synge, at the National University of Ireland in Galway. These works wove the rich history of Irish fairy legends and folklore with Biblical allusions and events from recent history involving Irish suffering at the hands of the English, and of one another. The Irish seemed to have a particular affinity with the Israelites of the Old Testament, laboring under an imperial rule, wandering in a great wilderness but moving forward assured of their place in the eyes of God. The Old Testament is clear that suffering is a major part of life, and does not cringe from describing the Israelites’ tendency to turn away from God and bring ruin upon themselves and their ancestors as a result. This is a theme explored over and again in Irish theater, and Blood Guilty is no exception.

Of particular relevance to the play is the story from Genesis of Cain and Abel. Cain, the first son of Adam and Eve, makes an offering to God that is not pleasing, whereas Abel, his younger brother, pleases the Lord with his sacrifice. From jealousy or rage, Cain murders his younger brother while out tending the fields; the Lord comes to Cain saying, “The voice of thy brother’s blood crieth unto me from the ground,” and banishes Cain from his presence to be a “fugitive and wanderer on the earth.”

In modern English translations, Cain responds to the Lord by saying, “My punishment is greater than I can bear.” But in the Hebrew the word can be “punishment” or “iniquity,” or both simultaneously – as seems to have been the case with Cain. The burden of his sin was itself more than he could bear, its own punishment, and though he would eventually settle down in a distant land with a wife and son, he was estranged from his home, bowed under the weight of having killed his own dear flesh and blood.

Such is the iniquity/punishment that seemed to haunt Blood Guilty, and Collin’s treatment. Synge and Yeats certainly carried it as well, as did many of the Irish I met when I lived there who had “experienced the troubles.” They are a people straining toward freedom and light, who seem unable to break the cycle of violence, iniquity and estrangement that comes from so many hard years spend, generation to generation, passed from son to father. And yet they strain against it still.

Twenty years have passed since the play was written, and Ireland has scraped itself up economically and the IRA has formally disarmed. Gerry Adams and Ian Paisley shared a table last year for talks of cooperation and peace in Northern Ireland. It is a world none of us could have imagined twenty years ago.

After the play, I went out for a drink with Mr. Collins, the director, and we marveled at all that had happened in Ireland since the play was written. And we laughed and that he, a Roman Catholic, and I a Protestant – both of Irish descent – could share a Guinness and tell stories and bond over the aesthetic truth presented in the play and a couple pints – as Irishmen should. It drew out thoughts to that ragged, forlorn wilderness haunted by a people for so many years, a people that may be on the verge of finding their way home.

A More Modest Proposal

Our government is currently embroiled in the most intense political debate in recent memory over what the late Senator Ted Kennedy called one of his lifelong goals: universal healthcare. Presently, the battle rages in Washington and at town hall meetings all over the country. Americans are worried about the rising costs of healthcare, but also about the increasing deficit and what they are told will amount to government “death panels” that choose who is fit to live and who is not. Present legislation, as well as public opinion, is on increasingly unstable ground.

Enter Peter Singer. Mr. Singer, a professor of Bioethics at Princeton University, in an article for The New York Times Magazine in July, made the case for explicitly rationing health care. His argument rests upon the claim that the American healthcare system already unintentionally rations health care by one’s ability to pay for insurance and medical expenses. Since we are already doing it, we might as well let the cat out of the bag and try to do it as efficiently as possible, he argues.

A preference utilitarian, Singer subscribes to the view that “good” is defined in the fulfillment of each individual’s particular desires and preferences. In his book Rethinking Life and Death, Singer argues in favor of abortion and euthanasia and infanticide on the basis of preference. The morality of terminating or seeing through a pregnancy is a question of the preference of the mother weighed against the preference of the fetus. According to Singer, since the fetus’s ability to reason and feel is greatly diminished in comparison with the mother, her preferences outweigh any rights of the child. He applies similar reasoning to small children or those with disabilities, stating that “[s]imply killing an infant is never equivalent to killing a person.”

Singer now aims his ethical sensibilities on the present debate. In his essay entitled Why We Must Ration Health Care, Singer argues that healthcare should be evaluated on an objective basis of supply and demand – weighing the practical commodity of care itself against the value of human life. Again, his argument rests on the claim that our present system inadvertently selects which members of society receive health care and which do not, based on their ability to pay for it. Health care in the United States is among the most expensive in the world, making direct payment unthinkable for most. Even insurance costs are unattainable for many, and 45 million Americans go without, having no entitlement to health care unless they can get themselves to a hospital emergency room, which cannot refuse service.

Singer is right to point out that the present system is not working for a great many Americans. But is rationing really the answer? To answer that question, Singer points to Great Britain, which has been “rationing” for years based on cost recommendations by the National Institute for Health and Clinical Excellence (NICE). Singer points to Sutent, a drug for advanced kidney cancer that can extend the life of the patient for an average of six months. NICE found that the average cost of Sutent per patient was more than the general limit of $49,000 that they have put on extending life for one year. So, NICE made a preliminary recommendation not to offer the drug (though they later reversed the decision in the face of public outrage).

Singer recommends similar limits in American practices. He cites the standardized quality-adjusted life year, or QALY – a unit of measurement that has been used by economists for years now to determine the cost-benefits of health care procedures. As Singer explains:

“The death of a teenager is a greater tragedy than the death of an 85-year-old, and this should be reflected in our priorities. We can accommodate that difference by calculating the number of life-years saved, rather than simply the number of lives saved. If a teenager can be expected to live another 70 years, saving her life counts as a gain of 70 life-years, whereas if a person of 85 can be expected to live another 5 years, then saving the 85-year-old will count as a gain of only 5 life-years. That suggests that saving one teenager is equivalent to saving fourteen 85-year-olds.”

Singer is reducing life-years to a practical commodity, one that must be weighed against the cost of healthcare. But he doesn’t stop there, and goes on to discuss the value of a quadriplegic’s life versus that of the nondisabled, saying, “We might conclude that restoring to nondisabled life two people who would otherwise be quadriplegics is equivalent in value to saving the life of one person, provided the life expectancies of all involved are similar.”

But, wait, you might ask; what if the aforementioned teenager is a murderous psychopath and the fourteen 85-year olds are loving grandparents and faithful members of their community? Perhaps one of them is a physicist on the verge of a breakthrough; perhaps one of them is a famous writer. Should we restore three quadriplegics to nondisabled life, even if it means the death of a nondisabled person, because their lives will have 1.5 times the value of his?

Here is where Singer runs into the most trouble. When confronted with questions like the ones above, he states that “decisions about the allocation of health care resources should be kept separate from the judgments of moral character of social value of individuals.” But using QALY as the standard of value for human life is begging the question that economic value is an acceptable standard, whereas social value and moral character are not. Why should we choose to merely value human beings on one aspect of their person, especially something as nebulous and variable as their economic worth? Why not ration care to people who are morally corrupt as well, or insane? This is certainly something that has been done by other governments in the past, using economic value, social status, class, caste, and race as their standard of measurement – to the devastation of all involved.

Is this really a road that we want to follow?

And this is precisely what is most troubling about Singer’s recommendation. As we ask more questions like the ones above, comparing one person’s life against another, we begin to sense that there can be no objective standard for measuring human life. Weigh a person in love against a person who has just been fired; weigh an old poet against a young, handsome engineer who is also a drunk and pervert. The value of life and any numerical standard are completely incommensurable, like trying to determine whether ambition or memory is saltier. We do not measure human life in this way, because you simply cannot.

But perhaps the strongest criticism of Singer’s reasoning is that it is largely irrelevant. As it turns out, drugs like Sudent are not even where most healthcare costs come from.

Atul Gawande, in an excellent piece in the New Yorker entitled “The Cost Conundrum”, argues that the exorbitant costs of American health care owe less to drugs like Sudent and more to a healthcare system that rewards medical providers based not on the quality of care, but on the amount of procedures, tests and doctors visits they are able to wring out of the patient. Gawande says:

“There are the physicians who see their practice primarily as a revenue stream. They instruct their secretary to have patients who call with follow-up questions schedule an appointment, because insurers don’t pay for phone calls, only office visits. They consider providing Botox injections for cash . . . They figure out ways to increase their high-margin work and decrease their low-margin work. This is a business, after all.”

Sure, but doesn’t this mean that people are getting better quality of care? The answer is often no. In many cases, there are a number of options for care that are equally effective, but doctors choose the more expensive, either to raise costs or because they have been trained to do so.

But there is hope. Gawande cites the community of Grand Junction, Colorado, where quality of healthcare is very high but costs are low. This is because several years ago, the doctors and hospitals on Grand Junction decided on a system that would pay them a similar fee regardless of the insurance of the patient, or the procedure performed. It amounted to a salary-like system in which doctors no longer had an incentive to “cherry pick” patients. A committee was also formed in the city so that healthcare providers could meet regularly to discuss patient charts together. By creating a community based system that put the patient first, costs were kept low while quality was kept high. The only thing being rationed is the money going the pockets of doctors.

Gawande notes that this would necessarily be experimental, and we would need to work to find the best accountability systems. But this is surely better than our government determining what constitutes a valuable life, and what people are no longer worth protecting based on QALY or any other standard. If we are a culture that values one another, our relationships and communities over the bottom line or profit margins, and if this stretches from our legislation to the healthcare providers themselves, then building accountable healthcare communities is worth the experimentation. The alternative veers between misguided and dangerous. Surely we can do better than Mr. Singer’s modest proposal.

Lost in the Cosmos

Night Sky, a new off-Broadway play, concerns a world renowned astronomer named Anna who suffers an injury to her brain during a car accident and loses her abilities of language and communication – a condition known as aphasia. I was recently invited by the play’s producer to see its final rehearsal at Baruch City College in midtown Manhattan.

I arrived at the practice space, a small classroom three stories below ground in the bowels of the city college, rather early and was asked to wait outside in the hallway until the players were ready. Sitting down in a chair, I began to converse with several big men in tuxedos, sweaty in the basement lights, who introduced themselves cordially. They turned out to be opera singers preparing for an audition in the next room. As I waited, they took turns standing, and slowly paced the hallway quietly doing vocal warm-ups, do-re-me-fa-so-la-ti-do and arias that I faintly recognized, back and forth, lost in thought.

Soon I was shown into the room and said my goodbyes to the hopeful singers. The room was small and dark, the players wore plainclothes, and the staging was simple and straightforward, as befits a basement rehearsal. We were shown pictures of what the set would look like – several black walls with a starscape backdrop that brightened as the play went on.

Anna, our protagonist and astronomer (Jordan Baker), begins as an ambitious teacher, writer, and mother. Her husband, we learn later, has died years before, and she lives with her teenage daughter, Jennifer (Lauren Ashley Carter) and her boyfriend, Daniel (Jim Stanek). These three constitute the emotional core of the story. At the beginning, they are the typical American nuclear family: devoted to one another, but each busy in their own respective worlds, trying to balance their ambitions with their duties to one another. There is nothing particularly remarkable about their arrangement, except perhaps that Carter and Stanek play their characters almost like a father and daughter, or even siblings. One expects that the script will arrange for trouble between the two, but it thankfully never does.

Indeed, Night Sky has bigger fish to fry, and our equilibrium does not last long. Soon, a fight between Anna and Daniel leads to catastrophe when she runs from the house and is hit by a car. At this point, we begin our exploration of the human mind through the crucible of aphasia. The National Aphasia Association defines the condition as an “acquired communication disorder that impairs a person’s ability to communicate but does not affect intelligence.”

Thus we begin Anna’s remarkable journey. She has not lost her brilliance, memory, affections, or personality in any way, but simply her ability to express them. She is still able to hum along with Daniel’s operatic arias, but the connection of the words yes and no to their roles as affirmative or negative signifiers are completely lost. Her first words to her family in the hospital after the accident are an incoherent babble.

Slowly, painfully, over the course of the play, she begins to regain her means of expression, reconstructing the broken chains of words, meanings, and associations in her head. Baker, who was so articulate and charming at the beginning, transforms herself into a person in various stages of this anguish. Her frustration feels very real as Daniel playfully guesses the meanings of words she says – wrong over and over again as she tries to intimate the most basic concepts.

Things get worse as she faces a reporter and store clerk, both of whom are impatient or frustrated with her inability to express herself. Her inability to put even the simplest motivations into coherent speech is both painful and fascinating, a dramatic and hyperbolic demonstration of the everyday struggle that we as humans have to effectively engage with one another.

I was reminded at various moments during the performance of Jean-Dominique Bauby’s memoir, The Diving Bell and the Butterfly, in which he suffers a stroke and becomes imprisoned in his own body, completely paralyzed but with his mind completely intact. Bauby describes his body as a diving bell, sinking and slowly drowning the nimble butterfly of his still lucid mind. He is frustrated because his own body cannot possibly express the machinations of his mind – much less can they be transported to another.

I also thought of my own difficult experiences with language. While living in Argentina last year, I spent the first few months unable to communicate as my brain recovered the Spanish that it had buried since tenth grade. One day I spent half an hour exasperatingly trying to communicate the phrase, “Too many video games probably slow our maturity.” This is a basic concept, but I lacked the necessary words for games, slow, and maturity, making articulating the thought nearly impossible.

On various occasions in those first months, as I made futile attempts at even the most basic communication, I was received with impatience, anger, or outright disdain. I grew used to being written off by the locals as strange, an outsider, or even some being of inferior intellect, unable to say even the most basic things – like a child, perhaps, or an idiot. I am an intelligent person, I am worth taking seriously, I wanted to scream; but alas, I lacked the words.

We watch Anna experience similar exasperation. We know she is brilliant, and yet she is written off by many of the characters as the play goes on. Can’t she just say it? What’s the problem? they continually imply.

And of course, Anna herself must learn how to function in a world rearranged. She is no longer able to be the dominant force in her relationships, and must watch, helpless, as her career and family seem to slip away. Indeed, one of the smartest aspects of the script, written by Susan Yankowitz, is to see which aspects of Anna’s character – many of them negative – emerge as she struggles to recover. As her power slips through her fingers, we realize, as she does, that maybe she wielded it too proudly or carelessly before the accident. She reevaluates everything in the light of her newfound condition. The world no longer sees her as she sees herself, and reckoning with this reality is harsh and humiliating. It is also liberating.

The play’s website states that “Night Sky explores what…Stephen Hawking has called the two remaining mysteries – the brain and the cosmos.” Anna is an astronomer after all, and here is a good deal that approaches the stars, as the title suggests. The controlled chaos of the cosmos is really an extended metaphor for the human mind. Be it chaotic, be it changed, be it unable to connect in the way we so often take for granted, it does not change in beauty or value.

The sky is a beautiful mystery, continually revealing its secrets to us in new ways. So, of course, is the human mind and the ties of language and affection that bond us in the first place. We see Anna, Daniel, and Jennifer fall apart and then cobble themselves back together throughout the play, even as they struggle to communicate and face the tribulation of Anna’s condition. In the end it is a play about selflessness, and rather the mystery of human expression and human connection. That which would destroy our bonds may indeed make them stronger.

After the reading I thanked the cast for their generosity and went back out in the hall. There were more opera singers pacing the hallway, singing their arias in a low hum, as Anna had done. I wondered from what chaos deep inside these men came this music, and across what distances it had come to them, and come to mean so much. All of this from a rehearsal in a basement, some lines read aloud and singers pacing in the hall. We are indeed mysterious beings.


Find out more about Night Sky at the website.

Irena’s Vow


For more information and tickets,
visit the
Irena’s Vow website.

I recently saw the first dramatic reading of a play ever staged at the United Nations Headquarters in New York. Entitled Irena’s Vow, the play is based on the real-life story of Irena Gut Opdyke, who, during World War II, saved the lives of 13 Jewish refugees by hiding them in her basement shelter. The players had just finished a six-month stint off Broadway, and are currently preparing the show for Broadway, where it will begin performances on March 10, 2009.

Based on a script by Dan Gordon and directed by Michael Parva, the play begins with Irena as an old woman, speaking with students at a school in the United States about her experiences, as she often did later in her life. Through her narrative, and a series of flashbacks, we are taken to Poland in the 1930s, as the Russians and Germans invade and occupy Irena’s home. Irena witnesses the brutal murder of a woman and her child by a German soldier, and vows to never again stand by and do nothing when innocent lives are threatened. She soon finds herself in a unique position to hide and protect the Jewish refugees working in the kitchen of a German officer, and begins the remarkable task of hiding them, giving them food and helping them shelter hope in the midst of the gathering storm around them.

Irena was 19 years old – beautiful, intelligent, and a devout Roman Catholic. She felt a deep compassion for those she was to protect, and even towards the Nazis with whom she spent her everyday life. Entranced by her wit and charm, an older German officer took her into his home to preside over the cleaning, cooking and management of his affairs. He eventually fell deeply in love with her, which helped account for her ability to hide 13 wanted people in the cellar of his house for two years.

A Different Story

The reading was simple and straightforward, with little direction, and many of the actors were in plain clothes and holding their scripts. But the humanity and strength of the story and the hard yet subtle truth of Gordon’s script made the reading powerful. Irena is played by Emmy and Tony nominee Tovah Feldshuh with grace and humor, a charming light in the midst of terrible circumstances, emboldened by her faith in God and humankind that the evil she sees is not the natural way of things, and will not overtake them.

The play was well received by the crowd at the United Nations, to put it mildly. Toward the end of the reading, the actors became increasingly hard to hear due to the widespread sounds of sniffling, and members of the audience rifled through pockets and purses for handkerchiefs and tissues. There were few dry eyes in the house.

And this is what I found particularly rousing about the performance: its ability to move this audience in this place. Most of the audience members were delegates at the United Nations: ambassadors, diplomats, politicians, researchers and activists. It is not easy to elicit tears from such a crowd. At a cocktail party afterward, as the cast came into the forum, the delegates lined up to wring their hands, to congratulate and give their thanks. Their eyes were shining with a particular light I have not often seen in those halls.

Several nights later I was having dinner with several of the lead actors of the play, Jon Stanisci and Tom Ryan, who both play German officers. Each is an accomplished actor with an impressive resume. But there was something different about this play, Stanisci told me. It took a series of near miracles to even get the play produced, and then staged, and then financed off-Broadway as the financial crisis hit full steam last fall, and finally to open on Broadway this spring, when so many other productions were closing their doors and moving on.

“I think there is a particular truth to the story,” said Stanisci. “This young woman, who was so normal and humble, propelled by the simple need to do good in a place that was so dark – there is something special about it that audiences respond to. I really think it is a blessed play, and we are blessed to be a part of it.” Ryan nodded his agreement.

A Crucial Place

This made me think again of the United Nations. My work there with an international advocacy organization brings me deep into the halls of the UN Headquarters. The UN was founded in the aftermath of the world broken by war, by the types of atrocities that Irena lived through and fought against. The preamble to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights states that “recognition of the inherent dignity and of the equal and inalienable rights of all members of the human family is the foundation of freedom, justice and peace in the world.” If we do not steer our societies by the course of intrinsic human dignity, of the value of each human life despite the race, creed or circumstances, we veer unconsciously back toward untold destruction.

And yet this is not the belief one always sees affirmed in the halls of the UN. It has become a battle ground for culture wars and ideologies, and movements. Like any governing body, it is susceptible to corruption and that great force that turns power into impotence: bureaucratic process. Working there can overwhelm a person, as it no doubt does to many of the young delegates, or those from countries with weak economies and few resources. It is a place where power is often wielded irresponsibly, and questionable legislation approved because it is politically expedient, which will ultimately harm those most vulnerable to sickness and pain.

All of this makes works of art like Irena’s Vow even more important, and its staging at a place like the United Nations so crucial. Gone from that theater were the warring ideologies, political posturing, and the legislative mire of international policy. Here was a piece of art, presented simply, with little pomp or show, telling us that a single person, devoted to good and human dignity, can change the way of things. The delegates who might have been most opposed to some of the messages of the play sniffled alongside their political rivals. This is a testament to the power of art, the power of truth that cuts through our reason and our career and our politics. True art confronts us with a higher reason, a higher truth, bypassing paradigm and discourse and addressing itself to the heart. It reminds us that each human person is sacred, valued, to be protected. And that the smallest person, acting in courage, can make all the difference.