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Jan32022

Greg Tate (1957-2021)

I have been thinking about the death of writer/curator/force of nature Greg Tate this entire month and my sadness has not left me. I did not know the man like so many writers I admire did. Instead I head about his books and essays about hip-hop, art and black culture from this generation of writers who taught me. Maybe that makes Mr. Tate, legacy-wise. like a great-uncle to the work I do. Or try to do.

Really though, what he created was too big, too magical and other-wordly for to pin it on my own chest. Reading him, listening to him in print or on television or radio was like discovering other planets, being thrown into the galaxies and knowing, instead of plummeting you would fly. 

Knowing we have read the last of his work is feeling like the sun has dropped out of the sky. 

Look at some of the titles of his obituaries…

That first one concluded thusly (bravo to its author, Jon Caramanica)

“By that point, Tate’s sui generis brilliance was widely acknowledged in our circles, and still barely touched by others. Showcasing his critical pirouetting was meant to serve as a beacon, and also a simple acknowledgment of the way he affected every writer I cared about and learned from — we’re all Tate’s children. I still buy “Flyboy” every time I see it in a bookstore. I never want to be too far away from it, lest I forget how vast the cosmos is.”


By “Flyboy”, Mr. Caramanica is referring to Flyboy in the Buttermilk, Tate’s first collection of essays published in 1992. The writer Jeff Chang and artist Tim’m West steered me to it during my early years in the Bay Area. If reading about music and art and the people who make it is act of redemption for you, Flyboy is like a volume of the Hebrew Bible.

I still have a few notes I scribbled down when I first read it all those years ago…

Reading “Flyboy”you realize you are in the presence of a genius, a voice reaching down from the cosmos unlike any you have ever heard. And so you forgive it when its once-in-a-while too twisted or loud or muffled or sharp. Because when it is quiet and you  are too, you are better for having heard it, better for your listening and it makes you want to be better as well.

Greg Tate died a week before Bell Hooks and two weeks before Joan Didion, writers he admired, knew and in their lifetimes, get many more trophies and honorary degrees than he did.  I’ve been distributing used copies of Flyboy to many wise men and women I know, who missed the word on Mr. Tate, the first time around. It’s a small gesture for an artist who knew and shared and gave so much. 

My friend and fellow writer Annie Zaleski once sat on a panel with Mr Tate and told me, shortly after his death, that the man, a generation’s worth of admirers did not scream out his gifts, did not ask you to praise them and led with a generosity of spirit that split through his work like light through glass. We weren’t simply gifted his imagination. His imagination showed us what we could be, how much brighter and smarter and far out. Apparently, he mentored dozens of young journalists too. 

Goodbye Mr. Tate. I’m late to a dream you opened right on time. 

Some of my favorite Greg Tate pieces are, in no real order

Apr242020

How to Host a Shelter-in-Place Film Festival

Note: This guide was the basis of an episode of the podcast Deviate w/ Rolf Potts which aired on May 6, 2020. 

While we’re all on lockdown and not working or home schooling around a kitchen table, perhaps in the off hours, you’re looking to catch up on some movie watching. A bender with the queue of your choice, perhaps? Hold on, now. We don’t know when we’re getting unlocked down here. Think longer.

Something like your own Shelter in Place film festival.

Designing a film festival for family and friends or just yourself enables a lot of great time with movies plus the added pleasure of how they all hang together. It’s not the same as “Binge watching’ an endurance event designed to complete a long narrative and lose track of time. But you could binge watch the year 1997 and we STILL might not be out of the woods with this thing. Your Shelter in Place Film Festival still has a lot of sitting and watching and snacking to it but with more reasonable expectations.

It ain’t hard to do, so long as take a few pre-emptive steps which make building your own film festival fun instead of a multi hour wander ending in a shrug. Here’s how

1. How much time do you have for this?

An afternoon? A day? A weekend? Film Festivals are inherently a time-bound activity.

It may seem counterintuitive to begin planning with how much time you wish to spend watching movies than how many or what movies you wish to see. But you can always add movies if everyone’s having a great or cut the lineup short if everyone’s drifting off to the kitchen or falling asleep.

You cant add another Friday.

Setting a time limit also creates reasonable expectations. Watching 11 movies in a day is not going to happen. Watching 3 over a week might seem anti-climactic, something you’d do anyway instead of an event. Since film festivals are about maximizing quality for each hour spent watching, not about watching until you or your guest physically can’t anymore.

Wait, guests?

2. Who all is invited?

A film festival for just you and your loved ones at home is the easiest way to do this. Level up by inviting friends or another family to join: Everyone watches the movies in their own home then signs on to zoom or google hangout afterward at a designated time to talk about the movie you just saw. Watching movies all at the same time while all on video conferences I’ve found technically complicated and not very rewarding.

If you’re making it a truly virtual film festival, it’s a bit more important to stick to a schedule so all participants know when they should be watching and when they should be yapping with each other. We’ll get to scheduling in just a sec but first..

3. Who is choosing the movies? You can either designate a leader who picks all the movies but also bears responsibility if they suck or you can create a list based on a theme (see next) and vote. A designated leader, like dictatorship, is more efficient. Democracy, as Oscar Wilde said, “is great but takes up a lot of weeknights.”

If you’re the leader, do your own research and come up with the program or poll your own electorate of family and friends for both a theme or movies that fit it. But remember, planning a film festival isn’t all that different than planning a party. It’s designed to entertain the guests not show what sort of genius you were coming up with the event in the first place.

In my experience, film festivals benefit from a strong leader so the movies are well chosen and hang together someone but a leader that listens to those he/she has invited to their festival.

4. Theme? Festivals have themes to distinguish themselves from binge watching. The idea is many movies creatively grouped in a interesting way. Half the joy is coming up with that creative list rather than just hitting “next” on the remote control.

Self-creating film festivals come in a few different types: A Vertical Festival is usually organized around the body of work of a creative person (all of Denzel Washington’s pre-Oscar movies, All movies directed by Ava Duvernay) A Horizontal Festival is organized around something non-people related all the chosen movies have in common (movies who all have “Star” in their name, movies that take place in Chicago).  A Spring Cleaning Festival is a conscious attempt to see movies that have languished on your to-be-watched list for too long. A Hall of Fame Festival is usually grouped around the perceived “best” movies in a genre (Romantic Comedies) or a given time period (the 1990s). A Hub and Spoke Festival will begin with a beloved, well known film then see ancillary movies (another movie by that director, a remake, another movie featuring a jazz soundtrack) and material (short films from that director, a documentary about the hub film’s subject) from there.

The purpose of a Vertical Festival is to notice commonalities (Michael Douglas never plays a working-class person) and evolutions (Laura Dern often played quiet characters in her 20s and loud characters in her 40s and 50s). The purpose of a Horizontal Film Festival–because you have declared the thing they have in common up front–is to notice differences (look how many different kinds of movies took place only at night). A Hall of Fame Festival will inspire debate and discussion b/c “best” is a subjective criteria. A Hub And Spoke Festival usually needs a strong leader to push the spokes out far enough from the hub so the movies at this festival feel different enough from one another. A Spring Cleaning Festival is better reserved for a my-family-only kind of festival where everyone’s had a hand in the queue to be cleaned out in the first place.

4. What movies? Whether you go with one leader or a group vote, start by collectively making a first draft list of movies that fit your theme. Most likely it will be larger than the time you have. If it is, either the group votes or the leader should chose their best judgement. Failing either of those, go with the movies highest rated on Rotten Tomatoes unless you are really into watching bad movies.

5. How? It is best to have either hard copies of your chosen films, either on DVD or digital download. Streaming services are notorious for removing movies from their library without telling anybody and you don’t want to depend on a movie being available service on day of your festival because there’s no promise of that.

6. Schedule. Unless your theme requires you to go in a specific order, start with a short fun, banger of a film to whet everyone’s appetites. End on a movie with uplift because if you end with a horribly depressing movie, the audience will not only feel that way about the movie but the festival itself and most likely you as well. In between, you generally want to alternative between heavy and light in tone, between short and long in run time.

7. The Next Day. After your festival do something completely different like go for a hike or call someone. I find watching a bunch of movies in a row a mostly forgettable activity (and then what’s the point?) if it’s all swallowing and no digesting.

 

Oct212019

An Open Letter to Professor Stephen Ambrose: Did you Plagiarize or just Forget?

Dear Professor Ambrose,

I can’t imagine what the last two weeks have been like for you and your family. You’ve been crouching in a hail of hateful words like “fraud,” “plagiarist” and “vampire,” mortar shells reminiscent of the battles you describe so vividly. Since January 4, when Weekly Standard reporter Fred Barnes alleged that you copied whole passages from other historians for Wild Blue, your book on WWII fighter pilots, your integrity has been called into question by your academic peers, veterans and the salivating punditry. Several more of your books have been held under the microscope, even as they have continued to sell.

You know all this, and my thoughts are probably little more than another howl in the chaos. Nonetheless, I believe that many of your accusers sympathize with your crimes more than they say. Outrage at this wrongdoing seems to have come in two parts: moralizing on the inherent evils of plagiarism, followed closely by how you, drunk with success, brought this upon yourself. Both are correct and yet miss the point, a point a little too true to admit out loud.

Our most basic common link — you, I, historians, journalists and students — is that we are all writers. We arrange words in order to bring about larger ideas and greater understanding. We use them, as you have done magnificently, to tell stories. These stories are often the result of physical and mental toil, research (and all of that word’s resonances) and the slow boil of ideas and narratives in our head. We journalists, with our relentless deadlines, rarely have that luxury, although our minds still insist that we do. We’re wired to discover, assemble and then tell out loud. The work on a story largely comes from those first two steps and when the writing begins, we know our story backwards and forwards because we’ve told it to ourselves a hundred times. I often find it changing during the writing, which is when it becomes my favorite part of the process. Other times, I’m already done with the story by then and inscribing it feels like a bother.

I fear this may have been what happened to you, Professor Ambrose, when you decided to import another writer’s words and pass them off as your own. I too labored in the salt mines of historical research for a few years and have an idea of how easily a passage can get misplaced, wrongly quoted, lost in the mass of findings that must support these endeavors. In your case, hard evidence has surfaced that it happened too many times to be dismissed as an accident, even though that’s what you called it.

You’ve made your apologies and your peers have accepted them. They both admire and envy you, as both a champion of historical memory and bestseller machine. Few academics have a gift for narrative like yours, one that can press a scholarly book into the hands of a general audience. But those who do pay their respects to the writing process. Edmund Morris, who in interviews, calls himself a writer first, a historian second, laces his hefty presidential biographies with several narrative styles. Following a stroke, historian William Manchester no longer has the strength to complete the final volume of his massively popular Winston Churchill biography. Not being able to write, he says, makes him weep.

I don’t see the same commitment in you. The production of your books is legendary in its efficiency, with your five grown children all employed as researchers and teams of assistants running about. You’re incorporated as Ambrose & Ambrose, Inc. Steven Spielberg produces films based on your work. You’ve finished eight books in five years. Even your editors tell you to slow down. Yet the record is oddly silent when it comes to your writing, your rituals, tendencies or preferred style. Maybe journalists just haven’t asked or they’ve assumed that copying is a habit you got into early on as some of the evidence would indicate. Me, I’m left with the sense that there’s no room on the production floor of Ambrose & Ambrose for composing a book from scratch, that writing is a task that can gradually be outsourced, one paragraph at a time.

I hope this isn’t true, Professor Ambrose. I admire the zeal you’ve shown in making our nation’s military history exciting and accessible. My guess is that while your respect amongst your colleagues may suffer, your popularity will not. Few of your millions of fans care much about footnotes and correct attribution styles. But I’m just another writer, one who walks away from this incident feeling as though something has been lost. Writers write, the hackneyed saying goes. Sitting down at the proverbial desk may not the adrenaline rush of another project rolling into production but it’s what makes us who we are. Regard that as disposable and where are we? In the trenches of the battle of the mind, defenseless without our imaginations.

Best,

Kevin Smokler

Oct172019

Eulogy for an Uncle: My Uncle Barry (1909-2001)

 

I’m avoiding writing this, this eulogy if you will. I’ve got a few other pieces that need finishing and my energy needs to be targeted toward getting everything ready.

Then something happened. And now it’s harder than I thought to do this.

On Wednesday afternoon, my uncle, Barry Jeffery, died at the age of 92. My youngest brother Daniel had been with him at the hospital in Florida and told me.

I found out after midnight that my uncle said dying didn’t scare him, that he had no regrets about his life and that it meant a lot to him that we had talked on the phone the day before. Even though he couldn’t hear me through the whir of the oxygen mask over his face, I had told him that I loved him and that I hoped to be something like him someday.

Daniel, who seems to be on top of every situation, couldn’t speak. I hung up the phone, then looked at myself in the mirror while I cried.

My Uncle Barry recognized his time had come. In his letters and phone calls from the past few years, he talked about spending his days painting, writing, and shuttling back and forth to “various doctors. You know how it is.”

He always ended by laughing

Now

 

Last week, his aorta started collapsing in on itself and his lungs filled with blood. He took excellent care of himself, still swam laps well into his 80s. But his body was imploding, one vital piece at a time.

Already  in his early 70s when we became friends, he gave me a silver dollar for cleaning the leaves off the bottom of his pool. The net measured twice the length of my eight-year old frame so he held the handle.

He wrote letters to newspapers on current events throughout his retirement, winning several awards from the Florida Sun Sentinel and the Miami Herald. He painted western scenes and vignettes inspired by the cowboy movies he loved as a boy. He and my brother were very close and the two would link up in Decemebr and discuss politics and world events for hours. Daniel got Barry an AOL account and before long, my 90-year old uncle had a pen pal, a 25-year old graduate student in Japan.

Barry knew he didn’t have much time. He had a lot to do before then.

Daniel and I talked several times this week in preparation for the eulogy he would give at Barry’s funeral. Our uncle was a dreamer, saw himself as a cowboy, an English gentleman and a clear-eyed witness to history. But he spent most of his life in the textile business, paying bills, raising kids. He loved heated conversation even as a person with few friends and an inherently solitary disposition.

He saw his end but lived as though it would never come.

Who we Were

When you meet someone in the twilight of their life, you have all snapshots and no captions. You have their memories, once removed, after their kids are grown, after they’ve made most of their big decisions. If you’re lucky, you get to see them do what they’ve always wanted. But you also have to be resigned to the mystery, the seeming contradictions. You weren’t there to see them become who they became.

According to our Aunt Teddy, Barry saw us as his adopted grandsons, a relationship Daniel took seriously and I probably didn’t. Barry would Instant Message me while at work and I’d put him off. I’d send him pieces of my writing when he asked and I resented that he didn’t understand my sarcastic tone or my “Gen-X-isms.” I neglected to email him back because I felt like I’d spend most of the letter explaining myself.

In my early 20s then, I barely knew myself. I didn’t have to time to justify it to some old guy. Even when my Aunt Teddy told me , that I should send him an email, I didn’t write him. He understood work had most of my attention.

“You’re a businessman now,” she said. I didn’t think I would run out of time.

I felt some of that this week. My Uncle was gone and I, too busy to grieve, two major deadlines on Thursday, a trip away for the weekend, a relaunch in less than two weeks. Twice this week, I looked up and realized too late to call Teddy, to tell her how sad this made me, that I could and would be present for her if she needed me.

Does working for myself, molding this dream from fresh clay, mean this? That sometimes being human has to wait until my schedule frees up? I didn’t go to Florida this winter because of work. I almost didn’t see them both last year but I made a stop, grudgingly, on the way back home, dragging my old friend Justin along.

What is the matter with me?

I still didn’t know when I sat in front of my window and prayed for the soul of my Uncle Barry, that he now dwelled somewhere with more time on his hands, where it didn’t hurt to breathe and where I would see him again someday.

 

Next

 

Moving into my professional life, I will have to create, produce, manage and decide, faster and with more conviction than I’ve ever had. It scares me every time I think about it. But I’m going to continue on here and dedicate the next chapter of this story to my late Uncle Barry.

He taught me that people can know you through your dreams and desires, and that sharing them without expectation or judgement means sharing your joy. That it’s not in competition with the rest of your life, but perhaps the most enriching part of it.

That we often have more time than we think.

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