Sunday, March 27, 2011

InsideOut Interview: Susan Cheever

Susan Cheever On How To Embarrass Your Kids

Best-selling author and daughter of Pulitzer Prize winner John Cheever, Susan Cheever just published a book that makes her kids want to hide. Desire: Where Sex Meets Addiction (Simon & Schuster, 2008) is a memoir-style ride through the addictive qualities of falling in love, the encouragement we get from society to maintain this popular addiction, and the shame that ultimately plagues us even though most of us are doing it.

Susan Cheever is the author of five novels and eight works of non-fiction, including Home Before Dark (Simon & Schuster, 1999), a memoir about her father; American Bloomsbury: Louisa May Alcott, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Margaret Fuller, Nathaniel Hawthorne, and Henry David Thoreau: Their Lives, Their Loves, Their Work (Simon & Schuster, 2006); and My Name Is Bill: Bill Wilson—His Life and the Creation of Alcoholics Anonymous (Simon & Schuster, 2004), the book that brought the subject of sex addiction to her attention.

Owen Lipstein: I’m chuckling over your book, Desire.

Susan Cheever: That’s good, chuckling is good.

OL: Have you heard that response, that it’s actually quite funny?

SC: It’s meant to be funny.

OL: Well, it was. You start the book by saying, “My children suggested I dedicate my book ‘To my children—who died of embarrassment.’” Tell us about the process of writing a book where that kind of request is made.

SC: Well, it’s a book about sex addiction, or love addiction—the kind of addiction where other people are your substance—as opposed to the kind of addiction where alcohol or drugs or certain behavior is your substance. And what interested me about this kind of desire, as I call it, is that it’s the only addiction which is applauded in our culture. I’ve been married three times: People congratulate me for that.

OL: Congratulations.

SC: Yeah, thanks. [Laughter] To fall in love is a very good thing in our culture. When I go to buy a car, my friends are like, “What kind of car is it? What does Consumer Reports say? Are you gonna research?” They’re very rational.

But if I say to my friends, “Oh, I’ve fallen in love, he’s 20 years younger than I am, he’s never been able to hold a job”—they say, “Oh, that’s wonderful!” We don’t ask questions; we tend to think it’s wonderful no matter what the circumstances.

If you’re maxed out on your credit cards, or if you’re falling down at parties and groping the wrong people, if you’re spending all your Christmas money on cocaine, we don’t approve of that.

But if you’re falling in love once a year or once every two years, we do approve of that. So, on the one hand, it’s the only addiction that we applaud and smile about. On the other hand, there’s more shame around sex addiction than around any other addiction, as far as I can tell.

It’s this paradoxical weirdness. We’re puritanical love junkies: We love it and hate it. And because of the shame around this subject, I found that I was hiding my research when people came over to visit. My children made me promise that I wouldn’t publish
the book until they were both out of the house living elsewhere. I wasn’t allowed to publicize it ’til my son went off to college and my daughter was already living in another city.

Falling in love is such a dazzling and fabulous experience that it automatically removes your rational mind. And then on top of that, we have this tremendous shame. If you call falling in love every two years sex addiction, then it’s tremendously shameful. But if you don’t call it sex addiction, then it’s tremendously wonderful. I think my children’s reaction is to the shame. It’s a very strong reaction, and it makes people laugh, because they identify. You know, they too feel that they would die of embarrassment if their mother wrote a book about sex addiction.

OL: I’m thinking of Hamlet and Gertrude.

SC: My son is not Hamlet, nor am I Gertrude.

OL: Oh no, I’m not accusing you of being a murderer. It’s just that Hamlet couldn’t handle the fact that his mother was a sexual being.

SC: Well, John Updike wrote that book. It’s called Gertrude and Claudius. But that is not my story. As embarrassed as my children are, my involvement with their fathers is above reproach, as I’m sure they’d agree.

OL: In terms of the subject of sex addiction and shame, you had a very interesting chapter on the founder of Alcoholics Anonymous. Tell us a little bit about him.

SC: I wrote a biography of Bill Wilson. I think he was a great man, an inspired man. But he was an extremely human man. For instance, he not only stopped drinking, but by codifying the ways in which he stopped drinking, [he] started a movement which is really the only successful weapon we have against addiction in this country. He continued to smoke, and famously, he asked for a drink on his deathbed. So, he was very human in that way. I don’t want to call it flawed, because I think to be human is to be human.

But one of the things about Bill Wilson is he met his wife when he was 18. He was in terrible shape when he met her, yet they stayed married his entire life: It was a 53-year marriage. One of the things that happened in the marriage was that for whatever reason—and we don’t know [what it was], because these letters either have been destroyed or don’t exist—he and his wife stopped having a sexual relationship. He began having sexual relationships outside. As the old-timers say, “He stepped off the reservation.”

When I was on tour for the biography of Bill Wilson, the question I was asked most often was, “Was Bill Wilson a sex addict?” In fact, that was one of my first exposures to the idea of sex addiction. In my biography of him, I didn’t draw a conclusion, but when I went to write about sex addiction, of course, this question came back up.

Nobody can make a judgment for another person about whether or not they’re an addict. Addiction is an inside job: A person has to make the judgment for themselves. Other people can try to tell you, and they will…

OL: Yes, they will.

SC: But really, they don’t know. So without making a judgment about Bill Wilson, I went a little further into this question of whether or not he was a sex addict. And it led me to one of the most interesting conclusions in [Desire], which is that addiction is not tied to substance. In other words, if you’re an alcoholic, it’s very likely that you can also quite easily be addicted to at least three or four other substances.

OL: Cigarettes or bodies?

SC: Cigarettes, bodies, food, money. Gambling. Drugs. Substances that have a physical embodiment and behaviors that act as substances. Sex addiction is both a behavior and it has a substance: other people. So, I came to see Bill Wilson as an addict, rather than somebody who I wanted to ally with a particular substance. The fact that he died of emphysema because he couldn’t stop smoking certainly tells you that although he had stopped drinking, he was still an addict.

OL: You talk about the three stages of love, the first one having very little to do with marriage. Now that you’ve written the book, what can you tell us about what you’ve learned—never mind your own three marriages—about that first stage?

SC: Well, what I learned (and what I wrote the book to teach others, because if I had known then what I know now, as everybody’s always saying, I might not have had three marriages)—is that falling in love, as we know it, is this wonderful, transformative, electrifying experience, that most of us have at least once. The brain chemistry is exactly like addiction: It includes obsession, an addictive trance [and] a lot of broken promises—[and,] like all addictive experiences, it has a time limit. It’ll only last 18 months.

OL: Not even a thousand days? Isn’t there a theory that there’s a natural ending at the end of something like three years?

SC: Well, I would say it’s shorter. But the point is, it ends. That obsession, that electricity, will not last. We live in a culture that says, “Fall in love, feel that this person is the one, marry them, have children.” [But] the thing I discovered is that [only] very occasionally is falling in love connected to that other kind of love which enables you to partner with another person through life.

So, my message is: Do not get married, don’t have children. Wait it out and see how you feel about this person when you’re on the other side of it, when this person becomes just another human being who you see clearly, without the kind of addictive fireworks that go off in our heads when we’re falling in love. And then figure out if you can possibly have with this person that calmer kind of “attachment love,” as Helen Fisher calls it.

But that’s really my message: Enjoy falling in love, have a great time… Do not merge your libraries.

OL: You talk about cats and dogs in the book. Tell us about that.

SC: There are so many interesting ways to talk about couples, right? One of them is to ask: “Are you the cat or are you the dog?” Remember Thornton Wilder, in The Bridge Over the River Kwai, where he says “one always loves the more and one always loves the less”? It’s really the same thing. The dog is the one who loves the more, of course, because dogs can’t get enough of you. With a cat, it’s a thrill if the cat shows you any signs of affection at all.

[This is] a metaphor for the way some people behave. I do think that in this falling-in-love state there is a kind of power balance. After a year-and-a-half, or a thousand days, or when[ever] it ends, when the dopamine rush is past and the falling in love is over, [it’s] interesting to see where that power balance ends. In attachment love, there really isn’t so much of a power balance. It’s about two people going forward together in relationship to the world, whereas falling in love is two people entirely in relation to each other.

OL: I was listening to your book American Bloomsbury. Besides being a community of geniuses—was that a community of addictions?

SC: That’s such a good question. I think that was a community in which many people fell in and out of love with each other, but there were many obstacles. Death is the ultimate obstacle, right? So when Margaret Fuller—the principle sexual focus in that community—died, her memory became so powerful that Henry James called it the “Margaret Ghost.” If you fall in love with someone and you’re addicted to them and they die, you never get over it.

But I think that Louisa May Alcott had had these terrific crushes on both Thoreau and Emerson. And Emerson sort of had a crush on Alcott, and Thoreau on Emerson. I think that all those falling-in-love experiences did resolve into a kind of wonderful community of attachment.

OL: Maybe we should all go back to Concord, where life is
much harder.

SC: Well, it’s harder physically. But when you look at Emerson, you can see that he knew exactly what he was doing. He fell totally, hopelessly in love with [his first wife], and it was excruciatingly painful because she was sick and then she died. Instead of waiting to fall in love [again], he selected an extremely competent woman with a little bit of money of her own, who adored him, and married her. He started with partner love, and that actually worked out very well. Nothing’s perfect, but Emerson clearly was emotionally way ahead of most of us.

OL: You’ve written on a wide variety of subjects. You even wrote about your father before daughters were writing about famous fathers. What are you working on now?

SC: I’m writing a biography of Louisa May Alcott. People say, “How can you write about sex addiction and then write about Louisa May Alcott?!” My obsessive theme is how to be a woman in this world—that’s what I’m trying to figure out through my writing. Alcott had to choose between a career and a family, between using her sexual currency to capture the right kind of man, or trying to make it [on her own]. All the problems that we have today, she had in spades, and she made certain choices in relation to those problems.

In a way, Desire is also about how to be a woman in this culture. It’s about men as well, but women are told, “Fall in love, get married, have children.” And really, that’s the wrong advice. We should be saying to them, “Fall in love, do not get married and have children.” And so in a way, the books, although they appear to be opposites, have the same subject. Which is also true of American Bloomsbury.

OL: How has the reaction to Desire been, compared to, say, American Bloomsbury?

SC: Reactions to books are so weird. American Bloomsbury could not get arrested in New York City, whereas in Boston, it was on the bestseller list for three months. This book has been kind of the opposite. It’s as if literature comes from Concord and sex comes from New York. Desire has had a tremendous amount of attention in New York, [while] there’s far less interest in Boston… than there was about American Bloomsbury. When I had my conversation with the Simon & Schuster people about this book, they said, “Oh, it’s a Susan Cheever audience.” Clearly it’s not. Clearly people buy books by subject.

OL: I found Desire to be a delightful book. And I didn’t mean to call you Gertrude. Sons just don’t like to imagine their mothers having sex.

SC: Right, but let me say, my children are very vocal about not wanting me to have sex. And I’ve completely accommodated them. Unlike Gertrude.

I’m glad you liked the book, and I’m glad it made you laugh, because I think almost everything on Earth is funny.

OL: And our pathetic relationships—if they don’t make us laugh, we’re all in trouble, right?

SC: Exactly. v

Saturday, March 26, 2011

InsideOut: Interview with Kirsten Gillibrand

by Owen Lipstein January/February 2009



Kirsten Gillibrand was the first woman elected to represent New York’s 20th Congressional District in the U.S. House of Representatives. Rep. Gillibrand spoke to us about voting against the bailout, the potential benefits to the Hudson Valley of Obama’s stimulus program, the political and cultural aspects of same-sex unions, and the biggest lesson of her first two years in Congress.


InsideOut: You voted against the bailout. Why?



Kirsten Gillibrand: The thing about that bill was that fundamentally, it wouldn’t work—it did not have a strategy that the experts thought could actually address the problem. There wasn’t a real recognition of what the problem was, because a lot of folks were saying it was just a problem of banks not lending—a problem of liquidity, as they say.
The experts were saying it was a problem of insolvency, that these banks actually had so many outstanding liabilities that they were worth nothing. So what Paulson presented was a plan to overpay for bad assets. He was going to pay 90 cents on the dollar, as opposed to the market value of 10 cents on the dollar, or maybe the true value of 30 or 40 cents on the dollar. Overpaying for the bad assets to make the books look better wasn’t going to solve the problem.



IO: It seems self-evident as you speak. Why was this so hard to understand?



KG: Apparently—[and] I wasn’t in the negotiating room—[Treasury Secretary Henry] Paulson just played hardball. He did not want to buy the banks. I thought he should have an equity focus [on] buying preferred shares, getting voting rights, getting seats on the board, and actually making these banks recapitalize and become healthier institutions—to have that oversight, so you could actually determine, Are these banks insolvent? And what would need to be done to correct that?
He declined to do that during the negotiations. He said, “I don’t want to own banks. I’m not doing it. It’s my way or the highway.” Now, what happened, obviously, [is that] the bill failed the first vote. The stock market went down 700 points, and people were gravely concerned that the economy was in a spiral downturn. I agreed that we did need to do something, but my view was that this wasn’t the right something—that in fact, if we just did this, it wouldn’t work. And you’d waste $700 billion, you wouldn’t have another $700 billion to invest afterwards, and your one opportunity to right the ship would be lost.



IO: So what did you advocate?



KG: I worked all week during the first vote, before the second vote, to try to get the parameters of the bill changed. I wanted to have a large equity component. I wanted to have better oversight; I didn’t want Paulson put on the oversight board. I wanted to increase FDIC limits, which we did.
I wanted to regulate the credit-default swap market, which, still unregulated, is a very serious problem. I figured if everybody’s going to vote for something, let’s get the regulation out of the way. Let’s make sure all of these derivatives (derivatives are traded on an exchange so that there’s transparency, [so] we know what the volume is, and whether these banks are insolvent or not) have some capital requirements—because they were using these derivatives as insurance. And in the insurance industry, you have to have capital requirements.
In some instances, these derivatives are like Las Vegas bets. [A guy is] literally saying, “I bet you a billion dollars that Joe’s portfolio’s going to go up.”
And the other guy says, “Well, I bet you a billion dollars Joe’s portfolio is going to go down.”
So it’s kind of crazy that there are no capital requirements for any of these derivatives, no transparency, and no regulation

.

IO: It’s particularly crazy, given who the treasury secretary is.



KG: Yeah. He’s an investment banker.



IO: A very smart guy…



KG: Yes, but you’ve got to remember, his training and background [are] in investment banking. His job’s to make money. We needed someone who had a little bit more of an economist’s background—somebody who perhaps had a wider view. Because it wasn’t about making money. It’s about how do we fix our financial system?
I mean, the whole system was cratering before our eyes. I worked during that week to try to fix the bill. I was not successful. The Senate took it over. They kept the same bill in place, and just stuck all the tax cuts on it. So I didn’t vote for the second version, either.



IO: Congratulations on taking that strong stand. What’s your position on the “Detroit bailout”?



KG: What I wanted, and what the House got close to, was to create something like a bankruptcy restructuring. The industry said, “You can’t do bankruptcy, though, because if you did, no one would buy our cars.”



IO: That’s what they’d say…



KG: Because they’d be worried about parts and stuff, and [who] would buy a car from a bankrupt company? That’s fair enough, [but] if that’s true, then let’s create something like a restructuring—[and] not go to bankruptcy court. Instead of a bankruptcy administrator, they created a car czar, but [they] do all the hallmarks of bankruptcy: discontinue product lines that are not cost-efficient, don’t pay dividends, zero-out stockholders and bondholders.
Create a product that people are willing to buy. Make sure it’s energy efficient. Get rid of some of the debt that you have. Create a new, restructured company that’s leaner and more effective.



IO: It would appear that there’s going to be a lot of pain.



KG: It’s going to be awful. The reason to do the restructuring is to save an industry that must be saved. From my perspective—from a national security perspective—we must have the ability to create the platforms that our military needs. Whether it’s trucks or Jeeps or tanks, you need to have that manufacturing in this country. What you want is the industry to survive, and writing them a blank check will insure that they don’t survive.
I did want protection of employees and their life savings. I thought it was really important that if anyone’s going to be first in line, it would be an employee before a stockholder or a bondholder.



IO: We keep waiting for someone to ask, “If you really care so much about this, why don’t you give back, say, your $27 million compensation from 2007?”



KG: That’s exactly the kind of sacrifice that you need to see, because those executives have failed. And they shouldn’t be compensated on that level.



IO: It would be impressive if they gave it back, but they’re not being asked to do that. They’re being asked to come by car. We need less symbolism…



KG: …and more brass tacks. I think the executives should be replaced. I think they should return salaries. I think they should make those sacrifices for the good of the industry.
I think having these companies liquidate would be a very bad thing for my district. We would lose 3,000 jobs right away. And it would be bad for New York state, [which] risks losing over 80,000 jobs and $34 billion in revenue a year.



IO: We’re conducting this interview in Athens, a little town in Greene County. What, if anything, do you think the “Obama stimulus program” is going to mean for places like this?



KG: I think he could have a big impact. If he invests in infrastructure on a large scale—$500 billion to $700 billion over the next two years—that [will] allow our local government to have access to very necessary funds.
It will mean new stores, money for roads and bridges, money for high-speed rail—or light rail—for transportation. It’ll mean money for flood prevention. The Army Corps of Engineers will be funded. It will mean money for high-speed Internet, which is really important for the rural areas of our district for businesses to grow. It will mean money for healthcare and better Medicaid reimbursement rates, so our hospitals can treat more people.



IO: We have all this farmland around here. Will there be investment in energy efficiency?



KG: The second piece of his plan should be the $150 billion over 10 years that he promised during the campaign: tax incentives, tax credits, and research and development grants for alternative energy, conservation technologies and new products. That’s great for the entrepreneurial aspect of our district, because we have a lot of entrepreneurs. Farmers can create secondary revenue streams to create cellulosic—non-food-based—ethanol.
A lot of our farms have tried to go energy independent. We got money, in fact, this last year, for an anaerobic digester for one of our dairy farms to use manure to create methane. We also got money for solar panels to go on one of our barns to make the farm energy-efficient. So our farmers can have a huge role in alternative energy production and conservation technologies. All businesses can use the conservation technology.
Upstate New York [has] a manufacturing base, so we can actually manufacture wind turbines, new building materials that are energy-efficient, and fuel cells and battery technologies for any product that runs on an energy source. We’ve got the beginnings of this high-tech corridor already in our district, with IBM in the south, with AMD coming in the north. We can really create jobs. And for somebody who lives in Athens, those are great manufacturing jobs.



IO: What about transportation on the river itself? It used to be that these river towns were connected by ferries and boats.



KG: Water taxis are really valuable. For transportation, I’m hoping we get a light rail system up the [Interstate] 87 corridor. That would be my first choice. Second, we need a better bus system. Third, you could begin to invest in more barges and water taxis.
Because oil prices and gas prices were so high last summer, people were starting to [ask], “How do I reduce transportation costs?” One of the solutions, interestingly enough, was barge technology on the river.



IO: Do you think that the recent, precipitous drop in oil prices will adversely affect these technologies?



KG: I don’t think so. I think people really have a sense of urgency, and a sense of fear. They felt that they were being manipulated with speculation and other factors. They don’t want to see their businesses be in such a precarious place ever again. I think there’s a real sense of urgency now, because they saw how severe it could be: Manufacturing companies were reducing shifts because they couldn’t afford to have the plants open for the third shift.
They’ve seen it—and they’ve also seen that it’s a whim. Prices were going up for no reason. It wasn’t supply and demand: It was manipulation. I think there’s an enormous resentment now, that we do not want to be beholden to Middle Eastern oil ever again.



IO: If you were giving advice to someone who had just finished college and lived in this area, which fields would you suggest they go into now?



KG: I would suggest they go into [the] high-tech sector, and the energy sector in particular. Be the entrepreneur who builds the battery that can make a car get 240 miles per gallon. Be the engineer that figures out how to build a light rail system down the [I-]87 corridor. Be the person who invents the new building materials that are energy efficient. That’s what’s happening already.
Our graduates from RPI [Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute], Bard [College], the community colleges, the whole SUNY system: They are the solution. They are the entrepreneurs and the inventors that are going to figure out how to make us energy independent. So, I’d focus people on engineering, math, sciences, because I think that is where the solutions are going to be, and that’s where the jobs are going to be.



IO: A decent portion of our readers are gay. What’s your position on same-sex marriage?



KG: What I’d like to do legislatively, on the federal level—and I think we’ll be able to do this with the new president—is actually make civil unions legal in all 50 states, make it the law of the land. Because what you want to fundamentally do is protect the rights and privileges of committed couples, so that they can have Medicare benefits, visit in the hospitals, have adoption rights. All [the] things that we give to married couples, committed gay couples should be eligible for. And then the question of whether you call it a marriage or not, what you label it, that can be left to the states to decide.
[It’s] so culturally oriented. My mom’s generation, they want their gay friends to have every right and privilege that they should be eligible for as a married couple, but they feel uncomfortable calling it marriage. To them, a marriage is a religious word that they learned from the Catholic Church: It’s a covenant between a man, a woman, and God. So they feel uncomfortable with the word. But they don’t feel uncomfortable with the rights and privileges.
I think the way you win this issue is you focus on getting the rights and privileges protected throughout the entire country, and then you do the state-by-state advocacy for having the title.



IO: You’re a relatively new congresswoman. Looking back, what did you not “get” before you got here?



KG: The thing that I didn’t know when I started the job was how slow the process of change is. When I got elected, I thought we could get 50 miles per gallon, 51 percent renewable within 10 years—a lot of really exciting goals, and a vision for this country that I felt the electorate really asked for. That takes a long time. Last term, we passed 35 miles per gallon and 15 percent renewable by 2020—modest, incremental reform. The Senate is extremely slow: They have enormous difficulty passing the bills that even get through the House.

That’s the reality that I’ve recognized in my two years: that it takes time to change the world.



IO: And what’s the most fun for you?



KG: I love being in the district, talking to constituents. “Congress at Your Corner” is the most fun I have. I enjoy meeting with people one-on-one, trying to help them with their individual problems, trying to be an advocate for our farmers and our veterans and our seniors. I enjoy the fact that my office can really make a difference in an individual’s life.

InsideOut: Interview with Dr. Maya Angelou

by Owen Lipstein January/February 2009



Dr. Maya Angelou—best-selling author and poet, civil-rights activist, educator, historian, actress, playwright, producer, director, daughter and mother—shares all sides of herself in her recent best-selling book Letter to My Daughter (Random House, 2008). She shared quite a bit of herself with us as well.

*

Owen Lipstein: I’ve been listening to your book, literally just walking around town listening to your book. And it is totally delightful. There’s a whole other dimension to a book like this when you actually hear the author speak.



Maya Angelou: Well, I believe that prose and poetry are best conducted with musical accompaniment. So whether it’s in the background, or the melody of the poem, or in the speaker’s voice—when it’s musical, it’s irresistible.



OL: Well, it is irresistible. I’m thinking about the chapter in which your mother says, “You really should tell the truth. But people really don’t want to hear the truth.” I wonder if you could tell us what this means to you.



MA: Oh, yes, this is true. She said, “When people ask you how are you, all over the world, people say, ‘Fine, and you?’
“‘Thank you. Fine. And you?’”
And it may not be the truth. And they certainly don’t want to hear it from you, since they themselves [have] already lied. I agree with that. However, I think it might be a wonderful experiment to say, “Well, actually, my back is hurting. My right knee is getting me all mad. And my eyes are not seeing as well.”
I know that there are those who would say, “Doggone. Why did I ask?”



OL: We’re all conditioned not to tell someone how terrible they look, or how much weight they’ve gained or lost.



MA: And hairdos? Some of those hairdos… It’s real silly not to tell people. I think you ought to just go and tell the truth. Try it, for once.
I mean, you won’t be asked back many places. You have to make sure that you’ve seen what you came there to see, because you won’t get another chance. On the other hand, you will have some time to buckle down and think clearly about your own ailments, and how you can get rid of them, or else speak of them in better and more attractive terms.



OL: Well, it’s a good thought. [Laughter] In one of your stories, you describe your experience as a young woman drinking some coffee in Morocco. Can you tell us why you think this story resonates?



MA: It was my first trip to Morocco. I was with [a production of] “Porgy and Bess,” traveling, as one of the singers and dancers. At the time, I didn’t have Arabic. So I was really a bit crippled. But I did have French—I mumbled around with French, pointing a lot. A group of black men, older black men, beckoned to me. I went to them across a really ugly, dirty empty lot, where they had some tents pitched in the lot. I stood beside them, and I found they didn’t have Arabic. I had Spanish and French. They didn’t. And I didn’t have any other language that they spoke. So I bowed a lot and smiled a lot. And just as I was preparing to go, one of the oldest men shouted to a woman—I didn’t understand the language, but I knew it was an order—and the woman came back bringing a small cup of coffee. It’d be like the Turkish coffee, or espresso smell. She brought it, and gave it to me.
I looked at her feet [and] there were all sorts of bugs running around, but I had to drink it. So I took a sip and I thought, I’ve got a cockroach on my tongue. And, what to do? I was with these men, and this one woman. I was raised by a really sick grandmother, in a little town in Arkansas, and I knew how to behave in front of older people. So I just opened my mouth and swallowed the whole cup of coffee—with about four or five cockroaches. And I held myself. I bowed. I smiled. And I [left] through that parking lot with the broken cans and glass and old pieces of furniture and got to a building, [and] just as I got beyond their sight, I let the nausea have its way.
I must have had to relieve myself [in this way] 10 times in the next month or so. I finally arrived in another town back in France and I saw an old “Reader’s Digest.” In the Digest, there was an article about African nomads who travel to the north, all the way past the Sahara, into the cities of Morocco and Algeria and Egypt. They live by bartering, so they don’t have much money. [With] the little cash they do have, they [would] buy raisins, and in order to honor a visitor, they would put four raisins into a cup of coffee. This little coffee—the Turkish coffee. And as if somebody had hit me over the head with a brick, I realized that those men had honored me by putting raisins in my coffee.
I was not only a woman: I was young. And I didn’t speak their language, so they couldn’t know that I was reasonably smart. And yet, they had honored me. And for almost two months, I had kept in my mind that those were cockroaches. I [had made] myself throw up, and here, the people had honored me.
So I decided then and there, if human beings eat [some]thing… if I see that it’s reasonably clean, and my cultural upbringing has not put me at odds against it—that is, [that] it’s nauseating—I will eat it. I will eat it wherever I am, if human beings eat it.



OL: Have you been able to live up to that?



MA: Not all the time. [Laughter] Sometimes I’ve blown it, probably from my own ignorance. But I’ve tried to forgive myself as quickly as possible.



OL: One of the things that comes through in this book is the incredible love and forgiveness that your parents showed you throughout your life. There’s a chapter about the conception of your son, and how you were worried about telling your father and your mother. I thought the story showed their tremendous love and acceptance.



MA: Well, I had gone to summer school, finished high school in San Francisco. And my brother had warned me, “Don’t tell Mother, or she’ll kick you out of school. And you have to have a high school diploma.” So on what was V-J Day, and my Dad’s birthday, I also had a graduation. I decided that was the night I would let him know. So I left a message on his bed saying, “Dad, I’m sorry that I brought shame on the family. I’m pregnant. I’d like to talk to you about it.”
My father came in. I could hear his footsteps outside my door, hesitating, and then continuing to his own room. And he didn’t come back until the morning. I didn’t go to sleep, of course, wondering what he was thinking. My mother was away, looking after some business things.


The next morning he said, “Hey, baby. Come on downstairs, have a cup of coffee. I want to talk to you.” I went down with trepidation, fear, my knees knocking. He gave me a kiss and didn’t look at me as if I was vulgar. He said, “Now, you know, I have to let your mother know. How far along are you?”
So I said, “I’m within three weeks of giving birth.” But he misunderstood that to say that I was three weeks pregnant. And so he telephoned my mother, who flew in immediately.
She came to me and she said, “You’re more than any three weeks pregnant.”
I said, “Yes, ma’am. I will give birth in three weeks.”
She said, “Hmmm.” And then she said, “Run me a bath.” But in our family, that’s the most intimate thing you can do, and the sweetest thing you can do for another person, is to run her or him a bath. And if you’ve been arguing, sort of at odds and ends with each other, you can make up simply by saying, “Would you run me a bath?”
So, my mother [asked me to] run her a bath. I was so relieved. I did. And then she asked me to sit in with her. And she asked, “Do you know who [the] father is?”
And I said, “Of course.”
She asked, “Do you love him?”
I said, “No. I only was intimate with him once.”
And she asked, “Does he love you?”
I said, “No.”
“Well, then there’s no point of ruining three lives,” she said. “Yours and his and the baby’s. So, we’re going to have a wonderful baby. That’s all there is to that.”



OL: You were sort of the prodigal daughter, if you will. And instead of getting the disapproval you thought you might from your father, you got forgiveness and love without question.



MA: Yes, exactly.



OL: And it just seems so simple—but in actuality, I think, probably rare.



MA: I’m sorry about that, because it really is simple. My family—we’ve had a great, great gift in my son. My son is the best thing that ever happened to me. And through me—to a lot of people. My mother and father were so on the money: They never once tried to make me feel I had done the wrong thing, or [that I] was dumb, or stupid. They never did that, ever. We simply had a wonderful baby.



OL: Well, it’s amazing. I loved your story about Bob and Decca. Please tell us more about that.



MA: Well, Bob and Decca—Robert Treuhaft and Jessica Mitford—were family friends of mine. I was going to speak at Stanford [University], I think, in California. And so I called and stayed with Bob and Dec, who would have expected that. And Bob said, “You know, there’s a good restaurant, and they do a sort of French bistro dinner once a month, but you have to be informed about the place, and you have to have made a reservation two or three months ahead of time.”
So Decca asked Bob if he would call the owner and say, “We have a guest from New York, a writer.” Well, he did. And the owner—as told by Bob—had a table for the three of us.
So we arrived, and the food was good. The owner came around, and he said, “My wife and you are very good friends.”
So I asked, “Oh, really?”
And he said, “Yes. Her name was Lillian.”
And I said, “Oh, I don’t know that name.”
He said, “Oh, that’s her name. That was her name with me. But you knew her in Los Angeles, and her name then…”
He gave me another name and I said, “I don’t recognize it.” So he looked at me quizzically. And then he came back with a photograph.
He said, “Here she is.” And I looked at the photograph. I had never seen that woman. And he said, “Now, there you are.”
So I said, “Yes, well, uh-huh. She certainly looks good.”
He said, “Well, she’s happy now.” So that was good.
On our way out, the telephone rang, and the owner said, “Just a minute. Here she is on the phone.” I was so hoping that I would recognize something in the woman’s voice.
She said, “Girl, what are you doing out here? Why didn’t you let me know?” I realized I had never heard that woman—I’d never heard her voice. So she said, “If I didn’t live so far away, I would come right by.”
I said, “No, why don’t you come over to Decca and Bob’s, perhaps tomorrow at 1 for lunch.”
She said, “Alright.” She knew them.
And I asked Decca to please stay. She said, “No, I will not stay.”
I said, “Oh, please? What will we talk about?”
She said, “Talk about the quiche Lorraine you said you’re going to make. Talk about that.” So I made the quiche. The doorbell rang at 1 and the woman came in. I had never seen her in my life. And she looked at me as if she’d never seen me. But, what to do? We carried on. So we went in, and sat down. We had a glass of wine. We then had the quiche Lorraine. We talked about life, and books and people, and travel, and weather.
We were back at the dining room table when she said, “You know, you can’t guess who I saw the other day.” She gave me the name of someone and she said, “He pretended he didn’t know me. We were there in Tahoe, at a skiing lodge.”
And so I thought, Well, maybe he doesn’t know you.
She said, “As hard as you and I worked [on] his campaign in Los Angeles… So I just said to him, ‘You wait ’til I see Louise Meriwether, and I’ll tell her.’” Oh my Lord.
So I said, “Well, I don’t know how to tell you this, but I’m not Louise Meriwether.”
She said, “I didn’t think so.” She jumped up and said, “I didn’t recognize your voice on the phone last night. And then today, when you opened that door, I thought, ‘What the hell has happened to Louise?’”
Well, now, Louise Meriwether is a black, female writer, 6 foot tall. So am I—all those things. And what happened is, when Bob Treuhaft called the owner, he said, “We have the writer.” And I know he said my name, but he said, “You know, the African-American writer, female.”
The owner of the restaurant asked, “Is she tall?”
[Bob] said, “Yes, she’s 6 foot.”
Whereupon the owner said, “That’s my wife’s best friend!” Well, of course, when I did get back to New York, I found that Louise, who is a friend of mine, and the woman, were best friends. But we had just been led down the primrose path—or up it, or something—by miscalculating.
It turns out the woman is a very well-known writer. And the wife of the owner. A psychologist. She was able to help me with my brother, who’s fighting heroin for his life. She was the only psychologist who wanted to help. I also arranged with the owner of the restaurant to allow my brother to take his lunch and dinner there whenever he’d like, and he could bring one guest. And no one knew except the owners and their accountants, that my brother wasn’t paying, that I paid. But for a year, my brother was off the heroin. And was living a life with some normalcy. And that all came about because of an accidental acquaintanceship, which turned into a friendship.



OL: Should we conclude that there is a greater significance in how this sort of confused meeting was transmuted into something even more meaningful?



MA: Well, I think that we have to take into consideration that we meet friends in the strangest ways. Sometimes it’s an ex-boyfriend’s girlfriend’s mother-in-law—and it turns out to be someone who operates as a mother to you. The strangest ways.
And I think we ought to give ourselves more time. We should be more patient with ourselves and with each other, and see, Where is this going? There are few accidents in life. I think, Let me see, can I be of service? Is this person going to be of service to me or through me to someone else? I think we need to give ourselves patience.



OL: Letter to My Daughter is a beautiful story. Did you enjoy writing it?



MA: Yes, I did. It actually came about from notes to Oprah. We talk quite frequently, and when I’d said something or heard something, read something, I’d think, Oh, I wonder, did she ever think of that? And what would she think of that?
So I’ve just written notes down on all sorts of things: my own work, and the things I wanted to talk to her about, poetry that may be hidden in some of the prose… and I put it in a box called “WIP—Works in Progress.” Last year I pulled that box out. I was looking at the “Notes for Oprah,” and I thought, Hmmm, there’s an essay in there… Hmmm, I think there’s a poem in there… Hmmm. So I just started writing. And I enjoyed it so much.



OL: It does feel like a very personal letter that I, as a reader, am allowed to read. It wasn’t necessarily meant for me in the first place, but I’m so glad that I was allowed to see it. It’s easy to understand the genesis of the book as you describe it. One last question: How do you feel about the moment we’re in right now—with Obama just about ready to be our president?



MA: Well, I’m happy, of course. And proud. I’m proud of my country. I’m just so proud. A number of non-black people have no idea that when black people go abroad, we are asked to explain our madness with racism. Now, many times, the people abroad are equally racist about people they know, but they don’t know African Americans, so they have no guilt. So it’s one thing to be sitting in Paris, having people pity me because I come from the racist country. I have to either apologize, or defend, or explain, and quite often, I just go in the other direction: I attack.
I ask, “I appreciate that you’re concerned about me. But why don’t I see more Senegalese, and more Malians, and people from Cote d’Ivoire? Why don’t I see more of them in your office buildings, as chairmen and CEOs of your corporations?” And then quickly the subject changes.
But now, I can just say, “Racist? Look at my country. The majority of people who brought Obama in are white.” So, I won’t have that conversation [now]. I’m proud that we’re growing out of the ignorance of racism and sexism and ageism. I’m proud that we’re growing up.

InsideOut: Interview with John Meacham

by Owen Lipstein January/February 2009



In addition to being a sought-after political analyst who guest spots on “Imus in the Morning,” “Meet the Press” and MSNBC’s “Morning Joe,” Newsweek Editor-in-Chief Jon Meacham has written three bestsellers, the most recent of which is American Lion: Andrew Jackson in the White House (Random House, 2008). He spoke to us about Old Hickory’s swashbuckling personality, and why reading about people who were not faint of heart in the early 19th century can be an encouraging endeavor for us at the beginning of the 21st.



InsideOut: It must be strange to be the editor-in-chief of Newsweek, which is obviously all about what’s happening now, but also a scholar and writer of books about the past.



Jon Meacham: Sometimes it’s just redundant. Everything’s already happened—which is both reassuring and disconcerting. Honestly, I end up finding excursions into the past reassuring, because if they got through what they had to face, then God willing, we will, too.



IO: There’s nothing like the distraction of the past to get you out of the present. Your book on Andrew Jackson is a gripping story. Why is it that he’s sort of an unknown to most people?



JM: My view is that he dwells in a kind of obscure ubiquity. Or ubiquitous obscurity, it’s hard to tell which. There’s this broad middle period of our history, from the founding to the Civil War, that doesn’t get a lot of attention. Understandably, given the enormity of the [American] Revolution, [the] Constitutional Convention, and then [from the Confederate attack on the federal Fort] Sumter forward, “the Jack years,” and certainly the years after that—are kind of lost in the shuffle.
To some extent, it’s because there was not an overarching war. War presidents tend to stand out more. We penalize, historically, presidents who achieve peace, which is unfortunate—a sad historical irony. Jackson is also a very complicated, difficult figure for late 20th- and early 21st-century moral sensibilities.



IO: One of the most compelling parts of his story is his being wounded, and hearing his mother’s last words, and how that influenced his life.



JM: The central fact of Andrew Jackson’s life is that he was an orphan. He never knew his father, [and] his mother and brothers died in the Revolution.
He believed that his mother had two ambitions for him, really: One was to be a minister (which I think was the first time he began to think of himself as having a trajectory that would include authority over others, and a centrality in the place of the culture); and the second was always to be vigilant about [his] honor, [his] good name—and to take responsibility, as Jackson would later say.
So his tendency to challenge, or take up challenges that sometimes resulted in duels, and very often in personalized clashes, can be traced back to his mother’s counsel on that point.



IO: What about that almost inconceivable moment, when he gets into a duel and allows his opponent to shoot?



JM: He’s standing 14 paces away from Charles Dickinson, who has insulted his wife. Jack often let other people take the first shot. [Dickinson] takes the first shot, Jack is hit, [and with] his boots filling with blood, he raises the pistol quite solemnly and kills the man.
Later, when someone says, “I can’t believe you did that after you were hit,” he says, “I would have chased him over land and sea. I would have done anything to have shot him through the head,” because of what he had said about the person who was most important to him in the world, his wife. In that story, I think you see Jackson’s resolute principle, his physical courage, and his cussedness. He’s just pure toughness.



IO: What about his relationship with John Adams?



JM: With John Quincy Adams? Well, it’s hard to imagine two people more unlike than John Quincy Adams and Andrew Jackson.
Adams came from one of the favorite families in the republic; Jackson had no family. Adams was beautifully educated and extremely well read—one of the best-read men in America at the time. Jack was, to say the least, not either of those things.
And they [each] had visions of the country. Adams had a big, broad, nationalistic, big central-government idea—a republican idea, lowercase “r,” in which power would be concentrated in meritocratic bleeps. Jackson was a pure democrat, lower case “d.” In many ways, you could see the struggles between Adams and Jackson as proxies for the struggle between the republican impulse and the democratic one.



IO: What do you see as his presidential achievements?



JM: Saving the union, in the showdown with South Carolina. Crushing the [national] bank, which eliminated a potentially self-perpetuating private threat to the public good. And fundamentally, changing forever the conversation, the political dynamic in the country, from one that barely took note of the people, to one that kept people at the heart of the conversation.



IO: He did that with a clear notion, it would seem, of what Abraham Lincoln ultimately had to carry forth. Do you think that Jackson’s unrecognized for that particular contribution?



JM: I don’t think anybody knows about it. I think that the nullification crisis is known only to a very few number of specialists who think about antebellum America. It’s hard to find an event about which people know less than, say, the War of 1812, but the nullification crisis is it. And so I think one of the things I wanted to do in this [book] was to recreate how important and fraught I think that moment was.



IO: One of the things that keeps coming up in your book is Jackson’s physical courage. It’s almost like they don’t make men like that anymore. Can you elaborate on your description of the wounded soldiers who had to be taken back?



JM: It’s the war of 1812, and he’s heading back toward Nashville. [There are] a number of sick men. He is asked by the troop’s doctor, “What is to be done with the men who can’t walk, and can’t fit on the wagons?” And Jackson said, “We shall not leave a single man behind, sir. We shall not leave a single man behind.”
He surrendered his own horse to a sick man, and he walked, basically, through the wilderness, back to Tennessee, and shared the burdens that his men faced. Shared the same threats, faced the same odds. And they loved him for it. And that’s how he became Old Hickory, because he was as tough as a hickory tree.



IO: It’s hard to believe that men were made of such stuff. His relationship with his wife was actually quite romantic. Talk about that.



JM: Absolutely. He fell in love with Rachel Donaldson Robards when she was Mrs. Robards. It was a very sticky, murky, unhappy situation. She was divorcing her first husband [but] the divorce was not actually final when the Jacksons married. They had to sort of clean that up later.
But he loved her as he loved no one else. And, like a lot of husbands, I think he loved her more than he listened to her. But she was the one person in the world who could ground him, who could offer him some shelter from the storm. He said, “I was born for a storm, and a calm does not suit me.” But the one person who could calm him was Rachel. And losing her in the middle of the transition between the election and the inauguration was cataclysmic. He went to Washington alone, in mourning. Not an hour of a day went by the rest of his life when he didn’t think of her.



IO: Was it radical for a man of his time to marry a woman who [had been] married to another man? It seems to be something that haunted him throughout their marriage.



JM: Well, it was. Divorce, until the 1970s, was an anomaly. It certainly was an anomaly then. I think it was more the unhappy circumstances of not having all the legal stuff done before the actual marriage that was most troubling down the years. What was not hugely uncommon in frontier manners and morals in 1799, was not part of the prevailing culture in 1828, when he was running for president. And so, what was OK 30 years before was seen as wilder, rougher, more scandalous, in a more genteel time.



IO: Does it surprise you that the book is a bestseller?



JM: I’m always surprised by this sort of thing. I’m delighted, but surprised, of course. I think that there’s a big appetite for stories and examples and lessons from the past, of people—Americans—who faced seemingly insuperable obstacles, and overcame them. Because we face, Lord knows, so many of our own.
I think there’s something reassuring about reading the accounts and the stories of people who faced great challenges, did great things, but were flawed—difficult, all too human, all too frail, with moral blind spots and great failings—but who ultimately lived better lives than their parents, and tried to make the country a little better for their children.



IO: Among your other books that seem particularly relevant is Franklin and Winston. These guys were able to carry on a friendship, of sorts, in the middle of an apparent apocalypse. What can we learn from them now?



JM: Oh, I think precisely as you’re suggesting: that a free people can overcome almost anything, as long as they put their hearts and minds to it. As long as there’s leadership that manages to draw on the best characteristics of the population, and point them in the right direction. I think the story of Roosevelt and Churchill is the story of two deeply fraught, but ultimately brilliant leaders, who represented, in many ways, the best, and sometimes the worst, elements of their national characters—and yet [who], when the crisis came, when the ultimate question was before them, did the right thing.



IO: We found Winston infinitely more likeable than Franklin.



JM: [Laughter] Well, so did I.



IO: Regarding your day job, what are the challenges you face now at Newsweek? What’s the thing that gets you up in the morning?



JM: It’s an incredibly challenging climate, without question, for all the reasons that are self-evident. We’re living in a time when more and more people are turning to ever-narrower and more specialized sources of information. The speed of information is ever more rapid. If the Internet is what the newspaper used to be, and the newspaper plays the role of the news magazine—because it assumes that you basically know what happened the day before—then I think [that] as a weekly, it becomes incumbent on us to produce monthly-quality journalism, but do it every week.
How do you repay people’s attention? We’ve been given a great gift, in terms of a 75-year legacy in the country, and millions of people have spent valuable time with us as a magazine. And so, how do we continue to engage them, and make certain they know that if they pick up the magazine, they are going to put it down having learned something, and had a little fun as well?

Insidout: Interview with James Howard Kunstler

by Owen Lipstein / InsideOut Staff November/December 2008

James Howard Kunstler’s 10th novel, World Made By Hand (Atlantic Monthly Press, 2008), is a fictional follow-up to The Long Emergency: Surviving the End of the Oil Age, Climate Change and Other Catastrophes of the Twenty-First Century (Grove/Atlantic, 2005). The frequent contributor to The New York Times, Rolling Stone and Atlantic Monthly sat down to talk with us about why we shouldn’t—necessarily—be afraid of the future.

InsideOut: Looking at the predictions you’ve been making recently, you must be feeling very smart.

James Howard Kunstler: Well, let’s put it this way. It’s gratifying not to be made a fool of by having made bad predictions. I actually have some experience with that, having written eight years ago that the Y2K problem should be taken seriously.

IO: Let’s talk about oil.

JHK: Well, there are really three things going on, and they can be stated pretty plainly. One is the fundamental peak-oil problem, which is really a matter of the demands permanently outstripping the supply.

The [second] one is what we call oil nationalism, which has changed the nature of the game quite a bit. In order to understand this, note that only about 7 percent of the world’s oil is now produced by what we call the old major oil companies—Exxon Mobil, Shell, etc., including the European ones. Most of the oil in the world now, over 90 percent, is coming from the national oil companies, like Saudi Aramco, Brazil’s Petrobras, Mexico’s Pemex, and the virtually state-directed companies in Russia. And they’re changing the way the oil markets function.

For one thing, Petrol favored customer contracts with other nations rather than putting a lot of their oil onto the futures market, which is an auction process. So, this is a big new thing, especially for a nation like the United States, which needs to get two-thirds of its oil from outside our own country. What that means is that an ever-growing percentage of the world’s oil pool is being taken off the auction market, and to some degree, but made less accessible to us.

Now, part and parcel with this is No. 3: the growing oil-export crisis. The nations that export oil to the likes of us, the importers, are virtually all, in one way or another, past their peak production and in a state of depletion. Their export rates are declining even more steeply than their depletion rates. And what that means is that we’re going to get into trouble with our oil supplies much sooner than we had anticipated—strictly on the basis of depletion alone.

IO: And how soon is that?

JHK: It’s a little hard to tell—because of the interruptions of the hurricanes—exactly how this is going to proceed, and how quickly. Because already there’s a substantial part of the country that’s suffering from gasoline shortages, even as we speak, and that’s the Southeast.

IO: What does all of this mean?

JHK: What [it] suggests is that when the net energy available to the industrial world decreases, there will be no more industrial growth, as we call it. And so, all of the paper that’s created and traded to represent the hopes and expectations for producing wealth—namely, stocks, bonds, and other tradable instruments—these things begin to lose their legitimacy. And I think that that was partly…behind the creation of all these substitute financial securities that have now caused such a problem: the whole alphabet soup of collateralized debt obligations, credit default swaps, mortgage-backed securities, structured investment vehicles, and other sort-of-Frankenstein tradable paper that was created, in effect, to generate wealth from nothing. And because the reality of the world is that you really can’t get something for nothing, they all turned out to be fraudulent. And that is at the center of the crisis that we’re in today in the financial sector.

IO: Talk to us about what this signifies for small-town living.

JHK: One of the reasons I wrote my novel was to illustrate these points. There is, for example, a broad notion that as suburbia fails, people will all move back to the cities. And I think what we’re failing to take into account in this is that our great American metroplexes are not appropriately scaled for the energy diet of the future—and that they’re going to suffer disruptions every bit as severe as the suburbs will.

The successful places will tend to be the places that have meaningful relationship[s] with [their] agricultural surrounding[s], and this leads me to believe that we’re going to see the reactivation of a lot of small towns and small cities that have been deactivated for half a century. There are many of them in upstate New York, and many of these enjoy a favorable relationship with water transport and water power, which will be an additional advantage.

IO: For readers who have not yet read that novel, can you set
the tone?

JHK: Well, [World Made by Hand] is set in an unspecified, not-distant future in a small town north of Albany. As the story opens, the electricity is flickering out. Communications are pretty sparse. The people have heard that there was an election and that there’s a president named Harvey Albright in Minneapolis, but they don’t really know how he got elected. And they get very little news of the outside world. There are no newspapers anymore, the Internet is down, there’s a commercial boat trade [on] the Hudson River, but there’s been a great deal of banditry and gang activity on the waterfront that has made commerce difficult.

IO: In the book, people don’t make much of death. Why?

JHK: Well, a few things have happened. There’s mention of several signs of epidemics that have passed through the little town. One of them was an encephalitis episode. Another was something they call the Mexican flu. And the population has been reduced, substantially.

One of the characters at the center of the book is the town doctor, who no longer has any of the modern medicines that we’ve come to rely on, especially antibiotics and anesthetic, for pain relief or for doing any kind of surgery at all. He has to rely on opiates that the farmers grow for him. And so the mortality rate has gone up pretty high, and people can’t be rescued by the marvels of modern medicine.

IO: What about skills and occupations?

JHK: Well, there are no longer occupational niches for being, let’s say, a marketing director at The Gap. Or a greeter in a chain store. Or any of the other thousands and thousands of positions that are connected to the global industrial economy. People are thrown back upon skills [that] really have to be of use to their fellow man in a very practical, direct way.

So, you know, the people who are thriving, or at least getting by, are the local baker, the harness maker, the doctor…There are many successful farmers in the book, at least successful by the terms of the world that they’re in. They’re not starving; they’re taking care of their families and other people.

IO: Is there anything that cheers you up about the way things are headed lately?

JHK: Well, yeah, I think that there are a lot of things about contemporary life that are toxic, far beyond the securities that were created by Goldman Sachs and the rest of the boys. And I do think that if we’re forced to take a timeout from this technological rush that we’ve been caught up in, that it may have many benefits for us. And I view it as a timeout. I certainly don’t consider it the end of the world or an apocalypse.

And I’m a pretty cheerful person. I’m happy, I’m healthy. I’m independent. I’m not in debt. I’ve got a nice girlfriend. I get a lot of exercise. And so personally, I’m OK.

When I contemplate what is going on in the nation, it makes me a little queasy. [But] I’m very fortunate. I live in a corner of the country that is still more or less scaled to the conditions that are coming down at us. The two found inspiration and advice at food co-ops and farmers’ markets, in books and blogs, as well as at workshops in and around the Hudson Valley. They invited an herbalist over to point out what was already growing in abundance on the property: wild raspberries and blackberries, chickweed, motherwort, and English plantain. Then they planted a garden, some trees, and blueberry bushes. They dug two pits for composting, and welcomed red wiggler worms to their new homestead. J. took a beekeeping class, and now has two hives.


If the two of them can join the back-to-the-land movement, says J., anyone can. He works more than full time, sometimes 24 hours a day, days on end, as a wilderness guide, leading kids through challenge courses, and hiking and canoeing in the Adirondacks year-round. Lynn, a former journalist, is in her last year of nursing school at Ulster BOCES (Board of Cooperative Educational Services, one of many in the state that provide shared services to participating public schools). They have a 12-year-old son, tenants, and an old house in need of updating and repair.


In other words, they have a very full life. In short, they’re exactly like you or me.


But now they have a worm composting pit, a manageable 4-by-8-foot garden, beehives, apple trees, berry bushes, and a vision for a self-sufficient future that is coming to fruition, in fits and starts, whenever and however they’re able to work it in. Lynn bakes her own bread. Makes her own juice. She wants chickens. And an orchard. She and J. are waiting for solar energy to become more affordable. They’d like to draw their water from the spring on their property. They’re interested in recycling their greywater, or wastewater. They’re starting from scratch. It’s been just a little more than a year, but they’re well on their way.


This year, the garlic was abundant—as were the blueberries, basil, cucumbers, tomatoes, and potatoes. The bees are thriving, the worms in the compost pit are thriving, and so are J. and Lynn. J. documents their progress on his blog, www.homesteadblogger.com/horseradishhill. His entries are erratic because of his work schedule, which becomes quite hectic in the summer when it coincides with prime gardening season.


So, the garden and the fields are a bit unruly, the apple trees didn’t do so well this year, and there were some setbacks with the potatoes. But this process is trial and error—a lesson they’re learning. And, as yet, they’re undeterred. They do what they can, when they can. And when they can’t, they don’t worry.


You can get a sense of the joy the two take in their new lifestyle with blog entries like this one: “The fireflies! All the wonderful fireflies! Our place is full of fireflies that spark all along the tree line and into the mostly wild fields. You can see they’re making a pattern, see the pulse pass along a line, even if their meaning is inarticulate to us.” They’ve stumbled into their dream, making it come true in an unlikely place, at a sometimes ungainly pace, but the results are inspiring.

InsideOut: Interview with John Zogby

by Owen Lipstein / InsideOut Staff November/December 2008

If you’re wondering where America is headed, you might start by asking this man. Eminent pollster John Zogby is the president and CEO of Zogby International, whose media clients include Reuters, NBC News, MSNBC and C-Span, as well as a frequent guest on shows ranging from “Today,” to “The Daily Show with Jon Stewart.” In his new book The Way We’ll Be: The Zogby Report on the Transformation of the American Dream (Random House, 2008), Zogby conducts thousands of surveys searching for clues. On the day of the Lehman Brothers Holding collapse, he spoke with us from his office in Utica, NY.

InsideOut: How do Americans traditionally react, in your experience, to the sort of scary news about financial doom we’re seeing in our headlines?

John Zogby: The response is layered because people are complicated. And so there is a layer of people—probably about a third—who respond with a sense of status anxiety even during boom times. And these are the people who are working for less, who have been the “victims” of a changed economy. Despite what the stock market may say, they’re concerned about whether they’re going to have health benefits or be able to afford a catastrophe.
There’s another layer of Americans who—and it’s a relatively small group—are on the other end of the spectrum. A Bill Gates may lose a staggering amount of money but still be doing OK, and will still be able to fund what he funds and do what he does. Life goes on.
And [then there are] people who have enjoyed decent portfolios on and off for the last few years, people who are not tied in with the old economy, but are knowledge workers—entrepreneurs of some sort—[and] those are the ones who are feeling it now, and for whom there will be destabilization. And the big question is, how will that middle respond politically?

IO: One of the meta-movements you describe in your new book is that of the new Americans, and their ability to live within limits as consumers and citizens. Can you talk about that?

JZ: Sure. The first source of that group is the people who are working at a job that pays less [than they used to make]. That’s about 27 percent of adults now. Predictably, these are the people…we read about when plants close, when we change from manufacturing to service, that sort of thing. And they’ve readjusted their lives. We see that in their spending patterns. And hence, the proliferation of Costcos and Wal-Marts, Dollar Generals and Christmas Tree Shops.


The second great source of the living-within-limits [group] are those on the other end of the spectrum who have achieved material success. But they have come to the realization that they don’t want to be defined by that anymore. [Success] really doesn’t ultimately bring what they’re looking for, which is some sort of fulfilling life.


And then in between, you have the demographic that’s mainly Baby Boomer in age, but a little bit older and a little bit younger—the first age cohort that will have 1 million of us reach the age of 100.


Add on to that…the whole question of energy and the environment and limits. There are those [who] don’t understand that Americans are ready to sacrifice. It’s not just the polls that are saying it. It’s the reality, too. And for the skeptics, I remind them: Do you remember the American people’s sacrifices in the 1970s? They turned their thermostats down, they drove less.


But when I started this business in 1984, a lot of the early work…I did was for communities that wanted to assess public opinion on issues like recycling, or litter or smoking. I remember being hired by a [community’s] planning department [and being told], “You know, you’re never going to get people to recycle.” They said they would, and they have. I remember when I was a kid driving out in the country, and it was just common that there would be a station wagon ahead of us dropping McDonalds’ bags and picnic bags, just out on the highway.

IO: Another movement, if you will, is that Americans seem more comfortable with diversity than ever before.

JZ: A lot of the structures of either segregation or discrimination have indeed broken down over the last couple of generations. Which is not to deny that it’s out there, but…to suggest that for one entire generation, and these are the folks under 30, there’s been a dramatic change in their experience. Sometimes I think we chastise them [by] say[ing], “Oh, you don’t remember what it was like in the ‘50s or the ‘40s.” Well, it’s true.

IO: And of course, you say the same is true for the gay/straight divide.

JZ: Yes. And you still have the conflict, even among young people, over issues like gay marriage. But what you do see is a sea change in attitude.

IO: What about the concept of
authenticity?

JZ: Americans are very dollar-conscious. They’re very value-conscious. So, my advice in [the book] to marketers: Sell the steak. Because selling the sizzle isn’t going to work. Sell the fact that purchasing this makes the world a better world. On the marketing side, a Silverado and a Hummer’s selfishness failed. But meanwhile Dove, because it’s authentic, succeeds.

IO: You talk about spiritual comfort. Can you describe that?

JZ: We’re already a religious nation. And so this has less to do with God, and more to do with wanting to live a genuine life, and wanting to make a mark. And understanding that you can’t take it with you, that the old rules—She who dies with the most things wins, [for instance]—mean less and less and less to Americans. And I know that that all sounds terribly clich├ęd, but we’ve asked a lot of questions over the years, [and] we see it as well in [Americans’] day-to-day lives. Volunteerism—at a time when the dollar is tight—is doing very, very well.

IO: What else can you tell us about those coming of age now?

JZ: Twenty-somethings are always twenty-somethings. They’re more concerned with the personal, the intimate self, how I look, who I love, what my job will be. And that’s the definition.


But by the same token, age cohorts are always defined by the historical era in which people come of age. And this group has come of age, really, with 50 percent of 18- to 29-year-olds having passports. Most of them have traveled abroad. Virtually all, in this country, anyway, have Internet access of some sort, and have begun the process, or are well into the process, of developing global networks. That, plus what they’re exposed to via the news of global sports, global fashion, music and so on, suggests the reason…they’re less wedded to old traditions of patriotism.
This group is as likely to say, “I’m a citizen of the planet Earth,” as to say “I’m a citizen of the United States.” And one-fourth of this group tell us that they fully expect to live and work in a foreign, exotic capital of some sort. They’re the most multilateral when it comes to foreign policy, and the most accepting of global and domestic diversity.


I got this fax several years ago from Bill Bennett [a conservative political commentator], who is a friend, and Frank Luntz, a colleague [and] pollster. And they had collaborated on a survey of college students, and the news release headline was something about how American college students do not believe that American culture is inherently superior to the cultures of Africa and Asia and Latin America. And I got a note from Bill saying, “Isn’t this outrageous? As a pollster, shouldn’t you comment?”
I wrote back and said, “Where’s the problem here? I kind of like what I see.”

IO: We’re a regional magazine published on the Hudson Valley, and this issue is on the future. You have some suggestions about old and new media. Can you tell us what you think works, and what doesn’t?

JZ: Well, there’s the opportunity to conduct messaging through viral media, the opportunity to reach people directly by the thousands—hundreds of thousands—even the millions. There’s also the opportunity to target and to see like-minded groups, clusters, and to be able to communicate with them and build a constituency around issues and concerns (and to do it at a fraction of the cost of even classified ads in your local newspaper).

Old media has a function. There is a need for professional journalism, to keep the blogs honest. But the professional media have to learn how to blog and team up with local TV, as opposed to fighting local TV. The only thing, of course, is that they’ve [also] got to figure out how to make money.

IO: I listened to your most recent book on audiotape, and even though it contains lots of grim information, your overall tone and conclusions are positive. Can you explain why?

JZ: Because we’ve had huge tectonic changes in the last 30 years. We’ve structurally changed our economy. And we’re in the midst of a technological boom that redefines a generation as three months. And I discovered—and this is not one or two or three sets of polls, this is over a long period of time—[that] people are adjusting quite well.

InsideOut: Interview with Giancarlo Esposito

by Owen Lipstein November/December 2008

Since his Broadway debut at age 10, Giancarlo Esposito has been acting in films from Spike Lee’s “Do the Right Thing” and “Malcolm X,” to Michael Mann’s “Ali” and Bryan Singer’s “The Usual Suspects,” as well as television’s “Homicide: Life on the Street,” “NYPD Blue,” and “Law & Order.” His directorial debut, recently screened at our very own Woodstock Film Festival, is the film “Gospel Hill,” about the residents of a small Southern town who are being forced out of their homes to make way for a multimillion-dollar golf course development. The cast includes Danny Glover, Angela Basset, Julia Stiles and Samuel L. Jackson. We’re grateful just knowing that Giancarlo is in the world, and even more so that he has ties to the Hudson Valley.

Owen Lipstein: This is an issue about the future. Talk to me about how this film can show us where we’re going.

Giancarlo Esposito: I made it because I was very concerned not only about the country, but about how we deal with past and present. [I was interested in] the gentrification issue, the idea that sacred, ancient land of ancestry is sold to companies who want to profit—the idea that we don’t really know how to heal from past wounds in an intelligent way. We carry the weight of anger and of fear into the future. I wanted to make a film that was hopeful.

OL: You grew up in Europe and then came to the United States. What was that transition like for you?

GE: I’ve had a very interesting upbringing. My father is from Naples, Italy. My mother is from Alabama. My father was a carpenter’s son, became a carpenter, worked at the San Carlo Opera Co. at the seaport of Naples. [He] met my mother there, and fell in love and got married. I lived in Italy from the time I was born, moved to Germany for a little bit when my mother performed at the Hamburg Staatsoper [State Opera], and had a very European upbringing. My mother spoke Italian and French. My father spoke a number of languages.
The first time I—or my mother—ever realized that there was the problem of race was when the African delivery man came to the door, and we ran into the closet screaming, “Schwarzer! Schwarzer!”
And she said, “Oh. OK, I’ve got to talk to my children.”
I eventually learned, when I came to this country, [what it meant to be] brown-skinned. What I noticed was [the] anger [of] other young black boys. I didn’t understand that anger until I started to be treated differently. Like I was different. Like I was mixed. Like something was wrong. My hair was very curly, and in the Baptist church, the women loved it. They used to tell my mother, “Boy, your kid’s got that good hair.”
And it started there, and went on and on and on.
And so the early part of my life, I was asked to choose. Even if I said, “Look, I’m half-Italian, half-black. My name is Giancarlo Giuseppe Alessandro Esposito. I’m Italian.” It didn’t matter. I was asked to choose. And out of having to make that choice in so many different situations, I became an actor. Because I was constantly flipping between black and white, and the one thing that I missed then was being human.

OL: Was that one of the factors that led you to make this film?

GE: I didn’t want this to be any kind of civil rights movie. I wanted this to be a movie about human beings. Some may look at [the characters] as villainous. Some may look at [them] as humans with flaws.
I had this argument with Spike Lee many years ago. I said, “Spike, you’re a racist.”
He said, “I can’t be. It’s not economically possible.”
I said, “Well, you know what? I don’t care what economics says. If you don’t like white people, and you’re always talking about white people in a bad way, to me, that’s racist.” [Laughter] You know?
But it’s more interesting to me to see characters who can recognize their own flaws, and their own ill will [and] feelings, and be able to pull themselves out of that and say, “You know what? I may have acted this way, or been this way, for a long time. But I don’t really want this anymore, because I don’t need it.”

OL: You brought your film to this year’s Democratic National Convention (DNC). What was that like?

GE: It was really fascinating. I go with The Creative Coalition, which is an organization that supports the First Amendment right to freedom of speech. It allows us to understand the political process as it is in America today, and be a part of it. We had Ellen Burstyn and Susan Sarandon and Tim Daly, and Spike Lee came down this year.
I wanted the film shown [at the convention] because it has such a social relevance in our time; and because it was suggested to me [by] someone who saw it, who knew Barack Obama. (I met him, but I don’t know him well.)
[My friend] said, “You must show this movie. The ideas that you bring up in here of social change and healing, past and present, are really in line with his message of change.” I was very proud to have been there and to have shown it there.

OL: We were talking about how ”Gospel Hill” feels totally of its time. By the time this issue comes out, the election will be moments away. How do the nuance and feeling of this movie play out, to you, as we go through the last days of the election process?

GE: Back in August, I was praying and hoping I would find the $2 million to get a feature release so this movie could come out before the election. I think [the film] is so relevant and pertinent to what people need. We hope and pray that [Obama’s] five-point lead [as of the day before this interview], will be preserved.
I do go to Washington—I was down [recently] for The Congressional Black Caucus conference, where I showed a piece of the movie, and [for] the Black Lawyers Association. And I was able to go to a dinner and hear Obama speak.


He sounded more like I had heard him in 2004, [when] I met him at the DNC, and he chased me out of the room afterwards, saying, “Wow, you know, my first date with Michelle was ‘Do the Right Thing,’” and we spoke for a long time in the parking lot. And there was no one next to him except one buddy. And he gave a beautiful speech that evening. And the speech he made in Washington two weeks ago was equivalent to that.


I haven’t heard him speak like that since. And it’s because I think he wants to look presidential, act presidential, and he’s become a little stiff. [But] I think he’s loosening [up] a little bit.


I think he’s the right person not because of the color of his skin, but the color of his ideas—and the color of his presence with people. I understand he would have loved to have been a community organizer forever. And I think he took this role…[of] trying to be the president of the United States for many reasons. I think he was chosen.
But I also think there’s a part of him that detests what happens to you at this point in the race. Because you make promises. You flip, you change, and you realize America’s run by big corporations and big money… I believe and hope he will make the right decisions.


I also know that five points ahead means we’re going to be dead even in a couple of weeks. Because that’s what they’re preparing us for. I cried when he made his speech at the DNC for many reasons. I’m half-white, half-black, too. His upbringing is so close to mine, it’s unbelievable.


And I cried only because I loved what he was saying. And I prayed that people would be color-blind enough to see that ideas matter. That presence matters. That the idea to bring poor people to a better life matters. And the idea of hope-—that you could do anything and everything given the right opportunities—matters.

InsideOut: Interview with Annie Leibovitz

by Owen Lipstein January/February 2009



Hudson Valley resident Annie Leibovitz has just published Annie Leibovitz at Work (Random House, 2008), an overview of her career and an account of how some of her most famous photographs were made. In describing how the book came together, she gave us a charming and frank view of her life behind the camera.

InsideOut: What was the guiding motivation for your most recent book?



Annie Leibovitz: I’ve always wanted to do a small book on the making of photographs. Literally, I told Random House that it was part of my book contract. It was going to be a 40-page book, like a pamphlet. I didn’t want them to get too excited about anything. I was going to pick 10 pictures—it wasn’t necessarily going to be the most famous pictures, but just a selection of pictures that had good stories or ideas behind them. And then when I finally sat down to actually do this, I realized there was much more to say, and it turned into 240 pages and 100 photographs.
Some of them are the most famous. I decided (especially after what happened with the queen a couple of summers ago) to just answer every single question anyone’s ever had about the work— to try to dispel all the mystery around it and explain that it’s just work.
So I sat down with Sharon Delano, the editor. She was a New Yorker editor, and I’d worked with her on A Photographer’s Life. As we sat down and started to talk about the making of the photographs, much more came out and it got to be much more
interesting—and hence, this much-larger little volume, [in] which I still was trying to hold onto the idea that it was more like a little primer, a little textbook about the making of the pictures.



IO: You’ve included this wild picture of Mick Jagger in Philadelphia, seemingly flying above the stage. Can you describe going on tour with the Rolling Stones, and how you get this kind of shot?



AL: Going on tour with the Rolling Stones happened very early in my work, in 1975, when I was still working at Rolling Stone magazine. In fact, [co-founder and publisher] Jann Wenner didn’t guarantee me that there’d be a job for me when I finished the tour. He wasn’t too sure he was going to let me come back.



IO: But you went anyway.



AL: He didn’t want me to go on the tour. It was too tempting, with Robert Frank having done the 1972 tour. It just seemed like it was too great of an adventure. I really didn’t understand how music was made, and wanted to give it a chance. (If Robert Frank did it, I wanted to try to do it. I went, of course, to the San Francisco Art Institute, and studied Robert Frank and [Henri] Cartier-Bresson. Personalized 35 mm photography was what I was interested in.)
It’s really, again, a story about being on the road with a band of men and how important it is, no matter what you’re doing, that you hold onto a piece of yourself, that you don’t give yourself entirely away or lose yourself entirely.
At that time, I was so young I thought the best way to get pictures was to throw yourself into what you’re doing and become one with it. Of course it was a little silly to think about doing that with this band of guys. But it’s the best work I did with musicians during that whole tenure with Rolling Stone magazine—over 13 years—because I did spend so much time, and was totally immersed in it. It’s a little story about trying to hold onto a bit of yourself.



IO: You write that at the end of each performance, there’d be this rush of people and you’d literally have to go with the crowd. What was it like being separate, yet also a part of that kind of frenetic flow?



AL: I talk a little bit about learning about power on the tour, and a little bit about the audience and how we let ourselves be melted down to a frenzied mess or mass. There’s lots of things that I learned there.



IO: For all your professional life—at least with many of the photographs—you’ve been surrounded by these so-called very important people. Does that demystify them?



AL: I think, early on, I always understood that they had their lives and I had mine. When I was young, living in San Francisco, I did know Jerry Garcia, because he lived across the bay. It was my town. I knew some of these people a little bit, but it’s not like I had breakfast or lunch with them or something. It was more of a lifestyle at that time, in the early ’70s.
But as my work continued, it became very clear to me that [it was] my work. Even in the Rolling Stones tour, I talk about [how] my interest is taking photographs.
In all of this work, over all these years, when people start to talk to me about the celebrity involved, I try to steer it back to photography, because it’s been my main interest and it probably is what keeps my head on straight. I’m interested in getting a really good photograph, and this little book is about going into portrait work, or any kind of work like what I’m doing. My journey was to build my photography, and [the book is about] how my photography came about.
It’s also about how much latitude there is in this medium. Having worked almost 40 years in [it], you see all these different ways to use it, and how exciting that is, especially now, going into digital.



IO: There’s a delightful story about the whited out picture of Meryl Streep.



AL: You’re dipping into the conceptual, which is really interesting. It’s the beginning of the set-up pictures. That came out of doing those covers for Rolling Stone. Literally, my assignments were turning into appointments, and I found my subjects saying to me, “Well, what do you want me to do?”
I had to start thinking of ways to take pictures that could be done in a short amount of time in one place. Hence, the beginning of this conceptual work.
But Meryl Streep—that particular one is a part of a series of pictures from the late ’70s, early ’80s, that was the high point of the conceptual work. She’d never been too comfortable having her picture taken. (A lot of really good actors who work in film are uncomfortable having a still picture taken. They like to move; they don’t like to stop. She and Robert DeNiro are those kinds of actors: They like to be a character.)
This particular time that we were working together, I knew she wasn’t too happy about sitting for the picture and I said, “Well, what if we did ‘mimeface’ and whiteface?” And she loved that idea. She just got a chance to play. I think I explained that it was a leftover idea from when I was supposed to be photographing James Taylor and it didn’t happen. So she put on the whiteface and it was her idea to pull her face apart like a mask. There it was.



IO: A reader learning about this from your book might be struck by the somewhat improvisational process of trying to get a picture of Streep—who she really was—and then being able to use a crazy idea that obviously worked magnificently for everybody.



AL: She likes to play. She was in a public theater show of “Alice in Wonderland” that I happened to see. She really loved stage work. Of course, we see this now coming out more and more in things like “Mamma Mia,” and also the Carrie Fisher film that she did, “Postcards from the Edge.” She has a real comedic side to her.



IO: You really understood that. On the other side of the spectrum, you have this really entertaining chapter about people who seem to be comfortable with pictures. It’s very interesting to read about Arnold Schwarzenegger, his sense of his own body, and your experience taking pictures of him through the years, including on the famous horse.



AL: It’s a chapter about having worked for almost 40 years [with the same] people; we’ve been around [at] the same time. Patti Smith is very much like that, too. What’s nice about those two pictures in the Patti Smith chapter is that those pictures are almost 20 years apart.
It’s interesting to see [Schwarzenegger] over these years, at different stages. I was there at the beginning. I was in South Africa when they were making the movie “Pumping Iron.” He was competing for [the body-building title of] Mr. Olympia, so there are pictures from that period, and then going to the time when I was doing the [Vanity Fair] “Hall of Fame” [issue in 1988], and he’s posed on his horse. It’s a very graphic picture. He brought his horse along. It’s a very formal, graphic image.
Now he’s the governor of California, as we all know, but this series ends with him in Sun Valley: He’s on top of a mountain. We were going to take his shirt off, but then he didn’t want to do that. He said it was cold out, but in the long run, I was surmising that at this point, he didn’t want to use his body to represent himself.



IO: Tell us about your experience taking pictures of Queen Elizabeth II. That was a great chapter.



AL: It was the first thing I sat down with Sharon and talked about, because I had just done it and I decided to make that chapter particularly detailed—go into the nuts and bolts of the shoot, take it apart from beginning to end. It’s the longest chapter because it goes into such detail.
There’s controversy surrounding the shoot because the BBC was there filming her for a documentary, spending a year filming her and the monarchy. They made it look as if she was storming out of the shoot in a promotional film that they had for the documentary. And of course, it wasn’t true, she was actually storming into the shoot. Someone at the BBC lost their job because of the inaccuracy that they were trying to portray. It was a great shooting, and she stayed the entire time.
I’m pretty much used to most people not looking forward to having their picture taken, because that’s more common than someone liking to have their picture taken. It’s a difficult psychological thing to come to grips with. I think for the queen, of course, it’s just work, it’s more work. She’s in her 80s, and this cape weighed about 75 pounds.
I thought the shooting went very, very well, but in describing it, people think that that’s an unusually difficult shoot. It was—in the sense that you only have a certain amount of time and you’re in Buckingham Palace and it is the queen, so there’s a lot of pressure—but the rest of it? Everything that happened is kind of normal.



IO: You describe a scene in which you’re trying to make some small talk, and you mention Dorothy Wilding—the first woman appointed to be the official photographer of the royal family—and the queen says, “Well, she didn’t really take the pictures.” It sounded like a funny moment.



AL: I found it fascinating, because I had looked at a lot of material, a lot of books that had been done on Queen Elizabeth. Of course, she’s the most photographed person in the world, if not the most famous person in the world, so there’s a wealth of material. It was fascinating to look through how heavily she had to sit for portraits, especially after she was the queen, at a very young age.
The Wilding pictures were used for the stamps, for the coins. They were an important set of pictures. Dorothy Wilding was a very fashionable studio of its day. She employed over 30 people. So it was interesting to read about Dorothy Wilding, and then when I finally meet the queen, to say, “I understand there are a few other women ahead of me who’ve photographed you.” And then for her to give me this information that Dorothy wasn’t there.
I didn’t get a chance to ask her this, but it’s very possible that, since they were using 8-by-10 [-inch] cameras back then, that she could have had a man on the camera and she was standing to the side of the camera. She could have had a team, an assistant—and maybe all that Queen Elizabeth remembers is the man behind the camera.



IO: Can you tell us about that moment you refer to in your book when you “know whether you have it or not”?



AL: In retrospect, it really does come from experience. I think when I was younger, I didn’t really know if I had it or not. Whatever “it” was. I lived inside of the assignments, and went from assignment to assignment and didn’t know when I was finished. In that [chapter], I talk about the writer David Felton, who I was working with at Rolling Stone. I remember him once telling me he was done, he’d had enough. I couldn’t believe he’d had enough, I couldn’t understand what that meant, because I just didn’t quite know when it was over.
I think now it’s so different, looking back at it. My shoots are shorter. I feel like it’s either working or it’s not working. If it’s not working, you’ve just got to stop and change it somehow, or if it’s working, it’s over very fast. It’s more like that. And you just know.
When I did John and Yoko, we shot six or seven frames and you just knew it was good. It was powerful. It was just good. I pulled a couple of Polaroids. (Before we even shot the film, [we took] the Polaroid.) Or I might have shot the Polaroid and, at that time, it took 30 seconds or 60 seconds to process. So we could have shot a few frames and then I pulled it. Then I maybe shot a few more frames. It wasn’t very much. It was good right away.



IO: And you knew it. And they knew it.



AL: Yeah. You knew it. And I think that does come from experience. It does come from doing it all the time and looking at it. The most important thing you were taught to do at the Art Institute, in the photo department, was go out in the morning, shoot, come back that afternoon, process the film and look at it. And you just had to keep doing that, and keep looking at your work, so you kind of knew what you were doing.
Still, the most important thing that one needs to do is look back at their work, and edit their work, and see what they’ve done so they can go forward. You can’t just keep shooting, and not gather together and take a look at it. You need to sort of stop, and take a look at what you have.



IO: We’re conducting this interview in Athens, New York, overlooking the Hudson. You have a home up here. What has living close to the river done for your vision and your artistry?



AL: First of all, I just love getting out of New York City and driving up [north]. I’ve always loved landscape and views and horizon lines. It’s actually very frustrating because my buildings are actually set inland, even though I do have riverfront. I dream about eventually putting a small studio house on the river, but I haven’t done that yet, because I’ve spent so much time and energy on the old buildings themselves. That’s been a lot of work in itself. By the time I finished stabilizing all the old barns that I had, it wasn’t possible to build on the river.
But someday I hope to build on the river. The Hudson is glorious. Every time we drive across the bridge, I’m with my girls, and we say: “There’s the mighty Hudson.”