Getting to know the O

Two ways to understand the character and abilities of our president-elect: first, on his character and the influence of his upbringing in Hawaii, you will want to watch this new video, scheduled for release in January:

There's a longer, 37-minute preview on Barack Obama Hawaii site.

Secondly and equally important, you will want some insight into how he acquired and how he has used the sharp political skills learned in his years as a "Chicago pol." These stories from the Washington Post will help: Barack Obama: An 'improbable' journey into history by Sharon Cohen, and especially this great investigation by Eli Saslow, From Outsider To Politician.


Yes we could!

Last night at friends' place in SoHo we watched the returns on all the channels -- even the Cobert-Stuart silliness, but mostly CNN -- with breaks for a delicious supper prepared by our hostess. We cheered vocally or silently as the Obama tally rose, while outside, as soon as he'd hit the winning number of 270 electoral votes, all Hell broke loose. Or Heaven. Or just terrestrial Exuberance. It was after midnight, after McCain's gracious and responsible concession speech and then after Obama's almost calm but elated appearance before millions of noisy fans in Chicago's Grant Park, after elegant Michelle in black and red and those pretty girls, after Joe Biden and his wife and son and little blond grandchildren and his tiny, grinning mother, after Jesse Jackson's tears and scenes of jumping and shouting before the cameras there in Grant Park and in Rockefeller Center and in front of the White House, and after a last glimpse of the subdued and somber faces at the Arizona Biltmore in Phoenix, we smiled and hugged and said goodnight to our friends, and went out into the unseasonably warm SoHo night and the knots of buoyant revelers. It was like a second Halloween, but with patriotic rather than witchcraft themes. A young women all covered in red and white tinsel pirouetting on the subway stairs, on the subway platform a man of maybe 30 grinning and spinning for cameras to flair his kilt fashioned from the American flag. Those two and most of the others were all white, but with them was a young black woman whose glee was all in her loud voice rather than her costume, and five or six others who joined in the revelry. This crowd seemed to have snowballed, with a core group raising chants -- "Yes we can!" and then, as though just realizing what had happened hours earlier, "YES WE DID!" One girl leaned far forward from her seat into the subway car aisle and fairly screamed, "Now the great thing is you can go to foreign countries and not pretend to be Canadians! It's OK to be American!"

Yeah. That's how we all feel. We now, for the first time in at least 8 years, feel proud of this country. "It's OK to be American!" In fact, we're damned proud that we and our countrymen proved all the forecasts of a racist boycott so wrong. We've elected the best man, and his color just shouldn't matter. Except that it does, in a good way. It does matter that we, all of us, have shown that we can get beyond our racial anxieties, even if we haven't made them go away entirely -- because that will take a lot more work, and a lot more equality of opportunity.

The guy in the flag urged us to join them at Union Square as they ran from the 6 train to continue on the express to the real uptown, to Harlem, to party all night. He and the little group around him were all white, but they knew they'd be welcomed tonight in black America and they wanted to join the fun. We grinned and wished them well.

See also this good essay by Mark Engler, The Day After: Keeping Obama Accountable


Literary practice

Long before the Internet, my friend Karla and I used to exchange quirky and silly letters, she from San Francisco and I from New York. She always made her envelopes from colorful magazine pages, careful to find an appropriately allusive or absurd, image. We also went to a lot of trouble crafting our prose, each glad to have the other as audience for our literary practice.

I miss those weird images. But nobody fabricates paper envelopes for snailmail anymore, so I now have to look for her strange humor, her insights beamed intensely at some unexpected corner of experience, in her web page, Rabbits, Toyen, and so forth. And instead of typing up a letter and stamping it, I'll answer her comment on my blog (on re-entry to New York, below) here.

Yes, it's true, I'm back at work on a novel I worked on for a couple of years and then put aside for a couple more, after trying and failing to get an agent to represent it. It's now much better -- story easier to follow, the conclusion more satisfying -- and this time, if I don't engage an agent, I intend to publish it myself. My aim is to finish the revision before we leave New York (mid-December), because as soon as we get back to Spain I have to focus on finishing an entirely different book, one that's under contract, on a history of the built environment (architecture and urbanism) in Latin America.

The novel's working title is A GIFT FOR THE SULTAN. Here's the premise: In the summer of 1402, the stand-in emperor of besieged Constantinople, the nephew of Emperor Manuel II (who is off in Western Europe seeking aid), secretly sends a delegation to the Ottoman sultan with the keys to the city, a rich tribute of silks and gold, and a 13-year old princess -- Manuel's bastard -- for the sultan's son's harem, and this surrender package is entrusted to a dashing and violent Ottoman gazi (part bandit, part holy warrior) to deliver to the sultan. But before the gazi and his gang can complete delivery, the sultan and his horde are destroyed by Timur-i-Link ("Tamerlane") -- so the caravan of Greek-speaking, Christian urbanites and their treasure, including the young princess, and the rough Turkish horse archers led by the gazi are suddenly missionless in the mountains of central Anatolia, which has suddenly become infested by panicked deserters and survivors of the sultan's military disaster. And then... Well, that's what I'm working on.

It's all true, except the princess -- I made her and the gazi up, though both are plausible. Manuel II did in fact have bastard children (we even know the name of one of them, Zenobia), his nephew Ioannis did attempt to surrender in Manuel's absence, and the plot did in fact fail because of Timur's victory. (Christopher Marlowe's most famous tragedy is about some of these same events, but his version is much more fanciful.) Marriage of Christian princesses to Turkish chieftains had in fact become frequent in Constantinopolitan diplomacy, and gazis as wild as my guy were also real. What I'm trying to imagine is the relationships between frontier Muslim Turks and sophisticated Christian urbanites in this tumultuous period of confused and diffuse alliances.