This is an open-ended blog ranging from news about my latest gigs and publications
to ruminations about politics, world affairs, culture and whatever piques my interest—or ire.
Contact: tomsancton@yahoo.com

Wednesday, April 7, 2021

RENAME BEN FRANKLIN HIGH SCHOOL? WALTER ISAACSON'S THOUGHTS


Walter Isaacson, acclaimed biographer of Benjamin Franklin (among many others), is my friend, former TIME Magazine colleague, and fellow New Orleanian. When I learned of the proposed renaming of my alma mater, Benjamin Franklin High School, I reached out to Walter to seek his views as one of the world's top authorities on Franklin's life and works. He took the time to provide this thoughtful, measured, and informative reply.


In 1787, Benjamin Franklin became the president of Pennsylvania's Society for Promoting the Abolition of Slavery. He threw himself into the task, drawing up plans for providing employment for freed slaves, creating educational opportunities for young Black students in new and existing schools, presenting a pro-abolition petition to the first Congress, and publishing a scathing parody of arguments made in defense of slavery.

        Franklin was then in his 80s and not in need of new endeavors, but he undertook the fight because, throughout his life, he kept a ledger of the mistakes he had made and how he had tried to rectify them. He thus serves as an inspiration for those of us who are not perfect but seek to achieve moral growth.

        The greatest of his errors, he realized, was that as a printer in Philadelphia he had two or three enslaved men at various times working in his shop and he had allowed in his newspaper the advertising of slave sales and notices about runaways. He had also expressed opinions over the years that he realized were misguided and needed to be corrected.

        The Orleans Parish School Board is now considering renaming school facilities, including two named after Franklin, and has invited public comment. So as someone who once wrote a biography of him, I thought I would explain why I think that judging him based on the moral arc of his life and his quest for improvement would send the right message to students. People are not perfect. Our nation is not perfect. But we should celebrate those who realize that our nation has flaws, confront them honestly, and publicly take the lead in making themselves and our union more perfect. Students (and the rest of us) should be inspired by those who achieve moral growth. That is a basic goal of education.

        Franklin's growth is very instructive, especially in this age when social media debates are waged with the fervor of people who believe they have never made a mistake. He was an apostle of self-improvement. Our civic life and politics would benefit, I think, by having a few more people who, like Franklin, wake up and realize that they have been wrong at times.

        Up until the Revolution, the enslavement of Blacks was common in all thirteen colonies. It is the nation's original sin. Many founders, including Washington and Jefferson, never freed their slaves during their lifetimes.

        As far as we can tell, the handful of enslaved people who worked at Franklin's print shop or for his wife after he went to England wandered off freely by the 1760s, with Franklin mentioning them fondly in his letters and making no known effort to keep them enslaved.

        What helped awaken him to the evils of slavery was one of his philanthropic endeavors. He became active in an organization that established schools for Black children. After visiting the Philadelphia school in 1763, he wrote a reflective letter about his previous prejudices: "I was on the whole much pleased, and from what I then saw have conceived a higher opinion of the natural capacities of the Black race than I had ever before entertained. Their apprehension seems as quick, their memory as strong, and their docility in every respect equal to that of white children. You will wonder perhaps that I should ever doubt it, and I will not undertake to justify all my prejudices."

        Even many ardent abolitionists at the time held the racist view that Blacks were intellectual inferior to whites, but Franklin was an early advocate for the enlightened view that Black underachievement was the result of their having been enslaved and denied good education.

        Franklin became increasingly outspoken against slavery in the 1770s. In a piece he wrote for the London Chronicle, he decried, using language stronger than almost any other founder, the "constant butchery of the human species by this pestilent detestable traffic in the bodies and souls of men." He wrote in a similar vein to his friend the Philadelphia physician Benjamin Rush. "I hope in time that the friends to liberty and humanity will get the better of a practice that has so long disgraced our nation and religion."

        After Franklin became president of the abolition society in 1787, he took on the argument that it was not practical to free hundreds of thousands of adult slaves into a society for which they were not prepared. He drew up detailed proposals "for improving the condition of free blacks" by securing apprenticeships that would teach them skills, creating new schools, getting young Blacks to attend the existing schools, and creating a committee to find jobs for freed slaves.

        On behalf of the abolition society, Franklin presented a petition to Congress in February 1790. "Mankind are all formed by the same Almighty Being, alike objects of his care, and equally designed for the enjoyment of happiness," it declared. The duty of Congress was to secure "the blessings of liberty to the People of the United States," and this should be done "without distinction of color." Therefore Congress should grant "liberty to those unhappy men who alone in this land of freedom are degraded into perpetual bondage."

        Franklin's petition was rejected by James Madison and other founders, and he was roundly denounced by the defenders of slavery, most notably Congressman James Jackson of Georgia, who declared that the Bible had sanctioned slavery and, without it, there would be no one to do the hard and hot work on plantations. It was the perfect setup for Franklin's last great essay, written less than a month before he died. He wrote it as a parody in the form of a purported speech given by an official in Algiers.

        The parody speech attacked a petition asking for an end to the practice of capturing and enslaving European Christians to work in Algeria. "If we forbear to make slaves of their people, who in this hot climate are to cultivate our lands? " the speech declared, and then it proceeded to mirror the arguments Congressman Jackson had made in favor of enslaving Africans.

        Franklin was, during his 84-year life, America's best scientist, inventor, diplomat, writer, businessman, and practical thinker. He proved by flying a kite that lightning was electricity, and he invented a rod to tame it. He devised bifocal glasses and clean-burning stoves, charts of the Gulf Stream and theories about the contagious nature of the common cold. He founded schools for both whites and blacks, laid out plans for integrating schools, and at his death was the president of an abolitionist society. He wasn't perfect. But that's why his life has a lot to teach us. He was capable of moral growth. So are we all.

                                                                                     —Walter Isaacson (used with permission)



Monday, April 5, 2021

REMEMBERING JAMES ATLAS (1949-2019)



Poet, critic, biographer, and book publisher, Jim Atlas was also a classmate of mine and a lifelong friend. This account of our last meeting serves as a reminiscence and a personal tribute to a noble soul who will be missed by his many friends and admirers. 



 

March 4, 2019. Jim Atlas begged off our luncheon date at the Harvard Club, saying in an email that he was “REALLY sick.” He invited me to come to his apartment for a visit instead. As for future lunches, he said, “There will be other times—I hope.” That sounded ominous. I assumed something had happened since we made the lunch appointment a month earlier, perhaps a stroke? I had had lunch with him a year earlier and he seemed fine—aging but quite functional. I quickly emailed back that I would stop by in the afternoon.

            Atlas lived in a posh building on E. 77th, across from the Natural history museum. I had never been inside his apartment, but I knew where he lived because I had walked him back to his door after a lunch at a nearby restaurant some time in the 1980s. 

            There is a story behind that lunch. Two stories in fact. The original lunch date was a total bust. I had asked him to meet me at the Harvard Club. On the appointed day, I was working in my office at TIME when I got phone message from Atlas—this was in the pre-smartphone era. “Where are you? I’ve been here for half an hour. Forget about lunch. I’m leaving now.”       

             I called his home number to make amends. “Jim, it’s Tom. Are you still speaking to me?”

            “Just barely.” He sounded pissed. 

            “Jim, I’m so sorry. I was writing a story and it completely slipped my mind.”

            Silence on the other end. Jim was a susceptible soul and I had doubly offended him: first by missing the lunch, second by telling him it had “slipped my mind”—tantamount to saying he wasn’t important enough for me to remember our date. I invited him to lunch the next day. Same time same place.

            After some hesitation he said okay.

            I thought things were back on track, but I got a phone call from him a half hour later. “Look, I’ve thought it over and I’m not coming. I’m still too angry. I was really looking forward to it, I even put on a suit and tie, but I wouldn’t enjoy it now. Let’s just forget about it.”

            I apologized again, but there was no way to talk him into reconsidering. I had hurt his pride and that wound would take time to heal. 

            A few weeks later, I called him again and invited him to lunch. He reluctantly agreed and suggested a place close to his apartment. “Just don’t be late this time,” he grumbled before hanging up. An unnecessary proviso under the circumstances. 

            Except that stuff happens. I was off work that day, so I took my usual commuter train from Westchester County and caught a cab at Grand Central. The cab was a big mistake. Crosstown traffic, as usual, was bumper to bumper. When we finally got to Central Park West, there was road work going on and we advanced at a snail’s pace. My gut churned as I watched the minutes tick by. No cell phones in those days, so no way to call or text Jim. 

            I finally arrived at the restaurant 20 minutes late. No Atlas. The hostess told me he had drunk a white wine while he waited for me, then discovered he had let his wallet at home. He had gone back to get it. Fiasco!

            When he walked in the door five minutes later and spotted me at the bar, he nearly turned on his heels and walked out. “Jim,” I said, “so sorry, man. I was stuck in a cab. There was road work, unbelievable traffic. Let’s just have lunch and move on.”

            “Okay,” he said. “But you’re paying.”

            Once we were seated, he looked me in the eyes and said, “We both have to do something, Tom. I have to work on my thin skin, and you have to work on your punctuality.” 

            With that, the incident, the double incident, was behind us. We had a pleasant lunch, lubricated by a couple of glasses of Chardonnay, and I walked him back to his apartment building a couple of blocks away. His son William dashed out of the door and Jim scooped him up in his arms with a big smile. He felt good. I felt good. Peace had descended upon us.

            We kept in touch off and on over the years. I would make a point to lunch with him when I was in New York—usually at the Harvard Club. We met at Oxford in 2002 at the centennial celebration of the Rhodes Scholarships. Bill and Hillary Clinton were there. Jim waylaid Clinton in the garden of Holywell Manor to introduce himself as the editor of the Penguin Lives series. Jim thought it would be his only chance to talk to the Big Guy, not realizing that when Bill Clinton gets to glad handing, he stays till the last dog dies. Bill and Hillary talked to everybody under the reception tent that day. Like all of us, Jim was charmed and proud to call him one of our own. 

            When I was teaching at Tulane in 2007-2008, I invited Jim down to New Orleans to give a talk on his Saul Bellow biography and meet with my creative writing class. Someone asked him what made for a good memoir. He said, “A good story and a voice you can trust.” That always stuck in my mind, and I think one thing that endeared me to Jim was that he was a voice, in fact, a person, I could trust. And I guess that was reciprocal, since he trusted me enough to invite me into his personal space at a time when he was, well, not at his best.

            I felt some trepidation as the doorman announced my arrival and sent me up to the 16thfloor. What kind of shape would I find Jim in? 

            Atlas greeted me at his door with a grin and a handshake that morphed into a bear hug. He looked so small and frail in his baggy blue jeans and loose white shirt. His thinning hair was gray, his body bent slightly to one side. He shuffled slowly but refrained from using the brand new walker—the fancy kind with hand brakes and a folding seat—that stood by the door. “I have a cane, too,” he said, “but I try not to rely on it too much.”

             I thought back to the first time I met Atlas in the fall of 1967—an astounding 52 years earlier. It was an organizational meeting of a new freshman magazine, the Harvard Yard Journal. The gathering was held at somebody’s dorm room in Thayer Hall, just across the Yard from Massachusetts Hall, where I had just taken up residence a few days earlier. In a group of giddy, overachieving freshmen eager to impress one another, Atlas stood out. He had a thick head of curly black hair, round horn-rimmed glasses, knee-high leather boots, and a silk kerchief wrapped around his neck Isadora Duncan-style. When I introduced myself to him, he gave me a lopsided snaggle-toothed grin (he later got his teeth straightened) and remarked, “You’re looking very literary tonight.” I didn’t look the least literary, except that my wooly hair was getting long and I was pathetically trying to grow a beard, though my sparse whiskers formed little more than a pale fuzz at that point. But it didn’t matter what I looked like. Atlas’s point was that it was important to look literary. And he did. As Oscar Wilde put it, “The first duty in life is to assume a pose. What the second is, no one has yet discovered.” 

            But Atlas was no mere poseur. At that early age, he had read an astounding number of books, was knowledgeable about poetry and literary criticism, and was already a hard-working, gifted writer. He was elected to the editorial board of the Advocate, Harvard’s prestigious poetry journal, went on to win a Rhodes Scholarship and launch an impressive career as an editor, critic, biographer, and book publisher. Now, at the cusp of 70, he could look back on his career with some satisfaction, in spite of the doubts, regrets, and disappointments that were also part of his baggage. 

            “Philip Roth liked to quote something Joe Louis said: ‘I did the best I could with the talent I had.’ That’s all I can say.” The reference to Roth was not random. Atlas had just finished writing an account about his relationship with Roth, a work that would go directly into audiobook form. He was disappointed by the sales of his last published work, The Shadow in the Garden, a memoir about his career as a biographer. “People who read it thought well of it, but almost nobody reviewed it.” 

            “I know you want to know what happened to me,” he said suddenly. “A few years ago, I had a bad lung infection. Then they found out that I have congestive heart failure. Then it was one thing after another. Now I have the gout.”

            I tried to reassure him on that front. “I’ve had attacks of gout for years, but I just take medicine for it and it goes away. It’s not a huge deal. But it hurts like hell when it hits you.”

As a result of his various ailments, Jim was very frail, reluctant to go out of the house lest he fall, which he had done several times. He had a stationary bicycle and physical trainer who came several times a week to his apartment. 

            We did a lot of reminiscing about Harvard and Oxford days. I recalled that time he and I met for drinks at the Harvard Club of New York the night before we all sailed to England on the QE II. On that occasion we had discussed, among other things, the unsettling experience of watching our parents age. “It’s like we’re all on this great conveyor belt leading to the edge of a cliff,” I said, “and we are pushing them.” Jim took another sip of his Grey Goose martini—a favorite drink in those days, though he later gave up alcohol entirely. “When my time comes, nobody has to push me,” he said with a malicious grin—“I’ll go!” Of course, at that age—we were both 22—nobody really believes he will ever fall off the cliff.

            Neither of us had an orthodox Oxford experience. Because he arrived at Oxford with his then girlfriend, Atlas didn’t want to live in student digs at New College, preferring grander lodgings in the Randolph Hotel. The cost of that must have been considerable, so I assume he had family money behind him. Problem was his enormous steamer trunk was too big for the stairwell, so he had to unpack the contents piece by piece and shuttle them upstairs to his room. As for his studies, he worked with Richard Ellman on biography but seems to have done little else and left without taking a degree. 

            My own Oxford experience was, shall we say, skewed by my passion for jazz. Atlas remembered a raucous drive he took to London with me practicing the clarinet in the back seat. I was on the way to playing a gig with an English band in a pub on Drury Lane. The clarinet eventually took me to Paris to play an all-night concert with a French band. I fell in love with Paris, and was soon contriving to spend weekends, holidays, and even parts of the school term there, playing with local bands, learning to drink calvados, and enjoying female company. I eventually came to my senses, completed my thesis and took a history doctorate. 

            “Why did you apply for a Rhodes?” I asked Atlas at one point.

            “Why? Because that’s what you did. It was the next step up the ladder. In New York, there was a whole auditorium full of candidates. It was never about actually studying at Oxford. It was for the prestige.” Still, he considered his Oxford experience life changing because it launched his career as a biographer. His passion for biography inspired his own books on Delmore Schwartz and Saul Bellow, and his tenure as editor of the Penguin Lives series. He later launched his own imprint, Atlas Books, specialized in short, readable biographies by a coterie of distinguished authors. His list was impressive, though he quipped that, from the financial point of view, “the term book business is an oxymoron.” 

            In addition to his editorial talents, Jim was a fine journalist and critic, serving as a staff writer for TIME(where he preceded me by several months) and the New Yorker, and an editor of the New York Times Magazine. He also found time to write a highly autobiographical novel, The Great Pretender (1986), that deals with his Harvard and Oxford years. 

          We talked about our kids. His daughter Molly is a literary agent, son William works in TV and film in L.A. I told him about my son Julian, who now works—as Jim and I had done—as a magazine editor in New York. 

         He showed me his office, a pleasant space with glass-fronted bookshelves, a couch, and a work desk topped by a computer. It is well lit by a tall window that looks out on 77thstreet.  Despite his health challenges, he still worked in his office every day. 

         “You wanna know what I’m working on now?” he said, leading me back to the living room.

        “Tell me.”

        “A book about suicide.”

        I hesitated.

        “Don’t worry, it’s not a how-to book. And I’m not going to do it.”

        “Well, it is a fascinating subject.”

        Indeed, there was much to say about taking control of the end of life. But Jim didn’t elaborate. Instead, he pointed out the window to 77thStreet.

        “That’s where they make up the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day parade,” he says, with some enthusiasm. “It’s amazing. The balloons come up as high as the 10thfloor. We used to have a party every year so friends could watch. We don’t do it any more. Too many security hassles, and too exhausting for us. My kids took it over and had their own party for a few years, but now they’re gone their separate ways.”

        “It’s a great apartment,” I said, gazing down at 77thStreet and the brown stones of Natural History Museum across the street.

        “It is,” Jim replied. “We wouldn’t dream of moving anyplace else now. We’ve been here 30 years. We’ll stay here till they carry us out.” He managed a sardonic chuckle.

        I sensed Jim was tiring. I got up to take my leave and he walked me to the door. He held out his hand, but I give him a parting hug instead. “Let’s stay in touch, Jim. Can I call you on the phone some times?”

        “Yes, I’d like that. Call me.”

 

        I didn’t call. I didn’t write. A few months after our last encounter I thought of sending him an email to find our how he was doing. Then I saw his obit in the New York Times. He died on September 5, 2019, at Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center as a result of the “escalation of a chronic lung condition.” 

        Jim, old friend, noble writer and thinker, delightful purveyor of wit and wisdom, I will never have lunch with you again. But I shall miss you. 

 

*****

 

Reprinted from The American Oxonian, Spring 2021

©2021 by Thomas A. Sancton

 

Monday, March 1, 2021

France's Ex-President Gets Jail Time for Corruption: Beware Donald Trump!

 

As Donald Trump basks in the adulation of his conservative minions and talks about a political comeback in 2024, he should take note of what just happened in France: a special court today (March 1) sentenced former French President Nicolas Sarkozy to three years in prison—two years suspended, and one year hard time—after convicting him of corruption in the “affaire des écoutes,” or wiretap affair. 

    The case goes back to 2014, when Sarkozy and his lawyer carried out a series of telephone conversations with a French judicial official, Gilbert Azibert. The subject of their discussions: the ex-president wanted Azibert to provide information about an investigation into Sarkozy’s role in another case, the so-called “Bettencourt affair” (about which more later). In exchange, Sarkozy, though his lawyer, promised to help Azibert win a cushy judicial post in Monaco. 

The discussions were carried on via a supposedly secret cellphone account in the name of “Paul Bismuth”(a.k.a. Sarkozy himself). Unbeknownst to the former president, however, police had obtained a warrant to wiretap the “Bismuth” phone line in connection with still another case involving suspected illegal contributions to Sarkozy’s campaign fund by former Libyan dictator Mouammar Kadhafi. While probing the Kadhafi case, investigators stumbled on the tit-for-tat discussions between Sarkozy’s lawyer, Thierry Herzog, and Gilbert Azibert. 

Though the deal never came to fruition—Azibert did not perform the services Sarkozy requested, and did not get the Monaco appointment that Sarkozy had dangled—the court ruled that the discussions constituted corruption and convicted all three men. Sarkozy, Herzog, and Azibert were all sentenced to three years with two suspended. All three men have filed appeals.

Sarkozy thus becomes the second former French president to be convicted by a criminal court after Jacques Chirac, who in 2011 was found guilty of diverting funds and abuse of confidence during his time as mayor of Paris. Chirac, who died in 2019, received a two-year suspended sentence. Thus Sarkozy may well become the first ex-president of France to actually do hard time. If that sentence holds up upon appeal, Sarkozy may work out an arrangement to spend his carceral year confined to his domicile with an electronic bracelet rather than behind bars. Whatever the outcome of the appeal, he still must face trial in two other cases: the Kadhafi affair, and a separate case involving 2012 campaign spending violations. Thus a political comeback seems highly unlikely for the 66-year-old conservative. Perhaps his fate can serve as a lesson and a precedent for how democracies deal with corrupt former leaders. Beware Donald Trump: the prosecutor cometh. 

Now about the Bettencourt Affair, which was at the origin of the wiretap case. That concerns a messy suit revolving around the world’s then richest woman, L’Oréal heiress Liliane Bettencourt. Bettencourt had lavished gifts worth hundreds of millions (yes millions) of dollars to her much younger protégé, French artist/photographer François-Marie Banier. The largesse flowed for some twenty years until Liliane’s daughter Françoise sued Banier for elder abuse in 2009. The investigation turned up information about illegal contributions to Sarkozy’s campaign by the Bettencourt family. The information Sarkozy sought from Gilbert Azibert in exchange for a Monaco appointment was related to that investigation. (Sarkozy was actually indicted in the Bettencourt case, but the charges were dropped in 2015.)

I happen to know a lot about the Bettencourt case, having written a long article on it for Vanity Fair in 2010 and a book, “The Bettencourt Affair,” which came out in 2017. 

Sunday, April 12, 2020

THE BIRDS OF AUDUBON

Osprey taking flight

Our daily walks in Audubon Park are a welcome break in the lockdown routine. As we stroll along the lagoon, Sylvaine photographs the birds we encounter there. (Sometimes I sit on a bench and practice my clarinet while she shoots.) There are far fewer species in the park today than there were some years ago when Sylviane photographed dozens of different varieties for her book Some Birds...But we still get some surprises.
     The other day, we spotted a large bird perched atop the bare branches of a dead tree. It was on the other side of the lagoon at some distance from us. Looking through her telephoto lens, Sylvaine thought at first that it might be a bald eagle—a rarity in these parts—but the coloring was different. The bald eagle has a white head and a dark brown breast. This bird, which looked like an eagle with its curved beak and impressive talons, had a
Anhinga
white breast. After a check on the internet, we identified it as an Osprey, also a rarity. We spotted it a few more times, closer up, which allowed Sylvaine to get some nice pictures, including one of this impressive bird in full flight.
     Other recent spottings include an anhinga, formerly plentiful at Audubon but now almost vanished, and a couple of blue herons and snowy egrets. Not to mention blue jays and cardinals. Two days ago, we had a real treat: four baby mallard ducklings swimming around, fighting and playing on the water near the bank. Hadn't seen any babies for a few years: sad to say the turtles get them when they're that small. Yesterday, didn't see the ducklings anywhere. I hope they haven't become turtle food!
Mallard duckling

Monday, March 23, 2020

GET YOUR GUN!

In these times of confinement, I have been trying to work on various writing projects. While poring over my files, I stumbled on this piece I had drafted several months ago. It has no relevance to the present pandemic, which is perhaps a good reason to share it and take people's minds off our common obsession. 


It all started when the magpies invaded my garden. Not only was their metallic croak nerve-grating, but they soon homed in on my bird feeders and frightened away the much smaller chickadees, redbreasts, and sparrows that had gorged on the seeds throughout the winter. Then a flock of pigeons took up residence on the roof of my garage and started snooping and clucking around the feeders. Even though they were too big and clumsy to perch on them, they would waddle on the ground and peck at the spillings. Like the magpies, they made the neighborhood less attractive to the smaller birds. Whenever I saw these bullies through my kitchen window, I would rap on the pane or open the door and clap my hands to frighten them away. Sometimes it scared them off, but often as not they would flutter away briefly and return.  I tried throwing pebbles in their direction, but my aim was erratic and the feathered beasts were not impressed. 
     Then an idea took shape in my mind: I would solve the problem with an air rifle.  I had no intention of killing the intruders. I would just pop them in the tail feathers or wings. They would soon realize my garden was an inhospitable environment and move on to somebody else’s garden. The more I thought about it, the more I wanted to get my hands on a BB gun. This was just before Christmas. When my wife asked me what I wanted as a gift this year, I  said I wanted a pump-action air rifle. She thought I was joking. I explained that it was not really about the gun, it was about chasing away magpies and pigeons. She found the idea ridiculous, but I persisted. And the more I talked about it, the more I realized it was about the gun. I wanted that object—trigger, stock, barrel and all.
     It was a strange desire on the part of a staunch opponent of America’s gun culture. I have unfriended people on Facebook for posting photos of themselves posing with their arsenals. Parkland, Las Vegas, Sandy Brook, and all the other countless gun massacres sent chills up my spine and filled me with anger at the feckless politicians who do nothing to control the spread of deadly weapons. Yet here I was desiring, even craving, an object that had the size, shape, and feel of a real rifle. Was I wavering on the gun question?
     No. The more I thought about it, the more I realized my fixation was something whose deepest roots went back to my childhood. When I was about 10, my father bought me a pump-action Daisy air rifle. I don’t know why he chose that particular gift—he wasn’t a hunter or sportsman and, in fact, I never saw him shoot or even hold a gun. He hadn’t even been in the army, excluded from the draft by a heart murmur. Maybe I begged him for it, wanting to play cowboys and Indians or something. Or wanting to be like my Mississipi cousins who actually had .22 rifles and went hunting. Whatever the reason, I got the gun and I fell in love with it. I loved the smell of oil on metal, the feel of the imitation wood grain stock on my cheek, the adjustable crosshairs on the telescopic sight, the sound of BB’s rolling around in their chamber, and the thwunk when I squeezed the trigger. Most of all, I loved hitting targets—coke bottles propped up on driftwood logs along the levee, paper targets nailed to tree trunks, matchsticks glued to the sides of cardboard boxes. And I was good at it. I could actually split matchsticks at 20 feet. My father was impressed. “If we ever have a shooting war again,” he told me, “you’ll make a hell of an infantryman.” Those words made me proud. That gun was part of a father-son bond, and a source of paternal approbation. 
     Though I was never into hunting, I must confess there were times when I shot at  birds while wandering through the woods. I once killed a sparrow perched on a tree branch. It fell at my feet with its little head bleeding and its wings flapping helplessly. Then it lay still. I felt terrible and buried it in the sandy ground under a pile of leaves. Another time I shot at a pigeon on a neighbor’s rooftop. Hit in the head, it reeled over and fell down the chimney. The neighbor found it in her fireplace the next day and called an exterminator to remove it. I don’t think I actually intended to kill that pigeon, but I was remorseful—and fearful that my parents would suspect me of doing  the deed. (If they did, then never let on.) 
     Those are the only birds I remember killing. But I did do other dumb things with my air rifle, mainly egged on by friends. From the balcony of my parents’ home, a schoolmate and I traded potshots at a corner streetlight until we finally chipped through the glass globe and hit the lightbulb inside. It sparked briefly then went dark. Our momentary triumph was tinged with fear of being charged with destroying public property. We immediately hid the rifle under my bed and retired to the TV room to provide an alibi. Another night, we shot at the side of my father’s corrugated iron garage as someone was passing on the sidewalk. It made a loud whack and the pedestrian skeedaddled. Stupid kids. And lucky: what if the victim of our practical joke was packing a real gun and shot back at us? In a crime-ridden city like New Orleans, that was not a far-fetched scenario. 
     I eventually grew out of my gun infatuation as I grew older and my interest shifted to learning the clarinet and playing Beatle tunes on my guitar. By the time I went off to college, my Daisy pump-action was a distant memory. I have no idea what happened to that gun. There was no sign of it when I cleared out my parents’ home many decades later. In fact, I never even thought of it again—until the magpies and pigeons in my garden suddenly brought it back to mind. 
     For a time, I was dead bent on getting another BB gun. Seriously. I even visited the quaint old shop of an arms dealer in my town of Saint Germain-en-Lay, 10 miles west of Paris. I had observed it for years without ever going inside. It was a tiny storefront with a green wooden door and a window full of lethal-looking shotguns and enormous hunting knives with jagged blades. Inside the cramped interior, dusty display cases held row after row of rifles of various sizes and shapes. Behind the counter sat an elderly man who eyed me with suspicion, or perhaps contempt at my manifest ignorance of firearms. When I asked about BB guns, he exchanged amused glances with another white-haired man, apparently a customer. He pointed to a display case containing half a dozen guns. “Those are all air rifles,” he said. “They start at 250 euros”—close to $300. I said I was really looking for something in the 50 euro range. The two men laughed. “For 50 euros, cher monsieur, maybe you can get a cap gun, but not here!” 
     It turned out his air rifles shot lead pellets, not BBs, and they were used by competitive target shooters. “What do you want an air rifle for?” asked the man behind the counter. “Just to shoot at pigeons in my garden and scare them off,” I replied. He guffawed again and shook his head. “Monsieur, this is illegal—and dangerous. I will not sell you a rifle for such a use.” I left the shop enlightened, if somewhat humiliated. Back home, I found a whole line of Daisy air rifles on the Internet at prices starting around $35. I considered ordering one, but suddenly realized I didn’t want it any more. Had I finally grown up?

Sunday, March 22, 2020

SYLVAINE'S VIRTUAL ART SHOW

With the cancellation (or postponement) or Sylvaine Sancton's April show at New Orleans's Academy Gallery, we have decided to offer a virtual show on Facebook. We will post various works that would have been in the show, plus some videos of Sylvaine talking about her work. This will be available on my FB page, https://www.facebook.com/tom.sancton. Over the next few days, we will be posting selected works from the show. Hope you enjoy them, and feel free to comment.
The image featured on the poster is from a series called "Choices." They are acrylics and raw pigment on linen canvas. Here is a link to an interview in which Sylvaine talks about this series, how it came about, how it was executed, and what it means to her:
https://youtu.be/qFd8-TJ-G00

Saturday, March 21, 2020

IN SEARCH OF JEREMY GOOSE

Jeremy on the cover of Sylvaine's new book
In these times of confinement and social distancing, one source of recreation left to us is walking in the park. Fortunately, for Sylvaine and me, New Orleans's Audubon Park is nearby. The park is special to both of us. I am told I took my first steps there as a baby. As a lad, I climbed Monkey Hill and even rode my bike down it at the risk of breaking my neck. As a teenager, I enjoyed some steamy moments with girlfriends while parked by the lagoon (in those days you could still drive in the park.) But for Sylvaine, the park is maybe even more special because this is the place where she started photographing birds and wildlife, which provided the material for two books, Some Birds (Pelican, 2013) and The Adventures of Jeremy Goose (UL Press, 2020).
     These days, she brings her Canon along on our morning walks. She has focused particularly on a fascinating odd couple: a male swan and a female goose that are inseparable and even seem to dance waltzes together on the water. The other day she photographed a rare Osprey high up in a dead tree overlooking the lagoon. Maybe another book will emerge from these impromptu sessions. 
     But we have been struck by what is no longer present by the Audubon Park lagoon. Of the dozens of species Sylvaine photographed and described in Some Birds—egrets, herons, coots, wood ducks, gribes, anhingas, cormorants—only a few remain, mostly mallards, crows, and one pair of whistling ducks. The biggest shock, however, is the apparent departure of the flock of white geese that were the subject of her most recent book, Jeremy Goose. Where could they have gone? Had they died? Had they migrated? had they been taken somewhere else by the park authorities? For years, on our annual visits, we had seen them, with Jeremy immediately recognizable by the birthmark-like spots on his head and wings. We had watched him grow literally from the egg stage to young adulthood, which formed the "first person" narrative of the book. Now Jeremy and his extended family were gone. 
"Jeremy" in City Park, March 2020
     This morning, we decided to change our usual pattern and walked in City Park instead. On the banks of the lagoon, just across from the Peristyle, we spotted a flock of white geese lounging in the sun. Could that be Jeremy's family? Not likely, since they were not great flyers, and this was a long way from Audubon. But as we approached, we noticed one male, quite big, that had Jeremy's telltale markings on his head and wing. Could that actually be Jeremy? We're not 100% sure, but I would like to think so.

     One encouraging thing about out visit to City Park was that many of the bird species that have vanished from Audubon are to be found here, including egrets, coots, cormorants, pelicans and anhingas. Maybe they found this park more congenial. Who knows? The encouraging thing is that, contrary to one of my theories, they have not been chased from the region by global warming—at least not yet. In any case, Sylvaine and I will continue to visit City Park, with special attention to "Jeremy." Maybe he will remember Sylvaine and give her some sign. After all, she made him a star.

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Even in these times of lockdowns and store closings, Sylvaine's books can be ordered on line.

Wednesday, March 18, 2020

SYLVAINE SANCTON'S NEW CHILDREN'S BOOK




Among the casualties of COVID-19 was my wife Sylvaine's reading/signing of her new children's photo book, "The Adventures of Jeremy Goose." The event was scheduled for March 28 at Octavia Books in New Orleans, but the store managers and the author agreed that this was not the time for a public gathering, even around so charming a character as Jeremy. This morning, Sylvaine stopped in at Octavia Books to sign copies of the book, so future customers can still get an autographed edition even though the event is cancelled.  It's also available on the UL  site (UL.com), as well as the Octavia Books site (octaviabooks.com), Barnes and Noble, Amazon, etc. In these stressful times of confinement, it is a soothing and entertaining book for cooped-up kids (and their parents).


Here is the description from the back cover:

Among the moss-draped oaks of New Orleans’s Audubon Park lives young Jeremy Goose. After he hatches from an egg, he learns to walk, eat grass, swim, cross the road, and get along with other animals, all under the watchful eyes of his Mom and Dad. On the banks of the park’s lagoon, Jeremy and his family live with their neighbors, including a squirrel, a snake, and a bad-mannered nutria. Jeremy is a thoughtful and sensitive little goose who sometimes gets into trouble but always feels the love of his family. Through Jeremy’s voice, young readers learn about family, responsibility, having fun, and growing up.

Wednesday, December 12, 2018

FRENCH UNREST




FRANCE
Can Macron Survive His Nation’s Rage?

As France is roiled by the violence, momentum, and expanding demands of the gilets jaunes,the nation’s princely president may be facing a one-term reign.

TOM SANCTON DECEMBER 11, 2018 6:57 PM


Graffiti with the inscription “Macron resignation” is seen in Aimargues on December 11, 2018. By Pascal Guyot/AFP/Getty Images.


Burning cars. Flaming barricades. Police vans and armored vehicles. Clouds of tear gas. The images of Paris flickering across TV screens and smartphones around the world might give the impression that France is once again on the verge of a revolution. Things have not gone that far—yet—but for the past four weeks, the country has been in the grips of an explosion of anger by hundreds of thousands of ordinary men and women fed up with high taxes, low salaries, and, especially, the autocratic governing style of President Emmanuel Macron,who seemed very much in control when I interviewed him this past March for a Vanity Fair profile.

When he won election in May 2017, at the age of 39, Macron was hailed as a young innovator who had promised to modernize the French economy, restore competitiveness, and break with a widely discredited status quo. Now, just 19 months later, his presidency is seriously challenged by an ad-hoc popular movement known as the gilets jaunes,or yellow vests, for the roadside security pullovers they have adopted as a uniform. What began in October as a protest against a gasoline-tax hike has since snowballed into an amorphous, largely leaderless force pushing a smorgasbord of more than 40 demands ranging from across-the-board salary increases and better public services to the dissolution of the National Assembly and the resignation of Monsieur Macron.

Almost from the beginning of his time in the Élysée, Macron, a former investment banker who had never run for public office, was widely perceived as a “president of the rich” because of the tax breaks he gave to French companies and the affluent classes, and especially for his suppression of a long-standing wealth tax, the so-called I.S.F. His top-down approach to governing—“Jupiterian” in his own words—was seen by many as anti-democratic, even as his language sometimes denoted a contempt for la France d’en bas—those on the lower rungs of the socio-economic ladder. To make matters worse, Macron was seen as an arrogant product of a Parisian elite that was out of touch with and indifferent to the plight of those in the provinces.
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And that’s where the trouble began, out in the economically depressed rural areas and smaller towns where most people are obliged to use their cars to get to work. Angered by the steady rise in gasoline prices, especially an eco tax that had been scheduled to increase in January, groups of protesters began to coalesce via social-media links. By the end of October, yellow-vest squads were sporadically blocking roads and intersections around the country to demand the cancellation of the eco tax, emboldened by polls showing widespread public support. On Saturday, November 17, and for the three successive Saturdays, yellow vests converged on the capital for supposedly peaceful demonstrations that degenerated into violence when radical right- and left-wing groups seized the occasion to smash store windows and attack public monuments, including the Arc de Triomphe. Police responded with tear gas, stun grenades, and water cannon, arresting more than 4,500 for acts of vandalism and aggression.

Prime Minister Édouard Philippe’sattempts to negotiate with the yellow vests went nowhere, since the largely unstructured grassroots movement had no recognized leaders. On December 5, the government finally announced the cancellation of the planned eco-tax hike. Two weeks earlier, that might have satisfied the protesters, but by this time their demands had proliferated, with increasingly strident chants of Macron, démission!—Macron, resign.
On Monday, after a roughly four-hour consultation with union, political, and business leaders, Macron himself faced the nation in a solemn 13-minute address meant to calm the protests and assuage the nation. His face drawn by fatigue, with a visible stubble on his sunken cheeks, he declared a “state of economic and social emergency.” While calling for an end to the “inadmissible violence,” he voiced sympathy for the “distress” of lower wage earners, and offered a rare mea culpa for having “hurt some of you with my words.”
  
Specifically, Macron offered a set of concessions, including a €100 (about $114) increase in the monthly minimum wage; year-end bonuses to private-sector employees; reduced Social Security taxes on monthly pensions under €2,000 (around $2,264); and the suppression of taxes on overtime pay. But he explicitly ruled out reinstating the I.S.F. wealth tax, a key yellow-vest demand. Government officials estimated the cost of these measures could reach as high as €10 billion (approximately $11.3 billion), and it remained to be seen how they would be funded. Beyond those material incentives, the president called for a national debate on the reorganization of the government, more democratic voting procedures, improved public services, and even the volatile questions of immigration and national identity, a key issue for the French right.

Across the country, the protesters generally greeted Macron’s speech with skepticism and contemptBenjamin Cauchy,founder of a group called the Free Yellow Vests, mocked the president’s proposals as “mini-measures,” saying his refusal to restore the wealth tax proves that he is “the president of the rich.” Christophe Torrent,another activist, called the offers “largely insufficient,” and demanded a referendum on the group’s demands. Others in the movement found Macron insincere and rejected his offers as “too little, too late.” Overwhelmingly, they called for a fifth round of Paris protests this Saturday.

While Macron vowed to “stay the course” on his ambitious plans to reform the French economy, his main focus going forward will be to shore up his waning support in France, where his poll ratings hover in the low 20s. Macron’s political weakness at home also dampens his hopes of emerging as the European Union’s key leader once Germany’s Angela Merkel leaves power.

Despite the negative response from the yellow vests, there are signs that Macron’s speech may have helped him with the public at large: according to an OpinionWay poll, 49 percent found his speech convincing, with approval of his specific measures ranging from 60 percent to 78 percent. Most important for the president, 54 percent want the protests to end. That probably won’t prevent the yellow vests from converging on Paris this Saturday, but it does offer hope that the unrest might settle down by Christmas.

That said, it is difficult to imagine how Macron will survive this over the long haul. The president’s outright resignation seems unlikely: he was solidly elected to a five-year term and his party, La République en Marche (Republic on the Move), holds an overwhelming parliamentary majority until at least 2022. But Macron’s aura of invulnerability has been shattered. From the beginning, he defiantly vowed that, unlike previous leaders, he would never capitulate to street protests in the pursuit of his reforms. Indeed, he coolly rammed through a revision of the labor code and a restructuring of the national railroad in the face of widespread strikes. This time, he blinked, and his ability to put through unpopular reforms is much diminished.

Meanwhile, the populist far-right National Front, recently renamed National Rally, is poised to make big gains in next spring’s European Parliament elections. Its leader, Marine Le Pen, defeated by Macron in 2017, will be itching for a presidential rematch in 2022. Though Macron may well survive in office until then, the real danger is that France might eventually go the way of Italy, Hungary, and Austria in embracing a right-wing populist regime. Steve Bannon must be licking his lips.

© 2018. Reprinted from Vanity Fair

Tuesday, March 20, 2018

BOOK EVENT MARCH 25!

I'm appearing at a book event this Sunday, March 25, alongside fellow authors Mitch Landrieu, Martha Boone, and Jeffrey Round. Place: the Presbytere, Jackson Square, New Orleans.
Time: 1:30-4:30.
It's also my birthday, so there's cake and champagne! Should be fun. It's free, but RSVP so they'll have enough food to feed the multitudes.