The Open World

I’m inspired by Niels Bohr’s thoughts on openness this morning:

“An open world where each nation can assert itself solely by the extent to which it can contribute to the common culture and is able to help others with experience and resources must be the goal to put above everything else.”

Niels Bohr, “For an Open World,” Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists 6,7 (July, 1950): 217.

Bohr was thinking about openness in the years just after the Second World War, when the advent of devastating nuclear weapons made it seem like a far worse war was looming just over the horizon. We don’t live in quite such grave times–even if it feels like it sometimes–but Bohr’s solution to the problem is just as prescient today as it was in 1950. Unlike 1950, we have the tools to make information accessible to everyone, everywhere, at any time. Do we have the will? Do we have the courage to give up our secrets and work together?

St. Johns Meditation


This is not my photo. Sometimes, at the end of a long day, my mind turns homeward, back to Jacksonville, and I find myself looking at pictures of the river I love. I look out over this river and I see my own history running through the current.

Sometimes memories of my dad’s fishing buddies flow in ripples and eddies on the far shore. One of the waves washes a brief but rich memory over me of riding in the back of a pickup truck, one interminable summer Saturday afternoon, beer cans rolling around the bed, hair tousled and burnt by wind and sun. Over and through countless bridges and marshes we rode to the mouth of the river, where I rolled with languid Atlantic waves on the ocean side of the jetty listening to them talk about work.

Dad’s friend asks me to manage the fishing pole while he walks down the beach for awhile, and I take the rod from him with gravity, eager to stand in the surf with purpose. I feel a tug on the line. A joyous weight pulls against the end of the line and I know the fish is hooked. I let out a little yelp as I reel the fish in from the surf, turn by turn, until I see a silver flash just beneath the roiling surface a few feet away. I did not know then that I would remember that little Whiting 25 years later, so I simply took the fish off of the hook and put her back in the water as I had been taught. Some people say it’s not right to catch a fish and throw it back. I don’t have an answer for them all these years later. This is how I was taught, over and over again, right here on this river.

Later that night I felt the waves in my body as I fell asleep on the couch, the warm tones of a PBS documentary and the struggling air conditioner laying down a pattern of white noise that was suitably oceanic in its own way—a way that continues to whisper home in my ear whenever I stop to listen.

An Open Letter to the Author of Bitter Marginalia in Reminiscences of the Second Seminole War by John Bemrose.

Radical Equality

Dear Austin, 

Is it OK if I call you Austin? That’s what I imagine, and you haven’t given me much else to work with, so there we are. Me and you, Austin.

Austin, what happened? Until now, you were enjoying this book. Back there when we were reading about “friendly and simple-minded” Minorcans, you kept to yourself. You stayed quiet, too—with a grim set of the jaw, I like to imagine, but I’m not so sure—when “the unfeeling buyers of blood” at the St. Augustine slave market “[caviled] over the qualifications of human beings, with the coarseness of cattle jobbers.” “Picturesque” Indians (who were also, I’m sure you remember reading, “great beggars”); a Black Seminole interpreter “with his paucity of ideas”; Native “children of the woods” who wouldn’t hesitate to kill a “even a lisping babe!”; all went without comment. But not this. So why now?

I’ve been thinking about it, and maybe, Austin, feminism is your jam. All that stuff about race and ethnicity is someone else’s fight. Maybe it’s so clearly wrong-headed that it doesn’t merit marginal argument. But this, this is Austin’s battlefield: women can be unprincipled and wicked, too! Men and women alike can have hard hearts! Which, hey, you’re not wrong. Fair enough.

But I don’t think that’s true. I think you had an axe to grind when you read this paragraph. And it’s OK, we’ve all been there. Like, just this morning on the way to work I was stopped at an intersection waiting for someone to pass so I could turn right; but then, right at the last second, they whipped the car into a turn. No signal! And then the next car did the same thing—and no, they weren’t in a turn lane, I know what you’re thinking, Austin, this was a two-lane road—and then the next one, and the next one, until finally the light changed and I was stuck. I could have turned ages ago if only I had known! So then, later this morning, someone was trying to talk to me about an unanswered email and I couldn’t wait to say, “I know, it’s just like people who don’t use their blinkers! Why do people do that?” And they just sort of laughed and then kept going on about the email.

I’m guessing that whenever it was that you read this, Austin, you felt pretty much the same way about women. Someone would say, “Know who was a real piece of work? Mussolini, that’s who,” and you would say, “I know, I know, but women can be evil, too.” Or someone else would go, “I burnt my fingers on my toast this morning,” and you would say, “yeah, kinda like women can burn your heart.”

If you still feel the need to scribble your rage in old memoirs, OK. The past is a safe space: lived-in, comfortable. That’s one of the reasons we historians like to spend so much time there: we already know the bad parts of the movie, and we know the heroes and villains can’t hear us or object when we grind our axes on their words.

But, Austin, we can also talk about it if you want. I think you might need to talk about it.

All the best,



Heard the first cicadas of the year this afternoon and wondered what I was doing when this brood entombed itself, a living time capsule, a few inches below our feet. In other parts of the country they know their cicadas better than we do here in Florida, so I can only speculate. Maybe I was in Gainesville, playing in bands and going to shows–but mostly just wandering the aisles at Walmart. Maybe I was standing at a door machine at a Jacksonville lumber yard, dreaming nothing, day to day. Maybe it was just last year, and I was pecking at keys on a tiny screen, just like now, when I should have been sleeping instead. I don’t know. We don’t know our cicadas here.

If you live somewhere north of here, you can be more precise. This year’s brood up in South Carolina, down into Georgia, and across the broad freeway-crossed South laid itself down at the dawn of the new century, in 2000. Who knows how I would have been if I had been raised a Georgian, Carolinian, or Kentuckian, but I like to think of myself down in the sprawling suburbs of North Florida posing for the yearbook with pink hair and a tie knotted well above the neckline of a T-shirt just as the magicicada were burrowing below.

Wherever you are, cicadas are a link to the past. Springs and summers past; burrows dug and uncovered again.

It’s entertaining to imagine myself a teenager again, but what must these poor baffled insects think as they emerge into this spring and look at what we’ve done to the world their parents left in our hands when they burrowed below? Talk about woke.

Street Theatre of Oppression

An extraordinary poet spends his days at the bus station in Jacksonville, Florida. He performs his most important poem as a drama in two parts. The street theatre of oppression.

Act One, in three scenes: The poet covers his face with a black ski cloth and runs blindly across State Street, pauses for a moment, and runs blindly back.

We read his steps in the first act crossing the street. Each staccato footfall strikes a rising note of caution and uncertainty: one, safe; two, safe; three, safe(?); four, danger; five, death(?) The poet pauses momentarily on the other side of the street, a blank mannequin head-shape protruding from a brown jacket over blue jeans, regarding the stunned audience. Those who did not witness the first act enter the theater usually during this laconic second act soliloquy. The poet does not see the newcomers. His thoughts and emotions muted by the blank shroud covering his eyes and mouth, he further decenters himself in the third act. Cars, trucks, and vans are the actors in the climactic drama. Killers all. Missiles. They race toward the protagonist with elemental abandon.

The poetry of the tightrope walker is of tightly-structured poise: supreme control of body and mind. The street-runner’s poetry is of a different sort, a sport of sheer abandon, a plaintive wail enacted for the passengers collected at the Rosa Parks Bus Terminal at 9:40 on a Thursday morning. The poet’s death-defying sprint across eight lanes imparts profound hopelessness. He and his audience must trust and hope that the racing motors do not bring the show to an end, but there is nothing they can do.

At the end of the performance, the poet returns to the terminal and uncovers his head with a stoic but exhausted mien, a celebrity especially to the adoring public awaiting Bus 8B to Beach and Atlantic Boulevards.

Act Two, in two scenes: the poet transforms himself into the oppressor and whips the trash. 

As the poet removes the mask, the curtains go down over his face. He sits on a bench for a moment and gazes at nothing, staring into the past and shading his eyes from the future. Gradually the curtains go up over his face, and he rises from the bench, removing his belt.

The poet’s face remains blank but he focuses his attention on the belt in his hands as it transforms from an article of support into the penultimate weapon of degradation—a lash. His body is transformed then into a terrible machine as he twists the lash, cutting the air with cruel, windy sounds. Several twists, a violent thrust, and then the poet focuses the lash on the steel rim of a trash can, whipping again and again. His face remains blank, emotionless and incapable of projecting the show’s meaning. He continues whipping the trash, again and again, as the bus pulls away. The curtains go down as the audience joins the elemental machinery of death on State Street.

The poet’s ouevre of despair revolves around dualism. Hopeful and hopeless, he recites a litany of helpless despair with each footfall forth and back across State Street. Support is transformed into subordination, the body transformed into a weapon. The trash can is himself, is everyone who was or is or will be enslaved, is everyone who has been a child, is all of us. Mute and blank, his voice rings loud and true.