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Giants of Syracuse

Last year John and I spent a few weeks near Siracusa, the birthplace of Archimedes and site of a massive stone amphitheater where the plays of Aeschylus were once performed. Now it was time to see Syracuse, New York,  “The FIRST to Say Yes to Education City in the Nation” and erstwhile home of L. Frank  Baum.

 

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could do with some hyphens

 

We were decanted from our coach into the bus station, a multi-national scene smelling of the quasi-herbal fragrance emitted by the Subway franchise. Leaving John with the luggage, I set out to locate a taxi stand and found one at the front of the station. A cab happened to be leaving right at that moment, which suggested that the stand was not defunct.

By the time we’d hauled all our stuff over to the stand, however, doubt had crept in.

“What do we do if he doesn’t come back?” John asked.

‘Well, we’ll just call another one,” I replied.

“How? Everyone uses Uber now. We don’t have Uber. We are primitive people.”

“OK, I’ll go inside and ask someone.”

I ventured into a little shop inside the bus station and asked the young woman at the cash register if she knew whether taxis waited outside as a rule.

“I don’t think so,” she shrugged.

“Well, do you know the number of any local taxi company?”

“No,” she said, but then her face brightened. “Why don’t you just call an Uber?”

“We don’t have the app on my phone and my phone is nearly depleted of battery power due to our faulty charging cord.”

Her eyes glazed over.

“Well, have a good day,” she said crisply, closing the interaction.

I walked out with a heavy heart only to see John piling our stuff into a taxi. A broad-chested guy was assisting him.

“How are you folks doing today?” The driver asked as we set off.

“Fine. We’re glad to see you; I wasn’t sure how we were going to get to our hotel.”

“Oh we’re there all the time,” he said. “It was just that a train had come through ten minutes ago so we were all busy, but I came right back.”

So the shop girl was wrong! What did she spend her time thinking about, I wondered. Gel nail designs?

“This your first time in Syracuse?” The driver asked.

“Yes.”

“What brings you to our little town?”

“My wife’s running a trail marathon in Vermont, like a loon,” said John.

“Marathon huh? And are you underweight? Overweight?”

“Uh, probably a little overweight. But I’m not a competitive runner. I like to go slow.”

“Ah, a turtle,” he nodded.

 

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“It’s a good way to see the countryside,” I replied primly.

“It’s been a long time since I did any running,” he mused. “My kneecaps are gone.”

“You played football?” John asked.

“Football, basketball, baseball, you name it. Not anymore though,” he laughed sadly.

“I heard they can do things for knees now,” I said helpfully.

“Oh no, I’m not going near any doctors. Don’t trust ‘em.”

John agreed enthusiastically.

“Now, to your left is the local football stadium, and there’s the local farmer’s market. Empty now but busy as anything on weekends. Another thing we’re known for here is fishing. Either of you fish?”

“No. But I’ve heard there are big salmon around here.”

“Huge! My granddaughter fishes too, she’s nine.”

The driver was certainly very chatty. He kept up a patter all the way to the hotel.

 

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paper-shredding festival alert!

 

Mostly what we did in Syracuse was sleep but I did go for a run to see more of the town. The part near us was mainly highways, fast-food outlets, a railway, industrial warehouses and parking lots reverting to Nature. 

 

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As I turned right on James Street, though, a real town gradually came into shape. There was a tattoo parlour, a theatre where an improbable number of people were queuing at 6 o’clock in the evening, several real estate offices and beauty salons and a big used-book store.

Moving east, the streets turned from dog-eared businesses to grand old mansions exhaling odors of the past. The most imposing building was the Barnes-Hiscock mansion, former residence of George and Rebecca Barnes, heroes of the Underground Railway in Syracuse. Together with other influential families in the neighborhood and the Rev. Jermain Loguen they held anti-slavery meetings and helped prevent fugitive slaves from being caught or paid their bail.  

 

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Stamped on the sidewalk every 100 meters or so was the face of someone named Henry McConnell. I thought this must be some historical personage until I looked him up and saw that there is a company called Henry McConnell Concrete Floors Inc. in Syracuse.

This mix-up reminded me of the Cardiff Giant, which was ‘discovered’ just south of Syracuse in 1869. This was a little practical joke played on the locals by tobacconist, atheist and all-round ratbag George Hull. Here is the whole sordid story from Wikipedia:

 

“Hull hired men to quarry out a 10-foot-4.5-inch-long (3.2 m) block of gypsum in Fort Dodge, Iowa, telling them it was intended for a monument to Abraham Lincoln in New York. He shipped the block to Chicago, where he hired Edward Burghardt, a German stonecutter, to carve it into the likeness of a man and swore him to secrecy…During November 1868, Hull transported the giant by railroad to the farm of his cousin, William Newell…Nearly a year later, Newell hired Gideon Emmons and Henry Nichols, ostensibly to dig a well, and on October 16, 1869 they found the giant.”

 

Newell soon found a way to turn the discovery into cash, charging people to come see one of the Giants of Yore. Pretty soon P.T. Barnum wanted in on the action and muscled his way in. Ultimately, Hull confessed everything to the press. 

The spirit of entrepreneurship remains alive and well in Syracuse, as I discovered during breakfast in Dunkin’ Donuts. A burly man sat explaining sincerely why his renovation services would cost twice as much as originally agreed; a smartly dressed man in a suit was making a pitch to a smartly dressed woman and some secret goings-on were happening between four or five citizens in the ‘Community Room’. As I chewed on my delicious cheese-and-egg English muffin, I thought that they could do with another Giant, updated for the new audience. What are people looking for these days? Peace-loving aliens? Paleolithic Russian invaders?  

 

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Buffalo and Bus Rage

The other day, we spent a night in downtown Buffalo. Perched on the eastern edge of Lake Erie, Buffalo is the second largest city in the state of New York and used to be the one of the wealthiest city in the US. Reminders of its importance can still be seen in the imposing buildings designed by famous architects such as Frank Lloyd Wright, Henry Hobson Richardson and the ‘Father of American Architecture’ Louis H. Sullivan. The last of these was responsible for one of the most striking buildings I’ve ever seen, the Prudential (Guaranty) Building (1895), which has a steel structure but is covered in terracotta tiles carved with intricate designs.

 

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Another amazing building was Buffalo City Hall, an Art Deco creation designed by John Wade and George Dietel, which was also the tallest building constructed in the 1930s. I only saw it from a car but even so the relief sculptures were spectacular.

 

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All this architectural splendor was the setting for our meeting with our friends Felipe and Eileen. For a couple of hours we forgot the travails and terrors of travel in the pleasure of sympathetic and entertaining company. It must have been how an old desert nomad felt when he got to an oasis where he could park his camels, set up camp and chew the fat with his pals before heading back out into the sandy plains. Unfortunately, it had to end and we were back to the travails and terrors of a Greyhound bus station. 

 

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When I informed John that we would be travelling from Buffalo back to New York City via bus, he blanched.

“We’re taking the bus?” he quavered.

“Yes, the bus,” I said firmly.

“But…this is America! No one takes the bus.”

“Well that’s silly,” I shrugged.

Why the bus?” he asked.

“I don’t think there’s a train that goes all the way.”

“No flights?”

“No,” I replied, without actually knowing. “Besides, have you considered the climate emergency? What would Greta Thunberg say if she heard about us flying a mere few hundred miles?”

“Hmmph.”

It seemed to me that John’s view of buses was shared by a lot of otherwise reasonable people. I ascribed this to the fact that from an early age Americans absorb a love for private automobiles. Taking a bus is practically an affront to the Declaration of Independence.

At the same time, I did recall in the back of my mind an incident in which Greyhound passenger Tim McLean was stabbed, beheaded and cannibalized. At the time it happened, Greyhound Canada hurriedly retracted a series of nationwide ads including the slogan “There’s a reason you’ve never heard of bus rage.”  

 

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The bus station was reassuringly not awful. There were plenty of people milling about, some of them clearly mentally ill but none obviously murderous. There were a few college students, elderly ladies, immigrant families and hung-over looking young men who, I speculated, may have lost their licenses in DUI incidents. A couple of kindly and officious ladies were having a conversation with a driver to make sure that their charge, a very frail and scruffy old man, got to New York City.

Our bus turned out to be an hour late. When we finally boarded it, it was quite full and smelled of pee. John and I had to sit apart. I ended up next to a soft-looking youth and John sat next to a quiet African-American lady. A family of four from the West Indies walked around trying to negotiate with other passengers so that they might sit together. No one was willing to oblige so they turned to the bus driver, who replied that life isn’t perfect and that they were ‘an irregular group’, whatever that meant. The bus stood idling in situ for about half an hour. Finally, a North African man with a long white beard asked when we were going to get going because he had a sick baby.

Soon after that the driver asked for a show of hands as to who was going to the airport. He then told them all to get off because an Uber was going to take them there.

“A Ooper?” a German lady asked, frowning.

“A cab is going to take you,” he explained.

“Ahab? Who is Ahab?” But she got off anyway.

 

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Finally we got moving. At that point my seat-mate awoke from his slumbers and started watching a TV show on his phone without wearing headphones with the volume way up high. That was OK. He also commandeered the armrest. Fair enough, after all, he was large-ish and the seats weren’t very big. However, what happened next made the iron enter my soul.

John stood up and addressed the boy.

“Excuse me, would you mind swapping seats with me so I can sit next to my wife?”

“No, I’ve got the window seat sorry,” the boy replied, clearly completely un-sorry.

It wasn’t the refusal per se that infuriated me but the tone in which it was delivered—premeditated, curt, luxurious. Everything about this person became instantly loathsome to me. His neck cushion, his sweat-pant shorts, his blankie, his TV watching and sprawling, the unwelcome brush of his flesh on my elbow. He put on his eye-mask and settled into his seat like a water buffalo easing into a mud pit.

I decided to retaliate. Seeing his left knee was pressed up against a power outlet, I reached for my laptop and produced the cord.

“Excuse me,” I said coldly. No response. “Excuse me.”

He stirred and lifted a corner of his eye mask.

“I need to plug my laptop in,” I pointed to the outlet.

“Oh, excuse me,” he murmured with a conciliatory smile. I  shoved my adapter in, but it was loose and promptly fell out, spoiling the effect. I shoved it in again hoping it would hold this time. To my relief it did, and his meaty leg was now confined to its allotted space. I proceeded to use the laptop for the rest of the journey, hoping the tapping of keys would annoy him but instead they merely seemed to lull him to sleep again.

A couple of hours later he woke up and shifted restlessly, finally aware of his confinement. After a few moments’ thought, he got his phone out and fumbled about with it in a clumsy countermove. He couldn’t get it in because my adapter was too big and blocking the other outlet. Satisfied that he had at least registered discomfort, I graciously withdrew the adaptor.

At about this time, John got up to use the restroom and on his way shot me a look of deep reproach.

“Please forgive me,” I whispered, full of remorse.

 

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Upstate Idyll

 

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For the past few days we’ve been staying at a farmhouse in Upstate New York near Lake Ontario.  It’s green, humid and hot, surrounded by acres of corn, soy and apple trees. The long, straight roads are remarkable mainly for tractor signs and defunct raccoons.

The property where we were staying had a real barn, complete with real barn-swallows. Their nests were easily located thanks to large amounts of guano on the concrete floor underneath. The chicks had already fledged and were teetering on the edge getting ready to fling themselves around like arrows. In the evenings, the country was filled with the song of frogs. Our hosts had already found five different species of frog and toad including a tiny olive-green hopper that could easily jump to the height of a meter.

When we first arrived at the farm, we heard the plaintive singing of a coonhound eager to come outside and chase the car. Inside we made the acquaintance of said hound, Jethro. He’d been brought up as a rescue from Tennessee and had a little bit of ear taken off the bottom. Speculation was that a sibling had nipped it when he was a puppy.

 

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coonhound paw

 

Our host drove us into the nearby village of Wilson, whose pier sits on the edge of Lake Ontario providing an entrance to Tuscarora Bay, a popular local fishing spot. On a clear day you can see Toronto but that evening was misty, as you can see. 

 

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In the village itself, every block or so offered a reminder of  Wilson’s past. For example, there was the grave of Billy Sherman, a confederate horse captured in Tennessee by a native Wilsonian. There was also the site of the village’s very first log house, now long gone, built by Mr. Reuben Wilson. And there was a marker of the birthplace of Private Ira S. Petit, author of Diary of a Dead Man. Greenwood Cemetery was a grove of evergreens in which lay the illustrious remains of one George H. Linnaberry, ‘Father of the Helicopter Rotor Blade’.

 

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Billy Sherman’s resting place

 

The next morning John and I walked in for breakfast at the local diner. A friendly woman brought us enormous pile of home fries, filter coffee and toast with butter and grape jelly. The wall was covered with photos of the town in various stages of history, family photos, embroidered prayers, a paeon to ‘Dad’, and a drawing done by schoolchildren to thank the owners for the delicious fries and ketchup. A community noticeboard near the entrance showed a poster declaring that someone needed a new kidney. I couldn’t finish the home fries but they didn’t mind.

On Sunday I had to go for a long run. Somewhat concerned because I couldn’t find my sunscreen, I set off in a T-shirt along a very straight road called Wilson-Youngstown because it led from the village of Wilson to that of Youngstown. I stopped in at a gas station to get water, Swedish fish and powerade so that I wouldn’t die of heatstroke. Starting out from the town, I passed neat little wooden houses on clipped green lawns, sometimes fronted by a white picket fence but otherwise with no fence or barrier at all either between the house and the road or between the houses themselves.

Trees—sycamore, elm and maple—cast sporadic shade along the road. Where the houses stopped, there was a bridge over a creek surrounded with lush greenery. The water was milky-green and shade-dappled and looked like a miniature piece of the Everglades. A large grey heron stood still about 100 meters away from me, peering into the murky liquid.

 

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Beyond the village and the bridge, the land opened up into farmland. Houses very widely spaced presided over many acres of corn or soy or fruit tree. Most houses came with a big ramshackle red barn, an old water pump, a flag, an old  farm vehicle and some kind of garden ornament (using the term loosely) such as a ceramic pig or couchant concrete lion. Now and then there would be a little self-serve fruit/egg/veggie hut. All in all it looked pretty familiar. After talking to our host, I discovered why that might be: Dunedin in New Zealand has a latitude of -45.87 and Wilson has one of 43.29.

 

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roadside farmshop

 

Letterboxes became expressions of personality—one was painted with monarch butterflies, another was entwined with flowering morning glory, others bore the initial letter of the family name or a special notice:

 

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farmers tend to know their own minds

 

I kept running  but the landscape seemed  vaster than the map had suggested. Huge billowing clouds suggested the intense humidity and cicadas and crickets chirped and jumped in the grassy, flowered verge. There was some traffic but not very much so occasionally I’d have to step aside into the weeds, trusting my ankles to the uncertain ground.

 

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There was a white Methodist church that looked as if it was in the middle of nowhere but was obviously well tended and attended. Swallows perched on a wire over the road. Occasionally a bright-yellow bird  with black-striped wings zoomed past or a cardinal dove into the rows of sweetcorn. I didn’t see many farm animals, not even cats. Occasionally there was a glimpse of the bright-blue lake in the distance through gaps in a distant line of trees.  

I could tell I was getting sunburned but figured there wasn’t much I could do about it except to keep going. Time seemed to extend indefinitely. It would never end and that meant this run would never end either. My drink was almost finished but I wasn’t even halfway there. I noticed that I was getting chafed on my belly button, which had never happened before. I wondered if my stomach had suddenly gotten larger or if it was just that I was sweating more than usual. I kept telling myself it was nice to run in the countryside as opposed to the city, but that didn’t negate the fact that there was no shade and my arms were turning into tandoori chicken.

 

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ugh

 

I looked desperately for milestones—the church, the veggie stands, the house with the giant flag, the combine harvester. I started to curse the whole place as a hostile environment full of Trump voters, proud of its sameness, its dullness, its flatness, even its offensive green-ness. I cursed their freshly laundered flags and signs screeching against gun control. All I wanted now was to get back to the gas station, get some water and go back to bed.

The bearded boy at the gas station greeted me cheerfully with, “Hey, long time no see!” Two little girls were taking a long time discussing exactly which candy they were going to buy.  As I forked the cash over to the clerk, he looked hopefully at a big truck that had just pulled into the station.

“We’ve run out of two kinds of gas,” he explained. “And I’ve been waiting for replacements all morning.”

Now that I had my drink I was more inclined to feel kindly towards these people with their hail-fellow-well-mets and hearts of gold. Wishing him luck, I left the store and started walking the two miles home. I’d already run my allotment of miles and saw no need to prolong the ordeal. I admired the cute shops and library. It all looked like the kind of idyllic small-town America you used to see in Julia Roberts movies. Smiling pedestrians greeted me. Flowers grew in quirky pots, a big elementary school had a billboard saying, ‘Have a safe and fun summer.’ It seemed the cosy sort of place you might like to raise children or join a church group. 

When I got back to the farm, our host invited me to have a go on the tractor. It was built in the 1960s and still looked practically new, that’s how well its previous owner had cared for it. I didn’t even want to think about the lengths you’d have to go to keep a working farm vehicle in such pristine condition for five decades. I climbed up on the seat, put the thing in first gear and the thing jerked into motion. I was just getting into the spirit of it when I noticed that I was heading for large holes where they’d been digging to find the septic tank. ‘This will not end well,’ I thought and put my foot on what I thought was the brake but was actually the accelerator. Then I tried to change the gear but there was a horrible grinding sound–apparently a tractor is not like a car in that you choose one gear and stick with it. Somehow I managed to stop in time and our host came over to turn the thing off, kindly assuring me that I hadn’t wrecked his tractor. 

 

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handsome beast

 

 

 

 

Report on the War Nerd Invasion

Last Monday was the night of ‘Radio War Nerd Invades Brooklyn’, the very first recording of the RWN podcast in front of a live audience. What follows is an intelligence report of the situation on the ground. 

Thursday 8 August :  Canadian contingent (Becky and James) are turned away from Vancouver airport. Two possible causes: 1) they forgot to apply for a ESTA waiver or 2) The Five Eyes have learned of the event and are trying to deprive  Radio War Nerd of their top Yemen correspondent.

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Friday 9 August: Gabriel Uriarte of Pennsylvania arrives at Camp Dolan (three days early, thereby demonstrating his expertise on military readiness). He immediately holds council with Michael Pollak at an undisclosed location in Manhattan. 

Generals Dolan, Ames and Anderegg meet at Greenpoint HQ to discuss strategy.  By unwittingly committing suicide, Jeffrey E. Epstein provides RWN grist for the mill.

 

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“What the heck? It’s just my neck!”

 

Saturday 10 August: Canadian contingent arrives and occupies position on Crown Heights near the Grand Army Plaza. Camp Dolan marches up to deliver materiel (towels and mattresses) to the barracks at Crown Heights.  Pause to admire Lafayette (note air-beds in backpacks).

 

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Western troops (the Larssons of California and Avila of Texas) make landfall in Brooklyn and order large amounts of BBQ.

 

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Cavalry at the biergarten

 

Sunday 11 August: Western troops arrive at Camp Dolan. Beverages are consumed. Avila performs three brilliant songs of her own invention (see her YouTube channel here), sparking an idea…

A small party heads out to Manhattan to meet Brown and Pollak. The pretext is to see a Leonard Cohen exhibition but the real purpose is to smuggle them back into Brooklyn for a confab at the barracks.

 

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Well, Brooklyn is close enough.

 

Troops from Ohio, Philadelphia, Upstate New York, Vermont and NYC converge on the barracks. Beverages are consumed. Jacobs-Johnson brings fresh produce from the family farm, which is converted into delicious pasta sauce. Conversation topics include Terror Birds, Nepalese radiomen, the Spanish Revolutionary War, possums, genre fiction-writing and the political situation in Ukraine. The night degenerates into Karaoke.

Monday 12 August: At Camp HQ, Dolan, Ames and Uriarte frantically prepare last-minute show notes. 

7pm The Bell House is invaded. 

 

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Mark Ames and John Dolan begin the proceedings

 

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James Dahl gives an impromptu lesson on Yemen

 

 

 

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Art by Brad Jonas

 

Radio War Nerd Invades Brooklyn

It’s one week until THE EVENT and I’m so excited I’m hyperventilating. To celebrate its 200th episode, Radio War Nerd is having a live recording at the Bell House on Monday August 12 at 7pm August  in Brooklyn, New York and everyone is welcome. Tickets are $15 and are available aEventbrite.

 

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The troops are converging!

 

Radio War Nerd, RWN for short, is a weekly podcast that views conflict from socio-political perspective with mordant humor and intellectual rigor. My husband John Dolan and Mark Ames are the co-hosts and have run it since 2015. Not only does it provide context for current news stories (Sudan, Syria, Iran), it also casts new light on old and lesser known wars (the 100 Years War, the Imjin Wars, Ethiopia-Eritreia). Former guests have included the late Robert Parry (famous for covering the Iran-Contra affair), Patrick Cockburn (Middle East correspondent for the Independent) and Kris Newby (author of the explosive and disgusting new book Bitten: The Secret History of Lyme Disease). If you’d like to listen to an episode to get a sense of the tone, there are several posted on Youtube. Here is an episode about the destruction of Yemen.

 

Featuring…

 

ames

Mark Ames is an independent journalist who led investigations into the phenomena of rage murders and the extent of billionaire interference in US politics. His book Going Postal: Rage, Murder and Rebellion: From Reagan’s Workplaces to Clinton’s Columbine and Beyond (2005)  is a powerful critique of the unique socio-political conditions that have led to so many rage murders in the USA. Together with Yasha Levine, Mark was the first journalist to expose the scary extent to which billionaires like the Koch brothers secretly interfere with US politics. In the 1990s Moscow, he was co-founder and editor of the satirical newspaper the eXile, which documented a decade of decadence and post-Soviet plunder in a satirical style reminiscent of the UK’s Private Eye. The newspaper was shut down by government agency in 2008. The rise and fall of the eXile has been profiled in Vanity Fair.

 

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John Dolan is (apart from being MY HUSBAND) the OG war nerd. In 2002, Mark suggested he start writing about war as a counterpoint to all the articles written by media hawks capitalizing on the 9/11 attacks. Gary Brecher aka The War Nerd was born. Since then, he’s written hundreds of articles and newsletters in a style that delivers brilliant analysis in the voice of a disaffected Californian data-entry clerk. Many of these articles are freely available online and some are collected in the book War Nerd (2008). In 2017 Feral House published his version of the greatest war story of them all, The Iliad. In his searingly honest memoir Pleasant Hell, now available as an audiobook, you can read about how it all began when he pored over copies of Aviation Week in the periodical room at the library.

 

jones

Dr. Eileen Jones is a writer and reviewer who combines irresistible humor with deep scholarship. Formerly a professor of film at the University of California at Berkeley, she now co-hosts bi-weekly podcast Filmsuck with Evgenia Kovda. A popular contributor to The eXile, she wrote dozens of reviews that are laugh-out-loud funny and that you can read in Filmsuck, USA (2013). Recently she has written reviews for Jacobin including ‘Against Meryl Streep’, which sent James Wolcott of Vanity Fair into a giant tizzy. If you are stuck for a good read, you could do a lot worse than browsing her reviews so here is a link

 

Dan

Dan Larsson aka ‘Cannon Dan’ and my Brother-from-Another-Mother is an example of the American Spirit of the not-dumb kind. Imagine if Animal from the Muppets and Hunter S. Thompson got together in the body of an ecology major. At the Bell House he will be describing in lurid detail how he bought a two-pound cannon and fired it in the desert wearing nothing but bright-yellow undies and a parasol. Yay Dan!

 

brendon

Brendon Anderegg is the musician and sound engineer behind Telescope Audio, which produces Radio War Nerd. He has produced soundtracks for several movies and  Emmy-nominated documentaries 102 Minutes that Changed America and 9/11: the Days After. Each episode of Radio War Nerd features one of Brendon’s pieces (he tells me some were actually composed especially for the show). For a taste of his atmospheric, multi-layered electronic, listen to “Remain” , which reminds me of the experience of floating over a coral reef. His latest album June is available here.

 

The Community

One of the things that makes the podcast so appealing and dynamic is the community that has grown up around it on social media. Listeners and supporters from around the world share their feedback, insights and experiences in a way that enriches the show and augments the fund of common knowledge. They include academics, writers, politicians, locksmiths, caregivers, musicians and scientists all united by a shared curiosity about the world and off-kilter sense of humor. Notable Friends of the Show who will be there include Gabriel Uriarte, Michael Pollak, James Dahl and lots of others. Several people are flying in from other states and even from Canada and will be setting up a ‘barracks’ led by Officer Becky (let me know if you’re thinking of coming–she can help with logistics and materiel). This event will be a chance for these birds-of-a-feather to come together irl, which I think is a beautiful thing!

 

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The whole gang will be there!