Thursday, February 18, 2010

The blizzard of 2010

On a cold, wintry night last week, as 40-mph gusts drove tiny, barbed snowflakes into the hooded faces of pedestrians in the Williamsburg neighborhood of Brooklyn, my friend Venera and I sat at the cozy bar of the Hotel Delmano talking about… snow.

It’s been a hard winter, with snow falling everywhere except, apparently, on the Winter Olympics and in Venera’s homeland, Kosovo. As an Albanian whose world was under assault by the Serbs, Venera immigrated from Kosovo to the United States, but recently returned for a long visit with her family following an absence of eight years. At first felt she like an outsider – like an American, but she eventually settled in. The only thing missing was snow. “All I wanted was for it to snow while I was in Kosovo, so it would feel like winter when I was a kid, but it didn’t,” she said.

New York’s portion of the week’s nearly continent-wide weather event (at one point, according to AP, there was snow in 49 states) wasn’t all that had been predicted, but it added an appropriately inhospitable backdrop to the comfortable scene inside the Delmano, where a DJ mixed pleasantly eclectic old and new music on two turntables beside us at the bar. It felt as if we were all comfortably trapped there.

The Hotel Delmano isn’t actually a hotel; it’s a bar whose décor is meant to evoke some café on a Paris rue. It reminded me of the Napoleon House in New Orleans, with its worn wood floors, marble topped tables, atmospheric candlelight and functional yet artfully arranged liquor, beer and wine bottles lining tall, carefully distressed walls (the highest of which the bartenders reach with a library ladder). Though the place is unabashedly expensive, it provided a perfect sanctuary for us on a night when the streets were fast being depopulated by the weather. Venera picked the Delmano because it’s near her apartment, though for me it was a bit of a haul. Earlier, as I had waited for her in the lee of a building at the Bedford subway stop, I found myself a bit bemused by the combination of wind, traffic, darkness, stinging snow and rapidly piling drifts. It was all so unfamiliar. Venera, on the other hand, was clearly energized by it. “Isn’t it beautiful?” she said, and it was.

As we had trudged across an unplowed street toward the Delmano, our heads down and our hats and coats plastered with snow, there weren’t many people on the street and those who were seemed to be making hasty plans for retreating inside. As people passed I heard them saying things on their cells like, “Sorry, but I don’t think I’m going to make it – I think I’m just going to head home.” It’s amazing how fast extreme weather can change your plans.

The blizzard itself never got cranked up to the predicted levels in New York City – as much snow fell at my home in Bolton, Mississippi, of all places (fortunately my friends Paul and Libby photographed my place, making it possible, retroactively, for me to see the snow’s rare beauty there). In my part of Mississippi you typically get snow once every five years or so, but this winter Bolton got snow three times, which is unheard of, all of which raised questions in my mind about global warming. When you read about the ice caps melting, as they clearly are, global warming seems a given. The same is true for the increasing frequency of violent storms such as Hurricane Katrina. The planet is trying to cool itself and it’s throwing a lot of heat around. But then you get a winter like this and wonder how it fits into the mix. It turns out that all that wild meteorological mixing pushes more moisture against cold fronts that now swoop down more radically than before, which means more snow in places that normally don’t see it and, in some cases, less of it in places that you normally do. Meteorologically, there are too many free radicals. That’s why, while Washington, D.C. had to dig out from almost four feet of snow and Bolton got an unprecedented eight inches, Venera’s hopes for snow in Kosovo were dashed.

There was a show on PBS recently about the melting ice cap in Greenland, which provided incontrovertible evidence of global warming – incontrovertible, that is, unless you’re hell-bent on disbelieving. In addition to retreating glaciers, the show revealed openings in the surface of the ice cap, far into the frozen interior, down which snow and ice melt was disappearing in a stunning blue waterfall into an abyss hundreds of feet deep. It was like a gaping, sucking wound. The runoff ends up beneath the ice cap, where it flows out to sea, lubricating the bottom of the glaciers and hastening the movement of snow and ice toward the warmer open water. Big parts of the ice cap are being replaced by open water, which is darker and absorbs sunlight far faster than reflective ice, which further hastens the melt. If predictions hold – and that’s still a big if – the ocean levels will rise three feet or more, which will inundate places where millions of people now live. That will put greater stress on resources such as food and water, and will undoubtedly lead to massive political upheaval.

Political upheaval was another subject that came up as Venera and I sat at the Delmano bar. We had recently seen the documentary Restrepo, which our friends Sebastian and Tim filmed in Afghanistan, and Venera had some observations about how conflict comes about and how it sustains itself. Usually it’s about people not understanding or caring about other people’s lives, obviously, but sometimes it’s the result of competition for resources. At that moment we were comfortably situated at the Delmano, but what if the power had gone out and the full onslaught of the blizzard had materialized? What if our supply of food and water were disrupted? How long could we stay comfortably ensconced at a neighborhood bar? It was food for thought. For now, though, there was the cheese plate that the bartender slid before us, and all those potential threats faded into the background, like so much snow plastered against the windows. People fight. People are subject to wild fluctuations in the weather. People get held up on street corners. People get sick. But sometimes they get the chance to hole up in a little bar as an angry planet plasters snow against the windows, and appreciate what winter – what any adversity -- is good for.

Tuesday, February 9, 2010


Around the time I finished the manuscript of Sultana I had a strange dream in which I was trapped inside a barn with a dying Union army mule during a hurricane. It was a bit of dreamland absurdity cobbled together from Sultana stimuli -- a mental exercising of fear, using bits and pieces of the story I’d been immersed in for more than a year.

The Sultana story is riddled with nightmare hyperlinks, but the fact that my dreaming brain attempted to interview the mule illustrates an inevitable challenge to fully grasping the experiences of those involved from such a great distance. We can read the official dispatches, the soldiers’ letters and journals, the memoirs and histories, and look at photos of certain episodes, but we can never see the story unfold before our own eyes, nor ask questions of those involved. All we can hope for is verisimilitude, which is to say, some representation of the truth based on our own interpretation of the information available to us.

For all those reasons I envied Sebastian Junger and Tim Hetherington while watching Restrepo, their film about a platoon of U.S. soldiers at a remote outpost in Afghanistan, which recently won the prize for best documentary at Sundance. Not only were Sebastian and Tim able to interview their subjects, they were able to experience their war firsthand, greatly expanding the information available to them, and to us. They were also shot at – an experience one soldier described as the ultimate high, and which is adrenalizing to watch, even on film. It’s hard to imagine how anyone could get any closer to revealing the truth of war.

Restrepo has been compared with The Hurt Locker, a fictionalized film about the Iraq war that has gotten rave reviews. But as Tim observed, after the soldiers get killed in The Hurt Locker they retired from the set with a cup of coffee, while those in Restrepo “never come back.” Restrepo is real. It is also surreal. No one could have dreamed up the scenes in which our guys – young, heavily inked American soldiers who alternately play acoustic guitar and listen to Drowning Pool on their ipods – awkwardly interact with an ancient, remote culture in which the village elders sport eyeliner and orange hair and beards. And that’s only the most obvious, superficial contrast. The beauty of Restrepo lies in its rawness – there’s no annoyingly omniscient, Ken Burnsish-voiceover, and in how we get to know these guys. When one of them gets killed it’s not about abstract war casualties; it’s both shocking and heartbreaking.

The film doesn’t consider the politics of the war in Afghanistan. It’s an effort, as Sebastian and Tim put it, to take the viewer on something like a 90-minute deployment there. The focus is the 30-man Second Platoon of Battle Company, part of the 173rd Airborne Brigade, which was stationed in Afghanistan’s Korengal Valley. Sebastian, best known as the author of The Perfect Storm, and Tim, a war photographer whose previous work includes the film An Uncivil War, about Liberia, traveled to the Korengal a total of 10 times between May 2007 and July 2008 as part of a series of stories for Vanity Fair magazine and ABC News. The Korengal was considered one of the most dangerous postings of the war, and the Second Platoon built and manned a remote and strategic outpost there that they named Restrepo in honor of their medic, PFC Juan Restrepo, who was killed in action. The area was a crucial relay point for the Taliban.

Sebastian and Tim officially unveiled the film to friends and family at a theater in Chelsea last night; its official release comes this fall, when it will air on the National Geographic Channel. But previous to the screening, and before it went to Sundance, they flew all the guys who were available from the Second Platoon to New York to see the film, to make sure they were comfortable with its depiction of them. The response was unanimous, Sebastian said. They felt good about it, as good as anyone can feel about something so harrowing to relive.

All of which only increased my envy. To be able to depict the reality of such an intense survival story, to be able to experience it firsthand, to be able to interview your subjects, and then to be able to get their feedback about what you created – well, that’s pretty much all you could hope for as a journalist. But getting those opportunities is only half the battle. What matters is that Sebastian and Tim rise to the occasion; Restrepo is a great film. Likewise, Sebastian's book War, which comes out in May and chronicles his experiences with the same platoon, is as fine a book about war as that I've ever read.