Friday
Feb012013

Gil Robertson's new Where Did Our Love Go

This month, Agate Bolden is pleased to announce its newest book from Gil L. Robertson IV. Where Did Our Love Go: Love and Relationships in the African-American Community, is the third anthology Gil has edited, after Not in My Family: AIDS in the African-American Community and Family Affair: What it Means to be African American Today. Over the years we've developed an especially positive working relationship with Gil, whose warm, relaxed demeanor belies the passion he brings to his material. Gil recently answered these questions for us about his new anthology, which has just been released.

Gil L. Robertson IV

Why did you choose to do this anthology?

The “black marriage gap” is a huge problem in this country. Relationships between black men and women—I won’t even mention love—have reached a low point. The scale of this problem is shocking, and potentially crippling to the vitality of the African-American community at large. As in my earlier books, my goal is to stimulate constructive dialogues around this subject so that it can be better understood and, I hope, yield some answers.

This is the third anthology you’ve edited focusing on big issues facing the African-American community. What drew you to tackle these questions?

It’s no secret that the African-American community is plagued by numerous problems, and I feel that it is important to address these problems through the perspectives of those who are most affected by them. The anthology format is an excellent forum for presenting various ideas and opinions around a central subject. What these books represent is an organized way to examine these subjects and generate ideas that might lead to solutions.  

What do you hope African American will get out of reading this book? 

A new openness to examine this issue, and the courage to take the steps necessary turn things around. It’s long overdue that we think outside the box to find new ways to deal with certain patterns of behavior. Everyone in the black community has to take responsibility for the problems that we’re seeing in our relationships, and it’s high time that we take a real look at “the man in the mirror,” if you well and own up to the role we’ve each played to contribute to these problems. We have to change if we want different results.

Productive, healthy relationships are definitely possible, but they take hard work to maintain. Like any group of people, most African Americans seek positive intimate relationships in their lives. However, many of us are carrying so much personal baggage about how we see each other (especially members of our own race) that it prevents us from building solid bonds with potential partners. I also feel there is a real need for African Americans to become more spiritually connected to their identities. This has nothing to do with religion—what I mean is the need for more black people to own up to who they are and what they really need to lead satisfying lives. 

What was the most surprising thing you learned in creating this book?

 The black community is ready to address this issue, but it needs the right infrastructure to support the conversation. As soon as I put the word out about this project, I found that people were very eager to share their stories or perspectives about this issue. Of all the anthologies that I have edited so far, none of them engendered this kind of enthusiasm.

Another thing worth nothing is the difficulty some of my contributors had in completing their essays. For some, writing their essays was like giving the “big reveal,” where they had to be totally open regarding the matter that was closest to their hearts: finding love. Compiling this project was really an amazing process, and I believe that readers will be rewarded by the passion, honesty, and truth expressed in these essays. 

Can you outline some areas where your contributors agreed? Disagreed?

Well, surprisingly, nearly all of my contributors felt that there was still hope for turning this tide around. The contributors were keenly appreciative of the importance of stable, loving, and productive relationships to the African American community. The position that was nearly universal is that the time is now for big changes to take place in terms of how African Americans engage with one another, especially when it comes to this subject.  

What do you think the effect has been of the media attention focused on African-American marriage rates?

No high marks here. A majority of the stories that I have read have presented the black marriage gap problem through a lens of hyperbole and half-truths. With few exceptions, the media has failed to give this subject the sort of full-bodied examination it deserves. Now, that’s no fault to the individual journalists who have reported on this situation. The very nature of the media today is to spin stories toward the sensational. I hope this book will provide fodder for much more comprehensive dialogue.

You arranged the book into three sections, focusing on singles, married couples, and divorcees. Were there any overarching themes between sections?

The one recurring theme is probably the importance of people maintaining trust and honesty not only with their partners, but most of all, with themselves. In each section, the writers really open themselves in expressing their hopes and fears about having a steadfast partner in their lives. It didn’t matter if they were single, married, or divorced; the one thing all of the contributors have in common is that they all covet finding real and long-lasting love.

Monday
Jan212013

Inauguration Flashback: Ava DuVernay on Barack and Michelle Obama

Today, President Barack Obama delivered his second inaugural address. To commemorate the event, Agate would like to take you back four years to the President's historic first inauguration. The following essay, Ava DuVernay's "Monica, Katrina, & Michelle: The Journey to Obama," is taken from Family Affair: What It Means to Be African American Today (Agate Bolden, 2009), a collection of essays edited by veteran journalist Gil L. Robertson, IV. In this essay, DuVernay looks at three of the most recognizable and in some ways representative "women" of the past three presidencies.

On a day that celebrates the memory and legacy of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. as well as the election of Barack Obama to a second term, this essay is especially pertinent. It serves as a powerful reminder of how  American and African-American cultures have changed over the last two decades and how they have been so hugely influenced by three names. Beyond that, it serves as a valuable reminder of the way many people viewed President Obama as he entered his first term, illuminating how our perceptions have changed and grown four years later.

Family Affair is available as a free Kindle download today only on Amazon. Click here to download.

 

 

Monica, Katrina, & Michelle: The Journey to Obama

By Ava DuVernay

 

The truth is incontrovertible.

Malice may attack it.

Ignorance may deride it.

But in the end, there it is.

—Winston Churchill

 

The last two decades of American life can be boiled down to three words: Monica. Katrina. Michelle.

Every American knows the names. We know what they represent. Within this triptych of monikers, lies the legacies—both past and present—of presidents Clinton, Bush, and Obama. Each woman’s name represents another battle in the war to win the hearts and minds of Americans—Americans who have increasingly shifted toward a new collective morality and a history-busting mandate to put a black man in the White House.

Our moral compass began to shift en masse in the midst of a scandal so scandalous one could hardly believe it was true. The leader of the free world cheated on the First Lady in the revered Oval Office with a White House intern and then denied the liaison until physical proof was produced—in the form of that pitiful blue dress.

 

America, Meet Monica

One would think Monica would have been a source of national embarrassment, as she sauntered around our water coolers in all her voluptuous glory, shapely with spectacle and buxom with gall. But President Clinton’s job approval ratings didn’t budge. In fact, they rose! His smugness thickened, and it’s still lathered on his every word to this day.

At the height of Monica’s powers, the country’s self-appointed moral watchdogs saw her as their way of bringing liberalism down. Wiretap after subpoena after hearing quickly followed—all designed by Republican conservatives to whip up America’s outrage and tip the scales. But despite their undeniable prowess in getting elected, Republicans have repeatedly failed to keep America locked inside an old episode of Ozzie & Harriet. Rather than the revulsion they hoped to generate, they instead created a monster called Political Entertainment—a new-school version of political theater with less back room intrigue and more general consumer salaciousness.

Yep, in the 1990s, it was becoming quite clear that counterculture was the new mainstream. Things that were once hidden away in the closet became a national pastime, à la Jerry Springer and the National Enquirer. The trust we once placed in our president was beginning to dissipate, and we barely noticed as it started to disappear, for more deeply rooted than our thirst for spectacle was a clear identification with Clinton’s shortcomings. I mean, we all have our own Monica lurking somewhere, right? Some past example of bad judgment just waiting to emerge with a blue dress? In short, America empathized. 

Polls conducted during 1998 and early 1999 showed that only around one-third of Americans wanted Clinton impeached or convicted. Completely out of touch with the will of the people, Republicans pressed on in their witch hunt. Clinton was impeached in December 1998 on charges of perjury, obstruction of justice, and abuse of power. Votes fell strictly along party lines, with not one vote for conviction coming from fellow Democrats. He was acquitted two months later by the Senate and remained in office until 2001.

It has been said that the sexual politics around Monica played into America’s “isms”—notions of uncontrollable sexuality levied against African Americans, labels of perversion aimed at the gay community, and accusations of promiscuity toward women who follow their passions. All of these groups are labeled as outsiders by conservatism, and they took advantage of the opportunity to rally together as part of a new-jack morality that became integral to the American ideology of the late nineties. Monica brought in a new political dawn, one colored by a great grappling with our own issues of personal responsibility. At least for a while, we shunned blame and repression.

But somewhere within Monica’s saga and Clinton’s mastery of this new touchy-feely America, the new morality crystallized even further. It took a couple of years for us to connect the dots and gain an understanding that moral open-mindedness need not be anchored to acts of frivolity and ego. We could be forward thinking and resolve our own inner Monicas without lying and cheating to do so, as Clinton had. We could be free and high-minded, liberal and responsible. 

So, just one year after Monica, the majority of Americans changed their tune and declared that they supported the impeachment and disapproved of the acquittal that allowed Clinton to serve out his term. We decided we were all for personal liberation, but not at the expense of our new morality. Monica taught us that, and in doing so, she left the door open for another woman to walk through.

In the wake of the Clinton scandal, the 2000 presidential election understandably centered more squarely on issues of “moral character” and “honesty.” Postelection data found that the most significant reason people voted for George W. Bush was for—try not to laugh too hard here—his high moral standards. After the unspeakable horror of 9/11, Bush had the sympathy of the world and the full support of the American people. He cashed in his cultural currency, betting on WMDs and launching two wars in the name of our new grand morality. A bitter, bruised America went along with it. It would take a complete and total breakdown of Bush’s so-called morals to shake us from our slumber and cement the public’s indictment. Hell hath no fury like a woman scorned.

 

America, Meet Katrina

If Monica made us face our personal inadequacies, Katrina made us own up to our collective limitations. She blew into our lives with the forces of race and class at her back. She pulled aside the curtain on the illusion that society can reward the wealthy with disproportionate tax cuts while skimping on basic public safeguards, and that all the treasures trickle down. News alert: It doesn’t quite work that way.

The collapse of this key tenet of Bush’s beliefs was broadcast live and in living color for the world to see. Suddenly, America angrily called into question not only Bush’s handling of the hurricane, but his policies overall. More importantly, it called into question the trust we placed in him. Katrina laid bare any reasonable belief in Bush’s competence and revealed the hard fact that America had saddled itself with a leader more concerned with an ideological agenda than real-world choices to help real people.

Katrina demanded that we take a long, cold look at ourselves and our leadership. For whatever systemic racism and everyday prejudices “mainstream” Americans held about their darker brethren, white folks were horrified to see dead bodies of black people floating in the streets of New Orleans. They found it unacceptable that black grandmothers and grandchildren were left in the sweltering heat without food or aid. We all heard the national gasp of horror when thousands of displaced citizens were shuttled into the hellhole that was the Superdome.

In 2005, at the beginning of a new century, it was becoming quite clear that “mainstream” America was beginning to admit it had a race problem—and a president problem. As we all know, the first step in recovery is claiming your illness. Things once left in the closet were now the topic of serious discussions both in the press and around the kitchen table. The trust we once placed in our president was deteriorating rapidly, and this time, we noticed. More deeply rooted than our avoidance of real debate about race was a clear identification with those unfortunate souls in the Lower Ninth Ward. I mean, we all have a grandmother we’d give our left arm for, right? A loved one who we’d rather see dead than degraded in the streets, while our president vacationed and palled around with “Brownie,” who was doing a “heckuva job”? In short, America woke up.

Polls have steadily tracked Bush’s decline in favorability since 9/11. Americans endured eight years of inept leadership, including his war of choice in Iraq, his lies about WMDs, his endorsement of torture, his failure to capture bin Laden, and his piss-poor responses to Katrina and the financial disaster heard ’round the world. In 2008, his last year in office, he earned the worst Gallup quarterly approval rating of any president since 1945: a blistering 27 percent. Katrina became the impetus for this national about-face on Bush. She exposed a systemic effort to distort the will of the people—white, black and otherwise—in the interest of the powerful, privileged few. She allowed us to fully understand the abuse of power and betrayal of trust that we ignored with Monica.

Senator John Kerry, who was defeated by Bush in 2004 only through trickery, put it best:

Katrina is the background of a new picture we must paint of America. For five years, our nation’s leaders have painted a picture of America where ignoring the poor has no consequences, where every criticism is rendered unpatriotic. And if you say “War on Terror” enough times, Katrina never happens. Well, Katrina did happen, and it washed away that coat of paint and revealed the true canvas of America with all its imperfections. Now, we must stop this Administration from again whitewashing the true state of our challenges. We have to paint our own picture—an honest picture with all the optimism we deserve—one that gives people a vision where no one is excluded or ignored. Where leaders are honest about the challenges we face as a nation, and never reserve compassion only for disasters.

America did step up. In one fell swoop, Katrina exposed the contradictions and revealed Bush to be one of the most divisive presidents in our nation’s history. Our broken trust birthed a new appetite of rebuilding both New Orleans and the whole nation as well. The public made the concentrated choice it had failed to make with Monica by shifting from the personal invective of “every man for himself” to a belief in a shared endeavor. “What’s in it for me” became “What’s in it for us?”—at least for a while. Katrina sharpened the rallying call, bringing the wars, health care, energy dependence, national security, the environment, and education into focus through the prism of a newer, more inclusive morality. It allowed us to usher in what would become one of our greatest national moments.

 

America, Meet Michelle

Let’s get the scenario in order. A junior African-American senator captures the Democratic nomination after a long campaign against a former president’s wife. Next, he goes on to handily win three debates against a war hero and dominate all national polls before claiming a commanding victory to become the leader of the free world.

This story would be astonishing in its audacity and seeming implausibility if it weren’t true. As Winston Churchill once said, “The truth is incontrovertible. Malice may attack it, and ignorance may deride it, but in the end, there it is.”

Despite the Clintons, McCain, Palin, Wright, Ayers—hell, even despite Joe the friggin’ Plumber and all the malice and ignorance, the truth is incontrovertible. Barack Obama is the 44th president of the United States of America. There it is.

In an interview with 60 Minutes days after his historic win, President-elect Obama offered this nugget to America: “I want to make sure that I can recreate a bond of trust between the presidency and the public that, I think, has been lost.” With his eye-popping approval rating, Obama seems poised to do just that.

On November 10, 2008, the most famous dress to grace the White House was no longer Monica’s blue travesty, it was the deep red shift worn by Michelle as she toured her new home. Damn being demure! We bringin’ power to the people! The sight of Mr. Obama and his wife striding up the White House steps was a transformative image to behold. Even more than the unforgettable Grant Park moment when he declared victory to an adoring, blubbering throng of believers (including me), the first White House visit and the boldness of the future First Lady said it all. This stellar sister and her husband brought a breath of fresh air to the hallowed halls of the world’s most famous residence—and to the rusty old game of politics. In one visit, Michelle supplanted the cartoons of Monica, Katrina, and their representative presidencies, ripe with mishandled trust and low morals. In one photo op, she and Barack infused the image of the White House with pride, panache, and polish again. They are a pair to be admired, to be trusted, and, well, um, to be black! Let the church say Amen!

Yep, in 2008, the fact that our new favorite son is black makes perfect sense when you follow the path the American public has traveled, surviving both Monica and Katrina during the past sixteen years. I heard someone say that they’d never seen so many Americans crying together in happiness as they did on the night of Election Day 2008. In the past decade, Americans have huddled together in moments of demoralization and tragedy—9/11 and Katrina leap to mind. They were moments when we huddled together in our anguish, outrage, and pain. But on November 4, 2008, at 11:00 p.m. EST, when the networks announced “Obama elected president,” we huddled together in a collective wave of joy. It was a mighty first in the difficult and tragic union that is America. This first ushered in a 20/20 hindsight of our blunders and failings. Election Day was a new day and an even newer morality for America, one in which a collective enlightenment sprang forth from the ashes of untrustworthy leaders, ego-driven embarrassments, racial division, and an overall ambivalence about the American dream.

According to Gallup polls, liberals and moderates tipped the scales for Obama at 88 percent and 72 percent favorability after the election, respectively. These robust majorities proclaim that they have a positive outlook for Barack Obama’s presidency, as would be expected. However, close to half of political conservatives—45 percent—also say he will make a good president. That’s far greater than the 23 percent who voted for him in the election—radical information! The same folks who wanted to keep America in Leave It to Beaver-land, who resisted affirmative action and gay rights, and who tried to block the progression of our nation’s civil-rights legislation—these people are now leaning toward the most liberal president in United States history. Oh, and he’s black! Astonishing. We have Monica and Katrina to thank for it.

The fact that President Obama inherits a financial system near collapse, a federal deficit that boggles the mind, two wars, and a violent enemy who remains at large after more than seven years doesn’t change the fact that he is turning a page for the nation. This page must be turned. He is turning a page for the black community, too. Our story must be retooled and retold, this time, by us.

Luckily, our first black president is a black man who knows who he is and, more importantly, who knows who we are. Michelle is the magnificent symbol of his self-knowledge. Let’s not take for granted that we could have had a very different black man in this position. How would we have felt if Colin Powell or Clarence Thomas were the first black president? Just as proud? I don’t think so. If we wanted to be represented by anyone, it was and is by someone like Obama. If we wanted our story retooled and retold by anyone, it would be someone who knows who we are as a people. 

Both FDR and Reagan came into office when America was in economic emergency mode. Each went on to reframe the nation in his own image. President Obama now has the rare opportunity, strengthened by a vocal public mandate, to do the same. Imagine that. America shaped in the image of a black man, with a black woman by his side. Michelle is the steady bow of the Obama ship, one that, it seems, all of America (and the world) hopes will steer us to the Promised Land. A ship that will restore our standing in the world and our self-image at home. It is breathtaking that the new leader of the free world, the most powerful man in the world, is a black man. That he goes home to a tight-knit, loving family headed by a black woman is soul-stirring.

Michelle’s “real black womanness” isn’t lost upon anyone, black, white, or otherwise. There are no blurred lines when it comes to her lips, hips, and hair. Her swagger is all sister, all the time. I don’t mean the nonsensical, fabricated cartoon of a black woman’s swagger: gum-popping, neck-twisting, and switching. No, I mean the real swagger of a black woman: solid, strategic, strong.

How will the world react, now that the myth of blackness is being transformed by a beautiful black family in the White House? What do we do, now that the trustworthiness of the president is being reestablished by a black man? How do we act, now that the myth of inferior black intellect is destroyed and the notion of nonexistent black discipline is obliterated?

Should we function as the same characters in a new story? We can’t. We must change. Whether it’s a revolution, an evolution, or just getting our house in order, when President Obama said in his victory speech, “Change has come to America,” he meant us, too. If he is remaking America, how are you remaking yourself? Your family? What will be your story? Our story? The story that walks out before us into this nation and around the world. Most importantly, it will be the story that is reflected back in our own mirrors.

We must add a new name to the litany of monikers that will represent this country. No more Monica. No more Katrina. Choose the name of a woman who has changed your life and changed your mind: a woman who represents the best of you. Let’s list her after Michelle and begin a new name game, one in which everyone wins.

We’re blessed to be living and breathing and loving and hoping in this time. These are glorious days. These are the days that will be immortalized in history books for hundreds of years to come. These are the greatest days of our collective life. We are alive to drink of the sweet nectar of these days. We are here!

The truth is incontrovertible, if we make it so. We are here! And there it is.

 

—Ava DuVernay

 

Ava DuVernay is president/founder of DVA Media + Marketing, the parent company to DVAPR, Urban Thought Collective, UrbanEye, and Urban Beauty Collective. Through DVA, DuVernay reaches millions of urban consumers each month on behalf of high-profile clients at Paramount, Warner Brothers, Fox, ABC, HBO, the CW, and Showtime, to name a few. She is also an award-winning filmmaker, having directed and produced the feature documentary This Is the Life and Showtime’s Saturday Night Life under her Forward Movement banner. Her second feature film, Middle of Nowhere, won the 2012 Sundance Film Festival prize for Best Director.

Thursday
Jan172013

Anjali Becker on Notre Dame and Campus Sex Assaults

As Salon's Irin Carmon points out, Notre Dame already has a woman-and-football-players problem. It's just not the problem that people are talking about right now. In September 2010, St. Mary's College freshman Elizabeth "Lizzy" Seeberg was found dead of an apparent suicide, just days after alleging that she had been sexually assaulted by a Notre Dame football player. The Chicago Tribune launched a year-long investigation into sexual assaults that take place on campuses all across the Midwest. Their investigation uncovered disturbing evidence of antiquated and obfuscated reporting and prosecuting practices and led to subsequent reforms at schools across the region. Campus Sex Assaults gathers that year-long investigation into one ebook. It is an important story that should be read by sports media, educators, parents, and students alike.

Monday
Jan072013

The Wall Street Journal on the ebooks slowdown 

An interesting essay by digital media pundit Nicholas Carr on the slowing pace of ebook adoption--one I admit to favoring because it pretty much tracks my own ideas about the ultimate place of the ebook in our media ecosphere.

E-books, in other words, may turn out to be just another format—an even lighter-weight, more disposable paperback. That would fit with the discovery that once people start buying digital books, they don't necessarily stop buying printed ones. In fact, according to Pew, nearly 90% of e-book readers continue to read physical volumes. The two forms seem to serve different purposes.

Wednesday
Dec262012

Laying low

So apparently most of the rest of the nearby states to the south and east of us are being pummelled with snow, and we may be due for a bit ourselves. It's going to be pretty quiet around here until we're into the new year. Until 2013!

Tuesday
Dec112012

Jali Becker on opinion, race, guns, politics, and books

David Sirota over at Salon.com recently addressed the controversy Bob Costas caused when he spoke out about gun control during the halftime of an NFL game. Costas was responding to the tragic murder-suicide of Kansas City Chiefs player Jovan Belcher. His comments raised some ire from those who argued that a football game was no place for “political” commentary, especially from a man whose role was to be a sportscaster. Sirota’s main argument is that in a democracy, those entitled to express an opinion should not be decided on the basis of so-called “expert” status. He also touches briefly on the interconnected roles of sports and politics in our society.

This immediately brought to my mind Agate Midway’s upcoming March 2013 release, Ramblers, which focuses on the 1963 Loyola Chicago Ramblers basketball team and the NCAA men’s basketball championship tournament. The Ramblers fielded what was then an extremely progressive lineup of four African-American starters, and their opponent in the championship game, Cincinnati, had three African-American starters. This was at a time when opportunities for African-Americans in sports (and elsewhere, of course) were extremely limited. Indeed, one of Loyola's opponents in the NCAA tournament, the Mississippi State Bulldogs, had to sneak out of town just to participate due to a longstanding "unwritten rule" forbidding Mississippi teams from playing against integrated teams.  

Author Michael Lenehan does an excellent job of painting the political and social pressures these teams faced while trying to play their game. Sports are one arena where talent always wins out, regardless of race, class, or creed. Ability earns respect, challenging assumptions about supposed inferiority. In 1963, the Loyola Chicago Ramblers were quite simply the best, and their success, as well as the success of other integrated teams, would go on to break down preconceptions about African Americans and their abilities.

Ramblers includes a wonderful anecdote that illustrates the power of sports to change people’s prejudices. In 1944, there was a game between the all-black North Carolina College Eagles basketball team and the all-white Duke University Medical School intramural team, which that year was reportedly better than the Duke varsity team. The game had to be carried out in absolute secrecy to avoid conflict in racially segregated Durham, North Carolina. The Eagles demolished the med students 88–44. Then the teams switched up and played a mixed game for fun, and afterward went back to the Eagles players’ dorm for refreshments. One of the Duke players wrote a letter to his parents a few days later:

Oh, I wonder if I told you that we played basketball against a Negro college team. Well, we did and we sure had fun and I especially had a good time, for most of the fellows playing with me were Southerners…. And when the evening was over, most of them had changed their views quite a lot.

Tuesday
Dec042012

Ladies and gentlemen--Eric Felten!

Making an encore performance in last week's Wall Street Journal was our favorite chronicler of cocktail culture, whose How's Your Drink? was Agate Surrey's first serious foray into publishing cocktail books. He's returned from his long absence from the spirits beat to address a topic that is dear to my heart--we drink better cocktails when we drink smaller cocktails. Vintage Felten.

Thursday
Nov292012

Copyediting and life

From Granta--one of the best personal testaments I've ever read about living with the mind of an editor.

Friday
Nov162012

How the sausage is made, latest installment

At the release party for Kate Moss's new book, the venerable supermodel modestly revealed the truth of her role in the book's creation: “Well, I didn’t actually have to write anything.”

Thursday
Nov012012

Is the Penguin Random merger good for indie publishers?

In England, at least, some say yes.

Saturday
Oct272012

Ta-Nehisi Coates on magazines and diversity

For some time I've been meaning to link to this typically excellent post by Ta-Nehisi Coates, a young(er) black journalist whose work I've admired for years now, most of which I've encountered in that venerable but persistently vital organ, The Atlantic. In this job I read a lot about race in America, and I think Coates's recent work is about as thoughtful and honest as it gets.

 

Sunday
Oct142012

Bill Gates, in his own words

We recently asked Lisa Rogak, the editor of the new Agate B2 release Impatient Optimist: Bill Gates In His Own Words, a few questions about Gates and what went into creating this new book, which is made up of quotations drawn from Gates's public statements and interviews over the past 30-odd years.

What were some of the themes of Bill Gates’s life that came through when you were researching and compiling this book?

The first thing I noticed as I researched Gates's early years was his ability to focus and never waver once he set his mind—and will—to accomplishing something. Another theme I realized was that despite appearances to the contrary, this is a guy who does indeed work well with others. Plus, he has been able to forge alliances with some pretty uncommon bedfellows through the years, from Warren Buffett and Bono to Bill Clinton.

What was the most surprising thing you learned about Gates during your research?

I was surprised to see how much he has mellowed over the years. And also that he has a keen, dry sense of humor. But probably most of all, that his philanthropic efforts are incredibly diverse—they run the gamut from technology to social causes—and that he's been able to make a significant difference for many individuals and charities since launching his foundation, particularly since leaving Microsoft and concentrating his efforts on his philanthropy full-time.

Do you have any insights as to why people are so fascinated with tech CEOs like Bill Gates and Steve Jobs?

Because they see that in a world filled with extremely successful businesspeople and CEOs, tech entrepreneurs like Gates and Jobs have ventured so far beyond everyone else. Their efforts have exerted a powerful and very close influence on the daily lives of millions of people throughout the world. And they have a spillover effect, as we have clearly seen how the products introduced by newer tech entrepreneurs like Zuckerberg and the founders of Twitter have actually helped to topple dictatorships and effect real change in some heretofore sketchy political regimes around the world.  

What do you think will be Gates’s most lasting contribution?

I think Gates's most lasting contribution is twofold. For one, his technological brilliance and foresight, and his ability to blast out to the front of the pack when he declared that it was his goal to have a computer in every home and on every desktop. Second, his charity, which even his fans would never have picked up on in the early days when he was growing Microsoft. His philanthropy will likely affect the world for centuries to come. 

What should readers take away from Impatient Optimist?

Several things. First, from a business standpoint, perusing the quotes in Impatient Optimist will reveal instances where Gates faced a number of seemingly insurmountable dilemmas and was able to overcome them with the tools at hand. This should inspire readers to deal with the problems and challenges in their own business lives. Second, they'll be able to learn more about Bill Gates as a person and what makes him tick in his private life—something that is rarely explored.

Tuesday
Oct092012

The future of cookbooks?

So, cookbooks are dying. But they are most likely going to survive the deaths of every other sort of book, this author tells us. But die they will! And the sun will eventually burn out, too. Let's enjoy them while they last, especially during this remarkable period when print cookbooks and digital cookbooks seem to be coexisting just fine.

Friday
Sep282012

The realities of 2012 ebook technology

If this sort of thing can happen to the world's most high-profile writer, with her very high-profile new book, it can happen to any author, any book, any publisher. In fact, I can tell you it is happening to a great many ebooks bought and sold at this point in time. For good or ill, this is the general state--i.e., not particularly dependable--of this technology at this moment in time. It's getting better, but I think everyone involved should be realistic about where things stand at this moment, and mindful that publishers and retailers are trying to improve things.

"Yesterday the eBook file for The Casual Vacancy by J.K. Rowling was released to all U.S. eBook retailers. There were issues with that file, including the adjustability of font color and size and adjustability of margins. As soon as Hachette was made aware of these issues, a replacement file was uploaded to all eBook retailers. Hachette has requested that each retailer contact their customers directly about reloading their eBook.

J.K. Rowling's new ebook had a few problems

Saturday
Sep152012

Lawrence Norfolk on writing about food

Longtime Friend of Agate Lawrence Norfolk has just published another characteristically brilliant novel, called John Saturnall's Feast, his first in twelve years. Norfolk has traveled a somewhat fitful journey to global literary stardom, one that's set him a little apart from his cohort of mid-career British novelists. He's probably better known on the Continent than he is in his native England, and he's steeply underappreciated here in the U.S.; this should be remedied, as his work is at least as accomplished as that of American contemporaries like Chabon, Egan, Eugenides, et. al. He's coming to America later this month for a brief tour. The new novel is terrific, like all of Lawrence's books--just ask Agate's associate publisher, Diana Slickman, as the Chicago Reader did this week.The title character in John Saturnall's Feast is a gifted 17th-century chef, and Lawrence recently wrote a brief investigation of the challenges involved in writing about food, cooking, and (especially) eating, which is defiinitely instructive stuff for us cookbook publishers.

Monday
Sep102012

Q.&A. with Natasha Korecki

Natasha Korecki, creator of the famed "Blago Blog" and longtime reporter for the Chicago Sun-Times, has just published Only in Chicago: How the Rod Blagojevich Scandal Engulfed Illinois; Embroiled Barack Obama, Rahm Emanuel, and Jesse Jackson Jr.; and Enthralled the Nation with our stand-alone ebook imprint, Agate Digital. An excerpt from the book appeared earlier today on the Sun-Times website, and we invited Natasha to share her thoughts about the book.

Natasha Korecki

First things first: What was he thinking?

As the feds closed in, Blagojevich was struggling to raise money, and his inability to do so was costing him his political power. He arguably began crossing the line as he grew more frustrated and desperate.

Could this be considered just a case of “Chicago politics as usual” wherein Blagojevich was unlucky enough to be caught? What makes this case different from other Illinois corruption scandals?

Blagojevich came up as part of the “Chicago Machine,” in that his father-in-law, powerful Chicago Alderman Dick Mell, helped launch his political career. But as the ex-governor alienated more and more people—including Mell—it was as if the Machine chewed him up and spat him out. What made it different was that the blatant conduct caught on the recordings took place after two of his closest fundraisers had been criminally charged.

In a story full of shocking, seemingly inexplicable twists, what stood out to you as the most bizarre?

Seeing Rod Blagojevich enter the federal courtroom wearing a jogging suit as an in-custody arrestee is an image I won’t soon forget.

What was it like to have a front-row seat to this story, day in and day out?

It was incredibly dramatic, particularly during the first trial. The testimony was explosive, but then the tapes were even more entertaining. On top of that, the lawyering in the case was sharp and humorous. I relished my front-row seat.

Is Blagojevich as out of touch with reality as he seems? Is it possible to find any sympathy for him?

He continued to have incredible faith in himself even when it appeared obvious that he was headed for defeat. He believed he could win over a jury just like he won over tens of thousands of voters. People are complex and, as in most cases, there’s more than one side to him. It’s a sad situation for his two daughters.

How do you think the other players in this saga fit in, most notably Blagojevich’s wife, Patti?

It was an incredibly tragic tale for some, particularly Christopher Kelly. Others were politically harmed, including Roland Burris, who chose to accept Blagojevich’s appointment to the Senate seat even after the governor was criminally charged. As for Patti, she was caught on numerous embarrassing phone recordings and was accused of being a ghost payroller for Tony Rezko. Ultimately though, the charges involving Patti were not proven in court.

Were you surprised at the national reaction to and interest in “The Blago Blog”? Why do you think people are so fascinated by his story?

I was surprised that it stretched so far beyond Illinois. I think the tapes were the biggest reason people were so captivated by the trials. There was no shortage of incredible conversation caught on tape and there always was the prospect of another major politico being caught on a recording. 

Among the other players singed in this scandal, who's been most negatively affected?

Without question, U.S. Rep. Jesse Jackson Jr. The scandal has dogged him for the last four years and ended up exposing not only a questionable relationship with a fundraiser but also the fact that he was having an affair.  As far as his recent health struggles go, I think that as with most things that have transpired in this case, there’s likely more to the story.

Saturday
Sep082012

Mike Sula on squirrel

I am a little late to the party regarding this terrific article by the Chicago Reader's Mike Sula about eating squirrel. It's just too good, though, not to take note of it. Agate is based in an older suburb/college town full of large trees and vulnerable garbage receptacles, and squirrels are omnipresent. We have more than our fair share of pigeons, too, and the open green spaces--parks, golf courses, and the like--have significant semipermanent goose populations. I can't help but look at these abundant creatures and wonder, as Sula does, why and how we lost our sense of them as food sources.

As Sula points out, it's not like these animals weren't very common fare right up until the mid-20th century or so. The argument for eating squirrel, and pigeon and goose, is not like the argument for eating insects or worms. So what happened over the past 60–70 years or so that led Americans away from this sort of "small game," as the Evanston writer John Blades referred to squirrels in his novel of the same name from about 20 years back? Sula has some interesting thoughts about that, among other things. Recommended.

Wednesday
Sep052012

Guest Post - How Divorce Court Saved My Marriage

Judge Lynn Toler is the author of the newly released Making Marriage Work (Agate Bolden 2012) and My Mother's Rules (Agate Bolden 2007). She's also the featured judge on Divorce Court, the longest running court program on television. A longer version of this essay previously appeared on Huffington Post Weddings.

Judge Lynn Toler

As the judge on Divorce Court, I am familiar with the thematic mistakes made in marriages. Yes, I know the show is often a little silly, but when my husband and I were staring into the marital abyss, I learned a valuable lesson from Divorce Court that helped me out at home.

I learned this particular lesson from couples who couldn’t figure out how they had gotten to Divorce Court in the first place. They had marriages that went awry in such small increments they didn’t know what had happened. But before me they were forced to compress years' worth of trouble into a short presentation. Each telling me a different story the other was usually surprised to hear, they often found that they were coming apart not because one or both were wrong, but because of unexamined needs. Seeing that scenario play out before me over and over again helped me figure out what was going wrong in my own home.

Lynn and Big E on their wedding day

By year 19, my husband, Big E, and I were off the road and deep in the weeds. Having become a father at 19, my husband married his first wife and had four children by the time he was 26. As a result he never got to do as he pleased because he did so much for others. When he looked at me he saw new and unencumbered. He saw me as the first installment in a lot of choices he was owed. 

I, on the other hand, was raised in a house that rocked and rolled on the rhythm of whatever was wrong with Dad, who was brilliant, principled, and also bipolar. Stuff was jumping off at my house all of the time and you never knew when or why. When I looked at Big E, I saw stable, safe, and secure.

Once we married, however, every time E didn’t get his way it was another drop in a bucket of sacrifices. By being willing to give me the children I sought—which, when you think about it, is huge—he took everything else off the table. Any desire I had that didn’t match his got me a little static. Though E was just ordinary, everyday annoyed about things, I didn’t see it that way. Even the mildest objection he raised prompted that voice in the back of my head to say, “Shut it down; it could go bad.” So instead of engaging in any meaningful exchange, I capitulated, repeatedly.

If you keep selling surrender like that, eventually the other person buys. Over time I taught my husband that by merely furrowing his brow he could get me to back off my position. And once you start that nonsense, the person whose pardon you are continuously begging begins to believe that you are, in fact, a perpetual problem. 

Of course, the hardest thing in the world for anyone to see is oneself. I didn’t know all this was what we were doing until I stepped back from where we were and looked at it as if I were on the bench. That’s when I saw all of the small stupid that landed us where we were. Once I got past the anger I started to address my own fears and learned how to communicate effectively. He followed suit because he saw that I had changed in a way that was in his best interests. We then decided to fight the problem instead of fighting one another.

Lynn and Big EOf course, this does not guarantee we’ll get to happily ever after. Marriage is quite the journey and things change all of the time. But our marriage is better now because it is a mindful one. We keep an eye on our competing needs. We no longer act on that right-now feeling without considering long-term consequence.  We have made a conscious decision to be consciously married. We also have our fingers crossed.

Tuesday
Jul242012

Wings of desire--a love story

I consider myself to be, in large part, a son of Buffalo. It’s true I was not born there, but my parents were, and lived there until after their marriage, and throughout my boyhood we made frequent trips to visit grandparents, aunts, uncles, and cousins. I moved there in the summer of 1979, right before my senior year of high school, lean and hungry and open to new experiences. I’d sampled wings (as they are known in Buffalo—also, occasionally as “chicken wings” or maybe “hot wings,” but never as “Buffalo wings”) before but they’d never really compelled me until I moved there. Buffalo was surprisingly rich in distinct little foodways unique to Western New York, and at the time wings were just one of a number of regional specialties I devoted myself to exploring. I lived in a small town at the outermost edge of Buffalo’s eastern suburbs, one which at the time had an abbreviated rim of suburban development beside an expanse of farmland that rolled almost uninterrupted north and east to Lake Ontario and Rochester. Near the outer edge of this development, hard by the main town park, was Teso’s Pizza Café, a still-new establishment that had swiftly become a favorite of the town’s high school students. A favorite, that is, until we turned 18, which at that time was New York’s legal drinking age. Until then, Teso’s was it.

            At this remove I can’t hope to remember how many dozens of wings I ate that year. I never got to the Anchor Bar, the birthplace of the hot wing, which was deep in Buffalo proper; my family, which had dispersed out of North Buffalo to a variety of suburban towns ringing the city, favored the wings at a place called Duff’s, which now claims that “everyone in the world knows the Anchor Bar, but everyone in Buffalo knows Duff’s.” I ordered wings pretty much everywhere I went out to eat, and it was hard to find bad ones, but Teso’s became the place I ate them most often. I went there with my family, I went there with my friends, but best of all, I went there with my new girlfriend. She was a junior, a very serious girl with green eyes and a great laugh and tastes far more cultivated than mine in almost every respect. She merely condescended to wings. I would order a dozen and they would come (as they always came) to the table with a quantity of celery sticks and a small cup of chunky blue cheese dressing. She might have a wing or two, but it amused her to watch me cover the lower half of my face in orange hot sauce while she crunched through the celery, with an occasional dip into the blue cheese. Perhaps this was the reason I’ve largely eschewed eating wings with blue cheese or other embellishments over the intervening years—I looked at it as hers, not to be poached on our sullied by a dip from one of my wings.

            At the time, I thought this was a nearly perfect arrangement—I got the wings, she got the celery, and we each had what we preferred. I was, it turns out, wrong—it was not actually a nearly perfect arrangement, as much as I wished it were so. But at the time, I couldn’t get enough—they were hot, sharp, overwhelming, even. Addictive. I had no self control, and I had no desire for self control. Many nights at Teso’s, a mere dozen would not be enough.

            Flash forward six years, most of which I spent in St. Louis, a pleasant town with a few nice places to eat but for the most part a culinary backwater. Through most of the early 80s, wings remained what they’d always been, a local phenomenon confined to Western New York, but things were starting to change. The country was becoming more prosperous and people were starting to eat out more, and regional specialties began to appear on the menus of both fast-proliferating chain restaurants and those local places willing to broaden their bill of fare. This became vividly apparent when I left sleepy St. Louis, with its sole sushi bar and one lonely Thai restaurant, and came to Chicago in January of 1986. Another woman was involved—in this case, a slim architect eager to find work in one of the world’s great centers of architecture. I joined her in her large bi-level studio at State and Ontario, in a historically significant building. We each found work in our chosen fields, and we dove into our life together the way eager, ambitious, and mostly broke young people always have. There was a premium on finding good cheap places to eat, and these were plentiful in River North. We ate lots of great Thai (no shortage of that in Chicago—there were four Thai places in a two-block radius around our apartment) and lots of deep dish. We spent a great deal of time together, which is not hard to do in a one-room apartment, however large that room. A fantastic neighborhood Mexican place opened up a few blocks away, right across the street from her office on Clark Street, and we went there several times for chips and margaritas—until it got written up in the New York Times, and suddenly Frontera Grill became much tougher to get into after work.

            Around the corner, though, on Hubbard, was a bar and grill marked by a big sign featuring a big pair of disembodied lips being wetly licked by a big tongue. This fit right in on that stretch of Hubbard, which leaned heavily toward peep shows and strip clubs. It was called Hot Licks, and it was the first place I found in Chicago that served hot wings like the ones I remembered from Buffalo. My girlfriend didn’t particularly like hot wings, but she was OK with celery and blue cheese, and she liked a good burger, which Hot Licks also did well. We spent many evenings there after work, eating and drinking beer with our new friends, and I rekindled my passion for wings. Theirs were the hottest I ever remember eating—I would reel into the men’s room, dizzy, sweating, my lips and tongue on fire, and splash cold water on my face. And go back to the table for more.

            Hot Licks is long gone now. Its sister joint, Frankie Z’s, used to serve the same wings for a while out of its space around the corner on Clark, but then it too succumbed to the relentless upscaling of River North. The architect and I parted ways, and I learned (I hope) more about relationships in general and the challenges posed to young couples by living in one-room apartments in particular.

            I moved to the north side. I met a few more women, none of whom I recollect having an opinion on wings. Before long I got a new job in Evanston, working out of the Fountain Square Building at Davis and Sherman. Wings were starting to crop up on still more menus, but in Evanston I found something new. Something special. A place opened just south and west of the Northwestern campus that proudly claimed the chicken wing as its specialty of the house. I mean, of course, Buffalo Joe’s, which now boasts a quarter-century heritage of feeding college and high school students from its storefront on Clarke Street west of Sherman (and later its outposts on Green Bay Road and Howard Street).

            As the years unfolded, Buffalo Joe’s went from a phenomenon to an institution. It set an admirable standard, adhering to a traditional, unadorned Buffalo-style wing that found a large, enduring, and very partisan following. At the same time, across the country, as the 80s turned into the 90s, and then the twentieth century into the twenty-first, the lowly wing—essentially, tavern food from a small and not particularly distinguished Rust Belt city—began to ascend to unprecedented heights of popularity. It became (as it remains) a staple of the appetizer lists at most casual or bar and grill-type restaurants. As the chain restaurants flourished, they extended the wing’s reach even further. Beyond that, a few chains began to establish themselves that, like Buffalo Joe’s, built their identity around the wing. One called itself BW3 and followed the time-tested Domino’s business model of opening up outlets near college campuses. As it grew, it changed its name, becoming known as Buffalo Wild Wings. By the time the 2000s came along, the wing had become ubiquitous--as had the much-mocked sobriquet “Buffalo wing.”

            While working in Evanston, I met another woman, a schoolteacher who worked at Evanston Township High School and who had grown up very nearby. As it turns out, she doesn’t much care for chicken wings, though she has nothing against celery and can kind of take or leave the blue cheese. We had a rocky courtship, but I’d accumulated enough experience by now to realize that what we had was worth enduring a pretty considerable quantity of rockiness. Reader, I married her, and since then have devoted myself to exploring everything necessary to make a relationship happy and successful. I left that Evanston-based job, and with it my easy access to Buffalo Joe’s, but after starting a family, we moved to Evanston in 1998, and a few years after that I started Agate here as well. Since then, I have had occasion to eat plenty of chicken wings—my daughter likes them, and my son loves them. Fortunately for us, Evanston has become something of a wing oasis. Buffalo Joe’s is going strong. A few years ago, southwest Evanston was graced with the opening of a Wingstop franchise on Main just east of McCormick. Buffalo Wild Wings opened a massive outpost just north of the Century 16 theater on Maple. And most recently, Wings over Evanston opened at Emerson and Ridge. That’s four wing places in a town of under 80,000. What riches are ours to celebrate! And that doesn’t even include all the great wings served at non-wing-dedicated places.

            As we prepare for the 2012 Evanston Wing-off, it seemed appropriate to reflect on what brought me to this moment, and this opportunity. When I sit at the judging table, tasked with my fellows to determine the best wing in Evanston, I will bring almost 30 years of devotion to the effort. I can’t wait. After all these years, the heat—and the responding passion—is unabated. Love is served by the dozen.

Friday
Jul202012

Agate announces judges for Evanston Wing-Off 2012

Agate Publishing is proud to announce the esteemed judges for the Evanston Wing-Off 2012. After a long and careful search, we have an expert panel whose background, credentials, and genuine love of Buffalo chicken wings make them uniquely qualified to help us crown the best wing establishment in Evanston. We are honored to welcome the following experts on Tuesday, July 24th:

 

  • Janet Rausa Fuller – Former Chicago Sun-Times food editor and 2012 James Beard Award nominee
  • Parneshia Jones – Poetry editor at Northwestern University Press, publisher of the 2011 National Book Award winner for poetry, Nikki Finney
  • Martha Bayne – Former Chicago Reader food editor, founder of Soup & Bread night at the Hideout, and author of Soup & Bread Cookbook
  • Andrew Brochu – Executive chef at Graham Elliot, former executive chef of Pops for Champagne and Kith & Kin, and former Alinea cook

 

These four aficionados will join the judging table alongside Agate’s own cookbook editors, producers, and several other wing cognoscenti on staff.

The Evanston Wing-Off 2012 will be a blind taste test where all entrants (Wingstop, Wings Over Evanston, Buffalo Joe’s, and Buffalo Wild Wings) will be anonymous to the judges, who will rank the Buffalo chicken wings in the following areas: Best Sauce, Best Meat, Best Texture/Mouthfeel, and Best Overall.

“The most important thing with something like this, other than it be run competently,” says Ashlee Humphreys, a Northwestern assistant professor whose research focuses on consumer behavior, “is that consumers perceive it as a fair and legitimate contest.” Agate employees are frequently subjected to Competency Aptitude Testing (CAT), which can involve tests ranging from basic reading comprehension to quickly locating the best cat photos on the Internet, as well as a test of making the perfect artisanal cup of drip-brew, fresh-ground coffee. When asked to comment on the legitimacy of Agate’s blind taste test methodologies, Humphreys said, “Rest assured you have my full endorsement.”

While this year’s Wing-Off will be a closed event, Agate invites the public at large to participate in Wing-Off 2012-related discussion on Facebook and Twitter (hashtag #WingOff2012). Agate is also assuring the complete legitimacy of this contest by making a solemn oath by the Lost Eye of Odin to uphold the rigorous academic and scientific standards of the blind taste test (this is traditionally the most binding promise an Agate employee—or any publishing professional—can make).

Please help us in spread the word about the Evanston 2012 Wing-Off by participating in the online discussion and telling us your thoughts on the art of Buffalo chicken wings.