"Made in the Shade" A package on Southern writers: profiles, interviews and an 11-state directory of writers you may never have heard of but are worth your time. Appeared in Creative Loafing chain.
"Mass Appeal" A day-in-the-life profile of a telegenic parish priest in Miami. Published in Catholic Digest, reprinted in the St. Petersburg Times
"The Liberation of Tam Minh Pham" How the first West Point graduate from South Vietnam disappears after the fall of Saigon, only to be rescued by his classmates two decades later. A cover story in The Washington Post Magazine
On display at Slate.com, "What Marie Antoinette Really Wore", a vivid example of status details, the literary device that is both descriptive and revelatory. What strikes me is how much knowledge/or reporting it takes to get the details right.
It also brought to mind the work of Washington Post Fashion writer Robin Ghivan who won the 2006 Pulitzer Prize for criticism wields status details like a rapier.
Consider this Jan. 28, 2005 column about the attire of VP Dick Cheney at the ceremony commemorating the 60th anniversay of the liberation of Auschwitz.
(I'd happily link it to its presence on the Pulitzer site, but for some unfathomable reason the P-Board doesn't provide individual URLs any of the winning entries that have been posted online since 1994.)
Here's the piece in its entirety:
At yesterday's gathering of world leaders in southern Poland to mark the 60th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz, the United States was represented by Vice President Cheney. The ceremony at the Nazi death camp was outdoors, so those in attendance, such as French President Jacques Chirac and Russian President Vladimir Putin, were wearing dark, formal overcoats and dress shoes or boots. Because it was cold and snowing, they were also wearing gentlemen's hats. In short, they were dressed for the inclement weather as well as the sobriety and dignity of the event.
The vice president, however, was dressed in the kind of attire one typically wears to operate a snow blower.
Cheney stood out in a sea of black-coated world leaders because he was wearing an olive drab parka with a fur-trimmed hood. It is embroidered with his name. It reminded one of the way in which children's clothes are inscribed with their names before they are sent away to camp. And indeed, the vice president looked like an awkward boy amid the well-dressed adults.
Like other attendees, the vice president was wearing a hat. But it was not a fedora or a Stetson or a fur hat or any kind of hat that one might wear to a memorial service as the representative of one's country. Instead, it was a knit ski cap, embroidered with the words "Staff 2001." It was the kind of hat a conventioneer might find in a goodie bag.
It is also worth mentioning that Cheney was wearing hiking boots -- thick, brown, lace-up ones. Did he think he was going to have to hike the 44 miles from Krakow -- where he had made remarks earlier in the day -- to Auschwitz?
His wife, Lynne, was seated next to him. Her coat has a hood, too, and it is essentially a parka. But it is black and did not appear to be functioning as either a name tag or a billboard. One wonders if at some point the vice president turned to his wife, took in her attire and asked himself why they seemed to be dressed for two entirely different events.
Some might argue that Cheney was the only attendee with the smarts to dress for the cold and snowy weather. But sometimes, out of respect for the occasion, one must endure a little discomfort.
Just last week, in a frigid, snow-dusted Washington, Cheney sat outside through the entire inauguration without so much as a hat and without suffering frostbite. And clearly, Cheney owns a proper overcoat. The world saw it during his swearing-in as vice president. Cheney treated that ceremony with the dignity it deserved -- not simply through his demeanor, but also through his attire. Would he have dared to take the oath of office with a ski cap on? People would have justifiably considered that an insult to the office, the day, the country.
There is little doubt that intellectually Cheney approached the Auschwitz ceremony with thoughtfulness and respect. But symbolism is powerful. That's why the piercing cry of a train whistle marked the beginning of the ceremony and the glare of searchlights signaled its end. The vice president might have been warm in his parka, ski cap and hiking boots. But they had the unfortunate effect of suggesting that he was more concerned with his own comfort than the reason for braving the cold at all."
How many status details can you count?
(Photo credit: Herbert Knosowski, Associated Press)
French novelist Honoré de Balzac, 19th century literary realist and tireless collector of status details, would have been proud.
On display in today's New York Times was one of those details that, as Tom Wolfe observed, is "symbolic,
generally, of people's status life,
using that term in the broad sense of the entire pattern of behavior and
possessions through which people express their position in the world or what
they think it is or what they hope it to be.
In her story about the Senatorial contest in Virginia between Republican incumbent and staunch Bush Administration supporter George Allen and anti-war Democrat and Vietnam War vet James Webb, New York Times political reporter Robin Toner made this observation:
"The war is not an abstract issue for Mr. Webb. His son, Jimmy, 24, a
lance corporal in the Marines, shipped out to Iraq this month. He wears
his son’s old combat boots on the campaign trail, in tribute to him and
“all the people sent into harm’s way.”
Mr. Webb tells his audiences that the idea came from his son, who noted
that Mr. Allen always wore cowboy boots, though “there are no cowboys
Accompanying the story was a floor's eye view of the same detail by Associated Press photographer Kevin Wolf, an image that more sharply demonstrates the contrast. (Click to enlarge)
From head to polished or scuffed toe, status details can speak volumes about a person's self-view; in a tight political race, even the choice of footwear could make all the difference. Writers should get as many of them in their notebooks. That way when they're looking for what best sums up a subject's appearance, they have the most apt detail to draw from.