Wiseguys with Fedoras in the Shadows: Why I Love Telling Noir Stories

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I’ve always loved a good crime drama. When I was in high school, I was obsessed with the film noir classics — Double Indemnity, The Big Sleep, D.O.A., Dark Passage. There is something about the tense atmosphere and moral ambiguity of the genre that fascinates me. A sense of doom permeated those films, especially the ones made during the years of the Hays Code, when the studios would not allow depictions of murderers and thieves getting away with their crimes. You knew that eventually, the protagonist was going to run out of time and be caught or killed, but didn’t know when or how they would meet their end.

I was so enamored with the genre that during my freshman year of college, I set out to make a film noir movie of my own. I never quite managed to finish the script (sadly, I cannot even remember what the story was supposed to be about), but I was in love with playing with the tropes of film noir; the black and white; the shadows; and fedoras. Obscure Studios wound up only making a 52-second trailer for The Third Degree. It’s amateurish and embarrassing to the point of causing me pain to rewatch, but it also captures some of the dark mood, gritty style, over-the-top drinking, and corny dialogue of my favorite crime thrillers of the 1940s. Maybe someday, I’ll come back to it and give it a face-lift.

It’s been a while since I’ve ventured into the seedy underbelly of the city in my storytelling and as summer gives way to fall, my thoughts have turned to heists, foul play, and the desperate acts of self preservation that push a person to commit crime.

Apparently, I’m not the only one who starts thinking about whodunits when September rolls around. This month’s Creative Colloquy is themed around crime fiction, so if you’re in the mood for mystery, you can come hear me read my latest short story at our next gathering. In “How to Steal Copper Wire,” I put a modern twist on classic noir staples and do a little digging into what motivates people to turn to illegal acts.

If you’re in Tacoma, you should stop by to hear it. The reading is at Black Kettle Bites and Brew this Monday, September 18 at 7pm. I’ll be spinning my yarn alongside awesome local writers Jack Cameron, Leah Mueller, and James A. Gilletti. Hope to see you there for a night of murder, mayhem, and intrigue.

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Jonny Eberle is a writer, photographer, filmmaker (though mostly of poorly lit trailers for unmade movies) in the City of Destiny.

Follow him on Twitter or subscribe to the monthly email newsletter to receive exclusive content.

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The Magic of Deadlines

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 Racers cross finish line in 5K run. U.S. Navy photo by Candice Villarreal.

I have heard rumors in my travels of creative people who are entirely self-motivated. They get up early, awakened by an innate drive to create, go to their computers, ignore Facebook and Google, and complete their work in a timely manner with no exterior motivator. I am not one of those people. I’m not even sure they exist.

Don’t get me wrong — I love to write. I’m bursting with stories to tell and would happily write all the time if given the chance. But after a long day at work, there’s dinner to make, chores to conquer, Netflix to be watched, and it’s hard to give up that precious downtime to the task of writing. While I’m passionate about writing, it requires a lot of energy, which is one thing I do not generally have in abundance. And so, weeks will go by without putting words to the page.

Unless, of course, there’s a deadline to meet.

Deadlines are magical things. As a writer and serial procrastinator, I honestly don’t know how I would complete anything without the pressure of a firm deadline to keep me going. It’s easy to put a story off to the next day or the next when I’m on my own timeline, but when I have to submit something for publication by a certain date, something clicks.

I have always thrived under a deadline. Some of my best work gets done with only minutes to spare. There’s no time for scrolling through Facebook, debating the exact phrasing of a passage, or starting all over again when you’re under the gun. There’s a clarity and an insanity in rushing to finish. It may not make for the most lyrical prose, but I’ve found that the immediacy of my work is heightened and the tempo of the action rises when I’m a little bit rushed.

I’m trying to teach myself to write on a set schedule, but I’ve never been that kind of person. I create in flashes and then go silent until the next unexpected strike of inspiration and inclination.

This week, I realized that I was in danger of missing the deadline for a local print anthology that I’ve appeared in twice. I didn’t want to miss out, so I dusted off a story that had been languishing in rewrite hell for years. I wrote the rough draft of this story way back in 2012 and tinkered with it off and on for five years. But it was only in the last week that I got serious about getting it ready for public view. The pressure of the deadline approaching gave me the energy to make drastic cuts and bold changes to the plot, characters, and setting. The looming deadline was perfect for a suspenseful tale that needed an infusion of new life. I’m proud of the way it turned out and thankful for the countdown that forced me to rethink a stale narrative.

Now, if only I could figure out how to get the same effect with self-imposed deadlines.

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Jonny Eberle is a writer, photographer, and filmmaker in Tacoma, WA. Be careful what you say around him, because it’s all going in his novel.

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Photographing a Very Nearly Almost Total Eclipse

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Eclipse high in the sky. Copyright 2017 Jonny Eberle.Even 200 miles from the path of totality, the solar eclipse was all anyone could talk about this week in Washington. In the mad scramble for special viewing glasses and the endless debates over whether it was worth it to brave the slog of traffic heading south, I found myself in my office’s parking lot at 10:00am on the auspicious date of August 21, 2017.

For the first time since 1918, a total solar eclipse would be visible across the entire lower 48. In Tacoma, it was calculated that we would see 94% of a total eclipse. The moment had arrived.

I’m not the kind of person who can not take a photo of a major celestial event, so I had my trusty Canon with me. Even with 6% of the Sun visible behind the disk of the Moon, pointing a camera straight into the sky for any length of time is a sure way to melt your sensor. Sunlight carries a lot of energy and camera lenses are designed to focus light into a tiny area — exactly the way a magnifying glass cooks ants. I wasn’t taking any chances.

Eclipse camera setup. Copyright 2017 Jonny Eberle. A few weeks before the event, I ordered a 4-inch-by-4-inch sheet of mylar solar viewing film and built a homemade lens adapter using the ring from a mason jar lid (my wife’s brilliant idea) and cardboard from the envelope the film came in. We were also lucky to snag a few pairs of what felt like the last remaining eclipse glasses on earth.

That morning, as I stepped outside, nothing felt abnormal, although a quick peek through my glasses showed that the Moon was already starting to cross in front of the Sun. I my tripod setup. Unfortunately but not surprisingly, autofocus doesn’t work on an object 93 million miles away, so I had to focus manually. I couldn’t look through the viewfinder at the Sun, even with the filter on the front of the lens, so instead I set my focus on some wispy clouds on the horizon — as close to infinity as I could get without burning my retinas.

I found some base exposure settings online and started from there, bracketing a bit (but not enough, in hindsight) for more exposed and less exposed shots as the eclipse progressed:

First Contact:

  • ISO 100, f/4, 1/1,000-1/4,000 second
  • ISO 200, f/5.6, 1/1,000-1/4,000 second
  • ISO 400, f/8, 1/1,000-1/4,000 second

Thin Crescent:

  • 1/500-1/2,000 second

Eclipse in black and white. Copyright 2017 Jonny Eberle.

Then, it was just a matter of aiming the camera up and clicking the shutter. At this point, my coworkers started filtering out to see the spectacle. We chatted and passed around a handful of glasses so everyone could see the Sun disappearing behind the Moon and watched the leaves cast tiny crescents onto the pavement.

Eclipse through the leaves. Copyright 2017 Jonny Eberle.As the Sun was consumed, the light changed. The sky took on an early shade of grey-blue, like the color just before dawn. The temperature dropped by at least five degrees. A steady breeze picked up, as if a storm were approaching — but without a cloud in the sky.

I looked up through my viewing glasses. At maximum, the partial eclipse so so close to totality that I almost lost the sun in the vast, inky blackness above me. In a moment, the massive star at the center of our solar system was nearly invisible. An optical illusion left nothing behind except a thin, blood red sliver. I felt so small in that moment. For two minutes and forty seconds, I was a microscopic being on a tiny rock orbiting a small star in an unremarkable corner of an average galaxy in a sea of galaxies. Our triumphs and failures, our progress, our regress, our wars; they’re fleeting and inconsequential in that vastness. The size and scope of the universe hit me harder than I had expected and it was stupendous.

Scarlet crescent. Partial solar eclipse at maximum. Copyright 2017 Jonny Eberle.

Somehow, in all of that, I managed to keep clicking the shutter button. Gradually, the sun returned. The shadows softened, the sky went back to blue, and I felt warm light on my skin again. One by one, my coworkers went back inside. I lingered. For a while, I didn’t even take any pictures. I just looked up and watched the slow, predictable movement of the Sun and Moon above and tried to grasp the intensely surreal feeling of standing under an (almost) total eclipse of the sun for as long as I could.

I’m still a little sad I didn’t pick up and head to Oregon to view totality, but I’m grateful I had the chance to view it at all (the weather in the Pacific Northwest, the cloudiest place in the United States, was perfect). A partial eclipse is amazing, but from what I’ve heard and seen online, totality is on a completely different level. Photographic the moment was a fun challenge, too, and something I’d like to try again.

So, I find myself addicted to eclipses and researching where the next ones will pop up and wondering if I might be there to experience them. July 2, 2019 in Argentina? December 4, 2021 amidst the penguins in Antarctica? April 8, 2024 in Pennsylvania? Who knows?

Sun disappearing behind the Moon. Copyright 2017 Jonny Eberle. — 30 —

Jonny Eberle is a writer, photographer, and filmmaker in Tacoma, WA and a bit of an eclipse junkie. He usually forgets to bracket and ends up with a whole bunch of identically exposed photos as a result. Remember to bracket, kids.

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Hell on Earth: Dachau

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Barbed wire fence at Dachau Concentration Camp. Copyright 2017 Jonny Eberle.

When I was in high school, we read Night by Elie Wiesel, a semi-autobiographical account of the Wiesel’s experience in a Nazi concentration camp during World War II. In one scene, a child is hanged and someone asks where God is amid the horror. Someone else responds, “Where He is? This is where–hanging here from this gallows…” I remember putting the book down for a few minutes before continuing. In that moment, I thought I understood the Holocaust.

But I did not truly understand the scale of the genocide that was committed by the Nazis until I visited Dachau.

The first thing you notice when you arrive at the concentration camp at Dachau is how close it is to everything. Less than half an hour away from the center of Munich’s bustling metropolis by train, the infamous Nazi concentration camp sits on the edge of the small town of Dachau. I had expected a site of mass incarceration and slaughter to be somewhere remote, not in the heart of an idyllic Bavarian village. This thought — of how easy it is for atrocities to be committed when people are willing to look the other way — felt like a weight on my shoulders as the bus navigated the winding residential streets to the entrance of KZ Dachau.

Stepping through the infamous wrought iron gate emblazoned with the words Arbeit Macht Frei (Work makes you free), the crowd of tourists dispersed. In a moment, we were virtually alone on the camp’s roll call grounds, where prisoners were made to stand for hours on end each day in every kind of weather.

Arbeit Macht Frei Gate at Dachau. Copyright 2017 Jonny Eberle.

Dachau was built in 1933 to house 6,000 political prisoners. Over time, more and more prisoners were crammed in — including Jews, Roma and LGBTQ prisoners. By 1945, it held 31,000 people in inhuman conditions. Tens of thousands were killed here, as evidenced by accounts from survivors as well as the cold, meticulous records kept by the Nazis. Here, at Dachau, systematic dehumanization and mass murder was perfected and exported to camps across the Third Reich.

For a few years in school, it seemed that every book that was assigned in English class was about the Holocaust. I remember thinking it was excessive to keep forcing us to read about a tragedy that unfolded decades before I was born. What was the point of rehashing the past?

Concentration Camp Sink. Copyright 2017 Jonny Eberle.

Years later, as I stood in a reconstructed barrack and looked at two sinks that were once shared by 2,000 malnourished, I felt, tangibly, the humanity of the people who suffered here and understood why we must never forget what happened here, why we have to keep learning about it and why we have to remain vigilant to prevent such an atrocity from happening again in our lifetime.

Near the entrance of the camp, there is a large monument affirming — along with the Christian and Jewish sites dedicated to the memory of those who died — a commitment to learn the lessons of the Holocaust and pass them on. Like a modern-day Rosetta Stone, it’s written in four languages (French, English, German, and Russian) and reads: May the example of those who were exterminated here between 1933-1945 because they resisted Nazism help to unite the living for the defense of peace and freedom and in respect for their fellow men.” It’s a reminder that is as important today as it was the day this camp was liberated and I hope it will always serve as a potent reminder of the dangers of demonizing those who are different than us.

Dachau Memorial. Copyright 2017 Jonny Eberle.

  • Where: Dachau Concentration Camp
  • How to Get There: 25 minutes by S-Bahn from Munich, then about 10 minutes by bus from the train station to the entrance of the camp.
  • What To See: The museum housed in the camp’s maintenance building, the reconstructed barracks, and the Jewish and Christian memorials. Give yourself plenty of time.

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Jonny Eberle is a writer, photographer, and global traveler based in Tacoma, WA. This is the third in a three-part travel series about a recent trip he and his wife took to Europe. Previously: Munich and the Isle of Iona.

Follow him on Twitter or subscribe to the monthly email newsletter to receive exclusive content, reading suggestions, and zero spam.

The Old/New City: Munich

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Munich 2017

There’s nothing like summer in Munich — somewhat due to the heat and partly to humidity, but mostly to the Bavarian charm of one of Europe’s great cities and the rest to the laid back, almost Mediterranean atmosphere that has led some to jokingly dub it Italy’s northernmost city. Personally, I think it’s the ice cream and bicycles.

We arrived in Germany for a whirlwind weekend at the beginning of June. Having just arrived from Scotland, we were not dressed for the sweltering weather. Luckily, Germans don’t mess around when it comes to ice cream. Ice cream is to Munich what Starbucks is to Seattle.

Munich 2017My wife had a German exchange student in high school who now lives in the city and he was able to score us a guestroom at a university dormitory located in the central Maxvorstadt district. He and his girlfriend were also kind enough to show us around the city and get us (a little bit) off the beaten path.

In many ways, Munich is two cities occupying the same place. It is a city firmly rooted in its past, first as a 12th century monastery and village and later as the capital of the Kingdom of Bavaria. It is also a city moving unrelentingly toward the future as a center of arts and industry in Europe (Munich is the home of BMW, a plethora of universities, and several world-class museums).

Indeed, Munich has a long history of reinventing itself with the times. Apud Munichen (literally “near the monks”) was originally founded by Henry the Lion as a way to take advantage of the lucrative medieval salt trade. In the early-19th century, it restyled itself as an imperial showcase and embarked on a massive construction boom. After WWI, Munich became a hotbed for communism and provided the backdrop for the growth of the nascent Nazi Party. Following heavy bombing in WWII, Munich rebuilt the historic city center and became a destination for refugees and immigrants in post-war Europe.

Munich 2017

Today, 38% of the population is foreign-born, making Munich a cosmopolitan crossroads of cultures from around the world. We were able to find pretty good Korean food in addition to Bavarian classics like Schweinshaxe (pork knuckle) and Klos (potato dumplings). We even found an American store in Rotkreuzplatz (which, as expected, sold primarily barbecue sauce and scented candles). True to their city’s international identity, the residents of Munich are generally bilingual (or trilingual or quadrilingual), which made practicing our German difficult, as even a second’s hesitation signals to everyone that they should seamlessly switch to speaking English.

Nymphenburg Palace in Munich. Copyright 2017 Jonny Eberle.

Our tour of Munich took us to Nymphenburg, one of the continent’s largest royal residences, which features both a stunning baroque palace and 490-acres of forests and lakes which are now open to the public. We also spent a warm afternoon wandering through the Englischer Garten, Munich’s version of Central Park (albeit larger), where we enjoyed the truly bizarre sight of people surfing a river in the middle of a city park.

Surfers ride a standing wave on the Eisbach in Munich's Englischer Garten. Copyright 2017 Jonny Eberle.

We finished our trip to Munich with a walk around the site of the 1972 Summer Olympics, where we enjoyed part of a free outdoor concert and then watched the sun set over the Olympic Stadium. In total, we were in Munich for just two-and-a-half days. We will certainly be back for more ice cream in this wonderful city of contradictions.

The glass canopy of the Olympic Stadium in Munich was designed to evoke the Alps, located just south of the city. Copyright 2017 Jonny Eberle..

  • Where: Munich, Germany
  • How to Get There: Easily accessible by S-Bahn from Franz Josef Strauss International Airport in about 40 minutes. Germany’s public transportation system is so good, it’s practically science fiction.
  • Where to Get an Offbeat Scoop: Der Verrückte Eismacher (the Crazy Ice Maker)
  • What to Drink: Skip the masses of tourists at the Hofbräuhaus and head to the Wirtshaus Görreshof for an Augustiner Helles or Hefeweizen
  • Where to See Urban River Surfing: Englischer Garten

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Jonny Eberle is a writer and photographer in Tacoma, WA. This is the second in a three-part travel series about a recent trip he and his wife took to Europe. Next up: Dachau. Previously: The Isle of Iona

Follow him on Twitter or subscribe to the monthly email newsletter to receive exclusive content, reading suggestions, and zero spam.

In the Footsteps of St. Columba: The Isle of Iona

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You have to really want to get to the Isle of Iona. A speck of land 3 miles long by 1.5 miles wide off the western coast of Scotland, Iona is remote. To get there from Glasgow requires traveling three-hours by train, one hour by ferry, one hour by bus, and fifteen minutes by ferry (yes, two ferries). But once you’re there, you can feel that the roots of the island run deep.

Iona was settled in the 6th century by St. Columba, who sailed there from his native Ireland with his followers to found a new monastic community. For centuries, the community flourished far from the authority of Rome, where it blended Christian and Celtic belief.

Today, the island has a little over a hundred permanent inhabitants, not counting sheep and shaggy Highland cows.

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But there is more here than meets the eye. On Iona, the ancientness emanates from every stone. The island has long been a magnet for pilgrims. It has a reputation as a “thin place” where the veil between the physical and the ethereal is especially thin. You can feel it in the 13th century abbey church, where ferns grow in cracks between medieval stones. You can feel it on the hike along the ancient pilgrimage route from the abbey to the rocky shores of St. Columba’s Bay. You can feel it while walking on the windswept beaches or at the foot of a cross with enigmatic carving eroded away by rain and salt.

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Iona’s status as a sacred isle is well-deserved. There is something here. Like most ancient sites I’ve visited, I felt a sense of the many layers of stories that have played out on this small Hebridean isle. It’s evident when looking at the Gaelic place names, which translate into intriguing snippets of lore — places with names like Height of the Storm, Port of the False Man, and Fort of the Ruins. Each one a folk tale in miniature.

Beyond the history and the natural beauty, Iona is a place that encourages weary pilgrims to rest and re-center. Whether it’s a solitary walk down one of the island’s two roads or enjoying a local scotch with friends at Martyr’s Bay, it’s one of the few unspoiled places just beyond the reach of the world and all its turmoil.

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There is peace here. There is room for reflection. And there is comfort in its stability. Iona has survived the rise and fall of empires for one-and-half thousand years. Iona reminds me that our lives are fleeting and our individual mark upon the world is small and quickly forgotten, but there are places — distant specks of land in the sea — where time moves slowly. Such places will be there long after we are gone; our triumphs and mistakes nothing more than dust. That is a good thing to remember when we get caught up in the crises of the moment.

Iona is a remarkable island, not just for its history and beauty, but also for its ability to cling to you. As the small passenger ferry steamed away from the dock and headed back to the Isle of Mull, I couldn’t help but feel as if a small voice was whispering to me, telling me that someday, I would return.

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  • Where: Isle of Iona, Inner Hebrides, Scotland
  • How to Get There: Train from Glasgow to Oban, ferry to Craignure, bus to Fionnphort, ferry to Iona
  • Where to Stay: St. Columba Hotel
  • What to Drink: Jura Superstition Single Malt Scotch
  • What to Beware Of: Sheep droppings, bogs, the bull

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Jonny Eberle is a writer and photographer in Tacoma, WA. This is the first in a three-part travel series about a recent trip he and his wife took to Europe. Next up: Munich and Dachau.

Follow him on Twitter or subscribe to the monthly email newsletter to receive exclusive content and zero spam.

Writing About the Great War

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One hundred years ago today, millions of men in Europe were fighting and dying in trenches in a war that not only unleashed the terror of modern warfare on the world, but set the stage for nearly every conflict that would follow in the 20th century. I’m referring, of course, to the Great War, which today we know as World War I.

My fascination with WWI began in high school in a military history class, where we would reenact famous battles. It was in a shallow trench next to the football field, armed with a Super Soaker as water balloon mortars fell around me that I first gained an appreciation for what those who lived through the real thing must have faced.

Then, last year, I picked up a book called To End All Wars by Adam Hochschild. In Hochschild’s careful unwrapping of the war and its complexity, I started to understand the messiness of the war and its similarity to today’s global and regional conflicts. This was the war that introduced the tank and the airplane to the arsenal of death, but it also heralded the first time women entered the workforce en mass, the collapse of two major world powers, and the rise of socialism and communism in Europe. Above all, the stories of human suffering and human triumph were deeply affecting and fired my imagination (I was also inspired by my friend, Keene Short’s blog, which frequently focuses on the events of WWI and the Bolshevik Revolution). I was scarcely a chapter into Hochschild’s book when I knew I was reading the source material for a new story.

Tonight, I’ll be reading that story, which I’ve titled the Night Watch, at Creative Colloquy. This is my first serious dive into historical fiction, which is hard to do period, let alone in short story form. But I hope I’ve captured some of the nuance of the men and women who lived through the Great War. I hope to see you there.

Creative Colloquy at 7pm
B Sharp Coffee House
706 Opera Alley
Tacoma, WA 98402

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Jonny Eberle is a writer and history junkie in Tacoma, WA. You can find more of his wit and writing  on Twitter or subscribe to the email newsletter to receive exclusive content and zero spam.

Why We Must Protect Funding for the Arts

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The Avenue in the Rain (1917) by Childe Hassam. Part of the White House’s permanent art collection.

“I see little of more importance to the future of our country and our civilization than full recognition of the place of the artist.” – John F. Kennedy

The National Endowment for the Arts (along with its sibling agency, the National Endowment for the Humanities) was established by Congress 1965 as the fulfillment of a Kennedy-era dream to support and encourage the development of American art. It also set out to correct inequity in access for the arts in low income and African American communities and bring the arts out of the ivory towers and to all Americans.

More than 50 years later, though hobbled by decreased funding and dogged by political attacks, the NEA still provides an essential service to our nation. Today, the vast majority of audiences for plays, symphonies, readings and exhibitions are middle/upper class, middle-aged, white, and living in affluent urban communities. And though private funding keeps these cultural meccas alive, struggling artists in rural towns, young people, and minorities are far less likely to have access to money from foundations and wealthy donors to make arts programming possible.

The NEA steps in to level the playing field. In 2016, the NEA helped to provide 23,000 grants in 5,000 communities, which reached every congressional district in the United States. That funding turned into 30,000 concerts, readings, performances and exhibitions that were seen by a staggering 20 million people. The NEA also supports arts education in our schools, with 50% of its education projects located in low income neighborhoods.

The president’s proposed budget aims to eviscerate this important work by completely eliminating the National Endowment for the Arts, the National Endowment for the Humanities and the Corporation for Public Broadcasting. These cuts are proposed as a way of reigning in a bloated federal government, but these programs are only a drop in the bucket. The NEA accounts for only $148 million, or 0.012% of the total $3.65 trillion federal budget. By contrast, he is calling for a $50 billion increase in defense spending. Cutting the NEA is purely symbolic and does nothing to balance the federal budget.

Even from a purely economic point of view, funding the arts makes sense. The arts industry creates jobs (4.7 million people are employed in the arts) and contributes $698 billion to the U.S. economy (4.3% of GDP). That’s more than the construction, transportation, or warehousing industries and is an excellent investment of our tax dollars.

We must protect our federal arts funding. And we must fight to preserve it from those who see more value in a fighter jet than a one-act play. We must declare loudly that the arts matter and we must do it now, before it is too late.

“I look forward to an America which will reward achievement in the arts as we reward achievement in business or statecraft. I look forward to an America which will steadily raise the standards of artistic accomplishment and which will steadily enlarge cultural opportunities for all of our citizens. And I look forward to an America which commands respect throughout the world not only for its strength but for its civilization as well.” – John F. Kennedy.

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Jonny Eberle is a writer, photographer, filmmaker and arts advocate. Call your congressional representatives and tell them not to defund the NEA: http://www.house.gov/representatives/find/. You can find more rants on Twitter or subscribe to the email newsletter.