Friday, August 26, 2016

Hats Off

I go down one flight from apartment 3F-B to 2E-B. It is the summer of ’46; my first job. For 25 cents a-throw I am hired by Mrs. Danziger to deliver women’s hats by subway into Manhattan. She decorates them with feathers, flowers and birdies made from ribbon or lace. The boxes are practically weightless but stacked up they are a wall I can hide behind. It’s a good thing I wasn’t born 15 years later. The industry would have been gone.

Old photos of baseball games showed a sea of straw hats. It wasn’t so much a fashion statement as essential attire. Even anarchists wore them. No self-respecting gangster would be seen naked on top.

My theory is that Dwight Eisenhower’s famous farewell speech had a typo. When he warned against the military-industrial complex he was really talking about the millinery-industrial complex.

By the end of the 50’s hats were beginning to disappear. JFK’s inaugural speech shows him with his head of hair blowing in the wind. However he did wear the obligatory top hat walking the walk with Ike from the White House as the baton was being passed.

Most of us credit or blame Kennedy from Camelot with the demise of the hat. We might even trace it back a few years earlier when Eisenhower installed the transcontinental highway system. Cars became the dominant form of transportation and hats just wouldn’t do with the low ceiling.

Or maybe we should go to Hollywood which sets trends as much as they follow them. Carmen Miranda who sang and samba’d with a fruit medley on her head was gone by 1953. Eight years earlier she was the highest paid woman in the U.S.

Hollywood had hats on heads until the mid-sixties. They covered bad hair days and no-hair domes. It’s impossible to think of Fred Astaire without his top hat or Sinatra minus his fedora. Hats became an essential part of the scenery…until they didn’t. All of a sudden they disappeared just as my father’s Adams’ hat with its mysterious labyrinthine creases ended up on a shelf in the hall closet.

Hair was in; lots of it. Women’s hats got in the way of their sun glasses and bouffants. Gone was the International Ladies Garment Workers Union. Mrs. Danziger took an early retirement. Hat-check girls had to look for some other career opportunity. Now if you want to see hats you have to turn on Turner Classic Movies or re-runs of Mad Men.

Cursed be the day Donald Trump threw his hat in the ring and has been talking through it ever since. He seems to be going bareheaded these days. Maybe it’s because he is starting to eat his hat along with all those hate-filled words he spewed to get our attention.


Tuesday, August 23, 2016

An In-Depth Defense of Shallowness


One of my best critics (besides myself) has noted that I tend to write in a breezy style which is a euphemism for superficial which, in turn is a kinder word than shallow. I prefer to think of it as aiming for breadth over depth or horizontal rather than vertical.

The history of Western Civilization has been marked by pre-literate times followed by a literate world ushered in by print technology and finally the post-literate global society of today. The ratio of our sensibilities changed accordingly, particularly the auditory and visual. 

Before the advent of the printing press word was spread by wandering minstrels, troubadours or hardly at all. Dissemination of news was oral. War sometimes went on for weeks after a peace treaty was signed. July’s baby might not be known in the next village till October. The written word was confined to the Church or the literate few.

When Guttenberg’s printing press arrived on the scene along with it came the Protestant Reformation, the rise of imperial nations, perspective in painting and gradually popular literacy. The impact of this new technology was so pervasive over the course of centuries it became the very air we breathed. Unnoted were the ways it altered our sensibilities.

Certain behaviors which accompanied the oral tradition fell away. Among these were memorization and a fuller engagement of all the senses. The aural alertness of early hunters, for example, also called upon the olfactory and tactile senses. Painting in the pre-literate era was largely flat surface without a vanishing point. With the notion of the single point–of-view came perspective which was a result of an extension of the visual. As one sense is dominant all the others become rearranged.

Print media calls for a linear sequential mode of thinking. There is a stress on chronology. A one-at-a-time-ness replaced the simultaneity in acoustic space. We, of a certain age, have been witness to this far-reaching shift from a literate to post-literate world. The changes are no less epochal than the passage from pre-literate to literate.

David Hockney recognized this when he observed that, Surface is an illusion but so is depth. What we call depth, in the Western World, is generally linked with psychological probing or an historical tracing of antecedents. The current generation born into the mobile internet of digital technology discounts those references. They see a screen in totality, with a visual field rather than the plodding of sequential print. 
Attention spans have shrunk along with the accelerated change they take for granted. Try emailing your granddaughter; only clipped messaging or tweets get a reply.

I am not suggesting this is either good or bad. It simply is. Technology isn’t something to be resisted. We can hide at our own risk or enter the new world sufficiently to get through the day. Most challenges to our sensibility occur at a level below consciousness anyway.

In the post-modern era experts are dismissed as authoritative voices with a particular bias. Instead we have pattern recognition which takes a bit from multiple sources to suggest a gestalt.  Rather than provide a fixed resolution the new zeitgeist seeks trends and a broader dimension through connectivity. In Marshall McLuhan’s terms we have a cooler media which replaces an all-knowing voice with multiplicity of options and the greater involvement of a questioning mind.

The breezy approach catches the shifting wind. The Greeks called the God of winds, Aeolus. It was his mischief that battered and buffeted Ulysses around the islands for ten years before letting him return home. The straight-ahead vertical path to Destination Truth has given way to the zig-zag journey called life itself.





Friday, August 19, 2016

Twenty-One Depredations


There are some words you sort of know the meaning of without bothering to look up. Reading a book last night I came across the word depredation as in, to spare his daughter from the duke’s depredations…. Not that I ever depredated anyone’s royal daughter but a bell went off in my ever-diminishing brain.

When I was in my second year of pharmacy school (1951), too lost or dumb or afraid to quit since I had just a passing interest in the subject, I still had a passion for playing basketball. My brief stint on the varsity team as a freshman ended badly when my grades hovered somewhere around my point total in any game.

However one night I found myself playing in a league of high school jocks. All I remember is my hot hand. I was a white Kobe Bryant. Everything I threw up found its way into the hoop. To my amazement the game was written up in the Long Island Press and the writer must have been a young John Updike or George Will. The sentence read, The  ……  won with 21 depredations by Norm Levine. Depredations? How about points? Come to think of it maybe it was a 33 year-old Howard Cosell getting his start as a Monday night pedant.

Speaking of Kobe when Peggy and I were in Tangier we hired a tour guide to take us around. Our last stop was the Casbah where a rug merchant tried to sell us his wares. After half an hour he gave up and took me aside in a far corner of the tent and whispered, So what do you think of Kobe and Shaq? I didn’t tell him that I practically was Kobe for one night fifty years earlier. It was no time for depredations.

The game was played in Jamaica which was 2-3 subway stops from my town of Forest Hills. This is not the Jamaica of Bob Marley or Usain Bolt. But it is in the general area of Jamaica Estates where the Donald, our most modest and erudite candidate for president hails from. If elected what will save the world from his depredations, I ask you?

Jamaica was also the home of the Valencia Theater where, at age seven, I was taken to see the movie, One Million B.C. It would have scared the bejesus off me if I had bejesus to begin with. One thing for Victor Mature to fight off the dinosaurs but how would I manage if I encountered one on my way home? Imagine the depredations. I can just see myself running from a saber-toothed tiger through the jungle which would later become Wilshire Blvd. With a little luck the beast would get stuck in the La Brea Tar Pits and miss his appointment with a veterinary orthodontist to fix those molars.

Victor Mature belonged to the Sylvester Stallone School of acting. Lots of grunts and sweats. I think he wore a headband in the movie which reminds me of Paul Lynd who, when asked if sex was better if a partner wears a mask, replied Yes, it was…that’s why Tonto was always sweating.

Checking out that word, depredations, I see it has been used to describe the ravages of robber barons or looting & pillaging by the Cossacks so what was that would-be Updike / Will thinking to call my jump-shots and driving lay-ups, depredations? I suppose my depredations did ravage the opposition but I’d hate to think of myself as a marauder or plunderer.

The newspaper article is long gone. It’s probably better that way for my reputation to say nothing of that sports writer who either went on to win the National Book Award or more likely ended up selling shoes in Macy’s basement.

Wednesday, August 17, 2016

Three Homers Walk into a Bar


First there was the blind visionary guy. Then the female myth-maker. And third was the chorus of assorted voices, the tellers of tales just as the Old Testament had many authors. Or maybe there was no Homer at all.

Does it matter? Yes and no. Were the Iliad and Odyssey history or fable? Both.

I went into all this ignorant. Now I am even more so. I am writing this to organize my smattering of ignorance and see if Homer’s stories have any relevance for me today.

The back-story of the Iliad is the abduction (or was it?) of Helen by Paris prince of Troy. Damn the Trojan, that trouble-maker. But who can blame him? She had the face that could launch a thousand ships. And she did.  Menelaus, he of a house accursed and ruler of the Greeks, had no choice but to recover his wife, avenge the act and send thousands to an early grave. But not so fast.

As much as it is a monument to war dwelling on the horrific violence, deception, treachery, inflated heroics and all those other manly acts it is also about the intervention of women who withhold their bodies, raise doubt, offer beauty as an alternative, interject intuition, and love. In the end both the Greeks and Trojans are losers though Troy is destroyed. There is much to say about Achilles and Agamemnon as well as Priam and his son, Hector but not today.

At every point the players are buffeted by forces within. Call them gods or fate which prescribes, taunts, anoints or shields them. The struggle is internal as much as on the killing field. Some of the characters are half-gods themselves. Just as we all are.

In the Odyssey, Ulysses (Odysseus) survives the war and sets out to return home to Ithaca.  Aren’t we all, weary and full of memories, on this same journey? Of course he has to earn it defeating Cyclops (the demon) and resisting the witch Circe and the Sirens, and other travails, descending even to the Underworld (PTSD) before he can win back the love of Penelope. Enter Telemachus, his son, to help kill off her suitors. Everything has its price.

Is the price worth the purchase? Is war part of our nature? If you question whether the Trojan War made any sense it was no less stupid than what we call World War I. It only took a gone-girl Helen or a bullet to an archduke to provoke man's call to arms. We seem to be barely-tamed beasts at times. Is war inevitable to attain justice? Each side is sure it is aligned with righteousness and will prevail. There are times when the suffering of war waged must be weighed against the certain oppression to come as a consequence of backing away. Homer held the tension between these two options.

If war has its certain allure the only alternative may be the release of our full creative spirit toward a more beautiful world of art and humanity with a reverence for life above all else.

Homer had a thousand faces interpreted or rewritten first by Virgil to please the Roman emperor, then by St. Augustine  and later by Dante to incorporate him into Christianity, followed by Shakespeare, Goethe and Nietzsche and famously by Joyce. Then there were Robert Graves, T. E. Lawrence, Kazantzakis, Borges, Virginia Woolf, with Freud and Jung also having their say. As did Italo Calvino and most recently, Derek Walcott. The issues Homer dealt with are immortal and his unanswered questions will continue being asked.

Now you know what I know and it that ain’t much. It might be enough to get you through a middle-brow cocktail party but I'm not so sure you'd be reinvited. For more light shed I recommend a tracing of Homer through the ages by Alberto Manguel in his book, "Homer's the Iliad and the Odyssey."


Sunday, August 14, 2016

Olympic Games


After a week of watching I’ve had enough. The problem is they’re all too good, too practiced, too beyond anything I could ever do. My memories of high school gym class have been purged from my album of happy moments. I played my heart murmur card to get out of running the mile or was it the half or quarter mile? Rope-climbing was a spectator sport along with all the other devices designed to humiliate guys like me.The perfection of these world-class athletes is of such a level I’d give them all a gold medal and send them home. They give us mere mortals a complex.

This morning I started to tie my shoes and could swear there was a Bulgarian judge over my shoulder taking off points for the circumference of my loop. The degree of difficulty for my double knot was insufficient to pass another guy named Norm Levine from Sri Lanka. Big points were taken off for the aglet missing a shoelace hole on my sneakers, for the creased tongue in my shoe and for my unsteady fingers. And then, God help me, it was revealed that my socks don’t match and there’s a hole in one of them.

There is something faintly fascistic about synchronized diving or synchronized anything else. Truth be known I am a secret agent sent from some elsewhere place where asymmetry is a virtue. I’m told my left leg is shorter than the right or is it the other way around? Chiropractors love to deliver that news. I lean. So what? I slouch. I don't always agree with myself. The right hand doesn’t know what the left one is doing. My right fingers have been where my left ones never dreamed of.

I would have a counter Olympics where motley is the only wear, as the Bard put it. After all, weren’t the gods on Mt. Olympus famous for their constant squabbling? Zeus was nothing if not a mischief-maker. He would have cheered for each wobble and bobble. Sent bolts of lightning in celebration for every landing not nailed. Look what he did to Icarus with the hubris to take wings.

Where but in this paean to perfection do we punish a splash? Here’s to the art of the stumble and fumble. The mis-step. The typo that improved the poem. The sandwich left out overnight that gave us penicillin. The hand not placed over the heart during anthem. The hundredth of a second that means nothing to messy humanity where Hillary, the flawed candidate with the besmirched record is much preferred over Trump who is not only a blight on the office but can’t find his way out of sentence without dropping breadcrumbs. 

As Putin never said to Mussorsky, That's Gudunov, Boris.

                     


Wednesday, August 10, 2016

Downsizing

My architecture has lost an enormous inch. It must be the beginning of my shrivelling years. Life is not Sanforized. We all shrink in the rinse cycle and this is me spinning.

Even dinosaurs got their comeuppance. As the earth spun they lost their dominion. Chickens are their last living descendant. My guess is the white meat from a single pterodactyl could have fed the entire Mormon Tabernacle Choir.  

I Am big, said Gloria Swanson, it’s movies that got smaller. But that was then. When Mickey Rooney (5 ft. 2) was asked how he got such statuesque women (eight wives) he said he lied about his height.

Last year Pluto became a dwarf. Have we no decency? Robert Reich is my current favorite small guy at 4 ft. 11. He could tell James Madison (5 ft. 3) a thing or two about what went wrong with our experimental form of government. Picasso painted us into the 20th century with his 5 ft. 4 frame and Charlie Chaplin wasn’t much taller than his cane. Beethoven soared at 5 ft. 3 and so has Paul Simon. Was it over-compensation that drove Napoleon (5ft. 6)? Probably, but I would never have said that to his face. Nor was that a subject to mention to Genghis Khan (5 ft. 1). Either of these two would have less world to conquer today.

Our land mass is having a tough time keeping up with the lapping sea. By some measurements our planet has lost 31,000 sq. miles of dry land since 1940. Even my hometown borough of Queens gave up 1 sq. mile to Jamaica Bay. Gulp. These figures are not something Republicans want us to hear. If they had their way they would downsize the electorate, eliminate taxes altogether and defund scientific research. Attention spans are so much shorter we may not even notice. They’re counting on it.

The Olympics are too big, says Malcom Gladwell. Let them happen in 4 or 5 countries instead of the one. Why run races in polluted or equatorial air? No argument from little me. At the Olympics the difference between a medal and a ticket home is a mere wobble or bobble. It’s hard to watch one of those gymnastic munchkins losing her grip. Careers can be destroyed by the length of a smidge.

The pop song from the 50s had it right, Little Things Mean a Lot. Writers know how details breathe life into a poem or novel. That’s where the devil lives alongside our better angels. Perhaps it is a function of aging that our lives become more circumscribed. Don’t Get Around Much Anymore, is another song from back in the day. In the move from macro to micro we get to know our four walls better and the minutia at our feet. As our eyes and ears recede we can always prowl along that jagged line of getting from there to here.



Friday, August 5, 2016

Hollywood and the Longest Word


As kids we use to bandy about that elongated one which, in spite of itself, was easy to spell. The word is antidisestablishmentarianism. And I didn’t even use spellcheck. You have to admire a word with two negatives on its back. I am now exhuming it from 16th century England to our election year.

When the 8th Henry (Charles Laughton, Damien Lewis etc …), in order to install the 9th, wrested himself from papal strictures to form his own Anglican church, he disestablished the Catholic grip on his royal zipper. Those opposed were the anti-dis…….

Fast forward almost 500 years. Today we are witness to feeling the Bern and enduring the Donald. Polar opposites but both disruptive to the established ways of their respective parties. Jefferson reminds us that the tree of liberty (establishment) needs to be refreshed from time to time. Of course that didn’t include his six hundred slaves.

Populist voices have emerged in our political theater from William Jennings Bryant (Frederic March) to Huey Long (Broderick Crawford) as well those concocted by Frank Capra (Gary Cooper and James Stewart). The two Capra characters in Meet John Doe and Mr. Smith Goes to Washington were lightweight entertainments with a bit of an edge.

A more serious treatment of the populist demagogue was Bud Schulberg’s, A Face in the Crowd, directed by Elia Kazan. Andy Griffith was memorable in his film debut. His depiction of the rise and fall of a down-home troubadour turned into a demonic fool, was chilling. The guy who seemed like the salt of the earth had bitter herbs behind his mask. The film revealed the power of media to manipulate an uninformed and aggrieved public using an, aw shucks kind of guy. In its way it prepared us for Ronald Reagan.

Today we are living inside an outlandish script of a B movie. A plot that wouldn’t get past the first reader in a Hollywood studio. Who would ever buy into a confection of an arrogant real estate tycoon living in a Manhattan penthouse adored by unemployed coal miners and high school drop outs? The only one who could pull this off is Meryl Streep in her greatest role. The candidate blurts his way to the White House door. Send in the clowns.

We are witnessing the rise of disestablishmentarians. There is much about our establishment that begs for overhaul. But the demagogue is less interested in a substantive agenda than in self-aggrandizement. If we had a serious and viable alternative to Hillary to register our disestablishmentarianism I would say, count me in. But we do not. The specter of Dr. Strangelove controlling the nuclear button is too horrific to chance.

I’m willing to wait it out until Gregory Peck as Atticus Finch meets Martin Sheen as Pres. Bartlet with a touch of Pacino or Lancaster to shake the rafters and of course Meryl again to risk everything.