Friday, November 29, 2013

Cynicism

As Mark Antony said when told Cleopatra was in bed with laryngitis, Damn those Greeks.

Back in the day, circa 500 B.C. give or take a century, the school of Cynicism in Greece was enjoying its fifteen minutes of fame…which is still happening 2 ½ millennium later though in an altogether different form. The word, cynic, derives from, dog (canine), as in the life of a dog. Diogenes was a well-known Cynic who rejected all the usual conventions of fame and fortune, sex, power etc… in favor of living for virtue which meant being in accord with Nature. He opted for the austere life of dispossession and is said to have lived in a tub on the streets of Athens. Legend has it he spent his life with a lantern in search of an honest man.

Early cynics did not disengage from the world; they would preach cautionary words railing against excess and gluttony; not the sort of guys you would save a seat for at the Thanksgiving table.

As a philosophical school they were doomed. There has always been enough poverty in the world without seeking it as a goal. However certain tenets remained and got incorporated into the Jesus story persisting with St. Francis and even Thoreau at Walden Pond.

Today’s cynics have different stripes. They are generally fed up with politics and how society seems to have devolved. They wish for a pox on both parties. They have turned their attention away from the fray. Cynics are exactly what the Conservatives have devoutly wished for, a disengaged electorate.

Certainly there is much going on in Washington to discourage Progressives. Diogenes would have a difficult time in the shadow of Congress shining his light on an honest man or woman. Our beleaguered president seems to have fallen into what that great baseball sage, Casey Stengel, warned against in his secret of managing.  Keep the guys who hate you away from the guys who are undecided.

Whether through inattention, incompetence or caving in to the fear-mongers his support on both flanks is waning. As an art of the possible, politics calls for a pragmatic approach but Obama has been compromising with himself.  His opposition is absolute and recalcitrant even if those shrill voices ill-represent the concerns of the American people, 75% of whom now live in cities which comprise 3% of our land mass. The constituency of the Republican Party is largely the empty space between cosmopolitan centers. They have come to Washington not to govern but to dismantle.

To be sure our government, as presently constituted, is in grave disrepair. But the Right-wing broke it and only full participation from the Liberals can hope to restore some legitimacy. I, too, have thrown up my arms in despair from time to time but that's too easy. Now is not the time for cynics to sneer like disappointed romantics. It has always been thus to some extent. One works within the system to elect enlightened minds. It’s time for Diogenes to put his tub aside. Let us start a movement to encourage Democrats to relocate into those contorted districts where pockets of Conservatives felt safe. Gerrymandered salamanders are known to slither about and won't hold still for very long.                                                                                                                                    



Saturday, November 23, 2013

Those Not-So-Simple Times

My guess is that most of us regard the decade we were born into, and possibly the one preceding it, as the most fascinating. How it was and what came just before that becomes our own misremembered fiction/memoir/history book. Inquiry seems to me a form of vitality, even reverence.

When news of Pearl Harbor issued through the radio speaker I was about 100 days shy of my ninth birthday. I had no idea we had gone through a Depression or Dust Bowl, the abominations in Germany and Spain,  Russian purges or the rape of Nanking. I knew nothing of lynchings, sit-down strikes or home-grown fascism.

Franklin Roosevelt’s voice was lodged in my head; it was what I imagined God sounded like and as such I idolized him. I do have a faint memory of wearing FDR buttons on a beanie cap in 1940 and despising Wendell Willkie for no reason other than he was opposing my deity.

For a child the world is necessarily simple. The craziness of our families is our concept of normalcy …until we know otherwise, that nobody and everybody was crazy in their own way.

I lived in the bubble of Forest Hills and Kew Gardens, a middle-class section in Queens. I experienced only faint expressions of anti-Semitism but no overt slurs or fist-fights that stick in my mind. Sixty years later I was told that this neighborhood was a destination for Jewish refugees. I had two close friends whose families had recently escaped from Germany but never thought of asking about their ordeals.

It is as if I was barely conscious. Looking back through the fuzzy lens I see a montage of composite moments, juxtaposed, merged, imagined, and misunderstood. One sculpts their scraps into a manageable and simplistic universe. 

By the end of my first decade the real world of war bonds, rationing, air-raid drills and V-mail had to be reconciled with movie images of zany mad-cap romps and girl-next-door romances. I knew nobody who wore a tuxedo or contended with cattle rustlers. We had some sorting out to do.

This has become a life-long process….separating or rather comprehending how competing versions of reality inter-penetrate. Humanity is a messy business. Just when you think you’ve got a handle it slips away. A piece of the puzzle doesn’t fit. Franco helps Jews to escape Nazi Germany. Eisenhower, of all people, once said, Every gun that is made, every warship launched, every rocket fired signifies, in the final sense, a theft from those who hunger and are not fed, those who are cold and not clothed. Roosevelt vetoes the bonus promised to World War I veterans (but is over-ridden by Congress). The 1939 in-coming Princeton class votes Hitler the greatest person in the world (Einstein comes in second).

By the late forties I thought I knew everything which is akin to knowing close to nothing. For sure my core beliefs were in tact and we had the best songs but there was more to be nuanced. Villains have a claim on redemption, heroes have warts and our future leaders are revealed to be the most misguided among us. The early urge to re-make the world into neatly organized divisions shadows us for a lifetime. Keats, I believe, got it right. The ability to hold in our head life’s ambiguities and live the question is a noble state.

Rereading this page I see how I’ve wandered afield from my starting point. In keeping with where I’ve arrived I’m not going to change a thing.     

Wednesday, November 20, 2013

Magnificent Exaggeration

I got a call from a friend I worked with almost 40 years ago. He said he heard that I had died. I assured him if I had died it wouldn’t have slipped my mind and I'd know enough to stop breathing. True, my back went out a few days ago and I’ve been laid low but surely that’s not quite the same.

Come to think of it when I looked in the mirror this morning I didn’t see anyone but this was after a hot shower and the glass was foggy. It got me thinking that if I had died this must be my after-life and it’s not bad at all.

The man he’d heard from about my unfortunate demise was a pharmacist I worked with about the same time. Pharmacists hang around with other pharmacists possibly because they are so boring nobody else would put up with them. I was happy not to keep any as friends. The profession itself was depressing enough.

I recall that there was another pharmacist with my name. I met him once and regarded him as my generic equivalent. One always thinks of oneself as a brand name. Perhaps it was this Norm Levine who checked out. I’m sorry for his family. To lose one of us is a misfortune. To have lost two would have been carelessness. (Thank you, Oscar Wilde)  

I take it back about all pharmacists. I met my match a few years ago in Jack. He not only turned his back on pharmacy but proved it by retiring 15 years before me. I have great respect for his vision and commitment to higher ideals. He is also my doppelgänger. We both graduated from Forest Hills High School, had pharmacies in the San Fernando Valley, had pharmacist-fathers who attended Columbia University and both have daughters named, Lauren.  We and our wives have become close friends and I sometimes call him to find out how I’m feeling.

In any case I’m sure if I had passed away Jack would have felt a twinge and called me at once. 

Saturday, November 16, 2013

"Say It Ain't So, Joe"

These were the legendary and probably apocryphal words spoken by a kid to Shoeless Joe Jackson in 1920 after he and seven other ballplayers stood trial for “throwing” the World Series. It sums up the great divide between jocks and the fans.

Avid as followers of sports may be they have always been shut out of locker rooms and the so-called culture of teams off the field. The boy’s incredulity that his hero, Joe Jackson, would be party to a gambling scheme is testimony to the mythic dimension that baseball held and still holds in the public imagination.  We need our heroes and the big three spectator sports each provide that illusion for its fan base.  

We’ve always known our uber-athletes are really just specially endowed kids some of whom become handicapped having received inordinate adulation and mega bucks. The curtain has now been lifted for a larger peek. We’ve seen the hot dogs, now we get a tour of the sausage factory. Recent revelations have surfaced of hazing, bullying and racial slurs breaking that code of silence. Say it ain’t so, Jose and Joe.

Competitive team sports thrive on controlled violence; football and ice hockey more than any other. One might think that professionals have learned to contain their pugnacity but that may be asking too much. Their small universe promotes this misguided manliness and we, as fans, depend on it as we growl and exalt from the couch.

Why would we expect otherwise? The spigot of ferocity is not so easily turned off. A tiny percentage retire in suits and ties to broadcast or comment on the game at a far remove from the spilled blood, concussed brains and vile language among the gladiators.

Baseball, as a virtually non-contact sport, is a few notches apart from the gridiron or hoop court. Dodger fans have been blessed for sixty-five years by the erudition of Vin Scully who lifts the mundane tedium to near-poetic proportions. He dignifies the game and transcends the combat to both an archetypal and more fully human dimension at once. The effect is to preserve baseball in a pristine state as if the players were re-enacting the pastime in a pastoral tableau.

Yet we now learn that even here in the clubhouse a juvenile brutality still prevails with harassment rituals a regular part of the off-the-field antics. With power as the operative word it should be no surprise to learn that domination of the weak or recent arrivals is routinely practiced from pranks to criminal assaults. Call it a spillage of testosterone. Call it institutionalized bullying. Say it ain’t so……..but it is.

As one who watches these sports on the field it becomes yet another reason along with the hype, greed, arrogance, cheating etc… to close the book on that chapter of my life and I promise to emerge from my spectator bubble during the next twenty years or posthumously.....which ever comes first. The heart and hormones know of no logic.   

Wednesday, November 13, 2013

Memos For Yelp

Newspaper Weather Forecast:  You said the high would be 68 and it reached 71. I was stuck with my itchy sweater which caused a rash and a dermatologist visit. You’ll be hearing from my lawyer.

To Eatery #1:  Noisy, small portions and the food was too spicy. That’s the last time I’m dining at the end of the aisle at Costco.

Hotel #1: Why is my room so far from the elevator? The advertisement promised a view however the lake was obscured by swans and some 17th century church steeple. Can’t you do something about that morning fog in front of the mountain?

Hotel #2: The elevator is too far from my room. The bathroom has no heater even if it is July. Why is checkout at noon but check in not until 4 o’clock. Does it really take 4 hours to make my bed?

Eatery #2: You offer all these choices yet you were out of my first three preferences. Can’t you keep this vending machine at the car-wash filled?

Fruit-of-the-Loom:  Why are your V-neck T-shirts cut so that a sliver shows when I wear a sport-shirt? Isn’t the idea to hide it? If I wanted my underwear to show I’d wear the crew-neck type.

Netflix: Why must I endure four previews before every movie? And furthermore why is the name of the film revealed but once….and even then I can’t remember what I want to make sure to avoid ever watching?

Local Library: Why do all the books in my queue for which I’ve been waiting several months, become available on the same day so I have two weeks to read all six, 500 page books? And why can’t authors say what they have to say in no more than 300 pages?

Lascaux, France: Why were your famous caves closed on that Wednesday when I was in the Dordogne? Tourist attractions are never closed on Wednesday here in Peoria.

Eatery #3: Why was there a hair in my Cobb salad….even if it was my own? And why are your portions so large? Must you add to the eighty decibels of noise with additional music?

Post Office: Why have you removed the neighborhood mailbox and have No Parking signs in front of the only one which is three blocks away and is uphill both coming and going?

Verizon: Is there ever a time when you are not experiencing a high- call volume?

Saturday, November 9, 2013

Complainers vs Critics

As world-class consumers we have become chronic complainers, spectators demanding our money’s worth. We think as consumers, holiday as consumers, even vote like consumers.

(By, we, I don’t mean you or you or even me………..but all those other people.)

We want what we want and if we don’t get it we become whiners and throw hissy-fits. Interactive technology has created a society of quasi-experts. We all have virtual bullhorns to tell the world what not to eat, where not to eat it and how best not to get there. How am I driving?  the back of the truck asks in our face, call 1-800…..  Teachers’ jobs depend on student evaluations. Stay on the line to answer this short survey. We grumble. We have road-rage.  Corporations look at test-marketing groups to see which direction their thumbs are pointing.   

Yelp elicits our feedback. We’ve been trained to have high expectations and encouraged to tell all. Revenge of the demotic. As befits a nation that consumes 30% of the world’s products, with only 5% of its population, we have grown passive even as we deplete the planet of non-renewable resources and account for 30% of its waste.

Yet we are probably less discerning than we might think. The corporate world saturates our senses in ways beyond our consciousness. They are on to us. They not only know what we buy and what we drive, wear and eat they even know what we think.  

And how we think is not very long, deep or well-considered. As an art form intellectual and literary criticism ain’t what it used to be. Where are the John Leonards, Susan Sontags, and Edmund Wilsons?  Yes, we have Daniel Mendelsohn and  James Wood but their voices reach only an elite few. Siskel and Ebert are history. What would Pauline Kael have to say about the crop of post-millennial block-busters? Even Frank Rich evidently had his fill and moved from Broadway shows to that other theater we call, politics.

Of course writers aren’t very fond of critic’s acerbic tongues. Kurt Vonnegut once quipped, Any reviewer who expresses rage and loathing for a novel is preposterous. He or she is like a person who has put on full armor and attacked a hot fudge sundae.

Asking a working writer what he thinks about critics is like asking a lampost what it feels about dogs, so said Christopher Hampton.

I must admit to enjoying an erudite review sometimes more than the work itself. Their use of language and keen analysis is particularly welcome in this age of mediocrity.

Being opinionated doesn’t necessarily develop one’s critical faculty. I believe the difference is worth noting in these times when everyone and no one is an expert.

Sunday, November 3, 2013

Getting Words on Paper


Baguettes and bagels ……..Freud knew a phallic symbol when he saw one but what did he think about the twenty cigars/daily he smoked for sixty years? Then there was Mrs. Freud who squeezed toothpaste onto his brush every day. Hmmm? Or didn’t they have tubes in those days? All in the service of finding time to write, she got his plate on the table at 1 o’clock sharp which made him a happy man but reports that he sang, You make me feel so Jung, are a rumor I just made up.

Jung’s preference was a more austere life style. He built a stone cottage retreat by a Swiss lake, without running water or electricity, which turned into Bollingen Tower. Here he thought great thoughts and wrote his body of work by oil lamp. Unlike Freud he did not have a barber call every morning to trim his beard.

Many of the juicy tidbits on this post come from Mason Currey’s new book, Daily Rituals, which offers over 100 short pieces on the working habits of writers and other artists. We learn that Thomas Wolfe told his editor, Maxwell Perkins, he wrote better while fondling his genitals. What would Siggy have said about that? One can imagine the 6 ft. 6 inch Wolfe’s 800 pages of, You Can’t Go Home Again, coming to him as he wrote while standing up using the top of his refrigerator as his desk. His verbosity might be forgiven as ejaculations.

Freud might also have had a field day knowing that Patricia Highsmith, author of Strangers on a Train and The Talented Mr. Ripley, would come to parties with an oversized handbag containing a head of lettuce and a hundred snails which she apparently found more convivial than people. Penis envy?

Stravinsky found it necessary, when blocked, to stand on his head to clear his brain. Doesn’t everybody? Idiosyncratic behavior seems to be tied to creativity. Nabokov started writing Lolita in the back seat of his parked car. Glenn Gould was such a hypochondriac he would hang up the phone if the party he was speaking with started to sneeze.

Time management is a priority for most artists and writers. They establish a ritual around smoking, drinking or eating. Eric Satie could manage a thirty-egg omelet while Proust existed on café au lait and a croissant as a daily diet while writing away bedded in his cork-lined room. Surprising how many, in mid 20th century, relied on massive doses of drugs. Was that Sartre talking or his amphetamines?

If I’d known that’s what it takes I’d have cultivated some eccentricities. Not that I include myself in such distinguished company but after writing about 460 short essay-blogs I can say I do know the feeling. Finding a subject can be so daunting it brings me to my knees… except when it comes in torrents. My best time is in the morning soon after waking. If I took naps it would be anytime right after waking. The key is to extend the half-awake state and drag myself to the desk hanging onto the clarity and imaginative material. A kind of focused meandering is my mode.

Professionals assign themselves to a rather rigid daily schedule and adhere to it. There are good days and bad ones with deliberation and doubt never far away. Flaubert once said that he spent the morning putting in a comma and the afternoon removing it.

Philip Roth, in his day, regarded each book as a form of combat which energized him. Though he wrote form mid-morning to late afternoon he said he was on call 24/7 like a doctor in an emergency room and he was the emergency. I resonate with that. The seeds of an idea reveal themselves any hour of the day if the antennae are in a receptive state. One of the wonders is that the antennae turns into fly paper with ideas and images sticking to it that would have otherwise gone unnoted.