Saturday, February 23, 2013

Geography, Two Point O

Most Americans under fifty and many in their second half have friends they’ve never met in places they will never visit. Even I have readers of my blog from Belarus to Malaysia according to Google. More than likely they are hackers or surfers. Fortunately I own nothing that anyone would want. I have friends who play on-line poker with Bolivians and Ukrainians at a virtual table. The world seems to have shrunk rendering geography irrelevant. However as the detective in old movies used to say, Not so fast, Lefty. I wouldn’t do that if I were you.

Climate change, notwithstanding, the map remains fundamentally fixed, at least since the Ice Age. Coral reefs may rear their heads then drown. Coastlines may get clawed but Switzerland remains landlocked, England shows no sign of relinquishing its island status and the Himalayas and Andes provide borders, in perpetuity, separating tribes and creating nation states.

Geography informs everything from our culture to our foreign policy. Who has the black stuff below ground is no small matter. Inland folks think a little differently than coast-dwellers. If Great Britain were attached to the European continent they might act like Germans who are defenseless, east and west and grew a chip on both shoulders. Islanders enjoy a natural fortress of ocean which can result in an isolationist mind set as it did for centuries in Japan or as a crucible for relative peace and cultural development in Crete and Greek islands.

In our current Iraqi and Afghan misadventures we may have been blindsided by simple geography. Like the Brits and Russians before us we disregarded the topography of that land mass east of Iran. From ancient time the mountainous region has divided people into tribes with separate language and customs. In Iraq which was created after WWI heedless of ethnicity, Kurds occupy a separate space off to the north, with a natural barrier of mountains, apart from the Sunnis and Shiites.

Africa, five times the size of Europe, lags in large measure to the cut-off of Mediterranean port countries from the continent below due to the Sahara desert. This kept the advanced civilizations of the near-east from contact with sub-Saharan regions. All but the eastern coast lack deep harbors for trade and the interior is thick with equatorial jungle.

Brazil and China have roughly the same land mass but China has navigable rivers and infra structure leading to the sea with port cities proximate for much of Asia and the Pacific islands where South America is fairly distant from any market other than the Americas. China is also mostly in the temperate zone with Beijing and Shanghai on the same latitude as New York and New Orleans.

If Americans feel exceptional it is more an accident of geography (climate and isolation) than anything in our character. I suspect Armenians and Albanians also feel unique. Acknowledgement of our place on the map and an appreciation of other nations’ geography might help to curb our zeal for intervention.

Latitudinal Eurasia has been much better off than longitudinal Africa or the Americas because technology was more readily disseminated across similar climates as well as movement of domestic animals and the immunities they have provided for humans.

The importance of Geography needs to be stated but not overstated. In his book The Revenge of Geography Robert Kaplan makes the case for the powerful influence of geography but not necessarily one that explains everything. 

Both centripetal and centrifugal forces are at play. There are natural divides along with shared waterways. Even given the limits of air power, the introduction of drones cannot be discounted nor can virtual virus attacks which know no weather or borders. But weapon technology that brings new destruction also generates collateral kinships. Satellites both kill and connect.

Oceans are rising and hundred-year storms occurring within decades. Perhaps our reckless stewardship of the planet with its dire consequences will join us in the singular effort of survival.

Tuesday, February 19, 2013

Many Spots of Bother

Such goings-on in this piece of master with new father Matthew dying in child-birth wiping that glee off his face forever while bad butler Thomas gets his face rearranged trying to be a nice guy for once and ditzy cousin Rose won’t go to Bombay but will stay under Downton’s ample roof hanging a thread for possible liaison with him or him next season yes we know it is soap but it is suitable soap  that washes our woes away Crabtree and Evelyn no doubt now that the world is new can’t they hear the Twenties roaring flappers flapping hair bobbing hats cloched even as Carson every inch in livery would stop its orbit while tectonic plates polished or not are shifting under his aching feet just look at plain Edith in her own spot of bother but the dowager will put it all to right don’t you know since Maggie gets the best quips above as Mrs. Hughes dispenses wisdom below and is that former chauffeur Tom who didn’t know his place having risen to be served in a momentary lapse with eyes for the maid but all shall be sorted out at Downton just as they sprung Bates from penal servitude to proper servitude before gentility goes shabby where yet civility will out as the titled oblige nobly and don’t we love them all for their oh so King’s English with elocution given its due by these few these happy few on this sceptred isle this happy breed of men and women on this blessed plot this earth this realm this England.    


Saturday, February 16, 2013

An American Liberal Remembered

She is woman worthy of our attention, a star in her day on Broadway, Hollywood and Washington D.C. She was the first to move from the entertainment world to the California political stage, ahead of George Murphy, Ronald Reagan and Arnold Schwarzenegger. Her story is a reminder of American Cold War politics, the winners and casualties. One of the winners was the disgraced Richard Nixon in this drama. His centenary reminded me of the loser, Helen Gahagen Douglas.

Douglas was in film during the thirties and married, in 1931, the actor, Melvyn Douglas. In the 1935 Sci-Fi movie, She, her character was Hosh-a-Motep who made famous those words, She Who Must Be Obeyed, later to pop up in Rumpole of the Bailey. Her portrayal also inspired the witch in Disney’s, Snow White.

In 1944 she ran and was elected to Congress where she served three terms. Her last election victory in the House of Representative was won by a 65% to 35% margin. In 1950 she challenged the incumbent Senator from California in the primary and won. But her opponent was the man who never missed a dirty trick. She was the one who first coined the name still remembered today, Tricky-Dick.

Nixon had graduated from Duke University Law School where he revealed a preview of what was to come. His paranoid / criminal mind began its descent when he organized a break-in to find out his class standing.

He was always first an opportunist and smear artist, the consummate practitioner of slimy politics. He rode the wave of the Red Scare in mid-century and painted Douglas, a Pinko, down to her underwear. His campaign callers on the telephone referred to Congresswoman Douglas as, that communist, Mrs. Hesselberg. This was Melvyn Douglas’ real last name. The reference had the slur of anti-Semitism. She was dubbed The Pink Lady. Posters were printed on pink paper and the association won him election. It is worthy of mention that JFK contributed to Nixon’s campaign. Opportunism was the operative word.

Left-leaning politics in those days meant advocacy of women’s rights, civil liberties and disarmament all of which she championed. Her service in FDR’s New Deal agencies was already out of fashion. Helen Gahagen Douglas had a close friendship with Eleanor Roosevelt. In Congress she supported peaceful uses of Atomic Energy. On the domestic front she toted a bag of groceries to the House floor demonstrating the reduced buying-power, families faced. She also pushed for affordable housing in California which was in the midst of a building boom. She was the first Congressperson to have Blacks on her staff, fought for anti-lynching laws and made an early effort to desegregate Jim Crow D.C. restaurants. All of these positions were reviled by Republicans as well as some in her own party. It was the tenor of the times.

Truman appointed her as an alternate delegate to the United Nations. Her involvement with Liberal politics never waned even as she returned to do two Broadway shows in the 50s. She later campaigned for both Kennedy and McGovern.

After her death in 1980 Alan Cranston eulogized her on the Senate floor saying, I believe Helen Gahagan Douglas was one of the grandest, most eloquent, deepest thinking people we have had in American politics. She stands among the best of our 20th century leaders, rivaling even Eleanor Roosevelt in stature, compassion and simple greatness.

When the Watergate fiasco was revealed bumper stickers appeared saying, Don’t Blame Me. I Voted For Helen Gahagen Douglas.

To our country's loss, Nixonian deceit has been bequeathed to the Karl Roves among us. Committed voices such as Douglas are in short supply. In a broad historical context we are in an extended Cold War mentality of fear & smear with new players to engender our loathing.

If it seems as if Nixon's domestic program would locate him left of Obama today that is a testimony of how far to the right our spectrum has drifted. Nixon was no ideologue; he was a pragmatist who fed on scare tactics. I suspect he would be quite at home alongside Eric Cantor.

Richard Nixon's legacy is that of a megalomaniac whose humble beginnings fed his reckless ambition for power ultimately exposing and toppling him in disgrace. Uneasy with the rank he attained Nixon's imagined enemies were finally his own projected self.

While Douglas went down in a bitter defeat it was Nixon who will be marked as an American tragedy of Shakespearean proportions. Her agenda was enacted over time. Her personal loss was also the country's. In a greater sense she did prevail and her name is one among many that should be remembered

Wednesday, February 13, 2013

Eros Day

Give Eros its due and its day. It can’t hurt to set aside February 14th to love out loud and then extend it to all the days before and after.

Is there anything more deserving of our time? Love is felt best when we give it away, when we release it, risk sending it out. It’s a dangerous exchange but hold it in and it withers. Sometimes the transaction can be disproportionate; we may feel cheated; get over it. It’s still worth it. We’re all the better for opening our heart. Of course it helps when reciprocated but it may be returned in gestures or even silently when we don’t know it. In any case we prepare ourselves in the process for receiving others.

I don’t mean to be preaching here; I’m talking to myself.

It helps to have a Peggy around, to always feel met. Love is reception, a welcoming, possibly a shift in channels, adjustment of pitch to clear the static.

It is far easier to write about morbidity or mortality than about love. The best words have been used up or degraded from over-use. Hallmark has made sentiment sound like gushes of mush. How to say what is felt in reinvigorating ways?

Cherish there’s a word I don’t hear (or say) very often. It contains the French word, cher, dear… and also can mean to harbor deeply in the mind as a cherished memory. In love we are harbors for the voyage in and the portal out. So now I want to say, I cherish Peggy and this life we have together, this unlikely, sublime, simple and extravagant confluence.

When we first met, Peggy said our relationship would complicate my life. I celebrate our magnificent complication, this garden of wildflowers that split the rock and overthrew the walls, sunned and watered daily.

Over our 29 years together there is both a knowing and unknowing that happens at the same time. The closer we get the more we recognize an inviolable, mysterious core which also needs to be honored and loved.

From that source-place the imagination springs as a constant gift. We write and sometimes wonder where that idea or image came from. Peggy is aligned with her creative spirit like no one else I know. She enthuses with life which, at one time, meant to be divinely inspired or possessed by a god.  I see creativity as a religious experience.

How did awe devolve to awful? The word awesome has had the awe removed from mis-use and gone limp. I need it back to describe what I feel as witness to her creativity…. her irrepressible presence transformed into art.

And here’s another word I don’t often use: rapt, as in rapture. Her response to the baby in the next booth, pods ready to burst, the dog-walker with her dogs, fallen leaves like fishes, tree trunks, stumps and the sun printing dried flowers against the wall…. all occasions for her rapt attention. She is carried away and in that ecstasy (out of stasis) brings the rapture back as an offering.   

Let Valentine’s Day be an offering to each other of what we hold sacred, our private language, the vault of memories, our intimacy undiminished.   

Monday, February 11, 2013

Being Richard III

Better Potter’s field than these five centuries under a parking lot. Ignominy was my lot in life and death. But now my bones are free for all to see. No twisted, withered arm, my back less hunched or humped into a mountain as Will Shakespeare had it, no unequal, limping legs, just a curved spine and shoulders asymmetric. Bad ink has maligned me and stained my fate on folio pages.

Elizabeth called me that foule hunch-backt toade so her father’s thirst for severed heads would not suffer by comparison. As if my misshapen form had misshaped my deeds. They did worse than erase my name. One had me retained in the womb for two years. Another born too soon, unfinished, sent into this breathing world, scarce half made up… to disproportion me in every part. In death from Bosworth Field they stripped my body and dragged me to display. In the history books it is written that my body was despoyled to the skyne, and nothynge left above, not so muche as a clowte to cover hys pryve members . . . trussed . . . lyke a hogge or calfe.

But did I not hear the peasants jeer at their cursed act? I tell you I was loved in the forests and the fields, everywhere outside the court. Yes, yes I clawed my way to the throne. Treachery was in the air. But did I not ride to battle with the crown on my head? In my bones, from under cars and concrete I have been a student of the kings. Take note: I was the last monarch to die alongside his men. No Tudor lackey can re-write my bravery and the kingdom which but for a horse was mine. Nor can the chronicle deny I initiated bail to those accused, a beneficence which lives on forevermore. Is this the act of a usurper? Remember, history is merely the victor’s version.

Let this be their winter of discontent, while my grievances against the Bard’s mighty pen are redressed. If my visage seemed fierce and I chewed my lower lip, as reported, it may have been in compensation for my shortened frame. Yet it did not diminish the rage required to orate my call for peace between England and the Scots.

Let it be known that my first act as king was to ensure that the law of the land be administered fairly to all regardless of property or means. I allowed for petitions of the poor and set up legal aid for them in a Court of Requests, later abolished by my my successor, Henry VII. Furthermore, during my mere two-year reign, I protected our merchants by prohibiting the importation of goods from abroad exempting books which I encouraged for my people. Laws, henceforth, would be written in the common tongue, by my decree. During my reign sufficient benefits accrued to the populace, to generate an industry of defamation to my name by the opposition.

From inside my subterranean tomb I have heard spoken scurrilous attacks that besmirch public servants even in this enlightened age. Deceit got ennobled in a master’s hand during my day. Today it just requires repetition.

Hear my pleas. Yet shall my good name be restored. I feel it in my bones.

Saturday, February 9, 2013

Christian Petzold, Berlin Filmmaker

A few weeks ago we saw the movie, Barbara, written and directed by the great German filmmaker, Christian Petzold. Since then we have seen three others. His work is characterized by a unique signature of mobility, mystery and nuanced characters moving across the moral spectrum, both sympathetic and compromised in turns. He is a mature artist in full command of his craft and unlike most American movies his often create personal stories within a socio-political context in the background.  

His characters attain a remarkable dimension in an existential crisis which he captures cinematically through subtle images of small gestures, a water glass shattering or wind rustling trees. He resists explicating and withholds pieces of the narrative making demands on the viewer until just the right moment.

We enter the psyche of a Berliner with a new-found burst of mobility, however illusory. What appears as movement may be more an inner transformation in search for a sense of coming home to one self. Cars and trains are a seen moving from East to West in post-wall Germany but the trade-off is many-layered. He examines the constriction of life under the old regime with the shadow of the ubiquitous Stassi. At the same time Petzold portrays the West with a cautionary note.

In his 2008 film, Yella, a young woman from the East with a talent for spread-sheets is seduced by the allure of easy money in a corporate culture of corruption which leads to her spiraling-down life. The moral ambiguity of his characters is so beautifully nuanced that Petzold seems to find a third choice between Western-style Capitalism and the repression of the East. There is a pull for the collective or at least the sense of community over individuality; a suggestion that money, without end, has become a goal in itself rather than simple autonomy.

In his ghost story trilogy he depicts the power of desire to create its own reality, of a sort. He gives voice to the longing and deferred dreams of a suppressed people and the creative burst now underway centered in Berlin.

The contrast with studio films from Hollywood is stark. Petzold’s movies are told without the multi-million dollar production values we’ve grown accustomed to. Yet his work is well-lit and well-paced but with unexpected turns which dodge the easy pitfalls of genre films. Even in his derivative film, Jerichow, which is admittedly a take on, The Postman Always Rings Twice, the characters turn in ways we don’t see coming.

He dwells in some in-between place fraught with possibilities and uncertainties; people displaced psychically and physically entering into a new society yet unprepared with vestiges of old ways pulling them back. He is most interested in creating this transitional space.

European filmmakers such as Petzold can better see the global box-office strategies of studio projects and their effect on the art of cinema, how a sense of place is no longer local but must appeal to the world market. Movies have become deteritorialized. He is free to explore material left behind or issues neglected in the rush for blockbuster hits. For those of us hungry for independent work with substance we look abroad for artists such as Christian Petzold.

Tuesday, February 5, 2013

Winter Thoughts on the Boys of Summer

Football is gone…and I’m not sorry. It reminds me too much of trench warfare, helmeted men in hand to hand fighting over yards of territory with casualties carried off the field on stretchers. Besides, without a team in Los Angeles I can’t get interested enough to un-cage my beast within, grow fangs and snarl from the couch.

Now that February is five days old, spring training will soon begin in baseball, the thinking man’s game; at least that’s how I prefer to see it. Not to suggest that the players are any brighter or the plays on the gridiron not complex, but the game of baseball seems to attract poets, essayists and nerds.

It could be the deliberate pace allowing time for rumination or the geometry of the field with its Euclidian exactitude in the infield and random irregularity of the outfield that suggests the full dimensions of our humanity. And to top it all it is apportioned in innings, nine of them, more or less corresponding to our new life span; I can say this because I am about to enter my ninth decade. There’s even a possibility of extra innings.

Then there is the polarity of Dionysian hunches versus the Apollonian stats. The way a manager must weigh the pull of the record book with its data of past performance against his intuitive, inarticulate, inchoate decisions made by the seat of his pants which defy rationality. I can imagine Plato relishing the sport, or Schopenhauer discoursing with Spinoza in the dugout over a squeeze play.

When one umpire says, I don’t call ‘em as I sees ‘em. I call them as they are, and another proclaims, They may be balls and they may be strikes but until I call ‘em they ain’t nothing…we have the difference between objective materialism and subjective idealism.

Baseball taps into something primitive in us. Its origins go back to the time when man first swatted away a fly or a caveman took his club to the head of a creature which became dinner for six. Bat against ball, stick against rock or the confluence of any projectile and the extension of an arm. 

The more I have learned about baseball the greater the mystery… as in all things. There is an X factor at its core which is another way of saying that baseball is life, seemingly coherent yet hidden and inexplicable. It is also high drama and inconsequential in terms of cosmology. The outcome of any game changes my life not at all…unless I allow it to.

One of the more arcane features are the signals, the silent messaging that never stops between pitcher and catcher, manager and coaches, coaches and players, infielders and outfielders and even umpire and umpire. It is estimated that 1,000 signs are exchanged over the nine innings. To the casual fan the proceedings can be watched and enjoyed without any knowledge of this cryptic game within the game. But the strategies and counter-strategies abound with every tip of cap, scratch of the nose, hitch of the belt or shuffle of the feet and then there is the acknowledgement of the sign. Half of them  may be decoys. Catchers must hide their fingers; base runners are charged with stealing them. Not only does the pitcher need to get it but all the position players, as well, must know whether to move a step to the right or left if a fast ball is coming. It’s a chess game on a board of green grass. However for the athlete too much thinking can take him out of his muscle memory…..think of that.

As a fan, with a smattering of inside knowledge, I get to second-guess every move not only on the field but off it starting with winter trades and ending with the last pitch of the season. It’s my alternative universe which stretches back in time beyond my first game at Ebbet’s Field in 1939, to the bubble-gum card years, the games imagined on the radio and the heartbreak and joy that come with identifying. There is the life lesson of accepting loss and disappointment inherent in a game where success is accorded to a batter who fails two-thirds of the time

There are ample reasons to walk away from it all starting with the biblical injunction to put away childish things to the spoiled players, arrogant owners, high ticket prices, performance-enhancing drugs and free agency which undermines team loyalty. But my inner child requires it and after the Dodgers followed me from Brooklyn 55 years ago this is the least I can do.  Play Ball!