Thursday, May 29, 2014

Onward, Ever Upward

Football, hockey, soccer, basketball….pigskin, puck, and bouncy-balls. Team A versus team B…. all played against team C……the clock. Winning often comes down to managing the little hand. The final seconds could take minutes that seem like hours with a barrage of commercials.

Baseball, alone, is a counter-clockwise board game defying time. An inning might be a decade; a game simulating a lifetime. (Games are longer now than ever before as stadium seating inches onto the playing field to sell more premium tickets. As a consequence what was formerly catchable is now just a foul ball).  A few of us even go into extra innings. Each season is long enough to streak, slump and streak again, just like life.

Back in the day when I knew everything life seemed measurable and linear, at least on the sports pages. Stats ruled. Records were set. Some seemed insurmountable and still are. Others were illusive but attainable. Nobody has hit .400 since Ted Williams in 1941. No one had run a four-minute mile until 1954. A year before that Edmund Hilary of New Zealand, along with Tenzing Norgay, climbed Mt. Everest…because it was there. Even if the British Empire was no longer.

Milers came within a second or two of that magic number but couldn’t quite break the barrier. An Oxford medical student named Roger Bannister rose to the challenge by clocking in under four minutes by 0.3 of a second. Three months later he bettered that mark by a full 2 seconds plus. Since then over 1300 others routinely run under four minutes and over 3,000 have climbed Everest.  Progress confirmed.

Too bad social progress hasn’t followed the same narrative. Older, and less knowing, I have come, more and more, to expect less and less. Our high court is dismantling voting rights achieved 50 years ago. Congress has become irrelevant. Xenophobia is sweeping Europe and threatens the great promise of the European Union. The Russian Bear is growling after its brief hibernation. Science is under attack from the Bible thumpers. At this rate we will soon wonder if the mile can ever be run under five minutes.... running downhill on the Himalayas.

Why the gap between physical achievement and our (d)evolution as custodians of the planet? The former seems progressive and the latter either cyclic or glacially slow. Whether we are witnessing the final gasp of the 19th century warrior/privilege mentality here in the 21st or an irreversible great leap backward, is hard to discern. There are days when it seems we are climbing, not Everest, but into our own abyss.

Which is why I take refuge in the alternative universe of the sports section. More drama. Less murky. The players have evolved faster, taller, stronger and certainly richer. At the same time they seem more fragile, arrogant and not a bit smarter. When an alien civilization discovers our planet a few light years from now they may reconstruct our society from out of the debris on the baseball diamond. In among the bones will be sticks of wood, a few pillows (bases) and mitts which will puzzle our visitors. They may conclude we had slept on grass and clubbed each other to death with our oversize hands. It may help to explain how we bulldozed our forests even as oceans rose and all that’s left of Everest is a pitching mound.

On a more positive note it seems that athletic performances are a function of technology with leaps evident due to advances in equipment and training. They are less evident in team sports because the defensive improvements blur offensive ones. In terms of societal gains there will always be push-back as the power elite increases exponentially. However world wars have been averted through the threat of mutually assured destruction. Literacy and health are vastly improved in the developing world. We are a work-in-progress. I shall cling on to that word, Progress.   

Saturday, May 24, 2014

Purple Days

Since late April neighborhood streets have been festooned with jacaranda blossoms, purple as prose but on them it looks good. One might say they form a flamboyant canopy of lavender ribbon…..but I would never say such a thing. And if I just did it’s because the power of the understatement is inappropriate. If flowers could sing, and they do, jacarandas are opera; the divas of spring.

Wildflowers come and go according to their mood and a sufficiency of rain but jacarandas tolerate droughts well, dry throat and all, as they must here in this rescued desert. From where do they get their deep dazzle? Even if I knew I wouldn’t say. Some questions are best unanswered.

To give jacarandas their due the j is pronounced with an h sound or better yet a ch as in chale.

Their leaf is lacy, almost fern-like on branches which elbow their way to mother sun. The blossom occurs in what are called panicles, giving new meaning to panic in the streets. Too bad for us their season is short here in Los Angeles. They disappear from exhaustion after five or six weeks.

And we are bereft. But even when the branches are undressed their petals drop a carpet below which looks inviting to everyone but the homeowner who has to sweep away the sticky flower.

It seems to me this purple jacaranda rain used to fall in late June but the warmest April on record is provoking the tree to bloom earlier. If you can’t get enough of this wonderful stuff you can chase them around the world and purple yourself year-long. There are worse ways to die.

What started in Argentina worked its way north through Central and North America and then circled the globe. There are festivals in Australia and Pretoria, South Africa, is named, Jacaranda City.  A friend once told me that China banned jacarandas after some important person had slipped on their fallen petals. I can find nothing to verify this and chalk it up to mischief-makers on a slippery slope. I shall defend the honor of jacaranda with my last purple breath. Anyway, it couldn’t happen here. We have no important people.

Saturday, May 17, 2014


(This blog was originally posted in July 2010 but, as if to demonstrate my computer illiteracy, I pushed the wrong button and deleted I'm now restoring it in the only way I know how.)

The closer we grow together, be it in marriage or friendship, we reveal our hot buttons. The relationship evolves as those sensitivities are respected and handled with care.

Now I must write that on the blackboard a few hundred times and maybe I'll learn to follow it.

What is it about e-mail? It seems to call out for a hasty response and can be the carrier of blurts. It offers the illusion of a parting shout at a distance, with impunity, across a chasm. It's a conversation without an immediate retort. However it lacks the tone, inflection and facial language that happens in conversation. The wagging tongue on the page might actually be lodged firmly in a cheek. E-mail is a dangerous toy. One man's chuckle may be another's poison. Even acting as conduit demands caution and discretion.

Though it is over twenty years old we still don't quite know the rules of engagement; the ethics or the full potential and perils inherent.

If telephone voices were transcribed to the page the benign banter or jocularity might well be lost. It begs the question about the nature of the way we communicate in this age of text-messaging and tweets.

Looking back at the 19th century of belles lettres I suspect literacy was less pervasive and more prized. Words were carefully chosen, weighed and measured and nothing was more admired than a well-turned phrase. I'm sure Oscar Wilde got many free meals for the price of a bon mot. But if someone misspoke it might mean pistols at daybreak.

Today we have a population of barely literate young folks who can read, if they must, but have difficulty composing an elegant sentence. They receive messages in bytes and slogans, think that way and express themselves in minimal squiggles. E-mail is already three technologies old. My grandchildren never look at theirs. Why waste all that time when the next best video game awaits?

For those of us of a certain age e-mail has become a primary means of contact, across the miles or across the street. I get into some fevered dialog; sometimes I'm the instigator, sometimes I am just defender of the faith or cause or team. It's hard to apply duct tape to the keyboard; particularly so having staked out some highly minority positions.

I hereby resolve to hold my acerbic tongue, to count to infinity before passing along "funnies" that might not be so construed and to avoid confrontational material that could result in the 21st century equivalent to a duel at dawn.

Over time some of these raw nerves might be revisited for the "blurtee". And perhaps more deliberation can be extended accordingly on the part of the blurter.

Wednesday, May 14, 2014

Trouble In the Air

Two emails arrived this morning from friends in big trouble. One was allegedly held at gun-point in Azerbaijan and the other mugged in Chechnya and robbed of all cash and means to get home. Send bank information, they pleaded.

I might have swung into action even with my Batman cape in the dry cleaner and Batmobile in for maintenance.  I could be on a red-eye to Dagestan with a connecting flight to Grozny to right the wrong and still be back by Saturday to umpire a softball game.

It’s a good thing none of this was real. …except for the now famous email hoax. It makes it tough on those of us who may actually get mugged in faraway places. Truth and make-believe are drifting closer.

But not that close. Not nearly the way real glaciers, six times larger than Manhattan, are drifting away from Antarctica causing oceans to rise more than four feet, over time. This is not the only reason I’ve decided not to buy that 87 million dollar house on the south shore of Long Island. There is a large hole in the ozone layer over the South Pole and ozone-depleting photo-chemicals have exacerbated the situation.

In spite of the compelling weight of evidence the Senator from what was once-Florida, Marco Rubio, choose make-believe over reality as he gurgled his latest idiocy denying made-made climate change. As the late Senator Daniel Moynihan put it, You can have your own opinion but you can’t make up your own facts

Of course these folks are not all that stupid; just self-serving demagogues pandering for dollars. President Eisenhower's Sec. of Defense, Charles Wilson once remarked, What’s good for General Motors is good for the country. This has never necessarily been the case and surely isn’t now. Not when corporate America prospers overseas with cheap labor and tucks their profits away in Caribbean banks. What lifts the poor and middle class is good for the country and that has to be more than a trickle of crumbs.

Deniers of climate change are funded by polluters, coal and oil companies and their network of corporations reliant on petroleum products as well as investment firms, mutual funds, etc… The list is long and their pockets deep. Rubio and other presidential hopefuls, must park their brains outside and supplicate before entering the vaults.

The sycophants have a difficult task to perform. They have to persuade the electorate that their interests align with the Koch Bros. This is exactly what they are good at. Witness the make-up of Congress or the Reagan and Bush presidencies. The so-called grass-root Tea Partiers are a congregation of the greedy and gullible loudly proclaiming God on their side. They have designated Science and Government as the anti-Christ. Voters who return the Deniers back to office must be the same folks who turn over their bank numbers and credit cards to the e-mailers requesting emergency funds for friends stranded in the murky corners of the planet.

To be sure not all corporations contribute to global warming. There are many who function with a social consciousness. However the lopsided distribution of wealth attests to the muscle of corporations who write the laws and stack the courts heedless of environmental damage.  

Now if I get an email from a friend who went to photograph the penguins and is adrift off Tierra del Fuego I just might believe it.

Friday, May 9, 2014


Sadly, Justice is one of those bloated and hollow words that dies on the lips when spoken. It could mean anything from retribution to reparation to forgiveness. For many people it is a euphemism for revenge though it passes for fairness or closure.

In front of the Supreme Court building there is a statue of a female figure, blindfolded, holding a scale which represents impartiality. Regrettably, the majority of our present court issue decisions are extensions of their ideology and serve their political agenda. They mock justice.

We seem, at times, to have moved very little from the ancient Hammurabi Code. When Saudi fanatics attacked us on 9/11, rather than address their grievances, Bush-Cheney felt the need to dump their vengeance on Iraq and Afghanistan; and eye for a tooth… since the corresponding eye wasn’t available. After all, Saudi Arabia is our friend so Dubya took the opportunity to avenge the mischief of Saddam Hussein on behalf of his father and Cheney smelled that black stuff under the sand.  Any act of violence can be rationalized as bringing the adversary to justice. This isn’t far from the schoolyard bully saying, he started it. In fact every act has its antecedents.

Even in baseball, the gentlemanly sport, when a batter is struck by a pitch, retaliation is in order, according to the unwritten rules of the game. The same mentality holds for former players and managers. Tommy Lasorda, in his infinite wisdom, commenting about Ms. Stiviano who exposed Donald Sterling for his racism said, I don’t wish that girl any bad luck but I hope she gets hit by a car.

The Greek plays grappled endlessly with this revenge ethic. Agamemnon had to destroy Troy since Paris abducted Helen (daughter of Zeus). But the winds ceased to move his sails unless he sacrificed his own daughter, Iphigenia. When he returned ten years later his wife, Clytemnestra, gave him his just dessert, a sword to his innards. Then she pays for her act. In short, the house is cursed. And so maybe is the human condition.

Gilbert & Sullivan had their say, after mocking such punishment as decapitation, when the more humane Mikado sings:

My object so sublime / I shall achieve in time
To have the punishment fit the crime / The punishment fit the crime

On the other hand John Updike writes of a young man (himself?) who throws pebbles at his father. The father asks him to stop and when he doesn’t slaps the boy’s face. As a blow it was neither hard nor soft; it had the perfect quality of justice.

It seems to me the highest form of justice is to hold the offending part accountable, then urge some form of remedial education n (or confinement if incorrigible) and finally to turn the other cheek .When the mother of a hit and run victim was asked to testify against the drunken driver who killed her daughter she declined telling the court and family of the defendant that she offered forgiveness.

Will we ever evolve from the punitive ethos to this point? Where survivors of a terrorist attack can open their hearts to the perpetrator and end the cycle of vengeance? Too humanistic perhaps presume that the Injury done is reciprocal and sufficient punishment for the person who must live with it? It works for me.

Suddenly Nothing Happened

And that’s not a bad thing. In the Argentinian-Brazilian film, Found Memories, seemingly little action takes place. If your taste in movies runs toward a strong narrative with fast-paced plot twists do not see this movie. However if you want to sink into a life/death, meditative visual experience of a few people in a rural Brazilian town it is one not to miss. Glacial pacing and repetitive scenes transport the viewer into the spatial and temporal life of the town folks. The indoor scenes, in particular, have the feel of stepping inside a Rembrandt painting. One wants to hit the pause button to hold the image. Many could stand alone as museum pieces; in context they are even stronger.

The setting is a ghost town occupied by near-ghosts, elderly folks, who have forgotten how to die. The gate to the cemetery is locked. The village café owner says he is not unhappy enough to be dead. Their existence is simple, reverent and communal. Madalena, well on in years, is shown kneading the dough for bread each morning and carrying it in a basket along railroad track almost grown over from disuse. Part of the daily ritual is her insistence to arrange the loaves on the shelf of Antonio, the shop owner, followed by his immediate removal of the bread. The playful jockeying between the two closely resembles affection. He then makes coffee which they take outside with a roll. It has the feel of a secular communion, wine and wafer.

The town folk are clearly living in the past, holding fast to memories of their loves and regrets as if time has been halted. Madalena writes nightly letters saving her emotions for her dead husband. When a young photographer arrives routines are hardly ruffled, so quietly is her presence registered. Almost imperceptibly she insinuates herself into Madalena’s household. She is observant of her ways and gradually gains her full trust. At one point she remarks, I’ve never heard so much silence. The girl with the camera might be seen as a stand-in for the director of the movie. The aged Magdalena’s old photos seem to merge with the recent ones developed by the character of the young woman. Out of this linkage a conflation of the two worlds emerges as well as a bond between them. When the time comes, Rita, the young woman is asked to assume the baking of bread which has taken on a spiritual dimension. 

The original Portuguese title translates to, Stories That Exist Only When Remembered, which give the film a faintly surrealistic tone. More impactful than the memories is the rhythm of quotidian lives captured by the filmmaker. She reminds us of the humanity beneath the surface of what first seems like withered lives.

Another art film recently watched is the French movie, The Artist and His Model. It is set in occupied France, 1943, outside a small town near the Spanish border. Art transcends the historical moment in this finely nuanced story. As in the aforementioned South American movie a young woman enters the life of the protagonist and is a catalyst for quietly profound change. We witness the slow process of the sculptor finding his grand subject in the particular form of his model. The camera pans reverently over the contours of her body exploring the light and shadows as only black and white film can do.

I can think of no other film which traces, as a felt experience, the interior movement of an artist as he exceeds his own constraints and breaks into new consciousness. It is the act of discovery; the painstaking extrusion through his material as it comes to life. The grand form is realized not from any classic pose but comes directly out of the raw emotion from the life situation of the model.

The nothing that happens to ordinary people is teeming with life.

Both these films have become available for an American audience thanks to Netflix streaming. It calls attention to the dearth of U.S. art films and the vibrant life of cinema around the world.