Thursday, May 28, 2015

Waterboy, Where Are You Hiding?

The country is no longer divided into Blue and Red. We are now Green and Brown depending on which side of the Mississippi you find yourself. If they would only share their rainwater we’d gladly give up a piece of our sun. After all it’s our El Nino that produced much of their deluge.

Never mind the Keystone oil pipeline. We thirst for their lakes. They have five of them, all Great and could spare a couple. Fair is fair. We’re even getting nostalgic for puddles. We’ve lost our lawns. Soon California will look like the color of pebbles. And I may end up a flower with my parched mouth open.

This could be pay-back for all the water-boarding we did.  Zeus works in mysterious ways ever since he fell from grace off Mt. Olympus. In the not too distant future, while Bernie Sanders is completing his second presidential term, we may find ourselves engaged in water wars…and not fought with water pistols.

In fact recent wars in Africa, in Sudan and Rwanda, have water sources as a major cause. Yemen is both the poorest and driest country in the Arab world. The Middle East which comprise 5% of the world’s population relies on just 1% of available fresh water. It has been noted that water is a far more precious commodity than oil in that region.

Desalination may be an answer but cost and environmental damage have been great challenges. The largest such plant in the Western Hemisphere will be up and running next year in Carlsbad providing 50 million gallons of water per day to San Diego County. The water use in this country is indefensible. The average American accounts for 176 gallons/day compared to 5 gallons in Africa. Of course these figures include agriculture, industrial use and golf courses. 

It has been 102 years since we drained dry the Owens River with the first aqueduct, thanks to lies, bribery and an occasional murder. Of such stuff Academy Award movies are made.

Mea Culpa for all the water I’ve let go down the drain in my lifetime (until recently) while brushing teeth. Then there are the long showers I took while singing arias from Gilbert & Sullivan. The drippy faucets I didn’t get new washers for. The fire hydrant water in sweltering July NYC I sloshed around in my early days. And that extra ice cube I didn’t really require in my vodka & tonic. Next time I promise to hold the rocks.

Where are you hiding?
If you don’t come real soon
Gonna tell your papa.

Tuesday, May 19, 2015

Mad Mensch

As a WASPY ad man Don Draper probably wouldn’t have known what a mensch is. He certainly didn’t embody those qualities of the Yiddish word for honor and integrity. 

For seven years many of us have been following the antics of this womanizing charmer and self-destructive imposter, in his rise and fall. Yet there was something about him I regard as a tragic hero of the last century. His was a slipping down life to wisdom. Being a responsible person in the mensch-sense came hard for him and therein lies the trajectory of the journey.

Call it soap. Call it a sit-com melodrama.  I see the protagonist as an icon of mid-century America, the shell of a man with a polished exterior excelling as a point man in the consumerist surge. His job was to seduce,
persuade and convert. In the process he subverted his own soul. He was alcoholic, promiscuous and yet decent in his core and ultimately divesting himself of masks, glib tongue and worldly goods in search of his authentic self. The self-discovery was a bit stretched out but worth the trip and well-earned.

At times he was Odysseus bouncing from one temptation to another while wrestling his own demons. The 20th century warrior is the office guy who does battle every day with false gods, conformity and the sirens of society that suffocate the spirit.

Even his name, Draper, once defined a maker of material to be draped over as if to conceal something which could even be apparel. He started as just that, seldom out of his suit, with a bogus name and resume in a fabricated place concocting fantasy aspirations for the superficial landscape of the day. His early client was Lucky Strike. He was the huckster selling cancer with smoke and mirrors. His name, Draper, has now wormed its way into the language as the smartest guy in the room who comes up with the killer phrase to advertise a particular product.

Over the arc of the narrative he is to shed the assumed identity, layer by layer and return to claim his real self as Dick Whitman, an American Caucasian Everyman. As such he authored commercials not of the Rinso white, Rinso bright / Happy little wash-day song, variety but slogans tapping into the consumer psyche with a tad more sophistication. When you get a Yes, he says, stop talking.

Regardless of how one views the mensch-ness of our man Don it is hard not to recognize and admire the manner in which Mathew Weiner, the creator of Mad Men, has integrated over a dozen characters into the socio-political context of that period. Attention has been paid to the transformational music, dress, and mores. I believe the program will become a pop-document of that period.  In terms of gender opportunity our consciousness has been raised a few notches as well. The value of seeing clearly into the recent past is to provide a way of measuring how far we have come and yet to go.  

In the final scenes Don is at an Esalen sort of retreat as he embraces a man who describes himself as being an invisible hunk of food on a shelf in a refrigerator lit only when someone reaches in to grab at him and then returning to darkness. He sees himself. And we then see Don, now Dick, oming himself home.

Thursday, May 7, 2015

A Century of Robinsons

During my lifetime I count one dancer, one actor, a baseball player, one boxer, a movie character, song-writer and 2 poets named Robinson. I can think of no other name appearing eight times as a public person. And that doesn’t include Robinson Crusoe; wrong century and Friday voted him down anyway. Nor do I include Marilynne Robinson whose novels hold a special place in the canon however she belongs mostly to this century. In the sports’ world I can think also of John, David, Brooks and Frank who also didn’t get short-listed. And then there is Smokey whom I know nothing about.

All my Robinsons, like the rest of us, are a mixed bag containing multitudes stretching across the spectrum. Just when you think you know them, you see another side that doesn’t fit.

Admittedly the actor Edward G. was the stage name of Emanuel Goldenberg. I’ll never forget that voice to say nothing of his face which he unmasked in over one hundred movies.  He did a few light films but was mostly menacing figures you wouldn’t want to double-cross. Over his 57 year career he was probably most famous in the 30s as Little Caesar on the screen.  Robinson was a highly cultured man, noted off-screen as an art collector yet his perfect diction was somehow convincing as a mob boss.

Mrs. Robinson (Anne Bancroft) in the Graduate whom Jesus loved more than she could know was the iconic figure of a bourgeois, suburban woman desperately clinging to youth. . Perfectly-coiffed but morally impoverished she was a stand-in for the fifties generation lost in the iconoclasm of the sixties.

Bill (Bojangles) Robinson tap-danced his way from minstrel shows to vaudeville to Broadway and then to Hollywood. He broke the racist taboo against mixed couples by dancing with Shirley Temple. His famous routine was dancing up and down stairs. And his life suffered the same ascent and descent. He took a lot of criticism as an Uncle Tom type in movie roles yet was active politically against segregation.

Jackie Robinson is arguably the greatest American athlete ever. Baseball was his weakest sport having excelled in varsity football, track, and basketball at UCLA. He is celebrated for his forbearance against the Jim Crow mentality of mid-century America. Yet I celebrate him for his skills on the field and fierce competitive spirit.

(Sugar) Ray Robinson is generally regarded as the greatest boxer, pound for pound, that ever fought.  His was champ in two divisions over his fifteen year career. Even when defeated he emerged from the ring looking better than his opponent.

Earl Robinson was never a household name except in my house. He wrote some songs in the forties which could serve as anthems for this country, Ballad for Americans, Joe Hill and The House I Live In. He also wrote the music for my favorite World War II film, A Walk in the Sun. Blacklisted in the 50s he is one of those lost voices in these times. His nephew is Alan Arkin.

Edwin Arlington Robinson was a poet in the early part of the century and winner of three Pulitzer Prizes. His two poems much anthologized are Miniver Cheevy and Richard Cory. In the latter he writes of a gentleman, rich, imperially slim and schooled in every grace…to make us wish we were in his place…til one summer night put a bullet through his head. He seemed to know well the quiet desperation that Thoreau wrote of.

The other poet of the 20s and 30s who fell out of favor among many critics by the 50s was Robinson Jeffers. He was a proto-environmentalist who built a stone house and tower on the coast of Carmel where he wrote of the rugged Big Sur coast in rather tragic terms. Jeffers opposed our entry into World War II. He was a self-described anti-humanist as if his preference for the natural world rendered Man and civilization a destructive element.

My Robinsons were all complex people of distinction, some forgotten, some still revered, even the fictional one. All signify, in their way, some of our pressing issues as yet unresolved.     

Friday, May 1, 2015

I Am Henry the 8th, I Am

The Brits love their Henrys and we love the Brits, Henry the 8th especially. You know, that ill-tempered, rotund rascal who couldn’t keep his fly zipped; the red-head who started out thin and tame as Charlton Heston and grew to be rapacious and ravenous as chubby Charles Laughton and by that time couldn’t even see his own pecker. The monarch routinely beheaded his friends and lovers without even a royal blush. Everyone needs a hobby, I suppose.

With Hilary Mantel’s Booker Prize-winning books now on Broadway as well as Masterpiece Theater, Wolf Hall, I’m up to my eyeballs with the stuff. Henry (can I call you Hank as in Hanky-Panky?) the 8th seems to have had a particular preference for Catherines and Annes. It all started with Catherine of Aragon and ended with Catherine Parr. In between he had another Catherine (Howard) and a couple of Annes in Boleyn and Cleves and then there was Jane Seymour. Of such stuff regal soaps are made.

All this fuss just to get a Henry the 9th. And he did in Henry Fitzroy but the poor chap was illegitimate as opposed to Mary, from his first wife, who was legitimate until she lost her legitimacy. Kings could do that and if you protested your head might become delegitimized from the rest of your body. Two of his wives lost theirs. Poor Henry the 9th, who became one of the richest men in England, died at age sixteen before Parliament could legitimize him.

Hank didn’t know a worthy heir when he saw one. Elizabeth, daughter of Anne Boleyn, reigned long and well, even fought and won over the Spanish armada. As armadas go, theirs was a mighty one and for the next several centuries Britannia ruled the waves.

Henry got his little legitimate boy in Edward who never saw his 17th birthday. After another family squabble Elizabeth (Bette Davis, Flora Robson, Judith Anderson, Jean Simmons, Glenda Jackson, Cate Blanchett, Helen Mirren, Beverly Sills... et al) assumed the throne.

I’m thinking that the monarchy is not such a bad thing. It's a bargain at 40 million Euros a year to support the royal family which works out to a mere 56 pence per subject. Look at all the bodice-ripping movies, mini-series, even operas we've had to enjoy, all that sound and fury of the Hanks and Dicks followed by Jimmie and the Chucks. We Americans have our own royalty to worship in celebrity-athletes and entertainers. Ours come and go. Theirs seem to have achieved immortality. If they bask in past glories we flame out fast with our brief candles. For the most part British actors are professionals who put our pretty faces to shame. Remind me again, why did we revolt?

And then there is the Herman Hermits' song:

I'm Henry the 8th I am
Henry the 8th I am, I am.
I got married to widow next door.
She's been married seven times before,
and every one was a Henry (Henry).
She wouldn't have a Willy or a Sam (no Sam).
I'm her 8th old man, I Henry
Henry the 8th I am.