Thursday, August 27, 2015

Politics as an Unforgiving Mirror

It gets both comical and ugly particularly in Primary season when unarticulated fear and loathing is given voice and disproportionately projected.

America has the D.Ts. Or at least 25% of the 42%. But they are loud and their candidate strikes a chord which proves if you add a beaker of fright into a vat of frustration and detonate the cauldron with rage you get the guy with the red cap and coiffed hair, the government we really don't deserve. It’s the unthinking face of Populism.

Because your dog just died and your wife left you and your car won’t start you have found your man who knows just how you feel (even though he gets around in his own plane and is in his third marriage with as many bankruptcies) because he sounds like you (on nasty days) and he talks tough (like the schoolyard bully you secretly admired) and he reminds you how this country used to look, by God, when you were eleven years old…all white and no rapists running loose and women knew their place. He not only feels your pain he feels your teeth grind and your blood boil.

And he tells you who to hate. It’s important to know who’s to blame for all this turmoil, that shuttered Chevy plant, those shops on Elm street with Glass-Wax on the window, those uppity you-know-who, those lazy spongers and disappeared pension. It’s time to stop getting pushed around by China, Ayatollahs, war-lords, drug king-pins, beheaders, egg-head scientists, bleeding heart ecologists, that Muslim Kenyan in the White House, all those politicos in Washington, anyone running against him…none of them have a clue.

He has all the clues. If you can’t answer a question you attack the questioner. If you owe money you walk away. Was there ever anyone smarter? I ask you. First in his class, says he….even if records show he wasn’t.

It’s all so simple because he knows how to get his way. Like General Patton and General MacArthur. You don’t die for your country….you let the other bastard die for his. You take Manilla.  You don’t get captured like McCain. You capture them. You build a wall like the Chinese did.

He is the dealer, the wheeler-dealer. He invented both the Deal and the Wheel. He is also the P. T. Barnum of blarney; the face of America in the mirror.

And not once did I mention Donald Trump.

Saturday, August 22, 2015

"Modestly Endowed"

For the first 35 years and nearly 150 pages of his memoir, On the Move, we are presented with a drug-addled, body-building biker and in his own words a slovenly, slap-dash scientist. Not at all the prelude to the brilliant writer of 13 books on neurological phenomena, the great empathetic clinician and story-teller, Oliver Sacks, who sadly is now terminally ill.

England was a good place for a Gay man to leave in the 1950s. Throughout this latest and last book Dr. Sacks tells us he is modestly endowed and socially shy. Yet he was friends with ex-pat poets W.C. Auden and Thomas Gunn along with Benjamin Britten. In his circle was the editor of the New York Review of Books and the New Yorker for whom he wrote numerous articles, Abba Eban (his cousin), the gifted director, author, wit and physician, Jonathan Miller, Robert De Niro, Dustin Hoffman and Robin Williams and scores of fellow neurologists in both research and clinical practice.

He was also a classical music concertgoer, daily swimmer, mountain climber, weight lifter and voluminous journal-keeper with 1000 volumes. At age 75 he was knighted.

Given the breadth of his experiences and prodigious achievements Oliver Sacks is as close to a renaissance man as anyone who comes to mind. When he described himself as modestly endowed he was comparing his mind to a Nobel recipient in research neuro-physiology. Sacks possesses a hungering mind and spirit with a compassion for his patients that brought him to the periphery of medicine. Many became life-long friends.

I was struck by his several early death-defying moments in high surf off Venice Beach, in the mountains of Norway chased by a bull and during high-speed motorcycle excursions when he would routinely ride 500 miles from UCLA to the Grand Canyon after work on weekends and return the next day. In another incident he lifted a weight of 1000 lbs and tried 1,200 only to have it nearly crush his chest.

If he lived heedless of risk he was also defiant of margins, of the rules of medical rigidity. His passion for people drew him into areas beyond the norms. All his books came out of case studies. These led him into fields as varied as migraine sufferers, post-encephalic awakenings, musicophilia, sign language, Tourette’s syndrome, color-blindness and autism.

There are still great divides in medicine. His approach is more anecdotal and idiosyncratic than standard research models. He has a gift for narrative that breaks the restraints of clinical research. His work with aberrant behaviors led him into the very source of human consciousness. We need more spillover, more inter-disciplinary probing, more literary scientists and certainly more Oliver Sacks to bind this fractured world and to bless us with his capacious heart.

Monday, August 17, 2015

Art and Oranges

A baseball is exactly like an orange except one gets crushed and the other squeezed and one is filled with cork and the other with pulp but otherwise they are identical in size and shape and every other way except for the rind in the orange and the yarn in the other covered in cowhide and stitched and if you threw the orange to a batter you’d get juiced and pulped and pitted and I don’t imagine the orange would curve or sink or flutter like a knuckleball but otherwise they are indistinguishable, in the dusk with the light behind them.

If you stuck a Band-Aid on an orange it might fetch triple figures and become a museum piece as a decontextualized construction demonstrating the use of two disparate objects in juxtaposition, causing a shift in our way of seeing and our conception of space.

The distinction between Art and Life has been closed. Pause is music. Sitting in a chair can be dance and a clothesline, sculpture.  Baseballs and oranges have a kind of beauty but beautiful is no longer the operative word in Art. We are suspicious of prettified images. Poetry is criticized for being too poetic. The pendulum has swung away from ornamental, classical forms. Museums might as well remove their walls. Chris Burden's installation of Urban Lights adorn the entrance to the Los Angeles County Museum of Art and in the rear is a 340 ton boulder, Levitated Mass.

It is enough to have our perceptions rattled. A bandaged orange forces us to see the imagined wound, the confluence of round and rectangle shapes and the natural and man-made incongruities. After being saturated with objects on-line, in magazines and on our tables every waking hour the effect is to grab us at the collar and say LOOK but look with different eyes. The art is in the experience of looking. For a brief moment the orange and viewer may be transformed.

Better yet, consider a blue orange and red Band-Aid. Or if the orange were a rectangle and the Band-Aid round it might alter our senses even further. If you showed a straw coming out of an orange-colored baseball as a source of Vitamin C it could also take its place on a gallery wall in exhibition and shift our perceptions and maybe that’s the name of the game.  


Tuesday, August 11, 2015

No Problem

Yes it is. What ever happened to, You’re Welcome ? Or better yet, My Pleasure. No Problem, is the equivalent of responding to, How’s the coffee? Not Bad. It is stingy, begrudging, dismissive and narcissistic.

No Problem is a presumption that whatever you did was just a tad less than a problem…like a bother, a nuisance or inconvenience. By saying they were not burdened shifts the exchange to them rather than the act itself. Appropriate for having one’s foot stepped upon in response to, sorry, but not for passing the salt. Are we so put upon all day with minor irritations that when holding the door for someone, No Problem, comes naturally to being thanked?

Thank you for coming…..No Problem. That strikes me as rude. Why am I making such a fuss? Because the expression, You’re Welcome, was the recognition of a courtesy, a kind of reception. It is something freely offered, not a measure of an imposition. The other party might wonder how many No Problems it takes to make a genuine Problem. But who’s counting?

What first sprang up among young people has now wormed its way into public discourse and is reflexively said across borders.  It rivals Hey as a greeting. How has this expression gained universal currency? My guess is that Nono Problemo is understood everywhere on the planet. Why?

I believe it issues from a generation looking out for number one. It is the language of negativity and of transactions. The expression relegates generosity and caring far behind a self-absorbed indifference which thinks in terms of problems. It feels like a corollary to, I got mine. Don’t give me your problems and I’ll let you know if you do. In the name of authenticity gracious civility has been lost.

To give it a kinder spin perhaps Millennials reflect the fragility of our times. It doesn’t take much to jam the precarious wireless network without which life is unthinkable. Identity theft, being hacked, made redundant by cheap off-shore labor…now those are real problems. All the rest is No Problem.