Monday, November 30, 2015

Writing the Cold War

When WW II ended, millions of GIs enrolled in colleges. The Cold War was heating up and creative writing programs reflected this change in subtle ways. Efforts were made in academia to create a climate of anti-communism. Any whiff of subversion, of the artist as disruptive to the system, was soon gone. Bohemian creativity of Greenwich Village was relocated to the heartland.

Foundation money was funneled to those institutions which encouraged a new American style distinct from that which marked the 30s. Writers became more provincial and personal. The thrust was to bring it close and then closer yet. Soon they were writing about themselves, disguised as him or her. 

Art became abstract. Confessional poetry bloomed. Attention turned inward. Both prose and poetry was safe. It lacked a certain reach in terms of language and substance.

What's wrong with that picture? What's wrong is what's been left behind. Absent was a global consciousness necessary for social comment. Doctrine had been drummed out the door and with it the language of critical discourse which requires a reasonable distance from the subject. Gone is the historical sweep from a mid-distant perch. Such thoughts were relegated to the non-fiction shelf.

The burning issues of the day was off-limits: root causes and dimension of the Holocaust, the loss of European empire and rise of the developing countries, emergence of the U.S. as the dominant power. In short the moral imagination of creative writing.

This is elaborated in Eric Bennett's new book, Workshops of Empire, which takes aim at writing as taught in universities, particularly the Iowa Writer's Workshop and at Stanford, under Wallace Stegner, in the three decades after WW II. Bennett's thesis is that from the beginning of the Cold War the prevailing anti-communist agenda encouraged academia to push fiction and poetry away from the social radicalism of the 30s into a more non-ideological direction.

America emerged from the war as the new world power, insular and superior. In spite of Ginsberg's Howl and Miller's Salesman a new aesthetic was born. It bore no resemblance to the social protest songs of the Depression era or even Steinbeck's, Grapes of Wrath. Instead we got Anne Tyler’s quirks and Updike’s Rabbit running through decades.

We swallowed a version of the American mythos so pervasive it went virtually unnoticed. Creative writing changed along the way. Eastern European writers released an new imaginative voice. Post-Soviet and post-colonial literature, has a decidedly different feel. The 2015 Man-Booker Prize winner, A Brief History of Seven Killings, by Marlon James is both an immediately felt and politically-charged text. In fact all writing is political whether by commission or by virtue of what it omits.

The notion of Rockefeller Foundation or CIA intervention may not be so far-fetched. In 2012 Ian McEwan wrote, Sweet Tooth, a novel about a covert program by MI-5 to bankroll writers with a pro-Western, anti-communist proclivity. The idea is to keep them successful and not, heaven forbid, entertain any counter-cultural notions.  

If you've got a message, Sam Goldwyn famously said, send a telegram. They're not for movies or, for that matter, any art form. Yet the message of No Message carried the day via, Father Knows BestGunsmoke, I Love Lucy or the soaps. 

Hollywood showed women and people of color how to know their place and college workshops reinforced the American values with self-absorbed characters. There is room for both: vibrant ideas can challenge the margins while the language of introspection can burst with new life.

Friday, November 27, 2015

A Plague on Both Your Houses

No, not those Capulets and Montagues but our very own Senate and House of Reps. Our legislative branch has taken the fun out of dysfunctional. They rank lower in public esteem than guys who pitch mattresses on TV. We have a Sig Alert in America with road-rage in our gridlock.

It takes 18 red states, with 36 senators, to equal the population of nearly 39 million Californians, granted 2 senators. The upper chamber is filled with mostly old white men representing a large land mass of grass, dirt, swamps, golf courses, ranches, tundra, massive lawns in exurbia and assorted agribusiness. But not a lot of people. It gets worse.

The House of Representatives has been hopelessly gerrymandered so the districts are a lock for the Republican Party. They need just 45% of the popular vote to control that body. Voting districts are neither squares nor rectangles nor any known geometric figures. They are salamanders, octopi, carefully calculated blobs.

In 2000 Gore beat Bush by a plurality of 500,000 votes but lost by decree from the Supremes. In 2012 Obama beat Romney by almost 5 million votes yet both legislative branches are owned by Republicans who together with the high court has been busy suppressing voter turn-out. What gives? The game is rigged but not only because of the above.

The real problem is the urban/rural divide in this country. The top ten states with the highest median household income are all blue while the bottom states with the lowest are red. Yet the cost-of-living is so much lower in the south and mid-America people might as well be living in a different country.

Is the only way to remedy this for large masses of urbanites to migrate and mingle with rednecks? No, I don’t want to join a bowling team and live in a trailer.

What we call red states often have 40% or more Democratic voters which are rendered silent and unrepresented. The same is true in reverse for blue states. Millions of people are disenfranchised and eventually don’t bother voting at all. There is a better solution which doesn’t shut out the minority vote in any state.

It is called proportional representation or Fair Voting. Louisiana, with 6 Congressional districts could increase the size of each and have 3 regions each with ranked voting from the various candidates. People would select a first choice, second, third and fourth. The state would retain their 6 seats but the minority voices would also be heard according to their share of the total count.

The same could be done in Massachusetts which would give the Republicans a say where they’ve been denied by the winner-take-all system. Suddenly Washington D.C. would be more reflective of our ethnic, gender and racial groups. The look of Congress would approximately describe America. Participation would be spurred along with a far greater voter turn-out.

I don’t totally understand how the balloting works but it sounds like a good first step. It is constitutional and already happening in certain municipalities In Minnesota and Cambridge, Mass. If interested check out this website and then you can explain it to me:

Saturday, November 21, 2015

The Giving of Thanks

This is certainly the most benign of holidays and the one I most look forward to. We gather, feel gratitude, said or unsaid. We eat, drink. We celebrate being here instead of there…. though, at times, elsewhere seems like my true address. We embrace at least two of my favorite deadly sins, gluttony and sloth.

Yet my mother, in her infinitude, decreed that Thanksgiving was a goishe (gentile) holiday somehow akin to Christmas. Maybe she never learned how to cook a turkey or Murray the chicken-plucker and kosher butcher didn’t know from turkey. In any case it was to be ignored.

In fact all holidays were unobserved in my childhood. I am a product of the Dis-identification Generation. My mother regarded holy days from Yom Kippur to Passover as being Old World and she was 100% American…except for vestiges of the shtetl which would cling to her until the end

My first Thanksgiving was at age 21, on the other side of the continent. I remember driving to the home of friends in Burbank having worked that day at Thrifty Drug Store in Beverly Hills. It was so foggy I drove off the freeway into the landscape. I was a pilgrim making my way to the new world almost landing on a rock with my Plymouth.

Somehow I untangled myself from the shrubbery, found the house and fit myself into the picture I had from Norman Rockwell’s Saturday Evening Post Cover. In my mind this was the model American family. Later that year the host couple divorced and the father of my friend shot himself. So much for Americana.

It is now time to finally thank my mother for giving me material to write about. She must have done something right. I don’t suck my thumb or stutter and eventually I learned which fork to use for the salad. I even get re-invited now and then…particularly if I bring a $25 jug of wine. As Dorothy Parker said, I’d rather have a bottle in front of me than a frontal lobotomy.

My mother protected me from wild turkeys, Indians, the Salem witch hunt and runaway covered wagons whom she suspected of being potential assassins. I’m grateful for all that. She had a mouth on her that left me a legacy of insults. Momzers (landlords) should burn in hell and merchants were also doubly cursed as gonifs (thieves). Others were deemed khazers (gluttonous pigs) or schnorrers (money grubbers). She also cursed God for God knows what.

And where was my father during those bitter winters on the Great Plains? He kept us from the almshouse and me from the workhouse. He also taught me to turn a semi-deaf ear to my mother’s complaints and declarations of enhanced aggravation I had somehow caused her. She suffered mightily and loudly, poor Mom. I should ask the Lord to hasten and chasten his will to make known as he blesses our table.

When I was 55 years old I was fully orphaned. My mother mellowed considerably during her last several years. She surrendered her sword and shield and I saw the frightened little girl she always was. Thanksgivings might have been therapeutic for her. It would have been a great pleasure passing the cranberry sauce and complimenting her on the table she laid out. Maybe she would have taken a wee drop of spirits while we all joined hands in gratitude for our atypical family, mishagosh and all, just like any other.

Maybe the agreed-upon lie is Normalcy as per Norman Rockwell. The older I get the more I cherish our craziness

Monday, November 16, 2015

Fear and Loathing

….every boy and every gal
that’s born into this world alive
is either a little Liberal
or else a little Conservative.          Iolanthe, G&S

As the recent abominations in Paris were being reported I thought of the collateral damage to our own political landscape. It struck me that the brutality of the terrorists will be regarded as vindication to the Rumfelds / Cheneys of the world who never met a war they weren’t ready to send others to fight.

The Conservative psyche accepts evil as a given and fear as a natural state of being. In their mindset the veneer of civility is a thin construct of Humankind. We must therefore keep the lid on our savagery by rules, commandments and traditions and be at the ready to combat sin or anarchy with weaponry and ole time religion. Their instincts run immediately to the punitive. Unlike FDR’s message they might say, We have everything to fear especially from those who don’t look like me.

Liberals see the human condition running from the benign to benevolent. Terrorist behavior is aberrant. Or is at least a distorted act of rage against a perceived threat to their version of history. It falls outside the margins of rationality. Yes, we have that capacity for hatred but we also possess the constraints to contain it.

There seems to me a link between the barbarism of the perpetrators and the Neo-Cons of the West. Both are quick to violence and committed to the notion of revenge and retribution.

I have no answer how to respond except to hunt them down as sociopaths. ISIS militates against Western Civilization but their demands are not yet fully articulated. Their subjugation of women, rigid laws of social contract and medieval cruelty are anathema to Western values; I would say an offense against humanity.

However the marginalization of refugees in France aligns with the ISIS agenda and provides an ample pool of recruits. Hopelessness is a prerequisite to suicide missions but is no way to redress their grievances.

I can’t help but feel that the outrage they have engendered feeds directly into the narrative of the most dangerous voices in the Conservative camp. President Obama is courageous to warn against being sucked into full-fledged combat. We tried that in Iraq and arguably that misadventure has led to this. In the meantime. We must love one another or die. (W.H. Auden).

Friday, November 13, 2015

Room without Walls

I’m talking about our bedroom. Well yes, there must be 
something holding up the ceiling but I can hardly find it. 51 pictures paper the partitions. I just counted them. We have five bold Polish movie posters, 25 photos from trips, a few art posters, a batik and the rest are family photographs. Add to this 14 book cases and the walls are gone….but closing in.

I pity the landlord when the time comes to move. He will 
need a ton of spackle and a dozen coats of industrial strength paint to restore the wall to its virgin state. If a tsunami should ever reach us we can float away on the raft of ancestors and offspring.

Albums of our travels transport me from the standing 
stones of Salisbury to Gaudi’s fevered mosaics, from the canals of Bruges to Alaskan glaciers. Any one is a window to a charged destination.  

Here is picture of my brother, Arthur, and me, circa age 
three. I can’t quite find my face in this shot. Then again I’m not at all sure I would recognize myself today if I met me in a telephone booth. My brother was an only child for four years. I can see some sadness around his eyes. He’s trying hard to be obedient. Around my 30th birthday I became an only child. The cause of his death was the weight of heavy and great expectations. He drove into a mountain wall perhaps looking for a seam. The car couldn’t handle the turns at that speed and blood alcohol.

Below that picture is one of my father and mother. He would become Spencer Tracy to me but she could never be Kathryn Hepburn; more like the elderly Shelley Winters. They tried to be perfect parents. What they offered worked for me but not for Arthur.

My daughters-three also keep me company at various ages wearing well whatever damage I caused them. The problem with parenting is that we are groping our way along at the same time our children are. In fact the journey never stops but they have forgiven me my stumbles. Many lifetimes chronicle this room I wake into every morning.

And there are ghosts as well for Peggy whose daughter’s allotted time was cruelly shortened by cancer. Unsaid words still hang in the air. My step-son and his wife along with Peggy’s parents she hardly knew fill another wall that isn’t there. I almost forgot our unforgettable grandchildren whose smiling faces illuminate the dawn’s early light.

There are voices in discourse bouncing off the shelves. The bookcase contains volumes which survived the last attempt of winnowing. How can we part with our William Trevor collection or Virginia Woolf or Eudora Welty? Then there are the journals of Camus and G. Manley Hopkins, letters of Keats and Faulkner, correspondences, diaries, memoirs. In front of the books are sentinels of ceramic pieces, wind-ups toys, fossils, very special greeting cards and assorted objet d’art.

The pillow is a repository of my dreams. When I’m not late for trains and planes or searching for my parked car I find myself having super idyllic dreams. Last night I was walking in amaze through rolling fields near Dodger Stadium at Elysian Park. The stretch of greenery was terraced leading down to the Pacific. This was one of many such, all of them in verdant settings I’m reluctant to leave.

This room is a sanctuary. A somewhat cluttered space with scrupulously half-read New York Review of Books and a stationary bike I have pedaled from Patagonia to the Punjab. In the waking-up time poems and prose are sprung, half-in half-out of my mind. With Peggy at my side supplying needed oxygen I wouldn’t change a thing.

Wednesday, November 4, 2015

Autumn Finally and Then

Six weeks into fall, so says the calendar, and at last I’m in the mind of autumn. The delay has to do with our weather that doesn’t behave. Blame it on those 90 degree days of September and October. Our elongated summer that is slow to start won’t relinquish its hold. It has also to do with the coral tree outside our window still incrementally green with just a few leaves exhausted, going to yellow.

To get into the mind of the season I need the chill that suggests a change of palette to rust, burned sienna and cinnamon; pig skins in the air, migrations overhead, flannel pajamas, russet pears, oatmeal, chestnuts of childhood and cozy fires. A blizzard of adjectives.

Of course we get oranged in advance of Halloween. Pumpkins show up in ice cream, soup, cereal, pasta, bread pudding, even beer. I could die happily buried inside Trader Joes.  

Here in Los Angeles we don’t have harvests or swollen gourds except for those trucked in. Six years ago we went to New England to watch the spectacle of ruddy sycamores and maple leaves dying in all their glory. From a distance they looked floral. It was operatic. Golden groves of trees majestic in their last gasp death-bed scene. Divas, all of them. Fall is a season of life and death.

If I were a tree I too would be in my foliage or beyond. Some of my favorite hair has fallen. My limbs are getting brittle. Even names carved long ago into my brain are fast fading. I am weathered and wind-bent in my bough. Exaltations of larks no longer nest in my branches.

Autumn is portentous of winter’s finality. The last act, 4th quarter. But it also carries the hope and expectation of one more go round. The curtain comes down, the curtain goes up again. Why not? Another opening, another show.

This year the old incontinent sky is scheduled to wet us. Umbrellas will open like black narcissus. I want to be caught in a downpour. Drenched. Let me be puddled and pelted. Parched earth will be heard slurping. I can feel it already in my arthritic bones.

The planet’s lease shall be renewed.