Thursday, December 27, 2012

The End Is Near

I don't mean the end of the world, as (mis)interpreted by the Mayans. Only the end of the year. The last, lame duck days of 2012 are upon us, the sobering and sad interim between a big feast and a big bash - a time to clean up the mess of torn Christmas wrappings, eating the cold leftover turkey and replacing the untouched fruit cakes in their cans for use in next year's holidays. It's a strange pause. No sooner has the biggest celebration of the year passed than, like a bad joke, we are left to face the last limp days on the calendar.  

The usual image of the old and new years is of a grizzled old man making way for a baby boy. Right now, 2012 is gnashing his false teeth in anticipation of the inevitable. So, why do I feel sympathy for the old fellow? Is it merely because I am closer to him in age? As we grow old, our self-image - which is only ever a composite of illusions - takes so many hits that we begin to avoid having our picture taken or stopping in front of a mirror.

When Harold Pinter adapted F. Scott Fitzgerald's unfinished novel The Last Tycoon to the screen, he deliberately left it as he found it - suspended in frustrating irresolution. The last words, spoken by Robert De Niro as Monroe Stahr (a maginificent and nearly forgotten performance), were "I don't want to lose you." He was expressing his longing for a particular woman, but the line became, at the close of the film, an expression of longing for the story that Fitzgerald didn't live to finish, and of longing for Fitzgerald himself.

Those words reminded me of the last line of Tennessee Williams's play "The Eccentricities of a Nightingale". Ruined by her affair with a doctor in turn of the century Glorious Hill, Mississippi, Alma Winemiller is last seen picking up strange men on the streets. She invites her latest "conquest", a salesman, to accompany her to "Tiger Town", "It's the part of town that a traveling salesman might be interested in," she tells him.

Alma: Now would you like to go to Tiger Town? The part of town back of the courthouse?

Salesman [rising, nervously grinning]: Sure, why not, let's go!

Alma: Good, go ahead, get a taxi, it's better if I follow a little behind you. . . .

Salesman: Don't get lost, don't lose me!

[The salesman starts off jauntily as the band strikes up "The Santiago Waltz."]

Alma: Oh, no, I'm not going to lose you before I've lost you!


I was 18 when I saw Blythe Danner deliver those lines in a PBS Great Performances broadcast. These thirty-six years later, I haven't lost them yet.

Goodbye, old man.

Sunday, December 23, 2012

Happiness Is a Warm Gun

When I hold you in my arms (oh yes)
When I feel my finger on your trigger (oh yes)
I know nobody can do me no harm
Because
happiness is a warm gun, momma
Happiness is a warm gun
-Yes it is.
Happiness is a warm, yes it is...
Gun!
Well don't ya know that happiness is a warm gun, momma? (yeah)

--Lennon/McCartney

[As much as I hate to bring this up with Peace on Earth, Goodwill Toward Men so imminent, it can't wait.]

Here we all go again down the same old road. Yesterday, the CEO of the NRA (love those acronyms!) finally broke his silence after the mass shootings in Connecticut and the clamor for gun control with a statement: "Only a good guy with a gun can stop a bad guy with a gun." He was advocating the presence of armed policemen in every school in America, since all those wacko shooters out there know that schools are currently off limits to guns, and despite the total impracticability of hiring 100,000 more cops when so many Congressmen are screaming for austerity measures.

Instead of keeping its head down, which the NRA usually does after such massacres, they simply couldn't just wait out the inevitable shift of the collective attention span onto other subjects. That shift may occur, but if it does there are too many people who will find occasion to regret it deeply.

In one of his late interviews (probably on The Tonight Show), Truman Capote uttered what I have always felt was a paradox: "A suicide is a failed murderer." I immediately thought that Capote had, true to form, got it backwards, that "A murderer is a failed suicide." I get that feeling every time I hear of a mass shooting that ends with the shooter shot to death by police or by his own hand. There is even an adage for it: Suicide by cop.

A good example of this was the case of the woman who stepped into a phone booth across from a police headquarters and called 9-11. She told the dispatcher that she was in a phone booth across the street and that she had a gun. When police responded, they drew their weapons and told the woman to exit the phone booth and drop her weapon. Instead she came out of the phone booth waving her gun at the police, who did what they are trained to do and shot her to death. Her gun wasn't loaded.

What is it exactly that makes it so terribly hard for some people to take their own lives, that they have to create a situation in which they have no other way out? After slaughtering twenty children and six adults, Adam Lanza stepped inside an adjacent empty classroom and turned one of his guns on himself. Why didn't he have the nerve to simply shoot himself first? Is it a cultural difference, after all? When a Japanese person wants to commit suicide, he shuts himself inside his home. Sometimes, when an American loses it, he opens his door and goes to a crowded place and takes as many lives as he can before the police convince him that it is, finally, time to die.

The statistics about gun violence in America are irrefutable. So why are so many Americans being so obstinate? Adam Lanza's dead mother was, her friends claim, a "responsible" gun owner. Since she provided her troubled son access to her weapons, and she was the first person he killed, she was manifestly not responsible with her legally obtained weapons. I have written before about being reluctant to enter an establishment - a restaurant or a bar - that permits its customers to carry weapons, as log as they can show proof that they are licensed to do so. I have lived in countries in which it is commonplace to see armed guards - and sometimes even uniformed soldiers - holding assault rifles at the ready outside supermarkets and fast food joints. Is the NRA actually advocating such things in America?

In a post I published last July, I commented that these mass shootings are a boon for gun sellers and the NRA, since they provoke many people to react impulsively (and hysterically) by rushing out to buy weapons for their protection. The NRA actually profits from such massacres, since they play into their incredibly paranoid fantasies, and enable them to foist their insane agenda on Americans who wouldn't otherwise take them seriously. I will once again voice my serious doubts about the patriotism of some Americans who claim they aren't safe inside their homes without a firearm, who claim that their own government and police force cannot protect them. If they don't feel safe inside their homes, which is simply a problem of perception (I have never felt unsafe wherever I have lived in the States), why don't they simply move somewhere else where they will feel safe? We aren't living in a totalitarian state (which would give good reason for such a siege mentality) quite yet.

Some Americans like to use the term "American Exceptionalism", simply because they want America to be held to a different standard of civility than every other country. They say that all those countries that banned gun ownership after similar gun massacres, like England and Australia, can't be compared to America, simple because America is "exceptional". I tend to agree, if only because there is a violent strain in the American experience that can't be explained away by sociologists or psychologists. The violent video games and Hollywood movies that the NRA head denounced are available to children all over the world. So why does it make American children more violent and not Swedish or Chinese or Brazilian children? Could it be because there is no folkloric worship of violence in those countries? Is it because America is such a young nation, compared with Europe or Japan or China? When it comes to gun control, it shouldn't matter one way or the other. Americans have guns and use guns to periodically slaughter one another simply because they have a completely out of date Constitutional amendment that guarantees access to them. If I don't trust my fellow American behind the wheel of a car - and it is the first thing one learns as a defensive driver - then why should I trust him with a gun?

Friday, December 21, 2012

Dickens for Christmas


The Shadow of Charles Dickens has not yet vanished from our Christmases, as long as one or another of the movie versions of A Christmas Carol are on TV, along with It's a Wonderful Life and Miracle of 35th Street. They are there to remind us of Christmas Past, of what Christmas meant to past generations.

While I often have trouble finding a purpose for Christmas in my life - believing neither in the son of God nor in Santa Claus - I still couldn't do without it. Knowing that Christmas was placed on the calendar at December 25 - because the early Christian church wanted to supplant the pagan Saturnalia, a celebration of the turning of the year away from the Winter Solstice as the days grow incrementally longer and the world turns toward the renewal of Spring - gives me a rather more gratifying occasion to celebrate than the improbable birth of a boy in Bethlehem whose true identity has been buried under a mountain of myths, half-truths, and downright lies.

Dickens, who knew well the hardship of want, saw no other solution to the inequities of his world than the change of heart visited upon Ebeneezer Scrooge, the epitome of selfish greed. And the agent of Scrooge's change of heart was the Spirit of Christmas. He mentions the Spirit of Christmas again in this small story from 1851, "What Christmas Is As We Grow Older". As George Orwell mentioned in his classic essay on Dickens, "His whole 'message' is one that at first glance looks like an enormous platitude: If men would behave decently the world would be decent." What Dickens couldn't grasp is that the world would be better off if there were no reason for either Scrooge or Tiny Tim.

In this story, which is really an essay, he suggests that Christmas calls on every one of us to embrace everything, even the dead.

Merry Christmas!




WHAT CHRISTMAS IS AS WE GROW OLDER




Time was, with most of us, when Christmas Day encircling all our limited world like a magic ring, left nothing out for us to miss or seek; bound together all our home enjoyments, affections, and hopes; grouped everything and every one around the Christmas fire; and made the little picture shining in our bright young eyes, complete.

Time came, perhaps, all so soon, when our thoughts over-leaped that narrow boundary; when there was some one (very dear, we thought then, very beautiful, and absolutely perfect) wanting to the fulness of our happiness; when we were wanting too (or we thought so, which did just as well) at the Christmas hearth by which that some one sat; and when we intertwined with every wreath and garland of our life that some one's name.

That was the time for the bright visionary Christmases which have long arisen from us to show faintly, after summer rain, in the palest edges of the rainbow! That was the time for the beatified enjoyment of the things that were to be, and never were, and yet the things that were so real in our resolute hope that it would be hard to say, now, what realities achieved since, have been stronger!

What! Did that Christmas never really come when we and the priceless pearl who was our young choice were received, after the happiest of totally impossible marriages, by the two united families previously at daggers--drawn on our account? When brothers and sisters-in-law who had always been rather cool to us before our relationship was effected, perfectly doted on us, and when fathers and mothers overwhelmed us with unlimited incomes? Was that Christmas dinner never really eaten, after which we arose, and generously and eloquently rendered honour to our late rival, present in the company, then and there exchanging friendship and forgiveness, and founding an attachment, not to be surpassed in Greek or Roman story, which subsisted until death? Has that same rival long ceased to care for that same priceless pearl, and married for money, and become usurious? Above all, do we really know, now, that we should probably have been miserable if we had won and worn the pearl, and that we are better without her?

That Christmas when we had recently achieved so much fame; when we had been carried in triumph somewhere, for doing something great and good; when we had won an honoured and ennobled name, and arrived and were received at home in a shower of tears of joy; is it possible that THAT Christmas has not come yet?

And is our life here, at the best, so constituted that, pausing as we advance at such a noticeable mile-stone in the track as this great birthday, we look back on the things that never were, as naturally and full as gravely as on the things that have been and are gone, or have been and still are? If it be so, and so it seems to be, must we come to the conclusion that life is little better than a dream, and little worth the loves and strivings that we crowd into it?



No! Far be such miscalled philosophy from us, dear Reader, on Christmas Day! Nearer and closer to our hearts be the Christmas spirit, which is the spirit of active usefulness, perseverance, cheerful discharge of duty, kindness and forbearance! It is in the last virtues especially, that we are, or should be, strengthened by
the unaccomplished visions of our youth; for, who shall say that they are not our teachers to deal gently even with the impalpable nothings of the earth!

Therefore, as we grow older, let us be more thankful that the circle of our Christmas associations and of the lessons that they bring, expands! Let us welcome every one of them, and summon them to take their places by the Christmas hearth.

Welcome, old aspirations, glittering creatures of an ardent fancy, to your shelter underneath the holly! We know you, and have not outlived you yet. Welcome, old projects and old loves, however fleeting, to your nooks among the steadier lights that burn around us. Welcome, all that was ever real to our hearts; and for the earnestness that made you real, thanks to Heaven! Do we build no Christmas castles in the clouds now? Let our thoughts, fluttering like butterflies among these flowers of children, bear witness!

Before this boy, there stretches out a Future, brighter than we ever looked on in our old romantic time, but bright with honour and with truth. Around this little head on which the sunny curls lie heaped, the graces sport, as prettily, as airily, as when there was no scythe within the reach of Time to shear away the curls of our first-love. Upon another girl's face near it--placider but smiling bright--a quiet and contented little face, we see Home fairly written. Shining from the word, as rays shine from a star, we see how, when our graves are old, other hopes than ours are young, other hearts than ours are moved; how other ways are smoothed; how other happiness blooms, ripens, and decays--no, not decays, for other homes and other bands of children, not yet in being nor for ages yet to be, arise, and bloom and ripen to the end of all!

Welcome, everything! Welcome, alike what has been, and what never was, and what we hope may be, to your shelter underneath the holly, to your places round the Christmas fire, where what is sits open-hearted! In yonder shadow, do we see obtruding furtively upon the blaze, an enemy's face? By Christmas Day we do forgive him! If the injury he has done us may admit of such companionship, let him come here and take his place. If otherwise, unhappily, let him go hence, assured that we will never injure nor accuse him.

On this day we shut out Nothing!

"Pause," says a low voice. "Nothing? Think!"

"On Christmas Day, we will shut out from our fireside, Nothing."

"Not the shadow of a vast City where the withered leaves are lying deep?" the voice replies. "Not the shadow that darkens the whole globe? Not the shadow of the City of the Dead?"

Not even that. Of all days in the year, we will turn our faces towards that City upon Christmas Day, and from its silent hosts bring those we loved, among us. City of the Dead, in the blessed name wherein we are gathered together at this time, and in the Presence that is here among us according to the promise, we will receive, and not dismiss, thy people who are dear to us!

Yes. We can look upon these children angels that alight, so solemnly, so beautifully among the living children by the fire, and can bear to think how they departed from us. Entertaining angels unawares, as the Patriarchs did, the playful children are unconscious of their guests; but we can see them--can see a radiant arm around one favourite neck, as if there were a tempting of that child away. Among the celestial figures there is one, a poor misshapen boy on earth, of a glorious beauty now, of whom his dying mother said it grieved her much to leave him here, alone, for so many years as it was likely would elapse before he came to her--being such a little child. But he went quickly, and was laid upon her breast, and in her hand she leads him.

There was a gallant boy, who fell, far away, upon a burning sand beneath a burning sun, and said, "Tell them at home, with my last love, how much I could have wished to kiss them once, but that I died contented and had done my duty!" Or there was another, over whom they read the words, "Therefore we commit his body to the deep," and so consigned him to the lonely ocean and sailed on. Or there was another, who lay down to his rest in the dark shadow of great forests, and, on earth, awoke no more. O shall they not, from sand and sea and forest, be brought home at such a time!

There was a dear girl--almost a woman--never to be one--who made a mourning Christmas in a house of joy, and went her trackless way to the silent City. Do we recollect her, worn out, faintly whispering what could not be heard, and falling into that last sleep for weariness? O look upon her now! O look upon her beauty, her serenity, her changeless youth, her happiness! The daughter of Jairus was recalled to life, to die; but she, more blest, has heard the same voice, saying unto her, "Arise for ever!"

We had a friend who was our friend from early days, with whom we often pictured the changes that were to come upon our lives, and merrily imagined how we would speak, and walk, and think, and talk, when we came to be old. His destined habitation in the City of the Dead received him in his prime. Shall he be shut out from our Christmas remembrance? Would his love have so excluded us? Lost friend, lost child, lost parent, sister, brother, husband, wife, we will not so discard you! You shall hold your cherished places in
our Christmas hearts, and by our Christmas fires; and in the season of immortal hope, and on the birthday of immortal mercy, we will shut out Nothing!

The winter sun goes down over town and village; on the sea it makes a rosy path, as if the Sacred tread were fresh upon the water. A few more moments, and it sinks, and night comes on, and lights begin to sparkle in the prospect. On the hill-side beyond the shapelessly-diffused town, and in the quiet keeping of the trees that gird the village-steeple, remembrances are cut in stone, planted in common flowers, growing in grass, entwined with lowly brambles around many a mound of earth. In town and village, there are doors and windows closed against the weather, there are flaming logs heaped high, there are joyful faces, there is healthy music of voices. Be all ungentleness and harm excluded from the temples of the Household Gods, but be those remembrances admitted with tender encouragement! They are of the time and all its comforting and peaceful reassurances; and of the history that re-united even upon earth the living and the dead; and of the broad beneficence and goodness that too many men have tried to tear to narrow shreds.

Tuesday, December 18, 2012

Newtown

It is once again sadly necessary to bring up an issure that never seems to arise until some anonymous American citizen "goes postal" and shoots up a mall, a college campus, a high school, or, in the latest horrific case, an elementary school. And if something drastic isn't done about it very soon, the issue will simply go away again, unsolved as ever. Every day in America twenty-five people die in gun homicides and thirty-five die in gun suicides. This means that a Newtown-sized massacre happens every day in the USA.

I have touched on this subject here and there. Rather than reiterate what I wrote then, I will add that the reason why gun ownership is such a sacred cow to so many Americans is that it is closely bound up with property ownership, on which many of the principles of the Constitution are based. While everyone was so surprised that this massacre of the innocents took place in a small New England town in which everyone knows everyone else, it isn't the least bit surprising when one considers that Newtown, Connecticut is populated by well-to-do professionals and property owners. The home of Adam Lanza's mother is probably worth millions, so it's no coincidence that she was a "responsible" gun owner. Her motives were utterly proprietary.

But some of the common arguments used by gun proponents deserve to be singled out for closer scrutiny. The first one you always hear is "Guns don't kill people. People kill people." This glib adage ignores the terrible evidence: how did those bullets get into the bodies of those twenty children (there were between three and eleven bullets in every body)? Were they inserted manually? As a doctor apologetically informed the press on the day of the shooting, because of the type of weapon used by Adam Lanza, a Bushmaster (see photo) which uses 5.56mm rounds, "the energy is deposited in the tissue". The weapon is designed for combat, to deliver rounds on a target that absorbs all of the energy expended in its firing. Those bullets tore into those tiny bodies like a hot knife through butter.

And even if you follow the absurd logic further along, that Lanza would've killed his victims whether he had guns or not, it is preposterous. The day before the massacre, a man attacked some children in a primary school in China with a knife, "injuring" twenty-two of them. So if Lanza had attacked the teachers and children in Newtown with a knife rather than a Bushmaster rifle, there would've been far fewer fatalities or else Lanza would have to have been a great deal more skilled as well as incalculably more ruthless in his murderous spree to have managed to kill as many as he did.

Rather than the patently insane idea of arming teachers (really, Fox News and Comedy Central should merge), we should not capitulate to the madness. Why not arm priests and nuns, doctors and nurses? Hell, why not arm the kids themselves?

Another absurd statistic used against gun control is that a person is more likely to be killed by being struck by lightning than he is by being shot to death. Except that you are far more likely to be struck by lightning if you are an American, instead of a Canadian or an Australian or a Japanese. If you are afraid of being killed by lightning, it's probably a good idea to live where it hardly ever rains.

Would it be naughty of me to suggest that, whatever its "Constitutionality", gun ownership is obviously a fetish - a masculine sexualization of the weapon? Any armchair Freudian can see that. The number and size of the guns has a correlation to the degree of sexual inadequacy of the owner.

Sunday, December 16, 2012

The Schoolboy

Saturday (it was Friday in the States) was so terribly sad. All day, like everyone else, I watched the news for the latest reports. Afterward, I turned to books for distraction, since explanation will never be forthcoming. Trusting in the conviction that nothing is inexplicable, unsayable, or unbreathable, I turned to Blake's Songs of Innocence and Song of Experience. There is always someone - a prophet or a poet - and Blake was both - who is capable of breathing it, saying it, and, if not truly explicating it, making it somehow navigable or measurable. This is from The Songs of Experience.



THE SCHOOLBOY


I love to rise in a summer morn,
When the birds sing on every tree;
The distant huntsman winds his horn,
And the skylark sings with me:
O what sweet company!

But to go to school in a summer morn,—
O it drives all joy away!
Under a cruel eye outworn,
The little ones spend the day
In sighing and dismay.

Ah then at times I drooping sit,
And spend many an anxious hour;
Nor in my book can I take delight,
Nor sit in learning’s bower,
Worn through with the dreary shower.

How can the bird that is born for joy
Sit in a cage and sing?
How can a child, when fears annoy,
But droop his tender wing,
And forget his youthful spring!

O father and mother if buds are nipped,
And blossoms blown away;
And if the tender plants are stripped
Of their joy in the springing day,
By sorrow and care’s dismay,—

How shall the summer arise in joy,
Or the summer fruits appear?
Or how shall we gather what griefs destroy,
Or bless the mellowing year,
When the blasts of winter appear?

Saturday, December 15, 2012

Devotion


"...from these honored dead we take increased devotion to that cause for which they gave the last full measure of devotion..."

Abraham Lincoln at Gettysburg



One morning in the Army in 2000, I was inside the battalion headquarters of some forward support unit at Fort arson, Colorado. I was waiting for an appointment with an officer, killing time by walking around the front desk, looking at the pictures on the wall. These HQs are kept in immaculate condition, their floors waxed and buffed nightly, its surfaces dusted and polished.

Along the walls, I noticed, were dozens of photographs of uniformed soldiers, mostly junior enlisted, with small placards placed beside each of them. Every one of them was a Medal of Honor recipient, and as I looked at them one by one - very young men smiling perfunctorily in their Class A dress uniforms - I noticed that almost all of them had two things in common: they were medics and they had been awarded the medal, the highest honor in the military, posthumously. The details of their deaths were also remarkably alike: exposing themselves to enemy fire, they were killed while attempting to reach wounded fellow soldiers and to provide medical assistance.

Marines are fond of telling jokes about soldiers - and vice-versa. The rivalry among the branches of service is old and derived from a mixture of pride and jealousy. One of the jokes goes: "What's the battle cry of the U.S. Army? 'MEDIC!'" A combat medic is one of the most prized members of any unit. He is every soldier's friend, in case he may some day be his last resort. When a soldier under enemy fire calls out for him, a medic must, whatever the conditions, locate the soldier, treat him as much as physically possible with bandages and morphine, and return him to safety. They represent, I think, all that is best in soldiers.* But they also reveal all that is wrong about war. Whereas soldiers function essentially as targets for the enemy to shoot at, medics are there to patch the holes, bind the wounds, and repair the damage inflicted by war. It almost seems like a vicious cycle, war being the cause: the wounder and the wounded.

But the presence of all those medics on the walls of that battalion headquarters, killed in the line of duty - their duty being to save those who find themselves in the most unsafe place on earth - made me wonder at the true meaning behind the words Courage and Honor.

Abraham Lincoln understood the hollowness of even his own great words spoken at Gettysburg:

"We can not dedicate - we can not consecrate - we can not hallow - this ground. The brave men, living and dead, who struggled here, have consecrated it, far above our poor power to add or detract. The world will little note, nor long remember what we say here, but it can never forget what they did here."


It reminded me, standing in my BDUs in that battalion HQ, that funerals - and posthumous medals - aren't for the dead. They're for the survivors. The dead have no say in the manner of their disposition. They, as the saying goes, have their reward. And they can't have cared how, or even if, they'd be remembered. Those medics weren't thinking of posterity at the hour of their deaths, of having their names chiseled on some granite monument. And they certainly would never have dreamed of my chancing upon their photographs one bright and early morning in Colorado Springs.


*And conscientious objectors, who wanted to serve but who refused to kill for their country, were often employed as stretcher bearers.

Wednesday, December 12, 2012

Time to Shake Hands With the Unemployed*

When I was in the military, I was periodically reminded of the difference between "leave" and "liberty". Leave was something I earned - thirty days for every years of service. If there was any leave left at the end of my enlistment that I hadn't used, I could cash it in at the rate of whatever my "daily norm" was - the amount of pay that I earned every day times the number of days of leave. Liberty, however, is the time away from work, after close of business or on weekends. This was not a right like leave but a privilege - one that could be taken away at a moment's notice.

Years later when I was out of the service, I applied for unemployment insurance for the first time in my life. Because I am a disabled veteran, I was assured front-of-the-line consideration. But because I had been fired from my last job, which is determined to be entirely my fault (despite the "hire & fire at will" employment policy of the company that fired me), my case worker required that I jump through so many stupid hoops - including being scolded by the case worker - that I was relieved when I managed to find another, albeit lower-paying, job just a few days before my first paltry unemployment check was issued.

I realize that the government shouldn't make it all that easy for just anyone to draw these so-called "benefits", but have they ever considered how hard it is for some people to even ask for them? Why has it become so galling for so many Americans, as it was for me, to apply for unemployment or food stamps or welfare when such programs were put there for a purpose - to spare people who are in need of assistance from destitution? It seems to me that the risk of abuse of the system is an unacceptable excuse for making it inaccessible to people who genuinely need it.

So from whence does this offensive word "entitlement" come? Here is Merriam-Webster's definition of the noun entitlement:

1 a) : the state or condition of being entitled : right
b) : a right to benefits specified especially by law or contract
2 : a government program providing benefits to members of a specified group; also : funds supporting or distributed by such a program
3 : belief that one is deserving of or entitled to certain privileges

I think there is a confusion in some people's minds that the 3rd definition belongs in the place of the 1st - that a right is some kind of privilege. The politicians in Washington who seem so determined to reform "entitlements" have made it into a dirty word, particularly since the people who are most in need of such entitlements are unlikely to ever vote for them.

I think that Americans have a right - are entitled - to live without being overwhelmed by the nightmares of unemployment, homelessness, and putting their children to bed hungry. The people who object to this social philosophy never have to worry that they or anyone they know will ever be in the position of having to apply for them, so what is their objection to them. Is it one more puritanical desire to deprive others of something we can't enjoy?


*The title of this piece is a line I first heard an older gentleman from New Zealand use when he got up from his bar stool to use the rest room.

Wednesday, December 5, 2012

The Public Is Alone


In 1982, Andrew Lloyd Webber interrupted his boring routine of writing one smash hit West End and Broadway musical after another by writing, of all things, a Requiem. It was inspired, so Lloyd Webber explained, by the death of his father. It premiered in New York in 1985, conducted by Lorin Maazel, with featured performances by Placido Domingo and Sarah Brightman, Lloyd Webber's wife at the time.

New York music critic Peter G. Davis set the tone for the critical reception that Lloyd Webber's Requiem received: "I never found much musical merit in Lloyd Webber's Evita or Cats, but at least those shows never had the nerve to masquerade as high art. The Requiem does, and it is depressing to see so much money and media hype squandered on such a pretentious and crushingly trivial hunk of junk."

Regardless of what the critics said, a recording of the piece, featuring the same performers, became a classical best-seller (although it didn't go platinum) and even won a Grammy for "Best Classical Contemporary Composition" -a moniker that makes no sense. Make up your mind, is it classical or contemporary - it can't be both. After its resounding lambasting at the hands of critics, Lloyd Webber returned to his throne on Broadway, leaving some people to wonder why on earth such a successful composer of popular music wanted to be taken seriously, if just once in his life.

I was reminded of Webber when I watched the BBC interview of J.K. Rowling, whose new novel, A Casual Vacancy, is a complete departure from her Harry Potter books, which, so far, have sold 450 million copies worldwide. I haven't read the Potter books. But then, nobody has. Rowling has attempted something entirely new for her - writing for its own sake - in the hope that, this time, with Harry Potter and his commercial success behind her, perhaps someone will read her book, even at the risk of making not nearly as much money.

What bothers me about Rowling's new-found seriousness is how it jostles the already tiny market for literature, for literary fiction. In his poem, "In Memory of W.B. Yeats", Auden wrote the brutally honest stanza: "But in the importance and noise of tomorrow . . ./A few thousand will think of this day/As one thinks of a day when one did something slightly unusual." That was all that one great poet could estimate of the people who were moved by the death of another great poet, "a few thousand".

For a serious novelist, the number of readers is higher, but nothing compared to the number who read J.K. Rowling. A Casual Vacancy (an emblematic title), sold a million copies in its first three weeks of publication. It's being readied for a BBC TV drama scheduled for 2014. Its critical reception was surprisingly kind. The Wall Street Journal commented, "'The Casual Vacancy' may not be George Eliot but it's J.K. Rowling; and that's pretty good." The LA Times complained that it "fails to conjure Harry Potter's magic." The New York Times' Michiko Kakutani panned the novel.

There is a scene in Jean Cocteau's film Orpheus in which the hero, who has become quite a popular poet, visits the Cafe des Po├Ętes, where young poets gather to carouse and share their work. They look at Orpheus with contempt in their eyes. He tells a friend that it doesn't matter because "the public loves me." His friend replies, "The public is alone."

Sunday, December 2, 2012

Dear Sister

I am tired of email. I've grown suspicious of everything that has an e or an i stuck in front of it to distinguish it from a real phone on the wall, a real book that rests on a shelf with other books, real mail that is delivered from the hands of one person to those of another. It seems that we sequester ourselves off not just from one another with these new gadgets but from all the things with which we were once surrounded. All the latest electronic "conveniences" have only made it that much harder to be away from home, separated by thousands of miles from family and friends. I would gladly trade them all in for a chance to stand beside them, face to face, especially at this time of year.

Number one on my list of visitations is you, sister. You were born Elizabeth, so Mama used the endearment Lil' Betty and Daddy called you Bit-o-Bette (or Bit-a-Bit). To us kids - Dea, George, and me - it sounded like Bibbit. So that's what we called you, and it stuck. We stopped calling George Georgie and calling me Danny Boy (thank heaven), but those of us who are left will always know and cherish you as Bibbit.

You have known me all my life. Our language may give pride of place to the word brother (as in the dream - which I share - of human brotherhood), but you helped me learn the special significance, the grandeur and poetry, of sister.

If I could, I would bring back the hours we spent playing Monopoly and, years later, Trivial Pursuit. Because you lost to me most of the time at the latter, you accused me of memorizing the cards (I swear I didn't). But you should know how many times I deliberately lost at the former so you wouldn't lose interest and stay in the game. 

We enjoy the same music most of the time. Our reading took us in different directions, but I envy you your command of P.G. Wodehouse. Our last two Christmases - not at all the very last - together, you embarrassed me with all the gifts you bought me. I hope you learned that not all men want a toy for Christmas (where did you read that?). And I learned that giving isn't serious unless it hurts.

Maybe because I'm a little brother, and because of your strapping good health, I never had to regret our many goodbyes, There have simply been too many of them for me to worry about them ever becoming terminal. And yet I can still know what inspired Tennessee Williams to write the exquisitely sad speech that closes The Glass Menagerie (he was inspired by his experience with his own sister):

"I didn't go to the moon, I went much further - for time is the longest distance between places. . . . I travelled around a great deal. The cities swept about me like dead leaves, leaves that were brightly coloured but torn away from the branches. I would have stopped, but I was pursued by something. It always came upon me unawares, taking me altogether by surprise. Perhaps it was a familiar bit of music. Perhaps it was only a piece of transparent glass. Perhaps I am walking along a street at night, in some strange city, before I have found companions. I pass the lighted window of a shop where perfume is sold. The window is filled with pieces of coloured glass, tiny transparent bottles in delicate colours, like bits of a shattered rainbow. Then all at once my sister touches my shoulder. I turn around and look into her eyes. . . ."

Of the people who have shadowed me in my meandering life, your shadow is the longest. Window-gazing at things I couldn't afford in places hard to find on a map, you couldn't know how many times you might have found yourself standing beside me.

Our lives haven't been easy. But wouldn't Dea say to us how precious even a tough life is compared to the alternative imposed on her twenty-three years ago? We all learned long before that asshole Bono wrote a song about it that sometimes you can't make it on your own. You will never be on your own, Bibbit. Having you in the world means that neither will I.

On the two occasions when I drove my life into a wall (one shouldn't dream and drive), you took me in. The last time, in the far beyond of Alaska, you hoped - you told me - that I would stay for the rest of my life. My fate, or whatever you want to call it, wasn't quite done with me. 

This is an open letter I wish I could've written across the sky above you. This lonely, backwater blog is the best I can do.

Love,
Danny