Wednesday, December 21, 2011

The Funky Leader

Monrovia, California

Wednesday, December 21, 2011

As we’ve all heard, the Dear Leader of North Korea, Kim Jong Il, has died at the age of 69. The Dear Leader was the son of Kim Il Sung, who was known as the Great Leader. He led the country for several decades until his death in 1994, at which time he became known as The Eternal President of the Republic. Now his grandson, Kim Jong Un, appears to be taking the reins. The youngest Kim seems to be going by the appellation The Great Successor, and is also known as the Young General. And young he is, at about 28 years old, especially for a general. Not the youngest general in history to be sure. There was Alexander the Great, and even George Armstrong Custer, who reached the rank of Major General in the Union army at about 25. But that was only a temporary, brevet rank. After the Civil War he was returned to his permanent rank of Captain, from which he was able to inch, over the next decade, a couple of notches to Lieutenant Colonel, before dying in the disastrous and ignominious Last Stand in 1876. But I digress.

It has been suggested that there’s something of a power vacuum in North Korea with the passing of the Dear Leader. But it seems to me that what’s been missing in the North Korean equation for a long time is the proper name for the leader, commensurate with his high rank. "Dear Leader" didn't ever quite make it and always seemed, against the accolades heaped on his father, to be damning Kim Jong Il with faint praise. Since it appears that the young Kim Jong Un loves basketball and especially the Chicago Bulls, and would like to play the game, an appropriate name for him might be The Dear Point Guard, or perhaps the Great Bench Warmer.

The sad silliness of the country might be allowed to speak for itself, but it really begs to be addressed. Sure they have nuclear weapons, and therefore in the minds of some they must be taken seriously. But, well, really? Look—the U.S. has nuclear weapons, and we’re running the most ridiculous political campaign in my memory even as I write this, unwittingly making ourselves one of the laughingstocks of the world. India has nuclear weapons, and face it, they’re among the silliest people on the face of the earth, with their crazy modulated singsong voices and the way they nod their heads from side to side like bobble head dolls. And let’s not even get into how ineffably ridiculous the Brits and the French are capable of being. So having nuclear weapons is definitely not a reason to take one country any more seriously than another.

Since things could hardly get any worse for the North Koreans, I am volunteering to go over there and run the place. I would call myself The Funky Leader, and would decree that James Brown music be played over loudspeakers in every city and town, from dawn until dusk. Or maybe from dusk until dawn. I'll have to give that some thought. I would immediately invite Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton over (a woman who to my way of thinking has been looking far too frazzled and serious herself these days) and ask her to provide North Korea with lots of nourishing food, especially things for which the United States is justifiably famous—foods named after great German cities such as Hamburg and Frankfurt, Italian delicacies like pizza, and of course Mexican food. And French fries, to be sure. The North Koreans need more calories, and that’s no joke.

I think I have the chops to be their leader, or at least as good a one as this youngster who seems to be taking the reins now. Like him, I received all my formal education outside North Korea. I read this morning that he is said to have “privately studied computer science,” by which I take it that someone sat him down and explained to him how to operate a computer and play FreeCell and Minesweeper, which is similar to my own training. I like basketball well enough, too, although in the past I’ve usually only gotten excited about the NCAA tournaments in March, being partial to the UConn men’s and women’s teams and sometimes North Carolina. But I have also followed the Pistons, the Celtics, and the Lakers at various points, and this year I enjoyed the Dallas Mavericks in the finals. So I think I’m okay there. And speaking of sports, I would decree that all North Koreans become New York Yankees fans, as well as supporters of the University of Michigan football team. In fact, I would change the North Korean national anthem from whatever silly thing it is now to The Victors.

Also (and I think this would help convince my new countrymen that a safe reliable and peaceful transition of power has taken place), I would change my name to Kim Kardashian.

Last but not least, I would assure the North Korean people that I’m not just the President of the Hair Club for Old-Style Stalinist Dictators, I’m also a member.

Saturday, December 10, 2011

It Happens

Monrovia, California

Saturday, December 10, 2011

Interesting meteorological phenomenon here last week, or as Popeye would say, “Large weather we’re having.” Santa Ana winds were predicted for Wednesday night, with gusts up to 75 mph. Big deal, I thought, remembering how many times the weather folks out here have predicted dire things along the lines of Actual Rain, Temperatures Below 40 Degrees, Less Than Perfect Sunshine, and the like.

However, due to some weird combination of factors—dueling weather fronts, one going clockwise and the other counterclockwise, or something like that—the winds on Wednesday night/Thursday morning played hell with the cities and towns along the San Gabriel Valley, stretching out from the northeast part of LA along old Route 66 through Pasadena, Arcadia, Monrovia, and Duarte, and including a few smaller places north and south of that line. Somehow the winds from out of the northwest combined with winds from the desert southeast of here. The result was massive tree damage and power outages. Made me nostalgic for those Michigan and New England snow and ice storm conditions. I'm not just talking broken branches here, but trees uprooted entirely. Power was out at our house from early Thursday morning until Sunday morning, and in some places it still wasn’t on as of the next Wednesday. On the way into my volunteer job at the Pasadena courthouse on Thursday, going through Arcadia in particular, I saw more trees simply pulled out of the ground and stretched out over the road (always having fallen from north to south) than I’ve ever seen before, period. Mostly they were shallow-rooted trees, like evergreens and eucalyptuses, but some others as well. Just knocked over by the winds, which somehow conspired to roar down the south side of the San Gabriel Mountain range at speeds of up to 100 mph.

But here was the odd part, the part I’m not used to. There was no precipitation or other bad weather accompanying the winds. In fact, the skies were, if anything, clearer and brighter the next day because the wind had blown the pollution away. Sunny warm breezy days in paradise, only with electrical outages and trees and branches blocking virtually every street. Interesting. Still, Californians take this sort of thing more or less in stride. I’ve mentioned before that in spite of being rather spoiled, weatherwise, they’re not big on complaining, at not least volubly. The reliable surliness of the Midwest and kvetching of the Northeast are all but absent here. All that extra vitamin D from the sun, I guess. And it’s not like people had to shovel snow or dry out the basement on top of having lost power, after all. Crews of municipal and free-lance landscapers and tree cutters just got busy. Tons of cash passed into the underground economy, as people hired members of the legion of immigrant yard workers to do extra things, like raking and cutting and trimming and repairing. And meanwhile the sun just kept on shining.

After several days things were reasonably cleared up and it was business as usual, except in places like the LA Botanical Gardens over in Lucky Baldwin territory, where at least half of all the exhibits were damaged in some way. Apparently the news people weren't able to connect even one death to the storm, which was a good thing, though rather surprising, since the media like to attribute virtually all deaths from all causes that take place during any spate of inclement weather to such event. A ninety-five-year-old man dies of a heart attack while it’s raining heavily and he goes down as a casualty of the storm.

The other thing I noticed over the next few days was how little, not how much, I noticed the missing trees. To be sure, in some parks there were dozens of hundred-year-old trees destroyed, their massive stumps and roots lined up to be carried away like rows of fat dead bodies. But what the hell, they all have to die some day in some way. I was left marveling a few days later, rolling down lush tree-lined Colorado Boulevard in west Arcadia, at just how few trees appeared to be missing. There are more than enough to go around.

Don’t get me wrong—I love trees as much as the next guy. From our perspective they’re mighty and noble and all those things we like to ascribe to them when indulging in what John Ruskin termed the “pathetic fallacy” (which isn’t as bad a thing as it sounds—look it up). People worship them, hug them, rely on them for shade and shelter and food. But in the end they’re just bigger versions of grass and weeds. It's all a matter of perspective. If we were bigger, we’d think of them that way, too. And they have life spans like everything else. The ones that fell were weaker or older than the ones that didn’t fall, or more unlucky perhaps, or too big for their britches, so to speak. It happens.

Meanwhile, it’s mid-December and the roses keep on blooming and the sun shines damned near every day.

Wednesday, November 30, 2011

Save The Mosquito

Monrovia, California

Wednesday, November 30, 2011

Those who haven’t spent much time out here might be under the impression that the appearance of things doesn’t change much from one season to the next. I know I was. But as I experience my first fall in southern California I can tell you that there are a number of deciduous trees whose leaves turn bright orange and red and yellow and fall off, just as they do in the north. To be sure this happens much later than it does in, say, Michigan. In fact, it’s happening right now. The trees that change colors most vividly are the ones, like maples, which contain the most sugar. Here there are few maples as we know them in the north or the northeast, as those trees need a decent period of hibernation in order to thrive. But sweetgums, which are similar, do well in warmer weather and appear practically the same, except for the shape of their leaves, which are five-pointed, resembling a hand with its fingers splayed. Although not members of the maple family, they seem to behave pretty much the same. The sweetgum, also know by the delectable name of liquid amber, is not native to southern California, but to the southeast; nevertheless it has been successfully introduced into the towns and cities hereabouts. Other trees that turn colors include many ornamental fruit trees planted along streets and in parking lots, and aspens and cottonwoods, which are native to the southwest and turn bright yellow. And there are many sycamores, with their familiar brown fall leaves.

Like much else here, many species of plants have been introduced by humans, and the flora of a typical LA county town is a mixture of all kinds of non-native growth, most of which, having been around for a hundred years or more, is taken for granted. Among these are the sweetgums, gingkos from Asia, eucalyptuses from Australia, ficus and citrus trees from the Old World, and a variety of palms from all over the world but none originally from right around here. It turns out that when you take away all “non-native” species what you have left is mostly western oaks, scrub brush, and evergreens, with some cactuses thrown in, and also I'm sure a bunch of plants I don’t know. So you can drive down the street enjoying the changing fall foliage just like you can in Grand Rapids or East Longmeadow, but when you look up into the hills above the cities, all is pretty much green or brown, as it was before lots of people came here.

I’ve heard people talk earnestly about returning areas to their native flora. To be concerned, much less obsessed, by what, in the plant or animal worlds, is and isn’t “native” to California (or anywhere else, for that matter) is an exercise not only in futility, but in misplaced ecological zeal, of which there appears to be no shortage anywhere. Clean the chemicals out of the rivers? Fine, I say, go for it. Reduce the smoke in the air? By all means. But to get back to some primeval state of things, Mr. Peabody would have to have his boy Sherman set the Wayback Machine first to some time before the Europeans came, bringing with them horses and sheep and fruit trees and such (not to mention disease and pestilence), then to before the so-called “native” Americans came, carrying with them whatever plants and animals they had, and then to the time when most of the world was covered with ice, then to when it was all tropical and filled with dinosaurs, and finally to when all the continents of the world were together in the time of Pangea—or multiple Pangeas, as they’re now speculating. So you see it never ends.

By way of example and not limitation, as they say in the law, how would the Europeans like it if someone decided to eliminate non-native plants from their habitat, to return it to, say, the days before Columbus set sail? Gone would be the potato, the tomato, peppers of all kinds, corn, chocolate, tobacco, and God knows what else. Conversely, if on this side of the ocean we eliminated things brought from the so-called Old World, we’d lose citrus fruits, coffee, bananas, apples, onions, rice, and a whole lot more.

The truth is that most people’s idea of when things were ecologically pristine and more or less as they should be goes back an absurdly short time—perhaps a generation or two or at most a century or two. More often than not it goes back to when the person speaking was about ten years old. It’s more a symptom of our inability to accept change than it is a recognition of reality, even historically speaking. It’s nostalgia, that hallmark of Republicanism, writ large on an apparently more liberal canvas. “We’ve got to get ourselves back to the garden.” Bullshit, there are seven billion of us and counting, operating the thin surface of the planet far more successfully for our own benefit than most people care to admit, and better than most other mammals for certain.

Our concern for other animal species, in particular, is remarkably selective. The animals we want to save are usually the ones that are closest to us, in some way. Animals with the characteristics we innately or unconsciously admire—the ability to use tools, to reason more or less as we do, to hunt and kill prey. Cute animals, sleek animals, cunning animals. Primates, large or carnivorous mammals, predatory birds. Animals, in short, at or near the top of their respective food chains, like we are. Save the eagle, save the polar bear, save the wolf, save the chimp. Hell yes. But species we find repulsive, or dangerous—rats, termites, naked mole rats, microorganisms—well, we prefer to exterminate them.

For as thoroughly self-serving as we are, why do we seem to hate ourselves so much as a species, I wonder? Why do we seek to forsake our carnivorous, or at least omnivorous, heritage? Our ability to prey on the weak and helpless, our ability to kill with precision and skill? Why do we see our explosive multiplication as a curse rather than an obvious sign of our success? And if perchance these things aren’t good, what the hell can we really do about them?

I marvel at our ability to worry about our future. Do other animals do that too, only we just don’t notice? Do bears, for instance, gather together and debate their fate? Do mosquitoes worry that their numbers might be getting out of hand? Does the Ebola virus regret having to go into comparative remission because it has a habit of burning through its hosts too fast?

Concern for what is often absurdly referred to as “the future of the planet” (as if anything we comparative specks of dust on the outer surface of Earth could do would have the ability to affect the planet as a whole) is a luxury undertaken only by those of us with enough wealth and power to imagine that we can bring about change—that we can steer or perhaps slow down the juggernaut of human progress. Make a car that runs on electricity rather than gasoline. Use makeup that hasn’t been tested on animals. Drink water from a biodegradable bottle. It is a game played by those at the very top of the human race, and we play it, I submit, not because we are concerned about anyone or anything at the bottom, but because we wish above all to preserve the high quality of our own way of life. Everywhere else, beneath us, the essentials are what they always have been and what they really are for us as well—get up, eat, reproduce, die. Where do we get the hubris to think there’s something more to it than that? And yet we do. Maybe it’s just a phase we’re going through in our social evolution, but it’s such a sad, patronizing, futile phase, and we’d all be so much happier and more relaxed if we could just let it go.

The preoccupation with saving the planet, and especially species other than our own, plant or animal, is often the province of the misanthrope. People who hate other people or themselves can, unless they’re truly psychopathic, find little problem relating to cute or sleek or cuddly animals. Folks who wouldn’t drop a dollar in someone’s tin cup will spend hundreds to keep a cancerous cat alive. People weep when they see mistreated pets on television, but wouldn’t give a dime to a wetback. More often than not ecological concerns are a more comfortable alternative to a commitment to, say, social justice and equality.

For some truly compassionate persons the desire to help people is as strong as the desire to help other species. But such compassion invariably stops when either the people or the animals or plants are seen as dangerous or irrelevant to, well, those very people. An interesting phenomenon, and one whose main lesson is often lost on everyone: we are, first and always, looking out for ourselves as humans, even when we think we aren’t.

Friday, November 25, 2011

Y & R

Monrovia, California

Friday, November 25, 2011

If you recognize the character in the photograph above you will know what today’s posting is about. If not, here goes. I may as well just come out and say this. I have begun watching a soap opera, “The Young and the Restless.” Back in the 1970s, under the influence of the good women at Plymouth State Home and Training School, Randy and I watched one or two “stories,” as the ladies called them, for a time. I think we followed “Another World” and possibly also “The Edge of Night.”

I was going to go into a long self-serving and face-saving explanation of how my addiction to the show came about, but why, really? It just happened. I began watching it a few minutes at a time during the summer, after “The Price Is Right” and the half hour of news at 11:00 a.m. on the local CBS affiliate. One thing led to another and now I’m DVR-ing it and watching it daily, fast forwarding through the commercials. That at least gets me my dose in less time.

I was also going to try to dress it up by making an elegant comparison between the essential characteristics of soap operas and the works of the more mannerly English novelists of the 19th century, like Trollope and Jane Austen, but to hell with that too, at least for now. The similarities are indeed there, but it’s probably been done already by a graduate student at UCLA. Speaking of literature, though, I do believe that one of my favorite 21st century writers, David Sedaris, would approve of my devotion to the show.

First I must say that as with most of the addictions I’ve had I don’t really enjoy this one as much now as I did at first. But I’ve put quite a bit of time and energy into it and it’s hard to quit it. Let me give you the basics of the show as I’ve come to understand it so far. This won’t go too deep, as there is much to be told and much more to be revealed. At least a few of you will know all about “The Young and the Restless” (hereinafter referred to as “Y &R”) and indeed will know much more about the show than I do. If so, feel free to correct me and fill me in on the deep background details. (As with just about everything else, much detailed information is available on Wikipedia about the show, its stars, and its individual characters--in fact, more than I've been able to digest so far.)

Y & R takes place in the imaginary town of Genoa City, Wisconsin, which must surely have more billionaires per capita than any place of its size other than Beverly Hills or Greenwich, Connecticut. First, there’s the 70ish kingpin of the town and the show, Victor Newman (pictured above). Victor is the anchor, the rock. He’s Vito Corleone and Donald Trump in terms of power combined with the urbanity and deep tan of George Hamilton. His wavy, winglike grey hair frames a distinguished face, which bears a moustache perpetually trimmed to about a one-week growth. (This is achieved, I imagine, by buzzing it nearly every day with a beard trimmer set on 1 or 2.)

Victor is the head of Newman Enterprises, a far-flung financial empire founded on cosmetics, of all things. Victor has his own jet and loves to use it to help his friends and exile his enemies. Jabot Cosmetics was originally the property of Chancellor Enterprises, owned by the late Phillip Chancellor II and his wife Katherine, another billionaire who is, with Victor, the opposing bookend on this decades-long shelf of treachery, intrigue and woe. The part of Victor is played by Eric Braeden (born Hans Jorg Gudegast), a German who immigrated to the U.S. in 1959. He started on Y & R in the late 70s after doing time as a bit player on TV during the 1960s, more often than not playing Nazi officers in shows like “12 O’Clock High” and “The Rat Patrol.” Katherine Chancellor, who has been a character on the show since 1973, the year it began, is played by Jeanne Cooper, the mother of the actor Corbin Bernsen, and also a veteran bit part actress, having mostly played western gals in tight-waisted gingham dresses, along the lines of Miss Kitty in "Gunsmoke." Cooper, well into her 70s now, at one point had plastic surgery in real life and had it worked into the story line of the show. This helps to explain the near universality with which the actresses over the age of 40 on Y & R have had some sort of work done to their faces. As with most such procedures, in addition to being obvious the results are usually hideous and sad and leave the viewer wondering by what distorted mass hypnosis all these women have been seized that they should imagine such puffing and plumping and stretching of the cheeks and lips and chin line actually looks good, rather than clownish and bizarre. To be sure, plastic surgery has its place. There are those unfortunate children with the cleft palates who appear in all the ads on TV and in magazines. But beyond that, and of course burn victims and the like, I really don’t see the point.

Among the other super-rich people in Y & R, apart from the feckless and promiscuous offspring of the self-made elders, is Jack Abbott, who looks like a TV anchorman and is about as deep. Jack, master of the puzzled look, has recently regained control of Jabot (after God knows how many changes of ownership). Another magnate is Tucker McCall, head of McCall Unlimited and the bastard son of Katherine Chancellor. All of them, I must say, treat their excessive wealth with admirable casualness, and embrace being billionaires with the kind of humility and magnanimity we all like to imagine we would do if we were so fortunate. The only really spoiled one is Abby Newman, Victor’s youngest daughter (by Jack’s sister and Victor’s former wife Ashley Abbott, who just got married to Tucker.) Girlish Abby is the token young rich brat, along the lines of Paris Hilton or one of the Kardashians, though she appears to have more brains and charm than any of her real-life counterparts. And then there’s Victor’s son Adam, the Bad Seed, a seething cauldron of sociopathic rage and skulduggery. Even though he's rich as hell like the rest of them, he seems to feel that he's been left sucking the hind teat, as it were--unloved, unfulfilled, misunderstood. If there’s an unalloyed villain in the show, it’s him (at least now that Diane is dead). He hates himself and the world, and his father most of all, and all that is what makes him so endearing as a character. His father Victor treats him alternately with bullying contempt and wistful indulgence.

The show is the usual soap opera mélange of intermarriage, bastardy, ex-spouses, pathos, bathos, and shady doings of all kinds. Everyone seems to reside either in a mansion or a hotel and the principal meeting places are cocktail lounges, hospitals, and the Genoa City jail, where someone gets called in for questioning nearly every week. Many people have been married to one another at some distant point in the past, and many are close relatives or in-laws, though there are hardly any full siblings, so few couples having stayed together long enough to produce two offspring from the same relationship. Exceptions to this are Nick and Victoria Newman, the eldest of Victor’s brood, both of whom are his children by ex-wife Nikki, who apparently is or was the love of his life. Nikki has been away in rehab for some time (perhaps due to real-life contractual disputes or, for all I know, real life rehab), but is poised as I write this to make her return to Genoa City, to confront her demons, and maybe to reunite with that lovable old twinkling-eyed arch-demon, Victor.

Well, enough of that for now. Just wanted to give you a taste of the thing. What’s actually happening is far less important than the characters are. The action is based almost completely on the repetition of three main ingredients, in one or more of which practically all the characters partake: infidelity, revenge, and bad judgment. Greed is curiously lacking, considering how much money floats around in the background. What this is meant to convey to us regular folks in TV land is that the super rich, even though they have been freed from the need to scrounge for their daily bread, must nevertheless adhere to a rigid code, founded on a reckless disregard for conventional morality. They're wealthier, but their behavior appears to be more contemptible than ours. This, I suspect, is what keeps us all buying lottery tickets and then helps us not to be too disappointed when we lose. And keeps us watching soap operas.

Tuesday, November 15, 2011

Lotus Land

Monrovia, California

Tuesday, November 15, 2011

Well, 11-11-11 at 11:11 has come and gone, and the world remains in existence and pretty much intact, at least here in what one of my friends recently referred to as Lotus Land, a longtime nickname for Hollywood. Several events were scheduled for that date and time in the LA area, sponsored by the usual soothsayers and wackjobs, which caused me to wonder, “11:11 in what particular time zone?.” By the time it’s 11:11 here, it’s already been 11:11 in most of the rest of the world. The rigid zones we have now only came into existence starting with the advent of the railroad, and in many places, such as Europe, weren’t fixed until after World War II. Before that it was whatever time the local clock, or town crier, said it was. More often than not sunrise was 6:00 a.m., and sunset was 6:00 p.m., give or take some allowance for the length of the days.

The trouble with reading too much of anything into a spot on the western calendar—or any calendar, really—is the inherently faulty nature of such measures of time. The year 2000, for instance, could easily have been off by two or three years either way, no one knows for sure, especially since it measures itself from the occurrence of an event that might or might not have happened and a person who might or might not have existed, in the corporeal sense, at least. (So the computer conspiracy theorists had to create their own version of the Year 2000 crisis—and made a ton of money from it to boot.) In any case, January 1st has only been recognized as the turn of the new year since the change from the Julian to the Gregorian calendar, which in the Roman Catholic world occurred in 1582, when Pope Gregory XIII announced the adjustment for the fact that we’d had about ten too many leap years over the centuries. But the Protestant countries didn’t start to get on board until some time in the 1700s, at which point they had to skip thirteen days, not ten. The Russians didn’t make the adjustment until after the revolution of 1917. And that doesn’t include all the crazy regional variations along the way. The other thing that happened with that adjustment from Julian to Gregorian was the recognition that a year would start in January, rather than in March, as had previously been the case. Ever wonder why the last four months of the year as we now reckon it are based on the Latin words for seven, eight, nine, and ten, rather than nine, ten, eleven, and twelve? Under the old calendar, 11-11 wouldn't have happened until January.

The point is, with all this utterly arbitrary stuff in the history of the calendar and timekeeping, how anyone can get excited about the felicitous arrangement of the digits in any particular day, date, or time is beyond me. But it has created quite a cottage industry for mountebanks and crazies the world over. Of course there are the end-time Christians, about whom I've written before, whose methods of reckoning the second coming all seem to fall by the wayside. The touchstone of much of the buzz these days seems to be the Mayan calendar. Ah yes, the Mayans, the real smart guys of the world, right up there with the Tri-Lateral Commission and the Elders of Zion. And the aliens who built the pyramids.

I think whenever we come to some numerically catchy or portentous moment such as 11-11-11, or 12-12-12, we fall into a sort of willing trance of mass belief or stupefaction, which brings me back to Lotus Land. The reference is to the mythical island of the Lotus Eaters in Homer’s Odyssey, where a scouting party of Odysseus’s men went ashore, ate the narcotic food of the locals, which they called the lotus, and didn’t want to leave. When Odysseus went to investigate he found that the people were friendly enough, and had been more than hospitable to his men, putting them into a kind of mellow state where they forgot pretty much everything, including (and most importantly from the point of view of Odysseus himself) the purpose of their journey, which was to get back home to Ithaca so that Odysseus could resume his kingship. Odysseus had to force them bodily back onto the ship, restrain them, and row the hell away from Lotus Land. Obviously the sailors didn't have as much invested in their own return as Odysseus did. Their job, after all, was just to toil in the service of their leader. It makes you think immediately of the mutineers on the Bounty who, while they might have been staunch sons of Britannia, felt an even stronger desire to kick back and enjoy the tropical paradise they had already found in Tahiti rather than continue to labor under the lash of Captain Bligh. You can picture them balancing their options: Hmmmm. Work like a dog, eat hard tack and be whipped, or lie in huts all day with nubile young Polynesian women? Tough choice. Odysseus's men must have been going through a similar calculus.

This episode from Homer’s story has become a recurring theme in modern literature—the idea that we can get waylaid from our life’s plans by the lure of comforts and pain-killing diversions—that we pretty easily can be convinced to forget the Big Picture, which almost invariably has something to do with working hard for someone else, responsibility, pain and suffering, and cold weather, all followed by the possibility, but never the certainty, of a better life in the hereafter.

Three millennia after Homer, in the 1830s, Tennyson wrote a poem called “The Lotos-Eaters.” It’s about the same episode, but told more from the perspective of the men than of their taskmaster, with many of those questions being asked, such as "Why should we only toil?" So how does Hollywood fit into this metaphor? Well, I guess it’s the place where they grow the lotuses, and where people come and forget where they came from. Maybe. A century in advance of the heyday of the movie business Tennyson foretold one thing at least—the difference between the elite dwellers of the hills of northern Los Angeles, many of whom have climbed to the pinnacle of the movie biz and become its gods and goddesses, and the rest of the vast hot city and its ordinary, toiling population:

In the hollow Lotos-land to live and lie reclined
On the hills like Gods together, careless of mankind.
For they lie beside their nectar and the bolts are hurl’d
Far below them in the valleys, and the clouds are lightly curl’d
Round their golden houses, girdled with the gleaming world;
Where they smile in secret, looking over wasted lands
Blight and famine, plague and earthquake, roaring deeps and fiery sands ....

Invariably when we think of Hollywood we think only of the few who have made it to the top. They are its representatives and its ambassadors. They are all we really know or wish to know of the business. But very few who seek to reach the Olympian heights of the elite club of hill dwellers actually get that far. Entertainment is after all a business, first and foremost, even if its product is escape and dreams and the making of something out of nothing. True, here is where they grow the narcotic food, but the lotuses are exported everywhere and eaten by people in every living room and theater in the world. You can’t escape from Hollywood by rowing hard in the opposite direction until it’s out of sight like Odysseus and his men did.

Here it should be noted that “Hollywood” is and pretty much always has been a code word for a larger and more far-flung media production region comprising much of the City of Los Angeles, the San Fernando Valley, and other outlying towns and cities. In that regard it’s similar to the way “Detroit” as the symbol of automobile production stands for not just the Motor City itself but an archipelago of industrial towns outside its confines—Pontiac, Dearborn, Warren, Flint, etc. The something that’s made out of nothing hereabouts is what fills most people’s TV screens and imaginations all day everyday, just as the cars made (or formerly made) in the industrial centers of southeastern Michigan fill the highways of the country. People like to think in generalities, so they are inclined to use terms like Hollywood and Detroit in their larger historical senses.

Real or imagined glamour aside, Hollywood and the movies and TV are in many ways simply the local business. That’s why I make the comparison between Detroit and Hollywood. For every slick movie or TV show or commercial, and for every shiny new Cadillac, there’s a lot of really unglamorous labor involved, performed by people who don’t make a hell of a lot of money. In the end, the production of things for us to watch on screens, large and small, is to this area what automobile making is to the Detroit area. Flashier maybe, but essentially the same. The local television newscasts and the business section of the LA Times, for instance, are filled with statistics about movie grosses, movie deals, production companies, and so on, just as the Free Press or Channel 7 in Detroit would feature stories about hybrid cars, GM bailouts, and automotive purchasing trends.

At parties and in casual gatherings in southern California you’re as likely to chat with someone who is involved in some small and by no means glamorous way with media production as you would be to talk to a shop rat or an automotive engineer in Michigan. In just a few months I’ve met a camera operator, a sound production engineer for a reality TV show, a makeup technician who had just made a string of latex ears for an actor playing a Vietnam warrior to wear around his neck, and someone whose son is a gaffer. People know people who have been extras or have had small parts. The streets of the small all-American-looking outlying towns of LA County are routinely blocked off while crews shoot exterior footage for commercials or movies or TV shows. These are people who work for a living. Maybe they’re a little like the poppy farmers of Afghanistan or coca farmers of Peru, making something that makes everyone dream dreams, while they do the hard work, albeit often under the influence of the very drug they manufacture.

Just as you and I knew very few if any automotive CEOs when we were growing up, very few people around here have seen in the flesh the various figures we read about and see so often, despite the fact that they live only minutes away, just as did the denizens of Bloomfield Hills who ran the industry of the land of our youth.

The fact that stuff produced in Hollywood gets broadcast and spread all over the country is pretty much what you’d expect from the products of any industrial center. Chevrolet trucks and Fords and Chryslers go all over the place, too. People put their asses into them just as much as they put them in couches in front of TV sets and in movie theater seats. And as with Michigan and cars, there are other places, far away from here, where they make movies and TV programs, and in some peoples’ opinions make them better and more cheaply than they do here. But here is where the infrastructure and the technology and lots of the talent reside, and here is where the power, and the heady symbolism of the business, will always reside.

As a postscript to this ramble, I should mention that there is a botanical garden called Lotusland, up the Pacific coast in Montecito, near Santa Barbara. It was begun by a Polish-born woman named Ganna Walska on her estate in 1941. Ms. Walska lived from 1887 to 1984, and was married to six wealthy husbands along the way. They included a Russian baron, a New York endocrinologist, a carpet manufacturing heir, and an English inventor. The most famous among them was Harold Fowler McCormick, to whom she was married from 1922 to 1931. McCormick was the son of Cyrus McCormick, inventor of the mechanical reaper, and became chairman of the board of the International Harvester Company. (His first wife, whom he divorced, was the daughter of John D. Rockefeller.) When McCormick married Ganna Walska, he tried to promote her career as an opera singer, despite the objective fact that she had a terrible voice. Orson Welles said that he modeled the similar situation in Citizen Kane on the relationship between McCormick and Walska. But it was Ganna Walska’s sixth and last husband, whom she married in 1942, a man named Theos Casimir Bernard, who apparently inspired her to create Lotusland. Bernard was into yoga, and that’s him pictured above, in a version of the lotus position. At first Ganna Walska intended to use her estate, called Cuesta Linda, as a retreat for Tibetan Buddhist monks, but because of the war the monks couldn’t get visas. After divorcing Bernard in 1946, she renamed the gardens Lotusland in honor of the favorite flower of the Buddhists. Ganna Walska remained husbandless for the last forty years of her life, devoting her time and money to the nurture of the botanical gardens.

Friday, November 4, 2011

The Gunslingers

Southern California

Friday, November 4, 2011

I’ve enjoyed watching Herman Cain slowly circle the bowl over the past week or so. To give him his due, the guy is infinitely more entertaining than the rest of the gunslingers still bravely riding the Republican debate circuit, like a group of heroes from the Wild West clinging to their reputations as defenders of the rugged past of our great nation. (Can I get a “God Bless America” here from someone? Or, as we hear more often these days, "God Bless the United States of America," which I suppose is the original version that was handed down to Moses on Mt. Sinai, the modifier "United States of" being reinserted to insure that no one accidentally calls down heaven's benison on some place like Venezuela.)

The Cain ad with the guy smoking at the end really captured my imagination. I loved it. If all the tobacco smokers out there got behind Cain that would pretty much put him over the top, especially when you add in the non-smoking supporters of the habit, of which there have to be a few. The trouble is that lots of smokers are so filled with self-loathing and revulsion for their own deadly addiction that a bunch of them would probably not vote for him just because he seems, indirectly, to support smoking, or at least not have a strong opinion on it like most folks do. Then there's the matter of the secret smoking of our esteemed President. But from here I won’t tread further into what I must, in fairness, concede to be the rightful territory of Jon Stewart the TV talk show hosts.

As a long-time struggler with smoking (see my recollection, “Tobacco Road,” which you can link to on my web site,, by going to the upper right corner of this blog) I have to say I like the idea of someone who flaunts convention to the extent this guy Cain does. Sure he’s a Republican, and I wouldn’t vote for him under any circumstances, or for that matter probably wouldn’t cross the street to piss on him if he were on fire, but that smoking thing was just so .... darned ....cute.

But now there are the not-so-cute sexual harassment charges. Naughty, naughty, Herman. Though nothing I’ve read so far has remotely approached the kind of stuff our former President was accused of (and ultimately admitted to) during the same general time period, it’s not good. Probably in the near future it will mean the end of our enjoyment of Herman Cain as he “struts and frets his hour upon the stage and then is seen no more,” in the words of Macbeth. In today's LA Times I read that Cain, or at least his staff while they're out smoking on the sidewalk in front of his building, see the harassment accusations as “part of a calculated effort to undermine his presidential campaign.” Uh, gee, do you think??

Cain and his people suspect that Rick Perry is behind the unearthing of the sexual harassment charges--that he's found a smoking gun to complement the smoking campaign manager. Perry looks like an good bet, because he’s the go-to Bad Guy for any shootout with another Republican candidate. The reason for this is that (1) he’s a naturally mean sumbitch and relishes the fact, and (2) the powers that be in the GOP know he will be falling by the wayside himself soon enough and need to get what they can out of him. Soon he'll shoot himself in the foot once too often. Failing that, they'll take him out themselves. He’s just a bit too far out on the lunatic fringe even for them. Expect news of a Perry peccadillo or two in the near future, something beyond just rubbing the head of his black golf caddy for luck. Eventually the guy with the white hat (and white sideburns) is going to come riding into town for the final gunfight with Cowboy Rick. And when the smoke clears, only God's righteous right-hand man will be standing.

Another theory about Herman Cain did occur to me. I figured it might be the Mormons’ revenge for the smoking thing. We all know how abstemious they are in their personal habits. Then on further reflection I thought, why would the Mormons bring up sexual harassment, when the founder of their religion had a revelation from God that said he could take a sixteen-year-old girl as his bride in addition to the wife he’d already had for six years? And that was only the beginning. After a few more additions to the harem over the next ten years, old Joseph Smith went on a frenzy of wife-taking, adding as many as thirty more during the period from 1841-1844. Talk about a gunslinger--that guy rarely got it back into his holster. (The first Mrs. Smith, it should be noted, was not entirely down with this deal.)

I confess I didn’t think I’d be as amused as I have been by the alternative-reality show the Republicans have been putting on lately, but what with the baseball season being over and the NBA being on hold and only one or two days of college football games a week, I guess I succumbed. And of course the media is so eager to put so much time and effort into covering these rascals, notwithstanding the fact that the nominating convention is still ten months away. It proves what I’ve always said: even with half a dozen 24-hour news stations and thousands of newspapers and tweets and twitters and all that, there are still only about fifteen minutes of actual news worth reading or hearing on any given day, and that includes the weather and sports. It was true during World War II, for Christ’s sake, and it’s even truer today. The rest is entertainment, good or bad, no matter what else it purports to be.

Saturday, October 22, 2011

What's In A Name?

Monrovia, California

Friday, October 21, 2011

What to write, what to write….. Oh, here’s something. Moammar Khaddafi is dead. I probably haven’t spelled the name like your local newspaper does, but that’s what suits me, and that seems to be the rule when it comes to spelling his name. You’ll find that people spell it every which way—with a "K" or a "G" or even a "Q," and variations in the number of lower case "d"s and "f"s, and a "y" at the end instead of an "i." Sometimes they throw the Arabic definite article "al" or "el" in front of it, too. Moammar Alkadafy. Muamer El-gadaffie. Like Murray the K, Dick the Bruiser, or Cedric the Entertainer. Well, not exactly, but that’s what it always puts me in mind of.

The AOL home page, for instance, spells it Gadaffi. The Los Angeles Times spells it Kadafi—short and sweet. I noticed this afternoon that ABC news spells it Khadafi. Some publications spell it Qaddafi. Nothing says Arab to a westerner like a "Q" without a "u" following it. So odd and foreign. And odd and foreign he was, that’s for sure. I imagine the true pronunciation of the intitial consonant sound is somewhere between the guttural "G" and the "K." But really, can the sound be that hard to approximate with a single agreed-upon letter from our alphabet?

One web site I saw alleges that there are no fewer than 112 English spellings of the name Khadaffi, all of which translate, as we know, to "the wacky Libyan strongman," or more formally, as now seems to be case, "the dead wacky Libyan strongman." Strongman, by the way, is what we in the English-speaking world call someone we consider to be a non-democratically elected leader of what we consider to be a third-world country. The term carries the taint of opprobrium along with the suggestion of relative powerlessness on the world stage, although not complete powerlessness. The leader of a completely powerless country would be known as a chieftain or a warlord, or something of that kind. The head of a really powerful country is almost always called by his chosen or legal title. If we really hate him we might refer to him as a dictator.

At any rate, the newspapers and the television stations of the western world seem to pick their spellings almost at random, though the pronunciation remains the same pretty much everywhere. It’s tempting to say that it really doesn’t matter how we spell Khaddafi using the Roman alphabet because he and the Libyans and the rest of the Arabic-speaking world spell it using an entirely different alphabet. I wonder how many variations there are in Arabic? My guess is not very many. But I really don’t know.

Here’s the thing, though. There are any number of Arab leaders whose names we spell absolutely the same way in English, every time. Saddam Hussein was one, and Hosni Mubarak is another. Or how about the guy everybody loved to hate, what’s-his-name--oh yeah, Osama bin Laden? What was so much less complicated about his name that everybody in the U.S. and U.K. managed to spell it the same way every damned time? For that matter, when it comes to spelling names transliterated from other alphabets, why did everybody get behind "Mao Tse-tung" for all those years, then, when the time came, switch universally and almost instantaneously to "Mao Zedong"? No confusion there.

I think there are a several things going on with the fact that no two sources seem to want to spell the name Khaddafi the same way. One is that nobody ever felt enough of a proprietary interest in him to "own" the spelling of his name, to say, "Look, this is how his name is gonna be spelled in the English-speaking press and in diplomatic circles." Sure, he did business with the Europeans, selling them oil, and he pissed everyone off by courting and giving aid to people we considered terrorists, and he kicked out thousands of Italians who felt they had sort of owned the country at one time, but in the end he just didn’t resonate with anybody. The U.S. tolerated him, then hated him and bombed him, then ignored him, then mellowed out on him, then when they saw which way the current wind was blowing started hating and bombing him again. But nobody took the guy all that seriously. He seemed to want to be too many things--leader, brother, good guy, bad guy, oil salesman, reformer, anti-colonialist, rich man, humble desert nomad, power broker, snappy dresser. Too many roles beget too many names.

Part of it was just his ineffably weird looks. He was known for camping out in a Bedouin tent at home and when he went to other countries. Also, he was only a colonel, for Christ's sake. He was in control of a country and an army, and he couldn't even promote himself to general, or generalissimo, or Divine Leader? Part of it was his generally lightweight stabs at political reforms and ideology. Part of it was just his inherent goofiness, the comic-opera-dictator mannerisms he most certainly learned from a guy like Mussolini. And like Il Duce his body is now on display like a big piece of meat. He isn't hanging upside down in a gas station, but he didn’t hang with the right people, that’s for sure. Maybe if he’d gone to Spago or partied with Princess Margaret or appeared on Larry King or Oprah things would have been different. If anybody has the power to regularize the spelling of somebody’s name, it should be Oprah.

Well, now his ass is dead, and we still can’t agree on how to spell his name. There’s more than a little ignominy in that fact. I don’t say he was a great guy or anything, but give him a single spelling for his name now that he’s gone. Show me another leader of a country where this has happened in the modern age. No one ever disagreed on how to spell Pol Pot’s name, or Kim Il Sung’s, or Ho Chi Minh’s, notwithstanding the fact that they were originally written in foreign alphabets. In the end, what remains of us after our good or bad is interred with our bones, is just our name. Or 112 of them, as the case may be.

Friday, October 14, 2011

Well And Truly Fooled

Monrovia, California

Friday, October 14, 2011

I’ve been reading The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat and Other Clinical Tales, by neurologist Oliver Sacks. I’m sure many of you have read it, or at least heard of it. It’s one of those books I’ve been meaning to get to for a long time, and that time has finally come. (Crime and Punishment is another, but that’s a subject for a separate posting.)

Oliver Sacks is a neurologist, and this is a collection of short case studies dealing with various intriguing and not-so-common neurological problems he encountered in the 70s and 80s in his practice. Most of them, like the one that afflicts the title character, are perceptual deficits, disorders that touch on some of the most fundamental aspects of what it means to be human and to see ourselves and others as parts of our essential surroundings. In fact, Sacks himself suffers from an inability to recognize faces, a condition called “prosopagnosia,” which I’m sure is part of the reason he undertook this area of study in the first place.

The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat is elegantly written, filled with quotes from great thinkers and philosophers as well as frequent references to the work of his eminent colleagues and forbears in the study of neurology. Without affectation, Sacks makes constant use of dazzling polysyllabic words that showcase his own complex working vocabulary and reflect the perplexing nature of the subject matter. Some of the terms are reminiscent of the way the German language tends to spin out long words to express specific ideas. (Recall Fahrvergnugen, used in the Volkswagen ads of the last century, which conveyed, in a single word, the idea of the pleasure of driving an automobile.)

Sacks’s patients do not experience intellectual existential crises along the lines of Who am I and what’s it all about?; rather, they literally do not know who or what they are as physical beings. They have medical conditions caused more often than not by tumors and other pressures on the brain; but precisely because they are disorders of the body’s nerve and thought center they go to the crux of what it means to be a person. Some of these problems fall within the ambit of something called “proprioception,” the sense of knowing that our bodies, or parts of them, belong to us, a sense so taken for granted by most of us that we can scarcely imagine what it must be like, for example, not to recognize that one of our own legs, or even our entire body, belongs to us. In other cases the patients he describes have forms of amnesia familiar to those who have seen the movie "Memento," with Guy Pearce, where the protagonist was prevented from creating new memories.

Nestled in the midst of this intriguing and challenging book, almost hidden, is a little piece entitled "The President’s Speech." It’s about the reactions of certain patients in a facility where Sacks was working in the early 1980s to a televised speech by the President of the United States. Sacks does not name the chief executive in question, but in referring to him as "the old Charmer, the Actor," he makes sure we know he’s talking about Ronald Reagan. It seems that he and other staff members noticed a group of patients laughing at the TV one night, and went to investigate. He found that they were watching Reagan give a speech. The thing most of these patients had in common was a condition known as severe receptive or global aphasia, rendering them incapable of understanding words as such. Nevertheless, since the mind tries to find ways around the roadblocks it encounters, they often could understand what was being said to them on the basis, as Sacks puts it, of "extra-verbal clues—tone of voice, intonation, suggestive emphasis or inflection, as well as all visual clues (one’s expressions, one’s gestures, one’s entire, largely unconscious, personal repertoire and posture). . . ." These aphasiacs had developed the power of understanding, without words, what was being said to them.

The reason the patients were laughing was that they knew from all of his nonverbal clues that the President was lying and generally putting on an act. The words, otherwise incomprehensible to them, when delivered by the speaker himself, rang false, and they were thus able to understand an essential truth about both the man and the message.

This clinical observation would have been powerful enough, but Sacks takes it a step further by turning it inside out, as it were. It happens that certain people are afflicted with a different perceptual problem, called tonal agnosia, in which they understand words themselves but are unable to add meaning to them with any nonverbal clues of hearing, such as intonation and phrasing. For them, all words come out flat, as if they were written, and the way they discern true meaning from a speech is by watching the posture and movement of the speaker. One such patient with tonal agnosia, after also watching the President’s speech, had conclusions of her own: "'He is not cogent,' she said. 'He does not speak good prose. His word-use is improper. Either he is brain-damaged, or he has something to conceal.'" The observations of this woman and the others, taken together, don’t present a very flattering picture of the man the media has consistently called The Great Communicator.

So, what of the rest of us, supposedly not afflicted with any processing difficulties? Why did we elect and re-elect this man? Sacks concludes that we "normal" people, "aided, doubtless, by our wish to be fooled, were indeed well and truly fooled."

I had already read this piece and most of the rest of the book when, a day or two ago, I happened to see a photo in the newspaper of yet another of the interminable series of Republican candidate debates. In this one, a gigantic photo of Ronald Reagan was projected on a screen behind the debaters, making me think of Big Brother in Orwell’s 1984 and also making it crystal clear that the man whose "vision" for America the debaters most cherished was Ronald Reagan. What the photo said, wordlessly, as Mitt Romney or Rick Perry or someone stood at his podium in the foreground, was that the face in the gigantic photo stood for everything the American people, or at least the Republican people, think is great about America.

That photographic image, and that idea, helps me understand the true nature of the division in what might be termed our "national proprioception," that is, our sense of what it means to be Americans in this country--of what makes up our national identity. For many people, the old liar Reagan symbolized, and continues to symbolize, the greatness of America. Reagan, like Hitler with his German volk, cast his spell by telling Americans what he knew most of them wanted to hear, by spinning tales of a mythic past and by evoking the specter of evil, both from within and without the borders of the nation. As Oliver Sacks’s piece points out by the simplest of devices, Reagan told lies, lies, and more lies. Had he been Pinocchio, his nose would have stretched from sea to shining sea.

Why did a guy like that, whom a group of mental defectives could laugh at and spot for the bullshitter he was, get away with so much for so long? And more to the point, why does the Republican Party still hold him up as the apotheosis of the greatness of this country? Well, perception—or proprioception—is everything, isn’t it? The Republicans of today and their sympathizers, like the people who listened to Reagan before them, need to think that what makes this country worthwhile is its power, whether that takes the form of military strength, immense and enviable wealth, a carefully selected mishmash of unassailable religious "values" carrying the full force of God Almighty, or a larger-than-life mythic past filled with striving and taming and achieving and winning. Reagan seemed in control. He seemed powerful. He seemed to be running this great and perpetually victorious operation we thought of as America. He therefore represented greatness, real or imagined. That’s what was important and remains important today to many Americans. And these are the ones who, in a strictly neurological sense anyway, are considered “normal.”

Sometimes I'm amazed at how far out of the mainstream I feel. I must have a sort of aphasia or agnosia when it comes to our national rhetoric and vocabulary. The singing of patriotic songs, the display of flags, the pledging of allegiance, the constant repetition of the cheap buzzwords of the politicians, the incessant and meaningless "God Bless America"--they all make me suspicious, like Sacks's patients, of what I sense to be their pretension and falsehood. The only things I trust about this country are the Constitution and the rule of law, and the fact that we try, sometimes in spite of ourselves, to tolerate anyone who wishes to partake of them, regardless of how they come across our borders. The rest is laughable.

Friday, October 7, 2011

The Victors

Monrovia, California

Friday, October 7, 2011

There’s nothing like sports to get the comments flowing again. And lacking much other serious grist for the blog mill, I’ll take what I can get.

First I must acknowledge the Yankees’ loss of the American League Division Series to Detroit last night. I hope the Tigers go on to win the World Series, for old times’ sake and the sake of the readers who support them. My team lost and theirs won. Congratulations to the victors.

When most teams take on the New York Yankees it is tempting to cast the conflict as a "David versus Goliath" fight. Goliath of course being the Yanks, and all the other teams (including the high payroll Boston Red Sox) thinking of themselves as the young future king of Israel, winning by cleverness and pluck and divine right. In the case of the Tigers, however, David is not the most precise analogue. True, Detroit’s payroll is only a little more than half of New York’s, but it is tenth overall, and greater than that of two-thirds of all the clubs in Major League baseball. Perhaps it would be more accurate to cast Detroit as Goliath’s little brother Darryl, only eight feet tall rather than nine-and-a-half. Tampa Bay, with the second-lowest payroll of the thirty teams in baseball, is much more of a David in that respect. And I guarantee that every one of those “small market” teams, if it could ask Santa Claus for anything at all for Christmas, would not ask if it could have Bill James (or Jonah Hill) on its payroll, or be filled with scrappy players with bullshit working-class tenacity, but instead would hop up on the lap of Jolly Old St. Nick and simply request lots more money.

Another word or two about the ALDS between Detroit and New York. I said I wish the Tigers well, and I do. But I don’t really believe they’ll win through. They’re good, but not good enough. You always like to think the team that just beat you is better, or else why would they have won? But the Yankees lost that series as much as the Tigers won it. Tuesday night New York made the same relievers who were last night’s heroes look pretty bad. Both Yankees victories were lopsided, whereas the Yanks pretty well stayed in contention in the three they lost, failing to get the clutch hits they needed. Everybody talks about how Curtis Granderson “saved” the Yankees on Tuesday with those two great catches of his, but really? They won 10 to 1, for God’s sake. If he’d missed both balls, would that have cinched it for the Tigers?

What happened last night that cost the Yankees the game (aside from big whiffs from our biggest player) was timidity on the base paths. The failure of runners on first to make it to third on base hits to right field cost them at least one run and probably two. One time I think it was Jeter and the next time it was ARod, and both times it was with less than two outs that they were held at second and the inning ended with the bases "loaded with Yankees" as Ernie Harwell would have said. The manager and coaches have to share some of the blame there, I think. I must say here that for such a great player, nobody looks as awkward and unsure of himself on the base paths as Alex Rodriguez does. Guess he's only comfortable when he's going into his home run trot. Well, as diehard fans everywhere say, there’s always next year. But before I leave baseball, a tip of the hat to Jorge Posada, probably on his way out for good. He was a sturdy journeyman during the past 15 years, and acquitted himself well during the series.

Let's switch gears. The blog creation site I use divides the comments into regular input and what it calls “spam.” Until this week I’d received nothing the site considered to be in the latter category. I think I mentioned that occasionally I’ll get a comment on an old posting, perhaps something someone found at random or by using a key word or phrase on Google or another search tool, such as the name of a town through which I passed on my walk. I was notified on Wednesday, for the first time, that I’d received two spam comments. One was rather general; something to the effect of how great the Internet is, in that it can help a person promote ideas or products. The other appeared to be in Russian, or at least a language written in the Cyrillic alphabet. It was under blog posting number 163, entitled “Chiriaco,” which I wrote on January 20 of this year. At first I was going to say that if there’s anyone out there who reads Russian I’d be grateful for a translation of the comment. Then I realized I could highlight it and ask the computer for a translation (as another person astounded by the modern technology of his day once said, “What hath God wrought?”). So here’s the translation, as rendered by the computer:

“Was surprised and decided to share with you, I found an incredible offer to Ukraine! It was as follows – prowling in NETE housing and shew obraruzhil 2 bedroom flat in Kiev [/ url] with pictures. I was very surprised by the cost of the ads + became generally interested in your opinion about this accommodation.”

So it was spam after all (and remains isolated—quarantined—in that category, and therefore not part of the comments following posting number 163). Still, it’s neat to know that someone in Eastern Europe is reading the blog, however randomly and with whatever weird agenda. Wonder if I’m now infected with some Ukrainian computer virus that will steal my identity? It might be fun to have a new identity. Maybe a Ukrainian one, covered with tattoos acquired in the gulag archipelago. I could call myself Victor. Victor Obraruzhil.

And speaking of victors, there’s still Michigan football. Tomorrow it’s Northwestern, so that should be a win. Then they’ll have to prove they can play the decent teams. Boy does that Rich Rod seem like a quickly fading bad dream.

Lastly, how about those Lions? Off to a fairly impressive start, too, though it’s early. I’ve never been much of an NFL watcher, but I could be persuaded to pay more attention if, for the first time in my adult life, Detroit is actually good. So those of you who worry about such things can see that I still have some sentiments in favor of something out of southeastern Michigan, despite having abandoned the Tigers, never to return. I do have a cousin named Calvin Johnson, so maybe that's a subtle influence....

Which leads to the question, how do we really come by our sports allegiances? Is it primarily geography and parental influence? If so, does making a decision to change a sports team in adulthood show maturity and independence, or Freudian contrariness? Are we all supposed to live in the same house forever, like the Waltons, or wander the world in search of better things? And speaking of influences, what about the many seemingly more trivial things that inform our choices? The color of a uniform, the personality of a manager, the look of a letter on a jersey, the look of the jersey on a player. I know I'd have trouble backing a team that wore red uniforms (or socks) even if they only did it on their home field. And I couldn't ever take seriously a college football team whose capital "M" looks like an upside down "W." Or who wear gold helmets. And I don't do well with orange or purple as prominent team colors, either. I also struggle with green, but under certain circumstances I can stomach it. But hey, that's just me.

Friday, September 30, 2011

God and Baseball

Monrovia, California

Friday, September 30, 2011

First, a housekeeping matter. I’ve been informed by one of my loyal readers that there’s been some trouble posting comments lately. Even I have been having difficulty replying to comments, so the existence of some kind of glitch didn’t take me by surprise. I should say here that I haven’t necessarily been expecting comments on the rather thin content of the blog over the past two weeks, but the absence of even one was a little surprising. So thanks, Billie Bob, for letting me know.

I’ve just ventured into the bowels of the blog-creation site and have attempted to make a couple of changes, so I think commenting might be possible now. If it still isn’t, please let me know at my email address, Also, please know that I appreciate everyone’s presence out there in the ether. Some (in fact most) of you are close friends and relatives, and it’s as good a way to stay in touch as any, even if it’s mostly one-way communication from this direction. I understood very early on in the walk that the thing keeping me going wasn’t really the project; it was the fact that I was sharing it with others. Thanks for reading. And thanks also to the random commenters, the ones who maybe pick up on the fact that I’ve sat on the tombstone of one of their relatives or visited their home town, or maybe just pissed them off with my opinions. I’m happy to have perhaps made your day, either because you like what you’ve read or have disliked it and had a chance to tell me so.

Tonight the baseball playoffs begin. As almost everyone knows I’m a fan of the New York Yankees, the greatest and most successful franchise in the history of Major League Baseball, by far, if statistics mean anything. Baseball is a game of statistics, but for many statistics do not mean all that much. Some people identify strongly and emotionally with their local team, and don’t care about success, except on the rare occasions when it does visit their teams. Boston Red Sox fans come to mind, and indeed who can ignore them in that regard? What an amazing collapse they had this month, confirming once again the basic Boston attitude, which extends well beyond baseball or even sports, that the city is simultaneously blessed and hated by God above all other cities. They inveterately commit the sin of pride coupled with the sin of pride in reverse--both sides of the same coin. I believe the attitude of Boston partisans is informed most strongly by its historical domination by the Irish, a group who can’t help feeling that their perpetual disfavor in the eyes of the Almighty makes them special, when in truth they just might not be as wonderfully unique as they think they are.

I grew up rooting for the Detroit Tigers, to whom God was largely indifferent, and we were taught that hating the Yankees was a badge of pride, too. I remember rooting for the Pittsburgh Pirates against the Yanks in the 1960 World Series, the first one where I was fully aware of what was going on. The thing that makes someone side with the other league against a team from their own is a special kind of prejudice, a variation on the familiar maxim that “the enemy of my enemy is my friend.” Nothing new, certainly, in either sports or international diplomacy. But why do people hate the Yankees so much? Or do they? I’ve been to two games this season in Anaheim where the Yankees have played the Angels, and in truth there were many New York partisans in the stands. But there’s that root-for-the-underdog thing at work, too, and compared to the New York Yankees all other teams are indeed underdogs, going all the way only once every generation or so, or, in the case of the hapless Red Sox, once every century. The Red Sox take it as a personal comment from their merciless God; the Yankees, on the other hand, don't need to either invoke or involve the Deity in what they do.

While living in Connecticut I had occasion to see both the Yankees and Red Sox in action quite often—in fact, every game of both teams was carried on the local cable franchise. As the great success of the Tigers in 1984 and again in 1985 began to fade from memory, my love of baseball inevitably drove me toward one of the local teams. (The Mets were never an option, both because they were a National League team and also because their fans are mostly from Queens and eastern Long Island. You have to have lived out there to completely understand what I’m getting at, but think Joey Buttafuco and Billy Joel and you’ll begin to get the picture.) I gravitated toward the Yankees because the Red Sox just never seemed like a viable option. I figured, why set yourself up for heartbreak year after year?

The Yankees have been in existence, depending on how you figure it, either since 1903 or since 1913 (when they changed their name from the Highlanders to the Yankees). They played in Manhattan, at Hilltop Park and the Polo Grounds, until moving to the Bronx in 1923. Their playing hasn’t been too shabby. It took them until 1921 to win a pennant and get into the World Series, and since then they’ve won an additional 39 pennants and 27 World Series. No other team has half that many titles, including National League teams that have been around since the 1880s. To put it into perspective, think of it this way: since they began as a New York team, on average they’ve finished the season at the top of the American League more often than once every three years, and have won the series once every four years. And that includes their first 20 years, in which they did neither.

Call me crazy, but I don’t see anything wrong with a sports team winning year in and year out. As a Tigers fan I would have been delighted to be backing a team with such a high rate of success. It had been a mere accident of birth and my dad's occupation that brought me to the Detroit area in the first place. No one in my family was from that part of Michigan. The closest anyone came to that was my paternal grandfather, who emigrated from the Netherlands to Grand Rapids, on the other side of the state, and soon moved to Chicago, and my grandmother, who hailed from Reed City. Neither of those Michigan locales considers Detroit to be much more than a remote den of iniquity. Still, the need to match up one’s fandom to one’s heritage is strong, so I focused instead on my mother’s side of the family. It turns out that in the first half of the 1600s some of them came from Holland and France and England to Manhattan, and others settled in what is now Brooklyn, after being forced out of Boston for nonconformity with the Puritan religion. They were among the original Yankees. So there you have it. The New York Yankees were, for me, the logical choice.

In a few hours the Yankees will go up against the Detroit Tigers in the American League Division Series, the first round of the playoffs. Based on the way the Yankees have been playing so far this week, the outcome of the series is very far from a given for the Bronx Bombers. Some of that I attribute to the clumsy and questionable managing style of Joe Girardi, who’s been resting Derek Jeter and others far too much in my opinion, and using players from the expanded roster a bit too often—probably a throwback to Girardi's days as a catcher, where it was a given that someone at his position needed all the rest he could get starting around the middle of August. Take Jeter out of the lineup and you are doing more than resting your shortstop—you’re making your captain sit out a game--not a good strategy in my opinion. And I guarantee that Jeter doesn’t like it, though he’s too much of a team guy to bitch about it.

As for the way they played Tampa Bay earlier this week, if I were a Red Sox fan (unthinkable, except in the most abstract of ways), I’d swear the Yankees threw that series just to keep Boston out of the wild card. Or maybe it was just God, telling the Beantowners once again, “I hate you guys.”

Friday, September 23, 2011

The Purple Better Ones

Monrovia, California

Friday, September 23, 2011

I was just rereading something I remembered from William Burroughs, a piece set at the time of the Democratic National Convention in Chicago in 1968, called “The Coming of the Purple Better One.” What put me in mind of that was a photo I saw of one of the many recent Republican candidate debates. These GOPers have hit on the best publicity possible—debating each other seemingly every other day, bringing their lapdogs from CNN and Fox along and forcing the other networks and the print media to trail after. Here’s where the Democrats are at a real disadvantage. There’s only one of them running for president in 2012, at least so far. The Republicans, on the other hand, have cloned themselves into a half dozen or more ever weirder versions of one another, and are now engaging in an elaborate series of sophistic exercises whereby they get to trot out their most outrageous ideas, see if they fly, and eliminate or refine them one at a time. I imagine the thinking goes that eventually they’ll hit on a few ideas that “resonate” with the American public, and whichever candidate proves to be the least embarrassing in the long run will take those ideas on the hustings. In the meantime, they get lots and lots of air and print time, gratis.

With the Democrats, on the other hand, even though the presidency is sometimes referred to as the Bully Pulpit, there’s only that one pulpit, and one sorry little preacher to do all the evangelizing, all the heavy lifting for his party. He can’t be the whacked-out born-again shoot-to-kill give-everybody-the-needle Texan Obama debating the serious grey-at-the-temples faux-moderate Mormon Obama, looking across the podium at the certifiably insane and geographically challenged female Obama, while the chubby professorial Obama chimes in once in a while.

It reminds me of that movie “Multiplicity,” where Michael Keaton has himself cloned so he can get more work done and have more free time. The first clone is an aggressive workaholic, just the ticket. Then he goes for a second one, who embodies his gentler, more nurturing side. Between the two of them they make up a complete person. Then the two clones for reasons of their own decide to make yet another, who, as they explain, being a “copy of a copy, isn’t as sharp as the original.” The Republicans have all that going on and more (minus the sharp writing of Harold Ramis). There’s the tough take no prisoners candidate, the reasonable candidate, the other Mormon candidate, the avuncular intellectual candidate, the Dr. Strangelove pure libertarian candidate, the mentally challenged candidate. Actually there are several of those last ones at this point, but I’m confident they’ll whittle it down to just one or two.

They are, collectively and individually, the distinguished senator and former Justice of the Supreme Court, Homer Mandrill, known to his friends as the Purple Better One. Homer was, you may recall, a purple-assed mandrill baboon, running for president. Back in ’68 when it appeared in Esquire that was cutting-edge hallucinatory satire from old Burroughs, although he always knew that his version of reality was, well, more real than what most people thought was the real thing. Today, when it comes to the Republicans, we should all be so lucky as to have a choice between the people currently running for president and an artificially animated mandrill baboon. I know which one I’d vote for, without hesitation, if I were ever to venture into a Republican primary. What a difference a generation or two makes. Yesterday’s drug-fueled crazy metaphor becomes today’s Great Simian Hope for America.

I think we all know pretty much how this is going to play out. We’re in the middle of another bad television drama, where we know that by the end of the hour something definitive has to happen that will let people get to sleep. I’ll go out on a limb here, and you can check me as time goes on, but here’s my fearless prediction. Rick Perry will fall away. His brown makeup will accidentally chip off on TV and people will see that underneath he’s a putrid green scaly alien. Adios, amigo. Michele Bachmann will find the intellectual weight of sharing the stage with all the rest of those brilliant bastards too much to bear, and will shrivel up, leaving only her pointy shoes like one of the bad witches from the Land of Oz. Ron Paul? Forget about it. He’s a placeholder. The guy has fifteen supporters nationwide and they all look like Charlton Heston as Moses in “The Ten Commandments” and live in compounds up in the mountains. They have more bullets than votes. He’s the far right’s answer to Ralph Nader and Dennis Kucinich. Newt Gingrich? Excuse me, but that toad is more last century than disco. Then there’s the other Mormon governor dude, Huntsman (which you must admit is a great name for a Republican, right?). He might just hang in there for a while, but eventually people will have to choose which of the two secret underwear-wearing guys they’re going to fall in with, and my guess is it will be the one who’s already done his missionary work out in Massachusetts.

I know I’m skipping a few, but it’s like talking about the NFL—you can only devote so much air time to Kansas City and Seattle. As with football, it’s early in the season, but not too early to make predictions.

Here's one more: maybe the insect masters who hold the strings will pull all of these bozos out at the last minute and stick Dick Cheney in there, which I think is what they really would like to do anyway.

Friday, September 16, 2011

The Final Destination

Southern California

Wednesday, September 14, 2011

In traveling 3,339.6 miles, I have walked, literally and figuratively, in the footsteps of many thousands of people, and I have walked millions of steps. Since coming back to California I’ve tried to make observations about the state of things out here as much in the vein of the original blog as I could. In most respects Californians look at life exactly the way people elsewhere around the country do. But there are subtle differences.

Perhaps one of the characteristics of Californians that sets them apart is that they tend to accept whatever comes their way with something like equanimity. People who visit call this a “laid back” attitude, but I think there’s more to it than that. The key, in my opinion, is that people who are out here (or up from south of the border) are determined to make this as much of a paradise as they can because, really, there’s nowhere else to go. Maybe they could go to Hawaii, but that’s an expensive and rather unrealistic proposition for most people. California is pretty much it, within the United States. If you arrived in heaven and found that the streets were dirty, what would you do—move to hell, or look around for a broom? Okay, sure, some celebrities go off to ranches in Montana and Wyoming and Utah as a way of getting clear of the congestion of the southern part of the state, which, let’s face it, is packed. But most Californians can’t afford that; they’re where they’re going to be for the duration. When they plan for retirement, it’s not to some far-off place. It’s maybe out to Sun City or down to Palm Springs, where they can shake and bake and prep for the only slightly higher temperatures of hell.

One way to think about California is that almost everyone considers it a final destination. In the east, folks have always talked about going somewhere else to live, usually somewhere warmer like Florida or Arizona, which is understandable, or somewhere perceived to be filled with opportunities, like southern California. “Hell with all this snow and ice, this dusty rocky soil, these filthy factories, I’m going to …. (fill in the blank).” Hope springs eternal, and all that. So when you’ve actually arrived at the far edge of the continent you’d damned well better learn to make the best of it, even though it’s seldom what you imagined it would be. Either that or start swimming.

My favorite cheap horror movie series is the “Final Destination” films. There have been five, though I haven’t yet seen the most recent one, which just came out this summer. In all of them, dating back to the first in 2000, one of the young core of main characters (high school kids or twenty-somethings) has a premonition of a horrible accident in which many people are killed, including him and all his friends. In the first movie it was a senior trip plane that crashed on takeoff, in the second there was a massive auto wreck on the freeway, in the third a major malfunction at an amusement park, then a crash at a stock car race, and the latest one features, I believe, the collapse of a bridge. In each case the person with the premonition acts on it and saves himself and his friends. But of course they have only delayed the inevitable, and Death stalks them throughout the movie, taking them one by one in ever more gruesome and imaginative ways—beheadings, falling objects, flying lawnmower blades, weird impalements, etc. The fun of watching the movies is anticipating when and how each person’s death will occur, and whether Death will perhaps spare one of them until the next movie. Sometimes characters will have the false hope or hubris to imagine they have escaped—that Death has decided to skip them. Wrong, of course.

Though Death is not personified in the movies, there’s usually a character who functions as a sort of seer or commentator, like a one-man chorus in a Greek tragedy. This person is always black, which is Hollywood’s way of killing two birds with one stone—first by creating a part for an African American actor in an otherwise pretty much all-white movie, and second by reconfirming in us our stereotypical supposition that nonwhites are more in touch with the supernatural because they are, let’s face it, closer to death on a regular basis, and also more in touch with their primitive pre-modern roots than are the well-off and well-meaning coeds and slackers who make up the rest of the cast of characters.

I freely admit this is all cheesy B-movie fare, but even a gourmet (which I’m not, in any case) has his secret junk food cravings. It's unlikely that you'll catch David Denby or Anthony Lane reviewing a Final Destination film in The New Yorker. Nevertheless these movies carry the crucial and unavoidable message that death, in whatever form, comes to all of us (sparing us the stentorian cornball voice-over of “Citizen Kane”), that it’s our Final Destination. But if that were the only point to be made the series wouldn’t have become a minor franchise. It’s the gruesomeness of the deaths that compels and repels its viewers. And as terrible as the original deaths might have been in the premonitory opening scenes, the actual ones that follow are even more so. The lesson isn’t simply that death is inevitable. Hell, a child could tell you that. It is that narrowly escaping one fate launches a person into uncharted territory fraught with even more uncertainty and perhaps more dire consequences than having incurred the original one. It’s not nice to fool Mother Nature.

So many people have come here to southern California to escape things—the harsh weather of the east, the violent criminal and political turmoil of other countries, the maddening sameness of life in a small town in the middle of nowhere--in fact, the whole painful litany of which Hamlet complained:

…the whips and scorns of time,
The oppressor’s wrong, the proud man’s contumely
The pangs of despised love, the law’s delay
The insolence of office and the spurns
That patient merit of the unworthy takes…

All the bad stuff, in other words. I wonder sometimes, with the arrival at the end of this rainbow, in many ways so full of energy and sunshine, if there isn’t a sort of perpetual forgetting of the crucial thing Hamlet lost sight of, namely, that the choice of whether “to be or not to be” was never his to make in the first place. In any case, among California’s many sterling statistical superlatives is the fact that Rose Hill Cemetery in Whittier is the largest graveyard in the whole damned country.

Well, this is verging on serious, and I don’t want to do that. Leave such things to the philosophers and poets. I'm not trying to make a big deal out of the basic facts of life and death. But there is something out here that seems to invite people to try to turn back the hands of time, or at least arrest them, sometimes with ugly Dorian Gray-like consequences. Plastic surgery comes immediately to mind, but there are so many other forms of self-delusion. California is a place, after all, where dreams of all kinds have been for sale for the better part of two centuries, from the promise of land and gold and silver to the promises displayed on the silver screen. And here, indeed, if you stick around, the ultimate promise is always fulfilled.

Friday, September 2, 2011


Southern California

Wednesday, September 7, 2011

Random and not necessarily coherent thoughts:

I dwell on history. Someone famous once said something like, "I don't read history any more because I pretty much know what happened." But that isn't what it's all about. It's about why it happened and what people were thinking when it did and how they processed it afterwards. The changes in the things they emphasize in the study of U.S. history just during my lifetime tell me that history isn't a collection of facts, any more than philosophy is a collection of ideas about existence. It's facts laid over a system of thinking. Or maybe it's a system of thinking formed to fit a set of facts. Sometimes, as with religions and political ideals, the system overshadows the facts so much that the basic occurrences are either ignored, denied, or entirely misshapen, all to fit the religion or politics. Once something has happened it's no longer the event that matters much, but the way people think about it. There is no way to predict what people will think even about a purely objective natural fact, such as a hurricane. They might see it as a manifestation of the wrath of God or a failure of the government to be there to fix it--the same God they praise for his loving kindness and the same government they resent for its intrusion into their lives. Apart from being the study of "what happened," in any absolute sense, history is the study of what people decide those happenings mean. Usually historians are the scriveners of the dominant elements of a society but sometimes, when those dominant elements are feeling guilty about being dominant, the scriveners put on hair shirts and take the side of those they dominated. So it is, for example, that the story of the "taming of the West" can become, inside of a generation, the story of the shameful displacement and extermination of the noble original occupants of the West.

My understanding of the present tells me that people rarely think about history as it is being made, and only in hindsight are they able to put together a coherent narrative of history. And the very act of making a coherent historical narrative goes contrary to the inherent chaos and randomness of things. Historians understand this, no doubt, while the rest of us tend to want to make sense of things in a broader context. The most reliable history might seem at first blush to be the basic fact of what happened, but that isn't what anyone cares about to any great extent. On November 22, 1963, President John F. Kennedy was shot and killed in Dallas, Texas. Except to the most freaked-out conspiracy theorist, that is an indisputable fact. But of course that's not what people spend most of their time talking about. They want to know who killed him, with how many bullets, from which direction or directions, at whose behest, and all that. Books are written, movies made, and an entire industry rises up around these peripheral questions. Indeed all murder stories focus on these elements: the death itself is rarely worth spending much time on, even though it is the one event of the drama without which nothing else can happen. Despite our urge to turn all of history into a series of mysteries, ultimately solvable, and despite the best efforts of conspiracy theorists to put the event into a more compelling narrative, the facts of the JFK assassination have ultimately proven to be pretty pedestrian and straightforward: a guy got a rifle, sat at an open window, and fired several shots. Actually, the more our technology in reconstructing the events improves, the more likely it becomes that that is exactly what happened. But even if all the many ideas of all the conspiracy theorists are correct, virtually none of them have had any effect on the event itself or on its predictable and ordinary aftermath. A family lost a husband and father. The vice president was sworn in as president, just as had happened on the seven previous occasions when a president died in office. The nation mourned and there was a big funeral. The U.S. government, to whose ongoing existence John Kennedy had dedicated and subordinated himself, went on without him.

Now let's look at a more recent major event, the bombings of the World Trade Towers and the Pentagon, which happened by means of individuals crashing jet airplanes loaded with fuel and people into those buildings. This took place on September 11, 2001. Four planes were hijacked by a total of nineteen men. Three of them hit targets, and the fourth crashed in a field. All the passengers, crew, hijackers, and many people in the buildings were killed. The World Trade Towers were completely destroyed. The Pentagon was repaired and restored. Can anyone seriously dispute these facts as I have just related them?

In this case, as with the Kennedy assassination, conspiracy theories swirl around the quite well-known facts. The attacks on September 11, 2001 were the result of a conspiracy, and a well-executed one at that. But that still doesn't satisfy anyone. In the JFK assassination people looked for a conspiracy, thinking that would lead somewhere, and after several decades they began to give up the search. The event became emblematic, correctly or not, of the deeply sinister and unknown and unknowable power of people to do things we can't control until it's too late. People want to make sense, in some larger context, of an event such as an assassination, but in the end it often just means that obscure people can kill famous people if they wish to, at pretty much any time. Famous people continue to be assassinated regularly. We're comfortable with the idea that individuals or small groups of individuals can make a difference in the world, except when it comes to bad things like assassinations and suicide bombings. And what makes us most uncomfortable is that we have no way of knowing when something bad will happen again.

Except to the families of the dead, the aftermath of 9/11 turned out to be far more important than the event itself, just the same as with the aftermath of the Kennedy assassination. The victory has been entirely on the side of the original perpetrators of the events and their fellow conspirators. In one efficient, well-coordinated morning's work a small group brought an entire country to its knees and plunged it into a multi-billion dollar decade-long punitive war against Arabs everywhere in which several times as many U.S. citizens have died as died on the day of the original attacks, and the country has been reduced to bragging about its use of torture and the suspension of habeas corpus, not to mention its slaughter of nearly a million Iraqis and Afghanis. What cadre wouldn't gladly sacrifice nineteen soldiers to create such havoc?

I have a fearless prediction, one that you may have already thought of yourself. Given the fact that organized labor counts for practically nothing in this country any more, and also given the fact that we're approaching the 10th anniversary of the events of September 11, 2001, Labor Day will soon morph into a 9/11 Memorial or Remembrance Day, dedicated not to working men and women but rather to OURSELVES generally as a country. In that way we can feel solemnly sorry for ourselves and victimized all over again each year, most likely forgetting or ignoring several key things:
(1) the western economic imperialism that fostered the hatred that led to the event;
(2) the religious fundamentalism that fueled it and which we have answered in kind with the growth of our own religious fundamentalism; and
(3) the incredible strategic economy with which a self-deluded few can bring down the self-deluded many.
Fiscal economy at the national and state levels will preclude an extra holiday in September, so we'll continue to use the first Monday in September for this purpose. Could it be that congressmen from NY or the hinterlands have already suggested this holiday shift?

Someone else famous said something like, "Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it." By this measure we are all perpetually condemned, in large part because we rarely remember the past the same way from day to day, let alone from year to year or generation to generation. Perhaps a more useful if less aphoristic way to think about it is that we should be careful which version of the past we choose, because that is probably the one we are condemned to repeat.