Sunday, January 25, 2015

POETRY AFTER AUSCHWITZ

The more total society becomes, the greater the reification of the mind and the more paradoxical its effort to escape reification on its own. Even the most extreme consciousness of doom threatens to degenerate into idle chatter. Cultural criticism finds itself faced with the final stage of the dialectic of culture and barbarism. To write poetry after Auschwitz is barbaric. And this corrodes even the knowledge of why it has become impossible to write poetry today. Absolute reification, which presupposed intellectual progress as one of its elements, is now preparing to absorb the mind entirely. Critical intelligence cannot be equal to this challenge as long as it confines itself to self-satisfied contemplation.     Theodor Adorno, "Cultural Criticisms and Society," 1949

    You drive by the same house five mornings a week. The weather is pleasant. Your car windows are down, the windows of the house are opened. Fragrant breezes waft. You always hit the light on the corner red, so you sit and idle, listening to the cries of agony ululating from the home. Every morning you tell yourself you'll either roll your windows or call the police. Every morning you continue to wonder what the person inside may be enduring. The light changes, you floor the accelerator, go to work and do your job. The work gets accomplished, you take a different route home, and watch the evening news. 
   "Police tell Action News," says the anchor person, "That three children between the ages of two and eight were taken into Child Protective Services custody earlier today when it was discovered their parents were putting cigarettes out on their hands and arms. Now let's turn to Chad Bradstone for a look at this evening's weather. Chad?"
   The "reification" Adorno talks about in the introductory quote means to make real in either one's own mind or even the collective mind of a group, community, or society. That intellectual process of concretizing an otherwise abstract occurrence must precede a reasoned response. Reactive bursts of behavior call upon a more primitive set of non-intellectual thoughts, but in order for a given person to become creatively involved in responding to horror, he or she must be willing to strip away all the falsehoods, boredom and rationalizations and know to the fullest extent possible what is really going on. 
   Contemporary American society, it appears to me, is very much "total," in the sense Adorno intends it. More than eighty percent of us now live in cities, which means that in addition to the electronic peeps and quips from televisions, computers, telephones, stereos, radios, and other information distortion devices, we may compound our input with the sounds of grown-ups yelling at one another, police sirens, car alarms, screaming children, airplane engines, construction zones, ice cream vendors, and the scurrying feet of escaping muggers. Reifying all of that might leave us overwhelmed, so perhaps we will prioritize our attention. Assuming for the sake of discussion that we do not choose as our single focus the score of a video game or outcome of our dinner broiling in the oven, we decide to place ourselves in a role where we believe we can make a difference. We join the HOA, or we volunteer for security patrols, or we begin attending meetings at the PTO. 
   And the first thing we are struck by is that all the other members of whichever group we join have competing points of interest. Even the simplest essential chains of the bureaucracy distract us from our original intent. So even when something actually does get done, the process gets the recognition and the people who involved themselves are given a desk job.
   All we may be talking about here is one house in one neighborhood in one city. It scarcely whispers its importance when stood next to the atrocities of the Taliban, ISIS, or the Republican Party. But if we are unwilling to try to make real to ourselves the fears of the occupants of a single house, how then can we have the courage to do more than merely contemplate mass kidnappings of schoolgirls, the disappearance of the polar icecaps, or the purposeful erosion of voting rights in America? I hope that word "contemplate" jumps off the page because I'm talking to myself as much as I am to anyone when I argue that these situations deserve more than just self-serving cogitation. They deserve a reasoned response. 
   If one of us came home to find some strange, hulking man backhanding our own child, the primitive layers of our brains would blaze, leading us to pulverize the aggressor. But if the knuckle-dragging, mouth-breathing, hunchbacked, reptile-skinned pods of our brain can get us to do the right thing, then why do we hesitate to move beyond a little menial mental labor when we hear bullets blasting down the alley? Kitty Genovese still screams for somebody to shout out the window, chase the killer away, call the police--anything other than turning up the television to blot our her demise. Six million Jews ask the same question. So do one million Armenians, two million Cambodians, one hundred thousand Bosnians, one million Rwandans, or closer to home, the eight million Haitian Indians exterminated in the years following Columbus, or the millions torn apart by America's slave business. 
   The point is not about guilt, at least in the sense of complicity. The real guilt, if that's what you want to call it, comes from even taking that first painful step in the process of making these things real. 
   Once we've done that, as Adorno implies, poetry may still be possible. I'd be surprised if it didn't flow even more freely. But at least we will have cultivated the bond between the intellect and the emotions that is required to appreciate it. Anything short of that, when discussing art of any kind, is thinking for its own sake, a pathetic use of powerful tool.
Goering at Nuremberg Trials

Wednesday, January 21, 2015

A NEW LITERARY HISTORY OF AMERICA

Asia's crowded
Europe's too old
Africa's far too hot
And Canada's too cold.
And South America stole our name . . .
   --Randy Newman, "Political Science."

  A New Literary History of America. Edited by Greil Marcus and Werner Sollors. Harvard University Press, 2009.

   The written word spreads out across the land, slamming onto the shores of the Charleston Bay, climbing the Appalachian Mountains, shivering along the dances of the Ohio River, littering cricketless two-lane highways with warnings of dinosaur remains, striking flint sparks near the Alamo mission, whispering along anthill trails buried by the Badlands, chipping away at the canned celluloid of Hollywood movies both profound and profane, opening doors, peaking through fogged windows, blowing out of stereo speakers, screaming through political megaphones, blotting out the cast shadows of political assassinations while--in the words of a hoary old folk ballad--knocking on Heaven's door. Johnny Cash called America home, even while singing about shooting a man in Reno just to watch him die. Abraham Lincoln knew the name as he stood in awe of both the slaughter before him and his own Gettysburg Address. America has slept with the legacy of Malcolm X and shared a pillow with Toni Morrison. Progress remains our searchlight just as avarice remains our blind-eyed guide. We are a big country. We erect thousands of identical signs demanding "Diversity" despite an often pathological compulsion toward homogeneity. We endow Dorothy's ruby slippers with totemic and topical reverence, fathom the sanctity of our own prayers, distrust the French while mourning their losses, produce more than a few among the world's finest writers, worship the soil while murdering the land, yearn for dates with cowboys and cowgirls, vacation in the lonesome wilderness (with millions of our comrades), and buy tickets to spring training major league baseball games. We are a people embarrassed only by our own swelling pride. We may not forgive, but we are quick to forget. And outside of the classroom, we very seldom undertake to read a book with a girth the size of this one.
    This book and its two hundred or more entries will leave any reader who meets it even halfway gasping at that fine and shiny stretch of land that those of us between Canada and Mexico like to call America. 
   I will not demean this beautiful tome with a chapter-by-chapter summation. But it is worth noting that the first entry, "A New Geography," is subtitled "The name America appears for the first time on a map." 
  This heavy book is not only comprised of words. It is about words, about the people who have used those words well, about the places that have worn them well, and even about some people who have written well about the people who use them. From the year 1507 through the first presidential election of Barack Obama in 2008, editors Marcus and Sollors and their schools of contributors write their five or six page explorations of (just to take a few at random) the impact of Alcoholics Anonymous, the censoring of the film Baby Face, the introduction of the word "multicultural," the poetry of Wallace Stevens and Dorothy Parker, the birth of Life magazine and the birth of the cool, Superman comic books, "Roll Over Beethoven," Henry and Philip Roth, Hurricane Katrina, Rocky Marciano, and Elia Kazan. Whether one looks into America as an abyss that looks back at us or through America as a glass darkly or even across America as if it were one endless football field, the single thing on which we can all agree is that America is too big to believe in, just as it really is too big to fail, as big as Elvis or as Big Bad John, big enough to deflect Russian missiles launched from Cuba (in our nightmares), bigger than every movie made from the beginning reeled end to end to the moon and back, see our flag wave it high. We are so big we cannot see the forest, we cannot feel the lakes, we cannot smell the pesticides. 
   America is, however, the kind of place that calls out to those of us already here and to those on their way either in or out. We are the essence of our own contradictions (Quoth the raven: "Do I contradict myself? Very well then. I contradict myself. I am large. I contain multitudes." And thanks, Walt.). We are more than a country, more than a collection of competing states bellowing for their rights, more than our segregated communities, our warring religions, our bottled water, our missile silos, our seeds of grain. One would have to visit the Middle East, I think, to find any other countries that are so inherently and polygamously wed to the group notions of our own divinity and our right to defend the same with whatever ruthless means we can muster. 
   Even one hundred pages into A New Literary History of America (and there is no reason to follow the chronological order; skipping around is part of the fun), we begin to rock on our boothills from the heat of our own illumination. I intend no hyperbole here. This book comes as close to telling the story of our own use of the component parts of our "dream of a common language" as any collection of essays can hope to do. Further your deponent sayeth not, or for that matter, naught. 

This book is so big it has its own website which you may sample as:
http://www.newliteraryhistory.com/


Saturday, January 10, 2015

NOUS SOMMES TOUS CHARLIE (MINGUS)

   Although this piece concerns a book review of a musician's autobiography, in order to place the experience of reading this book within its proper context, we will need to flash forward to the near past, to the killings in and around Paris by Islamic extremists. A good friend was asking me to put the murders within some type of historical context so she could at least get some sense of the irrationality behind the slaughters. I briefly sketched out that in a country such as France, Jews and Muslims represent a large number of the unemployed. They also tend to live in specific areas of the city of Paris, rather than being sprinkled throughout the town. A given Muslim reads in the newspaper where the French and Americans are bombing ISIS encampments. He interprets this as Europe and the United States siding with Israel against his people, despite the fact that Israel is two thousand miles away and his people represent ten percent of the French population. The Muslim envisions the Israeli military murdering Palestinians on the Gaza Strip. He has learned in school that Israel was permitted by the United Nations to draw up its own borders, that it was supposed to share the territory with the Muslims, that Jerusalem is the seat of three major religions, each of which has displayed a willingness to manipulate the others to further its own dreams of Armageddon. At the same time, the Israeli leadership knows its history. The leadership recalls the formation of Israel in May 1948 by a United Nations resolution. It knows that this occurred within the context of Great Britain ending its control of Palestine and perhaps more to the point within the context of a post-Holocaust world. It recalls too what they consider to have been Arab collaboration with the Nazis, especially in northern Africa. Anti-Semitism, of course, did not begin with persecution of Jews by Germans in 1933. For the real origins, one has to go back a bit farther, say, about six thousand years. You may have read of the former prisoner, a cat name of Moses, who brought his people out of bondage? Prison is always a university for revolutionaries. Just ask Vladimir Lenin, Leon Trotsky, Menachem Begin, Anwar Sadat, Antonio Gramsci and Nelson Mandela. 
   Sometime back in the early 1980s, I made a personal accounting and reckoned as how political solutions to the things that actually matter to people are a dead end. I am not saying that short-term benefits don't happen. Clearly they do--just as clearly they never seem to last. To reduce the cogitation to its basest parts, I made a decision that the kind of revolutionaries I wanted to follow were the musical ones, the literary ones, the ones with sketch books and canvases. 
   When Charles Mingus died at the age of fifty-six in 1979, I had never heard of him. Someone played for me her Joni Mitchell album. Mingus was, I guess, a tribute, although it struck me as less than revelatory. But I stayed open minded, did a little homework, and bought a stack of albums. 
   I have been somewhat different ever since. 
   A warm place exists in my mind for standard melodies with innovative progressions. My brain responds with upturned nodes to all manner of tuneful compositions. But the tunnels that run between my brain, heart and gonads prefer a kind of music about which it would not be entirely inappropriate to claim for it the sobriquet "noise."
   The first Charles Mingus recording I played was The Black Saint and the Sinner Lady. Then as now as forever I did not understand the music intellectually. My own musical training was limited to drumming and was (and remains) rather conventional. There is nothing conventional about The Black Saint and the Sinner Lady. Composer-bassist Mingus called the music "ethnic folk-dance." His psychoanalyst, who co-wrote the liner notes, thought of it more as an exorcism. All these years later, that tag still works for me. I cannot imagine hearing those four tracks without imagining demons breaking free and slip sliding back into hell where, one presumes, they will be more at home than in the human soul. 
    I realize that the previous paragraph does not do justice to the preeminent composer of his generation, an easy contender for significance right up there with Duke Ellington, Louis Armstrong, Charlie Parker, Miles Davis and John Coltrane. It may not do the music justice, but it is still all right. 
    From his very first appearance on record at the age of twenty-three in 1945 (he played bass for Russell Jacquet and His All-Stars on a song called "Penny's Worth of Boogie") to his last (with the Charles Mingus Orchestra on the song "Farewell Farwell"), he communicated the need that an aching mind has for surcease better than anyone I'm ever heard. I will leave the superlatives at that.
   Loving the man's music as much as I have, I decided that when the opportunity presented itself I would read his autobiography: Beneath the Underdog. Great title, right? The book was published in 1971. During the first days of 2015, I finally found the time. 
    I imagined stories that would shine a bit of specific light on songs such as "All the Things You Could Be by Now if Sigmund Freud's Wife was Your Mother," "The Continuing Fables of Faubus," or perhaps the Tijuana albums. And that is exactly what I got. I just didn't get it the way I expected. What I got was the answer in the form of noise, the perfect way to experience it.
   Superficially, the tale is nothing more than an insane retelling of some unlikely sexual exploits. In fact, by the time I had made my way near the middle of the book, I felt gypped, violated, robbed and betrayed. But this was Mingus, after all, and I owed it to the man to hang in there until the end. He was not going to write about discrimination, civil rights, teaching thirteen year old Dannie Richmond to play drums or what it felt like to be broke in New York City. Instead he was going to write about going to Tijuana and having sex with twenty-three different prostitutes in one night and still being so unsatisfied that he had to take matters into his own hands to get satisfaction. He was going to write about his cousin the millionaire pimp. He was going to write about being married to cohabiting women simultaneously. This was not the story I expected, wanted or even much cared to hear. Then all of a damned sudden, Charles is in the nut house. In a word: boom.
   You realize that you cannot trust the story that leads up to his stay at Bellevue. But beginning with the story of him begging the guard to let him in, you believe every word. You also are able to reinterpret the nonsense that came before it. Because it was not nonsense at all. Being untrue has little to do with significance. The story lets us look into the blazing mental conflagration of a supremely unhappy genius. The story might not quite be a parallel with A Beautiful Mind, but it kicks at the consciousness with a similar power. An even more apt parallel might be years in the lives of a European Jew or a European Muslim, each one trying to pierce his understanding through the psychological prisms of funhouse mirrors. 
   If a solution to the Muslim-Jewish-Christian conflict materializes, it will be one consequence of an appreciation of the human potential for goodness. That potential cannot be envisioned as a result of political, economic or military actions. It can only be glimpsed rather than fully comprehended and that glimpse comes to us through art. The expression of that potential for goodness is the only purpose art has, outside of creation for its own sake. If the soundtrack for that revelation could only be from one composer, that composer would be Charles Mingus. I will leave it to you to pick the album. You already know my choice.


Wednesday, December 31, 2014

MURDER IN MEMPHIS

   As I am neither a drinker nor doper and lack the charisma to be a philanderer, I will spend that lag time between New Year's Eve and New Year's Day mulling over the things of real importance on this here madly spinning orb, things upon which just possibly I can force a wee smidgen of clarity and righteousness. Should that present much difficulty, I will do something considerably more pleasant. 
   I love lists. Best songs, worst restaurants, best movies, worst bathroom fixtures, best books, most impressive window awnings--you name it, I have a list to go with it. As the year 2015 approaches, my personal To Do List includes the astounding as well as the trite, the fun as well as the mundane, the typical as well as the transcendent. To end the suspense: I want to reconnect with certain people from my misspent youth; I want to return to San Francisco for a couple days; and I want to settle upon which conspiracies I can thoroughly embrace and which ones I must permanently reject. 
   When one stumbles upon the word "conspiracy," strange sensations may trouble the mind. Is the purveyor of the theory full of pintos and garbanzos, someone merely seeking to impose significance upon this often uninspiring universe, or has the theory-monger actually pulled together something at least minimally plausible? Is the theorizer debasing the practice of gaining clarity for personal aggrandizement, or is the person quite simply unsettled with the current state of comprehension regarding a presumably urgent matter? 
   To those of us of a certain age, the Big Trilogy of Tragedies was the assassination of John Kennedy on November 22, 1963, of Martin Luther King on April 4, 1968, and of Robert Kennedy on June 6, 1968. It is challenging to convey to younger people the magnitude of these deaths, in part because the murders occurred within an historical context that even those of us who lived through them find hard to fathom. Civil rights workers were sliced and diced by the score and buried in landfills while entire southern states nodded and bowed to their own triumvirate, being Messers Ku, Klux and Klan, which made more than mildly ironic that the unGodly process appeared to end with the failed assassination of George Wallace in 1972. 
   "But, Dude, aren't you just livin' in the past? There's a whole new wild world out there, Gramps, and maybe it would behoove your sorry ass to explore that instead of whining into your oatmeal about some sad stuff you can't do nuthin' 'bout no way.
   Of course, my way does lie madness. But maybe a bit of madness amidst all the presumed sanity is just what we need, especially for those of us who suspect we have seen all the new stuff many times already, from CIA malfeasance to exploitation of women and persecution of those without at the hands of those with far too much. 
   I have read many books about the murder of Big John, the President. All I know for certain is that the one man who most certainly did not fire those shots in Dallas that day was Lee Harvey Oswald. Beyond that, the reader's guess is probably as good as mine, but if you want mine, it runs that anti-Castro Cuban exiles look pretty good for it, especially considering how those same people keep popping up throughout the second half of the twentieth century.
   The murder about which I know the least is Robert Kennedy's. What I do know is that he was slaughtered on the same day that he and fellow anti-war candidate Eugene McCarthy captured better than eighty percent of their party's primary votes in California and that with Kennedy dead the financially profitable Vietnam War was able to continue unfettered for many more years. However, motive--no matter how compelling--is not evidence of anything. On the other hand, presumed shooter Sirhan Sirhan's explanation that he was pissed off at Kennedy's professed policies regarding Palestinians rings hollow. 
   In between the Kennedy slayings rests the death of Martin Luther King. For those who found it difficult to understand how an ex-Marine could shoot a moving target (who just happened to be the President of the United States) through a blossomed tree at a distance of one hundred yards, scoring two out of three shots in less than six seconds for no other reason than ennui, the assassination of Dr. King by James Earl Ray was mind-boggling. Ray had escaped from prison, had no known skills, hung out in Canadian bars yapping about how he wished he had himself some money, acquired a white Ford Mustang, somehow knew that King was going to be staying in the Lorraine Motel in Memphis even though the civil rights leader had invariably stayed in the Holiday Inn on every other visit to Memphis, somehow knew when King would be exiting his motel room and would just sort of stand around waiting to be picked off, and then, the first official theory went, somehow lost all sense and left the murder weapon on the sidewalk so the police could find it while somehow managing to finance an impressive escape that took him from the United States into Europe and finally to his eventual capture at a London airport. To add to the absurdity, nine years after the murder, the "confessed" assassin escaped from Tennessee's Brushy Mountain State Penitentiary (along with six other prisoners) and was recaptured two days later. This escape was well timed, occurring in the midst of a highly publicized Playboy interview and only a few weeks before the formation of the House Select Committee on Assassinations, part of whose duties were to explore the killing of MLK. Struggle for leadership of the HSCA was itself a bloody mess. Nevertheless, a lot of fascinating testimony came out from the so-called conspiracy buffs who had been choking the airwaves on talk radio stations for years. But a few of these people actually did know what they were talking about and not all of them manifested during the 1970s. Regarding JFK, the most reasonable thinkers would include Mark Lane, Dick Gregory, Penn Jones Jr., Bertrand Russell, Sylvia Meagher, and--please don't get bitchy about this--Jim Garrison and Oliver Stone. 
   Lane and Gregory shared an interest--a noble compulsion, if you will--regarding the killing of Martin Luther King. The same year that James Ray escaped and was recaptured, he hired Mark Lane as his attorney. Ray had been trying to obtain a new trial ever since being tricked into entering a guilty plea by his earlier lawyer, Percy Foreman. Also that same year, 1977, Mark Lane and Dick Gregory published a book called Code Name Zorro, reissued in 1993 as Murder in Memphis. Comedian and social activist Dick Gregory provides several chapters on the background of King's work, a background that would soon become legacy. The chapters Gregory wrote are clear, concise, historically relevant and often quite moving. 
   Mark Lane's contribution to the book are a bit less linear, which is not necessarily a bad thing. The problem, if you want to call it that, is that the complexities of a political assassination require a narrative that moves in and out of the present, dipping here into the past and there into the possible future. When one concedes that large chunks of the story cannot be specified, the job of relating the story becomes enormous. Fortunately, Lane is sharp and tenacious, even though he knows it, and has a style which is on occasion smarmy, on occasion fang-like in its incites. 
   While this pre-New Year's Day essay is supposed to be more or less a book review, in this instance the book itself is going to be a jumping board for something I've made swift reference of several months back. 
   In April 1968, a man named Loyd Jowers owned a Memphis restaurant called Jim's Grill. The eatery was near the Lorraine Motel. Even though the FBI didn't look closely at Jowers and his associates following the assassination, a number of researchers gave him quite a close examination. In December 1993, Jowers made an appearance on an ABC news program wherein he confessed to having a role in the murder and further claiming that Ray had been set up as a patsy.
   The United States Department of Justice yawned into action, summarily concluding that Jowers' was a discredited witness who couldn't find his ass with a flashlight and a two-day head start. That conclusion wasn't terribly surprising in light of the fact that the FBI had been complicit attempts to discredit, slander and cause harm to Martin Luther King prior to and following his murder. 
   In November 1999, the King Family brought a civil suit against Jowers and others. They were not looking for money. They were seeking confirmation. And man, did they get it. After six weeks of testimony, the jury unanimously declared that--well, it can be summed up like this:
THE COURT: In answer to the question did Loyd Jowers participate in a conspiracy to do harm to Dr. Martin Luther King, your answer is yes. Do you also find that others, including governmental agencies, were parties to this conspiracy as alleged by the defendant? Your answer to that one is also yes. And the total amount of damages you find for the plaintiffs entitled to is one hundred dollars. Is that your verdict?
THE JURY: Yes (In unison).

     When you have time, you can read the transcripts of the trial MLK Civil trial transcripts
     Part of what I consider to be the continued importance of all this allegedly ancient history is that we cannot know what we know unless we understand upon what kind of foundation our assumptions rest. If those in positions of inherited authority have achieved their positions through nefarious methods, then perhaps a critical eye should inquire into their current behavior. 
   While we wait for someone else to do the heavy lifting, have a nice New Year. I hope to join you there.

Sunday, December 21, 2014

EGOSPEAK

   For no preordained or unconsciously motivated reason whatsoever, it just so happens that the three nonfiction holiday reading books under discussion here (and over the next couple days) have more than a little relevance to our current malaise, unless you consider The Interview, a Sony film starring Seth Rogen, to be the status of our collective gumbo, in which case you are excused while the rest of us have a hearty laugh at your expense. The genuine nastiness remains the hostile race relations in this country, which is a little ironic given that we have an African-American President whose political ascension sparked lame wit in some dullards and for a while there had people referring to our allegedly post-racial society as "The Age of Obama." For white people who embraced Barack Obama, it no doubt felt as if the racial cold war had at least thawed a bit. Of course, most black people knew better than to trust what was ultimately more of a rejection of the residue of the Bush regime than an eagerness for "change we can believe in," or whatever the slogan used to be. The rest of us cynical folks, of no specific race or creed, sheepishly wondered if the election of a black man to that highest of offices might serendipitously tease out a considerable backlash of redneck extremism. Sad to say, you should usually bet on the cynics to nail the public mood. Since 1964, every Democrat elected to the U.S. presidency has been either a Southerner or African-American, a decidedly weird circumstance given that by 1968, the formerly Democratic "solid south" had been shanghaied by the Republican party specifically because of Lyndon Johnson's efforts at treating black people as if their lives mattered just as much as everyone elses. Richard Nixon understood with amazing clarity the appeal that Democratic Alabama Governor George Wallace had for working class whites, the people Merle Haggard sang about, the people whose kids were sent to Vietnam, the people Nixon coined as the Silent Majority. With the exception of Florida, the Democrats wrote off the south as an electoral base, although they tend to draw from it for white candidates. To put it another way, Joe Biden was inadvertently correct when he implied that Obama "spoke well" in the sense that a black man with the President's credentials who happened to have a southern accent and heritage would have scared that Silent Majority even more than he already has. 
   I say all of that to say this: Race hate in this country not only still exists, in some respects it has even manifested itself during the last six years, just as the families of Tamir Rice, Michael Brown and Eric Garner can attest. 
   EgoSpeak: Why No One Listens to You (Chilton Book Company, 1973) by Edmond Addeo and Robert Burger shows itself to be one of the legs of the three-legged stool upon which the "nothing much has changed" school of thought uneasily teeters. While this short and amusing book does not specifically address racial matters, it does take shots at cliched thinking and other mental shortcuts which continue to keep many of us isolated from the hazards of getting along well. Addeo and Burger intended EgoSpeak to persuade through their sardonic tone and for the most part they succeed. Whether the issue is highjacking conversations or steamrolling dialogue with a preponderance of "facts," the writers describe spoken interactions that are often so close to the bone you can feel the marrow quiver. Here's an excerpt I take at random:
This is perhaps one of the few EgoSpeak games which is not played intentionally; it is our yen for Ego-gratification that prevents us from realizing when we play it. In fact, it is often pomposity which forces us into it unwillingly. The subtle force of pomposity consists in the fear that we may actually say something. For if we say something to a great number of people, we may be caught in an inaccuracy by someone who "checks the facts." As a result, SpeakSpeakers resort to heavy qualifications. Thus SpeakSpeak becomes the art of saying absolutely nothing by virtue of using what is called the Queasy Qualifier (QQ). The Queasy Qualifier, usually an adverbial form, is a word which, when placed before a word with definite, unambiguous meaning, renders the entire word and the subsequently formed phrase utterly meaningless.
  Example 1: Virtually Impossible.   
 Example 2: Nearly unique.
 Example 3: A little bit pregnant. 
     A fair way to summarize the thrust of the book is to say that it utilizes ideas from several other books (Body Language, Games People Play, and The Peter Principle) and then answers the unspoken question "So what?" Well, for one thing, "So an average American can speak the equivalent of two novels per day, although he reads less than three books per year." We sure do talk a lot and often unconsciously do so with "tells," little clues to the fact that we do not give much of a damn about what the other person is saying other than as a means for redirecting things back to what we think are important. Some of these "tells" happen right on camera, as when a prosecutor holds a press conference prior to announcing the results of a grand jury decision, or even in a Tweet or Facebook post by someone we don't know at all but nevertheless list them as "friend." 
  Our present day social media elaborations did not exist in 1973, of course, but the conclusions Addeo and Burger draw apply just as well there. For instance, I observed just yesterday that a man who was trying for all he was worth to sound impartial and above the fray even as his biased worldview was clear and apparent to everyone but himself. In relating the video of Tamir Rice getting shot and killed by a Cleveland police officer, the Facebook user referenced a "punk wielding a firearm," rather than what some people saw as a child pointing a toy. Some of the bigotry we've seen over the last several months has been as chilling as the killings of Trayvon Martin and other citizens who died at the hands of "good guys with guns." 
   The protests against the cowardice on the part of armed Americans that resulted in the deaths of unarmed Americans has been made to appear race-based, despite the presence of white, black, brown and Asian faces in the crowds. Even the so-called liberal news channels have tended to emphasize the racial components of the response to the killings rather than the racial elements of the killings themselves. That's an important distinction because when the inevitable happens--when police get shot by a black person--all the Caucasian administrators, such as the New York Chief of Detectives, seize upon that eventuality as a means of saying "See! Blacks are just as prejudiced as white people!" 
   That would be true, except for one thing: it is a lie. Is a Jew in Berlin in 1933 a bigot because he hates the way Germans are brutalizing his fellow men and women? Is a member of the Lakota tribe a racist because he fights back when his family is slaughtered by an invading horde? Is it racism to feel outrage when uniformed men blast down your door and shoot you forty-three times in a case of mistaken identity? When the cops speak of "anti-police" communities, they are talking about areas of a city where the people living there put more trust in themselves than they do in the organized officers of the law. The police betray their fear of the people by overreacting in their body language, their verbal language, their internal language and ultimately in their lethal communications. When attempts at speaking become predictable, no one listens to anyone else. We end up in a cold and heartless struggle for survival. 
   EgoSpeak illustrates something most five-year-olds know but what the rest of us have unlearned. To get the other person to listen to you, it is necessary to care about what he says and why he says it and, before you move on to your own interests, make sure the other guy understands that you are interested. It is not enough to play our some sort of "game" in the sense of Who's Afraid of Virginia Wolfe? Quite the contrary. We're sophisticated interactionists and we will know when a game is being played. We have to seriously give a damn. Otherwise, we will reveal a shallowness that will inhibit the other person from giving a damn back at us. Or, to use a bit of the splendid film The Big Kahuna, as Danny DeVito put it, "Whenever you put your hands on a conversation to steer it toward what you want to talk about, you stop being a human being. You become a marketing rep." Good God, anything but that.

Sunday, November 23, 2014

EVEN THE LONE RANGER WAS A JERK

  The overwhelming majority of the talented people I've admired over the years have turned out to be deep down scumbags whom I discovered it was only possible to continue to idolize by separating the persons from the projects. This group of people includes one of the members of baseball's Big Red Machine, several filmmakers, an amazing basketball player, a few musicians, some significant intellectuals, a movie actor, and at least one famous painter. Unlike a surprising number of people (surprising to me, at any rate), my list does not include the star of a television situation comedy who added to his fame as a shill for Jello Pudding. Truth be told, I never watched an episode of "The Bill Cosby Show" when it aired the first time around. The previews gave me the feeling that the program existed to legitimize the economic policies of the current political administrations. Having watched a few installments in syndication, I stand by my original impression. The best demonstration of Cosby's talent, it seems to me, remains his involvement with "The Fat Albert Show" of the 1970s. It may have been a bit preachy, but it was a show by and of African-Americans that was funny in ways that "The Jeffersons" and "Good Times" never were. 
   Still, Cosby will never be on the same list as Pete Rose, Woody Allen, Roman Polanski, Michael Jordan, Miles Davis, John Lennon, Camille Paglia, Hannah Arendt, Pauline Kael, and Pablo Picasso, among others. I suffer no cognitive dissonance with these folks. For me there is what they accomplished professionally and for those accomplishments I hold not only respect but more than a little awe. I was going to say that when it comes to what they have done personally I do not care, however, I've always tried to be honest on these electronic pages, so I cannot say that. I hate it that Rose revealed himself to be not only baseball's all-time greatest hitter but also an apparent bigot and habitual gambler. I hate it that both Allen and Polanski could not find sufficient solace in being the two most important filmmakers of their generation and evidently needed to channel their demons through engaging youngsters in sexual activities. Miles Davis was not content to have recorded the most challenging improvisations of the post bop period; he found it additionally satisfying to slap women around, women who loved him unquestioningly. Groucho Marx, arguably the funniest man of all time, has been alleged to have been one of the world's worst parents. 
   You might say that my list indicates that I too am a scumbag and ought to reevaluate the things of true importance in life. In fact, I am constantly in a state of reevaluating that very thing. It might be more valuable and certainly more interesting to look at your own list of heroes. So let us get quite personal. Maybe your own parents would be on such a list of idols. That's good. I hope they are. I miss my own parents very much, despite the fact that both of them on occasion made remarks that still haunt my nightmares, so vile and racist were those statements. But what my parents--and probably yours as well--share with the more famous individuals on such a list is that they were complex and multi-dimensional human beings. To say that we are all flawed absolves no one of anything. But it does serve to remind us that even the Lone Ranger chronically referred to his closest ally and only friend as "stupid." 
   Maybe Bill Cosby really is the horrid serial rapist his accusers say he is. Marion Barry revealed himself to be less than a saint, yet he made a lot of us very proud to be Americans. Muhammad Ali was, to my mind, the greatest boxer who ever lived, despite the fact that for a few years he embraced a rather narrow-minded religion. 
   I'm not here to make the case that the biggest talent accompanies the biggest demons. I am here to say that those demons are inside each and every one of us and that given the ego immunity that fame often bestows, it would behoove us, while we remain outraged at the despicable side of our collective nature, to simultaneously remain in a condition of childlike wonder at the very fragile human beings who create the likes of Guernica, Kind of Blue, Cul de Sac, and Annie Hall. It might even be time in our intellectual evolution to inquire how it is that moral immunity permits disgusting and criminal behavior to pile up without response until the pot at last explodes just in time to tarnish the person's reputation after it is too late for any legal action to set things right. I'd like to continue with this jeremiad but I have to get back to making notes on Eichmann in Jerusalem

Wednesday, November 19, 2014

PRECISELY VAGUE

  The Philae landed on a comet known as 67P/Churymov–Gerasimenko last week. The exploratory transport device known as Rosetta will now proceed to orbit that comet as good old 67P arcs closer to the sun. So we all say a hearty thank you to the European Space Agency and attach a secret memorandum asking for the name of the store where the folks in the command center get their office chairs. This was a tremendous accomplishment for the space people and even though NASA had only a small involvement in this project, I felt a bit of envy, not only about getting one of those chairs for myself but more importantly that the U.S. space program didn't make the comet landing ahead of everyone else. Way back in July 1969, a whole lot of Americans found their collective posteriors on the lips of their chairs waiting to see if we would get a person walking on the moon ahead of the Russians. We did and every person I met that week carried a certain glow from that cosmic feat. Granted, most of the people I knew did not accompany Neil Armstrong, Buzz Aldrin and Michael Collins on that moon journey (some claimed to have been stowaways, but I suspect they fibbed), yet we all sort of felt as if we had been there with the crew of astronauts. Getting the play-by-play from television newsmen Walter Cronkite and Eric Sevareid helped make the experience real. 
   Just as with many other people of a certain age, I jumped aboard the astronomy mania that held the world transfixed. In addition to talking my parents into buying me a "Moonscope,"
I also acquired a hefty batch of books and magazines that addressed themselves to all things cosmological. And while I am somewhat pained to admit it, one of my most treasured possessions was a foldout map of "outer space" that McDonald's gave away. It was actually a mighty fine map, showing as it did the rotation and revolution times for each of the planets and listing the distances of each planet from the others as well as from the sun. This accumulation of somewhat exploitive trivia delighted me and proved useful later in life when I was called on to recite various minutiae, such as the speed of light, the distance of a light year, the speed of the earth's rotation, the order of the planets, and so on.  
   Lest you think less than nice thoughts about me, rest assured I am no shill for McDonald's. Today I would not walk across the street to spit on Ronald the clown or even consider choking down one of his toadburgers. But when I was twelve, my financial resources and culinary expertise were appropriate to my age and I did what I could. 
   The whole country was on fire with excitement about Apollo 11, the first space trip that would land people on the moon. Neil Armstrong hopped down on the surface on July 20, 1969, and the nation and world watched. If I make it sound like a rerun of "Little House on the Prairie," well, that's kind of the way it was. Cronkite could have said, "Tonight, we are all Little Joe Cartwright" and no one would have contradicted him. 
   If you were a kid or even a young adult in the United States in 1969, you sort of felt good about yourself and your prospects for the future. Sure, there was that pesky war going on in Southeast Asia, but that didn't reflect your personal aspirations, even if you yourself were over there. You still figured that, once it was all over, things would get back to normal and as an American you were assured of a respectable future. 
   The thing about expectations is: sometimes they are wrong. That doesn't mean we shouldn't have high hopes. It does mean that the trade off for being collectively optimistic is that we may experience the occasional disappointment. 
   You know what we manufacture in the United States nowadays? Crayola crayons. Stihl chain saws. Hospital bedpans. I'm tempted to buy a bedpan, color it blue and saw the bastard in half, just out of spite. 
   Sure, I know, we still make some automobiles. We still make washers and dryers (Whirlpool reduced their Chinese operation and relocated back to the U.S. a few years ago). Electrolux plans to close their Quebeck operation and relocate to Memphis. General Electric recently brought 800 jobs back to the United States from Mexico. KitchenAid's hand mixers are now back home. master Lock ditched China for America. And there's a lot of other companies doing the same. But mostly what we do here is service. And service is intangible. Service is a pick-up at the airport. Service is an express check-in at the hotel. Service is not getting spat on at the restaurant. And I don't know when was the last time you rode a plane, went to a hotel, or ate at a restaurant, but chances are that unless you paid a lot for the privilege, your service was lousy. 
   A couple years ago, Zogby Analytics and MSN partnered on a survey to determine the ten best companies regarding "customer service." They were without exception stores such as Trader Joe's and Lowes, meaning stores that sell other companies' products. No friggin' McDonald's on that list, buddy. 
   What I suspect all of this means is that choices are similar to definitions. When you have too many of them, they cease to mean anything at all. Think of any word you use throughout the day. The more different meanings that word has to various people, the less precision the word possesses. The same applies to our options. When we had only four television networks, the meaning of any one channel was far more clear and cogent. With thousands of channels available, the very idea of "watching" television is blurry. Do you mean watching it on a tradition TV set, or from a desktop or laptop computer, and iPhone, a smart phone, a bunch of shadow images on the wall, cable, satellite, Netflix, or what? The only answer is that we become more precise in our use of words, but that ends up cluttering up our minds with details about consumable goods rather than things of actual value, things such as traveling to Mars, or getting the mercury out of our goldfish, or voting one way or another on immigration reform, or whatever the real situation might be. But it can be hard to think of those important ideas or to even find two people to agree that they are important when our brains have been nullified by the planned intellectual obsolescence of this here madly spinning orb. Information all too often gets confused with knowledge and the skills to survive frequently get substituted for street smarts. Perhaps a good place to begin challenging our preconceived misconceptions is when we sit outside tonight and look out into that divine black silk blanket spread across our universe, maybe we can take a moment or two to reflect on our collective connections, meaning that while you and I may interpret the universe differently, it's nice to remember that that very difference is something we share. We're all gently shivering beneath the same comforter. The simple act of sitting alone on a chilly night and grooving to the beauty of those fractured lights--it brings us together a lot like the way the Apollo missions brought us together. Only this time we won't need television or hand gadgets or anything except the vital muscle known as imagination. I'll be out tonight. Hope to see you there.

Wednesday, November 5, 2014

WELCOME TO JANUARY 1933

   Assuming for the sake of discussion that I acknowledge a substantial distinction between the two major political parties in the United States, several good reasons exist why in November 2014 one of them fared far worse than the other.
   Let's get some of the "inherent in the system" reasons out of the way first. Voter suppression had a lot to do with it, as Kay Hagan would admit if she were not also part of the problem, as we shall see momentarily.
   While a pattern of six year blues exists for the party of most re-elected presidents, in this particular case I'm going to go out on a steady limb and suggest that one of the common denominators for the GOP's advertising dollars was that they came packed with a share of racism. For the most part, the rural areas of America voted Republican this year, feeling the perks of the "recovery" less well than their urban counterparts. All the upwardly mobile economic indicators spoke well for the Democrats: stock market high, unemployment low. But no one outside the upper echelons of this country have experienced prosperity since Nixon's first term, so while one party may get punished for things getting worse, no party will get rewarded for things getting better simply because better no longer exists. And in that twenty percent of this country that remains rural, the appearance of a choice was clear.
   Ah, there's the rub. Things no longer improve for the majority. Unless your family income is at or above $100,000 a year, you most likely have no more in savings (relative to earnings) today than your parents did a generation ago. Probably you have less. What you do have that your parents did not is debt. That gray cloud of financial weight sags over your shoulders heavier than anything your ancestors ever knew. People only like debt when its federal. No one enjoys the personal variety.
   But let's put aside the very real impact of poll taxes, a racism that is so pervasive that most of us cannot even recognize it, and diminishing expectations. The real reason why Barack von Hindenburg turned the keys to the chancellery over to the NSDAP is because his party has proved itself uncoordinated, unworthy, assimilationist and stupid. I'll give the reader credit for being able to parse the reasons behind the first three reasons and specifically address myself to Democratic stupidity. 
   You never tout your accomplishments, even on those rare occasions when you have any.
   You are sissies. You could have at least tried to get a single-payer healthcare system. Instead, you opted for this market-based nonsense that puts far too much control for its success with the states. You could have captured live a couple members of ISIS and dragged them through the streets on five prong fish hooks. You could have at least proposed that the NRA be forcibly disbanded because it represents a threat to national security. 
   You lack any genuine sense of humor. Anyone else would have laughed out loud if one of the leading nonrenewable energy spokesmen had uttered the term "clean coal," but you simply decided to study the matter. When he screws up publicly, a man of true wit will repeat the mistake over and over as a means of laughing at himself. Most people do not like Sarah Palin, but those who do like her would kill for her because she's funny and knows it. If she says on Monday that Minnesota is the capital of the country of Africa, she'll get bashed in the press and then compound the mistake on Wednesday by claiming that the city of Africa needs to invade its nearest neighbor--the continent of Iceland. People will laugh and her staff will laugh and she'll pretend to be confused. But people enjoy laughing. They'll vote for someone who makes them laugh before someone who puts food on their plate. 
   You have to involve the religious community. Granted, many of these people are nuts, but these nuts always vote both early and often. Go to church, enlist church leaders in progressive causes, and make sure this gets positive reporting. 
   Never blame the other guy for his own shortcomings. This is politics, people, and politics means the appearance of accountability. If Bush wrecked the economy, rather than saying it's hard to undo all the damage, say instead that you wish you had been elected four years earlier so that all the great things you've done would have happened just that much sooner.
   Pick a side in the Jewish-Palestinian conflict and stick with it. This will be easy. Go with Israel. True, you may alienate Egypt, Syria, Pakistan, Iran and Iraq, but here's a news flash: They already feel alienated. You'll still need to kiss Saudi Arabia's ass for a few more years, but maybe you can trick Iraq into invading them and sell guns to both sides so both sides'll wipe out each other and the Israelis will have more room for growth. I know these comments will anger some friends of mine but I'm tired of Islam, kind of in the way that fatass Chris Christie is tired of the minimum wage, except I'm correct and he's a disgusting pig boy. Most religions have their share of idiots. Islam went back for thirds. 
   Support the environment.
   Raise the minimum wage.
   Enforce the rights granted in Roe v. Wade.
   Don't worry too much about gun control, even though you probably should.
   Keep going to church.
   If a woman becomes president, I would expect her to not alter her voice so as to sound like a man. As a black person, you are expected to sound like one and drop the white affectations. We knew you were black when we voted for you. That may even have been the primary reason I voted for you. If I'd wanted white, I'd have stayed with the Clintons.
  That's it. You have less than two years to get it together. I'll expect a full report.

   

Thursday, October 23, 2014

WHY I STILL CURSE DESPITE DISAPPROVING OF IT IN OTHERS

   If you were to stir together in some vile smelling cauldron the red-eyed terror of the northern goshawk, the ferocious backlash of the gray Russian lupine, and the single-minded hatred in the soul of the supreme bull shark, you might come within a wide fraction of approximating the conflux of ugly emotions boiling just beneath my heart yesterday afternoon, the stench from which I offer, rest assured, no apology whatsoever.
  I do not get around as much as I once did. On those occasions when I do poke my head out the door to engage some poor schleb in what passes these days for conversation, I often as not regret the decision. Still, now and then my mind harkens back to the days of my childhood, to the days when old people made a point of lying through their rotten green teeth to convince me that all men are good and angels get their wings and every Scrooge can be redeemed. I shake off that nonsense only to have those memories replaced with equal amounts of wino puke from the nihilistic influences of my twenties, back when I believed that just about any antisocial form of behavior had some merit and that life was garbage so let's all eat a big fistful. That was every bit as stupid as the Pollyanna posturing that naturally preceded it. 
   Wow. My stomach actually throbs from the anger I'm feeling right now as I recreate the repulsive experience I witnessed and played a small part of yesterday. I better skip ahead or I'll bleed an ulcer all over the keyboard and we'll never get the problem solved.
   Yesterday I accompanied a friend in a scheduled visit to a family physician. 
   That statement of fact may not sound like the type of event to warrant such a spewing of vitriol, but hang in there, people and children, because I'm about to scratch a nerve of familiarity right on the base of your spine.
   We walked inside the humble medical office, relieved to be out of the glare of the Phoenix afternoon sun, only to be greeted by the shrill wail of the opening theme cluster of that abomination that it pains me mightily to call "The Jerry Springer Show." The TV set blared the broadcast of insolence from atop a watercooler parked right next to the receptionist's desk, where it could do the most harm to the largest number. 
   This was my friend's first visit to this particular physician's office and quite foolishly I had recommended that we arrive early to fill out the reams of paperwork. The formalities in fact did await us on paper that appeared to have been created by a 1957 mimeograph prototype. My friend filled in the blanks as the studio audience watched a black chick announce to the crowd that she was a lesbian. The crowd bellowed their approval. I handed the receptionist the paperwork back on the clipboard while the lesbian shared with all concerned that her ex-girlfriend worked as a stripper. The crowd thought that was pretty fucking terrific. Jerry Springer suggested that maybe the world would like to meet the ex. The crowd chanted the host's name over and over. And that is when I went berserk.
   I turned to see that against one wall was a family of Mexican-Americans, their mouths a-drool over the prospects of what the television wrought. I marched over to the youngest of the bunch, kneeled down to about eye-level and said, "Is this the reason your people crawled through the goddamn Sonoran desert on their bellies, with aching throats and gritty eyes? To sit in this office and watch this fucking shit?!?" 
  The kid's father leaned forward, appearing somewhat alarmed. I pushed him back in his chair and carried on. "You should really be ashamed, pop! This is no way for the kids to learn the language. You think that knowing how to shout Jerree! Jerree! Jerree! is gonna help them get a good job? Holy Mother of Guadalupe, dude! This is their fucking lives, pal! And you sit here lapping up this disease like a cat licking milk off a porch step? Christ!"
   Sensing the possibility that what I actually needed to do was to assault the source, I turned back around and grabbed the TV set in both hands. And I shook it. I shook it hard. Nothing fell out. The Nazi chant of Jerree Jerree Jerree continued unabated. So I did what a man of my means would/could only do. I smashed that purveyor of pablum against the wall and laughed like a bit of a maniac as the shattered fragments fell to the floor in a kind of celestial slow motion, like snow flakes on your dead uncle's gravesite. I kicked the broken shards as the security guys arrived. I spat on the broken screen as my friend looked in fright as they carried me from the room. I swore I'd return as they rammed me head first through the door and dumped me into the parking lot.
   It is only sporting to admit at this point in the narrative that none of the things I described following the word "berserk" actually happened. Oh, I would have been filled with a beatific inner glow had things proceeded in such a classic Billy Jack manner (When confronted with about twenty white supremacists, Billy finds himself facing the leader of the town bullies and says, "You know what I'm going to do, just for the hell of it? I'm gonna take this right foot and whop you on this side of your head. And you know what? There's not gonna be a damned thing you're gonna be able to do about it." Quite clearly, this is how life is supposed to be lived and the fact that I have never really had what I consider to be my prime Billy Jack moment weighs heavy on my heart). What I did instead was to ask the receptionist if I could borrow the remote, all the better to turn down the volume. She told me she didn't know where it was. And like a fool I let that slide. I was confronted by a room full of all the imbecilic things I most resent and I backed down. God damn. I deserve the shame I feel. 
   I believe this is why some people die. They die because they forget there are no second chances. We do not get do-overs in life. I let a big one slip yesterday. I've wallowed in that shame and regret all day today. I have hammered into my head the admonition that I do not want to die and that the best way to fight against mortality is to free that part of oneself that bursts from inside your chest to announce to the rest of humanity words to the effect of "God damn you all to hell! MY life has meaning! My life has value! And I'm sick as fuck of you feeding me this horseshit when what I want is substance!"
   This kind of outrage does not excuse some twisted religious headjob who runs at cops with a hatchet. It does not permit impassioned hypocrites with airplanes to make wannabe martyrs of themselves at the expense of others. It does not make right the inexplicable pain of a young woman who steps off the top of a building into oblivion for no other purpose than to make the evening news. It does not excuse, or permit, or make right any of those things. It does, however, go a long way toward explaining them. 
   So when you and I sit around the box and the newscaster says that some wackadoo with an AR-15 blew away ten people and I say something poignant like "Probably half of them had it coming," please do not encourage that type of hermit talk. Just know that somewhere between my frustration and yours lies a keg filled with black powder with a short fuse attached. I don't know what's in that keg. Probably just smoke. But let's not find out, okay? Let's instead reinvent ourselves just a little bit more every day so that the world we inhabit does not need some deranged hero to kick ass and we can leave that kind of thing for the movies. Much better for society if we get our thrills vicariously. We wouldn't want to end up like that kid in the old rap song. "Don't push me 'cause I'm close to the edge. I'm tryin' not to lose my head."

Sunday, October 19, 2014

THE BUREAU OF REDUNDANCY BUREAU

   American use of the term "czar" to describe the point person on politico-social issues began on February 4, 1974. Rarely can we be so precise in tracing the etymology of a word coining. It was on that day that comic strip auteur Gary Trudeau referred to the appointment by Richard Nixon of William Simon as "Energy Czar." Let me make this perfectly clear. A cartoonist--and a damned funny one--birthed an expression that we still use to this day. The only difference between then and now is that many people today erroneously believe the word is of recent origin.
   The issue comes up, of course, because of the appointment of Ron Klain to the role of coordinator of the Obama Administration's efforts to control the infectious disease known as ebola. Perhaps you have heard of it. Klain's role will be to advise and serve as the central coordinating body, reporting to the President (rather than to Congress), who in turn, it is presumed, will be responsible to the people of the United States. It's simple crisis management. Every CEO needs an extra layer of bureaucracy between himself and the populace, even when that layer has no authority whatsoever. 
   But we in this country succeed like the winners we are when it comes to ignoring facts when a good scare is what we really want. Consider The Hill, a Washington-based journal of reaction:
Some presidents, including Barack Obama, have created czars without statutory authority backing those positions. The lack of statutory grounding means that czars exercise authority vested in other officials, which creates legal and extra-legal complications. Not to mention the absence of accountability czars have to Congress or the public because they are presidential creations and not confirmed by the Senate. Presidents have anointed czars as presidential “advisers”, thus attempting to shield these officials from testifying on the Hill, even while some of them have exercised substantial policy, spending, and regulatory powers.

   That's a point, I suppose. It's also a point that no U.S. voter elected any person who ever served in the Central Intelligence Agency (with the exception of George H.W. Bush) and yet that unelected organization did not resist the temptation to both create and implement executive strategy while we as an alleged electorate still turn out in strange droves to vote in more people who beyond all doubt will continue to do what American politicians have always done: either more or less than we should let them get away with. 
   But what about the charge that the czar (or czarina, one gathers) presents an extra layer of bureaucracy? Is that a bad thing? 
   Some level of what we call bureaucracy is essential to the functioning of any social organization comprised of three or more people. The decisive factor turns on whether the bureaucracy serves the consumers of the services or whether it serves to insulate and protect the person above the bureaucracy from the people beneath it. Let's look at a common example of a simple bureaucracy. A man loses his credit card and wishes to prevent unauthorized charges from taking place. He locates the telephone number of the card issuer. He enters a telephonic contingency maze. He is immediately met with the information that the bureaucracy has changed recently and to please listen carefully, as the call may be recorded. If the man prefers to communicate in English, he must press 1. Once this is accomplished, he hears that if he wishes to activate his missing credit card, he should press 1 again. This does not apply to him, so he continues to listen. If his card has been stolen, he is to press 2. This alert concerns him because, while the card is definitely out of his possession, he has no reason to believe someone stole it. His finger hovers over the 2 button, but his indecision allows the next message to play. If his card has been lost or destroyed, he should press 3. Sighing in relief that he exercised proper patience, he presses 3. After an ominous delay, a similar electronic voice demands that in the event that his card was destroyed, please press 1. If his card was lost, he should press 2. He presses 2. If he knows his card number, the recording advises, press 1. If he does not know his card number, he must press 2. Having committed the number to memory, along with other strange minutiae, he presses 1 and is then prompted to enter the card number followed by the pound sign. If he does not know what a pound sign is, he should press the hashtag key. If he does not know what that is, he must press the little tic tac toe button. Recognizing the sarcasm of the recording, he presses the appropriate button and receives the information that his card has been invalidated and that a new card with a new number will arrive in his mailbox with two weeks. He is further admonished to hang up because the bureaucracy has completed its task and to please have a very nice day.
   However impersonable this approach may feel, one must admit it is efficient for both the consumer and the credit card organization. That is because both parties stayed with the script. No one ad libbed and no one required something that the other party was unprepared to produce.
    Now let us consider a bureaucratic encounter where someone makes the decision to deviate from the script. It should be noted from the outset that this deviation may be reasonable or unreasonable, the value judgment typically being the purview of the people protected by the bureaucracy.
   I was standing in line at a Wells Fargo bank. I had business that I wished to transact with a teller. Any teller would do, I reckoned, and so I went in the general line. This felt appropriate since the different tellers did not appear to have their own independent lines of access. When my turn came, I approached a teller who sat placidly behind a sign that said BRENDA. I greeted her with a smile and said that I wished to cash a check drawn on the Wells Fargo bank. I had already made one mistake, as you no doubt realize. The account on which the funds were to be drawn belonged to the account holder. Wells Fargo was simply the bureaucratic layer between me and that man's money.
   BRENDA looked at the check with the level of interest a biology teacher brings to doing the ten thousandth autopsy on the ten thousandth dead frog for the ten thousandth time. "You have an account with Wells Fargo."
   While the words BRENDA spoke did not quite properly form a question, as you will no doubt observe by the punctuation indicator, I was familiar with this particular bureaucracy and in fact had been expecting it. I informed her that I was not. No, definitely not. Not indeed. Not at all. Never had been. Never would be. No, ma'am. Not I. Not me. Not this man. Heck no.
   BRENDA then said that she would appreciate it if I would show her two forms of photographic identification. Actually, what she said was, "I'll need two picture IDs, sir." I do not suppose that the reader will need me to mention that BRENDA leaned heavily on that last word, almost as if she were grinding it into the center of a deserted highway in an attempt to inflict agony onto the ancient concrete.
    I presented BRENDA with my valid driver's license. 
   She glanced at my license. Tossing it on top of the check I had also presented her, she responded that she need two picture IDs. 
   I admitted I had only the one. Were there any exceptions to the Two-Picture rule?
   There were, she admitted, moving into the contingency portion of her mental script. If I were a Wells Fargo account holder myself, for instance, then I could cash this very same check by presenting more than zero and less than two photographic identifications. 
   Oh! I said with naive optimism. And how many photo ID's would be required of me to secure the honor of becoming a Wells Fargo account holder? 
  Just one photo and one other form of ID, she replied, the latter not needing to have my pretty picture on it. 
   I explained that if one photo ID was good enough to get an account which would only require one photo ID to cash a check, we could skip the step of opening an account for me and move directly into the process of cashing the check. I further explained that since my own identification was clearly not the true issue at play, it might be assumed that the friendly Wells Fargo people were trying to coerce account "membership" by making the process of cashing a check arduous unless such a bonding had been formed. 
   She was not persuaded. I told her I wanted to speak to her manager. She invited me to have a seat while the manager was located. I told her I was going to stay right where I was so as to coerce the haste of the bank manager coming to my assistance. "Are you refusing to move? asked BRENDA.
   "I am refusing to move," I said.
   The manager came. She cashed the check. I mucked with the bureaucracy and lived to fight another day. 
    If the customer can therefore be successful when he or she improvises against the betterment of the bureaucracy, what happens, then, when the bureaucracy deviates from the script? 
   The actual result is often what you and I mean when we speak of "customer service." Here is a common example from everyday life. A woman walks into a Wal-Mart carrying a vacuum cleaner that she purchased there. The machine works just fine, as far as she knows. Her issue is that the same day she bought this very vacuum, her girlfriend bought one too and they only need the one. The women flipped a coin and our customer lost. She walks into the store pushing the machine. The "greeter" does not see her. Had the greeter observed her, he would likely have asked to see the woman's receipt, upon which he would have marked some written coding. This did not happen. This particular woman did not save her receipt anyway, so it doesn't actually matter. She waits in line at the area of the store called CUSTOMER SERVICE, a sign that implies this is the only place in the block store that provides the stuff. The clerk calls the woman and she wheels the vacuum over to the desk. "No receipt? You don't have no receipt? Oh, I don't think we can help you without a receipt. Edna, can we help this woman? She got no receipt? Huh? No? No, I'm sorry, lady, but you got no receipt so we cannot help you today. Is there anything else I can do for you?"
   Another employee steps out of the restroom just in time to recognize the customer. The restroom person works as a cashier and is was she who rang up the purchase. The customer also recognizes the cashier and without a word being exchanged between the two, the cashier whispers something to the customer service person. The service individual smiles as the cashier walks around the desk and wheels the vacuum back behind the counter. The service person rings up some numbers, opens the cash drawer and counts out the money to the customer. Yay! Satisfaction is mine, sayeth the Lord!
   It is tempting to believe that there used to be a time in this country when customer service of this sort was widespread. That belief is mostly the result of selective nostalgia. We have always required a number of deviants in our social organizations, deviants who have retained in their memories and who display in their practices that they recall the stated purpose of the bureaucracy: to provide efficient service. Sometimes we call these people whistleblowers. Sometimes we say they are gadflies. I always consider them as the only thinking people in the organization. That guy with the funny haircut leaning against the wall paging through a comic book. That girl with the strange tattoo, eyeglasses and a ponytail. That old man with the illegal smile. That crazy lady talking to herself on aisle seven. Our future, I hope, lies with those weirdos rather than with the automatons, the conformists and the nihilists. 

   

Tuesday, October 14, 2014

THREE INSPIRATIONS AND NO GARNISHES

   The most interesting conversations sometimes wind their way across the tropes of human consciousness, landing at last--if ever--far from where the conversants might have earlier anticipated. 
   As those of you who write for a living recognize for yourselves, making a decent livelihood in this business does not happen for everyone who works at it. Some of you will go for a long time, batting the literary ball out of the stadium at every swing, only to find that the great cosmic umpire drags out his hideous blue pencil and undermines the project you approached with more confidence than all the others--and usually just at the precise moment when you could least endure the rejection. Yet you quite properly take solace in your successes. Some of you will no doubt wonder what it feels like to receive a royalty check, or an advance against future royalties. (Answer: It feels fantastic.) But I'd bet that most of the writers reading this will land somewhere in between, batting (to continue the metaphor, what with World Series fever in the air) approximately .333 in a good season. As a result of this Louisville Slugger Median, you may find it necessary, or at least helpful, to secure simultaneous employment in a capacity other than your preferred and chosen field as Scribe to the Great and Gloriously Unwashed Masses. 
   It is in that latter condition that I may like as not be reached most days. By most days I mean a day such as today. This very day in which we labor, friends and neighbor. (I hope you'll pardon that unfortunate rhyme. It was more or less accidental, although not without purpose. You see, I was making a sales call this afternoon when I found myself speaking in rhyme, inadvertently wowing the potential client, himself something of a salesperson, indeed, a far better one than am I.)
   Wait, wait, wait. Did I just let loose with a parenthetical admission to being in sales? 
   I did. Granted, that is not a complete job description. To salvage what is left of my diminishing hubris, I should share with you that my partner  (the long suffering roommate, Lisa Ann) and I make websites. The damned things won't jump up and sell themselves, now will they? Most assuredly not. So we have to beat the bushes and grab the tiger tails, shake, shimmy, do the pony like bony maronie and roll on our back 'cause we like it like that, just to get people to shut up long enough to pretend to consider listening to all the millions of reasons why he or she or they should do us the honor of allowing us to build him, her or them a website. 
   In any event, I was speaking to a very rapt listener, a polite and conscientious fellow named Paul. At the outset, he inquired after my health and general condition, to which I replied (as I so often do), "Sitting on a rainbow." The reason I use this response with such regularity is that (a) I have come to think of it as my own personal little conversational monogram, and (b) the sad truth is often far from what one might expect from someone saying "sitting on a rainbow," and so my secret hope is that people will intuit the irony and do me a favor by cheering me up. I am routinely disappointed in the reaction. And yet--
   This man Paul admitted that he could not recall receiving that response any time recently. I reminded him of the old Frank Sinatra song from which that line had come and he laughed as did I and the conversation was off and trotting. Within a very few minutes, I became self-conscious of the fact that I was answering all his many questions as if I were composing verse on the spot. Of course, now that I mention this, I can't remember even a solitary example to prove the point, but why would I make it up? Please just take my word, thunderbird, that the rhymes I uttered were bread and buttered far superior to the ones contained within this refrain. 
   As a result of my sudden lapse into rhythm and rhyme, Paul grew ever more intrigued and invited me to send him an invoice, one which he may respond to favorably at his leisure. This is an individual from whom I did not expect so much as the courtesy of name recognition. Yet, to be fair to him, he recognized my phone number or has saved it by my name. Either way, my previous contacts with him apparently failed to alienate him. To be even more fair, I found Paul to be quite the charming fellow and told him as much. This sort of candor and gushing is, I guarantee you, not my typical approach. But something about him brought out a cleverness in me. I feel confident that this is what people mean when they talk about inspiration. 
   Much later in the day, I encountered from within myself a far different and more unsavory type of inspiration. I will try to be kind on my description of the behavior of the pusillanimous pederast whose guile and treachery were matched only by the crookedness of her wretched soul. This fiend, whose name I will not speak, called my number and when I answered "Thank you for calling ROI, this is Phil, how may I help you," snarled into the phone (like the prehistoric reptilian gila monster that she spiritually resembles) with the tongue-twitching hiss, "Who is this?"
   I smiled and repeated my greeting. She inhaled through her mouth (a crevice which I suspect is framed by dental stalactites and stalagmites aplenty) and hissed, "What is this charge doing on my credit card?!?"
    The shrill shrew had forgotten ordering the website, had indeed forgotten that we had completed the website in record time and received high praise from her thirty days earlier, just as she had forgotten that we had taken pity on her abominable soul and had allowed her to make payment arrangements with us so that she could benefit from having a website which she--at the outset, at least--had not yet made complete compensation for, if you'll pardon my ending a clause with a preposition. She had forgotten many things in this interim, civility and propriety among those items and her unabashed shamelessness in the magnitude of her harsh and rude behavior took me somewhat aback. I stammered for a moment and handed the phone to Lisa Ann.
   One does well to watch the P's, Q's and other elements of style when dealing with Lisa Ann. But this rancid pterodactyl (capable of changing genus as well as species in a single paragraph) on our phone was not to be consoled. She breathed a fiery hatred with every frigid heartbeat and soon Lisa simply looked at me with a look that said, "Will you please bring me a glass of apple cider so that I may drown this wench in something bitter?" 
    I grabbed the phone, listened to this amoeba-brained degenerate (still changing lifeforms with each instant) and at last shouted, "Look, chicken head! The last psycho who threatened me woke up with his ankles welded together, so watch your mouth, toots!" 
   I ended up giving back half her money. 
   But I was and remain moderately pleased with my exhortation, just as I am self-satisfied with my earlier and much more humane conversation with that Paul fellow. Both were the result of what I call inspiration--this emotional spike of lightning that shoots through you, leaving you, at least for a little while, smarter and more clever than when you began.
    The final round of this kind of inspiration happened just a few minutes after my encounter with the aforementioned seven-headed triple uvula'd toad woman. I was just walking out of the convenience store with a soda and some hyper-processed snacks, when a guy about my own age smiled a painful and tired smile at me and asked if I could help him out. Coming right on the heels of the previous quarrel, my emotional wiring was not predisposed to be receptive to panhandling. Yet there was something in that man's eyes--something I probably imagined, but even a mirage is based on some interpretation of reality--that cut through all the layers of scales and hatred I'd amassed over the lifetime/two hours/whatever and I found myself asking this man to talk to me about himself. He may have thought I was nuts and he may have been correct. Doesn't matter. We stood there outside that store, sharing stupid experiences and laughing--not some kind of calculated emotional maneuvering but a very genuine and magical kind of truth--while people passed us as if we were invisible. He hugged me somewhat gently. I gave him a bit a financial assistance. I got in the vehicle and he waved as I drove off. 
   Inspiration lies face up on the plate in front of us. It suffers no garnish. It recoils at the suggestion. Here's hoping your version of inspiration tastes every bit as good.

Monday, October 6, 2014

STATS

In January 1970 the U.S. unemployment rate was 3.9%. In September 2014, it was 5.9%.

One hundred dollars in 1970 had the buying power of $603 in 2014.

In October 1976, a gallon of unleaded gasoline sold for .63 per gallon. A guy came out and pumped it for you. In October 2014, that same gallon cost 3.48. Self service rules.

In 1976 the nonfarm federal minimum wage was $2.20. Today the federal minimum wage is $7.25.

In 1970, 203 million people called the United States home. In 2014, the number was 310 million.

The 1969 Pontiac Firebird Transam cost $4,300. Today Pontiacs are not manufactured at all. 


The average height for a man in 1960 was five feet eight inches. Today that same man is five foot nine. For that extra inch of tallness, today's average man weighs 27 pounds more than he did in 1960. 

The percentage of the U.S. population in 1970 who could boast of having earned a Bachelor's Degree was ten percent. In 2014, the percentage was closer to twenty percent.

More than forty percent of all Americans read neither a book of fiction nor nonfiction in the last twelve months.

In 2014 there are 32 NFL franchise teams. After the merger of the AFL and NFL in 1970, there were 26 teams.