January, 2017

Meeting in the Middle

January 29th, 2017 29 Comments

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Ten or twelve years ago I was in Missoula, Montana, where there are a lot of art galleries. One night a month, the galleries stay open in the evening and guys like me can wander in, have a glass of wine and enjoy—or not—the art. I was going from gallery to gallery when I walked past a bar, a real, honest-to-God, old-fashioned, sawdust-on-the-floor, beer-and-whiskey bar. I don’t remember now if it actually had sawdust on the floor, but that was the atmosphere of the place. In the window was a small round table with two bar stools, and perched at the table was an odd couple. One was a real, genuine, working cowboy who looked as if he had just come in from the feedlot, or possibly a cattle drive, still in his daily working clothes: filthy jeans, tattered shirt buttoned all the way up, sweat-stained and dust-covered Stetson, muddy (and probably shit-covered) boots with spurs still on, droopy moustache, weathered and leathery face, drinking a beer. He was engaged in earnest and cheerful conversation with a slightly younger (or perhaps simply less weather-beaten) Gothic girl: unnaturally black hair, unnaturally pale skin, nose-ring, tattoos, clunky working boots, who looked as if she had just come from a class on “Anarchism as Theory and Movement.” (That’s an actual class from an actual college, but not the University of Montana.)

The juxtaposition of this unlikely pair, and their obvious enjoyment in each other’s company and comments, delighted me so much it made me want to move to Missoula. My bride, who considers snow to be a personal insult from her Maker, told me briskly to be sure to email her daily, so I abandoned the scheme, but the memory of those presumed polar opposites remains.

I was reminded of that glimpse through a window as I listened to some of the comments from some—by no means all—of the speakers at the various women’s marches the day after the Trumpster’s inauguration. According to much of what I heard, if you voted for the Trumpster, you live in fly-over country, drive a beat-up pickup truck with Confederate flags on it, and are a racist, misogynist, xenophobic, homophobic, Islamophobic, illiterate, deplorable white supremacist too stupid to be allowed to vote. On the other hand, according to some—not all—of the Trumpster’s supporters, if you voted for Hillary you are a spoiled, pampered, whining, cry-baby incapable of surviving without trigger warnings and safe spaces, who wasted your parent’s money by getting a degree in Gender Equality Studies, which now qualifies you to live in your mom’s house and re-post liberal lies on Twitter and sign-the-petition posts on your Facebook page so that can pretend you’re doing something meaningful and wondering why you aren’t getting gold stars, or at least a job, just for existing.

I would so dearly love to see more cowboys and Goths sharing civilized discourse. Belittling and mocking and calling people names may win some laughs from the cheap seats, but it sure as hell won’t win anyone over to your point of view.

At the Movies: Hidden Figures

January 25th, 2017 10 Comments

Hidden Figures

 

In 1959 (I think) my father took me out into a field near the Rhine, away from the lights of our little town, to watch a sputnik pass overhead. Ten years later, I stood on beach in Bermuda watching a full moon as Neil Armstrong took his giant leap for mankind. Quite a lot happened in the wide world between those two events, and Hidden Figures touches on two of the most salient and absorbing issues in America during those years. It was a time when we hovered on the verge of transcending our earth-bound limitations, and hovered too on the verge of transcending some of our moral limitations. We’ve come further faster in one of those areas and still have a way to go in the other.

Very briefly, the plot of Hidden Figures tells the story of (some of) the black women who worked with NASA and helped make John Glenn the first man to orbit the earth. What is not told (and it couldn’t be told within the context of the story the movie needed to tell) is that black men and women had been working in various ways for various branches of the defense industry ever since the outbreak of World War Two. Many of them had stayed on after the war as one (or possibly several) of these defense and intelligence agencies morphed into what is now known as NASA. In theory, they were supposed to work on an equal basis with their white co-workers, and apparently that was accomplished to a certain extent, but… There is always a but. That’s basically the plot.

What is more important, however, is the view the movie provides of Jim Crow racism in pre-civil rights America. I was aware of this theme and it almost made me avoid the movie; I saw enough of that as a child and in the aftermath of the Civil Rights Act to last me a lifetime. I am very glad I went to see Hidden Figures because I learned much about the extraordinary achievements of the so-called “colored computers” (which was how the black “girls” were referred to) and because the handling and portrayal of racism are spot on. This was not the crude, overt racism of mental midgets such as yesterday’s KKK or today’s so-called white nationalists, those loathsome offshoots of Hitler’s National Socialism with its hateful and dishonest ideology. (That kind of hateful and stupid evil will never be completely eradicated from the world. If you believe in God, you know the devil must exist too.) Instead the movie shows the unthinking, unconscious racism of people who grew up in a certain time and with certain norms and who never stopped to think about them. There is a scene where one of the ladies (Taraji P. Henson) explains to her supervisor (Kevin Costner) why she disappears for forty-five minutes at a time, and as she explains—standing by her desk, rain-soaked, embarrassed, in front of all her watching white co-workers—her anger rises, a long-festering boil finally bursting, and she talks about having to drink her coffee from a separate pot, not the one the white folks she works with drink from. When she finally stops, no one speaks, and Kevin Costner turns to look at the table where the coffee pots and cups are assembled, one pot carefully labelled “colored.” It is clear that if he has ever even laid eyes on that little symbol of segregation, he hasn’t seen it, in the sense of taking in the reality of what he sees. That was racism in those days, an unthinking acceptance of what had always been, without ever understanding the pain and humiliation it might cause, without even considering there might be another way to do things.

The three ladies who play the main characters (Taraji P. Henson, Octavia Spencer, Janelle Monáe) should all have gotten Academy Award nominations. They were that good. But the performances that absolutely blew me away were Kevin Costner’s quiet, understated, multi-layered portrayal of the busy, preoccupied head of the team Taraji P. Henson works on, a man neither less nor more than any other man of his time and place, but who transforms into something else following that moment when he first really sees the coffee pots. I’ve always admired Costner’s work, but this took him to an all new level.

And then… And then there is Mahershala Ali as Taraji Henson’s suitor. Lord have mercy! Mr. Ali became a specific person so completely and subtly that it will now be hard for me to ever shake the memory of that gentle, strong, dignified persona to see him as anything else. He inhabits the role in the way all actors always strive to do, but I can vouch for the fact that it’s hard enough to strive for, harder still to achieve, and impossible for all but the most gifted few to achieve as perfectly as Mr. Ali did.

And so many others in smaller roles that resonate still: Jim Parsons as a rigid, tight-assed, unthinking racist so typical of that day and that place; Glen Powell as John Glenn, capturing the niceness and decency of that man in just a few, brief scenes…

I could go on, but I would have to list the entire cast.

Two things shocked me about this movie. First, while I can understand—not approve of, but comprehend—the reason why these ladies were never given their due back in that era, why the hell has it taken fifty years for them to be given their rightful place in history?

Second, doing some research about the book I came across the following sentence on Margaret Lee Shetterly’s website (she is the author of the book Hidden Figures, upon which the movie is based):

“A ‘girl’ could be paid significantly less than a man for doing the same job.”

The Equal Pay Act was written into law in 1963, a year before the Civil Rights Act, and women are still marching in the streets for equal pay? It would seem we’ve come further overcoming racism (think of Barack Obama in the White House, voted in by a large majority both times) than we have with pay equality for women, and as far as I know, equal pay has no negative equivalent to the moronic white nationalists. Not America’s finest hour.

We Have Met the Enemy and He Is Us

January 9th, 2017 30 Comments

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Some random synopses of related news items that have caught my eye in recent weeks:

-According to Judicial Watch, the non-partisan Congressional Research Service has found that record amounts of drugs, including record amounts of heroin in particular, have been pouring over the southern border from Mexico.

-The Center for Disease Control and the World Health Organization both rate the United States as the world’s largest consumer of both illegal drugs and prescription drugs.

-According to Time magazine, heroin use in America increased 63% between 2002 and 2013.

-Beginning around the turn of the century (2000) more people began dying from drug use than from alcohol for the first time in history.

-This past year (2016), Chicago recorded the highest rate of homicides that city has experienced in the last twenty years.

-Canada has approved the use of pharmaceutical heroin for addicts who are unable to beat their addiction.

Notice any pattern?

I first realized America had lost the war on drugs about ten or twelve years ago.

I had been hunting Coues deer with some friends in the mountains of Sonora, Mexico. The way the law works, if you have a successful hunt in Mexico and you wish to bring a trophy back with you, you may only cross the border at certain designated spots where you must present your trophy and paperwork to the US Fish and Wildlife Service for clearance. The closest spot to where we had been hunting was the border checkpoint in Douglas (Arizona)/Agua Prieta (Mexico). Our party was the only group returning from a hunt, but the Fish and Wildlife Service was in no hurry to do its job, and to kill the time I fell into conversation with a US Border Patrol K9 agent. He had a Malinois, a breed I admire, and we were talking about aptitude and training and one thing or another when suddenly the officer was called away.

More time passed, and then I saw a gaggle of Border Patrol agents carrying what looked like wine boxes wrapped in plastic-wrap and duct tape, with one officer escorting a man in handcuffs, and the K9 officer bringing up the rear. He told me they had arrested the man for attempting to smuggle hashish into the States. I asked what was going to happen to the smuggler.

“He’s an American, so we’ll send him north.”

“You mean he’ll be prosecuted in a jurisdiction up north somewhere?” I asked.

“No, I mean we’ll turn him loose on this side of the border.”

“What?! I saw you guys carrying all those boxes. That was several hundred pounds of hashish and you’re going to turn him loose?”

“Actually, he didn’t have that much, not even two hundred pounds, but if it’s anything less than 299 pounds, we don’t even bother to prosecute.”

That was the day I realized America had lost the war on drugs. Today, if what I hear is accurate, the new level for prosecution in Arizona is 499 pounds. Since it apparently varies from state to state, you might be surprised to know that in Texas, according to Sheriff Larry Dever of Cochise County Arizona, you would have to be caught with over—over—750-kilograms, or 1,653 pounds of the stuff before you would get prosecuted. When you consider the potential profit margin versus the non-existent chance of being prosecuted (unless you go really big-time), drug smuggling suddenly becomes a very attractive employment opportunity for those with certain skills and a certain mindset.

I read somewhere, several years ago, an article positing the theory that, with certain exceptions, specific traits remain relatively constant among all peoples in all places around the world, so that a given percentage of people will always be prone to addiction in any society, while another percentage will be equally immune to addictive tendencies. I suspect that is accurate, but whether it is or not, we really, really, need to learn from the past, in this case our own, recent, American past.

Prohibition became the law of the land with the Eighteenth Amendment in 1919. It gave rise to organized crime (most colorfully and bloodily in Chicago, I believe); was the catalyst for some of the bloodiest turf wars imaginable (until our current era); made a handful of unscrupulous and violent men laughably rich; caused a spike in homicide rates per 100,000 unequaled until the recent drug wars; encouraged a generation of bright young things to drink much more heavily than they would have had drinking been legal, by adding a new, wild-and-illicit glamor to drinking that it had not possessed before (the young are always attracted to the risky and the forbidden); cost the government hundreds of millions of dollars at a time when such tax revenues were desperately needed to offset the effects of the Great Depression; and proved itself so ineffectual and so widely ignored that it was repealed with the passage of the Twenty-first Amendment in 1933.

With all that in mind, I think it is well past time to reconsider our national position on drug use, all drugs, across the board.

Twenty-four states currently allow the use of marijuana for medical purposes and four states (Alaska, Colorado, Oregon, and Washington, plus the District of Columbia) allow legal, recreational use, while California, Nevada, Maine, and Massachusetts recently passed similar recreational use measures. Other states have a confusing and frequently contradictory patchwork quilt of laws and regulations. This in spite of the fact that marijuana is still illegal at the federal level, being considered a Schedule I drug, a situation which must have a lot of law enforcement officers scratching their heads, or shaking them, but what can they do? Article VI of the Constitution contains something called the Supremacy Clause, which spells out very clearly that every state “shall be bound” by the federal law. However, under Barack Hussein Obama, the federal government has treated marijuana with a wink and nod. Most authorities agree that marijuana is a gateway drug; that may or may not be true, but if the federal government is going to allow states to ignore the Supremacy Clause and make up their own laws regarding marijuana, it is long past time for the Feds to change the law regarding that particular drug, and if they’re going to change the law and their attitudes toward marijuana, why not toward cocaine? Or heroin? Or, hell, the whole shooting match?

Before you close this site in outrage, let me give my rationale.

First, consider the lessons of Prohibition. It’s no coincidence that the cities with the highest rate of illegal drug use are the cities with the highest rates of homicide: Chicago, New Orleans, Baltimore, Washington, DC, Detroit, St. Louis, Cleveland, Los Angeles, New York, Indianapolis… The list continues. The problem is that it’s almost impossible to draw direct correlations, in part because drug use is not tracked by city, even though the cities mentioned above all have well-established reputations as distribution hubs, and in part because there are also weird anomalies. Oakland, for example, has a very high murder rate, but neighboring San Francisco, which is off the charts for drug use, does not have an abnormally high murder rate. Is that because San Francisco has an exceptionally tolerant attitude toward drug use, or is it because Oakland is the actual distribution center? I don’t know. What I do know can be summed up by the words of a former law enforcement officer who was in charge of the narcotics division in a large California city: “If you could take all illegal drugs out of existence, the murder rate in America would drop by 95%. Maybe more.”

There is not enough room in this article for me to list every city in America that is considered a “hub” city (i.e. a distribution center), nor is it possible to state that any one city holds the title of “hub” capitol, because so many cities qualify, depending on the drugs sold in that particular region, but numerous sources (research it for yourself) say Chicago holds the record, hands down, for having the greatest number of gangs and the greatest number of gang members.

“Gang” is itself a somewhat misleading term. Is a local branch of a Mexican drug cartel considered a gang or something else? Are any of the so-called organized crime groups (Mafia, Jewish Mafia, Irish Mob, and so on) considered gangs or something else? What do you call a local gang that enters into a collaborative arrangement with a drug cartel or an organized crime family? Is it still a gang, or is it considered something else? What about the local splinter groups that have devolved down from larger organizations; are they considered gangs in their own right or something else? That last grouping is significant because many of the homicides that occur in the inner cities, Chicago or any other city, are committed by splinter groups that have devolved down from the true gangs (think MS-13, Latin Kings, Crips, Hells Angels, Aryan Brotherhood, and so many, literally hundreds, more) and each splinter group has its own local loyalties and its own local power struggles.

It doesn’t matter. No matter how you look at it or what you call it, all of these criminal entities are fueled by the illegal drug market, and they are all notable for their bloody ruthlessness when it comes to protecting their turf, which is to say, their local market share. Hence the return to the headlines of Al Capone’s day in today’s papers.

And yet, when Sixty Minutes did a segment on the Chicago problem, the mayor, Rahm Emanuel, refused to talk to them. Instead his office issued a terse statement blaming lax gun laws, emphasizing the need for more gun laws, and talking about their plan to offer after-school programs for inner city youth. Oh, yeah. After school programs will solve the drug/gang problem alright. What is that old saw about doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results? Not once, not one single goddamned time, was the word “drugs” even mentioned in that statement. It reminded me of Barack Obama’s refusal to utter the words “radical Islamic terror.” As they say in Alcoholics Anonymous, if you can’t even bring yourself to admit the nature of the problem, how are you going to solve the problem?

(For the record, there are ninety-three Federal prosecutorial districts where the U.S. Attorney has the responsibility of prosecuting federal crimes, including violations of federal gun laws, and Chicago ranks last—dead last, you should pardon the expression—when it comes to prosecuting gun violations, so Br’er Emanuel’s call for more laws rings as hollow as his contention that after school programs will take the place of broken families, crappy schools, non-existent job opportunities, peer pressure, and the glamorous magnet of money and power offered by the gangs through the drug market. I can understand the mayor lying to advance his own career or agenda, but it strikes me as the ultimate in callous and Machiavellian selfishness to do so over the bodies of so many murdered children.)

So, if the illegal drug trade is responsible for thousands of homicides across the country, that number would be mitigated if drugs were legalized.

The gangs that control distribution in our cities, and their employers, the drug cartels of Mexico, Latin and South America, would eventually be put out of business if the United States legalized drugs. That loss of business might have an impact on some of the more corrupt politicians in the involved cities and countries, but the countless tens of thousands of innocent civilians who have lost family members in the crossfire would breathe a sigh of relief.

Legalized drugs would cease to have the glamorous attraction of illegality. Not immediately, and perhaps not completely, but if legalization were accompanied with the kind of negative imaging that has proven effective with smoking, it would certainly accomplish more than the wink-and-nod approach to an illegal product.

If the United States legalized drugs, it would also then have some control over the drugs that flow into the country and possibly profit from that flow through taxes and tariffs and fees, and with a twenty trillion-dollar debt, we could use a little extra revenue. If nothing else, an enormous amount of money would be saved by not attempting to enforce laws that are routinely ignored, and by not attempting to continue with a policy that has been proven ineffectual at best. The estimates of what might be saved by legalizing drugs range from a low of $31-billion to a high of over $41-billion. That could fix a lot of infrastructure.

The government could also monitor and regulate the drugs, ensuring a far more consistent degree of quality. Since deaths attributed to illegal drug use are estimated to be around 17,000 annually (that’s just one estimate; others vary, mostly higher) government monitoring and distribution would, at the very least, greatly reduce that number, if not eliminate it. As a young lady I know said, “I don’t want to see anyone smoking meth, but if they’re going to do it, I would much rather see it be made as safe as possible.” (Prescription drug overdoses are a different issue, and estimates vary for that too.)

There are probably other benefits I’m not smart enough to have thought of, and I’m sure there are at least a thousand-and-one reasons not to legalize drugs, and I’m also sure there are other, alternative solutions, but you have to admit we have lost the war and it is long past the time when we should try something—anything—else. If anyone has better ideas, feel free to weigh in.

Book Review: The Hell Bent Kid

January 6th, 2017 6 Comments

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Dan Bronson (Confessions of a Hollywood Nobody) gave me an ancient, yellow-paged, mass-market paperback entitled The Hell Bent Kid, by Charles O. Locke, published back in the fifties, with the kind of over-the-top cover illustration one might expect to see on a bad Louis L’Amour. Both the cover and the title gave me pause.

The cover was painted by illustrator George Gross, who clearly took his inspiration from Hollywood’s ideas of cowboys and cowboying, not from anything approaching reality. That’s hardly surprising, considering that George Gross was the Brooklyn-born son of an illustrator, who followed in his father’s footsteps, attending the Pratt Art Institute, and then living and working as an illustrator in New York all his life, and it probably wouldn’t make the slightest bit of difference to anyone likely to buy the book, but it got me off to a bad start.

Then there’s the title.

Dan has a theory that writers frequently choose the worst possible titles for their novels. He points to F. Scott Fitzgerald’s revered and classic novel Trimalchio in West Egg as an example. I’m sure you’ve read it. If in fact you do remember the name Trimalchio at all, it’s from The Satyricon, and if you happen to be one of the very few who have ever actually read that, you will agree that it might—might—possibly have been an appropriate choice of title. Fortunately, Fitzgerald’s editor, the great Maxwell Perkins, was able to prevail upon his client and the book has fared reasonably well throughout the years under the much better title The Great Gatsby. If only Maxwell Perkins had been Charles O. Locke’s editor.

Who?

Good question. Who the hell was Charles O. Locke? In the Age of the Internet it’s supposed to be possible to find out just about anything about anybody, but not Charles O. Locke. The sum of the man’s life (that I have been able to find) is that he was born into a well-to-do newspaper family in Ohio, graduated from Yale, worked as a journalist, a publicist, a copy writer for an advertising agency, and as a lyricist for some Broadway musicals before turning his hand to Western novels. That’s about it—not much for a man who lived to be eighty-one and is credited with (among accolades for his other novels) a Western that is considered one of the best of all time, frequently mentioned in the same breath as such classics as The Ox-Bow Incident and The Big Sky. That’s heady company, and it was only a reference to those books on the cover, and the fact that I trust Dan’s literary judgment, that kept me from sticking the book up on a high and obscure shelf in my library. I’m glad I didn’t.

Apart from the appalling and off-putting title, The Hell Bent Kid (it should have a hyphen in there, but it doesn’t) is an excellent and exceptionally well-written novel—not just an excellent and well-written Western novel, but novel, period. Mr. Locke’s style reminds me of Hemingway at his very best, meaning sparse, taut, unemotional, where much lies beneath the bare-bones surface, a style that I suspect is the result of both men having been newspaper reporters. All that sparseness creates a story that rushes forward with the speed and momentum of a galloping horse, and yet, in Locke’s capable hands, without ever sacrificing character development or a vivid sense of place.

And it is a story that is both compelling and deceptively intelligent. On the surface, it is nothing more than a variant retelling of the classic of the innocent man fighting to clear his name, or escape the forces of evil, or simply to stay alive against overwhelming odds, the kind of story you can find in any paperback Western with white or yellowed pages. Yet Locke presents an idealistic young hero fighting not just the evil of the men who wish to kill him, or the equally deadly and impersonal dangers of the desert he must travel through, but also confronting the violent nature of man himself as it rises within him. The kid knows what he must do to stay alive, knows too what the almost certain outcome will be, and chooses to confront both dangers on his own terms.

The result is an archetypical, stock Western character elevated into a Christ figure, a man willing to sacrifice himself for a fundamental belief in essentially Christian values. Don’t misunderstand: this is not a “Christian novel;” it is not preachy; it is not a moralizing sermon in novel form; it is not even (I suspect) a novel with a conscious theme. Rather, it is a damned fine, fast-paced novel, set in the American West, using typically Western cowboy themes and images and characters and plot, yet (I’m guessing here) where the author’s moral compass shines through and makes it something more than the same story might have been in lesser hands.

Clearly, Charles O. Locke was neither a horseman nor a shooter; there are a few minor errors having to do with horse handling and firearms, but they are so minor and so few that only diehard fanatics like me will ever catch them. If you liked The Oxbow Incident, give yourself a treat and try to find a copy of The Hell Bent Kid. Good luck finding an affordable copy, though. It is one of those books that command the kinds of prices that once could buy you a good used pickup. We can only hope that some publisher will re-release it.

 

Dancing in the Rain

January 2nd, 2017 10 Comments

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We had big plans for New Year’s Eve. Normally, Darleen and I celebrate the coming of the new year by having a competition to see who can be the first to fall asleep. (My friend Rowland Kirks unkindly suggested our habit is to celebrate with Ovaltine, but I deny and repudiate that scurrilous suggestion.) In any event, this year—for a change—we actually made plans to go out to dinner with some friends, and we were looking forward to it, so of course Mother Nature weighed in with a snowfall that not only caused our friends to cancel, but for the county to close many of the roads. So, all dressed up and with no place to go, we celebrated by my barbequing pork ribs in a snow storm, and by watching That’s Entertainment on television.

It was while watching the incomparable Gene Kelly dancing in the rain with an umbrella that I suddenly had a flashback to one of those bizarre magic moments that could only occur in Manhattan.

I was still relatively new to New York, taking whatever jobs I could to stay alive, going to every audition I could sneak into, and studying acting. I was doing a scene for class with a young lady, and I had gone to her apartment to rehearse. By the time we were done and I left, it was late, one of those dark, nasty, end of fall, early winter nights, cold and pouring rain as if God had decided to do the Flood over again, but to get it right this time. My scene partner’s apartment was on Second Avenue in the forties or fifties, and I was walking west with my collar turned up, shoulders hunched, and head down, so it wasn’t until we were only about fifty yards apart that I realized there were three men ahead of me. They all looked like lawyers or stockbrokers: expensive Burberry raincoats, attaché cases, and umbrellas. Two of them were standing in a doorway watching the third who was, like Gene Kelly, tap dancing his heart out in the rain. And he was good. He had his attaché case in one hand, furled umbrella in the other, and his raincoat was open so that every time he spun it would fly out behind. As I approached, he tapped his way a little closer to the building so that I could pass, but otherwise he never acknowledged me. The two men in the doorway smiled at me and one of them shrugged and raised his shoulders in a sort of what-can-I-say gesture, a gesture that clearly indicated, yeah, he’s a nut, but he’s our nut.

I walked past, listening to the rhythm and patterns of the dancer’s feet and at the far corner I turned and looked back. He was still dancing. I hope he’s still dancing and that other newcomers to New York are appreciative of his talented goofiness.

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