July, 2018

Oh, Those Nasty Children!

July 25th, 2018 19 Comments

 

My sister has a home in a tiny village in Vermont, and back in the late 1980’s or early 1990’s she told me the following story:

As the school year came to a close, a little girl in her village told her father she would like to earn some money over the summer, and would he help her set up a lemonade stand?

The father, realizing potential customers were necessarily limited, if not nonexistent, in a village that small, suggested she set up her stand at a gas station owned by a friend of his where the county road crossed the interstate. He talked to his friend, who said he would keep an eye on the girl during the day. They picked a spot, the father built a little stand for her, the girl practiced making lemonade and brownies, and as soon as school got out, she went to work, and started making money hand over fist.

That lasted about two weeks. Someone reported the little girl’s activities to the authorities, who came in, shut down the stand, and told her father that the girl would need a state license, multiple state permits, and a health certificate.

Okie dokie. The father, wanting his daughter to have a happy and successful summer, and wanting also to set a good example for her, went to work getting all the necessary official papers and forms and licenses and permits and certificates. To cut a long and tedious story short, the little girl was back in school several months before all the paperwork came through.

I was reminded of this incident when I read an article the other day about various groups that have sprung up across America, groups started by exasperated parents who still believe there is nothing wrong with kids being kids, with teaching kids the value of working for a dollar, and with encouraging their offspring to be productive members of society.

One is Lemonade Stand Mama (https://www.lemonadestandmama.com) in Denver. In Texas, a nonprofit called Lemonade Day ( https://lemonadeday.org ) lobbies local government and health departments to change regulations. The Freedom Center of Missouri ( http://www.mofreedom.org ) has gone so far as to post an interactive map of towns across America where stands have been shut down (red), towns where stands must have official permits (yellow), and towns (five of them) that allow children-run concession stands without a permit (green). According to the Wall Street Journal, The Kraft-Heinz Company—yes, that company—has, to their everlasting credit, jumped into the fray by volunteering to, “pay the permitting fees and fines of kids busted for selling lemonade,”  (www.countrytimelegalade.com).

Read that last phrase again: “kids busted for selling lemonade.”

I kid you not.

Some of the many closures listed on the Freedom Center’s website are the results of nasty, petty, little grinches who just can’t stand to see children doing anything, let alone having fun. Some are the results of equally nasty and petty vendors who regard six-year-olds as potential threats to their businesses (and if they’re that petty and smallminded, they’re probably right to be afraid of six-year-olds). But most of these cases are the direct result of overzealous governments that, presumably, want all today’s small children to grow into Pajama Boys, living in their moms’ homes on, presumably, the “universal living wage” some socialist candidates espouse.

I don’t know about you, but if I see an unpermitted, unlicensed lemonade stand manned by a small kid with no health permit, I’ll take two, please, and give me one of those brownies as well.

Some Are More Equal Than Others

July 22nd, 2018 5 Comments

 

Gentle Reader, do you feel I am occasionally a trifle too harsh in my comments about our duly elected officials? I know I have sometimes suggested they should all be horsewhipped and thrown in prison for abusing your votes, money, time, and above all trust, but am I just a touch too critical?

Nah.

Consider the latest.

If you or I were to imitate Harvey Schweinstein, or Bill Cosby, or Larry Nassar, or any of the far too many lesser lights in the news recently who simply committed sexual harassment (as opposed to the outright assaults of Schweinstein, Cosby, and Nassar), we would be subject to both criminal charges and civil liabilities. And quite rightly, too.

Ah, but not your senator or representative.

The Congressional Accountability Act of 1995 was an attempt to half-heartedly reign in some of the more egregious abuses by some of the more egregiously randy Members of Congress, but it also specifically included the establishment of a special “fund,” of your money and mine, Gentle Reader, to cover up their misdeeds. According to various news reports, since the act became law, more than $17,000,000 (that’s seventeen-million smackeroos) have been paid out. Just in the four years between 2008 and 2012, $174,000 was paid out exclusively for sexual misconduct in the House. When you consider the extreme “official” hoops victims of sexual of abuse on Capitol Hill must go through in order to make claims against our duly elected leaders (not to mention the even more extreme unofficial pressure brought to bear by duly elected leaders who consider themselves above the law), the number of actual abuses would probably have driven that sum much higher.

This business of you and I paying for the aggressive and unwanted sexual advances of our senators and congressmen did not really sit well with the American public when they finally became vaguely aware of it in the wake of the MeToo movement, so bills were introduced to ensure lawmakers who are charged with sexual harassment, discrimination, or assault, have to pay for their misdeeds out of their own pockets.

Fancy that! Public servants having to live by the same rules as the rest of us! What a novel idea.

Unfortunately, according to a recent article in the Wall Street Journal, the idea is sooooooo novel it has stalled over which precisely which forms of conduct should be the personal financial responsibility of our elite and privileged ruling class and not paid for by all those knuckle-dragging deplorables out there who are so dumb they still think we might all be considered equal under the law. What a ridiculous notion.

Strangely enough, the fact that those bills are not making it through to become law hasn’t received the same loud braying from lawmakers with which the bills were introduced. Golly, gee, I wonder why.

Does any of this sound like, to quote Yogi Berra, déjà vu all over again? Perhaps, Gentle Reader, you’re one of the few, the very few, who were paying attention when it came to light that our elected officials were engaging in insider trading practices that would earn you or me a lengthy stay as guest of the government, but that earned the likes of Nancy Pelosi, John Boehner, Steve Bachus and others, countless millions of dollars.

When that information was made public, Congress made a big deal of passing a law (the STOCK Act; Stop Trading on Congressional Knowledge) that made it illegal for Members of Congress to engage in the insider trading that was already illegal for you and me. It was signed into law by Barack Obama with much fanfare.

What did not earn quite as much fanfare was when the same Barack Obama quietly signed a bill reversing big chunks of the STOCK Act. It is still, technically, illegal for members of Congress to engage in insider trading, but it became a hell of a lot harder to do anything about it. And in 2015, lawyers for the House of Representatives (lawyers paid for by your tax dollars, Gentle Reader) filed a brief intended to block an SEC investigation on the grounds that lawmakers and their staff are constitutionally protected from any inquiries because of the very nature of their work. In other words, they are protected from charges of breaking the law by virtue of the fact that they are breaking the law.

If you ever get charged with a crime, Gentle Reader, I want you to try that defense. Let me know how it works for you.

So as of today—if what I understand is accurate and up-to-date—what was already illegal was made more illegal before it was made less illegal and harder to investigate before it was made immune from investigation.

If I have missed something, if I am mistaken about all this, would somebody please let me know? Until then, as I read it, you and I still foot the bill for Rep. Randy Rampant’s, uh, indiscretions.

In America, we are all equal in the eyes of the law, but some are more equal than others.

Timothy Murphy, Poet, 1951-2018

July 11th, 2018 5 Comments

 

Far too much modern art is created by people who have never bothered to do the hard, painstaking, time-consuming work that is required to master the basics: line, shape, form, space, texture, color, value, and above all, the draftsmanship and drawing necessary to utilize those basics.

In the same way, “free verse” has been taken over far too frequently by poets who lack the musicality, discipline, and education to master the fundamental skills of rhyme, rhythm, and meter, with those conforming to a specific form, as elegy or sonnet or ballad or whatever. Early free verse, and good free verse today, was in reality anything but “free,” but just as with modern art, it is too easy to skip the hard work of learning a craft, justifying Robert Frost’s observation that writing free verse is like playing tennis without a net.

Timothy Murphy not only had all the skills—the discipline, the musicality, and the education—but he also had an extraordinary, unique, and very rare (in any age, but especially ours) capacity for memorization. When his professor and mentor at Yale, the legendary, two-time Pulitzer Prize-winner (for prose and poetry, the only man ever to have achieved that) Robert Penn Warren, told Tim to memorize three-thousand lines of classical verse, Tim moved the decimal point and memorized thirty-thousand lines. 30,000! Think about that. I was trained as an actor, accustomed to memorization, and lucky enough to have a certain inherited facility for it, but I couldn’t memorize thirty-thousand lines to save my soul.

Tim was not the only poet working in our era to utilize rhyme and meter, but he was by far the most gifted, the most adept, the most versatile, and—by an enormous margin—the most prolific. He was also a farmer, venture capitalist, hunter, sailor, lover of dogs and fine guns, gay, alcoholic, a lapsed Catholic who returned to the Church, and undoubtedly a true and singular genius.

There are a lot of good poets alive today, and far too many of them labor in obscurity. But there are also far too many who consider any random, undisciplined collection of thoughts acceptable as “free verse.” Very few, damned few, have the skills and discipline necessary to write in rhyme and meter, but just as important, far fewer still have Tim’s incredible range of experience about which to write. He once said somewhere—to me? in an interview? to our mutual friend Steve Bodio? I don’t remember now—that most poets become professors and consequently have no human interaction with anyone other than eighteen- and nineteen-year-old students, or any world experience outside the ivied walls of academe to write about. Tim went home to North Dakota to farm, after Robert Penn Warren wisely refused to recommend him for a teaching position, and as a consequence he had a wealth of old men and women as his friends and neighbors and mentors, old men and women who knew something about life and all its ups and downs, about the good and bad, the success and failure, the love and loss, the joy and sorrow that life is made of. He had, in short, real material to study and draw from and write about, and Lord have mercy, did he ever!

He also wrote one of the most extraordinary, unusual, beautiful memoirs ever, Set the Ploughshare Deep, a unique combination of verse, prose, and woodcuts (by Charles Beck) that I cannot recommend highly enough.

I will give you three short poems of his, one an elegy for a dog, and one that could serve as his obituary.

Benedict Farms

Plagued by the lack of jingle in my purse,
by Keats and Tennyson jingling in my ear,
I double-clutched to ease into reverse.
A ten-year-old showed me his new John Deere.

He taught me PTO, the fourteen gears.
Choke – wasn’t that something you did on dates?
Not five feet tall, savvy beyond his years,
he jounced beside me through the barbed wire gates,

Then sank the disc with a hydraulic lever
into a half-section of golden stubble.
It stretched fencerow to fencerow, stretched forever.
“If a wheel spins, downshift, ‘cause you’re in trouble.”

For him, my height was no redeeming factor.
“You go to Yale, and you can’t drive a tractor?”

………………………………………………….

Perro del Amo

Go where the blue wings flash

over the whitecapped wave,

 

where crippled mallards splash

and every bitch is brave

 

When the returning dove

roosts at your mother’s grave,

 

I’ll bury a box of ash

beside her in the sod.

 

Vaya con Dios, love,

you were the dog of God.

…………………………………………….

Envoi

Steve told his wife, “I think Tim’s going to die,”

          ten years ago last fall,

          but answering a call

from the Spirit I staged another try,

          a last grasp for the sky,

and so ensued a decade, far my best,

but now I must endure a cruel test

which I shall fail, because my fate is sealed.

          So here’s my gratitude

          for ten years latitude

in which my crippled soul was slowly healed,

          my wounds annealed

by mercies far beyond selfish intent.

Let this be my Last Will and Testament.

I wrote a profile of Tim for Sporting Classics, but since the magazine has agreed to publish it, I cannot post here until it appears in print. When it does, I will post it.

This world could use more men like Timothy Murphy, but his like will not pass this way again.

James Woods

July 8th, 2018 12 Comments

 

What with one thing and another, I missed the details about James Woods being dropped by his agent, one Ken Kaplan, of the Gersh Agency. Apparently, Mr. Woods’ outspoken conservative political views did not sit well with Mr. Kaplan and were the cause of the agent dropping his immensely talented (three Emmys and two Academy Award nominations) client.

To be perfectly honest, I don’t follow any of the doings of the business I once was part of, and this, in particular, is not the sort of thing to which I would normally pay any attention. Agents drop actors and actors drop agents with such monotonous frequency and regularity—albeit not normally for political differences—that the more interesting take, along the lines of “man-bites-dog,” would be a story about an actor/agent partnership that endures.

But this morning, I happened to catch a news item about the event that included Mr. Kaplan’s tweet to James Woods informing Mr. Woods of the end of their relationship.

My first thought was that tweeting was an exceptionally tacky and unnecessarily public way of breaking the news, but hey, maybe that’s how things are done in the business these days. But what really caught my eye was the text of Mr. Kaplan’s tweet, which read: “It’s the 4th of July and I’m feeling patriotic. I don’t want to represent you anymore. I mean I could go on a rant but you know what I’d say.” (The absence of commas must be a stylistic device of Mr. Kaplan’s.)

Mr. Woods’ response was very elegant and gracious: “Dear Ken, I don’t actually. I was thinking if you’re feeling patriotic, you would appreciate free speech and one’s right to think as an individual. Be that as it may, I want to thank you for all your hard work and devotion on my behalf. Be well.”

At first, I was appalled by Mr. Kaplan’s not even having the grace or courage to break the news to his client face to face, but I was especially struck by his reference to “patriotic feelings,” which I found rather odd. I actually feel patriotic all the time, not just on the Fourth of July.

Mr. Kaplan may only feel patriotic on the Fourth of July, but clearly, like so many well-educated progressives, his annual patriotism is expressed by aping some of the worst tried and true techniques the Nazis used to demonize the Jews: harassment, boycotting, denying opportunities for employment, denouncing those who hold opposing political views, and isolating them as “other.” It might have been nicer if Mr. Kaplan had studied and learned techniques employed by a far greater and more enduring teacher—inclusiveness, tolerance, a willingness to try and understand the other fellow’s point of view, loving one’s neighbor as oneself, following the Golden Rule—but that Book has apparently fallen out of favor in progressive liberal circles these days.

This incident, coming as it does on the heels of Kirstjen Nielson being screamed at in a Mexican restaurant, and Sarah Sanders being told to leave the Red Hen restaurant in Lexington, Virginia by progressive liberal owner Stephanie Wilkinson, or that paragon of compassionate deeper thinking, Maxine Waters, encouraging people to go after members of the Trump administration, made the comparison to the early days of the Nazi holocaust inevitable. And it begs the question of what conservatives should expect next. Will Maxine Waters introduce a bill demanding conservatives be made to wear an identifying badge, like the yellow star the Jews were compelled to wear? (Possibly a red MAGA hat, something easily stolen from frightened teenagers by violent thugs following an assault.) Should we look forward to an updated version of Kristllnacht, with homes and business looted and destroyed?

Actually, I don’t think we need to worry. Liberal progressives may be ill-mannered, intolerant, and ignorant of the lessons of history, but I think they’re at least smart enough to realize most conservatives are not as cowed and obsequious as the Jews were after fourteen-hundred-years of pogroms and persecution. It’s a shame progressive liberals have only learned the worst techniques from the worst people in history. Almost as great a shame as only feeling patriotic once a year.

Fahrenheit 451 and the Fourth of July

July 3rd, 2018 9 Comments

 

I have been taking some time off for personal reasons, but I recently had one of those strange coincidences that seem, in retrospect, ordained from on high by a supernatural power with a distorted sense of humor.

We were in Costco, my bride and I, a few weeks ago, and I was relegated to pushing a cart that would have wearied the patience and drained the endurance of a Missouri mule, when my bride announced she had forgotten something somewhere other than where we were. She must have seen my reaction because she immediately pointed to the book section and suggested I browse while she went and got… Whatever.

Costco does not sell the kinds of books I have any interest in reading. The books I enjoy reading are primarily sold in the kinds of rare bookstores I can’t afford to even enter, but looking at self-help books and celebrity cookbooks and romance novels and thrillers with famous authors’ names on them—though actually written by unknown assistants—all of that seemed preferable to imitating a mule. And as it happened, Costco was selling a 60th Anniversary edition of Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451.

I am not a science fiction fan. The only science fiction I have ever read was the late, great John D. MacDonald’s Wine of the Dreamers. I do have, somewhere, a very gracious note written to me by the late, great Ursula K. Le Guin in response to a question of mine about something she once said in an interview, but I have never read any of her work, so that’s it. But there was this 60th Anniversary edition, and there was my groaning cart.

Shortly after I finished reading it, I was watching once of those weekend “news” shows that includes a sort of “man-on-the-street” segment, in this case a reporter asking beautiful bronzed young things on a beach somewhere in southern California about the significance of the Fourth of July. I know there is always a disclaimer to the effect that these are real people giving real answers, but I suspect the reporters must go out of their way to recruit the lowest possible IQs to be found anywhere in the continental landmass of the United States. Certainly, in this case, it was hard for me to believe any of the beautiful bronzed bodies they spoke to could possibly be that ignorant. It would hard to believe your average five-year-old could be that ignorant, but gorgeous young thing after muscular young couldn’t answer a question as tricky, intricate, obscure, complex, and intellectually challenging as, “What is the significance of the Fourth of July.”

I kid you not.

“Christopher Columbus?” was one girl’s answer.

Again, I kid you not.

And that brings me to Fahrenheit 451.

Science fiction can be defined as a projection, by the author, of recognizable people and events of today into a future world with previously unimagined circumstances. If you’re not a science fiction fan, think of the movie 2001: A Space Odyssey as an example. The science fiction writer’s job, essentially, is to take an ordinary man or woman confronting a relatively minor problem or challenge in today’s world, and to project that into the future while simultaneously expanding the scope and danger of the problem. At least, that is what Ray Bradbury did with Fahrenheit 451.

As I understand it, as a child, Ray Bradbury was one of those little boys drugged on books, a voracious reader who spent more time in libraries than anywhere else. When television came along, he was less than impressed, and projected his fantasies of the worst of what he saw into a world that is set roughly one-hundred-years ahead of the time in which he wrote, which would make the setting of the book about 2052.

I’m sure most people have read Fahrenheit 451, but just as a reminder, the premise is a horrible distortion of an America constantly engaged in some kind of never-ending war with some unnamed “other,” and a government that wants to keep its people both anesthetized and complacently happy so that they won’t ask questions or make trouble. Since books, good books with great writing by great minds—the Bible, Marcus Aurelius, Matthew Arnold, Thoreau, Bertrand Russell, Gandhi, Abraham Lincoln, Albert Schweitzer, Buddha, Confucius, Thomas Love Peacock, Plato, Jonathan Swift, Charles Darwin, Schopenhauer, Ortega y Gasset, Shakespeare, Sir Philip Sidney, Aeschylus…all those and many more are mentioned or referenced obliquely—can make people think, and if they think, people may possibly become dissatisfied, and then, oh horror, they may ask questions, therefore books must be destroyed. All books. Whenever books are discovered, any books of any kind, a group of men, so-called Firemen (no irony there), go around and burn not just the books, but the homes of the people who were hiding such contraband.

“More sports for everyone, group spirit, fun, and you don’t have to think, eh? Organize and organize and super-organize super-super sports. More cartoons in books. More pictures. The mind drinks less and less…” “…Now let’s take up the minorities in our civilization, shall we? Bigger the population, the more minorities. Don’t step on the toes of the dog-lovers, the cat-lovers, doctors, lawyers, merchants, chiefs, Mormons, Baptists, Unitarians, second-generation Chinese, Swedes, Italians, Germans, Texans, Brooklynites, Irishmen, people from Oregon or Mexico. The people in this book, this play, this TV serial are not meant to represent any actual painters, cartographers, mechanics anywhere. The bigger your market, Montag, the less you handle controversy, remember that! All the minor minor minorities with their navels to be kept clean. Authors, full of evil thoughts. Lock up your typewriters. They did. Magazines became a nice blend of vanilla tapioca. Books, so the damned snobbish critics said, were dishwater. No wonder books stopped selling, the critics said. But the public, knowing what it wanted, spinning happily, let the comic books survive. And the three-dimensional sex magazines, of course. There you have it, Montag. It didn’t come from the Government down. There was no dictum, no declaration, no censorship, to start with, no! Technology, mass exploitation, and minority pressure carried the trick, thank God! Today, thanks to them, you can stay happy all the time, you are allowed to read comics, the good old confessions, or trade journals.”

And, from an earlier draft (the novel was originally written as a short story under another title): “We must all be alike. Not everyone born free and equal, as the Constitution says, but everyone made equal. Each man the image of every other; then all are happy because there are no mountains to make them cower, to judge themselves against. So! A book is a loaded gun in the house next door. Burn it. Take the shot from the weapon…”

Instead of books, in Fahrenheit 451 people are entertained constantly with a sort of interactive, four-wall, surround-television that can be specifically modified to the whims and desires of each individual viewer whose likes and dislikes are monitored and followed. The actors on the television are called, and become, the “family” of each individual viewer, keeping them so constantly and happily preoccupied they never question anything.

Sound familiar?

The protagonist, Guy Montag, is one of the team that burns books, but he is beginning to have suspicions something is missing, that there must be something more, and he has begun to cautiously steal books before they can be burned. And therein lies the story.

Bradbury writes in (to quote my son) “a dreamy, febrile, style” which, toward the end, I found to be influenced (I’m guessing here) by the New American Bible version of Ecclesiastes; at least it reads that way. And there is a sparseness to his dreamy, febrile style that leaves room for all kinds of questions, but none of that matters. It is the story that matters, and in light of beautiful, pampered, glossy young Americans on an American beach who didn’t have a clue as to the significance of the Fourth of July, one wonders what Ray Bradbury would have made of the ultimate narcissistic, interactive anesthetic: social Media—Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, YouTube, and countless other ways I don’t know the names of to peddle absolutely meaningless non-information or outright lies, or maintain ersatz friendships with ersatz “familes.” I think of William Faulkner’s famous quote from Intruder in the Dust:

“…thinking, remembering how his uncle had said that all a man had was time, all that stood between him and the death that he feared and abhorred was time, yet he spent half of it inventing ways to get the other half past…”

Ah, but Faulkner himself is dead now, and his books reduced to ashes.

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