Barking Backward

A Blog by Jameson Parker

The Span of Life

The old dog barks backwards without getting up.
I can remember when he was a pup.

- Robert Frost

We Have Met the Enemy and He Is Us

January 9th, 2017 25 Comments

marijuana

 

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.

Share

Book Review: The Hell Bent Kid

January 6th, 2017 6 Comments

img_2428-small

 

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.

 

Share

Dancing in the Rain

January 2nd, 2017 10 Comments

new-york-skyline

 

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.

Share

Black Is White and Up is Down

December 30th, 2016 9 Comments

Donald Trump

Watching CNN the other morning as my coffee kicked in, I heard the newscaster comment on the unprecedented anti-Trump rage being expressed in certain venues. He enumerated the tsunami of angry tweets, protests, hateful and hate-filled editorials, a public refusal by at least one member of Congress to work with or even meet the Trumpster, a planned anti-Trump march the day following the inauguration, a refusal on the part of various artists to participate in the inauguration, and—in general—a sort of mass hysteria, some of it from people in positions we normally, putatively, associate with relative intelligence and a certain level of education. The newscaster went on to say that nothing he had seen in any of the previous elections over the past sixteen to twenty years, including the close and contested 2000 election, had come anywhere near to the hysterical tantrums now being thrown on the left.

The interesting thing about all these reactions is that almost invariably, among the words used to describe Trump is the noun “fascist.” Believe me, I have reservations about the Trumpster. I think it’s fair to use all kinds of pejorative terms about him because he has both said and done things that richly deserve those pejorative descriptions. But anyone who uses the term “fascist” to describe him is either patently ignorant, dishonest, or so hysterical that they’re not thinking clearly. I’m going to give it to you right from the horse’s mouth, the horse in this case being Webster’s II New Riverside University Dictionary, because that’s the one that sits on my desk:

“Fascism: noun; 1) A philosophy or governmental system marked by stringent socioeconomic control, a strong central government [emphasis mine] usually headed by a dictator, and often a belligerently nationalistic policy. 2) Oppressive, dictatorial control.”

I’ll grant you the belligerent nationalistic policy, but other than that, everything Trump has said he plans to do is the exact opposite of fascism. He believes in less government and has stated that he plans to (this is a direct quote) “decrease the size of our already bloated government” by doing away with some bureaucratic agencies (Department of Energy, Department of Education) and cutting back on others.

Tell me how that constitutes “strong central government.”

He has stated he plans to reduce the federal budget by, among other things, returning responsibility for various programs back to the states.

Tell me how that constitutes “strong central government.”

He has stated he plans to end a lot of the regulations that inhibit job growth. You make think that’s not good policy, but…

…tell me how that constitutes “strong central government.”

He has stated that he intends to undo many of the “illegal and overreaching” executive actions signed by Barack Obama. Many of those executive actions are universally agreed to be constitutionally questionable and even Obama is on record as stating that his executive action on illegal immigration was completely unconstitutional, so no matter how you look at it, Trump’s undoing of those actions…

…can in no way constitute “strong central government.”

I could go on, but you get the picture. Hate Trump, hate his conservativism, call him a crude, vulgar, incoherent, sexist, buffoon with weird hair. But for the love of God, use words correctly! Both Barack Hussein Obama and Hillary Rodham Clinton come much, much closer to the definition of fascism than Trump on his worst day, Obama in particular. Remember Obama’s famous comment about successful businesses? “You didn’t build that business. Government did.” That’s a pretty good definition of fascism right there. Elegant, smooth, charming, well-spoken, charismatic fascism, but fascism.

Share

Light from a Long-Dead Star: A Christmas Memory

December 23rd, 2016 36 Comments

cat and elk 003 (Small)

We decorated our tree recently. It’s a six-foot artificial tree, one bought with fire safety, young dogs, and cats in mind. The dogs and cats play havoc with real trees, the scent drawing them all like magnets to mouth and chew and pull ornaments off. The cats in particular seem to be drawn by the heavenly scent, and clearly, as any fool knows, the ornaments were only hung for them to play with. Most importantly however, Darleen had watched a sobering local public service announcement that illustrated just how quickly a Christmas tree can go up in flames. Given the number of fires we have had in our area this year, and the amount of devastation caused by them, fire is much on our minds, so I acquiesced when She Who Must Be Obeyed announced it was to be a fire-resistant artificial tree or nothing. I miss the scent of the real thing, but I admit that burning down the house would kind of ruin my day too. But it was while we were decorating our fire-resistant-artificial-pre-wired-with-white-lights-easy-to-assemble-stand-included-lasts-for-years-made-in-China Christmas tree that I suddenly remembered a long-ago Christmas in Germany. Time, nearly six decades worth, may have dimmed some details and my imagination may have added others, but I have the basics right. If anybody out there has ever heard of the lady in question, or knows of a descendant of hers, please get in touch with me.

My parents had met an old, old lady, Baroness Caroline von Kempis, who lived in a Wasserburg somewhere north of Cologne, about an hour and half drive from our apartment in Bad Godesberg. Wasserberg means, literally, a moated castle, which it was, but this particular moated castle had been stuccoed sometime back in the 18th century, stuccoed and then, ill-advisedly, painted Pepto-Bismol pink. I think it was a poorly chosen tip of the hat to the over-the-top Rococo exuberance that began in France and swept through Europe all during the seventeen-hundreds. As my father once observed, Rococo was a stylistic fad that frequently resulted in architecture that looked as if it had been designed by a mad pastry chef, with icing everywhere and vibrant shades of chrome yellow and chartreuse and gold-leaf and turquoise. And pink. Very bright pink.

The Baroness came from an extremely wealthy family and the castle had not been their primary residence when she was a child. Instead, it was used exclusively as a hunting lodge, and the baroness had been herself an enthusiastic hunter as a girl. She had a long scar that ran up the outside of one calf where the dogs had let a boar slip loose before she was ready to bring her spear into play, and the boar had opened her up as it ran by.

Yes, spear. I don’t know whether it had been considered a rite of passage in her family, or an homage to an earlier and more robust time, but according the baroness, back in the days of her childhood, the family always hunted boar with dogs and spears. The spears, many of them, still hung in the vast entry hall, crossed in great x’s. They were long, heavy things, with a substantial cross-bar just below the pear-shaped blade intended, as the baroness explained to me, to prevent the stabbed boar running right up the spear and into the hunter’s lap, a crossbar that only worked, obviously, if you had time to bring the spear into play. There were boar’s heads, stag’s antlers, roe deer antlers, shields, and the ingenious hunting swords unique to Germany, stout, short-bladed affairs, with knives and forks in the specially built scabbards, for hunting is hungry work. There was a suit of armor at one end of the hall, paintings of hunting scenes, an immense, dark, massive table in the center with an enormous silver bowl that always held flowers, and oriental rugs from one end to the other. It was, in short, an entry hall designed to entrance an impressionable young boy who longed for adventure. I probably couldn’t have even lifted one of those spears, but in my mind’s eye, I was there in the woods with my dogs and the other hunters, hunting sword on my belt, spear in my hand, linked not only to the time of the baroness’ girlhood, but to earlier centuries stretching back to the hunts described by ancient Greeks a thousand years before the birth of Alexander.

The baroness must have understood the effect that hall had on me because after lunch, when she and my parents would go upstairs to the library, I was allowed to linger and gaze and wonder and dream. My father had told me the baroness had come within a few days of losing her life in a concentration camp for helping Jews escape the Holocaust, and that scrape with death at the hands of the Nazis, coupled with her scrape with death at the tusk of a boar, made her a compelling and fascinating figure, but not so fascinating as swords and spears and dreams.

But it was the library that figures in this particular Christmas visit. They had all gone up as usual, but suddenly my father came back down the stairs and told me there was something he wanted me to see. I knew and trusted my father enough to know that if he said something was worth seeing, it was almost certainly, by golly, very worth seeing indeed, and I went up with him.

It’s hard to give an accurate sense of the size and scale of the place. Perhaps that lovely Wasserberg has grown larger in my memory than it really was because I was, after all, so much smaller then, but the rooms really were, well, baronial. The library was as large for its function as the entry hall was for its, and it had the same dusty and immutable sense of an earlier time captured in stone and wood. There were towering bookcases on three of the four walls, tall elegant windows that looked out over the grey German winter, ancient furniture and equally ancient oriental rugs, bronzes and vases and stacks of magazines. And in one corner was the largest Christmas tree, a freshly cut spruce, I have ever seen in any private home anywhere. I used to think it must have been eighteen or twenty feet high, but realistically it was more likely about twelve feet, and its scent filled that dusty room with the clean and heavenly smell of the outdoors and ancient rituals of faith and hope, peace on earth, and goodwill to men.

It was hung from top to floor with ornaments, most of which I later realized, pre-dated even the baroness’ birth, but what stunned me, even then as a child, was that on the tip of almost every branch, were actual, burning candles. I was as heedless and reckless as the next boy, but even I was a little aghast and aware of the potential for disaster. I was also aware, even as the beauty of it took my breath away, that there were buckets of sand and buckets of water discreetly and conveniently placed just outside the lowest circle of branches. My father explained to me that because of the danger, the candles were only lit for special occasions, but that the baroness had had them lit especially for us, for my parents and me, so that we could see how Christmas was celebrated in the old days.

Dear me, those days are the old days now, but I was fortunate enough to have been given a glimpse of an even older Christmas, all through the kindness of an ancient lady of courage and what Jews so accurately call righteousness. She died not long after we returned to the United States, but if, as Homer once wrote, the dead continue to survive as ghosts for as long as they are remembered, like the light from long-dead stars, she is still in her pink Wasserberg, and I wish her and all of us a safe and merry Christmas.

Share

Golfing in the West

December 18th, 2016 16 Comments

img_2395-small

My bride was driving by the local golf course when she saw this foursome playing though. She immediately came and got me and my camera and then sat patiently in the car as I trailed them. There were actually five bulls, one of them an eight-by-seven, but I was never able to get all of them together in a single photo and the eight-by-seven wandered off before I could get any shot of him.

img_2397-small

img_2401-small

img_2403-small

I have never played golf. All I know about the game is what I have read in the Mr. Mulliner stories by P.G Wodehouse, but I do believe these qualify as what are known as “hazards.” They seemed pretty mellow, but I kept a respectful distance and I suspect if some duffer whacked one of them with a long drive, they might become less mellow. So would I, for that matter, if I got bonked on the coconut by a long drive. If you look closely, you can see that all the racks have suffered some damage from brawling over the ladies. On one of them, even the main beam on the left has been broken. The rut is long over and there were no ladies present anywhere, but even so, two of them had to engage in a little practice shoving and pushing, not unlike teenaged boys showing off and testing their muscles.

img_2418-small

img_2423-small

I do wonder what the groundkeepers think of them.

Share

The Paradise Across the Pond

December 5th, 2016 15 Comments

4074690

 

“Those who would give up essential Liberty, to purchase a little temporary Safety, deserve neither Liberty nor Safety.”

Ben Franklin

 

Great Britain is so often held up as a sort of paradigm for America: two nations separated by a common language, yet linked by laws and customs. Our media pundits and politicians frequently point to Great Britain as the wellspring for our legal system and for many of our Constitutional rights. Never mind that Great Britain has no written constitution; the pundits are actually pointing to the Bill of Rights (1689), and that should give all Americans nightmares, because Great Britain’s Bill of Rights was a flawed and prejudiced document when it was written and it has since proven itself to be completely meaningless and not worth the paper it was written on.

To take the most flagrant example, consider the right to keep and bear arms: in 1689 it afforded that right solely to Protestants, excluding Catholics, and now no longer exists. So much for that right.

Freedom of speech was also spelled out as a right, yet Parliament had no trouble radically curtailing that right during both world wars, especially the second, with news censorship, with criticism or anti-war speech being severely punished, and with fake news (also known as propaganda) being spread by the Ministry of Information. So much for that right.

If even having a Ministry of Information sounds suspiciously like something out of George Orwell’s 1984, there is a reason for that, because the novel revolves around the concepts of perpetual war and constant, all-pervasive government surveillance. Perpetual war is pretty much what we have right now, and Great Britain has finally brought George Orwell’s surveillance nightmare to life with its most recent (passed November 17th ) and most intrusive law, the “Investigatory Powers Act.”

The Investigatory Powers Act requires British telephone and internet companies to keep records of every single phone call made, and every single website visited, by every single citizen, for twelve months, and for the companies to turn over those records to any one of forty-eight different government agencies without a warrant. The law also allows intelligence agencies to hack into any device they wish to, and it further gives the government the right to force internet companies to remove encryption, thereby reducing the average Englishman’s right to privacy to the same level as the average North Korean’s.

I would like to quote Great Britain’s Home Secretary Amber Rudd’s justification for the new law: “At a time of heightened security threat, it is essential our law enforcement, intelligence, and security services have the powers they need to keep people safe.” [Emphasis mine.]

Remember those words, gentle reader, because they echo words spoken by Goebbels to justify the Nazi’s actions; they echo words that have been spoken here on Capitol Hill; and they presage words you will almost certainly hear again in the near future in this country because far too many of our politicians think no more of your rights than the British Parliament does of its citizens’ rights. The only difference is that we do have a written Constitution. Remember that and be grateful.

Share

Book Review: Innocents and Others

November 20th, 2016 12 Comments

innocents-and-others

We all have certain authors, or even individual books, we return to over and over. Some qualify as comfort food to get us through those dark nights of the soul: P.G. Wodehouse, H.H. Munro (Saki), Somerville & Ross, W.W. Jacobs, James Thurber, O. Henry, The Wind in the Willows. Some qualify as old friends, the ones we turn to in moments of leisure or despair, not to harp on the rejected manuscript, the financial straits, the acid words spoken in anger by a child or spouse, but just to hear a known and friendly voice, see a friendly face, acknowledge a shared and treasured past: anything by Charles Dickens, Jane Austen, Shakespeare, William Trevor, Mark Twain, Booth Tarkington, certain mysteries and certain poets, The Old Man and the Sea, The Great Gatsby, The Reivers, The Bear, so many others, all those links that can only be broken by our own passing.

The comfort food and the old friends both wrote compelling stories, but the old friends also wrote marvelous commentaries on the human condition, holding up the mirror on aspects of ourselves that were true when they were written, true today, and true ten-thousand tomorrows from now.

Which brings me to what it is I dislike about so much of today’s American literary fiction.

I have not read all, by any means, but with a few obvious exceptions, most of what I have read seems to focus in lengthy, neurotic detail on the microcosm of contemporary middleclass suburban life, as if the authors had taken too much to heart the aphorism, “write what you know.” That’s great advice if what you know, what you have witnessed and experienced, is worth writing about, but it is also some of the most crippling nonsense I have ever heard. Taking it to heart we would never have had anything by Edgar Allen Poe, as an obvious example, or Ray Bradbury, or Ursula Le Guin, or most of the great mysteries that have entranced generations of readers. But if you are going to limit yourself to writing about what you know, for God’s sake dip below the surface and look at some of the universal qualities of the human psyche that make people extraordinary, interesting, and memorable. Hold up the mirror on what endures, not on the unmemorable and transitory surface. And memorable is my personal yardstick: if, a year, a month, a week later, I can’t remember who was who in a novel, the odds are pretty good it was a novel not worth reading. Rather than give you an example of the boring, the hackneyed, the neurotic surface-scratching, let me give you an example of a novel with absolutely unique and unforgettable characters: No Country for Old Men. You may love or hate Cormac McCarthy, but you can’t deny that he creates some of the most indelible characters in all of modern literary fiction.

I recently read Innocents and Others, by Dana Spiotta. Dana Spiotta is one of the hot and hip young darlings of the modern American literary scene, and I don’t mean that in a disparaging way. Whatever else you might think about Dana Spiotta’s characters in Innocents and Others, they are, by God, memorable. With one exception they are all freaky, dishonest, self-absorbed, oblivious to anyone’s needs but their own, oblivious sometimes to their own selfishness and cruelty, frequently not very likeable, but all are memorable.

I’m not intellectual enough to know if Innocents and Others qualifies as post-modernist, or deconstructionist, or fabulist, or meta-fiction, or any one or all of the dozens of other precious labels given to equally precious works, but if another yardstick is the desire to keep reading and learn what happens next, Spiotta achieves that.

Her style (and I’m sure there is some label for it I am not well-educated enough to know) is a pastiche of past and present, first person, third person and omniscient, straight forward story-telling and personal essay, epistolary (if you can use that word in association with email and blog comments) and movie-script, truth and bullshit, with the not unnatural result that the reader—or at least this reader—is always kept on his toes. It may be nothing more than a fairly common, up-to-the-minute way of writing, but it was new to me and—at least in Ms. Spiotta’s hands—very intriguing.

Equally intriguing to me personally was the story’s background in movie-making; not just in Hollywood, but in old films and both famous and obscure filmmakers that the two friends, Meadow and Carrie, obsess over and whose work they analyze and try to learn from.

The third character in this odd and strangely seductive book is the most sympathetic, a fat, lumpy, unattractive middle-aged, visually impaired woman who seduces men—total strangers—over the phone. No, contrary to any reviews you might read, it is not phone sex. Rather, it is a bizarre, emotional reaching out on the part of a woman who knows that in our youth- and beauty-oriented society, where gorgeous young things with perfect bodies and perfect skin and gleaming lips pout at us from every row of the magazine rack at the supermarket, her only assets are a beautiful voice and an exceptionally keen and accurate ability to understand and engage the men she talks to, engage them both intellectually and emotionally. And the needs and isolation of that character say more about our society today than the rest of the book.

The rest is a meditation in part on reality, in part on friendship, in part on art—or at least on what constitutes art—but all those things are the abstractions within the tangible construction of memorable characters.

Innocents and Others is unlikely to ever become anybody’s comfort food, but Dana Spiotta may turn out to be an old friend.

Share

Movie Review: Hacksaw Ridge

November 14th, 2016 16 Comments

hacksaw-ridge

 

On Veteran’s Day I went to see Mel Gibson’s World War Two movie, Hacksaw Ridge. I almost didn’t go because the title made me think it was going to be just another manly, hairy-chested, two-fisted, courageous war movie filled with stirring heroics and a few heartwarming moments. One of the few reviews I read (in a national newspaper I deign to identify) primly shook a reproving finger at director Mel Gibson’s “appetite for gore,” and for making “a rousing celebration of the thrills of battle,” which didn’t do anything to inspire me, even as it praised the movie generally. (Keep those two phrases, “appetite for gore” and “the thrills of battle” in mind.) I decided to go when it finally dawned on me that this was a true story.

On one level Hacksaw Ridge is in fact a manly, hairy-chested, two-fisted, courageous war movie, because those physical virtues—and in war, those are virtues—are contrasted against the very different virtues of deep religious conviction and adhering to one’s beliefs even under unimaginable duress.

Very briefly, in both real life and the movie, Desmond Doss was a Seventh Day Adventist and conscientious objector who not only refused to kill or fight, but even to touch or carry a weapon. With those slight impediments to the soldier’s life, but with a strong sense of patriotism and duty, he enlisted in the Army with the objective of becoming a medic and serving his country and his fellow man by saving lives. He ended up as the only conscientious objector in World War Two, and the first ever, to earn a Congressional Medal of Honor for, in President Truman’s official words, “conspicuous gallantry and intrepidity in action above and beyond the call of duty.” In battle, mind you, without ever touching a weapon. He also won three Bronze Stars with two Oak Leaf Clusters and “V” Device, three Purple Hearts with two Oak Leaf Clusters, and a slew of other medals.

And it is the contrast between the quiet, humble, and absolutely unshakeable courage of Mr. Doss’ convictions and the physical courage of his fellow soldiers—the rare and shining courage so many young men show in war—that makes up the heart of this extraordinary movie. Mr. Gibson makes Doss into a Christ figure, not in any superficial, symbolic sense, but rather in the very real sense of the Christ within us all. The difference between Mr. Doss and the rest of us was his own vastly increased awareness of and sensitivity to the Christ within, and the duty that demands. Mr. Doss also clearly had the kind of courage—both moral and physical—very, very few people possess.

Reducing the plot and message to a handful of words makes the movie sound like a boring sermon. Nothing could be further from the truth. Mel Gibson and the screenwriters (Pulitzer-Prize-winner Robert Schenkkan and Andrew Knight) clearly understand that the single most important function of any work of art is to evoke an emotional response, and Lord have mercy, do they ever! Every single character in this movie is fleshed out and made real, made sympathetic in their reality, proving that all people are far more interesting and have far more depth and humanity than we can ever completely know. More conventionally, they create a love story (again, based on real life) between Mr. Doss (played by Andrew Garfield) and his fiancée (played by the exquisite Teresa Palmer) that makes you ache for a happy ending.

I want to go back to Mr. Gibson’s “appetite for gore” and “the thrills of battle.” Perhaps I am reading more into this than I should, but there is a minginess and smug self-righteousness in those pejorative phrases that diminishes Gibson’s brilliance as a director, and diminishes too the sheer horror of war that Mr. Gibson was clearly trying to emphasize because, after all, it was that terrifying horror that Desmond Doss’ faith enabled him to overcome. (The greater the obstacle, the greater the victory; it’s a well accepted tenet of storytelling.) I know a little bit about what a bullet can do, and I have twice had to clean up the bloody consequences of violent death, but even with that knowledge, it is hard to imagine what the Greatest Generation saw and endured during that unspeakable war. Go back and read For Esmé, with Love and Squalor¸ and remember that J. D. Salinger’s oblique and sanitized reference came from his experiences on Utah Beach on D-Day, in the Battle of the Bulge, the Battle of Hürtgen Forest, and liberating various concentration camps, yet that short story created a furor when it was published just for alluding to the reality of what was. And the truth is, what was, what those men lived through, did, had done to them, saw, heard, felt, smelled, was incomprehensibly, unimaginably appalling. Part of the genius of Mr. Gibson’s direction is that he makes it as unrelentingly and horrifyingly real as he can, not because he has an appetite for gore, or because he is trying to create cheap secondhand thrills of battle (there is no thrill, except in bad John Wayne movies, only terror), but because he wants to create what even that same critic described as “a taste of hell.” It is so real, so terrifying, so nightmarish, that the only things lacking—that I know of personally—are the pain and the smell.

One last comment about any reviews you might have read: I read a few reviews after seeing the movie and they all seemed to dwell at length on Mel Gibson and his moral shortcomings. Why, I wonder? When did we start equating the art and the artist? Mr. Gibson had, apparently, a long struggle with alcoholism and offensive behavior when he was drunk. So did the late Senator Ted Kennedy, but it was usually glossed over by the press, including the famous incident that resulted in the death of a young lady. If I didn’t go see movies made by people who hold radically different political views than I, I’d probably never see anything.

This a brilliant, devastating, triumphant movie. It got a ten-minute standing ovation at its premiere at the Venice Film Festival. It got a prolonged round of applause from an audience of veterans and others at a small theater in the mountains of California. It, the director, the writers, and the magnificent cast, deserve all the applause in the world.

Share

Blame It All on Racism

November 9th, 2016 24 Comments

4074693

 

I just read the Washington Post report of CNN commentator and Democratic strategist Van Jones’ emotional comments about Donald Trump’s victory, specifically this part: “This was a white-lash,” Jones said. “This was a white-lash against a changing country. It was a white-lash against a black president, in part.” I also read some of the responses from liberal pundits agreeing with him, and I would suggest the whole exchange, as reported in the Post, is a paradigm for this election.

I live in a highly conservative, blue-collar, rural area where there are very few black people. When I go to shoot trap, or to a local store where I run into people I know and we stand around chatting, or when I’m dealing with any one of the small businesses I have transactions with, when I bump into my neighbors, I am almost always only talking and dealing with working-class white or Hispanic people, blue-collar, high school-educated, deeply patriotic guys, many of them veterans, most of whom use bad grammar and rural colloquialisms. Because there are so few black people in this part of the county, no one has to look over his shoulder before he makes a nasty racial slur, or worry about offending the person next to him when he condemns Barack Hussein Obama’s actions in racist terms.

And that’s the point: In the eight years that Obama has been in the White House, I have heard an ever-increasing stream of anger, frustration, alienation (from all of government), disappointment, disapproval, and dismay, but I can honestly say that never once, not one goddamned time, have I heard Obama or any of his actions dismissed in racist terms. I used to hear more racist shit when I lived in an upscale, well-educated white enclave in Los Angeles. In fact, I can honestly say I haven’t heard any racist cracks or slurs or denigrations in these past eight years, even as I have heard an increasing level of anger and frustration. And that’s what urban, progressive liberal, Democratic, Ivy League pundits like Van Jones don’t get. The working class people who voted for Trump as a backlash against Obama did so not because they’re racists, but because they’re sick to death of policies they disagree with, broken promises, and strangely moveable lines in the sand, and then being told by arrogant, urban, progressive liberal, Democratic, Ivy League pundits that they’re too ignorant to understand what’s best for them.

Donald Trump wasn’t elected because the majority of working class Americans in fly-over country are racists. He was elected because the majority of working class Americans in fly-over country are sick of being condescended to like children. They are sick of policies that they can see for themselves are not working. They are sick of the litany of lies and self-serving distortions from politicians at all levels and on both sides of the aisle. And above all, they are sick of the smug and dishonest syllogism that if they dare to disagree with the progressive, liberal, elitists it is ipso facto proof of their ignorance and racism.

For Van Jones or anyone else to try and deflect the leftwing defeat onto racism is shameful.

Share
Top of Page