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Friday, April 30, 2010

PREPARE FOR LIFT-OFF

It’s time to go, time for the dark side of the moon. That would be the days spent in our van, on the Interstate between Florida and Michigan. Georgia, Tennessee, Kentucky, Ohio—here we come.

Please understand: “dark side of the moon” is not meant to suggest some unflattering opinion of these states. It just indicates that, like astronauts facing the dark side in actual terms, we will be cut off, a human caesura in the space-time continuum, floating in relative silence as we watch what lies outside our porthole. With the added bonus of not needing to read or write anything.

But first, some house-cleaning.

--I almost peed in my pants.
--Sorry.
--No, it’s all right. But when it happens, there’s no preparation, no intro for what’s about to happen. All at once comes this chesty, Robert Goulet-John Raitt broadway voice belting out something. I dropped my toothbrush.
--I’m sorry. I knew what was happening when I heard the choking sounds. You really do get hysterical, you collapse.
--What can I say? I’m brushing my teeth, I hear something, stop. You do it all the time, say something to me while I’m shaving or taking a leak. The noise makes it impossible to hear.
--That’s only when I don’t know you’re in there.
--Yes, well, given the state of my prostate you pretty much know where to find me.
--It’s the way this house is shaped. I can’t hear anything happening in front.
--Brushing my teeth, then I hear Robert Goulet and in the next second understand what’s going on.
--You should be used to it by now.
--No, Barbara. Being married to someone who mimics perfectly the instruments and singing voices of famous performers is not something a person gets used to. All at once Michael Crawford is belting out show stoppers from Phantom. In my own house. I’m facing the mirror, brushing my teeth, listening and looking at a case of rabies.
--I was Swiffering.
--You have to tell me what the song was.
--Oh, just something about “Here I am, Swiffering dog hair, life’s a gift, life’s a barrel o’ monkeys.” Something like that.
--You just make it up? I thought they were actual songs.
--They can be. But certain domestic tasks demand their own lyrics.
--The last time it happened, I almost fell in the tub. You were doing a trombone solo, “Strike up the Band.” Tommy Dorsey, Kay Winding, I… well, never mind. I should keep an expectorant bowl handy.
--You said the soup tureen I bought at the thrift shop was actually a chamber pot. You could use that.
--I’ll keep it under the towel rack.

Wednesday, April 28, 2010

"HELL IS OTHER PEOPLE" (THANK YOU JEAN PAUL SARTRE)

If something like this never happened to you, good.

Barbara calls our cul de sac in Naples The Dead Zone. That’s because, with two notable exceptions our neighbors are either out of town most of the time, or families have inherited the property and are trying to sell it, or the residents are in town, but only so to speak. Or, they have finally succumbed to the facts of life, and are set up for the last lap of their run in the very posh assisted-living operation waiting patiently at one end of our development.

Such an atmosphere can be depressing, but for us it also has an important upside. We like our privacy, our peace and quiet, and we have had both since moving in. Then the villa two doors away sold. I introduced myself to the wife one afternoon. With flame-red hair and blazing porcelain caps, she came off as bouncy and appealing. New blood, I thought. Much needed here in The Dead Zone.

And then the New Blood spread its wings. Or so I thought.


--The new people.
--Which ones?
--On the other side of the Duffys. I just don’t get it. They’re all of them sitting together on the same pool deck. They can’t be more than a few feet apart, but they’re screaming. Barking at each other. Howling.
--Oh, come on. You always exaggerate.
--Please come outside, just for a minute. I need you to hear it.

--God.
--I’m exaggerating?
--Listen to them.
--There are two privacy walls between us and them. I count two men, two women.
--It’s like… Is it cultural? Maybe they’re all deaf.
--No, I think you were right the first time. They’re from New Jersey. Italians. Are all of us, from wherever we hail from, complete stereotypes? Am I George Babbitt or Don Knotts, whoever represents the slow-witted bumblers from the prairie? Are you and I the whitebread, plain vanilla Smiths from Plainville? I can’t believe it, but maybe so. Maybe everyone from California is fruit-and-nuts crazy, looking shellacked from cosmetic surgery, mainlining bean curd and herbal tea like the -----s. Or southerners being southern, the west Texans in their hats and boots, all sucking on longnecks. The barber next to the guy who strings tennis racquets, he’s from Texas. All day, he’s standing up cutting hair in snakeskin cowboy boots. Can you imagine how uncomfortable that must be? No matter. He may be reduced to cutting hair here in Naples, but he’s a Texan. All day, cutting in his boots. And he never takes his cowboy hat off.
--Listen—My God, that’s really awful. It’s like they’re on something.
--Gin would be my guess. I confess it can make even Whitebread Barry pretty jovial.
--But not a banshee, not a crazy person. Listen… Both the men and the women. Is it some kind of competition? It really sounds to me as though they’re seeing who can shout the loudest… No, I’m sorry, nothing in this life can be that funny.
--Thank you for coming out to hear it.
--What can we do?
--Not much. People that oblivious to their new neighbors are obviously not going to know what you’re talking about if you speak to them. They’d just be insulted. Besides, what are you going to say? “Excuse me, I know you’re Italian, and from New Jersey, and I’m sure it’s sometimes necessary to speak up if you’re going to be heard in a large family, but you’re making me and my wife crazy.” No, there’s no point in talking to them.
--You’re right, of course. You can’t tell adults… Jesus, listen to that—you can’t tell senior citizens they sound worse than a pool full of grandchildren.
--We’ll have to do research. We’ll log their comings and goings, keep track of when they’re on the lanai.
--What if they live on theirs the way we do?
--Don’t say that.
--Weather permitting, we’re out here every night. We have happy hour, we eat here, read in the evening. God.
--Yes, it’s possible the quality of life just took a serious hit. We’ll have to wait and see before calling our own Jersey boys.
--You mean Tony, Christopher, Paulie Walnuts and so forth.
--Damn. What was one thing just an hour ago now appears to be something altogether different. And far worse. And do you know what? They’ll probably turn out to likable, friendly. Even neighborly. But who cares? An affable hyena is still a hyena.

POSTSCRIPT: Yes, we went to Threat Level Red pretty fast, and not without reason. But it turned out I was wrong about the new neighbor from Jersey, and Barbara right about deafness. Hugely relieved, we realized the following day that the banshee effect had come from guests visiting at a different house. One occupied by a man so deaf he can’t hear himself. Or can, but only after listening to what he’s saying three or more times.

Monday, April 26, 2010

"FIRST, LET'S HANG ALL THE TEACHERS"

Ever since the debacle that was the 2000 election—you know, the one that saw Al Gore defeated by hanging chads and five members of the Supreme Court--Florida has been an especially newsworthy state. Tea Partiers are much in evidence, and have had a lot to do with forcing Republican governor Charlie Crist to consider running for the Senate as a Moderate. That’s because he’s not “pure” enough for conservatives.

The strongest evidence that Crist is not fit came last week when he vetoed a bill to eliminate teacher tenure, and tie teacher pay to student test scores. Right wingers love this sort of thing: it’s driven by their favorite Platonic ideal--free markets. I had to write about it. NOTE: Golden Apples are awarded in Naples, Florida to top-rated teachers.

------------------------------------------------------------


In chapter four of The Dilbert Principle, “Great Lies of Management,” author/cartoonist Scott Adams examines the thirteen bogus assertions relied on most often by managers. Number one is “Employees are our most valuable asset.” Number two is “I have an open-door policy,” and three is “You could earn more money under the new plan.”

The cartoon sequence to illustrate Number 3 presents the Dilbert regulars being informed about the new plan by their pointy-haired boss: “From now on,” he says, “twenty percent of your pay will depend on the company meeting its sales targets. In effect, we’ll cut your pay and tell you it’s your own darn fault.” Dilbert has a question: “Will the sales target be based on a complex formula and involve numbers that can’t be accurately measured?” The pointy-haired boss yells, “You broke the code!”

If all this suggests the current assault on teachers and public education in Florida, that’s what is intended. Conservatives bent on pursuing an ideological mission—“market capitalism everywhere, all the time!”—claim they need to punish teachers as a group in order to rid the system of those who are incompetent. But the underlying goal is actually something else.

The conservative vision calls for implementation of a pure business model, in which students are customers, schools are businesses, and teachers are employees subject to a variation on the pointy-haired boss’s “new plan.” That plan calls for the elimination of teacher tenure (“No business gives anyone guarantees”), and the linkage of pay to student test scores (Dilbert’s “complex formula” involving hard-to-measure quantitative data). In other words, there is to be no job security, and no pay raises based on either seniority or academic credentials.

If you don’t know what’s wrong with this new “plan,” here it is: given the low opinion our society has of teachers, what on earth is going to provide the motive for any sane young man or woman to pursue a career in primary or secondary education without these inducements? In a time of social dissonance and change, multi-cultural complexity and violence, again, why would anyone freely choose to teach?

Whether you like it or not, Norman Rockwell’s America cannot figure any longer, not even as the cozy myth of a happy past that never was. The reality in schools is much more demanding. And here’s another simple truth: our society pays lip service, and lip service only to primary and secondary education as a profession. Yes, it is viewed as a decent job, with good benefits and a retirement package, but it is not respected as a career on a par with law, accounting, medicine, etc. If this weren’t so, the current attacks would not be taking place.

Nor does the field of teaching operate in a way likely to induce bright young people to be interested. Contrary to the broken-record critiques of those attacking public education, these operational problems are not principally the fault of unions or tenure or the small percentage of ineffectual teachers the system protects along with everyone else. It has to do with the College of Education in every large state university in the country. Here is where social change is leading to more and more hours of instruction being devoted to diversity training, learning technology and other areas unrelated to academics. Here is where you find departments made up of faculty whose discipline is how to teach, not what to teach.

It is easy to criticize colleges of education, but hard to offer meaningful suggestions for change. One thing is certain: the many hours devoted to “instruction on instruction” make the process of educating future teachers much less effective.

What can be done? One thing is to concentrate on identifying those people who, in the face of all impediments, still demonstrate a true gift for teaching. Once those with the special attributes that lead to actual learning are known, a better way becomes possible.

What is it? Instead of leaving great teachers no other path to advancement but to once again enact the Peter Principle by becoming school administrators, these best-of-breed in the classroom should be lavished with serious money and perks to STAY teachers. They should be rewarded for continuing to serve as examples of how it’s done for everyone else, and they should be used accordingly in their schools. Over time, they are the ones who can provide a true resource for their colleagues.

Again: “teacher education” needs to give more emphasis to academic disciplines—math, chem, literature, history. In other words, it should probably take as long and be as tough to become a teacher as it is to become a lawyer—but only if we’re willing to make it worth the hard work. Do you know how many hours in an academic discipline are actually required of future teachers? Have you ever heard stories of teachers who teach the textbook, and are just one chapter ahead of their students? The reason is the high number of contact hours in their programs that must be devoted to Education courses.

If you don’t know what teachers are taught, or how the good ones habitually leave what they do well to become administrators, and if you’re among those beating the drum to end tenure and tie teacher pay to easily manipulated tests--shame on you. Find out a thing or two about what is expected of young people who major in Education instead of math, English, history, etc.

And after you find this out, ask yourself the following: in a community that masks an underlying disregard for teachers with Golden Apple awards, then reveals its true feelings with hostility and ideologically charged politics, why would anyone in his or her right mind still want to be a teacher? You might safely argue that under such conditions, choosing to apply to Ed school is in itself reason enough for being rejected.

Friday, April 23, 2010

BOTTOM FEEDERS

Blogging affords excellent opportunities for garrulous senior citizens to hone their typing skills. As a newly retired person, I honed mine in pre-blogging days by writing letters to the editor of the Naples (Florida) Daily News. Reading the feverish rants of right-wingers did it to me. People for instance who denounced talk of global warming, then pointed to heavy snow in northern states to support their position. Reading such “thoughts” day after day, I lost patience and sent off responses.

But I came to see the futility in this: the mad hatters on the right were impervious to factual arguments (it snows when the temperature rises, you dunce you). So, I turned to other topics. Most recently, The Daily News published a letter of mine calling for a more dog-friendly policy in Naples. I argued that since the real work of dogs in our time is to serve as companions—mental-health care givers—it made sense for dog owners to be allowed to share public places with their leashed pets.

Like other papers, the Daily News provides an outlet, through a website, for its more disturbed readers. Those whose inflamed rhetoric is unsuitable for a family paper are free to post their fulminations online. My lobbying for a more lenient attitude toward dogs led to a blizzard of lectures on the staggering effects of such a proposed change in policy. The world would be brought screaming and gagging to its collective knees, children’s bodies would be stacked up like cordwood by helpless public health employees, a dark cloud of disease and pestilence would descend, etc.

My wife Barbara is too level-headed to read such things, so that evening I told her about the hour I’d spent that morning in the cyberspace black hole of the Comment section.

--After all this time, after all the composting I’ve seen going on in the paper’s op/ed page, I still couldn’t believe it.
--The comments.
--It’s still troubling to think about. There are people, Barbara--people who walk among us—who write separate comments on all or most of the published letters. Daily.
--As John McEnroe might say, “You cannot be serious.”
--I am serious. Comment after comment, by the same persons, using their anonymous “handles.” Think about it. The paper arrives, say, at five or five-thirty in the morning. It has to be that early, it’s always on the driveway when I take Chelsea for her walk. That means the bottom feeders are up even earlier.
--Why?
--There’s no other way to explain how quickly they get to work. They have to have the paper in order to read the published letters. Then they start pumping out comments.
--What on earth possessed you to look at them?
--Guilty as charged. “Possessed” is the operative word. I never do it unless one of my letters is published. I knew there’d be some kind of reaction. You can’t advocate in favor of liberalizing anything in this town without blowback.
--It’s sad.
--Sad, or mad?
--Both, but mostly sad. I can see them getting up and dressing, brushing their teeth, drinking coffee. Turning on the computer and limbering up their fingers, then going out for the paper. Coming back, closing the door and plopping down, throwing aside every section except the op/ed pages.
--Yes, I think that’s how it must be.
--You know, I bet ________ spends hours doing that.
--No. Surely not.
--I bet he does. Every morning. With the TV on the whole time.
--Soap operas, you mean.
--He says they’re just white noise, he’s only half aware of what’s on. As you say, he’s too busy getting the work out.
--I hope not. I hope you’re wrong.
--Except I’m sure his comments are readable and informative.
--Still, I hate to think of it. I’ve been there. In the belly of the beast. A chilling experience. Compulsion is not a pretty thing to see.
--When they were getting ready to move, I remember ______ insisting their next house had to have wings. To isolate him. He’s a little deaf and plays his soaps loud. It was making her crazy.
--My uncle was career Army. A colonel. One of his later postings was to Governor’s Island in New York. I remember my aunt telling me he used to drive home for lunch, in order to watch either “The Guiding Light” or “All My Children.” He’d watched this particular soap for over twenty years. When he was later posted to Korea, he went alone. He made my aunt back in the States send him plot summaries every week. Summaries of all the cases of amnesia, infidelity, concealed births.
--But you liked him.
--Very much. He was an odd duck, but I did like him. In the end, it’s the eccentrics who make life interesting. He and my aunt picnicked with friends on Siesta Key. Every week, or every other. He took black-and-white photos of these gatherings. He made his own photo albums, using stiff, gray cardboard. After he died, I went down to see my aunt. I remember leafing through some of the albums. There were the photos of the picnic group. Over and over, posed the same way each week, it seemed. You won’t believe it, but I’m sure I saw footprints in one shot, in the sand. When I looked at the snapshot for the next picnic, the prints were still there. There was something pure about his obsession, his craving for order and control. I’m pretty sure he also kept quantitative records of what his grapefruit and orange trees produced.
--Well, they were certainly good to us when we went to see them.
--They were. Generous and welcoming to a fault. We all have our little nooks and crannies, don’t we?
--Very true. Hardly open to question with us.

POSTSCRIPT: Wrong again. The Naples Daily News posts letters online the night before they appear in the paper’s print addition. That way, Those Who Walk Among Us are able to work all night. Shudder.

Wednesday, April 21, 2010

MORE MUSIC: JOHNNY, WE HARDLY KNEW YE

More and more often, the hectoring, demanding voices that deliver the evening news turn us off. Wolf Blitzer was once a fairly responsible on-air journalist. Now he’s a ringmaster, a carnival barker. The same holds true for the crew on MSNBC. Chris, Keith and Rachel—there’s plenty of talent to go around, but deploying it night after night in a ceaseless news cycle turns everything into white noise. As for Fox, the only reason to watch Glenn Beck or Bill O’Reilly is to prep yourself for a colonoscopy.

So, before and during dinner Barbara and I often put on some music. One night, we were listening to tunes Johnny Mathis had recorded over fifty years ago. The quality of his voice and the orchestrations were remarkable to us, a comfort that brought solace. We needed some, after news of a horrible natural disaster (the earthquake in Haiti), and two that were man-made: a male pinup elected to the U.S. Senate, and a stake driven by the five conservative members of the Supreme Court through the heart of honest elections, when they turned the election process into a strictly retail transaction.

--Listen to him. So beautiful. I bet you hate it.
--I don’t. Mathis is pitch-perfect. A great pop singer. He started out wanting to be a jazz singer, but came to see there was no money in it.
--As a girl, I just loved him.
--Did you have a poodle skirt?
--A poodle skirt, circle pins. Penny loafers.
--Just like Olivia Newton John in “Grease.” Before she undergoes her transformation.
--We all loved Johnny Mathis. My friends and I listened to early rock. We thought of Johnny’s music as older, more sophisticated. By the end of high school we were all addicted.
--If you think about it, it’s a sad story.
--How so?
--I mean Johnny Mathis and private life. Everybody these days knows he’s gay. And plays a lot of golf. I read somewhere he’s a scratch player, or better. He’s gay, and a great golfer. These days, those two details are about equally weighted for most people. Back in the Fifties and Sixties, you stayed in the closet if you wanted a career in show business.
--That’s true. Remember Rock Hudson? Here was this masculine icon, still trying at the very end of his life to convince people the illness he was dying of wasn’t AIDS.
--Exactly. Mathis singing all those love songs to teenage girls, and also being listened to by a coterie of male friends, waiting for the next double entendre.
--On the other hand, it might be a kind of payback for his gay friends. Knowing “Chances are” is really about Johnny and his boyfriend.
--Could be. But I think it must have been mostly humiliating for him. Always perceived by his adoring fans as something he wasn’t. Maybe channeling the anger explains how he became a golfer good enough to play with the pros.
--I see what you mean. He could never have come out back then. After he did, how could he go on stage in his tux, in front of thousands of girls in poodle skirts and penny loafers?
--It’s a day for finding something to feel good about, don’t you think? Well, we have an African American president, and almost had a woman.
--And the next Johnny Mathis won’t have to live a lie.
--No he won't. At least not that one.

Monday, April 19, 2010

POP CULTURE: THE LIMITS OF GREATNESS

Barbara enjoys popular music more than I do (I prefer keyboard jazz), but we have both remained fans of the great names from our younger days--The Beatles, Stones, Carly Simon and others. Especially we share a love of Ray Charles. How is it possible to listen to, say, “Georgia” or “Hit the Road, Jack,” and not be moved or made to smile?

Getting old with music and musicians makes these associations all the more affecting. Over drinks, we recently listened to a CD of duets Charles recorded before his death, “Genius Loves Company,” released in 2004. As always, the music touched us. But whereas some artists’ voices age wonderfully, taking on rich, new qualities, others don't. It can be painful when favorite singers at the end of their careers test your loyalty. And make you think about your own future.

--It’s really a great album, don’t you think?
--Yes, I do. Very good. Now this is who?
--Diana Krall
--They must’ve been fighting each other to be paired up with him. I mean their agents.
--They had to know he didn’t have much longer. Who in the business wouldn’t want to sing a duet with Ray Charles?
--I’d sure like to.
--That’s right, I forgot. As a movie extra you’re part of the show business community.
--When Jamie Fox played him, I bet he would’ve wanted me in a crowd scene.
--Well, honey, I don’t think there were all that many parts for your character type. What did you call it?
--Grandma geezer roles.
--I don’t think there were so many of those. Twenty, even ten years ago, with some makeup you could’ve been in long shots of white bobby soxers going nuts in the early part of Ray’s career. Otherwise, mostly the female roles went to black actresses playing women Ray banged on the road.
--I guess.
--Now that’s just awful. Listen to that… I know he has tax problems, but all the same.
--Yes, it’s awful. It does not sound like “a very good year.”
--Even with swelling strings and heavy use of timpani.
--God, such a long career. You’d think his pride wouldn’t let him do it.
--Well, the tax man came to Willie, and the tax man said, “Mister Nelson, to stay out of the slam you need to make several more million than you’re making now.”
--So he got the Genius Loves Company gig.
--God, “When I was seventeen”-- When he was seventeen, that’s when Willie started growing his outlaw braids.
--He got his first pirate bandana back then, too.
--“When I was twenty-one”—here’s Ray. Oh God, no, Ray, don’t… He’s still great on the higher registers, but on this...
--I love him forever, but that’s not good. God, he sounds like it’s time for his meds and the lunch tray.
--OK, here’s Willie again… Yes, blue-blooded girls of independent means. Judging from his voice, I think Willie these days would mostly like the girls of independent means to give him a pint or two of blood, not a nooner. “Here, darlin’, as long as you’re up, wyan’t you take an’ empty this here drool cup for me?”
--That’s not funny.
--I’m sorry. I just think the recording tarnishes his reputation.
--Don’t ferget them revanooers.
--I know. But Willie should’ve done the time instead.

Friday, April 16, 2010

HEROES IN WORD AND DEED

The Masters is over, but the most recent controversy surrounding Tiger Woods is not. This one has to do with a stark black-and-white Nike ad, in which the voice of Woods’ deceased father Earl demands to know of his son whether he’s learned anything lately. The commercial ends with Woods, somber-faced and saying nothing, still squarely centered on the viewer’s TV screen.

Although the ad’s been called weird and creepy, it’s also been described as one more from Nike that does what good ads should, gain attention and create a buzz. Either way, it provokes questions.

The first has to do with exploiting a dead father’s voice to help shore up a son’s shaken reputation and lucrative contract with Nike. Is this OK? On one hand, nobody made a fuss when Natalie Cole sang duets with her long-gone father. That, too, had to do with a child’s career being enhanced or promoted by using a dead parent’s voice. On the other hand something tells us a mute Tiger being admonished by his recently deceased dad in a TV ad just isn’t the same thing.

Now listen to this:

“I’m the prettiest thing that ever lived.”

“Sonny Liston is nothing. The man can’t talk. The man can’t fight. The man needs talking lesson. The man needs boxing lessons. And since he’s gonna fight me, he needs falling lessons.”

Now Clay swings with a right
What a beautiful swing
And the punch raises the bear
Clear out of the ring
Liston’s still rising
And the ref wears a frown
For he can’t start counting
Till Sonny comes down”

“Cassius Clay is a slave name. I didn’t choose it, and I don’t want it. I am Muhammad Ali, a free name, and I insist people use it when they speak to me and of me.”

Not since Muhammad Ali has an American athlete been a world figure instead of just one more national celebrity. Until Tiger Woods. That’s why it makes sense to think about them together. Both are physically beautiful, both “black,” although not very in terms of graphic reality; and both are astonishing athletes. One comes from nowhere onto the world stage. The other comes from the middle class, and, until he drops out, Stanford University.

It takes courage to say what’s on your mind. Can anyone remember anything Tiger Woods has ever said? What’s far more likely is that we’ll remember his father—his master’s voice—addressing from the grave a mute, managed, handled, coached and prompted son.

The politicians, actors and athletes we not only admire but come to love are the ones whose impact extends beyond technical mastery. This has applied all along, from Odysseus to Martin Luther King up to the present day. We are grateful to such people, love them and make them into heroes because they give us something to take away besides instant replays.

But unlike Muhammad Ali or Yogi Berra to name just two, it doesn’t seem likely we’ll ever get from Woods what all true heroes give us: both the genius of the body, and striking, ultimately unforgettable words that live well beyond careers or lives. He might have been able to do it, but probably won’t. Tiger Woods is just too valuable a “brand,” a commodity. And he doesn’t seem to have the courage to speak for himself.

Wednesday, April 14, 2010

BREAKING NEWS: GROWING OLD WITH JESSE

--How do they do it?
--Do what?
--Get Jesse Jackson so fast.
--You mean this thing with the governor of Virginia.
--The governor, the tea partiers smearing Obama. Any race-related breaking news story. Within hours--no, within seconds Jesse’s in a network or cable news studio.
--Providing grave-faced observations.
--For years. Decades. I’ve grown old with Jesse.
--We all have. First the Civil Rights Movement, then globe-trotting to trouble spots. Running for president
--That’s our Jesse.
--He’s no fool, though.
--He most certainly isn’t. I haven’t really heard much of what he says for the last ten or fifteen years. Because he’s a rerun for me now, and I tune out. But the very fact he’s still in there punching, still on every TV news operation’s Rolodex is a testament to longevity.
--It’s really true. You have to be built to last to be on after all these years. Even after you’re overheard saying you’d like to cut off the future president’s balls. Even after that, they’re still setting a place at the table for old Jesse.
--And his son’s in office now, isn’t he? In Congress?
--That he is. Illinois’ second congressional district. Think how ready he must be for the cameras. How groomed for office and TV as Jesse’s son.
--There’s also the Reverend Al Sharpton.
--Yep, Al and Jesse often figure together. They’re a tag team, taking on the softball questions served up by the talking heads.
--Do you think they’re given a free pass?
--Long ago, maybe, not any more. And Sharpton’s gotten much better over time. Certainly since he cut his hair. But he’s no fool, either. I actually listen to Sharpton sometimes. He’s unflappable, never gets blustery.
--I have a theory. About how they get to them so fast. Remember the maps they used to have in schools? The roll-down kind?
--You mean before Mapquest and global positioning.
--No, in school, in the classroom.
--Oh, those. Sure. “Here’s Borneo, boys and girls, and right over here is Chile.”
--They were like oversized window blinds. So what I think is, Jesse never really has to leave home. They give him roll-down blowups of all the network and cable news studios. When a call comes through, he just pulls down the appropriate background, stands or sits in front of it, gets his wife to work the camera, and starts talking. How cool is that?
--It makes a great deal of sense. This business of breaking stories and 24/7 news cycles, how else are you going to manage?
--Way back when, I remember there were crazies who insisted something similar was really behind the moon landings.
--Ah yes. I think there was supposed to be a moon studio somewhere in Philadelphia. The whole moon business was actually a hoax. I used to wonder if Nixon and Kissinger really existed. They seemed so improbable to me, I wondered if they weren’t fictional.
--Today, it could happen. A computer-generated Commander-in-Chief.
--You know, it would probably make sense. Especially in terms of terrorist threats. You could still have an actual president somewhere, but the one we’d see most of the time would be a hologram.
--I think perhaps we’ve taken this line of thinking far enough.
--OK. Besides, it’s time for Wolf.

Monday, April 12, 2010

WE INTERRUPT THIS PROGRAM FOR CONFEDERATE HISTORY MONTH

There’s no point in repeating what’s been said about how half the population of his state—that is, the 500,000 slaves who lived in Virginia at the time of the Civil War--somehow slipped Governor Bob McDonnell’s mind when he proclaimed April Confederate History Month.

And it shouldn’t need to be said that informing people about Confederate history is a good thing, or that using a state’s history to promote tourism is a legitimate role for a governor.

But something does need to be added: no politician of high rank, certainly not the governor of one of the fifty states, is ever solely or even principally responsible for what he does or says. What this means is that we must assume the 500,000 slaves either slipped the minds of all those who make up McDonnell’s circle of advisors and handlers, or it registered with them, but got shelved. Those are the only two ways their boss could have been allowed to blunder the way he did.

Think about it: think about all the meetings and chalk talks, all the brain-storming sessions that must have followed the first Eureka! moment when someone decided it would be great to have a month set aside to remember and examine what took place in Virginia during the nation’s most tempestuous period. How many people were involved in arranging for photo ops, interviews, publications, reenactments and videos for this initiative? Imagine the clever, ambitious men and women hastening through the State Capitol and the Governor’s mansion, earning their keep by focusing on some aspect of this major, month-long project.

In other words, McDonnell’s “oversight” means something more than just another instance of a politician fitting his well-heeled foot into his mouth and, days later when the outcry has grown deafening, deciding to take it out so he can eat humble pie and apologize.

It means those responsible for the machinery of Republican politics in Virginia—at least those who answer to or for the governor—are unwilling or unable to incorporate the central fact in the greatest of our national disasters into their thinking and planning. Either those 500,000 slaves came up in meetings and were judged to be an avoidable embarrassment, or they never appeared on anyone’s radar.

It’s hard to take in. But when Virginia journalist Steve Tuttle tells us that when he was a schoolboy, schools were still teaching students to refer to the Civil War as the War of Northern Aggression, it all becomes easier to understand. What Tuttle calls “the fetishization of the old Confederacy and all its supposed glory” for school children makes it more possible to see how keeping the fetishists happy is the politically sensitive issue for the governor and those around him, not the matter of slavery.

That is, until everyone who isn’t still obsessed with the glory days of the Old South realizes what’s missing from the gov’s proclamation.

Friday, April 9, 2010

OF BIRTHDAY CAKES AND PEEPS: ANOTHER ADDRESS TO CROSS OFF YOUR LIST

In a few weeks, Barbara and I will leave Florida and return to Michigan. There, a really daunting task awaits us: trying to sell a tatty old four-bedroom colonial full of charm but with few other inducements. That is, inducements to buy, which assumes there are people still alive who can qualify for a mortgage. If the whole country is punch drunk from the collapse in real estate, the Detroit area is down for the count.

Perhaps as a way of persuading ourselves there's hope, late last fall we started looking at apartments. If nothing else, we thought this process would get us started imagining ourselves in different digs, digs demanding a huge, sudden leap in the level of rigor and self-discipline we bring—OK, fail to bring--to the world of stuff.


--Thanks for baking me a cake.
--Well, it’s your birthday.
--Thank you for making me a real homemade cake.
--So to speak. A real mix made at home, anyway.
--You know, you’ve never said a word about those apartments we looked at.
--Which ones? The ones in Bloomfield?
--Not a word, nary a peep.
--I never told you whether or not I want to live at the end of the world?
--Not a peep.
--You like that word, don’t you? Well, my silence should be peep enough. Except you always complain about my not peeping. That I’m too quiet.
--Not always. But it’s true you hold your peep most of the time. Think of all the things you don’t talk about. Bungee jumping is one. Parasailing. I don’t think you ever peeped about those.
--Here, then, is my official peep or tweet on those apartments. They’re too far off the map. It’s nowhere near all the things we like. Plus, I didn’t like that talk about occasionally, possibly having a water problem in the basement. That’s where we’d store all our junk, in those big closets. “People usually put down pallets,” she said. Imagine all our stuff down there getting moldy.
--Come on. You make it sound like a swamp. I didn’t see any water damage.
--Uh huh. I’m sure that’s what you were looking for.
--It didn’t smell musty, did it?
--How would you know?
--I have a sinus problem, a handicap. You shouldn’t be critical.
--Trust me, it smelled musty. So “no” is the last word and final peep from me on living over a swamp.
--They were huge apartments, though.
--Of course they were huge. There’s nothing to see or do outside, so they have to give you lots of space to wander around in. Where you can rest up when you aren’t bailing out the basement.

Wednesday, April 7, 2010

THE NEXT GENERATION

For what seems all too few spring breaks, we have enjoyed the company of two of our grandchildren here in Florida. But time is the evil genius that brings adolescence, and we have reluctantly waved goodbye for a few years, as they extend their range to places like New York City.

But we’re resourceful. For four days, we had company, friends from Florida’s Panhandle. Like us, they have grandchildren, and we arranged for them to bring theirs, so we could have our own spring break from ourselves.

There were three, all different, all high energy. It was great fun, not only having them under but also raising our roof. When at last our revels ended, they didn’t want to leave. When you’re old, that’s one of the better compliments you can be paid: a little girl you met three days ago plops down next to you and asks if she can stay.


--The peace that passeth all understanding.
--I feel stunned. Do you feel stunned?
--I feel exhausted.
--The house seems so big to me. Empty. No one’s here now, not even us. All that’s left is appliances turning on and off.
--Ray Bradbury wrote a story about it, I forget the name. Sprinkler heads popping up and shutting down, little mechanical “mice” scurrying around, cleaning and dusting the house. All the people had died in some disastrous way never explained.
--One minute you’re hoping for it to be over, the next you feel bereft. Abandoned.
--One thing’s certain. I now have the most thorough understanding possible of what the term “sensory overload” means.
--It used to be that way with our own. Remember?
--I remember nothing. Just now, I’m an empty vessel.
--At some point, you said we should create a new natural law, the Rule of Seventy-two.
--You mean with Rose and Wagner.
--You said anything over seventy-two hours was pushing the cardiovascular envelope in a dangerous way.
--This was ninety-six hours. I’ve been pleasantly catatonic for about the last eighteen.
--You were great yesterday in the swimming pool.
--Going for broke, I know. When you’re pushing seventy, it’s really good for morale to be able to throw somebody around. It makes you feel powerful. All you have to do is be sure the person is four or five.
--You loved it, I could tell.
--It’s the animal high spirits. The inventions. They really were great at making up games. Give them something as simple as an empty plastic nut jar from Costco, and they turned it into a physics experiment. How much water can the jar hold and still float?
--And those bubble wands they waved around. I couldn’t stop watching_______. Four years old and already absolutely a person. An individual. Did you see her face when bubbles landed on the pool and floated?
--I told her they were riding the waves. She liked the idea. She got down and slapped the water, watching them “widing the waves.” A little sponge for words and games.
--She liked a lot of things. But she really let you know when she didn’t. She knew how to get her way. If her grandma didn’t cooperate, that little girl knew how to use her voice.
--Those postcards I had made up with the cover of my book. She came in the study, sat on the couch behind me. I was typing, she didn’t say anything. Then she spotted a stack of the cards on the bookcase. “Can I have this, Uncle Baywy?” When I turned she was holding one up. I told her of course she could have it. After a minute she asked if she could have another. I said yes, still typing e-mail or something. “Uncle Baywy, can I have another?” It was a big stack of cards and I saw this was likely to go on indefinitely. So I told her no, she had one for each hand, which was the right number. This seemed to make sense to her, and I went back to typing. “Hey, look--” When I looked, she held up the cards. “See? I can hold both in one hand. So can I have another?”
--Yes, one smart little girl.
--And as you say, now it’s too quiet.
--Don’t get carried away. Yesterday, I saw a tick developing at the corner of your eye.
--And that’s true too.

Monday, April 5, 2010

EASTER TEA PARTY PROMO

“Addiction” refers to a battle between reason and dependency, in which dependency wins. Regrettably, the term applies to me: reason tells me it’s a waste of my evermore precious time to read the letters-to-the-editor page of the Naples Daily News (or to contribute to it, for that matter). But I am addicted.

Lately, in addition to the letters, the paper has taken to fleshing out its pages with numerous “guest commentary” pieces. Like the letters, these articles often give voice to right-wing positions and enthusiasms. One of them, the Tea Party movement was taken up by a man who, like many in Naples, is retired but once ran Something Big.
Knowing better, I read his rant, then went through withdrawal.

--Were you saying something in here?
--Yes, but not to you.
--Oh. Just thinking out loud?
--So to speak.
--Uh oh, the paper.
--I was reacting to news that “unbridled progressive demagogues” have been inflating the size of government and creating endless new entitlements through health care reform. Worst of all, these same un-tethered progressives have been “either ignoring or arrogantly mocking the tea partiers.”
--I thought you weren’t—
--I know I wasn’t. Newsprint instead of needle tracks. What can I say?
--It’s not good for you.
--No. But on the bright side, it’s not smack or coke. The writer says the mainstream media is demonizing the tea party movement.
--What exactly is the mainstream media?
--Any information delivery system that either ignores or arrogantly mocks the tea partiers.
--All I know are the signs and costumes I see when I drive past one of the rallies. Or what they say when interviewed. They all seem to think we never had an election. “No taxation without representation.” They say Obama’s not an American.
--See? That’s the mainstream media for you. Planting actors among “good, hard-working, nonviolent, nonpartisan taxpayers.”
--Does it say that?
--No, but that’s what we’re supposed to think. Or, that the people with Obama signs depicting him as the lipstick-smeared Joker, or as Hitler are just a few cutups in what is otherwise a solid group of hard-working taxpayers.
--Ah, yes, taxpayers. Let me guess. This one’s about Small is Beautiful government and free enterprise. About core values.
--So you read it.
--No. One of us has to stay clean.
--True. But as you suspect, it’s another rant against big government, in favor of all the core values on which?
--Our nation was founded.
--Very good. And they’re incensed by—give me a synonym for communist.
--Pinko?
--Another.
--Collective-something.
--Good, collectivist. Another.
--Nazi? They seem to think Nazis and communists are the same.
--No, not Nazi. Wealth redistribution. That’s the real horror for this writer. He doesn’t go on about it, but that’s the core evil threatening our core values for him. I’m sure he thinks it’s outrageous to suggest there might be something wrong with CEOs making three or four hundred times what someone in a plant makes. Actually, it would be much more than that. Because most of our free enterprise now rests on the small but capable shoulders of people in China.
--It’s Easter, not Bill Buckley’s birthday. Why aren’t they printing something about charity and good will?
--Don’t worry, the pope’s in here. Except it’s not such a good time for his cred. Besides, if you’re a solid, core-values person, the whole piece is about charity and good will. Charity and good will for the one quarter of one percent of the population with estates in excess of seven million dollars.
--He gets all that into his article?
--I confess I am expanding a bit. Extrapolating from what’s here. The thing that sets me off isn’t so much the point of view. It’s the absolute dependence on cliché. With few exceptions, the whole thing is composed of catch phrases.
--Isn’t “catch phrase” a catch phrase?
--Uh oh. A tea-party wit, right here in my own sovereign home. In one of America’s “50 sovereign, independent states, each ruled by ‘we the people.’”
--Is there anything about health care being shoved or forced down our throats? That’s a favorite.
--No. “Rammed” takes the place of shoved down our throats. The Democrats are planning to “ram through amnesty for illegal immigrants, cap-and-trade, and union card-check legislation.”
--No, we certainly don’t want anyone being invited to join a union.
--Not unless we favor “America’s slide toward socialism.”
--I sure don’t.
--Good, neither do I. You can go to work on the signs. I’ll get started fixing up our hats.

Friday, April 2, 2010

MERCANTILE AMERICA CONCLUDED: A FRANCHISE IS BORN

--Thanks for cooking again tonight. It’s really my turn.
--Happy to.
--There’s something about a man in an apron.
--You always said it turned you on to see a man on his knees with a bucket and rag.
--What’s that on your chest?
--I’m sorry, it’s drool. I was testing the sauce.
--That’s OK, I don’t mind.
--Motherhood gets you ready for almost anything, doesn’t it? Even drooling men in aprons. It’s not such a big thing, is it?
--Of course not.
--Think of Pavarotti, think of Satchmo. Both of them were big droolers, always with a handkerchief.
--Exactly. When I start my reality show about being a movie extra, you can open a boutique. Drool Hankies. It would be a small shop, like those Tie Tack stores they used to have in malls. Or the Sunglass Shack. You could be in all the shopping centers, it might catch on with rappers and hip hop culture.
--Very enterprising, I like it. Bling-related handkerchiefs. I would market Drool Hankies as a high-end fashion statement. I could have P Diddy or Fifty Cent hold a drool rag to his groin and shag-walk toward the camera, doing his rapper thang. We’ll pursue this after I boil the pasta. It’s breathed long enough, pour us some Rosso di Montalcino.
--Is this the last bottle?
--Afraid so, the last baby Brunello. But we need to drink what’s left before leaving. Besides, it’s Friday. Excuse me, it be Friday. Joey next door corrected me once. He told me I was wrong, it wasn’t Fifty Cent, it was Fitty Cent. I was grateful for the insider information.
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