Thursday, July 20, 2017

Good Stuff, Bad Stuff

It was in Slaughterhouse Five, I think, that Kurt Vonnegut urged the absolute necessity of forgetting the bad stuff in our lives and focusing on the good stuff. Doing so was, he insisted, a survival mechanism, a way of protecting oneself against irredeemable heartache and residual pain, and making it possible to enjoy even the simplest pleasures. This has been a struggle I have waged for most of my life, for I have an unconquerable tendency to remember all the bad things that have happened to me, while forgetting most of the good ones. Hurts, insults, losses I have suffered, stupid mistakes I have made, opportunities I missed even long ago, are all as present to my mind as yesterday’s lunch, and assert themselves with stinging ease and velocity if I allow my mind to wander even for a moment. The good things which have happened, my successes, loves, achievements, works I have created, commendations I have received, pale in comparison to the vivid recollection of sufferings long past. For they are never really past, since I keep allowing them to bubble up from the tar pits of even my most distant memories into my current consciousness.

Now you will say that I am oversensitive, and that is doubtless true. Being serious by nature, I have had a lifelong tendency to take everything seriously, including many slights, slurs, stupidities, and cupidities which I ought to have ignored. And now the problem is exacerbated by the very modest level of notoriety I have achieved concurrent with the uncontrolled mitosis of social media platforms. One will never know just how many pathetic lunatics, how many mean, petty, venomous, bloody-minded people there are in our society until one has started a website or published a book or run for public office, or in any other fashion raised his head above the herd. For the moment you do so in our society now, someone will try to cut it off.

Someone whose life has not panned out as he wished, someone who, in prior eras would have been consigned to yelling at cars on street corners or cursing at the TV or muttering in a stupor to a barfly, now has an infinite variety of public platforms from which to vent his wrath, often in the most scurrilous terms, at perfect strangers whose lives have turned out better than his. These are the hollow driftwood of society, thrown up by tides of life onto lonely beaches where they bake in the remorseless sunlight of regret. They are despicable trolls who, in ages past, were consigned to mildewed shadows beneath the bridges of our culture, but who now can find themselves in the spotlight alongside the best that our culture has to offer. And the only way such people have to retrieve some modicum of their shredded self-respect is through trying to strip others of theirs.

I used to accept invitations to give interviews, and to speak at seminars and festivals, and I once accepted comments on this blog. And though most people have been gracious, I no longer do these things, for I find that, no matter how benign the subject, no matter how sincere my observations, the roaches of social media will come scurrying out of the woodwork which they inhabit to take their putrid potshots. I know, of course, that by making myself scarcer, I am playing into their hands; but the fact remains that I have not yet mastered Vonnegut’s life-skill of closing my eyes to the bad stuff and focusing on the good. That is my own fault; another defect which I have yet to correct.

Other people, people whom I know, have managed to harden themselves to such vituperation, and I admire them for it and have endeavored to emulate their insouciance. They just don’t care, they ignore the venom, they laugh it off. But despite decades of trying, I find that, more often than not, I just can’t. As I have said, it is my own damn fault, my own deficiency, and I live with the knowledge of it. Oh, I know where it comes from, ultimately: it comes from that place at the bottom of the ladder of consciousness which Yeats called “the foul rag and bone shop of the heart.”

All of who we have become begins in childhood. That is why childhood, and the innocence which is its birthright, are so precious, so delicate, and so in need of protection. There is no hurt or neglect or cruelty which we suffer in early childhood which does not come back, like Banquo’s ghost, to haunt us even in our most congenial moments. We are like cuneiform clay on which the unfeeling messages of the world transmitted to us through others remain embedded. We cannot efface them, and so, unless we learn to ignore them, refuse to read the inscriptions thereupon, and write new scenarios in our experience, we will forever be victims of the past. And that is wrong; that is a recipe for unhappiness.

Life belongs to us; we do not belong to it. Like any gift, it is ours to do with as we please, as we think best for ourselves and others. But that means living in the present, and consigning the past, with all of its vicissitudes, to the past where it belongs. The past is past and ought to behave. And the hurts and failings and losses we once incurred must not be allowed to crowd our current consciousness with corrosive regret. We are creatures of the present and creators of the future; what has happened must be finished, what is gone must be left behind. Forget the bad stuff; focus on the good stuff. Close your eyes to the sorrows behind you and open them to the joys that are present and the wonders that are possible. Live now and in the future as you have never lived before, and your spirit will be freer and your heart will be at peace.


Monday, July 17, 2017

Memento Vivere

Our dog died today. She had terminal cancer and internal bleeding, and after considering all of our options (there were actually very few), we made the painful decision to have her put down. She was a Golden Retriever, a blessed breed of dog, one of the best companions for a family, and especially for children. Sweet and charming by nature, empathetic and gentle as all Goldens are, she was perhaps not the brightest of her breed I have known, but one of the most gracious. She was both joyful and loyal, and an excellent watch dog, alerting us emphatically whenever a stranger approached the front or back doors. Ardent pursuer of rabbits and blue jays, she was the bane of the gardeners and her inevitable bark struck terror into the heart of the pool man.

A rescue dog, she was seven years old when we adopted her, dusky golden in hue, and the answer to my then thirteen-year-old son’s desire for a dog. I recall reading on his WeChat site the mute wail: “I want a dog. I feel so cliché!” That convinced me that it was time for me to put behind me the loss of my previous dog, also a Golden, who also died of cancer.

We got Leila, after months of diligent searching, from Southern California Golden Retriever Rescue, a wonderful organization that does God’s work. We had seen and chosen not to adopt several other dogs, but Leila was exactly what we were looking for. She blended seamlessly into our family, bringing the kind of joy which only an animal can, offering her affection selflessly, enriching our home, warming our hearts. She was as integral a part of Christmas as the presents and the tree, and as vital to our everyday chores of shopping, driving to school, and working in the back yard, enlivening them with her panting enthusiasm and unaffected grace.

The decision to put her down was extremely difficult, and we took it only after it became clear that she could not live much longer. She was suffering terribly, and the doctors assured us that though surgery was an option, she probably would not survive it. We said our goodbyes and I remained with her to the end. Her eyes were open and on me, not puzzled as I expected, but curious and calm. She lived for the company of people, and so I could not leave her so long as she lived.

This event has reaffirmed in me my long-held conviction that life must be preserved as long as it is possible to do so. Every kind of life is precious, adding to the sum total of vibrancy in the world. To end a life unnecessarily is always a bad choice, striking at and shaking our humanity. If we are to be human, we must dedicate ourselves to the proposition that life is better than death; and nothing, not convenience or self-interest or ideology, ought to be allowed to change that. And this is true for all forms of life, whether animal or human, elderly or unborn. Life is the ground of our existence, and when we undermine that ground we weaken our own security and sense of self. In killing other living creatures, for whatever reason, we kill a part of ourselves; a golden part, perhaps, that can never be retrieved.

I don’t know what this need is that we as humans feel to share our lives with animals. Anthropologists would tell us, I suppose, that it comes from primitive man’s desire for companionship and protection, and I am sure there is truth to that. But I think the truth goes deeper: it goes to the very heart of who we are as living beings.

Animals remind us that we are part of a chain of life that stretches from heaven to the primal seas; from the uni-cell to the cerebellum; from ashes to angels; that we are essentially connected to Nature, no matter how feverishly we may try to deny it with our cell phones and cyberspace. And animals are innocent, as we were born in innocence. That innocence fades as we grow until we can scarcely sense it anymore, except as a distant memory or a mythic nostalgia. But animals, in the perfection of their innocence, reconnect us with the residue of our own, reminding us of who we once were, and who we may yet again be after the corrosive effects of life are finally sloughed away. They recall to us our birthright and our destiny. It is in this sense that animals can teach us, and do teach us, truths about ourselves denied even to the precepts of religion. For animals are religion, a living, breathing, loving faith in the primal goodness of who we once were and are destined to be again.

I have said it here before and say it again today with even more conviction: Our hope lies in the animals, in their innocence, in their love, and in the joy which they bring uniquely into our lives. When this afternoon my Golden breathed her last, some part of me, some hope and reassurance, expired too. Yet, it would not be true to the purity of her spirit and the selflessness of her love for me to say that my life is less because of that. For she made it richer, and fuller, and more blessed than ever it could have been without her. May she rest among the angels in peace.


Friday, July 14, 2017

Magnitism

I have been intrigued by the reports of the meeting between Donald Trump, Jr, Paul Manafort, Jared Kushner and a Russian lawyer, Natalia Veselnitskaya. Initially, Trump Jr. said the meeting did not take place (when he certified that he had had no meetings with Russian officials of any kind during the campaign). Then he admitted it took place, but it lasted only twenty minutes, involved the Russian lawyer's attempt to bring up the question of the suspended adoptions of Russian children, and that nothing came of it. Then it developed that Junior had been lured to the meeting with a promise of damaging information on Hillary Clinton. (This may explain why Manafort and Kushner accompanied him to what would otherwise have been a non-meeting.) Though Junior had emailed the broker of the meeting that he 'loved' the idea of getting dirt from the Russians, he insists that there was nothing to it and they moved on to the little Russian orphans for fifteen minutes. He neglected to mention, however, that there was another person in the meeting, a Washington-based Russian lobbyist. And now, it seems there were others as well. As of this writing, we do not know who they were.

Now, I have tried to avoid the Trump/Russia hysteria which has taken hold of the mainstream media (in particular, CNN, which Trump has assailed relentlessly), but Junior's attempts to evade mention of the meeting and to minimize its importance, and then to misrepresent the reason for the meeting and the number and identities of the participants, sounds so very much like the behavior of any run-of-the mill crook who has been caught that I felt it necessary to look farther into the matter.

I soon found that doing so opens a yawning and putrid rat hole of corruption, espionage and murder. This apparently innocuous non-meeting suddenly begins to look like a John le Carré novel or an episode of Foyle's War.

It all centers on an investigator for a Russian law firm named Sergei Magnitsky. I don't pretend to understand the intricacies of vast, clandestine, corrupt financial goings-on, but what seems to my unschooled mind to have happened is something like this: Magnitsky was tasked by the Russian firm with investigating a case of massive tax fraud carried out by a consortium of Russian government officials, the police, and the Russian mafia. Apparently that rarest of all creatures since the cop in Gorky Park, Magnitsky, an honest investigator, did discover and was foolish enough to report on the theft of 230 million dollars in a baroque and extremely clever tax fraud scheme. His report reached the powers that be, including the very officials he was investigating, and he was summarily arrested and held in a year-long detention without access to a lawyer or a trial. Eight days before he was to have been released, Magnitsky died. Initially the Russian authorities claimed he had succumbed to complications of a liver disease, then they admitted he had been denied adequate health care, and still later, the autopsy proved he had, in effect, been beaten to death in his cell.

It seems pretty clear at this juncture that Sergei Magnitsky was murdered by Russian officials in an effort to conceal their part in the biggest rip-off of the Russian public in history. There was an official Kremlin investigation, and, as would be expected, a handful of minor and mid-level functionaries were indicted, though most of them were either acquitted or the charges against them were dropped. Even the two doctors who "treated" Magnitsky were indicted, though they claimed that they had asked for him to be transferred to a proper hospital and were refused. Magnitsky's lawyer, who continued to press the case for his client even after his death, either fell or was thrown out of the window of his fourth floor Moscow apartment.

Now, how does all this relate to the infamous non-meeting at Trump Tower? The lawyer with whom Junior, Manafort and Kushner met just happens to represent an important Russian official named Pyotr Katsyv, whose son Denis apparently used many millions of the stolen money to buy real estate in New York City. And who is famous as the mogul of Manhattan real estate?

But it may go one step further. The district attorney in New York who was investigating this use of stolen Russian rubles to buy property in Manhattan was Preet Bharara. He had filed a complaint with the New York courts to seize the assets of the Russians, including those of Katsyv and his son. And Bharara, you may recall, was fired when the Trumps took over.  Now, I am aware that it is not unusual for an incoming administration to require district attorneys to tender their resignations, and all did so, except Bharara, whom Attorney General Sessions then fired. While it is true that President Trump initially asked Bharara to stay on, when push came to shove, he was shown the door. But let us recall that Bharara was actually moving against Katsyv-and-son, had frozen their assets, and denied them access to the American banking system. And who was the Katsyvs lawyer? Natalia Veselnitskaya, with whom Junior met in the company of Trump's campaign manager and son-in-law.

This is just a gloss of the facts as they continue to come to light, and I do not present it as anything like a definitive version of the events. Producing that will be the responsibility of professionals who do this kind of investigating for a living. I will only say that all of this stinks. It stinks of official corruption, of fraud on a massive scale, of the most rotten kind of international politics, and, ultimately, of the murder of an honest and courageous man. And it was into this filthy morass that Donald Junior strolled for a meeting that never took place.

As a final thought: I suspect that, if it turns out that any of the Manhattan real estate purchased with the stolen Russian funds was owned by or controlled by Donald Trump, the game is over. I have said many times that I do not believe that Trump will survive his first term. This may be the scandal that finishes him. Especially if Vladimir Putin knows about all of this. And I suspect he does.

Tuesday, July 4, 2017

Commatose

I have the greatest respect for punctuation. It is not only useful, it can be enlightening, entertaining, even lyrical. I know that teaching grammar is a lost art in American schools, and recent experience has convinced me that the very idea of punctuation is alien to much of the current generation. So call me old-fashioned, but I am a champion of punctuation, and proud to say so.

In my forty years as a professional writer, I have written millions of words, hundreds of thousands of sentences, tens of thousands of paragraphs, yet despite all that, I remain in awe of, and puzzlement before, the comma. That simplest and most common of all marks of punctuation (a sentence with only one period may have two, three, or more commas), is as ubiquitous as it is ineluctable. And in today's semi-literate popular culture, it is often abused, occasionally overused, sometimes unused by people who have never been trained in its latent and prolific possibilities. This, to me, is a woeful sign of our times, of a verbal culture that is declining at roughly the same rate as cellphone usage is increasing. Recently I read that Elon Musk, that pied-piper of technology, has begun an effort to interface computers with brains to obviate what he calls the slow and cumbersome process of translating thoughts into... language. Simply transporting an idea into speech is, to Mr. Musk, too unwieldy and laborious for the current cyber-spaced-out culture. The mouth, the lips, the tongue, and the vocal chords are too slow for him, and ought to be bypassed in the expression of, what? LOL, BTW, CLD, OTW and RN (which my step-daughter only recently informed me means, not 'registered nurse,' but 'right now').

Even if computer/cranial interface does manage to speed up human self-expression, it is unlikely to do anything to improve the quality or depth of expression. Those who have absolutely nothing to say will be able to say it much faster; indeed, as quickly as their brains can conceive of the latest nonsense, gossip, fads, or insults. Personally I would rather my brain remain separate from my computer, so that I can at least have a nanosecond to think about what I am going to say before I say it. What Mr. Musk considers the slow and laborious process of translating thought into speech may, in fact, be a built-in evolutionary survival mechanism that saves us from making damn fools of ourselves in public.

Well, I have strayed far from my intended topic: the comma. Does anybody really know how it should be used, how it came to be, what it is meant for? Certainly not me. Among those millions of words I have written in my career, there are probably tens of millions of commas, and while some of them must have been inserted correctly, I fear that whole basketfuls of them were either unnecessary or just plain wrong. I have always been very wary of commas, following Hemingway's dictum about adjectives: Mistrust them as you would certain people. In fact, I am downright suspicious of commas, or rather my ignorance of how properly to use them, and so I tend to use them more and more sparingly.

Now, this goes against my early training. I used to love to read turn-of-the-twentieth-century British writing, in which the comma is as omnipresent as Tommies were in the Third World (and just about as stifling of speech). I can recall books by P. C. Wren or Alexander Kinglake (whom Churchill recommended every young man read), or Sir Richard Francis Burton, or Kipling or Conrad or even Churchill himself. All were virtuosos of the comma and they used them elegantly and liberally.

Then along came Hemingway and everything changed. Prose became spare and unvarnished, and oddly bereft of punctuation. He seems to have felt that a writer should use punctuation marks as if they were bullets: only if you intend to do some damage with them. I began reading Hemingway just around the time I was becoming comfortable with the semi-colon, and he quickly put an end to that. The exclamation point he taught me to handle as if it were nitroglycerin. And he began my lifelong wariness of the comma. Oh, he uses commas, of course, but in a sort of utilitarian fashion as if they were nuts and bolts of construction and not enablers of expression. They are meant to tack phrases together, not to adorn or elucidate them, which is what, I suspect, the comma was invented to do.

As far as I know, the comma was born as a breathing mark in ancient Greek. It was placed in front of an initial vowel to indicate that one should aspirate it, that is, exhale as one pronounced it. (For example, the definite article  was pronounced "ho," and  was pronounced 'hey.') This, if it is correct, would validate the advice once given me by a professor to avoid using commas in short sentences, and, in a long sentence, use them at any point where a person would normally pause to take a breath if reading aloud. This, I have always found, was sound advice, though breathing patterns and reading habits do vary from person to person. And so we are forced back on the legal formulation; namely, where any reasonable person would conclude it necessary to do so. This, however, becomes less and less reliable as a criterion since, as our politics show, reasonableness is a withering fruit of virtue.

Take for example the following run-on sentence: 'In any very long, tedious sentence, commas should be used at points where a reasonable person would pause to take a breath, while reading aloud, since the commas, while not strictly necessary, nevertheless make it possible to read the sentence in a fluid and pleasing rhythm, reinforcing its meaning, and clarifying it, regardless of how long the sentence might be, by breaking it into smaller phrases, each of which has its own duration, integrity, and, even, independent meaning.' Fifteen commas-worth of clarity and convenience, and all the usual rules observed. Kinglake would be proud.

Now this obnoxiously long sentence could just as reasonably be punctuated: 'In any very long, tedious sentence, commas should be used at points where a reasonable person would pause to take a breath while reading aloud, since the commas, while not strictly necessary, nevertheless make it possible to read the sentence in a fluid and pleasing rhythm, reinforcing its meaning and clarifying it regardless of how long the sentence might be, by breaking it into smaller phrases each of which has its own duration, integrity and even independent meaning.' Eight commas, and no less clear and convenient to read -- a net saving of seven commas which might be set aside and better used elsewhere.

From this it should be obvious that, for most purposes, the use of the comma is largely a matter of judgment, opinion, and style. Trying to anticipate how a reader will frame the sentence in his speech or his own mind is, of course, a risky business, and so I think that two principles for comma usage should come into play: In the spirit of Hemingway, use them as sparingly as possible consistent with clarity, but give some thought to the comma's potential to enhance rhythm, meaning, and nuance.

The endless sentence above does contain, however, a few inflexible points of comma usage. The opening phrase, 'In any very long, tedious sentence,' is, of course, a misplaced prepositional phrase used as an introduction, and must be set off by a comma. Likewise, the phrase, 'very long, tedious,' requires a comma to separate the two sequential adjectives, 'long,' and 'tedious.' However, in my writing I find that these separational commas are less often necessary than the formula would require. If the sentence read, 'In any long, tedious ambling-on-forever sentence,' one could argue that there should be a comma between 'tedious' and 'ambling-on-forever,' since they are both adjectives; but to my mind, the phrase reads better without this particular comma. To me, there is a clear distinction between a simple adjective like 'tedious' and a synthesized compound adjective like 'ambling-on-forever,' and so there is no chance of mistaking the meaning since the latter is organically linked to the word 'sentence.' This is so, I think, because compound adjectives, which are often whipped up for convenience sake or for expressiveness or rhythm, are almost always placed right next to the nouns they modify, and are, therefore, organically connected to them.

And here, I think, I may have stumbled on a new comma rule: If sequential adjectives are mechanical in their relation to each other and to the noun - just straightforward modifiers - separate them with commas; but if their connection to the noun is organic, let them flow together. I don't find any problem (from a punctuation viewpoint) in writing: 'Donald Trump's incessant, juvenile, gratuitous drunken-binge-like tweets are beneath the dignity of his office.'

Which brings us to the conundrum of the Oxford comma, and here we encounter what can only be described as a cultural difference. In British writing, all the elements in a list of things need to be set off with commas, as in: 'The first, second, third, fourth, and fifth tweets were bad enough; but the sixth, seventh, eighth, and ninth were killers.' The Oxford comma is the comma which proceeds the 'and' in the list. It is usually not used in American writing, the feeling being that it is not necessary for clarity or meaning. But in my writing I have often found that it is necessary, as in the phrase above: 'The mouth, the lips, the tongue, and the vocal chords...' Not using the comma before 'and' in this case tends to lump 'tongue' and 'vocal chords' together as a single organ, when my intention was to separate them as distinct parts of the list. It is a judgment call based on intended meaning; a nuance which the comma makes clear. At times it is useful; at other times, unnecessary. And so, given that one either uses the Oxford comma or one does not, I do tend to use it. Better safe than sorry; better clear than cloudy.

The comma does, of course, have certain prescribed and formal uses, as, for example, to set off nouns or phrases in apposition, and to indicate nouns in direct address. I am a great believer in these, although apposition has proven to be a matter less of formula than of usage. But direct address by all means. 'Shut up, you damn fool!' is necessary and clear. The comma makes it certain that we are addressing an individual, say, Donald Trump. And there is, of course, the popular example of the deadly effect of a lack of a comma as in: 'Let's eat grandma!' While members of a few tribes in the outbacks of the world might actually mean this, the sentence normally should read, 'Let's eat, grandma!' the comma marking the difference between civilization and barbarism; indeed, between life and death. Apposition is slipperier. 'Donald Trump, though an embarrassment, is nonetheless president.' The apposition defines or characterizes the subject, and needs to be set off in commas (or, in this case, in something more restraining than that).

But I have found in my writing that the most common use of the apposition comma, to define a noun or pronoun with another noun, is more a matter of convenience than formulation. 'My wife, Betty, is a great cook.' This, as I understand it, is correct, yet I find the commas here intrusive rather than necessary and, surely, not elegant. To my eye, the sentence reads better: 'My wife Betty is a great cook.' There is no possibility for misunderstanding without the commas, and, indeed, in the current politically correct climate, their presence can become downright confusing. 'My wife, Frank, is a great cook' should mean that I am telling someone named Frank about Betty. But now it is perfectly correct to say, 'My wife Frank is a great cook,' and no one but a fundamentalist Christian will be either confused or perplexed. Thus does progress push or punish punctuation.

If you have read this far, then you must be as fascinated by and frustrated with punctuation as I am. There is much more that can be said about the use of the comma, but I will forego that and simply add that among the best writers all rules of grammar, punctuation, syntax, diction, and even spelling are up for grabs. Good writers, and especially great writers, act as if punctuation should be the servant of prose and not its dictator. They know that punctuation, like any of the mechanics of writing, is meant to serve the purpose of the piece and not to impose a formula upon it. I have learned over the years that, though there are a few rules in English, they are more often honored in the breach than the observance. In fact, no sooner do I find a rule than an exception immediately appears.

I recall being unsure about the relation between certain punctuation marks and the ends of quotations, so I looked up the rule in the writer's best friend, the Chicago Manual of Style. 'Punctuation marks inside quotation marks; no exceptions,' it said. But that same afternoon, an exception did, in fact, rear its head in my work. I don't recall what the sentence was, but it was on the order of: Don't ever try to tell me "charity begins at home"! Since the exclamation mark is not part of the cliché, then it has to go outside the quotation mark. The same was true for the question mark, as in: You don't know how to sing "Sweet Adeline"? The question mark is not part of the title of the song, and therefore must go outside the quotation mark. And gradually I began discovering others; lots, in fact. Through decades as a writer, I have learned that it is sufficient for English to posit a rule, for English to break it. That is one of the reasons I love the language as I do.

So I think the rule regarding the comma has to be elastic rather than rigid. While one ought to be familiar with the formal rules, and observe them as far as possible for the sake of clarity, the fact is that the use of the comma is a matter of feel more than of formula. Commas, like anything else in writing, ought to serve the purposes of the piece, adding to its clarity, meaning, rhythm, and nuance. They are the humble, breathless servants of poetry and prose, enhancing their beauty and power; not nuts and bolts merely buckling clauses and phrases together. The key to learning to use commas, or any other tools of writing, lies, as Yeats would say, 'Where all the ladders start/ In the foul rag and bone shop of the heart.' Think of commas, then, as pulse-beats in your writing, and you probably won't go too far wrong. Use them as naturally you breathe. And read. Read good writing; pay attention to how the author uses the tools of language and learn from it. Do what the brilliant masters have done, and if anyone challenges your choices, you can do no better than to refer him to my favorite poet, Gerard Manley Hopkins, who wrote among many other gems of punctuation-in-poetry:

Soul, self; come poor Jackself, I do advise
You, jaded, let be; call off thoughts awhile
Elsewhere; leave comfort root-room; let joy size
At God knows when to God knows what; whose smile
's not wrung, see you; unforeseen times rather -- as skies
Betweenpie mountains -- lights a lovely mile.

With everything else wonderful and unexpected, he starts a line with an apostrophe S! Now that's breathtaking.


Monday, June 19, 2017

Four Films

As I have mentioned previously, I seldom go to the movies anymore. There is little in the theaters I care to see; most of it is the sub-literate, comic book inspired pablum which the studios believe is all the American public craves or deserves. Making my absence from the theaters even more likely is the fact that my son has installed Netflix on my phone -- imagine, on a phone! -- and so I tend to stay at home even more weekends these days.

Recently I have seen three films, two new, one not so new, that I would like to mention. At the urging of my step-daughter, I did go to the theater to see "Get Out." Now, for many years I have said that there was only one film which I wish I had not seen, and that was "Don't Look Now," a horror-thriller directed, as I recall, by Nicolas Roeg. I regretted it not because it was badly made (it was, in fact, well made), but because it was so disturbing. It took me months to get over the morbid nightmares I suffered after seeing it, and, in saying this, I am not recommending that you see it. "The Others" and, of course, "The Exorcist" gave me turbulent dreams, but I do recommend them if you like a good scare. But "Don't Look Now," involving as it did my least favorite theme, danger to a child, was just plain wrenching.

Well, now I can add a second film to my wish-I-hadn't-seen-it list: "Get Out." I won't say much about it. It was tolerably well done, though the acting, especially in the two leads, was pretty poor. The main character was just not a very good actor, and his girlfriend was simply annoying (her character and her performance). But it was the themes and questions that the film raised that so put me off: Don't date outside your own race; don't meet the parents after only a few months' dating; don't trust white people; and, most problematic of all, white people secretly want to be black people, or was it, black people secretly want to be white people.

One thing I did enjoy about the film was that it sent up the phony racial tolerance of wealthy, liberal whites. The garden party to which the young black man and his white girlfriend are invited was populated by the whitest, most transparently hypocritical "Obama-was-our-greatest-president-I'd-vote-for-him-again-if-I-could" white people I've seen outside of Hollywood. (Now that I think of it, those characters were the creations of Hollywood, so I suppose even they can't be considered outside it.) Suffice it to say, "Get Out" is the most crass kind of sensationalist exploitation of white guilt and black mistrust, aimed clearly at the high-school and college-age bracket. But when you consider that the real desire of these ultra-suburban white liberals is, in effect, to devour young blacks, it appears even more cynical. And to top it all off, the resolution, when finally it arrives, is cliched, silly, and utterly improbable. I wish I hadn't seen it.

There is one saving grace to this despicable film, however: the performance of Betty Gabriel. Every so often we see a mediocre (or worse) film in which there is one performance which seems that it belongs in something much better. Such was her portrayal of the weirdly docile housekeeper. She is by far the creepiest character in the film, and two scenes of hers in particular are worth the price of admission. One, the hands-down scariest moment in the film, which made the entire audience jump, simply involves her walking across the background of a shot. The other is her "No, no, no, no, no, no, no" tear-streaked moment which, deservedly, has become a YouTube meme, and which ought to enter the popular jargon as a terribly conflicted denial of absolutely everything about reality.

The other theatrical release is a film quite similar to "Get Out" in some ways: "It Comes at Night." It may be clear from all this that I do enjoy a genuinely scary film, and this one was certainly that. Several things set it apart from, and far above, "Get Out." First, the execution. As I watched it I kept thinking: this is really wonderful film-making. Beautifully directed, superbly photographed -- it is all about darkness and shadows; indeed, they are characters as much as the people in the film. The way the shadows move, as if alive, the way the director uses darkness, which is perhaps humans' primal fear. I won't say too much about the film in case you intend to see it; however if it is a conventional monster-in-the-woods or ghost-in-the-house film that you are expecting, you will be disappointed. As my step-daughter was, after, in retaliation for "Get Out," I urged her to see it. At the risk of giving something away, however, I will say this: what comes at night is nothing visible, nothing tangible; rather, it is fear itself. And the questions the film raises, unlike those of "Get Out," are primal, profound, and genuinely worth pondering.

The third film was a Netflix. A Korean film entitled simply "Tunnel," about an ordinary sort of man driving home from work at a Kia dealership who is trapped when a newly constructed tunnel collapses. (And thank God he was driving a Kia, since, if it had been, say a Ford Focus or a Fiat, the film would have been ten minutes long.) I cannot help but feel that "Tunnel" was inspired by, if not based on, a wonderful old Kirk Douglas movie, "Ace in the Hole," which I had the privilege of discussing with Mr. Douglas one night years ago over dinner. As with that film, "Tunnel" is about suffering, survival, and the the crude exploitation of them by an unfeeling media circus. What sets "Tunnel" apart is how very well it is made, and the performance of the lead actor, Jungwoo Ha, with whom we identify completely, and whose fate we genuinely care about. How the director, and especially the cinematographer, manage to keep us involved, aware of every nuance of change in the cramped space, and yet not feeling so claustrophobic that we have to stop watching, is a source of real wonder and admiration to me. I am aware of course that the film was not shot in such tomblike confines, yet it truly feels as if it were, and this fact is the source of its intensity and power.

Even though I watched it at home, and was a few steps from the kitchen and the bathroom, I could not allow myself the luxury of pausing it and walking away. There is also embedded in the script a scathing attack on the vapidity and operational inhumanity of the media, as well as a wry, soul-saving humor that makes it possible to endure the extreme-close-up nature of the story. I was so impressed with the film that I took the trouble to read some of its reviews (which were universally positive), and while I agree with the majority opinion that it was ten or fifteen minutes too long, I disagree about the main female character's performance. I thought Doona Bae did a very good job of portraying the wife of the trapped man given the limited screen time and emotional bandwidth with which she had to work. In some ways, as a character, she was as trapped as he. As a visceral thriller and a fine piece of film-making, I recommend "Tunnel," which is still available on Netflix. And do have a snack and a bathroom break before you turn it on.

I promised a fourth film, and this is it, in the form of a disclaimer. I have had several inquiries about the new Tupac Shakur film, "All Eyez on Me," and I want to make it clear that, although I was involved in the scripting process for this film for the best part of a year, I had nothing to do with the finished product. I was invited by the Writers Guild to participate in the credit arbitration based on the amount of time and the number of drafts I invested in it, but when I read the final shooting script, I declined even to apply for credit. I have not seen the film and probably will not, and given the amount of research and writing I put into the development of it, and the respect I acquired for its subject, I feel genuinely regretful about the outcome.




Sunday, June 4, 2017

Noises

A few noisy observations...

A Noise Within

This one is strictly for locals. There is a wonderful little theater near my house called A Noise Within. They do only classic plays, and it has been an education in theater history for me and my teenager. When it first opened, the productions were good, though not great, rather uneven, especially in the quality of the acting. However, as the company has matured and integrated more fully into the venue, the shows have become very good indeed. Last night I saw (for the first time) "Man of La Mancha," and in the cordial, intimate setting of Noise Within, it was a wonderful experience, beautifully mounted, very moving. Before that I took my son to see their "King Lear," which was, I must say, one of the best productions of the play I have seen (and I've seen Olivier, Ian McKellan, Paul Scofield, Albert Finney and Ian Holm). I found Geoff Elliott's Lear deeply moving, focusing as it does on Lear's descent into senility, which we now call Alzheimer's.

Before that, we saw Moliere's "Imaginary Invalid," Beckett's "Endgame" Arthur Miller's "All My Sons," "The Tempest," "Threepenny Opera," and several other classic plays. A Noise Within is a treasure-house, a genuine source of education and entertainment, and I feel fortunate to be a stone's throw away from it. A quick dinner at Maria's Italian Kitchen, and it is a two-minute trip to an experience of classical theater which only becomes more innovative, impressive and affecting with every season of plays. If you live in the Pasadena area, or anywhere in Los Angeles for that matter, please do go and experience A Noise Within. Your life will be richer for having done so.

Noises Without

I have sworn off politics. I promised myself I would blog no more about it. But I must say this: I have never in my lifetime seen such vituperation, such sheer venom in the public discourse as I do now. Politics has become a sorry circus, and the mainstream media a shambles of cheap showmanship and partisan propaganda. There is simply no pretense of objectivity in the media anymore; all is cynical, biased, lowest-common-denominator cacophony, and I can take no more of it.

I write about it now only because the trend has become threatening.  In my view, the mainstream media is mounting a coup. They are determined to see the president removed from office, and are engaged in a ceaseless campaign of slanderous attacks and marginal reporting to that end. Now, I have said here before that I could not vote for either pathetic excuse for a presidential candidate vomited up by the twin billy-goats of the political parties. But we elected a president, he has a program, and he ought to be given space sufficient to try to implement it. Instead, the mainstream press devotes none of its attention to the program, and all of it to the person and his faults, real or imaginary, in a relentless effort to generate an impeachment.

Indeed, some harebrained politicos and their cronies in the press were crying impeachment even before the president was sworn into office. And the drumbeat has only increased in din and deviousness since then. Meanwhile, the media continue to sanctify the memory of Barack Obama, publishing a steady stream of sentimental tripe about his eating habits, his wife's wardrobe, their new house, their hand-holding, vacations, romance and on and on ad nauseam. The media simply cannot accept the fact that their dreamboat has finally left office, and they continue to mythologize and apotheosize him in his absence.

Now the media has embarked on a most dangerous but determined course: it is putting the American public on notice that it, and not the voters, will decide who runs for office and who gets elected. And if the public is so stolid in its stupidity as to elect someone else, the media will marshal all of its resources to hound that person out of office. They are doing so now, and it is nothing less than a coup d’état, systematically devised and assiduously carried out by a small group of powerful people colluding with an even smaller group of craven political careerists, who have arrogated to themselves the right to override the electoral process and determine who will and will not serve.

The irony is that this cabal of conspirators is trying to use Russia as the tool to evict Trump from the White House, when it is, in fact, they who have undermined the electoral process and are mounting what cannot be described as anything other than a coup. As a nation, we must take this into account, and we must hold to account those who are responsible for circumventing the will of the people and setting themselves up as the true power in America.

Nothing but Noise

There was recently a protest march in Washington D.C. to vent dudgeon regarding climate change. (Now, you will notice that this phenomenon used to be called global warming, but, since the Earth has been cooling for the past nineteen years, the name has conveniently been changed.) Is the climate changing? Yes, of course it is. The climate of Earth has been changing for tens of millions of years (just ask the dinosaurs); it changed long before there were humans, it is changing while there are humans, and it will continue to change long after humans have burnt themselves out as a species (just ask the Ice Age mammals). But the marchers on Washington insist that humans (that they themselves) are largely responsible for the change, and to this I say: hubris, pure and simple. Do you really think that we as a species are so powerful, so all-fired mighty that we can change the climate of the Earth and bring life itself to a crashing halt?

Of course not. But this is the doomsday hubris that so characterizes the left it is not only predictable, it is pathetic. However, it is nothing new. I saw it, participated in it myself in the seventies, when we were utterly convinced that only our generation could save the nation, the species and the planet. And so we invented and engaged in endless causes and movements, and marched and protested and sent our money in to self-consecrated leaders whom we idolized as prophets. The same sorry spectacle is playing out today on the ecological front, whether it is the climate or the extinction of the bees or earthquakes caused by the extraction of natural gas. There will always be such causes, and they will always have unelected leaders, and these leaders will always become... rich.

And therein lies the heart of the matter. Mark Twain said, "Tell me where a man gets his money and I'll tell you what his beliefs are." Whether or to what extent the climate is changing and humans are responsible for it, whether the bees are dying or the Earth is being fracked into frenzy, one thing I can assure you: somebody is making a lot of money out of insisting that it is true. And those somebodies are not the warm bodies they manage to marshal for their marches and their fundraising.

I did not realize it when I was an idealistic twenty-something but I see it clearly now: the cause-careerists only believe to the extent that they can profit from the belief. They want warm bodies and hard cash, and, like Obama, they don't give a good Goddamn about you. For just as surely as that dozens of young black people are shot in Chicago every weekend, Obama does not, never did, and could not care. He's made his millions, he's bought his mansion, and he is being raised to the level of a mythological hero by the media, and so to hell with the teens and toddlers who are dying on the streets of his hometown. It is a lesson for all of you who contribute your bodies and your money to the causes célèbres of today, just as my generation did in the sixties and seventies. All they want is your participation, for that translates into their power, and more power means more money.

Now, I understand your caring and your zeal; I, too, wanted to change the world. I admire your spirit and I applaud your desire to commit to causes. But if you really want to be the change you dream of, go to the worst public school in your neighborhood and volunteer as a teacher's aide, or find the shabbiest nursing home near you and volunteer to work with the patients, or volunteer for an adult literacy program, and help people who are more at risk than the climate or the bees, and you will make the world a better place.







Tuesday, April 4, 2017

THEM!

There was a classic sci-fi movie in the Fifties called THEM. I saw it when it first came out, and it still gives me a chill to think about it all these years later. It depicted an invasion by giant radioactive ants, fugitives from desert A-bomb testing that made a rampage of death and destruction across the Southwest until finally settling in the sewers of Los Angeles. I remember it starred James Arness, fresh from playing the intergalactic vegetable in my favorite monster flic, The Thing. Since seeing THEM as a child, I have never been able to hear the pronoun "them" used out of context without thinking of that movie.

Well, I heard it used just that way the other day. My step-daughter told me that one of her classmates, who was born female but identifies as male, was insisting that everyone at school not refer to her with the words "him" or "her," but rather, as "them." Now, to paraphrase Mark Twain, this is asking the English language to do something it wasn't designed for. He/she is now them, his/her possessions are now their and theirs, and, presumably, when they refer to themselves (themself?) it is as we, us, they and ours.

I, of course, suggested that the person in question be encouraged to see the movie THEM before demanding to be identified with it (at least in my mind). I mean, the giant ants were terrifying to look at, ravenously homicidal, and made a horrible screeching noise. But I don't suppose they will - look at the movie, that is. This is all by way of saying that, increasingly, social norms and political correctness are wreaking the havoc of giant ants on our language (not to mention on bathrooms, proms, marriage, and so on). History teaches us that the first victim of tyranny is always language; bullies, oppressors and self-styled victims must always attack the way we think and speak about things, which enables them to slip into a mainstream distorted sufficiently to accommodate them (us, theirs, they).

Now, I have long been a firm believer in the principle that every human being should be allowed to live his or her life as he or she wishes without interference from the outside. As far as I'm concerned you can be any gender you want and use any bathroom you please; but there are limits, and pronouns clearly are one of them. Our pronouns were designed to reflect three genders: masculine, feminine and neuter. As a language, we are fortunate to have three: Romance languages (that is, languages derived from Latin) have only two - masculine and feminine - and I have witnessed the confusion that can cause as new words enter these languages. The French, for example, have to decide whether software is male or female, requiring them to invent a new word and trace its imaginary origins back to Latin. How would the Romans have referred to a blog or a selfie? Are they masculine or feminine? What would Augustus say?

The short answer is that they are neither; that is, they are neuter, and if French-speakers would simply synthesize a neuter gender and shove all their neither-one-nor-the-other words into it, life would be much simpler for them (her, him, it). But when I once suggested at a dinner table full of Belgians that they do this, the very suggestion was met with scorn and indignation. A third gender? An "it"? Never! Why not? I don't know, but no!

Now we find ourselves (theirselves, themselves) in a similar quandary. If people refuse to be labelled by traditional English pronouns implying gender, then it seems to me they have two choices: they can either adopt the neuter pronoun "it" (which would still give them the plurals they and them and those), or they can invent new pronouns for their own use, and try to force them (it, those) on the rest of us.

Of course, referring to oneself or being referred to as an "it" would appear demeaning, so I suppose that idea is a non-starter. And so it would seem that new pronouns are demanded. When I raised this inevitability with my fourteen-year-old, he informed me that an effort to create such gender-neutral (though not neuter) pronouns is already under way, and he did a quick Google on them (is Google male or female?). What he came up with was a gloss containing among others: e/ey, eirself, per, perself, ve, verself, xe, xemself, and ze, hir, hirself. (Yes, linguists in the LGBTQ community are actually working at this.)

Well, all of those sound pretty ugly to me, more appropriate for giant ants than humans, and so I want to suggest that we just go straight at the gender-neutral pronoun problem head-on and use "gen." Gen, gen's, genself, genselves. And that we adopt a fourth gender in the language: masculine, feminine, neuter and gen. Them will then become gen, their stuff will be gen's, they can think of themselves (theirselves) as genself and genselves, and they can all get rich selling t-shirts, charm bracelets, monogrammed towels and so on to their (gen's, gens') heart's content.

Friday, January 27, 2017

I Have Come Through Safely, and I Shall Return

For those of you who may not know, those were General MacArthur's words after he left the Philippines in 1942. (And while it was true that he did come through safely, as much cannot be said for heroes like Ed Ramsey and the members of the Philippine resistance who either could not or chose not to leave. They stayed and fought.)

In any case, I am back after a long absence during which much has occurred, and I think I shall resume posting now. A few random thoughts to get back into the swing:

I seldom go to the movies anymore, since it has become so expensive, and most of what reaches the theaters is pointless. However, every year I am sent Academy screeners for my "consideration," and I get around to watching them eventually. I have been doing so lately, and I have a few thoughts about last year's films.

"Arrival," about which I had heard many good things (including that it was a masterpiece), was a great disappointment. I found much of it, well... just dumb. The script, I thought, was weak, and the acting average. Once I adjusted to the idea that the aliens were nothing but an intelligent species of octopus, I went along for the ride. But the premise upon which the whole thing is based, namely, that language determines our experience of reality, is just silly. In fact, I think it is pretty clear that the reverse is true: experience of reality determines language. The fact that the linguist in the film learns the aliens' language does not make it possible for her to travel in time any more than the fact that I speak French means I can make a really great omelet. (I can't.)

"La La Land" remains a complete puzzle to me. That it should have been nominated for a record number of major awards is mystifying. I recall when I watched the opening scene on the freeway, I thought: God, is the whole thing going to be like this? It seemed to me an attempt to make "Singin' in the Rain" or a Fred Astaire/Ginger Rogers musical with half the talent. I decided pretty early on that Ryan Gosling can neither sing nor dance very well, and, for my taste at least, Emma Stone was just annoying. The script was quite mundane, the acting was merely tolerable, the musical numbers were undistinguished and the paean to Los Angeles (where I have lived for thirty-five years, including many non-musical maroonings on the freeway) was just inane. I can only imagine that its success is due to the fact that so many of the other films are dark, gloomy and depressing.

On that score, I must say that I attempted to watch "Girl on the Train," and had to turn it off after fifteen minutes, unable to take any more of its unremitting gloominess. Perhaps it did pick up something of a human tone later, but I don't care. The same was true of "Jackie." I managed about twenty minutes of that one given my general interest in the subject, but Natalie Portman's unchanging visage of dread and her bleak tone were just too much for me.

Then there were two films which, if they did nothing else, convinced me never to visit West Texas.

One was "Nocturnal Animals," which I nearly turned off after twenty minutes or so (the gloom factor), but I stuck with it because Jake Gyllenhaal is such a good actor (indeed, I think he has developed into one of our finest). What interested me most about this film was the fact that it was at once an effective argument for gun ownership and a powerful dramatization of the destructive effects of abortion on those who survive. It also argues, of course, that you should listen to your parents because they are usually right.

There can be no denying that if Gyllenhaal's character had kept a gun in his car, a lot of tragedy could have been avoided. And when we finally learn that the thing that broke him up with his wife was the fact that she had an abortion without telling him, then we realize that the taking of innocent life was the cause of everyone's suffering. Finally, if Amy Adams' character had just followed her mother's advice she could have saved herself and everyone else a whole lot of trouble. So what is the moral of "Nocturnal Animals?" Support the Second Amendment, oppose abortion, and obey your parents. A surprisingly conservative message in a Hollywood film.

About this film I will say that one thing jumped out at me with terrific force, namely, the performance of Michael Shannon as the deputy sheriff. It was a truly extraordinary job of acting, and it reminded me in some ways of Mark Rylance's performance in "Bridge of Spies," which, when I saw it, caused me to exclaim that not only would he be nominated, he would win. (He did.) I am not so confident about Michael Shannon's chance of winning, but I was very pleased to learn that he had been nominated.

The other "Never Go to West Texas" film was "Hell or High Water," much of which I enjoyed. A double buddy picture, it was well acted (especially by Jeff Bridges), well shot and directed, and I thought the script was quite good. It had its share of doom and gloom of course, but that was relieved by the interplay between the two Texas Rangers, much of which was entertaining in its unapologetic racism. It's a relief to see, after decades of political correctness, that it is still possible to find humor in stereotypes. I am not entirely sure whether I find the unresolved plot interesting or merely a cop-out, but the idea that banks (the kind of banks that presumably financed the film) are villains is just too simplistic. If the argument is being made that it's ok to steal from institutions if you think they have stolen from you, then I'm afraid I will have to demur and move on.

Which brings me to the one dramatic film that was not gloomy or depressing, and that is "Hidden Figures." Like "Bridge of Spies," I thought it a very good television movie, and I appreciated that it managed not to pound too hard at the racial issue. The performances were, for the most part, good, though not great, and I did get tired of seeing Kevin Costner and Taraji Henson play the same scene over and over: she experiences some form of discrimination and he appears magically to right the wrong and become a better person in the process. (Why anyone would take a crowbar to a Colored Restroom sign rather than just tell the maintenance people to take it down is beyond me, but it is the kind of heroic symbolism that liberals dote on. Rather like taking down the Confederate flag after a lunatic kills nine black people in a church.) At least the film was tonally watchable, and I found it informative and uplifting. I can't help but wonder why no one had made this story long before.

About the political paroxysm I will say very little. I could not vote for either candidate, and I am not thrilled that Trump won, though I continue to console myself with the idea that, at least it's not her. I must admit, however, that I am enjoying the spectacle of hysterics in the media as all those who got so much so wrong continue to try to explain how it all could have happened. At the same time, I am appalled at the level of hatred and naked bias in the coverage of the new president, which is gradually making it impossible for me to follow the news. One thing I will say for Trump, and which I think helps to explain the media's hysteria, is that he is moving quickly to keep the promises he made during the campaign. We are so used to being lied to by politicians that some among us (the media primarily) simply don't know how to understand what is happening. And on the question of lies: Obama lied to us consistently and confidently for eight years, and the media scarcely noticed. Now the L word is front and center in all the media reports. Hysteria meets hypocrisy.

That Obamacare is doomed I am glad; that the Dems won't get to nominate the next couple of Supreme Court justices is a very good thing; that at long last something may be done about illegal immigration is welcome. But I can't help but worry about the state of international affairs four years from now, given Trump's wide and deep ignorance on the subject. We shall see, without too much chaos and bloodshed I hope. Unlike most of the media and much of the electorate, I am prepared to give Trump a chance, but I do so with fingers crossed.