Friday, December 25, 2020

Streaming of a White Christmas

 

Lina has had us watching a streaming series about Pablo Escobar, but agreed with me that it mightn’t really do for viewing on December 24. I know that the traditional American movies for this occasion are either It’s a Wonderful Life or Die Hard, but we felt that neither of these would be endurable. She vetoed the Alistair Sims  Christmas Carol. All of the Xmas-themed selections on our two services looked intolerably treacly. Ultimately we settled on the 1954 production (Bing Crosby/Danny Kaye/Irving Berlin/Michael Curtiz) White Christmas, which we’d gone all these decades without catching hitherto.

It was curious for us to reflect that this was “popular culture” when she and I were toddlers. The society it depicts is figuratively fat, happy, prosperous, complacent, genially and unselfconsciously sexist, sentimentally militarist (“Gee, I Wish I Was Back in the Army”—easy for you to say, Irving), and, with the exception of a barman in the club car scene, the film features a cast as white as the snow that eventually does fall [spoiler alert] on Christmas in Vermont. I observe none of this by way of sneering—for some, perhaps many of our own cultural assumptions, however self-evident they may appear to us and however comfortably we hold them, must inevitably strike posterity as outlandish or worse—but merely by way of emphasizing how strange it is to contemplate having existed in that milieu, even if its salient characteristics lay at the time entirely outside my own purview.

It was curious as well to consider, not for the first time, that it has been less than a century since, with the introduction of “talkies,” human beings have been routinely granted an experience dreamt of by our forebears for millennia: the phenomenon of seeing the departed dead and of hearing them speak. Talk about ghosts of Christmas past! Crosby, Kaye, Rosemary Clooney, Dean Jagger and all the other speaking parts with just one exception are at present doing business on the other side of the sod, but there they all were, summoned forth from the รฆther to sing and dance and camp it up for the patronizing delectation of a couple of jaded old coastal urbanites on Christmas Eve. Funny ol’ world.

Saturday, November 28, 2020

Jubilation River

I’ve long been fascinated by the way cultures and societies depict themselves in film (among other media, to be sure). Earlier in the year I watched a couple of Eclipse titles from Japan, Jubilation Street and Black River. The first of these was produced during the Pacific War; the second thirteen years later, with the formal US occupation of Japan ended, but its military presence still very heavily in evidence.

Jubilation Street concerns the dwellers of a Tokyo residential district who are shortly to be displaced as their neighborhood is appropriated for military purposes. The characters regret this development but do not contest the necessity of their removal for the war effort. And in retrospect, after all, Tokyo was shortly to undergo “urban renewal” via the fleets of B-29s dispatched by Curtis LeMay.

Jubilation Street reminds me of Mrs. Miniver, depicting civilians on the home front bravely enduring the depredations of a relentless foreign enemy. The rah-rah propaganda element is little in evidence—there’s a bit at the end, probably included to soothe the sensibilities of the wartime censors. The film brings home to me (I’m a child of the late Truman administration, so I was brought up saturated in pop culture depictions of Nipponese wartime cruelty and depravity) the sense that as the USA brought the war home to Japan, we were punching way above their weight.

Come to Black River in 1957 and we see a demoralized, corrupt, cynical Japan, its traditional values infected and despoiled by the West. The social solidarity depicted in Jubilation Street is long gone: in the squalid quarter in which Black River is set the gangsters and the prostitutes and the indigent struggle and squabble for scraps among themselves. The two films, taken together, present a remarkable contrast.

Thursday, November 26, 2020

Parallel Lives

I was reminded just now that Fidel Castro died four years ago yesterday, and this put me in mind of some odd parallels with another twentieth century statesman, that swashbuckling, drunken old imperialist and orator nonpareil Winston Churchill.

Castro and Churchill probably had in common few points of philosophy, but there are some intriguing career parallels: each died at ninety after a decade out of public life; they will both of them be remembered as political leaders who successfully fended off ruthless continent-spanning predatory empires bent on subjugating their respective islands. Also, the two men pursued strategic partnerships with the Soviet Union for defensive purposes, and both were fond of cigars. Churchill lived to see Germany laid in ruins; Castro lived to see Donald Trump elected president. Eerie, no?

Wednesday, November 25, 2020

‘People Like Us” (they don’t, actually)

Almost twenty years ago I caught a documentary “People Like Us” on the local PBS station, that treated the subject, often elided in our public discourse, of class in America. Spoiler: it exists. One segment in particular (“Tammy’s Story”) was heartbreaking: the filmmakers cover a working single mother in Ohio attempting to raise her family in circumstances that might charitably be described as “benighted.” I identified with the elder son, about fourteen, an age at which I was myself rapidly going feral in marginally better circumstances, an alternate reality from which I was abruptly plucked by what came down to the accident of a spilled drink in a coffee shop (long story, which I do not propose to relate here). The boy is ill-educated, melancholy, more than intelligent enough to descry his almost inevitably bleak future. Watching this, I thought at the time: he could be saved. Take him away from this material and cultural privation, feed him wholesome food and wholesome education, and the kid could amount to something. Alas, as a sequel segment makes clear, his adulthood followed the trajectory upon which the boy had been launched. His potential has died; the squalor of his formative years thrives to blight another generation.

Did he vote for the Orange Man in 2016 and again last month? I don’t know, but who could blame him in that event? What stake do people like these have in a “meritocracy” that views them, when they are contemplated at all, as collateral damage in the long march to the shining upland of a cosmopolitan global future? They’re not even being considered for a place at the table: why wouldn’t they be receptive to a “burn it all down” populist appeal? What’s in it for them, the maintenance of the current order—and Clinton in 2016 was selling “more of the same”—when that has so signally neglected them? What do they have to lose if the existing order is torched (Spoiler: probably more than they think, but they are scarcely to be blamed for failing to take the long view)? Had I been raised among these people, or even had my own destiny kinked the other way in 1966, I might have shared their bitter nihilism.

Anyway, although the documentary can’t be had on optical media for the price the average consumer would contemplate parting with, I see that the Tube of You features the individual chapters, and I link to the playlist here. It is worth an hour to contemplate what our increasingly steeper class divisions portend for the Republic. Nothing good, I wot.

Tuesday, November 17, 2020

First flight, and afterward

 

Over forty years have elapsed since I first saw a personal computer in operation, in a private residence in Marin County, a tony California precinct. It was an Apple II (or “Apple ][,” according to a curious typographical convention of the day, which I will not bother repeating), owned by a friend’s father, a fiftyish chemical engineer, and it was running, on a green phosphor monitor, and loaded from a cassette drive, a program called “Flight Simulator,” the distant but direct ancestor of the product marketed by Microsoft unto the present day.

A little background: in the initial years of my romantic history I was successively involved with three women who subsequently made their livings in the computer field—even before the (Mis)Information Age had wrapped its tendrils anything like so thoroughly around and through the populace and the polity today—and a fourth who, early in 1974, endeavored in vain to interest me in the computer terminals available for undergraduate use at various points on the UC Santa Cruz campus. “Faugh!” quoth I. “I am a humanities major. What have I to do with these machines?”

A fair amount, it was to turn out, but that proved true one way or another of many of us of a Certain Age.

Anyway, a few years later my then-spouse began to agitate for the acquisition of one of these gadgets, and because what we’d seen was a Cupertino product, we went shopping for an “Apple II+,” the current model as of October 1982, and landed at an outfit—was it in Berkeley or San Francisco?—called, I think, “Quest Computers,” at which a slick salesman (for some reason I still remember his name: Phil Sotter) unloaded on us a computer with 48K—that’s kilobytes—of RAM, a green phosphor monitor, a “floppy” drive and a dot-matrix printer. Woo! I think that the tariff, which we financed by means of a particularly avaricious consumer lender, was initially around $3500, which was probably close to half my net annual salary in those days.

As initially configured, the thing could only display upper-case characters, although it could output lower-case to the printer. Fortunately…er, not quite…fortunately the machine accommodated plug-in cards, and we acquired, for a couple of hundred dollars, an “eighty-column” card that permitted the monitor to display both cases. Did I mention that the software could also do italic and boldface provided the appropriate <tags>were entered</tags> in the word processing environment? But also, the eighty-column jobbie was a little slow: it could not keep up with my keyboard input, and then, as now, I am a fucking two-fingered typist.

Within half a year of taking delivery, although I purchased and played “Flight Simulator” (on a 5.25” floppy—how cool is that?) I could scarcely look at the goddamn machine without hating it, and myself for my folly in consenting to indenture myself to its purchase. The spouse, however, used it to “typeset” several pages worth of content in one issue of Tim Yohannan’s “Maximumrocknroll” magazine—this one. I met Tim Y, dead these many years now, once or twice during that period: he struck me as an exceptionally charmless character.

In late summer 1984 my wife again suggested a computer purchase, this time of an Apple Macintosh, which had first reached the consumer market earlier that year, and which had already struck me as the homeliest piece of consumer electronics I’d ever set eyes on. “Absolutely not,” I growled. “I will never consent to having another product from that loathsome company in my home again.” Perhaps I should mention here that for the nine years we cohabited following our move to Oakland in 1977, I was for various reasons the principal breadwinner as she worked lower-paying, temporary, part-time, voluntary or not-at-all gigs, and that I regarded my views on big-ticket expenditures as accordingly carrying a correspondingly greater weight.

Cannily, she said nothing to this. A couple of weeks later, working late—she was then employed at a software firm on Shattuck Avenue in Berkeley—she called to ask if I could fetch her from the workplace. When I arrived, she apologized, told me that the staff meeting was running overtime, led me to an otherwise empty room with an original Macintosh, the 128K model, booted up and running, I think, MacPaint.

I’d never seen anything like this. When she returned after three-quarters of an hour, I sighed: “Where do I sign?”

Two years later, she’d moved out, and on, to gigs in the IT/tech writing field that paid far more than she—or I—had ever made when we had common premises. But a year after that I began to make my living on the Mac (a story for another time, perhaps), and did so until my retirement in 2017, so yay. I probably could have brought home the same or greater income from the same employer during those latter three decades, but I would not have enjoyed myself as much, and would likely never have attained anything like the sundry technical and artistic proficiencies I can claim today. Thanks you, K. No, really.

I owe this also, I suppose, in minor part to that horrible Apple II+ back in the day. I salute the machine, halfheartedly, in whatever metal-retrieval landfill might have claimed it, you otherwise unmourned old thing.

Friday, October 23, 2020

Heavy traffic not

 


It has been several years since this blog has elicited a comment—there was one early in the present year, but this was from a deranged stalker who trailed me here from a private discussion group dating from our contentious exchanges during the Cheney Shogunate—but I continue to mumble to myself in this obscure corner of the innertubes.

Sunday, October 18, 2020

Just for the record

 

So lately I’ve been having a series of dreams in which I run into V on, I don’t know, something like a rolling meadow-themed bardo at twilight, and she says, affectionately (approximate sense), “Welcome.”

Well, my belief system doesn’t allow for a metaphysical cosmos in which V (1954-2008) is ethereally competent in 2020 to pluck the strings of my mind’s lyre as I sleep, although I’m prepared to entertain the possibility that time is a lot weirder than we understand. What strikes me as likelier is that my unconscious is gently tugging at my sleeve to convey that I really ought to submit the cardiac plumbing, which has lately given signs of silting up again, to medical evaluation.

Monday, September 28, 2020

A memory: 28 September 1972


An evening class at Cowell College, UC Santa Cruz, just a couple of days into Fall Quarter. I am, two years later, a freshman again, having been granted a second bite at the apple. A dozen or twenty fellow freshmen gathered around a circular table in a smallish room. At some point before the class came to order a noxious bug, something like a fly, but blacker, slower, softer, was buzzing about my head. I swatted at it, and on its second or third pass contrived to propel it across the room and into the face of the young woman directly opposite me across the table. Fate, it appears, will sometimes hinge upon an insect. At close of class, as we all dispersed outdoors, I caught up with the girl and apologized. We walked together across the Cowell upper quad. As we passed a first floor room (the same room which my younger brother was briefly to occupy thirteen years later) she noticed a political poster on the wall, visible through the window. “That’s Russian!” she exclaimed. It happened that I’d just that summer commenced my infatuation with all things Slavic. “Oh? You know Russian?” At which point Veronica—for it was the legendary, now departed Veronica—clammed up (a speaker of Russian since infancy, she’d just had demonstrated to her earlier in the day her deficiencies in the written language, and was smarting in consequence) with a charming and ambiguous disclaimer. I saw her to the ground floor of her dorm, and set off to College V, half a mile distant. “Here comes a girlfriend,” I thought, correctly, and would have whistled, had I ever learned how. Actually, that’s never stopped me. I strode across campus, in the dark through the trees, emitting low, hoarse, lighthearted hoots through my pursed lips, forming clouds before me in the cool, slightly damp autumnal air.

Sunday, September 27, 2020

Bright college days

 

Half a century ago today I arrived, most unwillingly, at the Riverside campus of the University of California. That’s a long story, to be related another time, if ever. Still, the following months before my ignoble exit (conveyed in the event by the University to the good people at Selective Service) yielded up some piquant memories. Hearts full of youth! Hearts full of truth! Six parts gin to one part vermouth!

—Although my set really didn’t drink much. Back in those days we regarded it as a little counterrevolutionary.

Sunday, September 20, 2020

“The Happiest I’ve Been”*

 


20 September 1970

I was summoned to the telephone at my parents’ home that Sunday morning. A group of high school friends were organizing a trip out to Zuma Beach in Malibu—was I interested? Of course I was.

This was just about a week before my graduating class was to scatter to the four winds, those of us who were going the “higher education” route, to our sundry and far-flung colleges and universities. I, to my disappointment, was bound just ninety miles away, to an institution that would spit me out half a year later; my classmates went on to various fates, some known, some not: that day was the last time I was to see most of them.

Among the teenagers present was my beloved, with whom interludes in the course of the preceding summer and the following autumn are among the tenderest of my youthful memories. That romance did not endure past the turning of the year (more on this anon), but this Sunday at the beach was the capstone of the year. At one point, as we waded in the shallows, a wave knocked my sweetheart down, and her spectacles into the churning surf: groping at my feet, I found and retrieved these before they were swept out to sea, for beaucoup points.

I do not think that, up until this day, I had ever experienced such an episode, so many seamless hours, of sustained joy.

By January the beloved, four hundred miles north of me, had developed other interests. I was unhappy, and peppered her with letters (in that distant era, meine Kinder, one had to convey text messages on paper and via the post) for the next few years until I finally wore her down and rekindled the romance in 1974. Two years later we wed; ten years after that she had reconsidered and, on this day in 1986, took a step, my weeks of anguished entreaties being dismissed, that pretty much put paid to the entire matrimony thing, so that’s another 20 September, a grim one, to bookend the first.

Someone asked me, twenty years ago, “Don’t you think it’s turned out for the best?” I imagine that the ex would agree—from the scant online evidence, she has long regarded our entire common history as an ill-considered detour from her own life’s journey. For my part, the question makes no sense: had I never been divorced, I’d be a different man today. To desire that counterfactual, to make it magically come about, would necessarily involve an act of self-cancellation of the man who might make that wish. So no, I do not rub the lamp. It is what it has been, and I am who I have become. And today is, fifty years on, the twentieth of September.

*The post title is taken from John Updike’s 1959 short story.

Friday, September 11, 2020

Waving the bloody shirt

 


God-fucking damnit, I get so tired of the bleating every year at this time: never has so blameless a nation, so virtuous a people, ever been subjected to so inhumane, so vile an atrocity. Why, innocent people died!

Break me a fucking give. Measured against the number of noncombatants this country has slain from the air during the past seventy-five years, the butcher’s bill nineteen years ago was a rounding error. To the side that has the cruise missiles, asymmetric warfare will always appear an unsportsmanlike proposition.

Wednesday, September 9, 2020

Got a kinda postapocalyptic vibe going here

 


I joined the landed gentry exactly twenty-one years ago. The weather outside The Crumbling Manse™ did not, as I recall, look anything like this, descried today at mid-afternoon.

Monday, August 31, 2020

How far we have come

 

There was a time—this period would elude the comprehension of my younger readers, if I had any—when the notion of policemen shooting fleeing suspects in the back was presumed to be a characteristic of totalitarian foreign regimes: the Gestapo, of course, in the service of the Third Reich. The East German border guards popping citizens attempting to flee over the wall. Even the Vichy French constabulary in Casablanca as depicted in this piece of popular entertainment in a scene that domestic theatre audiences presumably did not then applaud.

Today? The guy into whose back a Kenosha cop emptied seven rounds is deplored by about forty percent of the electorate as having had it coming for resisting police commands. We’ve come along way since 1942, have we not?

Saturday, August 29, 2020

Another birthday


Born this day ninety-four years ago; seen here about a decade prior to my own debut. She stinted routine maintenance, I’m afraid, and pegged out suddenly not quite four months after she reached the Biblical span. An erratic personality with, er, issues that went back to her childhood—my father, marrying her in 1946 in Mexico City after what may be described, with some understatement, as a whirlwind courtship, took her up in the “manic pixie dreamgirl” phase, and could not, at twenty-five, have understood what he was signing onto. Well, water under the bridge; beer over the damn dam, and if the two youngsters had been less hot-bloodedly impulsive I would not be here to condescend to their memories. She was very far from being a model parent, but she loved her children well, if not wisely, and I wish I’d been home to take her phone call forty-eight hours before her death instead of rolling my eyes as I listened to her tipsy recorded message late that night on my answering machine. Here’s to you, Mom, wherever you’ve lodged in the space-time continuum.

Wednesday, August 19, 2020

A birthday

Deborah Clark meant little to me when last we passed one another between classes on 30 January 1968—we were only acquaintances—but that night she arbitrarily secured a place in my memory when she became the first of my contemporaries I knew to have died: a little over a mile from my home, of blunt-force trauma in an automobile accident. She’d be sixty-eight today. I retrieved this artifact from the accident site a few days later, and have morbidly retained it for over half a century.

Angry in 1963

Like many of us, I’m spending more time indoors than usual this year, and particularly as the Bay Area endures a prolonged spell of warmer than normal weather coupled with oppressive (by local standards) humidity and, today, smoke-laden skies. Although this sedentary way of life is doing nothing, or at least nothing good, for my boyish figger, I have been catching up on both my reading and on a substantial backlog of unscreened films. This is one, La Rabbia, “The Anger,” a curious artifact from 1963. Originally conceived as a meditation proceeding from the opening question “Why is our life dominated by discontent, by anguish, by the fear of war, by war?”, the film began as a kind of video montage, mainly of newsreels of the postwar world up through the early sixties, with a spoken commentary written by Pier Paolo Pasolini (1922-1975). Seeing Pasolini’s finished product, the producer, apparently afflicted with an early case of bothsiderism, trimmed it drastically and invited conservative writer, editor, cartoonist and gadfly Giovannino Guareschi (1908-1968; today best remembered, if at all, for his “Don Camillo” stories) to direct a companion piece along the same lines.

The resulting cinematic portmanteau pleased neither man, each of whom cordially detested the other. Guareschi, at least, knew what he was getting into; Pasolini was dismayed when he found his work yoked to that of the older man. Not surprisingly, each director approached the “modern” plight with different emphases. Pasolini (Marxist, homosexual), dreads the encroachment of American-style consumerism on the Italian proletariat, and applauds the liberation, then in progress, of the Third World from its colonial masters. Guareschi (Catholic, monarchist) despises American vulgarity, and deplores Europe’s withdrawal from its African possessions. Nor is he keen on Marxists, homosexuals or the uppity locals giving the colonialists such a hard time.

Pasolini’s half seems, particularly by contrast with Guareschi’s bitter and caustic take, optimistic, almost lyrical. I think it was still possible in 1963 to see in Khrushchev’s USSR the possibility of a humane outcome to the communist experiment without doing violence to one’s intellect, and Pasolini certainly appears to celebrate that prospect (for more on this subject run, do not walk, to your bookseller of choice and secure a copy of Francis Spufford’s astonishing Red Plenty), particularly in the lengthy paean to Yuri Gagarin’s epochal flight. Guareschi is having none of that, and his own considerably bleaker segment is interlarded with the most damning footage (Hungary 1956, Berlin 1961) that he can find. But Guareschi—whose Don Camillo tales, set in the Po Valley during the postwar years, and centered around the “frenemy” relations of a parish priest and the communist mayor of his village, I read in my youth, and which still retain their charm—hates lots of other things besides Marxism: he hates American popular culture; hates the sexual licentiousness associated with it; hates, hates, hates fags; hates the Africans who have been driving their colonial masters off the continent (“where whites and coloreds lived together in peace and harmony”).

La Rabbia was released in a few theatres, garnered tepid reviews, sank out of sight. Pasolini attempted, unsuccessfully, to have his name withdrawn from the film. Novelist Alberto Morovia published a scathing review of Guareschi’s portion: “When the boorish editor of an unnamable Milan magazine [Candido, founded by Guareschi in 1945] knocks on your door and asks you for an interview, do you let him into your house? When a producer asks you to make a film with Guareschi, do you agree? Don’t you know that you should not welcome the editors of certain magazines into your home? Don’t you know that you shouldn’t make films in the company of Guareschi?”

La Rabbia, nicely restored and released in an edition by “RaroVideo,” is an interesting cultural artifact, and I mainly enjoyed it. I must warn prospective viewers that near the end of the film there is footage of a Soviet experiment— Guareschi has included this as an example of commie depravity—that is perhaps the most shocking example of cruelty to animals that I have ever seen committed to film. It is preceded by diagrams, and I exhort anyone who sits through La Rabbia to avert his eyes for the next couple of minutes.

Friday, July 3, 2020

Just because


A dog and his squeaky toy, repurposed as a pillow. Sound asleep. Is he cute, or what?

Tuesday, June 30, 2020

The pleasure of giving respect


I’ve been thinking recently, four years after he died suddenly at eighty, about my old boss Spindle. He was “Gerald Spindle,” “Jerry” to some, “Mr. Spindle” to others, “Chief” when I addressed him directly, and “Spindle” when I alluded to him. This was in no wise a token of disrespect. On the contrary, when I delivered a spoken tribute an audience of ≈150 at a retirement luncheon held in his honor a quarter-century ago, I observed that the honorific was supererogatory: “Does one say Mister Thor? Mister Zeus? No. These are forces of nature, personified, and titles do not obtain or apply.” Spindle was Vulcan, God of Steel, Smithy to the Olympians—the metaphor was more apt than you strangers might imagine.

In his magnificent short story “A Bullet in the Brain” (a PDF transcription can be found here), Tobias Wolff’s doomed, unpleasant protagonist briefly recalls—doesn’t, actually—“the pleasure of giving respect.” But I do. I worked for Spindle for five years (most of us were rotated from one office to another after a year, but the fierce head of the steel products branch was so dreaded that, when I volunteered each year to re-enlist, management was relieved to avoid the bitching and complaining that might otherwise have ensued) from 1982 until 1987 when, greatly to his ire and disappointment, I took another gig in order to get out from under his boss, who had taken a considerable and consequential dislike to me. What was contemplated at the outset to be a temporary assignment ended in consuming the remaining thirty years of my alleged career, and while in consequence this depressed the bottom line, it was better for my mental health. I grieved that Spindle regarded my defection at the outset as a betrayal, but following an interval of reproach I worked myself back into his good graces, beginning with a flattering and well-deserved article about him published in the house organ.

Following his retirement in 1995, Spindle and I remained in regular contact, mainly by phone, several conversations each month, and secondarily by email; occasionally by post. He was a bottomless fount of knowledge on military history—WW II informed the childhood of a precocious youngster, nine by VE Day—and of films: to the extent I am conversant today with cinema as an art form, I owe this almost entirely to Spindle’s tutelage.

He died suddenly in 2016. In the preceding weeks he had spoken—turning eighty, as he had that February, tends to focus the mind on these things—of putting his affairs in order. A flinty midwesterner (he once copped to a tendency to “squeeze the nickel until the buffalo shits”), he wanted to arrange his estate without the costly participation of an attorney. I told him that I’d see what I could find online. Alas, a cerebral episode took him out before I’d even begun my researches, and his estate ultimately fell into the hands of a court-appointed trustee. I do not doubt that a generous slice of administrative expenses were extracted.

Still: “the pleasure of giving respect.” I’ve enjoyed this a few times during my adult life, but at this point, probably not again. Have I ever been, will I ever be, the object of this? Dunno. I’m inclined to doubt it.

Above: Master and journeyman, circa 1985

Monday, June 22, 2020

Borne in the USA

At the kind suggestion and arrangement of my younger brother I spent a fortnight in London and environs last summer, my first time across the pond since Tony Blair was PM, and Lina’s first time ever farther than a mile off the US East Coast. A pleasant time was had by all, not least because we secured transatlantic passage via somewhat costly “business” class, which provided us with something approximating beds, and with in-flight fare a cut above the pretzels and peanuts grudgingly provided those in steerage.

Upon our return from that green and pleasant land, we disembarked at the airport in San Francisco, dodging the 350 passengers awaiting Customs clearance—three international flights had arrived within a quarter-hour of one another—by means of our “Global Entry” passes, a system that permits Real People who can afford the tariff to bypass the hoi polloi as they trudge sullenly through the lines.

The filth and squalor on the train back to our neighborhood, and visible on the streets, were striking: nothing much changed from our departure the previous month, but a shock upon seeing this with the impressions of a civilized country fresh in memory. Indeed, returning earlier from a daytrip to Oxford, I looked at the comfortable, tidy villages from the train and thought “they wouldn’t let me live here if I asked.” And for the first time, belatedly, I realized that I was a prisoner in my own land, a grim and grimy police state.

Bummer.

Saturday, April 18, 2020

The way we live today

I must say that I’m not really enjoying the 2020 remix of Abbey Road.

Wednesday, March 25, 2020

Go with the Floe!

In recent days we have seen the notion gaining traction among our betters that the Olds should get out there and die, already, so that we can kickstart the travel and hospitality sectors back into profitability. The rentier class, seeing their portfolios becoming flaccid, wonder why the proles shouldn’t flock back into the shops, theatres, restaurants, aircraft, cruise ships—don’t you people understand that this “social distancing” might tank the economy? How can you be so selfish? Passing strange how some of the same people who were howling ten years ago about Obamacare “death panels” now want Auntie and Gramps to step up to the plague so that we can all, or rather the survivors, get back to whatever it was we were doing at the turning of the year instead of paying attention to the news out of Wuhan Province. This is, incidentally, additional evidence for The First Law of Republican Politics: It’s Always Projection with These Guys. Several examples have been in the news lately—the Lieutenant Governor of Texas, for example, or television and radio dysfunctional personality Glenn Beck, both of who have declared their willingness to lay down their own lives (pardon me; I’m giggling)—but I want to preserve for posterity the text of a “tweet” put up there on shortly after midnight on 23 March by one Scott McMillan, an attorney in La Mesa down in SoCal, who describes his operation as “a results-oriented law firm.” Here’s the perfect distillation of this school of thought. He prudently excised the tweet once he came to in the morning, but unfortunately for many of us who have been briefly indiscreet online, screen captures are a thing, and I transcribe this from one of these:
The fundamental problem is whether we are going to tank the entire economy to save 2.5% of the population which is (1) generally expensive to maintain, and (2) not productive.
I’m guessing that from his clients’ perspectives, brother McMillan is also expensive to maintain, and we may wonder just what he produces, and how much of it, in the broader scheme of things. As a man in my latter sixties with one of those underlying medical issues (never you mind) I am unsympathetic to this take, and to the broader trend of thinking it represents (lunatic from the epidemiological and economic standpoints, but you can go elsewhere for more cogent arguments than I am disposed to marshal here), but I’m a fair-minded fellow. I’m going to attempt to run with what looks to be the emerging RWNJ consensus. Stay with me here.

Remember the notion that the Inuit used to dispatch their elderly out to sea on ice floes when they became too high-maintenance? Hold that thought. Then consider a trio of our present existential emergencies. You’ve got your economic crisis, your epidemiological crisis and, of course, your long-standing environmental crisis. Bummer, right? But that’s only because we’re thinking of them in isolation! Put them all together, and they spell…synergy.

Today we have (apparently) too many elders and (definitely) nothing like a sufficient number of hospital beds. But what do we have an abundance of? Ice floes! That’s right, thanks to anthropogenic climate change, the polar icecaps north and south are shedding zillions of these every week. There are more than enough (well, for domestic use, at least, and until next month’s butcher’s bill) to accommodate the surplus population of Wrinkled Americans. Load ’em up with seniors and tow them out to sea. Beds: abundant. Economy: booming. Polar bears: well-fed. This is synergy! Sometimes I amaze myself.

Go with the Floe, those of my fellow Boomers who subscribe to this model. I’ll be there onshore to push you off with an extra-long pole, the better to observe social distancing. I’ll see you on the other side, provided distressed marine predators haven’t made a meal of you first.

Friday, March 13, 2020

“The God Abandons Antony”


When suddenly, at midnight, you hear
an invisible procession going by
with exquisite music, voices,
don’t mourn your luck that’s failing now,
work gone wrong, your plans
all proving deceptive—don’t mourn them uselessly.
As one long prepared, and graced with courage,
say goodbye to her, the Alexandria that is leaving.
Above all, don’t fool yourself, don’t say
it was a dream, your ears deceived you:
don’t degrade yourself with empty hopes like these.
As one long prepared, and graced with courage,
as is right for you who proved worthy of this kind of city,
go firmly to the window
and listen with deep emotion, but not
with the whining, the pleas of a coward;
listen—your final delectation—to the voices,
to the exquisite music of that strange procession,
and say goodbye to her, to the Alexandria you are losing.

—C.P. Cavafy

Wednesday, March 11, 2020

Journal of the Plague Year: Waiting for Corona




(Above: the goddamn thing appears to be made out of yarn!)

We’ve known this would happen eventually, although most of the scenarios were based on a “gene shift” of the influenza family of viruses (“Nobody expects the Spanish Influenza!”). Instead, COVID-19 has flown from the Celestial Kingdom on the leathery wings of bats, and is busy replicating itself all around our global village, abetted by a certain amount of global village idiocy.

Well, let’s leave politics aside. The genie is out of the bottle, and coming to a theatre, and a supermarket, and a subway, and a workplace and—OK, one little bit of politics—a nominating convention or two near you. I think kissing babies and shaking hands may go out of style this election cycle.

As Leonard Cohen sang, “Everybody knows the plague is coming/Everybody knows it’s moving fast,” although he was referring to an STD which, while lethal, was far more readily containable. This one…well, if it proceeds even according to the median-case scenarios, 2020 is shaping up to be a rough ride. The disease, to which it appears no one enjoys even legacy immunity, is going to go through humanity like a pitbull in a playground. A year from now many people we know (I am pretending for a moment that this blog has readers other than its author, who has been diffident about promoting it over the years) may well have died of this, even if they do not die well. I have had pneumonia a couple of times. It has been called “the old man’s friend,” and I gotta say that any “friend” like that would go right off the Christmas card list. Indeed, I might die myself, being close to the upward end of the mortality curve, and bringing to the party some cardiac complications. Oh, well.

Well, as to that, not much I can do. It’s fairly certain that, absent isolating myself in The Crumbling Manse™, I can’t avoid infection, and after all, my demographic tranche puts the chances of my death from COVID-19 at a little under ten percent. Look on the bright side: if someone handed you a Powerball ticket with the assurance that you had a 90% chance of bringing home the big jackpot, would you not already be scanning the tonier real estate ads—or, if you’re a better human being than I am, weighing the merits of sundry charities?

This feels from here as though we’re waiting for a tsunami. We’re trapped more or less near the beach. Will we be drowned? Impossible to know as the wave builds offshore. If I’m not here at year’s end, well, this remote atoll will endure for a while, an echo in dead coral of my former presence, as the poison tide recedes.

Thursday, February 20, 2020

“The Hamadryad of Ragweed”


(The doggerel and the illustration are both by Ed Fisher, and appeared in Horizon Magazine Volume VIII, No. 4, Autumn 1966. I believe today may be the first time these lines have been rendered in machine-readable form.)

In ancient Greece, beside the Wine-
Dark sea, ’twixt earth and ether,
A race of beings, not divine
But not quite human, either,
Inhabited the smiling land
In paralyzing numbers—
In every stream, or every stand
Of oaks, or of cucumbers.

From lowest reed bed by the sea
To loftiest Hymettus
They dwelt in every bush and tree
And every head of lettuce.
No scribe could tally up their ranks,
Nor bold amanuensis
(It would have flooded memory banks
And overwhelmed the census).

Delightful female forms had they
And lovely names like “Aegle”
And “Lotis,” “Lara,” “Dryope,”
And sometimes they were vaguely
Perceived by furtive mortal eye
—A dazzling sight to pitch on
Of perfect bosom, gleaming thigh,
Unhampered by a stitch on.

No wonder, then, the groves of Greece
Were full of would-be voyeurs
And Kings were robbed of mental peace
While Queens consulted lawyers;
The Gods themselves were not averse
To dallying with these Naiads
Though Goddesses would weep and curse
And mutter jeremiads.

Nor were the Nymph and Naiads loath
Nor overly retiring;
Their job of fostering the growth
Of plants was uninspiring;
They found it hard to be demure,
To stick to girlish chatter
Or to delight in what was pure-
Ly vegetable matter.

So, now and then, from every stem,
Or pool, or branch arboreal
A lovely figure would emerge,
Aquiver and corporeal,
A blush or two, a soft “yoo-hoo”
—A male would catch a sight of her;
A “view halloo!” a hot pursue,
And then he’d make a night of her.

The forests rang with constant cry
Of men and Gods and Satyrs;
While from their beds amid the rye,
The tulips and the taters,
The Dryads rose, took shape, displayed
Their succulent totality—
No Self-denying Ordinance stayed
Their consummate carnality.

The Nymphs of Oak and Elm enjoyed
A string of peccadilloes,
The Ferns were constantly employed,
And so were all the Willows;
The Cowslips were a frequent catch
In countless lustful gambols;
Despite a tendency to scratch
So was the Nymph of Brambles.

Alone amidst this lightsome set
One lovely creature languished
With downcast cheek and eyelids wet,
Emitting murmurs anguished;
Untouched, unbroached, for her the joys
Of love remained untasted,
Though oft approached by men and boys
Their efforts were quite wasted.

For from her lips and nostrils proud
And from her hair’s gold glory
There swirled an irritating cloud
Of tiny ๐˜ฎ๐˜ช๐˜ค๐˜ณ๐˜ฐ๐˜ด๐˜ฑ๐˜ฐ๐˜ณ๐˜ข๐˜ฆ
That cast the most appalling spell
On all would-be attackers
That made them cough and itch and swell
And sneeze like firecrackers.

Thus wracked, no lover could begin
(Though she submitted docilely);
They’d try, with flaming eye and skin,
“Kerchoo-ing” most colossally,
To make a pass, embrace, or pet,
To rise above distraction
—But neither lass nor lad could get
A moment’s satisfaction.

No hardy hero of the Greeks
(Accomplished womanizers,
To whom a maiden’s kicks and shrieks
Were merely appetizers)
Could face resistance such as ๐˜ต๐˜ฉ๐˜ช๐˜ด
So shameful and so baffling,
Could boldly grasp or blithely kiss
While sniffling and snaffling!

And though from far and near they came
Determined on a try at
Her scatheless virtue, none could claim
The Ragweed Hamadryad.
Brave Spartans, hardy men of Thrace,
And wily Trapezuntites
All fled her pollen-flushed embrace
With volleys of “๐˜Ž๐˜ฆ๐˜ด๐˜ถ๐˜ฏ๐˜ฅ๐˜ฉ๐˜ฆ๐˜ช๐˜ต๐˜ด!”

Even the thirsting Gods above
Could only heave a sigh at
The unpossessed attractions of
The Ragweed Hamadryad.
Priapus raged and Bacchus wept
And Comus was no calmer;
Despite these fits they primly kept
A healthy distance from her.

At last, one day, great Zeus looked down
And found her figure pleasing;
With knowing smile and tucked-up gown,
His bolt and sceptre seizing.
He stepped to earth; they met, they clasped,
In raptures paroxysmic
They tossed like ocean vessels grasped
By forces cataclysmic.

The heavens blazed as, wildly, crazed,
They spent their passions hoarded
While passing strangers stopped, amazed,
And recklessly applauded;
And when at last she cried “enough”
He rose up, enigmatic,
And promptly vanished in a puff
Of multicolored static.

This Mightiest of Scamps had done
What legions had attempted;
From ragweed pollen he, alone,
Seemed totally exempted.
With greatest ease he’d won the prize
This courier anointed,
Nor cough, nor sneeze, nor red-of-eyes
Had stayed his rounds appointed.

And all the Greeks with paeans praised
His feat apocalyptic
But when the ๐˜ฉ๐˜ฐ๐˜ธ of it was raised
Great Zeus’s smile was cryptic;
He kept his questioners at bay
And kept his reputation.
In truth, his only secret lay
In Careful Preparation.

—This Romeo, before the show
And well behind the scenes
Had smeared himself from head to toe
With antihistamines
And thus protected had attained
His triumph transcendental
But to the public he explained:
“All allergies are mental.”

Tuesday, January 21, 2020

Bothsiderism

I’ve had the New York Times bookmarked for a couple of decades, and followed it behind the paywall long ago, but I’ve detested its political reporting since its cheerleading for the Cheney Shogunate’s warmongering, and particularly for its Clintophobia. I take particular exception to the paper’s pious pose of “objectivity,” which requires it, apparently, to report upon the criminal cabal now holding office as though this was just one more administration.

The graphic posted here consists of a screengrab from this morning, and my own imagined webpage depicting how the NYT might have reported D Day, by its current editorial standards, in 1944.

Friday, January 17, 2020

Not that future—the other one

Noted commercial illustrator Syd Mead, the “visual futurist,” pegged out at the end of last year. Most of his work had the vibe of the Sixties dialed up to eleven: sleek, stylish, streamlined, almost antiseptic in its modernity; the twenty-first century as James Bond might have imagined it, partaking much more of The Jetsons than of Blade Runner—although of course Mead had a considerable hand in the design of that dystopia. At least he made it past November 2019.

Monday, January 6, 2020

Living in still another future

Welcome to “The Twenties.” It’s a relief getting back to a decade naming convention that rolls off the tongue, unlike the last two. On the other hand, it appears likely to be a dire one content-wise, and there’s a not-inconsiderable possibility, at my age, that I won’t feature in the opening credits for “The Thirties.”

“Science fiction” has historically tended to be blinkered by the era in which it’s written, so that, for example, descriptions of spacecraft controls used to feature a lot of buttons, switches, and needle gauges. Sociologically, likewise, there wasn’t much thought—making the honorable exceptions stand out that much more vividly—given to, say, how gender roles might evolve. But even a blind squirrel, et cetera, and I’m struck by the prescience of Year of Consent, an otherwise unmemorable mass-market paperback in which the implications of applying modern advertising techniques to politics, pioneered just two years earlier by the Eisenhower campaign (I like Ike, but we’re still living with the consequences of a lot of questionable decisions made in his name, starting with that year’s VP pick and, most recently, with the 1953 interference in Iran) are pondered.

I picked this up for fifteen cents under its original purchase price when a small bookstore went out of business a few years ago (the proprietor was a good guy, but perhaps temperamentally unsuited for retail: when I’d place my pile of purchases on the counter he would spontaneously discount them: “Seven dollars?…I dunno, maybe four?” “No,” I’d explain, “that’s the way it works when you’re buying”). Published in 1954, Year of Consent depicted the dire world of 1990, when the seventy-four United States of America are governed by marketers, psychologists and “social engineers”:
The administration wanted to know as much as possible about what everyone thought and felt. What people ate, where they spent their vacations, what they talked about—all of these things were added up and passed through SOCIAC to produce complete pictures of individuals and groups. Thus, when the administration wanted to make a new move, they knew exactly how to condition the people so that it would be backed. Or they knew exactly what sort of man to put up to win a popular election. This, then, was government by consent.
Remarkably, this apparatus of manufactured consent is coordinated by a massive computer with approximately the horsepower of a first-generation “IBM PC.”:
Even in the elevator I was conscious of the vibrations, like an inaudible hum, of SOCIAC at work. The giant electronic brain filled up the first ten floors of our building. There were additional memory banks in several subcellars and in another nearby building. It was impossible not to be in awe of it [Try me —Ed.] Just as an example, it contained about 500,000 electronic tubes and about 860,000 relays. Not counting the extra memory banks, it had 400 registers totaling 6,400 decimal digits of very rapid memory in electronic tubes and about 6,000 registers totaling 120,000 digits of less rapid memory in relays.
Needless to say, punched cards are involved. Well, even Vannevar Bush’s remarkable “memex,” which was envisaged as having something like the capabilities of a modern personal computer with the Wikipedia homepage open, was conceived, in his 1945 essay “As We May Think,” in terms of microfilm and conventional projection. The hardware of Year of Consent’s dystopia is anaemic, of course, and its political environment monolithic, with a single governing authority wielding these powers of mass manipulation rather than the anarchic struggle for influence that rages around us today—although see modern China for something closer to Crossen’s vision and, perhaps, our future.

Kendell Foster Crossen worked in a number of genres over the course of his career, and also created the “Green Lama,” a Buddhist(!) superhero who was featured in stories, comics and radio programs (“The Green Lama is an alias of Jethro Dumont, a rich resident of New York City, born July 25, 1903, to millionaires John Pierre Dumont and Janet Lansing. He received his A.B. from Harvard University, M.A. from Oxford, and Ph.D. from the Sorbonne; he also attended Drepung College in Tibet. He inherited his father’s fortune, estimated at ten million dollars, when his parents were both killed in an accident while he was still at Harvard; he then spent ten years in Tibet studying to be a lama, acquiring many mystical powers in the process. He returned to America intending to spread the doctrines of Tibetan Buddhism, but realized that he could accomplish more by fighting crime, since Americans were not ready to receive spiritual teachings”). Crossen lived long enough to see the Eisenhower campaign’s crude techniques refined and deployed by Roger Ailes on Nixon’s behalf in 1968, and further extended to elect Ronald Reagan in 1980. One feels that he might not have greeted our “social media” world with unalloyed enthusiasm.