Friday, October 20, 2017

"And the Winner is . . ."

The Man Booker literary award has just been announced. The Nobel and the MacArthur “genius” award winners were named just a few weeks ago. If you haven’t pocketed one or another, don’t despair; by the time the 2018 autumnal equinox rolls around, there will be the Oscars, Emmys, Tonys, BAFTAs, Pulitzers, Pritzkers, Giller, Golden Globes, Golden Boots, Golden Gloves, MVPs, Vezina, Lady Byng and so on and so forth. With so many prizes up for grabs each year, one might think the whole business was fashioned by Lewis Carroll’s Dodo, who proclaimed: “EVERYBODY has won, and all must have prizes.”

Despite this plethora of prizes, I would ask your indulgence as I sneak one more into the mix. I hereby announce: The Cain Award. Named after that Biblical fellow, who famously asked, “Am I my brother’s keeper?”

The winner of the inaugural Cain Award (and winner by ten lengths over all other runners in the field) is Senator Ron Johnson, Republican of Wisconsin.
When asked by a high school student in Wisconsin whether he considered health care a right or a privilege, Sen. Ron Johnson (R-WI) compared access to health care to access to food and shelter, arguing that all three should be considered “privileges” for those who can afford them.
“I think it’s probably more of a privilege,” Johnson said in response to the question. “Do you consider food a right? Do you consider clothing a right? Do you consider shelter a right?”*
Johnson has been a staunch proponent of removing the requirement that health insurers not discriminate against people with pre-existing conditions. He has defended his position with the analogy that 
people with pre-existing conditions [are like] drivers that have been in a car accident, [and] that the Affordable Care Act’s protections for people with pre-existing conditions is tantamount to requiring auto insurers to sell insurance to people that have crashed their car.
So, what can the unprivileged—those without food or shelter or clothes or health care—do when Senator un-Good Samaritan walks on down the road, ignoring them—the beaten and naked—lying in the ditch. Perhaps they can resort to prayer. Remember the envelope I mentioned in an earlier post, the one containing the Tibetan prayer flags?**

Well, maybe we can mail a set to each of them—but wait, they have no right to shelter, so they probably have no mailbox to receive the flags. Sorry, folks, you don't have a prayer.


Monday, October 16, 2017

R.I.P. Richard Wilbur

Richard Wilbur, American poet, died two days ago. He was 96 years old. 

I first became aware of Wilbur’s poetry about six decades ago when I read his “Epistemology” in a paperback anthology of new American verse. 
Kick at the rock, Sam Johnson, break your bones: 
But cloudy, cloudy is the stuff of stones.

We milk the cow of the world, and as we do
We whisper in her ear, 'You are not true.' 
I didn’t (couldn’t, perhaps) at the time articulate why I liked the poem; it was, I assume, its wittiness and its concreteness, however, that made me intuit its philosophical underpinnings (which would become clearer in time). 

A few years later, in graduate school, we used an anthology of classical French plays which included Wilbur’s translation of Moliere’s The Misanthrope. The French alexandrines rendered into English rhymed couplets, Wilbur’s translation became my standard text whenever I taught that play in a drama or satire course.

I also regularly taught Wilbur’s poem “Place Pigalle” in my freshman English course.


About two decades ago I was fortunate to meet Wilbur after he gave a reading at my university. It was an opportunity that I relished, for there was in my mind one sticking point in “Place Pigalle” that I couldn’t work out. But here, I hoped, was the poet himself to help me. The poet was a tall, well-dressed man and very friendly when I approached him. I told him of my affection for his Misanthrope and then explained that I couldn’t work out the phrase “with Arden ease” in “Place Pigalle.” (I had always wondered whether, as the setting was indoors, the reference was to some kind of furniture. Certainly not Elizabeth Arden—and so I toyed with that Arden for years, but what was it? I could not contextualize it.)

Wilbur hesitated for just a moment. “I think,” he replied, “that I was referring to the Forest of Arden.”

Of course! Of course! I shriveled inside my clothes and glanced at the poet, hoping he was not tilting his head to one side with his eyes searching for the heavens and thinking, “What kind of moron have we here?”

And so my search for enlightenment was successful. But to this day I—who taught As You Like It approximately every other semester in my Shakespeare course—occasionally look in the mirror and remember a big dummy who couldn’t put two obvious pieces of information together, or perhaps it’s more appropriate to say, “Couldn’t see the forest for the trees.”

Thursday, October 12, 2017

Grateful for the Dead

Master Georgie by Beryl Bainbridge
In my previous blogpost, “Re-enter the Loons,” I quoted Bill O’Reilly as saying that the upside of the murder of 58 people at the Las Vegas country music concert was that that was “the price of freedom. Violent nuts are allowed to roam free until they do damage, no matter how threatening they are.” Allowed to roam free with assault weaponry at their disposal. The dead, thus, had their use; they brought freedom for nuts and gun nuts. 
In the November 2017 issue of The Atlantic* Caitlin Flanagan investigates the death of Tim Piazza, a freshman at Penn State University, after a night of horrendous hazing by the brothers of Beta Theta Pi fraternity. In her article Ms Flanagan relates a conversation with Jud Horras, a former assistant secretary of the fraternity’s national organization and CEO of the North-American Interfraternity Conference, the trade association for social fraternities. 
I knew [Flanagan writes] he was not prepared for the hardest question I had for him, which I would return to over and over again: Why hadn’t Beta Theta Pi taken the simple, obvious steps that would have saved Tim Piazza’s life?
Horras defended the fraternity saying that 
at some point, you have to trust young men to make the right decisions. . . .  Giving members the freedom to [make poor decisions] was part of what the fraternity was about. If they screwed up and got caught—well, that was on them. 
But what about the death of Tim Piazza? 

Horras acknowledged that it was “a tragedy for him and his family.”  BUT
it would provide the industry with the impetus needed to make some necessary reforms. In fact, his death was a “golden opportunity.”
Ecclesiates tells us, 
To every thing there is a season, and a time to every purpose under the heaven: A time to be born, and a time to die.
Apparently, when it is one’s time to die, others will find a purpose in one’s death—an opportunity to use it for their own ends. 


Tuesday, October 3, 2017

Re-enter the Loons

Now I don’t know whether you’d want to chalk it up to pure coincidence or to some super power in the universe with a sense of appropriateness, but today I received in the mail the following:

Coming just days after the mass murder of concert-goers in Las Vegas by a gunman wielding a high-powered automatic attack weapon, the gift of “Prayer Flags” will allow me to indulge—together with so many politicos—in a round of after-the-fact thoughts-and-prayersing. 

I have not yet opened the envelope to determine what these “Prayer Flags” will actually do. Perhaps, unlike the hollow prayers of gun-moneyed politicians, these Tibetan artifacts will promise to be intercessory, which is
holy, believing, persevering prayer whereby someone pleads with God on behalf of another or others who desperately need God's intervention.*
Certainly, when someone is firing off round after round of ammunition your way, you would hope for a good samaritan’s prayer to make the lead arc harmlessly away or to impose itself—like Wonder Woman’s bracelets**—between you and the bullets.
Responding to the massacre in Vegas, Kentucky Governor Matt Bevin tweeted:
Governor Matt Bevin ✔@GovMattBevinTo all those political opportunists who are seizing on the tragedy in Las Vegas to call for more gun regs...You can't regulate evil...10:38 AM - Oct 2, 2017

But then again he knows how to combat gun violence:
"Almost all were there, I think, because they genuinely want to be part of a solution," Gov. Matt Bevin said of a meeting he held in Louisville to call for prayer groups to help combat gun violence in Louisville on June 1, 2017.***
Frankly, I’d prefer Wonder Woman.
And then there’s Bill O’Reilly (you thought he’d vanish from the face of the earth after being ousted from Fox News?):
The NRA and its supporters want easy access to weapons, while the left wants them banned. This is the price of freedom. Violent nuts are allowed to roam free until they do damage, no matter how threatening they are. The Second Amendment is clear that Americans have a right to arm themselves for protection. Even the loons.**** 
Think of all those Las Vegas martyrs to freedom—the involuntary Nathan Hales who gave up their lives so that more Americans in future can be blasted away in other venues by other weapon-toting freedom fighters.

All those Las Vegas dead who gave the “freedom” spouters the opportunity—once again—to drain the reservoir of thoughts-and-prayers, thereby mocking the wounds of the survivors and the tears of the loved ones of the murdered. 

**"These bracelets have thus far proven indestructible and able to absorb the impact of incoming attacks, allowing Wonder Woman to not only deflect automatic weapon fire, energy blasts and other projectile weaponry, but also to absorb forces from a long fall."  Wikipedia

Friday, September 1, 2017

Anti (Generalization, Part Two)

          It ain’t no use a-talking to me
          It’s just the same as talking to you
          Bob Dylan

At some time between two and three decades ago I read an op-ed article in the New York Times that caused me to gape in wonder.* The author, who was said to be in his twenties, was critical of a recent report about the attitude toward advertising of people in their twenties or so. The specific conclusions of the report and the objections of the op-ed writer are irrelevant here, none of the former or the latter being what I was taken up short by. What got me talking to myself were the terms used by the writer in his protest:
[Paraphrasing here] 
My generation feels that . . .
We believe that .  .  .
(and so forth).

I could not comprehend this—for I flashed back across the decades to when I was in my twenties, and practically screamed out loud that not only would I have not attempted to speak as a representative of “my generation,” I most assuredly would not have wanted to. 

I hate all of this generation nonsense (Gen-X, Gen-Y, and now the Millennials). As if the waters of time flow straight down a chute instead of heaving like the ocean’s waters, breaking one way, falling back with an undertow, spinning in eddies, and splashing and separating against the rocks. 

OK, I will admit that people of my age were given a name: “The Silent Generation.” My high school and college years were clouded by the maleficent specters of Senator Joseph McCarthy, HUAC (the House Un-American Activities Committee), and their outriders. Most undergraduates, even members of the most historically political of student bodies, kept their heads low and eyes peeled to the ground. It was also a world, culturally, of “Ozzie and Harriet” and “Leave it to Beaver”—antiseptic wholesomeness.

I could not—and did not--accept this culture. Politically, on campus I worked for academic freedom and civil liberties (when I ran—in a losing cause--for vice-president of Student Government, one of the campus papers called me “a hyper-militant civil libertarian,” a title I accepted as a badge of honor). When the odious Roy Cohn** (henchman of McCarthy and, years later, tutor of Trump) gave a speech on campus in April, 1955, I put it to him during the question period that like Mrs. Eleanor Roosevelt, New York Senator Herbert Lehman, and one other person I name-checked but can’t remember, one could be a loyal American but opposed to McCarthy and his tactics, I was told off by the odious RC that that was “an anti-anti-communist” statement. I accepted that too as a badge of honor.

That was political. Culturally I also swam against the tide. Nothing could be more outside the mainstream than modern jazz (as Hamlet said, it was “caviare to the general”). I was a member of the Modern Jazz Society (what did we have, a dozen members?), and spent weekend nights at Birdland or Basin Street. 

If ever I had been asked for how many of my contemporaries I could claim to speak, I would probably have stopped at two.

Ah, but today a tidal wave of generational generalization is engulfing us. Here are just the first few hits on one magazine’s (The Atlantic) “millennials” search page:

The Unluckiest Generation: What Will Become of Millennials? - The ...
Apr 26, 2013 ... Coming of age in a recession has set back Millennials for decades. The good news? In the age of abundance, they could turn out to be pretty ...
Millennials' Political Views Don't Make Any Sense - The Atlantic
Jul 15, 2014 ... Millennial politics is simple, really. Young people support big government, unless it costs any more money. They're for smaller government, ...
Millennials' Influence Is Growing—Can They Save the Democratic ...
Mar 4, 2017 ... The stakes in the parties' struggle for Millennials' allegiance are steadily rising as their numbers in the electorate increase. In 2000, the first ...
Have Smartphones Destroyed a Generation? - The Atlantic
More comfortable online than out partying, post-Millennials are safer, physically, than adolescents have ever been. But they're on the brink of a mental-health ...
The Cheapest Generation - The Atlantic
Why Millennials aren't buying cars or houses, and what that means for the economy.
Millennials: The Greatest Generation or the Most Narcissistic? - The ...
May 2, 2012 ... Many books and articles celebrate Millennials (born, roughly, 1982 to 1999) as helpful, civically oriented young people who want to save the ...
Gifts, Debts, and Inheritances: Why So Many Minority Millennials ...
Nov 29, 2015 ... For many Millennials of color, these sorts of trade-offs aren't an anomaly. During key times in their lives when they should be building assets, ...
Why Millennials Aren't Buying Houses - The Atlantic
Aug 24, 2016 ... In the aftermath of the recession and weak recovery, the share of 18- to- 34 year olds—a.k.a.: Millennials—who own a home has fallen to a ...
Why Do Millennials Hate Groceries? - The Atlantic
Nov 2, 2016 ... First, many cultural changes for which Millennials are initially blamed really reflect broader trends affecting even the oldest consumers. Second ...

Enough already!

And apparently everything is done en masse. Crowds line up for a crack at the latest street fashion (assuming they’re not dancing around with bottles held aloft in beer or rum commercials). They scheme to get into sold-out concerts, and watch the same blockbuster streams online. They fall for the same food-craze-of-the-month and pack (or wait on line to pack) the restaurant du jour

If I were in my twenties now, what I would say is this: When arenas and stadiums and restaurants are full, and queueing up for hours is necessary, then it’s all covered; I don’t have to go—there’s no need for one more person. 

And I would look to ancient sages for enlightenment:

Yogi Berra: “Nobody goes there anymore, it’s too crowded.”

Samuel Goldwyn: “Include me out.” 


*I have tried most diligently in the intervening years to hunt down the piece but have had no luck. Therefore, since I can’t quote directly, I am resorting to paraphrase. 

**Many years later, when my daughter, during her high school summer break, was a volunteer at Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center, she overheard that a certain patient was suffering from AIDS. “Who is Roy Cohn? she asked me.
Heavens preserve all fathers from having to answer that question!  

Monday, August 28, 2017

The Line-up

In today’s Guardian (UK)* philosopher Julian Baggini discusses that “symbol of Britain’s civilised, fair, quiet way of doing things”—queueing. Queueing is so ingrained in British culture that “[t]o undermine the queueing system is to undermine the national way of life.” 

But, Baggini says, that is what is happening, as cash has made it possible to crash the lines.

In the article Baggini examines the rationale for queueing, noting that queueing “has always been much more a pragmatic means of keeping order than an ethical practice to promote fairness.” At one point in the discussion he claims,”The most egalitarian way to manage demand is by ballot.”

 The Scene: A bus stop during the morning rush hour.

“OK, everybody, the bus will be along soon, so we had better start organizing the vote.”

“Oi, who put you in charge, mate?”

“Well, I thought since I was the first here . . . But if anyone else wants to . . . No? OK, let’s get on with it. To begin with, we’ll have to know everyone’s name. Let’s start with you.”

“My name’s Les.”

“And you, young lady?”


“The fellow in the mac?” 

“Major Heath-Cowley.”


“And I’m Mrs. Hislop. And this is my friend Miss Pym.”

“Thank you, Mrs. Harris . . .”

“Mrs. Hislop. H-i-s-l-o-p!” 

“Er . . sorry. ‘Hislop.’ Got that.”

“John Biscombe.” “Amy.” “Penny.” “Bobo and him’s me mate Mick.” 

“And way in the back . . . the big fella?”

“Mohammad, Mo, for short.”

“I think that’s everybody . . .”

“What about you? What’s your name?

“Oh, yeah. I’m Nelson. So, does everybody have a pencil and a piece of paper.”

“Nah. No paper.”

“Grab that schoolboy, somebody. . . Son, would you tear a few pages from your composition book for us? Thanks. Here’s for your trouble . . . OK, now everybody write down the name of the person you think should go first and hand the ballot over here to be counted.”

“Ey. What’s that bird’s name again? Blondie, over there.”

“Sylvia, you lug.”

“Ha, ha. Here I am running the show and I don’t have . .  somebody lend me a pencil?”

“The Bus!!!!”

“Hey, wait, I don’t have all the votes. Don’t push and shove. Wait! Wait!”

“See you later, alligator.”

“Damn! I better get over there.”

“Sorry, mate, but we’re full to the gills. Catch the next one.”

“But, conductor, I was here first!”


Tuesday, August 22, 2017

Entropy (Generalization, Part One)

The photograph is of a general-store-cum-luncheonette late on a hot summer’s day. Its windows stare blankly at the empty street in front of it.

Left of center of the picture are two lean, blond young men (they are in their twenties), dressed in light-colored t-shirts and shorts; they lie on their backs, reclining on sacks of potatoes. 

All is still. There are no other figures in the photograph. No other people caught in a moment of arrested movement. It is a scene of purposelessness; nothing is being done; nothing will be done. It is a picture of decay.

The photograph is in black-and-white.
It is part of an exhibition.
The exhibition is entitled “ENTROPY.”


The meaning imputed to the photograph is untrue.

I know it is untrue, because I am one of the men in the picture—the one on the left. 
I know that it is not a depiction of laziness, of purposelessness. My companion and I have just completed a stage of our trip to view the eclipse. Our bicycles and backpacks are on the left, outside the frame of the picture. 


But what I have just written is also untrue. I am not one of the lean, blond men in the picture. Yes, I had dark-blondish hair in my younger days, but I have never been lean. And, besides, I have never ridden a bicycle. 

The black-and-white photograph is not part of an exhibition entitled “ENTROPY.” The photograph and the exhibition do not exist. They were in a dream I had early this morning. The men seen in the photograph have never existed. The country store has never existed. The heat and the stillness of the air have never existed.

And the female photographer—who is left-handed—never existed.