The American Dilemma and How We Can Fix It

Archive for the ‘art’ Category

THIS UNCERTAIN WORLD

There are times that I lean back in my chair and think to myself, “Self.  Maybe the left is right.  (I really like that sentence for its internal absurdity).  Wouldn’t it be a wonderful world and a fabulous life if we all could have whatever we wanted without having to work for it; if we could know in advance what the next wonderful thing in store for us was; if we had no anxiety, no worries, no care; if we didn’t have to be concerned about our future because it would be clear to us what that would be?”

What would be the practical effect of actually knowing the future – even an assured future where everyone’s material wants were met?  I think the answer is – boredom – and the introduction of more anxiety.

Although it seems paradoxical as we all strive to eliminate uncertainty from our lives, it is uncertainty which makes life both interesting and challenging.  If we truly knew the future there would be no reason to watch a sporting event – or for that matter play it.  Imagine how inspired an infielder on the Yankees would feel if he knew that his team was going to lose to the White Sox that day by a score of 7 – 3.

The casinos would close their doors in short order.  Since 22 was the next number to come up on the roulette wheel, that’s where all bets would be.  And if we knew that a five was the next card that would be dealt, the astute blackjack player would take a hit on his 16, despite the fact that the dealer was showing a bust card.  Horse races would be a thing of the past and we’d have to find a different way to spend our Saturday and Sunday afternoons as football would hold no appeal.

There would be no stock market and no market for stocks.  Knowing the unfortunate end that it would meet, we would never have built the Challenger and we would have saved the lives of the seven astronauts who were on board.  We would not have spent months of air time discussing the mysterious disappearance of Malaysia Flight 370 as, knowing its fate, the Malaysian government would not have allowed it to fly and no passenger would have boarded it.

In such a world of certainty there would be no room for a Shakespeare or an Ibsen or a Hitchcock.  Drama and suspense can not exist unless there is the possibility of alternate endings.  The comedy clubs would close because we would all know the punch line.  In such a world would Michelangelo have begun the long process of painting the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel or Mozart composed his tremendous volume of work knowing that despite his genius he would never escape a state of perpetual poverty and be buried in a pauper’s grave?

Of course there is one other and perhaps the most frightening aspect of living in a world certain.  Each of us would know the exact time and means by which death would show up at our doorstep and come for us.  It would be as though we, like the “replicants” that were brought into being in “Blade Runner,” had an internal clock built into us by our maker, a clock that was sealed at the factory and which was constantly winding down, bringing us ever more closely to the moment we took our final breath.

What would people who lived in such an environment do with their time and their lives?  I suspect that it would be very little.  This would be a world in which ennui would have been raised to its ultimate expression.  There would be little incentive to succeed and no repercussions for failure.  This would be a world in which people saw little reason for hope and no reason for change.  It would be a world in which we had given over our lives and activities to fate – and accepted that “what would be would be.”

And if one day, we learned that a massive meteor was headed directly toward us and would impact the Earth three years later, would we be able to marshal the fortitude to try to defend ourselves from this potentially life-destroying event?  Or would we sit back and thank our lucky stars that finally something out of our control had come to put an end to our insufferable misery?

BANNED IN BOSTON

Several generations of Americans have grown up with the idea that the city of Boston, Massachusetts is one of the anchors of “liberalism” in America.  That statement may well be true today, but it was not always so.

During the early part of the 20th century, there was probably no place as conservative as Boston.  And Bostonians, by virtue of their close identification with the early Puritan settlers who had founded the colony, held themselves to be the arbiters of morality for our young country.

If a play or a book, a movie, a painting or a song carried with it the designation, “Banned In Boston,” it meant that it had failed the standards of decency which the Bostonian morality mavens had established and could neither be sold or performed or in the case of art be displayed within the city nor could it be included in the Boston Public Library’s collection.  The practice was commonplace until 1965 when William S. Burroughs challenged and won his case to allow his book, “The Naked Lunch” to be distributed in the city.

Over the years many works which we now consider to be classics fell under the “Ban.”  Among these were Walt Whitman’s “Leaves of Grass”; “Desire Under the Elms” by Eugene O’Neill; “The Sun Also Rises” and “A Farewell to Arms” by Ernest Hemingway; “God’s Little Acre” by Erskine Caldwell; “Wake Up Little Susie” by the Everly Brothers and one of Sinclair Lewis’ books, “Elmer Gantry.”

The basis for banning most of these works centered around one of two issues – either the vulgarity of the language employed  in creating the work or that the censors felt there was either too much implied or explicit mention of sex in it.  By far, the second was the greatest reason on which the “morality committees” made their decision.

But Lewis’ work was unique in that he hardly ever employed an expletive stronger than “Damn” in his writing – and then only infrequently.  And while it was true that he described sexual behavior and liaisons in his work, he did not do so in an evocative or lurid way.  It was the subject matter of the book, “Elmer Gantry” itself which riled the censors into taking action.

You see, the protagonist of “Elmer Gantry” was a degenerate, womanizing, alcoholic preacher man of the lowest moral standing – and it was Lewis’ characterization of a “man of the cloth” in such a way that offended the Boston censors.

In the America of 1927 when “Elmer Gantry” was published, most Americans identified themselves with some religious group or other.  Going to shul for our Jewish citizens or church for those of us who were Christians was a regular and normal part of our lives.

The clergy, priests, rabbis and ministers were looked up to as standard bearers of righteousness and morality.  Many Americans felt they could confidentially receive the same kind of loving advice from their spiritual pastor as they could from their best friend or their closest relative.  And the clerics in our society generally held themselves to the highest possible standards not only by preaching their virtue in their sermons but by living it as an example for all of us.

There should be no wonder that movies with religious themes such as “Going My Way” were extraordinarily popular.  The moviegoer could leave the theater and relate to Barry Fitzgerald’s and Bing Crosby’s portrayal of the pastor and the parish priest and say, “Why they seemed just like Pastor McGowan and Fr. Timothy.”

There are many of the clergy who have abrogated the high standards to which they have been called.  Our tabloids are filled with their names and their misdeeds.  But there are some who have received their message and lived it out – giving those of us who still remain in the flock a guiding light to lead us.

The next post will offer a brief summary of  the lives of members of both groups.

ART, TREES AND STUFF

This morning I was thinking about the many considerate and wonderful people I have known in my life.  I have had perhaps more than my fair share of those relationships (though in all honesty I’m not sure that one can ever have too many).

And I thought to myself, “Self, you’re a lucky person.”  I truly believe that.

It all started with my family.  Sure they were nurturing and provided me with the security that every child deserves, but through their example they taught me in a mostly unspoken way the “rules of engagement” which when I grew up seemed to be both generally expected of each of us and practiced by most.

The genesis of this post all began when I gave Gracie her morning treats.  I am always overwhelmed at the quiet dignity of this gentle giant.  How she doesn’t need words to say, “Thank you,” because the gratitude she feels is so apparent in her eyes.

Gracie

It’s as though she and all the other dogs who came before her somehow intuitively know how to act in a civilized and loving manner – a skill which we humans have to acquire through parenting and the example of others – and far too many of us have skipped this class entirely or at least need to take a remedial course.

But there was a second reason for this post.  I was thinking back a few weeks to one of the children down the block who graduated from high school and how her house had been TP’d.  Until I moved out west, I was unfamiliar with this apparently common practice which involves unrolling a great quantity of toilet paper and catching it in tree branches at the matriculating senior’s place of residence.

Now this bothers me in several ways.  The first is that, for whatever reason, I have always had a great deal of admiration, respect and love for trees.  Obviously they are the source of this toilet paper and I earnestly feel hurt that we consider their lives and importance to be so trivial that we can can wantonly discard their sacrifice in this manner.  The second is that this wastefulness seems so unfortunately characteristic of our ever-consumptive and under-productive view of our world and our respective roles in society.  The practice, other than for the two reasons given above seems harmless enough and, I have learned, is almost expected.

That doesn’t mean that I grieve less for the trees.  I wanted to share an image of a painting done by Friedensreich Hundertwasser (born Friedrich Stowasser in Vienna) entitled “Conversations with a Tree.”  But while I could find the work cited in his catalogue raisonné, I couldn’t find the image itself.  All, however, was not lost as I had purchased a print, which hangs in my home,  of his painting “Noah’s Ark” which bears the admonition, “You Are A Guest Of Nature.  Behave.”

friedensreich-hundertwasser-arche-noah

Whether the artist had the practice of TPing in mind when he executed this work is doubtful.  I’m not sure that the kids in New Zealand, where he moved and accepted citizenship, engage in the practice.  But his words speak to more than one impish prank.  They address an attitude toward life in general.

While the practice of TPing a neighbor’s house is relatively harmless and not yet construable as a Federal offense, this lack of respect (whether for Nature or for our kindred humans) has taken a nasty turn.  Apparently, some of our kids think it’s fun to create their own incendiary devices, housed in plastic bottles, and leave these on their neighbors’ lawns.

This was brought to my attention by a friend who sent me an email on the subject, and while he is someone whom I trust implicitly, nevertheless I thought I had an obligation to check out the facts (as any good reporter should).  Unfortunately, it took me less than 30 minutes to verify the information.

I am not going to list the three ingredients which combine to make this sort of “homemade Molotov cocktail” but they are items which may be found in virtually any American home or are easily purchased at our grocery stores.  When the container is picked up, the movement shakes up the contents, causing them to chemically combine and the result is that they heat up and can either cause severe burns or worse.

So my suggestion is, should you see a near empty plastic container which holds anything more than liquid in it, you should not try to dispose of it but call your local Fire or Police Department and have them handle it.

Having given you that unsettling information, I think it’s time to get back to the sense of tranquility that trees have always afforded me.  And what better way is there than with one of my favorite of the Impressionists, Paul Cezanne and his painting of “A Large Pine Tree and Red Earth.”

paul-cezanne-large-pine-tree-and-red-earth-1890-1895

I wish all of you a wonderful day.

OPIE DOESN’T LIVE HERE ANYMORE

Life in the Mayberry in which Opie grew up on “The Andy Griffith Show” was simpler.  It was a time in America when people in small towns left their doors unlocked, their lives focused around work, going to church on Sunday, putting up preserves and canning vegetables for the winter and offering a helping hand to their neighbors and strangers who happened to pass by.

It was the America that Norman Rockwell and Grandma Moses captured so well in their art.  Today their work is one of the few remnants of a kinder, gentler, more caring nation where a little kid’s biggest concern was wondering what Mom was making for dinner, if he’d studied enough to get a good grade on tomorrow’s history test and whether the Erector Set would be under the Christmas tree.

There were the dances sponsored by the B.P.O.E. and the ice cream socials.  On the Fourth of July the town folk looked forward to the annual parade down Main Street as the band walked in patriotic step to the well-known marches they had played for so many years.  And the adults and the kids, hoisted on their fathers’ shoulders so that they could see, would passionately wave the flag which was the symbol of the great land in which they lived.

It was an era of home health remedies, but if those failed the doctor would come to your house after the town’s switchboard operator put your call through to him.  He had probably been the one who helped bring you into the world as well as one or both of your parents and this was as much a social as a medical call.  The only specialty he could claim was that he did it all from cradle to grave.

It was hard to keep a secret here.  But there wasn’t much to tell and little to hide.  No young couple’s hand-holding went unnoticed and would start the stories flying that John was “sweet” on Mary.  The barber shop and the beauty parlor served a dual purpose as places to go for tonsorial upgrades and to get the latest news about the town council’s meeting last night.

People purchased things that they did not make themselves with an eye to questioning whether the quality of the product was good enough to last not only for their lifetime but was something they could hand down to their children.  Most products made then were  But if something went wrong there was always Tom Johnson’s repair shop.  He could fix anything.

The little extra cash that folks had was as likely to be found in the cookie jar as in a bank account.  It was always good to have a little extra cash on hand – since that was the only way you could buy something.  But if you happened to have left your money at home it was okay.  The man who pumped your gas down at the filling station would just ask you to pay him the next time you happened by.  People trusted one another to do the right thing – and they usually did.

On a Saturday night the family might sit out on the front porch after dinner.  Dad would smoke his pipe and Mom would just relax after she had finished putting the dishes away, resting from a long day of washing and ironing and cleaning and cooking.  The stars filled the sky with their brilliance and the only sounds that were heard were the creaking of the swing on which they sat and the music of the crickets.

Those of us who met people who grew up and lived in these small towns thought of them as “bumpkins”.  Perhaps that was out of ignorance – perhaps out of envy.  Their ways were certainly different from ours.  And in the full measure of things, perhaps what they valued held a great deal more worth and merit than those about which we busied ourselves.

In small towns, courtesy and kindness and neighborliness were not theoretical.  They were part of everyday life.  Because these folks understood that they were a thread in a common web that had been woven – one in which respect for one’s fellows was not only expected, it was innately understood as the underpinning of a humane and caring society.

People in these towns had a distinct sense of morality.  Perhaps it was instilled by their religious beliefs.  Perhaps it came about because in a small town it was hard to be anonymous – whether you did good or ill.  In the light of day and with watchful neighbors, it was impossible to be a miscreant without drawing the attention of the community.

Perhaps anonymity is the reason that there is so much rudeness and selfishness and crime in our cities.  Or maybe it’s because that one moral standard to which most Americans at one time gave at least lip-service, God passed with the declaration of His death in “Time Magazine”.  And that set us free to do and choose as we wanted.  We’ve wanted and coveted a lot and haven’t been too particular about how we got it.

There has been nothing which we have conjured up with our technology or our science which has yet to fill that vacuum.  We have launched our boats and set ourselves adrift on the mindless, turbulent sea of self-gratification.  Many of us have no sense of ethics, no guiding light and certainly no heroes who are our standard-bearers.

Our news sources, such as they are, report to us daily about the latest scandal whether that is theft or adultery or murder.  We have come to expect that sort of behavior – and those in the limelight have not failed to disappoint us.  That is the centerpiece of this tragedy in which, ultimately, all of us are the victims.

Opie left town.  He hoped to find a better future for himself and his family.  Perhaps he made the transition to his new environment successfully and found what he wanted.  I certainly hope so.

But when all is said and done, I often pull down my volumes of the collected works of Norman Rockwell and Grandma Moses and enjoy the comfort of the times and places and people that they captured in their work – and wonder, “What if …?”

THE PATCHWORK QUILT

I have a cousin who gathers little scraps of material and assembles them into some of the most wonderful patchwork quilts I have ever seen.  I think she’s made over one hundred of them and each is truly a testament to her dedication and artistry.  She’s never sold one but has entered them in many exhibits and won many prizes.  Quilting is a dying art – perhaps because the materials and the artisan were made in America.

In reading today that Sen. Marco Rubio (R) FL offered a heartfelt proposal to exempt our Olympic medal winners from paying Federal income tax on their prize awards, ($25,000 for gold; $15,000 for silver; $10,000 for bronze), I understand his sense of pride in those Americans who will take home medals.  I also understand his desire to encourage more young people to reach for excellence instead of settling for mediocrity.

I even understand President Obama’s endorsement of this proposal as, surely, no right-thinking (or even left-thinking) American is likely to oppose it – and we know what motivates the President’s thinking on most matters of public policy – the polls.

I like and admire Senator Rubio a great deal.  I think he is one of the few bright lights of any political affiliation in America today.  We need more people like him if we are to move forward and pull ourselves out of the mire in which we have willingly ensnared ourselves through our apathy as voters.  But I think that, in this matter, Senator Rubio is wrong.

We have a tax code (IRC) that is 62,000 pages long.  And it got that way because we started creating special exemptions, tax credits and rules for specific interest groups.  They might have been farmers or hedge fund managers or pharmaceutical companies and now, perhaps, Olympic medal winners.  That is why this Byzantine piece of legislation needs to be replaced with something that is actually functional and understandable.

Now into the fray over Gov. Romney’s tax returns enter Sen. Majority Leader Harry (I’ve-never-had-an-original-idea-or-a-job-not-paid-for-by-the-public-dole) Reid (D) NV with his allegations that the man hasn’t paid taxes for ten years and he has proof.  That’s interesting since I just wrote a post on this subject, reviewed the Governor’s 2011 return which is posted on line and saw that he, in fact, did pay taxes – a lot of taxes – if you consider a couple of million to be a lot.

So on the face of it, the Senator’s statement is obviously untruthful – and it took President Obama little time at all to distance himself from the remark.  But let’s assume, just for fun, that he was referring to the ten years ending in 2010 and that he is correct.

Well, there are only two explanations why this could be:

One, Governor Romney “cheated” and filed fraudulent returns for ten years.  My question is that if that is true, why didn’t anyone among the 100,000 plus employees in the IRS pick up on that and send him a “Notice of Deficiency.”  I mean, after all, that’s why we pay them, isn’t it?

Two, Governor Romney filed his returns correctly according to the IRC to which, in his 29 years in Congress, Sen. Reid helped add further exemptions, exclusions and special interest credits.

So assuming scenario two, who is at fault?  Is it Governor Romney for obeying the law?  Or is it the simpletons and self-serving members of the Congressional Aristocracy who enabled him and many others to do so?

Patchwork quilts are a work of art, but not when it comes to preparing an equitable tax code.

MUSIC HATH POWER …

It’s Sunday – even here in Las Vegas.  We are currently enjoying a much needed break from the sweltering heat that made its way here and across much of the country.  We’ve even had two days of substantial rain and last night I stood in the dog park with Gracie and enjoyed the coolness as the droplets soaked me through and through.  (I think Gracie was less impressed with this than I was).

So even though the casinos are saying farewell to their weekend visitors, many of whom said farewell to their stash of cash while they stayed here, it is important to me to try to keep things in perspective and try to set aside some time away from that which is worldly and direct myself toward higher things.

On Sundays. as part of that discipline, I try to do some contemplative thinking.  That may take the form of reading or it may incorporate listening to music or a combination of both.  But this was a busy Sunday.  I had a few grocery items I needed to purchase for the dinner I was making and a car battery to replace.  Car batteries in the desert have about the same life expectancies as fruit flies.

So as I was coming home with a new battery installed and my groceries on the passenger seat, I had rolled down the windows as it was still in the mid-80’s and there was a nice breeze blowing.  As I waited for the light to change, a man pulled up next to me in a large, new SUV which obviously had a very high-powered radio installed.  He was playing rap music and I’m sure that the volume was sufficient that it could have been heard in our state capital, Carson City nearly 450 miles away..

One of the things you learn when you live in Las Vegas is that we have some of the longest street lights in the world.  When I first moved here I wondered whether some of them at which I had been stopped ever changed.  I now know better.  They do change eventually – but in this case the wait seemed interminable.

I thought about rolling up the windows – but I thought that would have been as rude as the driver’s behavior in subjecting me to this “music”.  So I waited somewhat impatiently for the magic green disk to appear on the signal.  It finally did, but not before I had heard more than my fair share of M*ther F*cker and B*tch.

I realize that my classical music traditions would seem as strange to the driver of this car as his music does to me.  Well, there’s no accounting for taste – or lack of it.  But since music has been such an important influence in my life I can’t help but feel that the kind we choose to hear has a significant impact on how we see the world and how we treat each other.  Or perhaps the way that we view ourselves and the world determines our choice in music.

Somehow I don’t see a person who listens to music which through denigration and vulgarity demeans others as a person who is likely to be one of those “touchy-feely” types.  I could be wrong.  But I believe that we are what we eat – and that is true of the food we consume, the literature we read and the music to which we listen.

I do know that for me music is a refuge.  It brings out the best in me and comforts me when I am troubled.  And this being Sunday, I thought I would share the hymn which I played when I came home from my excursion.  It is of American origin, probably dating from the mid-19th century and was composed by one of those best know authors, Anonymous.

I played it several times just to unwind from the traffic light episode.  I hope that you enjoy it as much as I have over many years.

This story shows so clearly that we need to wake up and hear the music.

allaboutlemon-All Around, In, And Out Of My Own Universe


contrib by Paul Bleckley

Washington, DC Metro Station on a cold January morning in 2007. The man with a violin played six Bach pieces for about 45 minutes. During that time approx. two thousand people went through the station, most of them on their way to work.

After 3 minutes a middle aged man noticed there was a musician playing.. He slowed his pace and stopped for a few seconds and then hurried to meet his schedule. 4 minutes later: the violinist received his first dollar: a woman threw the money in the hat and, without stopping, continued to walk. 6 minutes: A young man leaned against the wall to listen to him, then looked at his watch and started to walk again.

10 minutes: A 3-year old boy stopped but his mother tugged him along hurriedly. The kid stopped to look at the violinist again, but the mother pushed hard…

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