Sunday, December 27, 2020

March 2020: Skating on Thinnest Ice

As the pandemic drags on, my mind keeps circling back to events in the first week of March. They marked the end of “normal” times and the louder rumbles of the avalanche that rolled over society a week later.

I spent the last weekend in February visiting my son in the Boston area. We enjoyed museums, attended a boisterous Bernie Sanders rally on Boston Common and ate Thai food. On Sunday, March 1, we attended the PAX East video game conference at the convention center near Amtrak’s South Station, where I would get the train back home that afternoon

The scene outside the convention center bustled with attendees streaming in. My son and I checked in, I stowed my suitcase and we hit the swirling, crowded floor. The place seemed chaotic, with attendees in costumes of their favorite characters jostling with booth workers from companies with their splashy displays, where gamers could try out games and see demonstrations. We wandered around and he stopped to play a game. Not a gamer myself, I studied the crowd and the sorts of games getting major visibility.

My photos from the day are striking and ominous. They show the packed crowds, with signs posting asking attendees to not block the aisles for photos. I saw masks, both as parts of costumes and, in their plain forms, as a precaution against the virus forcing itself into our consciousness. 

I told my son, "I can't tell if the masks are for costumes or are serious." Whatever the motivation, the masks lent a real-world anxiety to PAX East.

Many games bore a violent, apocalyptic look, typical in the game industry but ironic in light of the events that followed in the coming days, and down to today. Some titles: Zombie Army: Dead War 4, Insurgency Sandstorm, Destroy All Humans!, Wasteland 3 (realized in major cities’ business districts over the summer), Iron Harvest 1920+, The Survivalists, Partisans, Kosmokrats (written in fake Cyrillic letters) and Disintegration (that should be adapted as a game about the economic impact of the pandemic). 

The Amtrak ride from South Station back to Stamford felt typical, quiet and smooth, with plenty of time for reading and no pandemic safety measures. I couldn't imagine it at the time, but this train trip would be the last time I used public transportation in 2020.

Only later did I learn that a superspreader event happened in Boston February 26-27, an international biotechnology conference that ultimately infected 300,000 people. I arrived on Feb. 26—how close did I pass by infected individuals in the days that followed? 

By the next Saturday, March 7, the pandemic demanded notice at a Stamford country club, where the local Jewish Community Center honored a couple I know. There, people talked about the pandemic and even nervously joked about it, favoring fist bumps rather than hand shakes or hugs. Still, by today’s standards, the gala felt normal. Groups posed for photos with Connecticut Senator Richard Blumenthal, one of the night’s speakers, and sat together in tight groups. I bought a necklace for my partner Naomi at a silent auction. I was in a good mood.

I didn’t know that Covid-19 was already spreading fast all around Stamford, with New Rochelle, NY a hot spot. As CNN reported on March 24, “The first known case in New Rochelle was discovered March 2. By March 10, that number had shot up to 108 coronavirus cases, evidence of exponential growth. The containment zone was established two days later.”

Even closer to Stamford, a superspreader event took place on March 5 in Westport, Connecticut, being called “party zero.” A Fox News story on March 24 said the party took place when Connecticut had no cases, but “as of Tuesday, the state is now dealing with 415 cases, 270 of which are in Fairfield County, where Westport is located.”

Did anybody from New Rochelle or Westport attend the JCC gala? I don’t know. I never heard of anybody at the gala getting sick. But it could have easily happened. The place was packed with hundreds of people, many of them elderly. the presence of infection would have been a disaster. Hindsight is always 20/20 but, looking back, we were skating on very thin ice that night, and it’s a miracle the ice didn’t crack and plunge us into illness.

The next day, Sunday March 8, I had a gig at an open mic event at the Tompkins Corners Cultural Center in Putnam Valley, NY. The mood had darkened even from the night before. Ripples of anxiety ricocheted across the center as people kept their distance. We were glad to leave once the event ended.

And then came the week that overturned everything. You know what happened. You were there, you lived it, and we’re still tumbling in that viral avalanche as it leaves social, political and economic wreckage in its wake. 

Viewed from this last weekend of 2020, that first week in March in Boston and Stamford glimmers like a receding star in another dimension. How and when we recapture that freedom of thought, commerce and movement remains unknown. 

Sunday, December 20, 2020

Walking Westchester County in the Pandemic

The monthly totals on my phone pedometer leapt forward last March as the pandemic hit. The February total was 164,800 steps, in March it rose to 227,300. The walking campaign peaked in August at a lofty 290,000, fueled by massive numbers on a vacation to New Hope, Pennsylvania, with its miles-long walking paths on the Pennsylvania and New Jersey sides of the Delaware River.

The great majority of my pandemic steps, now close to 2 million steps since March, came in Westchester County, NY. My partner Naomi and I have become relentless daily walkers. Over nine months, we have had ground-level view of the changing seasons, counting cars in driveways, dodging crashing tree limbs after storms, recognizing dogs more than their walkers (as in, oh, here comes Mr. Greyhounds), and watching with the delight the ongoing artistic magic of anonymous local artist, the Katonah Chalker.

We’ve gotten to the point where we use short hand to set our routes. Lakeside Loop, Valley Road to Memorial Park, Whitlockville to Anderson, Reservoir Road to the Caramoor Center for Music and the Arts (while walking past Martha Stewart's estate with the perfectly stacked stone wall), Bedford Hills Metro-North Station, downtown to the Katonah Village Library and back. Our strides are so coordinated that we can estimate to within 100 steps how far we’ll walk in an hour at the rate of 100 steps per minute.

The godsend since the spring has been our membership at the Ward Pound Ridge Reservation, with its 4,315 acres of well-marked trails. Over the summer we’d slather on bug spray for two-hour jaunts. We especially remember an early one where we confronted a boulder-strewn steep uphill climb that had us gasping for breath. The county-run Reservation has been a great place to meet friends for socially distanced tramping and I just renewed our annual membership.

The search for variety sent us cruising around Westchester. In a time that feels a lot like the endless repeating loop of the movie Groundhog Day, we enjoy the variety of the North County Trail, the Bronx River Parkway from White Plains to the Kensico Dam, and Sleepy Hollow with the vibrant riverfront mural.

The one thing we can’t easily reach in Westchester is a beach. For that, we’ve driven back to where I lived before KatonahWestport, Connecticut. We’ve been to Sherwood Island State Park and Compo Beach, where the endlessly pounding surf is thrilling and relaxing. We typically combine the walk with a late lunch in Westport and a stroll around downtown on the shores of the Saugatuck River. I lived there for 17 years, so the place packs a lot of memories. 

The quest for steps has led us through many towns south of KatonahMt. Kisco, Chappaqua (looking for the Clintons all over), Pleasantville, Valhalla and the mighty Kensico Dam, and White Plains, and then on to posh Larchmont and its waterfront, and Hartsdale. As a camera buff, I find all of these locations highly photogenic.

What have we learned? Mask usage in the pandemic varies widely. The Bronx River Parkway in the summer felt iffy, with unmasked bikers and narrow trails that squished people together. In the Reservation we stood by as lean shirtless young men pounded by on the rocky trails. We feared they were spraying sweat and breath droplets as they whizzed by. These days, we gotta think about that. 

Naomi and I keep looking for new parks, riverside paths along the Hudson, sites like the Glacial Erratic boulder in Rockefeller State Park, historical sites, anything to get us out of the house. With my trusty backpack loaded with water bottles, trail mix, masks, maps, cough drops and a camera, we’re ready for anything. I recommend this walking approach for anybody looking for a way to keep fit and avoid going stir crazy while stuck at home.

And when the pandemic ends? We’ll keep right on walking. Maybe we can even ditch the masks. 

Monday, November 09, 2020

John Coltrane, Miles David and ZZ Top: Restless Artists Deserving a Fresh Listen

Several years ago I attended a lecture at the Katonah Museum of Art that completely changed the way I look at art. A curator spoke about how abstract expressionism developed. That is, artists moved from representations of things we recognize to more abstract forms. Ultimately the curator reached the far end of abstraction, with art of pure colors and pure shapes. 

[An open-mic version of this post can be found on YouTube, here.]

As somebody whose taste leans to the Rembrandt and Norman Rockwell schools of realism, I had looked askance at extreme abstractions. I could take the art in at a glance, I could see nothing much to ponder in it. But you know what? The lecture made me think again. For the first time, I got what the artists were up to. What had been a mystery became something I could understand from the artist’s point of view. What seemed a little jive now looked more complex, holding a story of shades and shapes and their emotional meaning.

The seeming simplicity and randomness of impressionism reminded me of an imagined conversation between an unimpressed observer and an artist. The observer scoffs, “Oh, I could have done that.” The artist responded, “You could have, but I DID.”

These thoughts came to me after I recently watched three documentaries on Amazon, about jazz musicians John Coltrane (Chasing Trane: The John Coltrane Documentary) and Miles Davis (Miles Davis: The Mile Davis Story) and the Texas blues-rock trio ZZ Top ( ZZ Top, That Little Ol’ Band from Texas). I’m a huge fan of all of them and have plenty of their albums. I got my first Miles Davis album, The Complete Birth of the Cool, in December 1975 in McAllen, Texas, soon after I turned 18. ZZ Top’s first three albums--ZZ Top’s First Album, Rio Grande Mud and Tres Hombres--were in heavy rotation on my record player when I was in high school.

Since I got a Victrola 8-in-1 cabinet player, I’ve been exploring my long-unheard vinyl collection. Lately I’m working through the massive 12-record set Miles Davis Chronicles: The Complete Prestige Recordings, 1951-1956. The second disk practically tells a brooding romantic story in the arc of the songs:
  • Out of the Blue
  • Denial
  • My Old Flame
  • It’s Only a Paper Moon
  • Compulsion
  • The Serpent’s Tooth
  • ‘Round About Midnight
Davis’s music especially drills deep into my cortex, provoking all kinds of moody images of misty nights at the Rainbow Room and then, well, 'round about midnight. I could write a novel with those compositions as the chapter titles. The only song missing is Lush Life.

My albums collection shows a sharp break in my interest in their music. Their earlier works appealed to me more than what came later. Coltrane and Davis did landmark work in the 1950s and early 1960s; they were lyrical, emotional, inventive. Those are the albums I gobbled up at places like St. Marks Sounds in New York.

Those phases segued into other sounds. The documentaries made the point that Coltrane and Davis reached a stage in their careers where they went in new directions. Coltrane expressed his spirituality after getting off drugs, Davis an interest in trends like electronic music, Indian sounds, rock, funk.

Those later periods left me cold. I wasn’t the only one. The Coltrane documentary talked about people walking out on his concerts because they expected Lush Life and My Favorite Things and he wanted to perform new material. Davis, who I heard in concert in 1975, ditched his traditional jazz sound for a totally new approach (and even a new way of dressing). My intense attachment to his works ends with works recorded after 1970. Bitches Brew and On the Corner just weren’t my cup of tea.

But after the documentaries, I’m ready to at least give them both another listen. They were artists pushing into new territory, what they wanted to play, not what the public wanted from them. Teen age musicians, unusual instruments, electronic squalls--why not? Neither of them was going to become an oldies act ready to skate for decades on a certain repertoire. That’s not a bad way to manage a career, if you can keep an audience interested in your older material (Chicago, the Beach Boys and other groups often seen on PBS documentaries during Pledge Week). For Coltrane and Davis, their accomplishments gave them the right to play what interested them.

Same for ZZ Top. The trio had pride of place in my record collection in high school, with their first self-named album, then Rio Grande Mud, then Tres Hombres. Songs like “Brown Sugar,” “Somebody Else Been Shakin’ Your Tree” and “La Grange” were in heavy rotation. Then I left for college and sort of lost interest. The documentary talks about how the band moved into new sounds, away from what worked so well in the beginning (although the film says almost nothing about the last three decades of the group's output). People didn’t know what to make of it. I liked their MTV videos like Legs and Gimme All Your Lovin’, but my musical tastes evolved from rock in general.

However, the documentary rekindled my interest. They were like Coltrane and Davis. ZZ Top wasn’t going to rest on their laurels. Different tunings, other influences came into the mix. With 15 studio albums, only some of which I’m familiar with, ZZ Top left a lot of platters for me to spin.

So from Coltrane’s A Love Supreme to Davis’s Bitches Brew to ZZ Top’s Mescalero, I’ve got some listening to do. Will my ears perk up, my cortex tingle? I don’t know. But like I learned from the lecture on abstract expressionism, some art deserves a second listen.

Saturday, October 03, 2020

Re: Re-Reading

I have favorite books, but I’m not a fan of re-reading them, at least not novels. Some historical books I’ll thumb through for the writing about the gripping events they describe. They typically are about the Soviet Union in the 1930s and the convulsions of World War II. Those include The Great Terror by Robert Conquest, The Gulag Archipelago by Aleksandr Sozhenitsyn and The Second World Wars by Victor Davis Hanson.

With fiction, I’m a one-and-done reader. I know the book and how it ends, what else can I get from it? One rare exception had been Dubliners by James Joyce, with its tales of Ireland, such as “The Dead,” by a native who left his childhood home for college and then Europe. That’s something I can increasingly identify with as a writer who moved from Texas and now feels compelled to write stories set in the place.

[An open mic presentation of this essay can be found here.]

Lately, however, my attention is returning to novels that made a deep impression on me. Some of them I read so long ago that I can’t remember exactly what I liked about them. None are particularly long but all cast long shadows over my sense of what makes literature work.

I want to re-read them both to refresh my memories of them and see what they mean the second time around. I also want to compare them to novels I’ve read recently. A lot of current fiction just doesn’t click with me. I decided to do a test to contrast what I liked then with what I haven’t liked so much now.

The re-reading project ignited when I found a book in a giveaway box left in front of a house down the street from the library. It’s The White Hotel by D.M. Thomas, published in 1981. It’s about the imagined life of a patient of Sigmund Freud, a troubled opera singer. Its tapestry of dreams, fantasies, reality and tragedy gripped me when I read it in my 20s. Some parts of it lodged in my memory and I wanted to see if what I recalled was there. Those passages were indeed there. Given the nature of the passages that impressed me, I won’t quote any of them here. Read for yourself.

The White Hotel is intelligent and powerful without being self-consciously difficult to read. DM Thomas doesn’t write needlessly convoluted sentences that dare you to excavate his obscure meaning. I try to bring that clarity to my writing.

The next book up hurls me even further back in time, to boyhood. That’s Treasure Island by Robert Louis Stevenson, published in 1883. Do kids even read Treasure Island these days? In any case, this adventure story made a major impression on me back in the late 1960s, along with Tom Sawyer. I looked through it online and Stevenson’s prose has a self-assurance and verve that greatly appeals to me.

While written for wildly different audiences, Treasure Island and The White Hotel have surprising overlaps. Both books feature hotels and deal with dreams. A book with Dr. Freud as a character, of course, will be riddled with spicy dreams and their interpretation. Treasure Island both begins and ends with references to dreams. Is that what struck me as a boy, on the edge of a dawning awareness of life’s complexities? I don’t know, that would take an analyst of Freudian powers to unpack. And what is psychoanalysis, if not the quest for the hidden treasures buried on the island of the human unconscious?

Anyway, consider the first page of Treasure Island, where narrator Jim Hawkins writes ominously of “the seafaring man with one leg:"
How that personage haunted my dreams, I need scarcely tell you. On stormy nights, when the wind shook the four corners of the house and the surf roared along the cove and up the cliffs, I would see him in a thousand forms, and with a thousand diabolical expressions.
And the very last paragraph:
The bar silver and the arms still lie, for all that I know, where Flint buried them; and certainly they shall lie there for me. Oxen and wain-ropes would not bring me back again to that accursed island; and the worst dreams that ever I have are when I hear the surf booming about its coasts or start upright in bed with the sharp voice of Captain Flint still ringing in my ears: "Pieces of eight! Pieces of eight!"
Now that’s writing of the highest order. Let’s read it again: “Oxen and wain-ropes would not bring me back again to that accursed island.” The passage sounds like my reluctance to take Metro-North into Manhattan these days.

So that’s my first take on re-reading. I have others in mind. I’ll talk about them later. For now, I’ll update my reservation list here at the library and get back to reading.

Tuesday, May 19, 2020

Reflecting on Jorge Santana, The Malo Man

Monday's death of guitarist and band leader Jorge Santana of the group Malo sent me digging into my vinyl record collection in the basement. Malo had been a great favorite of mine in high school and I wanted to get my hands on the platter and relive what the music meant to me almost 50 years ago when I was growing up in Mission, Texas.

I found my copy of Malo's second album, Dos, and also my triple-album set Fillmore: The Last Days, about the final performances at the legendary San Francisco music hall that closed in 1971. The two albums are closely related in my mind. Here's the story about how that happened.

Malo must have first come to my attention when I bought The Last Days on August 16, 1972 (obsessive-compulsive that I am, I write the date I buy records and books on the packaging). I was 14 years old and had a thing for multi-album sets with all the extras thrown in. This package had a poster, a ticket and an illustrated booklet. Plus, the music greatly appealed to me with the Grateful Dead, Santana (led by Carlos Santana, Jorge's brother), the New Riders of the Purple Sage and other groovy groups.

I might have heard Malo's first album before, the one with eye-catching Aztec cover, the explosive opening track "Pana" and their huge hit "Suavacito" on it, but I definitely heard the group on The Last Days, playing "Pana." Santana's group must have made a big impression on me, because I bought Dos on November 17, 1972.  With songs like "I'm For Real" and "Latin Bugaloo," I became a confirmed fan of Jorge Santana's Malo. Lacking a way to play vinyl these days, I turn to YouTube to get my annual booster shot of Malo, early Santana, and the other Chicano group that caught my attention in the early 1970s, El Chicano.

My interest in Latin music remained at a low simmer, defined by teen listening habits, until the early 2000s, when a trip to Brazil turbocharged a fascination with bossa nova and MPB (música popular brasileira) that continues unabated 15 years later. Cuban, Puerto Rican and Tex-Mex music followed and I still listen to more Latin music these days than any other genre. I just like the sounds. It takes me back to those roots on the border.

The great flowering of interest in Latin music really does trace its way back to Jorge Santana and Malo in 1972, perhaps even more than Santana. Santana the group was easy to hear in the 1960s and 1970s, with hits in heavy rotation on the big Top 40 station in McAllen, Texas, KRIO-AM. Malo, however, had a lower profile in the era where you had to hunt around record stores and find "underground" radio shows to hear music off the mainstream. Jorge Santana's music was a small act of teen rebellion on my part, when gringos like me didn't pay much attention to Latin music.

Thanks for all the memories and sounds, Jorge Santana. The music will always be with us. Any day, like today, that starts with "Pana" is going to be a good day.

Sunday, April 05, 2020

My Desert Island Quarantine-Friendly Song List

My team at work is compiling a Spotify playlist of everybody’s 10 top songs for listening when working at home (as we all are now). As we put together our lists, I thought about what music most appealed to me. The final lineup included songs that fell into groups marked by similar lyrical themes (finding and losing romance), along with pulsing, brass-driven boogaloo music, like the selections from Chicago, Tim Maia and Curtis Mayfield. 

Most of the songs call up stories for me: When I first heard them, where, the emotional connotations. Each one carries a satchel of memories and meanings, so I shared some context on each. Without further navel-gazing, here you go, in the order they came to mind:

Time Changes Everything, Bob Wills and the Texas Playboys. A rueful bookend for the first song played at my wedding, “Waltz Across Texas” by Ernest Tubb.

Out of My League, Fitz and the Tantrums. I heard this on the radio and it single-handedly renewed my faith in the power of pop music, once I tracked it down.

Lush Life, John Coltrane and Johnny Hartman. This is the lounge lizard life I lived, at least in my imagination.

Já Sei Namorar, Os Tribalistas. I first heard this Brazilian supergroup trio when taking an intensive Portuguese class one summer in New York at the excellent Brazil Ahead language program. The album Tribalistas would be one of my top desert island discs, if I found myself stranded on an island or, in current terms, in a house.

Move On Up, Curtis Mayfield. Everybody up and dancing for this one, from my favorite soul singer, full of drive to keep moving ahead despite the circumstances.

Introduction, Chicago. I've called this greatest first song on the greatest first album ever! From the very first note of its very first recorded song, Chicago showed a total vision and confidence in its music. Nobody’s been able to top the artistry of their first three albums, not even Chicago.

Sharon Jones, in blue dress at left, in Brooklyn's Prospect Park
Stranded In Your Love, Sharon Jones and the Dap-Kings. I had the great honor of being in the right place at the right time to see Ms. Jones at her legendary concert at Brooklyn’s Prospect Park on August 7, 2010. I love the line in this song, “Is this romance or circumstance?”

I Can’t Get Started, Bunny Berrigan. From the soundtrack of “Chinatown,” which completely changed my taste in music. I obsessed over this song and the soundtrack for years and finally tracked down a copy at the Virgin Megastore in London in 1984. I carefully brought it back with me to my studio apartment in Brooklyn. I treasure it to this day, if only I had a turntable to play it on.

Encontros e Despedidas, Maria Rita. I heard this song on a Brazilian telenovela in 2004 and it lodged in my consciousness with its evocations of meetings and good-byes in life. This was another song that took years for me to discover the artist and the song. I immediately bought every CD by Maria Rita.

Gostava Tanto De Você, Tim Maia. Here's an upbeat song with depressing lyrics. I think of him as the Barry White of Brazil, his songs are an echo of a certain time and place, full of what the Brazilians call saudade.


Wednesday, March 18, 2020

An Annotated List of The Last, So Far

Last dinner with friends at Akdeniz.
Last performance of Live From Here at Town Hall.
Last opening at the Katonah Museum of Art.
Last picture show at the Burns Film Center.
Last Facebook post by the late Jim Salzer.
Last Shabbat at Chabad of Bedford.
Last ride on Metro-North to Grand Central Station.
Last exit to Brooklyn.
Last time in Boston.
Last time in Texas.
Last library book (The Weight of Ink, it's mine until the Katonah Village Library reopens).

Last handshake.
Last vacation in New England.
Last time to check my 401K.
Last trip to the office at 4 Times Square.
Last shopping splurge at Costco.
Last concert at Daryl's House.
Last open mic gig.
Last P-rade at Princeton.
Last gathering of the Class of '80.
Last time at the new MOMA.
Last CHIRP concert at Ballard Park.
Last lingering look.
Last night.

Monday, March 09, 2020

Your Podcast Identity

Growing up in Mission, Texas in the 1960s and 70s, I realized the magazines you read reveal a lot about who you are. My family had a typical Middle America subscription profile. Reader’s Digest, Life, Look, Sports Illustrated, Ladies Home Journal. National Geographic. My rowdier friends read Dave Campbell’s Texas Football and the NRA’s American Rifleman.

Due to technology and fractured demographics, the great Middle Class magazine rack doesn’t really exist now. Some, like Look, are long gone, others like the soft-sold Sports Illustrated are barely hanging on. I was surprised to learn that the Saturday Evening Post still appears, drawing on its incredible archive of stories and illustrations. 

With everybody reading on their phones these days, who’s left to read printed magazines? Well, there’s me; I still prefer print to electronic literature and enjoy hard copies of magazines with a more narrow appeal, like Reason, for libertarians, City Journal, The Jewish Review of Books and the Princeton Alumni Weekly.

But my magazine approach to personal definition is shifting to a new medium, podcasts. Podcasts may be crashingly familiar to most people who don’t live off-the-grid, but they’re new to me. Being a chronic late adopter, I viewed podcasts as unknown territory. I work at home, so I have already have enough online programming to distract me without podcasts adding another layer to keep me from productive labor. 

Then, after I replaced my battery-challenged Samsung phone with an iPhone 7, I realized podcast’s value as portable programming. I began doing hour-long walks around the bucolic town where I live for exercise. A long walk can get boring, so I decided to . . . try a podcast. I started finding programs I liked, some of them lasting exactly the length of my walk. 

What do I enjoy? Mostly foreign music and languages. I’m a nut for lifelong learning. The Latin Alternative loops me in to trends in Latin music and Israel Hour Radio does the same for Hebrew music. Culture Shock: The African Music Podcast sounds promising.

I’ve cycled through Portuguese and Hebrew language programs, a dip into Dutch. I tried Yiddish, too. Learning Brazilian Portuguese through Brazilian music works great for me. Lately I’ve expanded with The Moth and Mortified, two story-telling programs where I’d love to perform. To my delight, I learned my son and I both subscribe to RadioLab and This American Life.

AND, podcasts totally revamped my morning habits. My routine is I get up and feed the cats, then exercise. For months I worked out while flipping from local news to CNN, MSNBC, Fox News, then on to music videos on MTV, VH-1, BET and CMT. The problem: All are swamped with mind-numbing ads. You know them: credit repair, auto insurance, MyPillow, Cash Net USA, Poshmark. DEAR GOD MAKE THEM STOP, PLEASE! They repeat so often I memorized them. “Money’s on the way with Cash Net USA!”  I spent as much time pointlessly clicking around as I did watching actual content. My fitness routine suffered from the interruptions. 

Then I had the brilliant idea: why not listen to a podcast while I feel the burn? I could hear what I wanted and skip the endless ads. I decided to try a new program. 

So I dialed up Take One, a podcast of 10-minute segments on Jewish learning, with a host and a guest mulling over a page a day of the Talmud. That’s the massive collection of legal arguments and stories written down about 1500 years ago. I  had tried learning Talmud before but nothing clicked. But Take One’s format and content speak to me. I can get in three segments by the time I’ve stretched, crunched my abs and (clap!) pumped up with hand weights.

It follows the seven-year cycle of studying the Talmud so I can listen to something new every weekday until 2027! Thanks, Take One!

I’m still tinkering with what I call my Podcast Magazine Stack. Subscriptions come and go, programs vanish after a few episodes. Programs of Talmud, Dutch and bouncy Afropop are the friendly officemates keeping me company during my solitary home-office days. I’ll keep looking for the right vibe for the right time. 

Who knows, I may be sharing some programs with you in American Podcast Nation. What’s YOUR podcast identity?

Sunday, February 09, 2020

The Nagasaki Photographs of Robert Mottola

Robert Mottola at the opening of the exhibit.
The Katonah (NY)Village Library has an exhibition now called "Forget Nagasaki: Tiny Photos of Mass Destruction." They come from 92-year-old Robert Mottola. As a 17-year old seaman on the U.S. Navy minesweeper Speed, Mottola came into possession of a Japanese camera with film in it. The exhibit shows photos he took in Nagasaki after the nuclear bomb devastated the city in August 1945, shortly before the Japanese surrender.

The exhibit, on through February 14, shows the 45 photos he took with the camera, scenes of twisted buildings, civilians and life on board the Speed. Headphones enable listeners to hear Mottola narrate his stories, such as shooting down a Kamikaze attacking his ship, living on beer and bread on the Speed as food supplies ran low, and hanging Christmas trees in the riggings of the Speed. Some of the photos are streaked, showing the impact of radiation.

Mottola says during the narration, "Each of the photos was more precious than the one that came before it."

The overall impact is sombering, life and death seen from a distance of almost 75 years.

Sunday, December 22, 2019

Greenmantle: The Great War as Adventure

The Christmas Day release of the film 1917 comes a few weeks after I finished reading a book written during World War I, Greenmantle, by John Buchan. I found it in a giveaway stack after a local library sale. Something about it sounded familiar (Buchan also write The Thirty-Nine Steps, made into a movie by Alfred Hitchcock), so I gave it a go.

I liked the book both for its fast-paced writing and also the context. Buchan published it in 1916, the middle of the War to End All Wars, with an action-infused plot involving British efforts to uncover German machinations to stir up troubles in the Middle East. In true James Bond fashion, the hardy band of spy-adventurers encounters a beautiful but evil woman pulling a lot of the strings in the German plot.

In contrast to recent takes on the war, such as 1917 and Peter Jackson's They Shall Not Grow Old, Greenmantle offers a rather bloodless view of the war as it was happening. Official Britain wouldn't want anything overly explicit written about the slaughter on the Western Front, although heaping helpings of anti-German sentiment were, obviously, welcome.

Some passages especially struck me as a sign of the times, or for a prophetic quality given the next world war still to come.

The lead character of Greenmantle and other Buchan novels is Richard Hannay, a South African mining engineer and British soldier leading a team pursuing vague clues about the German plan. Hannay fought in 1915's Battle of Loos, where the British suffered 58,000 casualties, including 8,000 in just four hours. While wounded in the battle Hannay says little about the horrors of trench warfare. The very first page of the book sets the laconic tone toward combat:
For more than a year I had been a busy battalion officer, with no other thought that to hammer a lot of raw stuff into good soldiers. I had succeeded pretty well, and there was no prouder man on earth than Richard Hannay when he took his Lennox Highlanders over the parapets on that glorious and bloody 25th day of September. Loos was no picnic, and we had had some ugly bits of scrapping before that, but the worst bit of the campaign I had seen was a tea-party to the show I had been in with  Bullivant before the war started. [The Thirty-Nine Steps gives the back story on this episode.]
In one scene, where he's given shelter by a German farm woman with three children and a husband in the German army, he reflects,
Her man had gone to the wars on the Eastern front, and the last she had heard from him he was in a  Polish bog longing for his dry native woodlands. The struggle meant little to her. It was an act of God, a thunderbolt out of the sky, which had taken a husband from her, and might soon make her a widow and her children fatherless. She knew nothing of its causes and purposes, and thought of the Russians as a gigantic nation of savages, heathens who had never been converted, and who would eat German homes if the good Lord and the brave German soldiers did not stop them. I tried hard to find out if she had any notion of the affairs in the West, but she hadn't, beyond that fact that there was trouble with the French. She was a decent soul, with no bitterness against anybody, not even the Russians if they would spare her man.

That night I realized the crazy folly of war. When I saw the splintered shell of Ypres and heard the hideous tales of German doings, I used to want to see the whole land of the Boche given up to fire and sword. I thought we could never end the war properly without giving the Huns some of their own medicine. But the woodcutter's cottage cured me of such nightmares. I was for punishing the guilty but letting the innocent go free. It was our business to thank God and keep our hands clean from the ugly blunders to which Germany's madness had driven her. What good would it do Christian folk to burn poor little huts like this and leave children's bodies by the wayside? To be able to laugh and to be merciful are the only things that make man better than the beasts.
At one point Hannay says,
Germany's simplicity is that of a neurotic, not the primitive. It is megalomania and egotism and the pride of the man in the Bible that waxed fat and kicked. But the results are the same. She wants to destroy and simplify; but that isn't the simplicity of the ascetic, which is of the spirit, but the simplicity of the madman that grinds down all the contrivances of civilization to a featureless monotony. The prophet wants to save the souls of his people; Germany wants to rule the inanimate corpse of the world.
But wait, there's more about the German character! Hannay muses, "Then I realized something of the might of Germany. She produced good and bad, cads and gentlemen, but she could put a bit of the fanatic into them all." For good measure, Hannay mixes in several references to the Jews, angled to give ammunition to the conspiracy-minded:
This is the weakness of the German. He has no gift for laying himself alongside different types of men. He is such a hard-shell being that he cannot put out feelers to his kind. He may have plenty of brains, as Stumm had he has the poorest notion of psychology of any of God's creatures. In Germany only the Jew can get outside himself, and that is why, if you look into the matter, you will find that the Jew is at the back of most German enterprises.
(And if you liked that passage, Buchan writes other tart observations about Africans and Muslims that are outside the scope of this post.)

Later, he gives a manly view of mechanized slaughter:
I judged they must be bombarding the outer forts, and once there came a loud explosion and a red glare as if a magazine had suffered.

It was a sound I had not heard for five months, and it fairly crazed me. I remembered how I had first heard it on the ridge before Laventie. Then I had been half afraid, half solemnized, but every nerve had been quickened. Then it had been the new thing in my life that held me breathless with anticipation; now it was the old thing, the thing I had shared with so many good fellows, my proper work, and the only task for a man. At the sound of the guns I felt that I was moving in natural air once more. I felt that I was coming home. 
Buchan has more in this vein, talking up the bracing, clarifying nature of war as cleansing the effete posture of peaceful times; he was in tune with the pre-1914 mentality but absurdly delusional in the gore-infused light of what happened during World War I, and then the war it spawned 21 years after the Armistice. Whether Buchan moderated his views in other books after Greenmantle, especially after 1918, is something I'd like to learn more about.

March 2020: Skating on Thinnest Ice

As the pandemic drags on, my mind keeps circling back to events in the first week of March. They marked the end of “normal” times and the lo...