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.

Sunday, December 01, 2019

"As I Walk Through the Valley" and My Walk Back in Time

The new documentary As I Walk Through the Valley (AIWTTV) struck some deep chords in me—so deep, in fact, I watched most of it twice. I watched once for the pleasure of the music and stories, the second time taking notes on what people were saying, since they so perfectly captured the experience of growing up in the Rio Grande Valley of South Texas in the 1960s and 1970s.

Just added to Amazon Prime, AIWTTV comes from first-time directors Charlie Vela and Ronnie Garza. They set out to depict the underground music scene in the Valley. The first third of the film covers the rock and Tejano sounds that I grew up with, then shifts to the punk/hardcore scene that emerged after I left for college and career in the Northeast. The film's website features an invaluable selection of group biographies and links to their songs.

Mission, June 2011

The music provides the thematic structure upon which Vela and Garza build a heartfelt and ruthlessly revealing look at the area I called home during my formative years in Mission, Texas. In less than two hours, AIWTTV touches on the social dynamics of the Valley, down at the pointy end of Texas and the United States, hemmed in by the Gulf of Mexico to the east, Mexico to the south, and a lot of brush country and farms to the north and west. Interviewees, mostly musicians, capture both the pride in being in and from the Valley—and the restless urge to get the hell out and see the rest of the world. After all, said one musician, "If you could make it in McAllen all the way to the McAllen Civic Center, you were topped out." There was no place to go but north, to San Antonio and beyond.
The Whitewing Band, Mission's Chimney Park, 4th of July weekend 1977

One speaker said, "There's this general attitude, I don't really like being here. I want to be those kids from California. I want to be like somebody else, you know? " I felt exactly like that in elementary school, when I obsessively drew pictures of snow-capped mountain ranges, which in my mind represented the "real America," not the flat, hot, windy, palm tree-studded Valley.

AIWTTV early on acknowledges the parts of the Valley as much of the world sees it, with drugs, poverty and political corruption, now further inflamed with the border immigration crisis. That's one reality, but the film makes the point that the Valley has a lot more going for it. One observer says, "It's very ripe for international art, cooking and culture, so there are beautiful things about the place." The film looks through the lens of the music scene to show those "beautiful things" as part of the Valley's reality.

KRIO Top 40 list, 1974
The film brought back long-forgotten memories from growing up in Mission. It touches on groups like the Innkeepers and the Playboys of Edinburg, Freddy Fender (a/k/a Baldemar Huerta of San Benito), dances at the Mission Civic Center and the McAllen Civic Center, the illicit thrills across the Rio Grande in Reynosa, Mexico (quote: "Mexico was really taboo—our parents didn't like us going over there," very much my mother's attitude), and the huge popularity and impact of McAllen's Top 40 station KRIO. I was one of those teens packed into the Mission Civic Center, for example, for those dances held after the Friday Night Lights football games of the Mission Eagles. And if I slow-danced with a lissome classmate or two while listening to dreamy songs like Chicago's "Color My World," I considered the night a blazing success.

AIWTTV deservedly discussed the career and impact of Arnaldo Ramirez, Sr., who founded Falcon Records in McAllen after World War II and built it into a powerhouse of conjunto/Tex-Mex music recording. Ramirez was as influential in his musical niche as, say, Owen Bradley was as a producer of country music in Nashville. I remember Ramirez from his years as the Mayor of Mission, when I covered City Council meetings as a teenage reporter for the Upper Valley Progress newspaper.

 Beyond the music, Vela and Garza give viewers a sense of the Valley as a specific place with its own history on the edge of Texas and Mexico. The next time somebody asks me about growing up in the Valley, I'll tell them, "This documentary hits all the high points." Woven into the musical parts are segments on the difficult lives of migrant farm workers, historical revolts like the La Casita Farms strike in Starr County in 1966, and student protests decrying police brutality and school education policies.

The directors look at the sharp social divisions based on the Anglo "redneck" ruling class on the north side of the railroad tracks and the Mexican-American population on the south side of the tracks. The political tensions find their way into the music, as one man mused, "Since we couldn't take up arms, we did rock and roll."

Mission, looking north across the tracks, 1977

AIWTTV touches on the interchange between the Valley and Mexico, which back then was more benign and visitor-friendly than the hyper-violent drug cartel-dominated Mexico of the last decade. The bars and music scene of Reynosa and Matamoros earn a respectful discussion, along with details about something I'd never heard of: The "Mexican Woodstock" called Festival Rock y Ruedas de Avándaro in 1971.

If anything in AIWTTV moved me the most, it would be the insights into the Mexican-American population, a large majority of the Valley population. Growing up Anglo, I didn't think much about their experiences and attitudes, given I had my own identity issues to thrash out (as in, coming to grips with my Jewish heritage in high school). Everybody got along as far as I could tell and people were friendly with each other. Mostly I knew about a lot of broken teenage hearts caused by parents who wouldn't let their kids date outside their own ethnic group.

Still, as with the history and culture, a lot went down in the Valley I couldn't or wouldn't notice; I've always said the Valley has a secret history you never heard about in school or through the chamber of commerce. Fortunately, the Internet and films like AIWTTV drag more of that history into the light.

Roy Treviño, guitarist with the group Kingpin, especially made me think when he said, "This speaks to the state that the Chicano people find themselves in. We're not Mexican enough for the Mexicans and we're not American enough for Americans. We're in this strange place."

That strange place should brace itself for more investigations by Vela and Garza. Their production company, One Scene Studios, is working on two more documentaries. One is a five-part history of the Valley. The other is Pansy Pachanga, which "explores the roots of the LGBTQ+ community of the Rio Grande Valley and the unique social, historical, religious, political, and cultural forces that led to the repression of many of these identities." I can't think of more blazingly transgressive topic than gay life in the Valley.

Based on the raw content of AIWTTV, I expect both of these projects will hit with the force of a punk band blowing the doors off the McAllen Civic Center.

 Mission, South Conway Avenue

Wednesday, November 20, 2019

Princeton Ambassadors in Fact and Fiction

Former U.S. Ambassador to Ukraine Marie Yovanovitch, Princeton Class of 1980, has became enormously visible in recent weeks. Her testimony last week to the House impeachment committee won her a standing ovation. Yovanovitch joins a long line of Princeton graduates who have ably served their country as ambassadors in challenging postings. Besides Ukraine, Yovanovitch was also posted to Kyrgyzstan and Armenia. Others who come to mind include:

  • William Livingston, Class of 1781, France
  • Adlai Stevenson II, Class of 1922, United Nations
  • George Kennan, Class of 1925, USSR and Yugoslavia
  • Charles Yost, Class of 1928, United Nations, Laos, Syria and Morocco
  • Gilbert MacWhite, Class of 1934, Sarkhan
  • Robert Goheen, Class of 1940, India
  • Donald Rumsfeld, Class of 1954, NATO
  • Stapleton Roy, Class of 1956, Singapore, China and Indonesia
  • David Huebner, Class of 1982, New Zealand
  • Donald Lu, Class of 1988, Albania and Kyrgyzstan
  • Trevor Traina, Class of 1990, Austria

If something about the list above looks off-kilter—you’re right. “Sarkhan” may sound like the former name of a Southeast Asian country, but it’s not. Sarkhan is a fiction, as is Gordon MacWhite of the Great Class of 1934. Fictional ambassador or not, MacWhite has a high degree of relevance to the roiling controversies about Yovanovitch, my classmate in the Great Class of 1980. (While I didn’t know Yovanovitch on campus, I have followed her career. She impressed me as a dedicated public servant with the international experience and language skills required to ably represent U.S. interests). 

With those details to set the scene, Yovanovitch’s testimony last week exactly coincided with my reading of a novel I picked up at the Katonah Village Library. 

The book was a leftover from the library’s annual sale. The title sounded familiar. The paperback’s pulp-fiction cover combined an exotic locale, a woman in a maroon form-fitting dress glancing over her shoulder at a man (clandestine intelligence operatives in love? A hapless patsy of a Commie plot?) seemingly lurking behind a wall. The cover would easily work for a James Bond novel or other saucy spy potboiler.

How wrong I was.

The book was The Ugly American, a 1958 novel about U.S. diplomats in a Southeast Asian country called Sarkhan. It caused an uproar when it appeared, inspiring Senator John F. Kennedy to send copies to all his fellow senators. Authors William Lederer and Eugene Burdick, two Navy veterans from World War II, knew the territory of inept political appointees, wretched internal security, challenges from the highly competent Russian diplomatic corps, skylarking and devious staffs, minimal language skills and an in-country aversion to venturing beyond the embassy to mix with the local population in favor of the diplomatic cocktail party circuit, described to the authors by a Thai observer as “S.I.G.G.”, meaning “Social Incest in the Golden Ghetto.” Surely SIGG would be a trending Twitter hashtag if the book appeared today.

The book intersects with Yovanovitch beyond her postings in hardship countries. It describes its main character in terms highly similar to those I applied to Yovanovitch:

The Honorable Gilbert MacWhite, Ambassador to Sarkhan, was a fit man. At the age of forty-four, he weighed exactly the same he had when he graduated from Princeton with the class of 1934. He had red hair; his body was hard and muscular. When he was in the States or England he played squash at least three times a week, and in other countries he always managed to play tennis. He smoked little, and always fine, thin, handrolled Havana cigars. He held his liquor well. He preferred martinis, and only one or two each evening. But he could, if he had to, drink immense quantities of vodka, sake, or Scotch; and his tongue never thickened and his mind seldom dulled.

MacWhite was, from his first day in the State Department, a professional foreign service officer. He needed no breaking in. He was competent, exact, and highly efficient. He also was courageous and outspoken, and he had imagination. During the McCarthy excitement he kept  his head and ran his desk smoothly. By 1952 he had served as Consul General in four large foreign cities, as Deputy Chief of Mission in two cities, and was regarded by his superiors as a comer.

That description is an intriguing case of fiction foreshadowing fact. Gilbert MacBride of the Class of 1934 embodies in a novel the best traits of an ambassador. The Ugly American depicts him as an honorable diplomat, out in the field, taking risks to learn the truth of a situation, and incurring the wrath of Washington for reporting his findings as given in secret testimony. This passage shows the eerily prophetic content that laces the book, written years before the U.S. ramped up its presence in Vietnam:

Senator Corona looked down at his desk, opened a folder. It was clearly marked “Secret-Executive Session,” but his reputation was at stake.

“Ambassador MacWhite said the following,” Senator Corona said in an angry voice. He said that the Vietnamese, both Communist and anti-Communist, hated the French. He stated that the French have had to import North African mercenaries at great expense, to fight for them in Vietnam, and that all the natives resented this. He stated that the French merchants were more interested in their concessions than in developing the country. He stated that the French were miserably trapped by the Communist military leaders . . . they won no victories, and they suffered continuous defeat. He stated that we were supplying military vehicles that could not even be used in the mud of Vietnam. He stated that the French military forces refused to use guerilla tactics [earlier in the book, MacWhite urged the French to study the military writings of Mao Tse-tung, which guided the Communist forces]. He stated that the French hoodwinked the American military and diplomats into thinking everything was rosy . . .”

The roof falls in on MacWhite after Senator Corona discusses his secret testimony, the findings of which are attacked by Senator Brown, who disagreed with the assessment based on impressions gathered after being hoodwinked on a fact-finding junket to Vietnam. The Secretary of State finally sends MacWhite a handwritten letter outlining areas of concern, including his “indiscreet” comments about Vietnam. The letter ends, “I must have some assurance that your future behavior will conform to what we expect of foreign service officers.” 

MacWhite responds with an impassioned outline of what must be done to enhance the performance of the foreign service in dangerous times. The response is framed in terms of the Cold War, of course, but it also applies to new times and new threats:

If we cannot get Americans overseas who are trained, self-sacrificing, and dedicated, then we will continue losing in Asia. The Russians will win without firing a shot, and the only choice open to use will be to become the aggressor with thermonuclear weapons.

Foggy Bottom leaves MacWhite to twist in the wind for three weeks, then dismisses him with a curt cable, closing, 

Please explore with Sarkhanese Government their attitude toward receiving Mr. Joseph Bing as new ambassador X We consider his extensive press and recruiting experience excellent qualification high position X Signed Secretary

These passages give a small flavor of the work and character of MacWhite, Princeton in the nation’s service, albeit in a fictional world. The book’s closing chapters brilliantly pull together what seemed like disconnected episodes about other Americans
typically mavericks with little patience for nuanced global geostrategic intersectional modalitieswho are making a difference in Sarkhan. Not too give anything away 60 years after the book appeared, but one such maverick is Homer Atkins, a plain-talking and dynamic engineer who doesn’t put up with any crap from the striped-pants set ensconced in their Golden Ghettos. He is “the Ugly American”—you’ll need to read the book to find out why. Hint: not because of any boorish behavior, as the term has come to mean.

The Ugly American
is one of those rare books that made me pay attention and think. I can see why it hit the public discussions like a bombshell. I’m curious about what Foreign Service professionals themselves think about it and whether it still resonates. 

Marie Yovanovitch’s place in Princeton’s role in U.S. foreign affairs and the history of our era is still very much being debated and will be for years; Gilbert MacWhite’s place in the annals of Princeton’s great fictional characters deserves far more visibility. I hope this post gives him a push in that direction.

Sunday, October 06, 2019

"Sparkling Amazons" Sparkles at Katonah Museum of Art

The Katonah Museum of Art in northern Westchester County always mounts enjoyable shows, and now the KMA has opened one that is visually appealing and historically significant. "Sparkling Amazons: Abstract Expressionist Women of the 9th St. Show" highlights the works of 11 women who exhibited at the huge 1951 art show, a small group among the more than 60 abstract expressionists in the show.

"Sparkling Amazons" (the name comes from a 1970s description of them by an art critic) brings together works from those 11 women, ranging from well known to currently obscure. The honor roll:

Lee Krasner
Joan Mitchell
Elaine de Kooning
Helen Frankenthaler
Grace Hartigan
Perle Fine
Anne Ryan
Sonia Sekula
Day Schnabel
Jean Steubing
Guitou Knoop

While the show doesn't duplicate these artists' works from the 9th St. show, it does represent the artists' abstract pieces, ranging from intimate sculptures and collages to enormous wall-covering canvases splashed with color. This afternoon I took an excellent docent tour, which gave a great deal of background on the artists and their times. That's the best way to take in the show. You can easily reach the KMA by taking Metro-North Harlem Line to the Katonah station, then walking about 10 minutes. If you want to make a day of it, a Katonah Art Stroll will take place on two Saturday afternoons starting at 4 pm, October 19 and November 16, on Katonah Avenue, adjacent to the train station.

Thursday, October 03, 2019

"Another Mule Kickin' In Your Stall" and Other Blues Wisdom

Oscar Wilde once said "a dirty mind is a joy forever." 'Tis a pity he died before the blues was invented, because his mind would find endless sources of joy. No form of music (in English) gives me a more visceral thrill with its lyrics and music. I've heard a lot of blues over the years, and some lines are like splinters of glass in my brain, stuck in deep and glittering. They speak to my condition with a brutal and at times erotic directness.

Maybe this reflects a particular moment in life, but I've been drawn to Muddy Waters lately, especially his song, "Long Distance Call." It concludes with the lines

Hear my phone keep ringin',
sound like a long distance call
When I picked up my receiver,
the party said another mule kickin' in your stall

What man can't identify with that, at some point in his life?

Then there's B.B. King. He would have turned 94 on Sept. 16 (he made it to 89) and he's got an enormous catalogue. One of my prize record finds came in 1986 when I was in New Orleans for the Jazz & Heritage Festival. Flipping vinyl in a used record store, I found an early album of his that I snapped up immediately. I like that early, less well known B.B. King.

One of his shortest songs is one of my favorites, titled "Nobody Loves Me But My Mother:"
Nobody loves me but my mother,
And she could be jivin' too

Now you know why I act crazy
When you do the things you do.

The Internet provides a great place to find the lyrics to such songs; they can be hard to hear on many albums, where clear enunciation of the Queen's English is not a paramount value.

Like a good-looking bad woman, though, the Internet let me down on one recent lyric quest. I heard a woman singer on a New York station, probably WFUV, and a line really knocked me for a loop -- it was an entire episode of the Maury Povich show rolled into a single line of words. Despite my best efforts, I haven't found anything even close to this song, and I missed the name of the artist. My faulty memory carries at least two versions of the line, with radically different interpretations. Here goes:

version 1: You got the baby, but I got the man.

version 2: You got his baby, but I got your man.

Both version pack a punch like a mule kickin' in a stall.

Wednesday, July 10, 2019

My Career Advice for Madonna

Not that she asked for it, but here’s my career advice for Madonna, my fellow 60-something Baby Boomer with whom I share an interest in provocative self-expression.

Madonna’s been in the news lately with her album Madame X, along with her complaints about a New York Times Magazine article, “Madonna at Sixty” by Vanessa Grigoriadis, that she considered unfair and sexist. Her Instagram post about the article ended with this ringing battle cry:

Further proof that the venerable N.Y.T. Is one of the founding fathers of the Patriarchy. And I say—DEATH TO THE PATRIARCHY woven deep into the fabric of Society. I will never stop fighting to eradicate it.

(Does Madonna read the Times, which fights the patriarchy with every comma and period?)

Well, there’s no such thing as bad publicity, unless your name is Jeffrey Epstein. Still, as Madonna finds ways to stay in the public eye, I suggest she could ramp up the rage by going back to the future—by creating a sequel to her smash 1986 song and video, “Papa Don’t Preach.” Given the unending national conversation about abortion, this idea could poke a lot of exposed nerves.

Set in blue-collar Staten Island with the World Trade Center poignantly seen in the background, the video shows Madonna learning she’s pregnant, dancing with her boyfriend on the Staten Island Ferry, and struggling to tell her father, Danny Aiello, about her decision. How will old-school single dad Aiello react? His responds, after some reflection, with a hug to the news that “I’m keeping my baby.”

The video kicked up huge controversy when it debuted. Observers interpreted it as blows against the patriarchy and the Catholic Church, or for the glamor of teen pregnancy, or for women’s empowerment and against abortion. Madonna pulled off the trick of loading enough ambiguity into “Papa Don’t Preach” to enable multiple interpretations.

As in:

Feminist lawyer Gloria Allred, the spokeswoman of the National Organization for Women (NOW), angrily called for Madonna to make a public statement or another record supporting the opposite point of view.

But Tipper Gore liked the video!

So go know. 

All I can say is the song and the crisp storytelling of the video make it one of my favorite performances from the 1980s, a video I can watch repeatedly. Lyrics have a stark moral sense that could come from the songs of Tammy Wynette and Merle Haggard, like “You always taught me right from wrong” and

He says that he's going to marry me
We can raise a little family
Maybe we'll be all right
It's a sacrifice

A sequel to “Papa Don’t Preach” would put Madonna right back in the public conversation in a way that a Times Magazine cover article can’t. Danny Aiello is still hale and hearty at 86 so he could make a return appearance as the papa not preaching. Staten Island hasn’t floated out to sea, the ferry still runs. All the pieces are in place.

I could see a sequel starring Madonna as the older version of the gamine beauty in the “Italians do it better” t-shirt from 1986, now dealing with her own daughter (played by Lady Gaga?) or granddaughter (Miley Cyrus?) on an unexpected pregnancy. They could fight the patriarchy in matching pink pussycat hats at the January 2017 women’s march. Maybe they could be mother-daughter gestational carriers for people taking nontraditional paths to parenthood. Or the action could be along the lines of  a “mama don’t preach” generational clash. Or mother and daughter could escort women from Mississippi to an abortion clinic. Or they could echo Cory Booker and escort pregnant women over the Rio Grande from Mexico. Or they could be on opposite sides of a picket line at an abortion clinic or a showing of the movie Unplanned. The scenarios are endless, although the room for ambiguity and nuanced messaging is narrower than in 1986.

Or perhaps Madonna could express all these ideas in an extended mini-movie on the fateful decisions involving sexuality and pregnancy—pushing the intimate timeline back further to the choices people make in relationships. She need not stay with one party line. The specifics don’t matter so long as she circles back to the iconic video and stirs up discussion, with Twitterers and talk show hosts screaming, “How could she . . . !” and calling her a despicable gender traitor (which sounds better in German) or a baby killer.

When that happens and she still looks stylish, Madonna’s done her job.

Tuesday, June 04, 2019

Considering "The Limits of Art"

I bought The Limits of Art: Poetry and Prose Chosen by Ancient and Modern Critics at the Princeton University Store on October 25, 1978. I know because I wrote the date on the inside of the book. That’s just what I do.

After 40 years, I eyed the book for donation to a library sale as I consider how to trim the amount of literary stuff around me. Partings are difficult, be it from people or objects to which I’ve become attached. On the other hand, I’ve never shed a book or album and later regretted the decision.

The Limits of Art attracted me with its vast scope and imaginative idea: to select works from the canon of western literature based on critical commentary on them. The works appear in their original language and in translation to English, if not first written in English. The book also comes with a glossary of what appear to be Old English terms. At 1,400-plus pages, The Limits of Art provided me with plenty of material to consider. (Intriguing side note: the book was collected and edited by Huntington Cairns, who was the official part-time U.S. Censor within the Treasury Department.)

I found myself coming back to some pieces. The critics themselves were on target; some of the translations, such as Alexander Pope working through The Iliad, sound clunky to modern ears, but who am I to argue with Alexander Pope?

I struggled over whether to keep the book. The sharp printing and those hundreds of pages of Greek, Latin and Norse letters were tempting. In the great scheme of clutter, what’s just one more little book (like one more wafer thin)? True, I do also have the two-volume fifth edition of The Norton Anthology of English Literature (5,194 pages), the one-volume shorter edition of The Norton Anthology of American Literature (2,648 pages), the complete Shakespeare and the complete William Butler Yeats, so I’m not bereft of classic reading material. Ultimately I decided to . . . well, read to the end to see what happened.

A final spin through The Limits of Art reminded me of why I found Cairns' collection so compelling: It brims with evocative short pieces—sometimes only a paragraph or phrase, but with their impact heightened by the critics’ observations. On their own, I might have skipped over the lines, or not noticed them in a longer piece, or missed their historical meaning. The Limits of Art gave full credit to snippets along with longer excerpts, along with full poems.

Over the decades my eye kept settling on the same selections. Something about them touched me every time I read them. In a salute to The Limits of Art, here are my favorites, with the critics:

Homer, The Iliad

Thetis to Achilles: My son, why are you weeping? What is it that grieves you? Keep it not from me, but tell me, that we may know it together. Iliad i, 362-363, translated by Samuel Butler.

There is nothing more moving in literature than the speeches of Thetis to Achilles her son; she knew what his doom is to be. Maurice Baring, Have You Anything to Declare? (1936)

Sappho, Fragment xlviii

I loved thee once, Atthis, long ago.

There is no sadder poem. Maurice Baring, Have You Anything to Declare? (1936)

Plato, Socrates to His Judges

But now the time has come to go away. I go to die, and you to live; but which of us goes to the better lot, is known to none but God. Apology, 42A

Perhaps the most beautiful prose sentence ever written, George Saintsbury, A History of English Prose Rhythm (1922)

Anonymous, from Edda Sæmundar, Sigurth and I segment

Ever with grief          and all too long

Are men and women      born in the world;

But yet we shall live        our lives together,

Sigurth and I.

There was no rhythm ever conceived that encompasses such immensity of space and remoteness as this old Northern verse. Oswald Spengler, Der Undergang des Abendlandes (1918)

Christopher Marlowe, The Tragicall History of Doctor Faustus (1601), scene xvi

O lente, lente currite, noctis equi!

FAUSTUS: Ah, Faustus.

Now hast thou but one bare hour to live,

And then thou must be damn'd perpetually!

Stand still, you ever-moving spheres of heaven,

That time may cease, and midnight never come;

Fair Nature's eye, rise, rise again, and make

Perpetual day; or let this hour be but

A year, a month, a week, a natural day,

That Faustus may repent and save his soul!

O lente, lente currite, noctis equi!

The stars move still, time runs, the clock will strike,

The devil will come, and Faustus must be damn'd.

O, I'll leap up to my God!—Who pulls me down?—

See, see, where Christ's blood streams in the firmament!

One drop would save my soul, half a drop: ah, my Christ!—

Ah, rend not my heart for naming of my Christ!

Yet will I call on him: O, spare me, Lucifer!—

Where is it now? tis gone: and see, where God

Stretcheth out his arm, and bends his ireful brows!

Mountains and hills, come, come, and fall on me,

And hide me from the heavy wrath of God!

No, no!

Then will I headlong run into the earth:

Earth, gape! O, no, it will not harbour me!

You stars that reign'd at my nativity,

Whose influence hath alotted death and hell,

Now draw up Faustus, like a foggy mist,

Into the entrails of yon labouring clouds,

That, when you vomit forth into the air,

My limbs may issue from your smoky mouths,

So that my soul may but ascend to heaven!

[The clock strikes the half-hour.]

Ah, half the hour is past! 'twill all be past anon.

O God,

If thou wilt not have mercy on my soul,

Yet for Christ's sake, whose blood hath ransom'd me,

Impose some end to my incessant pain;

Let Faustus live in hell a thousand years,

A hundred thousand, and at last be sav'd!

O, no end is limited to damned souls!

Why wert thou not a creature wanting soul?

Or why is this immortal that thou hast?

Ah, Pythagoras' metempsychosis, were that true,

This soul should fly from me, and I be chang'd

Unto some brutish beast! all beasts are happy,

For, when they die,

Their souls are soon dissolv'd in elements;

But mine must live still to be plagu'd in hell.

Curs'd be the parents that engender'd me!

No, Faustus, curse thyself, curse Lucifer

That hath depriv'd thee of the joys of heaven.

[The clock strikes twelve.]

O, it strikes, it strikes! Now, body, turn to air,

Or Lucifer will bear thee quick to hell!

[Thunder and lightning.]

O soul, be chang'd into little water-drops,

And fall into the ocean, ne'er be found!

[Enter Devils.]

My God, my God, look not so fierce on me!

Adders and serpents, let me breathe a while!

Ugly hell, gape not! come not, Lucifer!

I'll burn my books!

Shakespeare himself has not surpassed, which is equivalent to saying that no other writer has equalled, the famous and wonderful passages in “Tamburlaine” and “Faustus,” which are familiar to every student of English literature as examples of the NE PLUS ULTRA of the poetic powers, not of the language but of language. George Saintsbury, A History of Elizabethan Literature (1887)

Johann Wolfgang Von Goethe, The Battle of Valmy

Von hier und heute geht eine neue Epoche der Weltgeschichte aus und ihr könnt sagen, ihr seid dabei gewesen.

Here and now begins a new epoch of world history, and you, gentlemen, can say that you “were there.”

No general, no diplomat, let alone the philosophers, ever so directly felt history “becoming.” It is the deepest judgment that any man ever uttered about a great historical act in the moment of its accomplishment. Oswald Spengler, Der Undergang des Abendlandes (1918)

Rudyard Kipling, Epitaphs on the War, 1914-18 

An Only Son

I have slain none except my Mother. She

(Blessing her slayer) died of grief for me.

The Coward

I could not look on Death, which being known,

Men led me to him, blindfold and alone.

The Beginner

On the first hour of my first day

In the front trench I fell.

(Children in boxes at a play

Stand up to watch it well.)

Common Form

If any question why we died,

Tell them, because our fathers lied.

A Dead Statesman

I could not dig: I dared not rob:

Therefore I lied to please the mob.

Now all my lies are proved untrue

And I must face the men I slew.

What tale shall serve me here among

Mine angry and defrauded young?

Salonikan Grave

I have watched a thousand days

Push out and crawl into night

Slowly as tortoises.

Now I, too, follow these.

It is fever, and not the fight—

Time, not battle,—that slays.

The book provides a long analysis on Kipling by T.S. Eliot from 1941, concluding with this comment: I can think of a number of poets who have written great poetry, only of a very few whom I should call great verse writers. And unless I am mistaken, Kipling’s position in this class is not only high, but unique.

A Schoolboy’s Letter by Theon, second or third century A.D., Roman Egypt

Theon to Theon his father, greeting. That was a fine trick, not taking me to the city with you! If you don’t take me to Alexandria with you, I won’t write to you! I won’t speak to you! I won’t wish you good-morning! If you do go to Alexandria, I won’t hold your hand or have anything more to say to you. That’s what will happen if you don’t take me! Mother said to Archelaus, “Take him out of my way, he upsets me.” That was a fine thing you did, to send me that fine present of beans! They kept me in the dark at home on the 12th, when you sailed. Please send for me. If you don’t I won’t eat or drink. Goodbye. Oxyrhynchus Papyrim cxix

Room must be found for the schoolboy’s letter to his father. F.A. Wright, A History of Later Greek Literature, 1932.

After flipping through the book at my leisure to find these excerpts prior to tossing The Limits of Art in a box for the Katonah Village Library, I made my decision.

One more little literary wafer thin won’t hurt at all, will it? The book stays.

Monday, May 27, 2019


Last night I finished reading No Man's Land: 1918—The Last Year of the Great War by John Toland. Published in 1980, its prologue starts on New Year's Day. The Allied forces waited feverishly for American troops to arrive, after President Woodrow Wilson declared war in April 1917. General John Pershing promised that at least 5,000,000 US troops would arrive, "a combat force greater by one quarter than the entire Allied armies on the Western Front, where the war would eventually be won or lost."

The Americans finally arrived in great numbers. Toland's book vividly shows Yank enthusiasm meeting the insanity of war in Europe. The numbers are stunning, rivaling the worst days of the Civil War. Toland tells of one battle in July 1918:

The remains of the battalion reached their starting place, the Forest of Retz. Of the 726 men who had gone into battle, 146 came out. "They just melted away," Denig recalled. Throughout Harbord's 2nd Division it was the same story. In forty-eight hours they had suffered 4,925 casualties.

That's one part of one battle. 

Toland draws a sharp contrast between the exhausted armies of Europe and the incoming Yanks. His descriptions of American military behavior caught my attention because of the high, even crazed, enthusiasm for fighting. The Germans picked up on this immediately, a theme repeated through the book as Germans encountered Americans:

The carnage was even worse on the other side of the river, where Allied artillery throughout the day had blasted the reserve units. "Never had I seen so many dead," wrote Lieutenant Hesse, "never contemplated a spectacle of war so frightful as on the northern slopes of the Marne. On the southern side the Americans in a hand-to-hand fight had completely wiped out two of our companies. Hidden in the wheat in a semicircle, they had let our men advance, then had annihilated them with a fire at thirty or forty feet away. This enemy had a coolness, one must acknowledge, but he also gave proof that day of a bestial brutality. 'The Americans are killing everyone!' Such was the terrifying word that spread through all our ranks on the 15th of July."

Toland's vignettes give glimpses of individuals, somber and quirky. Some historical background on this reference would have been useful: "Others were hit, and Lieutenant John Overton shouted to a friend to send his Skull and Cross Bones pin to his mother if he were killed." That must refer to the Skull and Bones secret society at Yale. 

Other stories relate to the doughboys' quest for memorabilia to take home to show the folks. Toland makes several references to this habit:

The prisoners told Gibbons that the British were in the war because they hated Germans; France because the battling was in their country; the Yanks only to collect souvenirs.

Gibbons stopped one of these collectors bound for the rear. He was one of the shortest men he had ever seen in U.S. uniform and he was herding two huge prisoners who towered above him. A white bandage ran around his forehead and there were blood-stained strips of cotton gauze on cheek and neck. He carried a huge chunk of German black bread; danging from his right hip were five holsters containing Lugers. Suspect from his right shoulder by straps to his left hip were six pairs of expensive field glasses. His filthy face was wreathed in a remarkable smile.

The slaughter continued far past the point where the Germans knew they would lose, in the summer of 1918. Armies had the ammunition and the orders, and they used both until the very last minute of combat. On that last day, November 11, 1918:

Along most of the Western Front there was a miserable drizzle. Georg Bucher, who had fought since 1914, was awaiting another American attack. The Yanks were as full of fight as crazed animals and didn't seem to know the war was about over.

The book hints at other sides of the American character and society.  A photo shows Eugene Bullard, the Black Swallow of Death," who fought for the French and served as a fighter pilot for the Lafayette Flying Corp. "When the U.S. entered the war, all American pilots were transferred to the U.S. Air Service with an advancement in rank as commissioned officersall, this is except Bullard, a recipient of the Croix de Guerre, who was grounded."

Toland ends the book on a forboding note; in retrospect, how could he do other? An injured Adolph Hitler vows to devote his life to politics; Japanese leaders hope to gain German holdings in the Pacific, such as the Marshalls and the Marianas as "a formidable defense against any future danger from American warships based in Hawaii."

The War to End All Wars simply set the stage for the next round of global conflict.

The United States suffered 53,402 deaths from combat and missing in action in World War I and 116,402 total military deaths from all causes.

Monday, May 20, 2019

The Law of Unwanted Attraction

There’s something about me that draws people who want to talk to me. Call it the Law of Unwanted Attraction. They can’t wait to tell me their obsessions and grudges and insights. Whether I respond doesn’t matter so much as that I hear them. They don’t realize that, even though I may look like a therapist—I’m not. But they see me that way.

(A video version of this essay can be found here.)

These encounters typically happen on public transit or places where I can’t easily get away. The topics range from scary to engaging. Usually I’ll just listen because the world is full of lonely people, and if somebody wants to connect for 30 minutes on the train, I’m up for that. You never know where a chat will go, or what somebody’s needs are. Including my needs. Sometimes we even exchange business cards.

But for ominous, nothing tops what once happened on Metro-North. I was sitting in those facing seats with two women from Japan with a lot of shopping bags. A man got on and offered to move the bags. They didn’t understand and he finally growled, “Fine, I’ll stand in the vestibule.” But they made space and he sat down, knee to knee with me.

He was late 40s, casually dressed, not carrying anything. Unshaven, looked very tightly wound. First he started in on Metro-North. “After the war Germany and Japan got all the best technology and here we are on Metro-North, using technology from the 1840s.”

I kept a neutral tone and said, “Well, the Germans and the Japanese had to pay a pretty high price to get that technology.” 

He shot back we could have new infrastructure if we hadn’t spent $7 trillion in the Middle East. He was primed to blow like Mount Saint Helens.

Then he grumbled about the 2008 recession. His house had tanked in value and hadn’t come back. He said, “Nobody wants to move to Westchester County because the schools are becoming too ‘diverse,” although he used cruder language to make that point. As a result, working stiffs like him need to send their kids to private schools. 

I really pulled back at this point and he said in an aggrieved tone, “Well, I see you just want to read your book.” He’d be quiet for a station or two and then he’d start again. I didn’t answer anything about who I was, where I lived, what I do for a living. My great fear was we’d both get off at the Katonah station and then our cars would be parked side by side, and he’d harangue me all the way to the parking lot. But he exited at White Plains and I didn’t have to call 911 on him. 

Then there was the time I was on a tour bus in Israel, again reading, when a man across the aisle asks me what time it was, an obvious opening conversational gambit. I told him and he was off and running. He was from Italy and had moved to Australia, and now was visiting Israel. He was an evangelical Christian, and ranted about the sign of the beast and the Apocalypse, the whole Book of Revelations shpiel. Clearly being in the Holy Land was letting the bats out of his belfry, a 
possible case of the Jerusalem Syndrome

Then he asked, “So, sir, what religion are you?”

I wasn’t gonna go there. I told him, “I don’t want to talk about my religion, and I’m going to get back to reading my book.” So that was that.

Sometimes, however, a conversation catches my attention. I’m empathetic and I’ll think, let’s see what connects. You talk to me, I’ll talk to you. My favorites? When men (always men) notice the camera I often carry with me, my trusty Sony A5000, and ask me about it. Bingo! Because I love to talk about cameras and creativity.

Once at my gym I noticed a man working out, a big guy, had a denim jacket on, covered  with motorcycle club patches. Later I saw him again the steam room (no jacket this time), usually a place of total silence among guys. He started talking. He’d been a freelance reporter in the '80s and '90s in New York when I was also a reporter for business magazines. He told me about covering the Yankees and being in the press box. The team always laid out a buffet for the reporters. As a former 

reporter myself, I know how we members of the press fall onto the buffet like starving wolves. Anyway, beloved Yankee broadcaster Phil Rizzuto would come in and the reporters would always wave him through to the head of the line. “Hi Phil, go on through, you don't have to wait.” That charmed me as a wonderfully human gesture of respect.

But then Biker Dude said, “There was this really creepy real estate guy, Trump, and he would come in and push everybody out of the way and go to the head of the line. He wanted to get the food without waiting and this really bothered everybody. He was just a creepy, creepy, creepy guy. I did articles about him and he never liked them.”

This all interested me and I hoped we’d see each other again to talk shop about journalism and politics. I’d open up about 
the time I went to a Jews for Giuliani fundraiser in 2008, which had THE best kosher sushi. Anyway, I was eager to learn more about his interactions with President Trump, I just hoped he wouldn’t talk about Trump and the Apocalypse at the same time. 

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 P...