Tuesday, September 1, 2015

WILLIAM SAROYAN

Throughout my late teens I thought what kept me from total self-, and otherwise, destruction was the wisdom and solace, and most importantly the identification, I found in books, and the three main authors whose books "kept me alive" before I discovered William Carlos Williams and Frank O'Hara or began to comprehend the great spiritual and philosophical works I'd already begun reading (or at least began believing that I comprehended) were Walt Whitman, James Joyce and William Saroyan.

Yesterday would have been Saroyan's 109th birthday, which made me think of him, though I think of him most every day, if not read a little in one of his books. I have a photograph in a frame over or near wherever I've been writing since it was taken in the 1970s, of him and me and a few others at The Franklin Library when I worked there in the only 9-to-5 job I ever had (and only stayed at for less than two years), but I've never scanned it so you'll have to take my word for it.

I see quotes from him on the Internet now and then that express his unique genius. The son of Armenian immigrants who spent a few years of his boyhood with his siblings in an orphanage after his father unexpectedly died, William swore he would make it as a writer when he dropped out of school early in his life and by the time he was in his twenties he was on his way to becoming one of the most widely read and most influential writers in the world (Kerouac, another writer I identified with, made clear the influence Saroyan had on him early on).

But William Saroyan is pretty much forgotten now, partly because of his personality and his choices in his later life, partly because of changes in critical and academic taste and trends, partly because he pissed off the wrong powerful people in the literary world of his times. But at one time he was the most famous writer in the world.

If you haven't read anything of his and are interested, here's some of his books I'd recommend which I'm sure can be found on the Internet:

From his early years these three volumes:
THE DARING YOUNG MAN ON THE FLYING TRAPEZE (an early collection of the original and technically varied short stories that first made him famous and influential)
MY NAME IS ARAM (his most popular book, a series of autobiographical short stories)
THE HUMAN COMEDY (a WWII home-front novel based on a movie script he felt Hollywood ruined and so he wrote this novel to set the record straight and it became an enormous best seller at the time.)

He became a playwright in his twenties as well, as a challenge to himself because he had proclaimed that he could write a prize-winning play and then did (his arrogance, or you might call it self-confidence and belief in himself from long before anyone else believed in him, was partly what motivated critics and others to eventually turn on him), so here are three of his most successful plays:
THE TIME OF YOUR LIFE
HELLO OUT THERE
MY HEART'S IN THE HIGHLANDS

After WWII and his pacifist and humane response to all impacted by it got him in trouble with some critics for seemingly having too equal a perspective on all combatants (including the Germans) his books became less popular and among them these three are my favorites:

THE ASSYRIAN AND OTHER STORIES
ROCK WAGRAM (a novel about Hollywood that also made him some enemies)
TRACY'S TIGER (an inspiring, at least to me, romantic fable and my favorite)

After 1960 saw his first memoir (though much of his previous writing leaned on stories from his actual life) he published mostly collections of true stories from his life organized by some simple device like places where he'd lived or people he'd known whose obituaries appeared in one of the Hollywood trade papers, etc. Here's my three favorites of those later books:

HERE COMES, THERE GOES, YOU KNOW WHO (the first official memoir or autobiography, this more or less put him back on the literary map in his new role as a once famous author looking back on his life in his old(er) age)
PLACES WHERE I'VE DONE TIME
DAYS OF LIFE AND DEATH AND ESCAPE TO THE MOON (an "I did this I did that" kind of meandering dailiness almost-diary that is full of details some might find tedious but I find compellingly honest and sometimes profound, like this from the "August 16" chapter:

"...human affairs still continue to be the consequence of mistakes, misunderstandings, and myths...")
[PS: Just noticed I made a bunch of "trinity" lists above without a big struggle, first time since the 2009 brain operation a list came so easily again...yay!]

Monday, August 31, 2015

LUCY

Luc Besson's LUCY (he wrote and directed it) is a film essay disguised as a sci-fi flick (often the case with that genre) about the capacity of the human brain. The story is almost perfunctory, though at times profound (at other times simplistic, or even sophomoric). But what makes me glad I saw it is Scarlett Johansonn, whose performance in it is a master class in film acting, covering the entire spectrum of human emotion (and lack of any).

Along with co-star Morgan Freeman, Johansson is so good, together they turn lead into gold every time. There are scenes in this film that are definitely over-the-top in terms of their premise and even technical execution, but the performances of the two stars saves them, grounds them in a reality that is undeniable.

And even when the story goes to ridiculously implausible lengths to make its point, the editing, camera work and special effects (the latter sometimes reminded me of the things my brain was seeing and contemplating after it was operated on) also make LUCY very watchable. If you haven't already seen it, you might want to.

Sunday, August 30, 2015

A CHANGE OF PACE

If you can watch this to the end without grinning (in appreciation and satisfaction), well...

Friday, August 28, 2015

THEN THERE'S THIS

Two evenings ago some friends of my youngest were skateboarding from uptown to downtown in Manhattan. All minors under eighteen, one was a short female from near where we live in Jersey who I've known since she was a kid, another a boy from the Bronx I've known for several years, and the third another boy, this one also fro Jersey but Bayonne, closer to New York than us.

As they skated near Columbus Circle the girl heard a policeman tell her to get off her board, she says she said something back like "We're just skating downtown" and the cop rushed her. Not much more than five feet tall, if that, she panicked when she saw this big cop running at her so she backed off to try and get away from him. He tackled her and as he squeezed her neck and roughed her up the boy from the Bronx came up and said "Why are you doin' that, she didn't do anything" and suddenly there were three more cops throwing him against the concrete and cuffing both of them.

I know this girl very well. The biggest show of any kind of negative behavior I've ever seen from her in all the years she's been hanging around my apartment or I've taken her and my son and their friends to skateparks in New York and New Jersey (and even Pennsylvania) is moodiness. She has never displayed toward me, nor toward anyone, adult or kid, any misbehavior.

But the cops took these two kids (not noticing the third one, who grabbed the girl's backpack which held her prize possession, the camera she has been using to film her friends skateboarding in the process of making a documentary about it) to jail, confiscating their cell phones and skateboards. They took mug shots of them and finger printed them and booked them not for skateboarding in an area where I guess there are signs saying it's not allowed, but for "resisting arrest."

She told me they allowed her one call but like most of us who use smart phones she doesn't have people's numbers memorized except for my son's who she's known since they were children. So she called him, but he didn't pick up and that was the only call they would allow. They threw her in a cell and kept her there overnight with a puking heroin addict going cold turkey and other young females who had stolen loose cigarettes or make up.

Youg females still considered "children" by law, locked up for petty crimes and kept in dirty jail cells while their parents worried something worse had happened when they didn't come home. The next day they were assigned public defenders and arraigned in court. I asked her if the lawyer had tried to get the charges dismissed by pointing out they were just skateboarding on streets and sidewalks where at any moment a white hipster is also skating on his or her way somewhere in the city. She said the lawyer didn't say anything to her or the judge.

She ended up having to pay a fine she has two months to cover and let go, but they refused to return her phone or skateboard saying she had to show i.d. to get them back and since her i.d. was with the third kid who was back in New Jersey and several towns away from ours she had to leave without any way to call anyone, even to let her father know where she was. Luckily she had enough cash to catch a train back to Jersey.

Did I mention these are all kids who are sometimes called "brown" or "black"...? Not that this behavior from the police is limited to non-"white" people, I've had friends who are white adults of some prominence who have argued with cops about parking tickets and such and ended up cuffed and in a jail cell. The difference is they called someone who got them out immediately and they weren't charged with "resisting arrest" but if they were would have had it dismissed by any lawyer of any competence.

Most of us realize there's a terrible disparity between how different classes and different skin shades are treated by the authorities in our society, troubles that have always been with us but were on the mend half a century ago until Reagan and the rightwing Republicans who came after him found more and more ways to reward the rich and powerful and punish the rest of us. These kids were victims of that mentality. Make Manhattan more accommodating to the rich and powerful and keep the rest of us in line by any means necessary.

Thursday, August 27, 2015

LATE NIGHT NOT-SO-MINI NON-RANT

So I was at Whole Foods today, doing my usual every-few-days shopping and I made sure to pick the last check out line closest to the door where no one was waiting and I could feel unrushed as I like to bag my own groceries in my own bags I bring from home. (Yeah I know, I'm a liberal cliche, including driving a Prius, though a beat up one so old it's almost one of the first.)

The lady checking the food I placed on the conveyor was doing it so rapidly I couldn't keep up so that everything was basically waiting to be bagged by the time I put the last item on the conveyor belt or whatever we call that moving surface in check out lines.

When I finally got the bags to stand up straight so I could start packing them there was no one behind me. Usually if there are people in line behind me I make a joke about being an old man or having had a brain operation or whatever to let them know I often share whatever impatience they might be feeling toward me taking a little extra time when I encounter folks in front of me in check out lines taking what I consider too long to bag their groceries and pay and get out of the way.

But as I was busy packing the bags I didn't realize there were people behind me waiting until I turned around to slide my credit card through whatever we call the thing you slide your credit car through to pay. Directly behind me was a young redheaded woman we usually call "white" and behind her a couple of tall teenage boys and a man I assumed was their father who was at least several decades younger than me and had at least fifty pounds on me or more and a few inches. All of these males what we usually call "black."

The man instantly started loudly berating me for not having paid before I packed my groceries like there was some law or rule or standard stating the order in which we are supposed to do whatever we have to do in a check out line. I noticed he only had a few items in his hand so I pointed out that there were other lines open and a whole section devoted to express lanes for people with less than ten items. But that only seemed to make him angrier.

A young "black" male manager I recognized thought quickly and opened the register next to the line I was in and motioned for the man to go there to have his items rung up and bagged. The man moved over there as I finished paying and started to leave but he couldn't stop berating me so I said something about how I hoped when he became an old man he was treated with more patience, but he jut kept ranting at me.

I could see in his face that it was obviously much more than me and the few extra seconds I added to his wait in line that was angering him. But I was too busy feeling disappointed that no one came to my defense including the several workers in that area, and the cashier. All of them were what we usually call "black" and all were looking away from the man and me as though nothing was happening.

As I pushed my cart toward the exit I grabbed my two full bags and left the cart, thinking I could drop them fast if I had to and not be stuck behind a cart if the guy came after me in the parking lot. I calmed myself down and slowed myself down deciding that whatever would be would be and there was no need for me to turn back to see if he was coming after me or to speed my pace to my car. In fact I walked more slowly than I normally would to make it clear to whoever might be behind me that I wasn't rushing or running away from the scene but was leisurely strolling toward my vehicle.

After I put my grocery bags into my car I finally turned around and saw the man walking parallel to the lane I was in and not looking my way at all. I got in my car and went home feeling pretty unruffled thankfully.

But when I got home and saw the news about the TV news anchor and her cameraman being shot and killed by an enraged ex-coworker who had a grievance against them and the station they worked at in Virginia because he had been fired and believed it was racially motivated, him being what we usually call "black" and them being what we usually call "white" (both of which terms are preposterous if they're meant to describe skin color as very few people's skin is either "white" or "black") I wondered if I had been a seventy-three-year-old black woman, or black man, or even white woman, if the angry man would have been as angry or have voiced it as ragefully as he did.

I know the killer in Virginia had obvious mental problems, and the man in Whole Foods was probably having a bad day brought on by stuff I had nothing to do with, but I also suspect this old "white" man represented something to the man in Whole Foods that I might have also represented had I been around that killer in Virginia. It isn't the first incident provoked by my being an old white man, the first one happened at a poetry panel in L.A. on which I was the only older (in my 50s at the time) "white" man and found myself being attacked as a representative of everything I fought against for most of my life just because I was being judged by the color of my skin, my age and my gender not my actions or my history.

I've spent a good deal of my adult life fighting against racism and sexism and homophobia, but I don't wear that on my skin (except in a tattoo that is so symbolically subtle at this stage of history that no one would get it anyway), so there's no way for others to know. I know that doesn't exempt me from continuing to work to change the racist legacy inherent in our history and current systemic and individual discrimination against those usually referred to as "black" (as well as "brown" and what used to be called "yellow" and "red"), but it does give me insight into what motivates some of the racial animosity Trump is playing so well to in his "white" supporters (including white supremacist organizations that have endorsed him).

In a way I'm glad that at the moment the two leading contenders for president from the right and from the left are Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders—two "old white men"—so that that generalization can be seen for what it is, mostly useless (and of course I know Bernie is Jewish and so by some of the strange racial categorization that goes on in our society that makes him not exactly an old "white" man but still...)...

Tuesday, August 25, 2015

BLAINE LOURD'S BORN ON THE BAYOU

Full disclosure, Blaine is a long time L.A. friend, but even if he wasn't I'd recommend BORN ON THE BAYOU as a well written memoir with a lot of wisdom and insight as Lourd explores the relationship between a Southern Louisiana boy and his father as the boy grows up to become a man.

What I like most about it are the details, the naming of brands and objects and rituals in a culture Blaine and his family and friends call "coonass." Blaine and his father hunt and fish and drink and even step over some lines, including the border with Mexico, things I never did with my father and no one else I know did with theirs, and yet the resonance of longing and sadness and emulation and disappointment that are the threads running through this book ring true and even familiar.

I love to hear and read almost anyone's story, if they are honest and get specific about what makes everyone's stories unique. BORN ON THE BAYOU does all that and more.