Saturday, January 31, 2009


"You want to know my philosophy? One day a peacock. The next day a feather duster." —Pat Quinn (the new governor of Illinois)

Friday, January 30, 2009


A few friends have emailed or commented or asked about my take on the late John Updike.

Well, first of all, he was a literary phenomenon. When RABBIT RUN came out in 1961 and put him on the literary map, no one who loved books and was alive at the time could avoid it. It had to be read. At least that’s the way I and anyone I knew who loved books reacted.

Kerouac and Mailer were getting attention not just for their writing but for the extra-literary aspects of their personas and lives, and for the movements they seemed to be a part of or were categorized with.

Others, like Vonnegut, were paperback stars, gaining a wide audience but yet to be taken as seriously as their hardcover contemporaries.

But Updike conquered all elements of the literary scene as the lone gunslinger of Eastern Pennsylvania rural and small town lore.

RABBIT RUN was too depressing and, in a way I only see now—slight, in terms of actual context and the times—to be a book I’d want to go back to again (Updike did that himself in the later sequels, which were even more depressing).

But no one could deny, at least in his early books, as well as a lot of his later writing, the sheer beauty of his skill in working with words.

He was kind of like the Glenn Gould of fiction writers. Best working alone in an isolated studio somewhere (I’m talking image not necessarily reality in Updike’s early years when he worked for THE NEW YORKER), and had he died young, I’m sure Updike’s reputation would be as glowingly cult inspiring as Gould’s has been among classical piano fans.

But when I listen to Gould’s versions of Bach’s Goldberg Variations, I’m impressed, but frankly, I usually don’t make it all the way through before I realize I’m ultimately not moved in any passionate way by it.

Living long, or at least longer than you and your contemporaries expected you to (I’m talking about me here) has its advantages, one of which is getting to test your younger taste.

I still love many of the authors and poets and music creators and movies etc. I dug when I was in my late teens and early twenties (which sociologists say is when most of us form our taste and end up sticking to that for the rest of our lives) but I also have picked up other favorites later in life and discarded some of the earlier ones.

Updike is one of the latter. And even in the beginning I dug him as a writer but had no passion for what he was writing about or the voice of the author coming through the work (as I did say with Kerouac, who I identified completely with in his ethnic-American mystical Catholicism, fish-out-of-water diamond-in-the-rough mostly autodidact intellect perspective, and passionately deplored Mailer’s phony macho fundamentally dishonest persona that came across as dilettante-ish to me even if expertly self-promoting).

But my first wife, Lee, God rest her soul, who I met only briefly and then corresponded with for years before marrying basically sight unseen (I had no memory of what she looked like when we first met) loved Updike’s work back then with a passion.

The impulsiveness of that marriage was based almost entirely on our taste in literature shared in our many letters of the few years we wrote to each other before marrying so spontaneously. The books we shared a love for included Joyce’s A PORTRAIT OF THE ARTIST AS A YOUNG MAN as well as more contemporary work like William Goldman’s first two novels—THE TEMPLE OF GOLD and YOUR TURN TO CURTSY, MY TURN TO BOW.

But Lee was better educated than me (she was at the University of Buffalo which she dropped out of to marry me, while I had briefly been at St. Bonaventure’s (still a college then) before being kicked out) and hipper to the avant-garde perspective of the time (she introduced me to books by Rimbaud, Lawrence Durrell, Max Frisch, etc.).

She wasn’t as into other personal favorites of mine—like Kerouac or William Saroyan, which I thought I could get her to dig, and she did eventually get into Saroyan—and unlike me, she adored Updike. Her mother had grown up on a farm in upstate New York, in an area very much like the kinds Updike wrote about and where Lee spent her summers. And Lee’s sensibility was closer to Updike’s as it came across on the page—concerned and engaged in philosophical aspects of contemporary life, but at the same time a little distant and observant as opposed to my jump-in-and-see-if-the-water’s-safe-later approach to everything life has to offer.

Lee got me to read Updike’s first novel, which was her favorite, THE POORHOUSE FAIR, I think it was, set in an old peoples’ home. Lee had volunteered for hospital work where she spent a lot of time with older dying patients and had many stories about them, so I think was impressed with how well Updike captured that milieu.

But she was very smart (a Merit scholar among other things) and knew how to get me to dig something (like turning me onto a classical composer by playing me their piano music, since that was what I played at the time, piano, only jazz) so she turned me on to Updike’s short stories, which was better suited to his gifts for my taste.

Updike’s short stories is where I found a connection that not only kept me interested but allowed me to fall for Updike’s voice and subject matter. I think that first story collection of his she got me to read was called PIGEON FEATHERS. It stayed with Lee when we separated and I never replaced it so I can’t be positive, but I can positively say that even thinking about it today—the story of the grocery store bag boy, the one about the pigeon feathers in the barn, etc.—it still resonates almost half a century later. That’s some literary power.

My ultimate take on Updike as a writer is, RABBOT RUN is a phenomenon that should be read (as well as POORHOUSE FAIR) for the excellence with which it was crafted. But in the end, Updike’s poetry falls short as anything unique or indelible, and the rest of his novels, for the most part, are more well-written sociology than great literature (though those who compare him to Trollope might be right and his work may come back strong for future generations interested in the workings of the mostly WASP suburban entrails of American life in the mid and late 20th century).

So in my pantheon, Updike’s novels don’t really find a place except for their obvious impact on the reading audience and the literary world. But not in my heart, which is all that matters to me now. Though his short stories still do. Hmmm I feel a list coming on.

Thursday, January 29, 2009


Here’s the way the media has been biased in my lifetime.

In the 1950s, it had a conservative bias, not totally anti-liberal, as “liberal” wasn’t the pejorative then that it became in the ‘80s under Reagan. But TIME magazine for instance always took the Joe McCarthy line, and even after McCarthy was discredited it still backed more conservative positions (pro-Viet Nam war, etc.).

Even popular culture magazines like LIFE had a conservative bias. I remember an issue during the McCarthy era that had a two page spread of little headshots, like a mini-yearbook, of “fellow travelers” or “pinkos” as they called people who couldn’t be proven to be actual “reds” (i.e. Communists) but seemed sympathetic to causes the “dirty reds” promoted, like civil rights for Negroes, antinuclear proliferation, etc. (one of them was of Norman Mailer!).

The slogan of those days was “better dead than red” and they meant it literally. That we’d all be better off dead than having any communist ideas or sympathies. Pretty extreme and pretty extensive in the media of those times.

It pretty much remained that way too, until the very late 1960s. After Walter Cronkite, the “most trusted man in America” (and the anchorman for the CBS Evening News) said we were obviously losing the war in Viet Nam (after the Tet offensive), the media began to be more aware of the changing tide and began to react a little less Pavlovian like to ideas and actions from the left.

That didn’t mean the media became biased toward a leftist or even liberal perspective, not even close. It just became more moderate and more open to crediting some leftist or liberal viewpoints as at least viable.

Then Watergate happened and made media heroes out of Bernstein and Woodward and the Washington Post in general and suddenly “liberal” perspectives were even more accepted. But that didn’t last long.

Mostly because most media then as now was owned and run by moguls and conglomerates whose interests were and are more aligned with big business and therefore big-business-protecting Republicanism than with liberalism let alone any kind of progressive leftist perspective.

When Carter’s administration began to be undermined by rightwingers in the government in secret collaboration with rightwingers Carter had dismissed from government, the media seemed to swing back to right of center again and credit any anti-Carter spin and discredit any pro-Carter perspective, until it was a given that his ideas and policies were bankrupt, like his idea that there could be peace in the Middle East, despite the reality he brought to back that up with by actually brokering the first real Middle East peace agreement between Egypt and Israel. Or his idea that the USA was becoming too dependent on foreign oil and needed to conserve energy and find alternative sources of it.

All that was mocked by the right as weakness and pessimism. And the media went right along with it, mocking Carter’s wearing of sweaters and turning the thermostat down at the White House as a Mister Rogers kind of solution rather than actually examining and fairly evaluating Carter’s policy initiatives.

The right won that outright when Reagan got elected by running against Carter’s idea of the “malaise” gripping the country and declaring a “new morning in America” and that “government isn’t the solution, government is the problem”—the same government that was keeping mentally ill patients housed and cared for and people in low rent apartments and giving workers the right to unionize and unions the right to strike and negotiate for the kinds of wages that allowed workers to send their kids to college and live on one income so mothers could stay home when children were young etc. etc. etc.

Reagan’s administration managed to successfully dismantle all that, so that for the first time in my lifetime, “homeless” became a common term, not just for what were called “bums” and “hobos” when I was a boy, but for entire families, young couples with little children sleeping in their cars and mentally disturbed individuals released from institutions with no alternative to wandering the streets in a haze or worse.

And unions were busted, starting with the air traffic controllers, and real wages began to drop for the first time since the Depression etc. etc. And the media never challenged any of it. It had swung back to the right side of the political spectrum and has stayed there ever since.

Not journalists themselves, who grew up admiring what Bernstein and Woodward had accomplished, but the companies these journalists worked for, their bosses and those who controlled their bosses.

Reagan told many outright lies and was never challenged on any of them until the Iran-Contra hearings and even then the media handled him very gingerly, never examining very closely the contradictions in almost everything he said compared to what he actually did (even including the few good things he did).

Bush Senior got treated a little more roughly by the media, but not for his policies, especially any that were moderate, more for his style and his awkward personality.

Then came the Clintons who couldn’t cop a break from day one. There was more scrutiny put on Clinton’s behavior in the first weeks he was in office than had been put on Reagan in his entire eight years. From haircuts to policies Clinton ran on and was elected to carry out, the media treated almost everything Clinton did as either a joke or a mistake or something to ignore for more important news, like Hollywood celebrities.

When Bush Junior got in, they backed way way off. He could have lobbyists not only in his administration and cabinet, but lobbyists could go to Capitol Hill and actually write the laws that impacted the businesses they were lobbying for! And his team could let the lobbying firms know that anyone who worked for them who had worked for any Democrat had to be fired or had to prove their allegiance to the Republican Party.

All that was covered on either the back pages of the New York Times or in a few alternative media outlets, but the mainstream media concentrated on Britney while Rome burned. Right up until the last year of his presidency, Junior’s administration was let off the hook with scant attention or investigative reporting.

Now comes Obama, who has done more in his first few days in office to turn this country around and get it back on its feet and restore its image to the rest of the world than any president in my lifetime, who is considerate, reasoned and was elected to change the way things have been getting done and even the things getting done, and the media is getting right in line with not just the Republicans but the most rightwing so-called “conservatives” in the media (Ann Coulter on the morning talk shows anyone?) whose ideology has been completely discredited by the last eight years when it was put into practice and failed on every front, but nonetheless, Obama’s stimulus package for example is getting the kind of scrutiny no bill that Bush Junior ever proposed got even one tenth the scrutiny for.

It’s like this, Bush Junior could have one hundred people in his administration who all had been lobbyists, and there would be no news stories about it at all in the mainstream media. At All! But Obama can have one lobbyist out of a hundred people in his administration and already it’s an ongoing story that supposedly discredits his promise to not have lobbyists in his administration.

(What about Junior’s promise to have a “humble” foreign policy, to never get involved in “nation building,” to reduce the size of government, etc. etc.)

The stimulus package can be agreed upon by most economists, by most politicians, by most business leaders and by the voters who put Obama in office, and yet if the rightwingers spew the party line in unison for a day or two, the mainstream media jumps right on board and can’t stop talking about “pork” or just putting the Republican naysayers and their rightwing cohorts on the news shows to spout their opposition in terms that tout returning to the exact policies that caused all the problems in the first place!

And it’s partly the Democrats and liberals own fault. They’re too kind to their opponents. All the rightwing Republicans care about is power, getting it and maintaining it, or in these times, getting it back. They are going to discredit everything the Democrats do, especially Obama, because he’s so popular with mainstream voters right now. But he won’t be for long if the media continues to express their bias in favor of the rightwing Republican perspective over anything more centrist or even, oh happy day, anything from a more liberal perspective.

For example, Obama said yesterday that the stimulus package would bring “immediate relief,” something that seven of the top ten economists I read in the past few days all agree is correct. But all the morning shows I checked out this A.M. had a Republican rightwinger on saying that unless Obama’s idea of “immediate” is in a few years, than it isn’t “immediate”—and the media goes along with that, doesn’t analyze it to see if there’s any truth to it, just lets this jive continue.

If a majority of voters going all the way with someone who is obviously more intelligent more reasoned and more practical than our previous president doesn’t impress the media, what will?

Well, the last and only time the media swung at all toward even a little bit left of center, or at least open to left-of-center positions, was the late 1960s and early 1970s when we almost had a civil war going on at home with people taking to the streets to make their point and get heard and responded to. This is the reason I had hoped Obama’s inaugural speech had been more of a barn burner. To make it clear to his opponenets that he has masses of people on his side, willing to take to the streets if necessary to make sure they are heard at last.

He can be as reasonable and attempt to be as “bi-partisan" as possible, as he has lately been demonstrating, and all he will get is what he got in the House vote on his stimulus package, a united front from the rightwing Republicans to oppose anything that originates with anyone other than themselves, just as they did when they were in charge.

I understand Obama is trying to disarm them and their media attack dogs, but it isn’t going to work, It only eggs them on (heard Rush lately?). Obama should ignore them, the way they ignored not only Democrats but anyone who disagreed with them for close to the last eight years.

[For the naysayers, check out this well thought out analyses of Obama and the press.]

[[And this.]]

Wednesday, January 28, 2009


Here's a photo that's been stuck to my refrigerator since a few Christmases ago when it was taken. That's me in the middle holding George Schneeman's grandson Luke, George to my left and Luke's father Emil next to him. In front are my youngest son Flynn and his nephew, my grandson Donovan (the shorter and slightly younger of the two) and to my right are my oldest son Miles and next to him, all the way to my right is Paul, George's oldest son. Happy times.

Tuesday, January 27, 2009


There’s no explaining death. It sucks no matter when it comes to someone we care about. I cared about George.

George Schneeman lived the life of an artist in a way few do anymore. He painted, made collages, drew, used watercolors, sculpted, made plates and vases (as frisky and indelible as any antique Greek pottery, only more so), did frescoes even, pretty much anything an artist could do with actual materials, he did. And it was always engaging, entertaining, and often enlightening in ways the work didn’t project so that it was always a surprise.

I love his work. And I loved him. I doubt in any way he could ever understand, or even knew. He’s best known in the downtown St. Mark’s poetry scene of the past almost half century as an artist who lent his skills to the covers of many books of poetry and little magazines, and as the best friend of the poet (and godfather in many ways of that scene) Ted Berrigan.

Ted was someone who had a lot of friends, many, I suspect, who thought they were his “best” (there were times when even I felt that way). But from my observations and from Ted’s comments, it was George Ted most often considered his best friend.

When Ted died, George led the parade around the Lower East Side commemorating Ted’s life, carrying a big banner that was actually a painting George did of Ted. At least that’s the way I heard it; I was on the West Coast at the time and couldn’t make the celebration.

I know George missed Ted. As he must have missed his son Elio terribly, a wonderful poet who died too young.

I never knew what was going through Geroge’s mind when I encountered him. I always felt like my exuberance and sometimes tactless overexcited response to most of life amused him.

But after living out in the L.A. area for almost twenty years and then returning to the East, at my first event, a book party if I remember correctly, I encountered a lot of people from the 1960s and ‘70s St. Mark’s poetry scene and my emotions reacted to them before my mind even registered who they were.

It was almost childish I suppose, but some people I had no feelings for at all, and at least one there was a slight feeling of revulsion for. But in several cases, George among them, my heart just overflowed with affection the minute I spied them. I was just plain happy to see them, no matter how they felt about seeing me after so many years.

Partly that affection was a result of George’s art. It had the kind of infectious charm that Joe Brainard’s art also has, where if it gets to you, it can do whatever it wants, like a child you adore who can do no wrong.

Anything George created, I dug. I have his art all over my apartment, mostly stuff he gave me, or his youngest son Emil gave me, or I bought from his last show of collages that was one of the best shows I’ve ever seen.

George didn’t have regular gallery shows. As far as I know he didn’t have a regular gallery (though not long ago Tibor de Nagy had a small show of collages he did with poets—starting from the 1960s to more recent ones). He didn’t care about that stuff (another reason I dug him so much, I felt a kinship to that kind of approach, the do-your-work-the-way-you-want and get it to people you care about and don’t bother with all the schmoozing and “networking” and compromise and whatever else you have to do to forge ties with those with power in the art or poetry or movie or any other world).

George created a life that was perfect for an artist. In the old days his day job was teaching English to immigrants. But he had a rent-control apartment on St. Marks Place, right in the heart of the action that made the 1960s the 1960s—and ditto for the following decades. Even now, the street reflects the times in ways no other part of the city does.

He also had a place in the Italian countryside, where he could go with his beloved and beautiful wife Katie, for some R&R from city life. He loved Italy. A lot of his art reflected that love. One of his recent shows—at CUE, if I remember correctly—was of landscapes he’d done of the Tuscan was it? countryside. Beautifully understated reflections of the peace those vistas obviously gave him.

George was also famous among his friends for the calendar he made each year, it was always a print of one of his latest works of art with the twelve months hand lettered and below each a handmade box with the dates of each month delineated. Complete works of art, each and every one of them (I had last year’s collage one framed, and this year’s has a reproduction of one of his Italian landscapes).

George was a beautiful man as well. Handsome, yes, but delicate, a term I doubt he’d want used, but nonetheless, his good looks were delicate, not feminine, just delicate in the best sense of that word (the accompanying photo doesn’t illustrate this point that well, so if you never saw him in person, you’ll have to take my word for it).

I liked his smile and his playfulness. I always felt he was teasing me for my crazy life, changing day jobs and living quarters and partners and even ways of approaching my own art (poetry and other writing, etc.) so often most people gave up trying to make sense of it. Like I said, my approach to things, including life, seemed to amuse him.

But he was earnest when he would explain his own set up, how he could get by on little enough to make it possible for him to devote most of his time to his art without interference from agents or gallery owners or critics or anyone else who he didn’t care about.

And he was equally earnest when he would explain a certain technique he was using to create that art (his studio was in his apartment, there was no separation between his art and the rest of his life as far as I could see).

My guess is his work is going to become more and more valuable now that he’s gone. I suspect some enterprising gallery (hopefully one as committed as Tibor de Nagy) will curate a show that will demonstrate for anyone who doesn’t already know, the breadth of George’s talent and the delight he obviously took in exercising it, a delight that is contagious when you’re standing in front of one of the results of one of the many approaches he took to creating art.

In the meantime, keep Katie and George’s surviving sons—Paul and Emil—and grandsons—Luke and Mark—in your thoughts and prayers as I will.

[The NY Times site put up an obit and slide show a few days after I wrote the above. Check it out.]


Here’s the complete text of the inaugural poem written and read by Elizabeth Alexander:

“Each day we go about our business
walking past each other, catching each other’s
eyes or not, about to speak or speaking.

All about us is noise. All about us is
noise and bramble, thorn and din, each
one of our ancestors on our tongues.

Someone is stitching up a hem, darning
a hole in a uniform, patching a tire,
repairing the things in need of repair.

Someone is trying to make music somewhere,
with a pair of wooden spoons on an oil drum,
with cello, boom box, harmonica, voice.

A woman and her son wait for the bus.
A farmer considers the changing sky.
A teacher says, Take out your pencils. Begin.

We encounter each other in words, words
spiny or smooth, whispered or declaimed,
words to consider, reconsider.

We cross dirt roads and highways that mark
the will of some one and then others, who said
I need to see what’s on the other side.

I know there’s something better down the road.
We need to find a place where we are safe.
We walk into that which we cannot yet see.

Say it plain: that many have died for this day.
Sing the names of the dead who brought us here,
who laid the train tracks, raised the bridges,

picked the cotton and the lettuce, built
brick by brick the glittering edifices
they would then keep clean and work inside of.

Praise song for struggle, praise song for the day.
Praise song for every hand-lettered sign,
the figuring-it-out at kitchen tables.

Some live by love thy neighbor as thyself,
others by first do no harm or take no more
than you need. What if the mightiest word is love?

Love beyond marital, filial, national,
love that casts a widening pool of light,
love with no need to pre-empt grievance.

In today’s sharp sparkle, this winter air,
any thing can be made, any sentence begun.
On the brink, on the brim, on the cusp,

praise song for walking forward in that light.”

Friends have defended this poem as better than I gave it credit for. I would still argue with that.

But I can say if Alexander had read it as written, rather than with the emphatic stops and long pauses between words that created a false sense of heightened language where there isn’t any, and diminished whatever emotional and dramatic currency the poem has, it would have been better.

But even better, from my perspective, would have been a good editing job. I would have cut at least several lines that contain some of the most obvious and clichĂ©d phrases and images so that it would end up looking like this (I could have edited it more within lines, but this obvious editing job I think improves the poem enough that you’ll get the idea):

Each day we go about our business
walking past each other, catching each other’s
eyes or not, about to speak or speaking.

All about us is noise. All about us is
noise and bramble, thorn and din, each
one of our ancestors on our tongues.

Someone is stitching up a hem, darning
a hole in a uniform, patching a tire,
repairing the things in need of repair.

Someone is trying to make music somewhere,
with a pair of wooden spoons on an oil drum,
with cello, boom box, harmonica, voice.

A woman and her son wait for the bus.
A farmer considers the changing sky.
A teacher says, Take out your pencils. Begin.

We encounter each other in words, words
spiny or smooth, whispered or declaimed,
words to consider, reconsider.

Say it plain: that many have died for this day.
Sing the names of the dead who brought us here,
who laid the train tracks, raised the bridges,

picked the cotton and the lettuce, built
brick by brick the glittering edifices
they would then keep clean and work inside of.

Praise song for struggle, praise song for the day.
Praise song for every hand-lettered sign,
the figuring-it-out at kitchen tables.

What if the mightiest word is love?

Love beyond marital, filial, national,
love that casts a widening pool of light,
love with no need to pre-empt grievance.

In today’s sharp sparkle, this winter air,
any thing can be made, any sentence begun.
On the brink, on the brim, on the cusp,

praise song for walking forward in that light.

Monday, January 26, 2009

Sunday, January 25, 2009


I’m always amazed at Angelina Jolie’s range as a film actress. It’s broader than most, or than her image certainly is. And it’s on full display in CHANGELING (why she got an Oscar nomination I’m sure).

I’m also always amazed at how beautiful (and glamorous) she often appears to be. Unfortunately, that too is on full display in CHANGELING.

Unfortunately, because it makes the character less believable, or her circumstances—which seem already unbelievable (a single working mother able to afford a big house (for the times) in a very nice neighborhood (with spare rooms etc.)).

I mean can you buy Angelina Jolie looking ravishingly gorgeous (as they said back then), more so than most movie stars of the time, not just single but almost monk like in her lifestyle, and the only interested party of the opposite sex seems to be her balding, not-so-dashing, kind of schlubby boss?

Not that CHANGELING (I keep wanting to add a “the” to the title, maybe because of the old English play by the same name that was much more gritty, or the also more gritty George C. Scott movie, which is the more likely reason they couldn’t use it) is bad, after all it’s directed by Clint Eastwood, and stars Jolie.

Though it happens rarely with Eastwood, there are times his speedy one-or-two-take approach to film directing leaves him with too few takes to choose from in the editing room so that some of his movies (especially ones he isn’t in that star big Hollywood actors whose technique might demand more attention than he gives them, like MYSTIC RIVER—was I the only one to see the way-too-many inconsistencies in the acting in that?) seem a little erratic.

Also, I prefer “based on a true story” to the “a true story” that CHANGELING opens with. Yes, it’s a “true story” in the sense that a real mother in L. A. In the 1920s had her little boy—who had disappeared—replaced with another one who claimed the spot and the police went along with him, in fact insisted on his being the original.

But given the bare outlines of this “true story” it raises all kinds of questions the movie (screenplay by J. Michael Straczynski) doesn’t even touch. It hews to the black and white simplicity of fable or action movie (with John Malkovich as a crusading minister, great when he’s angry but totally miscast when he’s supposed to be anything other than that).

Too bad, because Jolie does some fine acting at times that had me teary eyed with sympathy for her character’s plight. But there’s something missing, some deeper truth—and not enough heart, aside from mother love—that makes the film seem unreal, more dream like than “true” to life, even life lived almost a century ago.

But as a dream, starring the still lovely to watch Jolie, it’s not bad. Just don’t expect a great movie.

Saturday, January 24, 2009


Republican Senators and Representatives are suddenly worried about future generations—our children and grandchildren and beyond—and the burden any more debt will put on them.

Of course, while their leader, Bush Junior was running the show and putting us into more debt than ever in the history of the USA, not a peep. Nor any comment on the problems we’ve been creating for future generations over the past eight years of Republican rule with the destruction of the environment and our over dependence on nonrenewable foreign sources of energy et-endlessly-cetera.

And the media’s going right a long with it. And “right” is the word. I notice even on NPR (which tilted to the right on many shows under Junior’s reign) these Republican naysayers are being given much more coverage than their Democratic opposites were given while Junior was running the show.

Yes, Barak and his family are getting great coverage in terms of how stylish or cool or young or new and fresh they are in the White House and their new world prominence as symbols of how far “America” has come.

But, policy-wise, Obama’s Republican critics are getting way more play than Democrats got in 2000 when a Democrat actually won the popular election and Junior was put in by Republican cronies on the Supreme Court. (Think it was an accident that Roberts flubbed the swearing in oath for Obama, or that the right wing media immediately put the blame on Obama saying he’s the one who flubbed it, which is simply untrue and yet the rest of the media did not make a story out of how the right and many Republicans were lying about who messed up the oath and no one is talking about how Roberts is supposedly one of the smartest and most competent men to ever run the Supreme Court and a much experienced public speaker and judge etc. etc. and yet he flubs a simple oath? Think it had anything to do with the fact that he was staring at a man who in his eyes I’m sure he sees not only as “black” but as the opposition in terms of political party and ideology and inclination etc.?)

The hypocritical and phony concern Republicans are now demonstrating for regular folks and for fiscal responsibility, after they plundered the treasury and the enormous surplus Clinton left them with, should be the main story in the media, not the same old phony attempt to show fairness by allowing lies and the truth equal weight if they come from opposite sides.

But hopefully, Republicans will attempt to obstruct Obama’s plans and policies, and Obama will make an end run to the voters and overcome any Republican opposition and they will become even more of a minority in future elections.

Friday, January 23, 2009


Man is our new president moving quickly to correct many of the mistakes and missteps of the previous administration or what? Yesterday’s moves—installing George Mitchell as special envoy for the Middle East and Richard Holbrooke as special envoy for Afghanistan and Pakistan, as well as doing it all at the State Department, legitimizing the idea that diplomacy is the most important tool in our political arsenal, not just our military might (which has proven less than adequate for some of the present challenges)—were brilliant. He is officially now one of my alltime greatest heores of the political arena. I had already started a list of those the night before he made these moves.

Falling back asleep the night before last—after I woke myself, my son, and the neighbor upstairs up by shouting in a dream because a giant dog was about to attack me and actually really shouting out loud (a new phenomenon that doesn’t auger well for others nearby I guess)—I used my alphabet-list device, only this time thinking of Obama led me to a list of political (in the broadest sense of taking a political action or an action with political consequences) “heroes” (again in the broadest sense of that label, meaning I do not admire necessarily everything these people did). So here ‘tis:

ALI, MUHAMMED (for his stand against the Viet Nam War)
BOLIVAR, SIMON and BRENDAN BEHAN (maybe he doesn’t seem that political, but all his work, especially the memoirs BORSTAL BOY and CONFESSIONS OF AN IRISH REBEL, but the plays too, had as much of a political impact as artistic)
CHILSOLM, SHIRLEY (and all those who fought and especially those who died in the fight for civil rights for African-Americans), and CESAR CHAVEZ
FRANKLIN, BEN and FRANZ FANON (although I don’t agree with all his theories, his impact was enormous when I was a young man)
OBAMA, BARAK and CARL OGLESBY (whose essay VIETNAMESE CRUCIBLE transformed my thinking on the Viet Nam War at the time, as well as on American history in general, as it did for many others who ended up anti-war activists)
TONE, WOLFE, SOJOURNER TRUTH, HARRIET TUBMAN and HARRY TRUMAN (for integrating the armed services)
YOUNG, ANDREW (in many ways the precursor of Obama and other young African-American “politicians” of late)

Thursday, January 22, 2009


"...I come from a Mississippi family, and my grandmother, Maggie Connolly, was the strongest racist I've ever known. She taught us children and grandchildren the same beliefs and feelings. She taught us to hate white people. So when we moved to Michigan during the Depression, I went to grade school—a one-room schoolhouse—with Chippewa Indian kids and Polish kids and German kids that populated Michigan at that time...those were my friends. And I had to figure out who's right here; are they bad people because of the color of their skin or not? And at an early age, the first year of grade school, I had to sort that out myself and I still live by what I sorted out. I was trained as a racist is what I'm saying. And in sorting that out, I found the beliefs that carried me through my life; that it's never about race, that politics itself is about emotion."
—James Earl Jones (from an interview in the SAG magazine Screen Actor)

Wednesday, January 21, 2009

OH HAPPY DAY (part 3)

I want to make it clear, I thought Obama’s inauguration speech was deep, was heavy, was intelligent—and even brilliant at some points—and I think in the future people will read it on the page and find a lot to admire, maybe even class it as one of the best.

As I said, it was well written—for reading on the page. I just wanted to be moved and inspired in the ways I was when he spoke at the 2004 Democratic convention and the 2008 Democratic convention, or the night he won the Iowa primaries, or the night he won the election.

That opinion doesn’t change the reality of my tears as he took the oath of office, or at seeing his beautiful bride and him dance to Beyonce’s version of “At Last” on the TV last night, or my admiration for and belief in his intelligence, his courage, his equanimity, and his ability to bring some real change (as he already has in the ways he has not abandoned his own beliefs but has accommodated and included those who disagree with him).

I also believe in his judgment and think it is based on his desire to bridge the chasm that developed between Republicans and Democrats in this country, as well as between “whites” and “blacks” and other historic categories.

But I have mixed feelings about the judgment that decided a somber, sober, serious speech that avoided the kinds of soaring rhetoric and cadences that made his most moving speeches so effective (he has done this balancing act all along, giving speeches on economic policies or on foreign policy etc. to various interest groups or in public forums that were more nuanced, more accommodating, more professorial and low key etc.) was best for such an historic occasion.

I would have liked to have seen some fireworks. I would also have liked to have seen someone give the invocation other than Warren. I know why he was chosen, and I respect Obama’s attempts to bring all parties and factions and beliefs together. But speaking of doing that in his speech, mentioning specifically Muslims and Jews and Hindus and “nonbelievers” as well as “Christians,” and then hearing Warren evoke the name of Jesus as “the” God, well, that’s like saying I’ll tolerate your beliefs but they’re wrong. [For a much better alternative, check my friend rj's blog for the invocation issued by the Reverend Robinson before Sunday's Lincoln Memorial gala.]

There are so many great spiritual leaders who could have evoked a sense of God or a Higher Power without naming that force in a way that’s specific to only one religious belief.

It was the same with the poet. God bless her. She’s obviously respected in academia, but she came across as one of the weaker academic poets, at least in the poem she read yesterday. There are so many great poets in this country right now, more than ever. And I understand that her approach to the poem was [I assume deliberately] pedestrian and therefore accessible in ways that some of our greatest poets might not have come across as—John Ashbery say—but wouldn’t it have been wonderful to have a poet read a poem that had the billions of people watching this event come away in awe at the unique ways our language can be used.

And even if you had to have a poet whose message would be clear and simple, there are others whose lifetime of great work could have been honored and whose poem would have at least left people curious, their minds altered by the message and/or the way it was conveyed instead of either bored or assuaged in some simple way—like say Joanne Kyger or Diane diPrima or Adrienne Rich or Nikki Giovanni or so many more that—like any of them or not—their poems would have at least forced any audience to reflect on the myriad ways language can be used to express and to confront and to inspire and engage.

Alexander’s poem wasn’t terrible [I have poet friends who actually dug it and defend it], it just didn’t rise to the occasion. It was relatively mediocre, at least as it came across on the TV. Just in DC alone, Obama could have found exceptional poets who would have at least delivered a more challenging and exciting poem—Terence Winch, E. Ethelbert Miller, Doug Lang, just to mention three I know personally [and I could add more, like Martina Darragh or P. Inman or Lynne Dreyer, et. al.].

The best part of the whole inaugural ceremony—aside from the actual swearing in—was the little “classical” interlude based on the old Shaker hymn “’Tis a Gift to be Simple” and the benediction at the end by Reverend Lowry. There was that striving toward the best humans can achieve in the Yo-Yo-Ma and gang performance that elevates the soul and the spirit and all our yearning for excellence, and there was the equally great humor and dailiness of humanity in Rev. Lowry’s remarks, especially when he had the crowd chuckling at his reversal of the old racial admonitions “If you’re black get back, etc.” turning them into positive admonitions for this new world where whites no longer rule all and in fact will soon be in the minority as the world, at least our world in the USA, begins to look more and more like Obama’s extended family.

As Alfre Woodard said when asked what she felt yesterday: “paradigm shift.” Paradigm shift indeed. I would have liked to have seen that shift more in evidence during the actual inauguration ceremony (as it obviously was meant to be by the choice of a classical quartet that managed to represent Asians, Africans, Jews and women, etc.) with bolder choices, that’s all.

PS: None of this diminishes my total support and belief in Obama and his abilities, nor in the need for the kinds of changes he has promised or at least projected. But from now on, whoever selected the talent for the Lincoln Memorial concert on Sunday should be running any events Obama plans, if that duet (as pointed out by my friend Tom on his Birth of the Cool site) from Jon Bon Jovi and Bettye LaVette (a woman I actually had some interaction with (Gene, if you're reading this you might remember that night) back in the days of segregation when she performed at a club outside Greenville, South Carolina called The Ghana which advertised itself at the time (1961-2) as "the world's largest colored resort" and where I sometimes played house piano as the only "white" I ever saw there outside of some "white" managers of "black" acts, but they were forced to stay in a tiny segregated for "white" managers only little room off the main one) on Sam Cooke’s “A Change is Gonna Come” (which Tom labels, as many do, “It’s Been a Long Time Comin’”) had been sung at the inaugural the tears of joy and relief and wonder at how things have turned out would have caused a flood.

Tuesday, January 20, 2009

OH HAPPY DAY (part 2)

There’s already been some criticism of Obama’s speech today. Not that it wasn’t well written. It was incredibly well written. But that it didn’t have the soaring oratorical flourishes of FDR’s or JFK’s etc., or even of many earlier Obama speeches.

I think there’s some validity to that. It’s assumed that was deliberate. That he didn’t want to rouse the kind of emotional catharsis his campaign speeches often did, but instead wanted to impress upon those listening here, and around the world, the seriousness of the problems we face and of his commitment to address them and of his need for the support of all of us.

Maybe that’s true. There certainly were some well-wrought phrases, and even some poetic ones. But I have to admit, I missed some of the heart tugging and satisfying lines of his previous speeches.

Like the one that put him on the public political map at the 2004 Democratic convention when he got into the rhythmic cadences of his rap about how it’s not the blue states of America or the red states of America it’s the United States of America.

Or even the “Yes we can” mantra. I would have liked it if he had thrown a few of those kinds of familiar Obama slogans into his speech. And I wish he had made it even more personal.

I know, or assume, he was thinking of the world audience, and of the partisans here at home, and he did make it clear in several catchy lines his commitment to diplomacy first, to inclusiveness and to progressive programs.

But except for that one reference to the fact that if his father had been in DC sixty years ago he wouldn’t have been served in restaurants there (there was a big hotel for “colored only” in DC still in the early 1960s called “THE WHITE LAW HOTEL” as a direct affront to the segregation laws, I always made a point of driving by it on my way through DC in those days), the speech seemed too busy making connections between these times and the country’s history.

That was obviously deliberate, an attempt, mainly successful, to link Obama’s presidency to George Washington’s and Lincoln’s, as well as to the Constitution and other founding documents and to the battles fought to create this country and to keep it “free.”

In many ways it was a way of making it clear that he doesn’t see himself, or want to be seen, as just “the first African-American” president, but as the bridge between these more “multi-cultural” times and our “white” dominated history, giving it all legitimacy and thereby legitimizing him as a president of all “Americans” in the tradition of all of “American” history.

Not a bad goal, and from the responses of Republicans and even right-wingers, as well as from white men you might suspect (I certainly do) of having once been not so tolerant. Most of them, or a lot of them who were interviewed at least, seemed impressed and even relieved and grateful that Obama presented himself as part of that tradition and not so much as a revolutionary break with it, despite the reality that in many ways he does represent just such a revolutionary break.

I suspect the speech is better read as written than heard as spoken. It sounded like pretty great writing. But as someone who gave speeches decades ago to large crowds at outdoor rallies and such, I know the power of making it personal, keeping it conversational and accessible (I always tried to say whatever I had to say so that my eighteen-year-old former self would have understood it) and brief.

Obama obviously had a different agenda today, and it looks like he accomplished it successfully. But for all those people (if the media says two million you can figure more) in what is now the largest crowd ever gathered in this country’s history, waiting for hours in the freezing weather to be inspired, I would have liked to have seen him make a few more concessions to them—and the rest of us watching at home and elsewhere—of personality, of passion and of Obama charisma and oratorical music.

But having said all that, it was still magnificently moving, and January 20, 2009 continues to be one happy day.

OH HAPPY DAY (part 1)

I know I’ve written of this before (a lot) but nonetheless, I can’t help but take this day personally, as I know so many others are.

In 1961, the year of Barak Obama’s birth, I was 19 and very much in love with an 18-year-old “black” girl. We wanted desperately to marry. But our parents were against it. In fact, the entire world as we knew it was against it.

There were many states in the USA where it was illegal for a “white” person to marry a “black” person. There were also many states where my girlfriend—known as “Bambi” to her friends back then because of her big brown doe-like eyes (the mistake most of us made that the Disney “Bambi” was female)—could not go to many public places because of her dark skin.

In fact later that year I was stationed in South Carolina—deliberately shipped there by superiors who thought a dose of rigid segregation would cure my love—where Bambi, had she been there, would not have been allowed into any local restaurant or movie theater or church or any public place that wasn’t designated “for colored only” (even the local drive-in movie did not allow “colored” people to come in their own cars!).

The opposition we faced everywhere was so strong (fights, threats, curses, scowls, finger pointing, and much worse), it made our resolution even stronger. But even among those who loved us and cared about us the same refrain was heard over and over again “Your kids won’t have a chance, they’ll be ostracized by both sides, they won’t know what they are,” etc. etc. etc.

Our parents in particular could not see any changes coming any time soon enough to benefit any child born in 1961 of “white” and “black” parents.

We fought this struggle for a few years, until we were old enough to marry on our own, but by then the fight had taken its toll and we were further apart than we’d been when we first fell in love. We were living very different lives in different places (I was in the service for a little over four years) and eventually we moved on.

But we remained friends, deeply loving friends, for the rest of her life.

I eventually went to college on the G.I. Bill, even getting an MFA in poetry (!) and married three times, always missing her and what we originally had. She went to college nights while working and eventually got a Masters in Social Work, marrying three times herself.

We got back together once briefly, in middle age. But we were on opposite sides of the country devoted to our children and work and before too long she was married again and so was I, to other people.

I wrote about her and us in our youth here and there, and she did some writing herself. We often spoke about writing our story together, maybe as a screenplay (she was a published writer as well).

But before that could happen she got cancer, and though she fought it for ten years, working up to only two weeks before she died (trying to place a child with tough handicaps with a loving family, which she did as part of the work she was devoted to) it finally got her.

Watching Obama take the oath of office today, I wept thinking of her, of her parents and mine long gone and how wrong they were about the children of “mixed marriages”—and of all those who struggled against the racist laws and practices and attitudes we were born into but who are no longer with us.

I lost friends in that struggle—“black” and “white”—and I could feel their yearning, their dreams, their passion for justice and equality and progress filling my heart to bursting as I watched Judge Roberts stumble over a simple oath of no more than thirty or so words (and be corrected, amicably, by the Constitutional lawyer and professor Obama).

And as I did, suddenly the song “Oh Happy Day” started running through my head. Yes indeed, oh happy day.

Monday, January 19, 2009


Watching the show at the Lincoln Memorial yesterday on TV, with Pete Seeger leading the crowd in ALL the verses of THIS LAND IS YOUR LAND (backed by Springsteen et. al.) was overwhelmingly moving. Just the idea that Pete Seeger would be invited to sing at anything officially presidential and public in this country was almost as unimaginable when I was young as the idea of this country electing an African-American president!

But the real wet eyed moment, for me, was when reporters asked young white people at the mall why they were there, and as they responded that they wanted to be witnesses to this historic moment when the first “black president” will be inaugurated, I noticed the black faces around the white interviewees exchange warm and happy smiles that expressed to me a total and willing letting go of lifetimes and centuries of fear and resentment and guardedness bred from the racial history of this country.

There was in those smiles a true sense of “free at last”—not from the bonds of racial discrimination, which will continue to exist around the world, not just here, and from all kinds of so-called “races” towards all kinds of others (though I believe it is truly and finally only among a small minority)—but free from the bonds of suspicion and inherent judgment of “whites” by “blacks” for being incapable of understanding and accepting African-Americans as full and complete fellow citizens and fellow humans.

That may seem overstated, but I believe I truly saw it in those faces at the mall yesterday, and maybe that’s because they were the enthusiastic ones who have come to believe that the election and inauguration of Barak Obama is a true change, but even so, even if it’s not everyone, I believe it is enough of us—“black” and “white”—to prove to at least ourselves and each other that we can accept each other as we are and get on with dealing with our mutual problems as one country at last.

And, I believe, that is the direct result of one man’s faith that we could, because he has.

I hope the elements in this country and around the world—including some in our government, especially those on the far right—who would like to see him, and us, fail, are kept off guard and on the defensive long enough for him and his administration to make this a lasting change and not just a once in a lifetime anomaly.

Sunday, January 18, 2009


Thanks to Robert Zuckerman for hipping me to this (watch it all the way through, you won't be sorry)!

Saturday, January 17, 2009


Doug lang recently put a post on his dadaville blog about the photographs he's been taking and posting on Facebook. Like everything he writes, it's an engaging and satisfying piece. Check it out here.

Friday, January 16, 2009


The “miracle on the Hudson” (to which some are already objecting, saying it wasn’t a miracle, it was just pilots and flight attendants doing correctly what they were trained to do) is a nice metaphor, or even parable or fable or fairy tale—except it’s true—for these times.

With competent people in charge, an enormous and unbelievably heavy hunk of metal and machinery, with absolutely no power, was gently guided over the George Washington bridge (how compounded the possible disaster would have been had the plane hit it!—close enough that you would have felt a breeze from its passing had you been standing outside your car on the top of it) and put down in the Hudson River with no deaths and only a couple of minor cuts and scratches [and of course thanks to all the river boat captains and their crews and the divers and others who were so quick to the rescue as well].


If the Bush Junior administration had been running that airlines, the pilots would have been friends or cronies or friends of cronies, most likely with no experience in air travel (“Brownie” and Katrina anyone?) and would have hit and demolished the bridge with everyone on it, and in the plane, losing their lives, and the spin meisters would have called it a brave deed and given out medals to the dead “pilots” and others and the insurance companies would have made sure that none of the victims families got any payments but the CEOs of the insurance company and the airlines would have gotten gi-normous bonuses for keeping their jobs despite the catastrophe, etc.

Okay, a little stretched, but you get the idea.

There’s something enormously hopeful about this “miracle” occurring only days before someone who seems a lot more intelligent and competent taking over command of the “airplane” we’re all traveling in. The traits the captain of the plane had that helped him do his job correctly and smoothly included calmness in the face of catastrophe and quick thinking, making him able to change course (they were going to try and make a small airport here in Jersey but realized they couldn’t and he figured the river was the safest bet, again, correctly) in time.

These are traits Obama has shown again and again. And if his critics raise the false argument that Obama doesn’t have experience, he’s been training for a lifetime, as I’ve written before, at negotiating between different cultures and worlds and world views as a kid of mixed race parentage who lived in places where he was always a minority, an outsider, and yet he was able to pull different strands of these cultures and places together in ways that not only made his fellows comfortable with him in their world and/or culture, but made him a leader among them.

And as a community organizer he has the experience of helping to empower people so that they can get things done on their own, and of using the experience of others (his co-pilot Biden et. al.) to actually accomplish things that despite their experience they couldn’t.

I don’t know about you, but I can’t help seeing the successful landing and rescue of the people on that plane as a metaphor for what we all (I’m assuming) hope will be a successful landing of this broken economy and the rescue of those of us caught in it, shaken up by the crash but able to continue our journeys and get on with our lives knowing there are competent people in charge.

I know I know, only time will tell, and already the media is giving more time to conservative Republican Senators and Representatives who object to passage of the first thing Obama’s administration has asked for (the rest of the TARP money) than they ever gave to liberal Democrats who objected to so much that Junior did that truly did end in catastrophe.

But we all know that’s going to happen. The right accuses the media of being in love with Obama and his family, but what they’re seeing is the media in love with the idea of an attractive African-American family in the white house and a cool, in-shape, handsome, hip man as president.

But the media is not and will not cut Obama any slack in terms of governing, that’s already obvious, nor will they be fair in their coverage of any opposition he gets, no matter how little. These conservative Republicans objecting to releasing the rest of the TARP funds are even in the minority in their party and yet they got more time on the news I listened to this morning (and that was NPR!) than any leftwing member of Congress or the Senate ever got during the past eight years (how many times did you hear Dennis Kucinitch on the news while Bush was president, and for how long?).

Still, the “miracle on the Hudson” is a beautiful thing to savor, not just for itself and those poor frightened people on the plane, but for the way it worked out for everyone involved (“women and children first” etc.,) showing the kind of excellence this country used to be known for, and may well be again after Tuesday.

Thursday, January 15, 2009


This one thought up last night while trying to get back to sleep after the snow started and the sand trucks came through, got thinking about being back in Jersey almost ten years now and that got me thinking about people from Jersey who I admire, or who have done some things I admire, some who left, some who left and came back like me, and some who are still here (I could have filled in the missing letters with people who didn’t grow up in Jersey but were either born here and moved away (ala Kevin Spacey who was born in my home town) or JAY-Z (born in New York I think but has lived in Jersey for a long time) or Thomas Edison (born and raised elsewhere but did most of his breakthrough work at his labs in West Orange, made his first films there too):

COOPER, JAMES FENIMORE, STEPHEN CRANE, LOU COSTELLO (his straight man, Bud Abbot was from Jersey too, but I never liked him) and TOM CRUISE (despite a lot I don’t like about him he’s still done some things I admire)
FRANCIS, CONNIE, BARNEY FRANK (he may represent a Massachusetts congressional district, but it was growing up in Jersey that gave him that accent and attitude)
KINSEY, ALFRED (yes, the sex researcher, grew up partly in my home town), ERNIE KOVACS and ZALMAN KING
MARIN, JOHN, NORMAN MAILER (not a favorite and I think he’s way overrated, but he did write some things I liked) and JAY MOHR

Wednesday, January 14, 2009


I read the novel this movie’s based on when it first came out and honestly don’t remember much of the plot except the basic idea that life in the new suburbs for WWII vets and their wives was depressing.

Really depressing.

As a kid, I suspected that to be true, even though the idea of new houses with new futuristic appliances and things like “rec rooms” seemed awfully enticing for a while when I was still too young to recognize the illusion in the projections of what made the times supposedly so “modern.”

I don’t know if you’ve read the book more recently, but if you have let me know how close the movie is to it. The house Leonardo DiCaprio’s and Kate Winslet’s characters live in certainly didn’t match the memory of what I saw in my mind when I read it decades ago.

Maybe I misread it, but I thought Revolutionary Road was a new development, and my memory of those (mostly in artist renderings and a few photographs) is houses that looked new (and “modern”) on plots of land that had been bulldozed out of farmers’ fields or forests to create the development and therefore didn’t have fully grown trees, let alone old growth ones etc. as in the movie.

In fact, the movie makes the house and the neighborhood look like old wealth, or at least old near wealth from the vantage point of my neighborhood at the time.

But that aside (and it’s a big aside for me since part of the depression in my mind at the time was caused by the brand new cookie cutter aspects of those developments, even the more upscale ones), the movie still doesn’t seem to reflect what I remember about the book (except that both are really depressing) because I remember thinking the writing was pretty fine, despite the depressing points being made about the subject matter, but the writing in the movie seemed completely unmemorable to me.

I met the author of the novel the movie’s based on, Richard Yates, when I was at the University of Iowa Writers Workshop in the ‘60s, and later on, a few years before his death, again in Hollywood around 1990 as I remember it. He was only briefly in both places, as far as I know, and my encounters with him were pretty brief too because, at least with me, he was fairly guarded, which I interpreted as aloofness and thought it had to do with my coming on still like a kid from a working-class background and him being more from what I thought of as the Ivy League (what later was called “preppy”) elite.

I was at Iowa on the G.I. Bill and with my wife—so I identified to the extent I could with the idea of young veterans and their wives living in new locations, but my experience while still in the service and afterwards was that whatever new community I found myself in with my then wife Lee, there was always a group of artists and bohemians living among the more “normal” folks, who made it tolerable and often a lot of fun and occasionally even inspiring and enlightening.

Of course I was also working part of that time as a musician and always writing (even published already) so that too made my circumstances a lot different from the DiCaprio character in REVOLUTIONARY ROAD (but then, he could’ve gone to college on the G.I. Bill as well if he chose, which maybe is part of the point but one never made).

Never having lived in one of those new developments, I couldn’t say if they were as vapid as described in novels like REVOLUTIONARY ROAD, but maybe because I found my own way out of what I took for a stifling environment (the one I grew up in, which actually was varied and exciting and deeply inspiring but I couldn’t see that yet), but the solution just seemed simpler to me even then, like “move” or find your own kind of people wherever you are, etc.

And like I said, the writing in the movie didn’t seem that sharp or original or even memorable (there was one line of dialogue that jumped out and I wondered if it was Yates’ but only the morning after I saw it I can’t remember it). Yates was known even back then as a “writer’s writer” because his choice of words and sentence structures were supposedly so well crafted.

They did seem worked on and ultimately precise and clear, but the style also, to me, seemed derivative (like a cross between Updike and Hemingway) and bland, as if his writing was meant to mirror the dullness of the suburbs he was writing about (the “imitative fallacy” as it was called at Iowa if I remember correctly).

As for the movie, I found it almost as depressing as I had anticipated, and not engaging emotionally at all. I cry at the drop of a sentiment these days, but no tears came to my eyes watching this. DiCaprio and Winslet did some serious emoting, but I still find him so boyish that it’s hard to accept him in these more grown up roles (Winslet seemed older to me, like a woman with a boy, which undercut the attempted gravity of the story).

I thought Winslet would have been better cast in BENJAMIN BUTTON instead of Cate Blanchett, but let me suggest that Brad Pitt would have been better cast in REVOLUTIONARY ROAD in the DiCaprio role. He could play the appearance of more promise than he actually has and the other attributes that are the character’s tragic flaws that generate the melodrama of the story (and it did come across to me as totally melodramatic) and still seem like a match for Winslet.

And there were the usual things that didn’t make sense or add up story wise (like kids being disappointed in not moving when they made it clear and most of us know kids like to stay where their friends are and with the familiar, or New York streets and Grand Central Station filled only with men in gray (flannel?) suits etc. and women looking on their way to jobs as secretaries, where were my working-class relatives and the relatives of my friends? Or for that matter the Beat type characters that were everywhere as well then, a minority but still, the writers associated with that generation as “Beat” were only expressing a phenomenon that was occurng in my experience pretty much everywhere, even in the suburbs, etc.).

In the end, the movie came across to me as a proto-feminist screed, an attempt to show how hard it was to be a woman in the world of the 1950s suburbs, and even the city, and there’s a lot of truth in that aspect of the movie, (and perhaps was in the novel too and I just don’t remember it that way).

But if you want to see that theme handled really beautifully and originally and much more sensually and drmataically and successfully, read Kate Chopin’s novel THE AWAKENING that in some ways tells the same story as the Kate Winslet character’s, only much more satisfyingly and movingly, and Chopin did it in the late 1800s, over a half century before Yates got around to it.

Tuesday, January 13, 2009


Like every other moviegoer at the time, I first noticed Mickey Rourke in BODY HEAT, when his small role almost stole the film. I was knocked out by his performance.

But not long after, I heard from a friend who made a movie with him that he had treated my friend very badly, arrogantly undermining my friend’s performance. I didn’t like that.

Then we were both due to star in two different movies written or adapted by the same director who was scheduled to direct each of these movies. The one Rourke was scheduled to star in went ahead, with a different director. Mine was postponed and came out several years later with a different director and stars.

Mickey became a real movie star and I went to TV and was one of the co-stars of a show that bombed after one season. As Rourke’s career took off and he kept making an impression in movies, I had to admit his work was often impressive. Until, for me, it became repetitive and mannered

I remember going to THE POPE OF GREENWICH VILLAGE and on the way in imitating Rourke’s finger-to-the-side-of-the-tilted head gesture—that and ones like it he copped from similar gestures created by Brando and later Pacino and DiNiro et. al., for specific characters—and sure enough, he did it in almost the first scene (and in fact did it again at the Golden Globes during his acceptance speech, though why not? He’s made it his own by now I guess).

That was when I lost interest in him. Everything I saw him in after that disappointed me for the most part. Then I ran into him a few times at a club in Hollywood he supposedly was a part owner of and found him to be as arrogant and full of himself as I had heard at the time. (I’ve been told there’ve been times in my life when I’ve been pretty arrogant and full of myself too, including the times I ran into Rourke in Hollywood.)

Not long after that he quit Hollywood to try his hand at boxing, where I heard he didn’t do so well (another film actor, Paul LeMat, whose work I love—the hotrod greaser in AMERICAN GRAFFITI—quit movie acting to box and did very well and didn’t make a big deal out of it, I’d like to see him make a comeback).

Now comes THE WRESTLER and the buzz that Rourke should win an Oscar for his performance as the title character (even before he won the Golden Globe).

The movie didn’t look that appealing to me (as a lot of recent releases don’t, most of them seem incredibly depressing in ways that may have been a reaction to the ongoing trauma of the Bush Junior years when these flicks were in preproduction, but now that we’re in some really depressing times, and not just economically, what we need are some movies with a lot of humor and hope (see SULLIVAN’S TRAVELS).

But, surprise surprise. I started watching THE WRESTLER with low expectations and whattayaknow, Rourke impressed me again.

He has a lot of help. His director, Darren Aronofsky for one, the man who successfully turned Hubert Selby Jr.s’ depressingly dark but deeply insightful novel REQUIEM FOR A DREAM into a cinematic masterpiece, so knows how to handle dark material.

Though maybe working with Selby and Ellyn Burstyn on REQUIEM kept him from the kind of indie-movie-life-is-really-dark-and-depressing-self-importance some of THE WRESTLER exudes. (There’s even a scene that seems to imply a comparison between professional wrestlers taking punishment for their fans and Christ’s passion—maybe meant ironically but it didn’t come across that way.)

And Marisa Tomei gives an incredibly risky but brave supporting performance. She is one of my favorite movie actresses, much underrated I think, and much underused. I was almost sorry to see her putting her enormous talent into such a thankless kind of role.

Evan Rachel Wood is faced with the challenge of playing Rourke’s character’s estranged daughter, a performance that seems a little pushed to me in trying to keep up with the over-the-top “darkness” of the emotional demands of the role.

The father/grown-child reconciliation scene didn’t quite work as written for me, it seemed pieced together from different takes and on the surface attempted to make Rourke’s character sympathetic but emotionally, and even logically, it didn’t pull me in (as surprisingly the same type of scene in the similarly old-warrior film ROCKY BALBOA did because it seemed more true to reality and the circumstances).

But in the end—discounting the scenes with the daughter, and the ending, which seemed way too pat, including the penultimate scene in which the familiarly mannered Rourke reappeared briefly in his last scene with Tomei—it’s Rourke’s performance that carries the film.

THE WRESTLER’s not a one-of-a-kind great movie like REQUIEM FOR A DREAM (there’s many past versions of this over-the-hill-star-athlete-and-the-price-paid-for-that-stardom besides ROCKY BALBOA, like NORTH DALLAS FORTY and the black and white c. 1960 REQUIEM FOR A HEAVYWEIGHT). And Aronofsky and his screenwriter Robert Seigal blow a few things in their version, like some of the realities of Jersey where the movie is set and my home turf. Anyone really from Jersey will see through some of that stuff. But a lot of it is accurate, sometimes in ways few other movies set in Jersey have been.

And the wrestling parts seem authentic if appropriately over the top. Many of the actors playing the other wrestlers I assume, are professional wrestlers or trying to be. But Aronosfsky seems to lose focus in some of the non-wrestling scenes (except the ones with Tomei, because she’s so on the mark—watch her face in the trailer-park scene where she’s torn between the emotional sacrifice she’s making and Rourke’s character’s reaction, or non-reaction, it’s exquisite acting, or rather being).

Aronofsky also has some of those lack-of-continuity mishaps that always distract me and break a film’s suspension of belief—like Rourke’s character taking out the hearing aid he seems to need and then being able to hear Tomei’s character speaking softly in a bar full of loud music and noise (at least that’s what I saw), or the way Rourke responds to serious surgery, recovering too quickly, even while acting like it’s difficult, but not as difficult as the real thing from my experience and observations.

And Rourke’s character’s relationship with his boss on his day job is a little unbelievable as well (especially for Jersey and a professional wrestler). And yet, and yet over all, the film is consistent and so is Rourke’s acting. And despite everything, it works. I buy it.

I know it bothered some people to look at Rourke for the length of the film, with his puffy overworked face (botox? failed facelifts? no offense to Charles Bukowski but Rourke looks like he brought in a picture of Bukowski for the plastic surgeon to work from, if indeed it is a result of cosmetic surgery as Stallone admitted his beat up look in ROCKY BALBOA was) and seemingly steroided up (as per the character) body (though these days it could be computerized—ala the bodies in BENJAMIN BUTTON with Pitt’s head on them—or just special body make up, or a body suit [or just the heavy training he attributes it to]). But I bought it and thought Rourke and the filmmakers were putting his physical and career reality to good use (I almost got the feeling they saw Rourke first and then wrote the film for him, the match fits so well).

Maybe I’m a sap for this kind of story. Or the idea of it anyway. At least it kept my interest, a lot more than I expected it to. And I have to concede, Rourke embodies this character as well as can be expected, though I wouldn’t give him an Oscar for it—but maybe a nomination.

Monday, January 12, 2009


I got home last night around 9PM and turned on the Golden Globes Award show that had been going for about an hour.

It's always a little surreal for me to watch these things after having left L.A. (Santa Monica actually) for the East Coast almost ten years ago. Mostly because I was so involved in that business (especially as represented at the Globes where movies and TV are both "honored") for the almost two decades I lived out there, and so over those years there were always a lot of familiar faces from my personal life on stage and in the audience at these things.

The Globes ceremony has historically been the most spontaneous and fun, because it takes place as a dinner, where the participants and audience are basically one and the same, almost all tables being assigned to specific movie or TV projects and their producers, directors, writers, and casts. And because it has more "stars" than other awards shows due to its inclusion of TV and it's breaking the top live action film awards into two categories—dramatic and comedy/musical. And because drinks are available, there's usually more of a party atmosphere including the usual embarrassments.

But last night I hadn't been thinking at all about the show and didn't even know it was on until someone mentioned it earlier in the evening. And being away from Hollywood so long now, I assumed I wouldn't have that much connection to it. But once again I got to see people I've worked with, even lived with, and had other relationships with, as well as people who had ripped me off in one way or another or helped me out in one way or another over the years.

But before I realized that was still true, which surprised me (I expected to not know most of the people involved but that hasn't happened yet, maybe next year) it also hit me that this year especially, for me, this show seemed even more absurd than usual.

Not the fun of it or even the opportunity to reward some great artistic or even just commercial accomplishments. But the self-importance aspect of it. People crying or gasping for breath or becoming all serious over an award that only a few years ago everyone in "the business" saw as almost silly, knowing full well that they're given out by a handful of "foreign correspondents" that includes people who know no more about movies or TV and what goes into making individual projects work than your average first grader, people who in the past were easily swayed by gifts (bribes to some) and/or access to stars or the power behind them and/or spin and hype etc.

Yes, the Globes have become more important commercially, as the TV show itself has gained more viewers because of the combination of so many stars all in one place on one night interacting. And the choices have become more thoughtful, often predicting the Oscars and other awards. But still, with what's going on in the world right now, to get up on a stage in front of co-workers and competitors with a face that's too tight to do much emoting with, or looks decades younger than the person whose body it's attached to (I don't want to get too carried away about Hollywood faces, the last time mine was on screen anywhere for more than a few minutes, over a decade ago, I was into my fifties and playing forty and people now and then asked me if I'd had, or assumed I'd had, some kind of face lift, but it was just genes and a relatively calm life at the time), for these folks to take themselves and their projects so seriously seemed almost offensive. And I consider many of them still friends, even the ones I don't have much contact with anymore, I like most of them, a lot.

The good news is the winners almost all deserved it. That was nice to see (although Kate Winslet winning both actress categories seemed extreme, as much as I admire her work, I haven't seen all the women in that category but have heard some of the other performances were light years ahead of almost anything else, like Kristen Scott Thomas in I LOVED YOU SO LONG).

And there were a few acceptance speeches that were worth watching, at least for me. Colin Farrell for one. His seemingly improvised (though I'm sure at least outlined ahead of time, just in case) for his unexpected win for his role in IN BRUGES, revealed to me for the first time how smart and articulate he is (and seemingly newly humble). I thought his speech was in many ways the best of the night—the clearest, smartest, and most sincere. I have a whole new idea of who this guy is and will be paying much closer attention to what he does (and will certainly see IN BRUGES, which I still haven't).

But Mickey Rourke in THE WRESTLER beating out Sean Penn for MILK, as well as the other nominees (I'll list all the movie ones at the end of this post, as for TV the choices seemed okay too, like 30 ROCK and JOHN ADAMS etc.) seemed a little over the top. I actually appreciate what he did in that film, and the whole idea of oldtimers making unexpected comebacks, etc. but, it was nowhere near the best performance by an actor in a film in 2008 (I'll try to post my own reaction to THE WRESTLER tomorrow).

And as for glamour and beauty and all that, with a few exceptions (Selma Hayek, Penelope Cruz, Mary Louise Parker and Marisa Tomei among them) it also seemed surreal with, like I said, people in their sixties looking like they were stuffed or embalmed at thirty-five, etc. (all you had to do was compare them to the non-screen presences, like Scorcese and Speilberg who are now in their sixties and pretty much look like they are, though Scorcese more so since he's always been a bit of an old man and Speilberg has always been a bit of a boy).

Speaking of Speilberg, I thought the highlight of the night in many ways was the tribute to him where they showed a montage from a lot of the films he's made, followed by ones he's produced and early TV shows he directed. I was totally impressed (and they didn't even include any scenes from one of his earliest films that's always been a favorite, SUGARLAND EXPRESS).

And being the rapidly aging sap I am, I even had a few tears in the course of the show, which shows that I guess I was taking some of it pretty seriously myself.

But in the end, who will remember or care outside of the few who will benefit career-wise from last night's events? Next week's inaugural will outshine any awards show this season, and for a long time to come, at least for this old show biz veteran.

Slumdog Millionaire won over: The Curious Case of Benjamin Button; Frost/Nixon; The Reader; Revolutionary Road

Vicky Cristina Barcelona won over: Burn After Reading; Happy-Go-Lucky; In Bruges; Mamma Mia!

Mickey Rourke in The Wrestler won over: Leonardo DiCaprio in Revolutionary Road; Frank Langella in Frost/Nixon; Sean Penn in Milk; Brad Pitt in The Curious Case of Benjamin Button

Kate Winslet in Revolutionary Road won over: Anne Hathaway in Rachel Getting Married; Angelina Jolie in Changeling; Meryl Streep in Doubt; Kristin Scott Thomas in I’ve Loved You So Long

Colin Farrell in In Bruges won over: Javier Barden in Vicky Cristina Barcelona; James Franco in Pineapple Express; Brendan Gleeson in In Bruges; Dustin Hoffman in Last Chance Harvey

Sally Hawkins in Happy-Go-Lucky won over: Rebecca Hall in Vicky Cristina Barcelona; Frances McDormand in Burn After Reading; Meryl Streep in Mamma Mia!; Emma Thompson in Last Chance Harvey

Heath Ledger in The Dark Knight won over: Tom Cruise in Tropic Thunder; Robert Downey Jr. in Tropic Thunder; Ralph Fiennes in The Duchess; Philip Seymour Hoffman in Doubt

Kate Winslet in The Reader won over: Amy Adams in Doubt; Penelope Cruz in Vicky Cristina Barcelona; Viola Davis in Doubt; Marisa Tomei in The Wrestler

Danny Boyle for Slumdog Millionaire won over: Stephen Daldry—The Reader; David Fincher—The Curious Case of Benjamin Button; Ron Howard—Frost/Nixon; Sam Mendes—Revolutionary Road

Simon Beaufoy—Slumdog Millionaire won over: David Hare—The Reader; Peter Morgan—Frost/Nixon; Eric Roth—The Curious Case of Benjamin Button; John Patrick Shanley—Doubt

Waltz with Bashir (Israel) won over: The Baader Meinhof Complex (Germany); Everlasting Moments (Sweden); Gomorrah (Italy); I’ve Loved You So Long (France)

A.R. Rahman—Slumdog Millionaire won over: Alexandre Desplat—The Curious Case of Benjamin Button; Clint Eastwood—Changeling; James Newton Howard—Defiance; Hans Zimmer—Frost/Nixon

"The Wrestler"—The Wrestler (Music & Lyrics by Bruce Springsteen) won over: "Down to Earth"—Wall-E" (Music by Peter Gabriel, Thomas Newman; Lyrics by Peter Gabriel); "Gran Torino"—Gran Torino (Music by Clint Eastwood, Jamie Cullum, Kyle Eastwood, Michael Stevens; Lyrics by Kyle Eastwood, Michael Stevens); "I Thought I Lost You—Bolt (Music & Lyrics by Miley Cyrus, Jeffrey Steele); "Once in a Lifetime"—Cadillac Records (Music & Lyrics by BeyoncĂ© Knowles, Amanda Ghost, Scott McFarnon, Ian Dench, James Dring, Jody Street)

Sunday, January 11, 2009


At the reading I did the other night in NYC with Terence Winch, friend and fellow poet/prose writer, as well as a well known traditional Irish musician and songwriter, I felt blessed to be in the company of so many creative souls whose work I admire. I won't name them all for fear of leaving someone out, but I can say among the poets and artists and writers and friends who all are creative in some way, each has a distinct voice that is expressed in their lives and work, the telling mark of a true artist for me.

Terence of course first of all. He read from his memoir about life as an Irish musician/songwriter—THAT SPECIAL PLACE—and even sang one of the original lyrics that pepper the book, his song in praise of Baltimore. And in a voice that is inimitable. Others may sing in the same style Terence does, after all it's an Irish music traditional style, but no one with his unique sound and emphasis and personality all wrapped up in a way with a melody that is uniquely his.

His prose was the same, distinct and compelling, drawing you in with wit and perceptiveness. Others there just to listen included artists and poets whose work I've written about on this blog, whose voices are so original I could pick out a poem or work of art or publishing project or art project or peice of prose as easily as you can a song sung by Frank Sinatra, who was the second voice I could recognize as a kid out in the wider world, after Bing Crosby's.

Bing because of what he meant to Irish-Americans of my father's generation and well beyond, all the way down to my older siblings and then me, and Frank because he came from nearby Hoboken and was known simply as "The Voice" during the first wave of his popularity when he left the Dorsey band for his solo act.

One of the challenges for any creative person trying to make something of their own is to find their own voice (in the broadest sense of that term, meaning your way of expressing yourself) in the work. We all generally have our own voice in our regular lives, not too many people sound exactly alike. But channeling that through whatever form your creativity takes is another matter.

I was always mystified by the capacity of human creativity when it came to music, once I realized as a kid studying and playing piano and other instruments, how limited the range of notes (at least in the Western European harmonic scale) and yet how many variations on those few notes continues to be revealed! It's the same in any art form, especially when the limitations are tight, as in say an Irish reel. There's only so many possibilities, and yet new reels are written all the time, Terence has written many himself.

Anyway, not to belabor the point, just to point you to today's New York Times in case you didn't see it and this op-ed article by Bono (another unique voice) who writes about the influence of Frank Sinatra, not so much on singing or music in general (which Sinatra had an impact on greater than most) but on life, and living in this precarious moment in time.

Check it out, I think it's worth a read.

Saturday, January 10, 2009

AS A FRIEND & 2666

I don't read as many novels as I used to. But for Christmas I was given these two by two different friends (the 2666 I suggested to my daughter-in-law, who also happens to be one of my favorite artists and friends, the other was an unexpected surprise from my oldest closest friend, TPW), and so, as when confronted with any printed material, I began to devour them. I also noticed that both were getting extremely good reviews and lots of attention (2666 much more widely).

AS A FRIEND was easy to finish quickly. Not because the writing is slight, it's actually very substantial. But because it is a very slim novel. The author, Forrest Gander is known, at least by me, mostly as a poet. Not that I was that familiar with his work, but it's made its mark on the poetry world.

I won't tell you what it's about except in the broadest terms—love, friendship, loyalty, betrayal, etc.—because I hate reviews that reveal story and plot points that the author has carefully created to unfold in the book's time, not be jump started from reviewers' summaries or handpicked revelations.

What I can say is Gander sets up some pretty impressive juxtapositions of perspective and language and the structures to carry them in four distinct chapters or sections that make up the book. Any one of which would make a terrific little book.

Though I must admit at first I resisted it. Maybe because of the blurbs and the praise I'd already heard and read, maybe because the opening seemed a little precious, like college workshop writing, or maybe because the opening section of the story just didn't grip me. But, it didn't take long to draw me in.

If I were to compare this book to a movie, it'd be one of those quirky little independent handheld digital camera character studies of young people's confused relationships and discoveries about themselves and each other. One of the heavier versions of those stories.

It's definitely satisfying story telling as well as writing that satisfied my taste for original uses of language and structure. It works, and works well. But, my only caveat, I'm not sure it's the kind of book I'd keep around to dip into again over the years, but I'm uncertain enough about that to keep it for now.

As for 2666, if you're interested in books you weren't able to miss this one lately. Everyone's been touting it, Which is amazing in its way, because Roberto Bolano, the Chilean poet who wrote it before he died (and intended it to be five novels rather than this one enormous one broken into five huge chapters or sections) writes about academic and literary matters in the context of stories that have elements of mysteries and crime novels as well as of meandering philosophical disputations.

I only discovered him recently, as I reported in a post last year, when my friend, the artist Susan Napack, passed a copy of THE SAVAGE DETECTIVES on to me and I fell in love with it. No small novel itself, though puny compared to 2666, it too was concerned with literary matters set in the context of an unsolved mystery, or mysteries.

Something about Bolano's language (as translated by Natasha Wimmer) and the way it flows ends up mesmerizing the reader, or at least this one, into surrendering to its languorousness, and its intellectual curiosity, and it becomes very difficult to put down. I haven't finished it yet, but am well enough into it (beyond the first section) to be able to declare it another favorite book (though so far it hasn't surpassed the delight and surprise and deep connection and affection I felt instantly for THE SAVAGE DETECTIVES).

With original skill and commitment, Bolano manages to make the concerns of literary scholars and writers at work as compelling as a LeCarre spy novel or a Raymond Chandler mystery, but with the added weight of intellectually challenging subject matter and references, that it isn't absolutely necessary to be familiar with, but if you are, it's the amazingly unique seasoning in the whole endeavour.

As i said about THE SAVAGE DETECTIVES, any novel that refers to the poetry of Ted Berrigan and can also attract a mass audience is worth paying attention to. Bolano is now up there with Rilke and Whitman and W.C. Williams and Blaise Cendrars in my pantheon of poets who also write novels and prose books that are as compelling as their poems and which I will continue to read and reread as long as I am able to.

[In response to some challenges, Whitman did write novels early on, not as good as his poetry or later prose, so I shouldn't really include him, but his self-edited mostly Civil War journals—SPECIMEN DAYS—is as good as any novel for my taste.]

Friday, January 9, 2009


I want to briefly thank everyone who came out for the reading Terence Winch and I did last night at the Telephone Bar in Manhattan [and poet Lisa Duggan who's reading there Monday for the photo of Terence and me]. Especially in that bitter cold wind, and especially Mary, the best friend of my oldest sister Joan (God rest her soul). It was a great crowd of poets and writers and artists and musicians and old friends and new. Felt almost like a party. Thanks to all for making it that way.