Monday, May 31, 2010


What this HBO movie does for Memorial Day, to my mind, is remind us how to avoid (or at least reduce) casualties of war.

It's about the "special relationship" between Britain and the USA as demonstrated in the history of the special relationship between Bill Clinton and Tony Blair.

There's a lot of verbatim historical dialogue and speeches etc. as well as imagined private conversations that mostly come across as plausible given the people involved and the circumstances they're in.

Blair is played by Michael Sheen who also played Blair in THE QUEEN and is good at it. Clinton is played by Dennis Quaid and though he's obviously doing his best, and gets Clinton's speech patterns and mannerisms down pretty well, he misses what's so charming and personable about Clinton that made him so popular and successful, Clinton's famous charisma that made world famous movie star friends of mine who met him say they got weak in the knees. Quaid doesn't have that.

Plus he plays Clinton's superior energy, mastery of details, incredible intelligence (except in private matters obviously) more like overbearing seriousness and bullying. It doesn't work, not for me. (Quaid's personality seems much more suited to playing "W." than Clinton).

But Hope David is incredible as Hilary. Nails her intelligence, her toughness, her tenacity and unexpected insecurity perfectly. A really nuanced but brilliant performance.

If you get HBO or if it becomes available otherwise it's worth checking out just for the opportunity to get some other angles on the Clintons and that whole period of history. But I bring it up today because one of the things Clinton doesn't get credit for that bugs me is his capacity to avoid or defuse almost any major crisis that occurred on his watch (except for the personal ones obviously).

It is said that he would have gone down as one of our greatest presidents if he hadn't presided over a period of peace and prosperity. But he had something to do with that peace and prosperity. Crisis after crisis occurred on his watch that he handled so well they never blew up into the kinds of catastrophes Bush Junior created by bungling the crises that occurred on his watch.

For example, when it looked like all of Asia was going to collapse financially which would have led to a worldwide financial crisis, Clinton made exactly the right moves to avoid it (while rightwing Republicans squealed, as they did when he bailed out Mexico in their financial collapse with enormous loans that the Republicans said would never be paid back but were with interest etc.).

Don't forget the first Twin Towers attack occurred while Clinton was president, the bomb in the basement parking lot. Not only did Clinton's team find the mastermind and those who carried it out but he brought them to trial with no problem, not turning them into martyrs and symbols of resistance but instead into common prisoners serving their time etc.

He also put people in charge of FEMA that made it run more smoothly under his administration than under any other in recent history (and they had major natural disasters to contend with just like now, hurricanes and fires etc.—my oldest child, my daughter, lost everything in a fire in Southern California that destroyed thousands of homes and businesses and etc. and FEMA was not only there almost immediately with help, they cut her a check to help her start over before, at least the way it seemed, before the embers were hardly cold. etc.).

But the main one for this day is he managed to stop the war in the Balkans and then get Serbia to stop the violence against Kosovo and bring that conflict to an end without any "American" troops dying, preventing a wider war and more deaths. For this he isn't remembered as "great" but as lucky. I wish I had his luck.

Anyway, SPECIAL RELATIONSHIP gets some of this history correct, even if Quaid's (and the writers' and director's and producers') Clinton is more a brooding ex-quarterback than one of the smartest presidents we've ever had.

(And no need to point out what he didn't accomplish or compromised on or neglected. Which all may be true. But he was really fighting "a vast rightwing conspiracy" as well as the usual entrenched corporate and political interests and still managed to change most things in this country for the better during his time in office as opposed to his successor.)

Sunday, May 30, 2010


As always, my good friend RJ Eskow on his Huff Post contributions and his own blog NIGHT LITE always gets it right and often more clearly than a lot of other commentators. Like on this post.

Saturday, May 29, 2010


I met Hopper a few times during my years in Hollywood. He always seemed like a pretty nice man to me. Though there was a period when for whatever reason people started saying I reminded them of him, and once in a bar a drunk insisted I WAS Hopper and trying to not be noticed.

I have to admit, I didn't like being compared to him in any way, looks or acting. Because I wasn't crazy about Hopper, the actor, for a long time.

When I was a kid and first saw him in REBEL WITHOUT A CAUSE, my reaction was that he didn't look like any teenager I knew, and that I didn't like the way he looked or acted in that flick anyway.

As I got older and saw him in other movies, and on TV, I still didn't enjoy watching him on screen as I did other actors.

Then came EASY RIDER and I liked him even less. I had objections to the ways in which people I thought I knew pretty well, or their type, were portrayed in the film. But of course I dug the soundtrack and aspects of the film, like Jack Nicholson's star-making performance, a lot more than I did Hopper's character and screen presence.

Like I said, in person I found him to be a pretty regular guy, but somehow on screen he always bugged me. Until I saw him in 1977 in THE AMERICAN FRIEND (or DER AMERIKANISCHE FREUND), directed by one of my favorite directors, Wim Wenders, and starring one of my favorite movie actors, Bruno Ganz. Somehow, what usually bothered me in Hopper's screen presence and performances didn't in this movie and I could finally see something I could dig in his acting.

After that there were plenty of Hopper performances I could dig, even during the years I would run into him here and there in Hollywood (I assume you get when I use that term I mean the movie and TV business around L.A. in general). Like HOOSIERS or BLUE VELVET. Even during those few years when for some reason people kept saying how much we looked alike, as much as that bugged me I still could dig his performances.

In fact at one party we talked for a while about being taken for each other. I don't know if he was humoring me or meant it, but he made it seem like it happened to him as often as it was happening to me at the time. Like I said, he always came across to me as a pretty regular guy, although I heard stories from friends who spent more time with him in working situations (films) or socially, and they had other experiences.

The main thing about him, to me, is that he managed to survive such a competitive and cut throat business with some kind of artistic integrity intact. After all he was on TV and in movies as far back as 1954 and as recently as, well, his latest performances haven't even been released yet. And the amount of roles he played, phew, puts Michael Caine to shame.

The man was a survivor. Until now. And even then. For a guy who lived the life, 74 is more than a lot of us might have expected. And as much as his last days were tabloid drenched in his impending will problems, he had an enormous impact right up until the end on our culture and consciousness. May he rest in peace indeed.

Friday, May 28, 2010


I was talking to someone who thinks the world has never been in worse shape. I tried to give them some perspective.

At the start of WWII, most of the world still hadn't recovered from The Great Depression, Japan had wiped out almost the entire U.S. Navy fleet and taken over most of the Pacific and much of Asia, Germany was successfully taking over Europe and looking like it was on its way to conquering England and The U.S.S.R. And war was raging all over the globe. Not to mention concentration camps were being filled and "the final solution" being honed.

Nothing close to that (in terms of numbers) going on now. Even in the worst places on Earth.

In the 1960s, some rivers in the USA were so polluted they caught on fire (the famous Cuyahoga in Ohio) and/or nothing was able to live in them and humans couldn't swim in them or even put their hands in them. A whole lot of people were dying in Southeast Asia for what turned out to be no really good reason (a lot more than are dying in Afghanistan and Iraq). And people were dying in the USA over political differences so fierce it looked like another Civil War might be possible. Dying of hunger and malnutrition too.

Not to even get into The Civil War period. Slavery anyone?

Yes, there are a lot of things wrong in our world today, and the impact of global warming and the resistance to accepting the reality of it certainly bodes ill for certain aspects of life as we know it on this planet (including entire species). And the threat of "terrorism" (i.e. violence perpetrated by people not affiliated officially with a nation, or by nations not accepted as legitimate by other nations, etc.) is real, as is the financial problems caused by several things (including global technology outpacing the ability to police it and profiteering by soulless corporations and individuals etc.)...and war (the fighting in the Congo is as close as we get to WWII volume casualties) etc.

Lots of situations and circumstances to be concerned about, absolutely. Injustice and inequality, especially for women in a lot of the world. Some places going backwards in terms of scientific and humanistic progress, etc. And it's right and good to work to alleviate the pain and suffering of victims of these situations and circumstances and to correct the record so that solutions are based on reality and not propaganda (that's a tough one in this age of non-accountability for outright lying in most of the media, but then it's still better than the tactics used by the Nazis and the Stalinists etc.). All that and more is true.

But in the end, it certainly is no worse than previous times. But wait, you say, the earth is in jeopardy because of ecological threats from global warming and corporate irresponsibility and technological and scientific discoveries going beyond what is safe (genetically altered food, the ability to create life out of chemicals, etc.) That's true. But in the 1950s most people believed the world might come to an end at any moment from nuclear holocaust, as they called the possibility of the USSR and the USA using "mutual destruction" to solve, well not solve, but end, literally, their problems with each other...etc.

A lot of good reasons to work and fight to change things for the better, but no cause for despair, if only because it's counter productive if you want to help in changing things for the better.

Thursday, May 27, 2010

Wednesday, May 26, 2010


The book is subtitled "The Tumultuous Reign of Nina Simone"—which tells you what its emphasis is.

I fell in love with Simone's music in my teens as she was just beginning her ascent into the realm of unique music creators. I was beginning to play a little professionally and considered myself a "jazz musician" at the time (the late 1950s and early '60s).

Other—especially older—musicians would argue that her technique was sloppy and inconsistent, basically throw in some classical style keyboard length runs, mix with some blues and jazz riffs and trills, build to a crescendo, and sing almost monotone but emotionally fraught.

But I dug the ways she mixed things up, resisted the simpler classifications. Plus I identified a lot with her technical limitations (her critics, including some quoted in this book gave her credit for classical training but saw her skills in that genre as not of the highest order, and saw her blues cred diluted by her classical input and jazz cred compromised by her folk and classical influences, etc.).

She saw herself initially as a classical performer limited by racism from achieving the heights of classical stardom she dreamed of as a child in the segregated South being taught and promoted by a kindly older "white" classical piano teacher.

Mostly I found Simone's unique personality as expressed in her music beguiling and seductive in those early days. And then things changed. Not just in terms of "the sixties" and all the political and social turmoil, as well as the elevation of first folk and then rock'n'roll to more formidable art forms and avenues for political expression etc., but more importantly, for Simone, the great changes in "race relations" and the impact of the Civil Rights movement in its "Black Power" phase.

She latched onto that momentum and contributed to it as, for example, with her composition "Mississippi Goddamn" which became one of her most widely recognized achievements. But she also expanded her diva-ness to incorporate her rage over real and imagined racial and other slights.

As Nadine Cohoda, her biographer for PRINCESS NOIRE makes clear, there was more going on than just political and artistic changes. Simone seems to have had some serious mental problems as well. The author speculates that it was early signs of bi-polar disease that caused many of the incidents that turned not just managers and agents and bookers and night club proprietors and sometimes even audiences off, as she would show up hours late for gigs or walk off the stage if someone in the audience did something she didn't like or the audience didn't respond the way she wanted them to etc.

But a lot of later incidents sound as much the result of a drinking problem, to me, as anything else (though that may just have been Simone self-medicating). Whatever you attribute it to, she definitely became difficult for almost everyone who encountered her. I didn't know much about these things as I just lost interest in her musically in later years. What I heard just didn't, for me, hold the magic and mystery of her earlier work, but instead seemed pointedly self-aggrandizing in ways that simply turned me off.

But I never stopped loving her early recordings and listen to them still. So I read this new biography with great interest. It left me with some more knowledge of the details of some of her travails, but with not much more insight into them than I already possessed, and the writing is passable but not as exciting or attention grabbing as Simone's music.

If you love Nina's music and think of her fondly, it might be better to skip this bio and stay with your own impressions. But if you're interested in finding out more about her and have an interest in the cultural history of the 1950s and '60s, in particular, you'll find enough here to maintain your interest. I did. Just not enough to completely satisfy it .

Tuesday, May 25, 2010


[PS: As always, you can click on the image to make it bigger.]

[PPS: Thanks to Elaine Durbach for hipping me to this, and a nod to F. Scott Fitzgerald, etc.]

Monday, May 24, 2010


TCM is doing a series on the Native American in Hollywood movies and recently they screened DEVIL'S DOORWAY, which I had never seen or heard of. Directed by Anthony Mann, it's one of the most unexpected movie history revelations I've had in decades.

It came out in 1950 and tells the story of a Native American who, after serving in the Union Army for four years in the Civil War, mostly as a sergeant in charge of "white" men serving under him, and winning their allegiance and even a medal for bravery, he returns to find a sinister lawyer using the new "Homestead Act" to encourage white settlers to take over his family's ancestral homestead.

It has so many surprising plot twists, including a woman lawyer (we're talking the year after the Civil War ended!) who takes the side of the Indians, it's almost impossible to believe a movie about racial prejudice could have been made at that time in this country. It's years ahead of anything comparable in terms of not just subject matter but the way it's presented.

The stumbling block is Robert Taylor playing an Indian. But in some ways that makes it more powerful, if you can get over the ridiculousness of Taylor playing the victim of prejudice because of the color of his skin, which the make up they use makes it look more like he's been in Miami for too many weeks.

But a famous leading man, the symbol of "white American manhood" in many ways at the time, playing the victim of bigotry probably was a smart political move at the time, convincing a lot of "white" women that maybe they could see themselves with a "non-white" man and a lot of little "white" boys and teenage males that there's more to cowboys and Indians than they ever imagined.

It had to have had an impact on at least some of the audience's consciousness when it came to interracial relationships of all kinds from personal to communities. Thinking of the John Wayne flicks of this time or the tons of Westerns coming out then that almost always depicted the Indians as either violent savages or subdued underlings, to see a proud and dignified individual standing up for himself and his people seems in retrospect to have been close to revolutionary.

Worth checking out just for the history of it as well as for Mann's usual adept direction of action scenes and male iconic imagery, as well as the surprisingly original plot twists.

Sunday, May 23, 2010

Saturday, May 22, 2010


A week ago I caught TCM's "Essentials" with hosts Robert Osborne and Alec Baldwin. At first Alec (full disclosure, he's an old friend) seemed a little reluctant to join in Osborne's enthusiasm for this 1946 classic flim noir starring Alan Ladd and Veronica Lake. Baldwin even referred to Lake at one point as not a very good actress, saying something like: She's always Veronica Lake.

Now, Baldwin has a right to state his case for actors who are always themselves in movies, since Baldwin is a master at character acting, even as a leading man. And I think I know what he means about Lake. She did seem at times a little light in her roles, but I attribute that partly to not taking herself or the whole business that seriously, and also because that was part of her technique, a kind of ironic distancing of herself from her almost immediate iconic stature after her first big leading role in I WANTED WINGS five years before she did this (and kicked out the acting jams in SO PROUDLY WE HAIL three years before).

But whatever objections Alec might have to this movie, it's high on my all time favorite list and always has been since I was a boy and fell in love with Ladd and Lake in the series of movies they made together, and with Lake in everything she did. Hers was the first and only movie star's image I ever tacked to my wall as a boy. And this film I've missed having access to for many years because for whatever reasons it didn't come out on video when that medium came along.

For that reason whenever I see it's scheduled to show on TCM I'm there if at all possible. I've never tired of it. And this showing had even more resonance for me because the William Bendix role (whose storyline changed when the military objected to the darker original ending because they thought it threw a bad light on returning veterans) highlights his character's brain injury from combat. When he leans over and points to a bald patch on his head about where the titanium plate is in mine and says something like "There's a plate in there as big as your brain" it hit me in a way it naturally hadn't before I had my own brain tampered with.

In fact for the first time the relation between post traumatic effect disorder—if that's the correct term, that so many veterans suffer from but we've only been addressing in any realistic way in recent years—and Bendix's character just jumped out at me, making the movie even more engaging then it's always been for me.

It also has one of my favorite lines from maybe my favorite character in the film, even though it's played by an actor whose name I never remember and can't remember seeing in much else if anything—Don Costello—who ups the ante on the underplaying of pretty much all the actors in this flick, which may be the influence of the director, George Marshall, or Raymond Chandler's writing, but seems to my mind to be more the result of Alan Ladd's tendency to way underplay and use that incredible voice of his and that movie star face. The movie was obviously built around him, as he had been a huge star since his first pairing with Lake in THIS GUN FOR HIRE made him one (a film usually more critically appreciated than THE BLUE DAHLIA).

Here's "Leo's" lines that have always rung true to me, even if in this context they're meant as a not so subtle threat:

"Just don't get too complicated, Eddie. When a guy gets too complicated, he's unhappy. And when he's unhappy—his luck runs out..."

Friday, May 21, 2010


Watching the news tonight and all the angry people down there on the Gulf Coast of Louisiana (and Alabama and Mississippi), angry over the spread of the oil from the offshore drilling "accident" that drilling experts say could easily have been avoided if BP hadn't been trying to save money by skipping and shortchanging safety measures, I just wonder how many of those folks voted for the candidates that shouted "Drill baby drill"—candidates that supported offshore drilling along with less government regulation and oversight.

In fact I wonder how many of these folks supported the whole agenda of the conservative rightwing elements of the Republican Party (and parts of the Democratic Party for that matter, especially in parts of the South) that believe government is the problem and corporations should be unbridled by any regulations, a philosophy which in practice has led to many recent disasters, including this latest ecological horror story. And now demand help from that same government.

Thursday, May 20, 2010


It's been a hectic few days so I'm just catching up to some recent events including the passing of the great Hank Jones, one of the most underrated giants of jazz. Or maybe not so much underrated as under acclaimed. His brothers Elvin and Thad both received many more accolades for their contributions to jazz than Hank did. But there was no pianist I can think of who could bring more sheer pleasure to the listening experience.

My all time favorite LP of his was the one he did with bassist Charlie Haden called STEAL AWAY, a collection of "Spirituals, Hymns and Folk Songs" recorded so well the sound seems as pure as any on a recording since Miles' KINDA BLUE. The resonance of Haden's bass against Jones's mellifluous renderings of such basic tunes they feel eternal, well it brought tears to my eyes the first time I listened to it when it came out back in the '90s when Jones was merely in his seventies.

That's the other remarkable accomplishment of his, surviving so long with his talent not just intact but still blossoming. May we all be so fortunate.

[Here's links to his obit in the LA Times and the NY Times.]

Here's a clip of Jones performing solo in 1994:

Wednesday, May 19, 2010


On the day before my brain surgery, (here's the post for that day, November 12th of last year, in which I write about what getting the book meant to me), I received in the mail a little book of poems by my friend the poet Geoff Young. It was exactly what I needed before undergoing some serious surgery and the prospects, which included the worries of others about whether my heart could take the operation or not.

I felt completely surrendered to the experience and whatever outcome there might be, and reading Geoff's latest poems in print reinforced that feeling even if they weren't directly or obviously about that kind of ultimate acceptance, they were still, it seemed to me, about acceptance.

That book, NOT TWICE ENOUGH, was a little self-published limited edition (100 copies) he did at the Kwik Print shop in Great Barrington in the Berkshires. Geoff spent a lot of years as a publisher, known for poetry books that no one else might ever have published, or certainly not the way he did—beautiful little books that are a delight to own as objects let alone for the almost always unique poetry inside them, including sometimes his own.

He retired as a publisher of the work of others when he stopped putting out books under The Figures logo, but he continues to publish little books of his own at Kwik Print in these small editions with one-off publishing names like the one for NOT TWICE ENOUGH, which according to the title page is published by Fountains of The Financial District.

And now, on the eve of the sixth-month anniversary of the brain surgery, the night of my reading last week with Ray DiPalma, Geoff not only shows up to support us, but brings with him a copy of his latest Kwik Print production RIM ROCK, published by Nomenclature according to the title page. Like NOT TWICE ENOUGH, it's edition of 100 contains brilliantly colorful reproductions of the postcard-size little artworks Geoff's been making in recent years, abstract designs he colors in with markers.

RIM ROCK is even more succinct and direct than NOT TWICE ENOUGH. Both books consist of a series of fourteen line poems, sonnets by my standards, and Geoff's, even if in the new collection some of those lines are only one word long, a format I can't duplicate on this blog because it won't allow me, or at any rate I can't figure out how, to center the lines, so picture each of these lines as centered so that the shape of the poem is like Mae West's, more or less:


I sense
less irony
in this

of brief poems
(a sentence at best)
once the engine
of narrative

and life's
big unhappy

center stage.

As often with Geoff's poetry, there are always lines or phrases that sound like you've known them all your life but have never heard before. Like these five lines that end the poem "Take Me To Tequila": "Only when/things fall apart/can you see/what they're/made of."

Brilliant. And true from my experience. And another example of the acceptance I find in his work these days that matches my unfolding consciousness as I grow older. Thanks Geoff.

Monday, May 17, 2010


I'm flattered, humbled and grateful for two posts about my reading last week with Ray DiPalma, especially because they're on two of my favorite blogs

Here are the links to them (and thank you Jerome for hipping me to these, though I would have caught up on them tonight when before bed I'll do my usual run through of my favorite blogs):

poet Jerome Sala's Espresso Bongo blog,

and poet (and psychologist) Nick Piombino's Fait Accompli blog.

Saturday, May 15, 2010


Anybody notice that Republican Senators are saying President Obama's Supreme Court nominee Elena Kagan shouldn't be confirmed because she was never a judge...

...but never acknowledge that then President Bill Clinton nominated her to to be a judge on the federal appeals court in Washington in 1999, but the Republican-controlled Senate blocked that?

So, she wasn't a judge because Republicans blocked her from becoming one, and now they claim she shouldn't be a Supreme Court Justice because she was never a judge!


[woops, thought I posted this yesterday (the 15th, which it's probably dated).]

Friday, May 14, 2010


Ever since I was a kid, I've always found obituaries fascinating and personal. Even if I didn't know the people, I'd relate to something in their stories or the stories of their deaths. Maybe they were my grandparents' or parents' ages, or now mine, or their occupations or accomplishments in the arts or politics interested me.

Here's the quasi-personal connection to three recent passings:

LYNE REDGRAVE's starring, and star-making, role in GEORGY GIRL (here's a blurry clip of the opening) in 1966 introduced an expansion of the idea, at least to me, of an openess about looks and character that though I'd been exposed to it before in terms of sympathetic understanding in art and books and movies and music (from MARTY to novelty pop tunes like "She's too fat for me" etc.) seemed new.

It's ludicrous now in the age of obesity to think of the young Lynne Redgrave as anything other than attractive and healthy looking, but back in the age of Twiggy, her slightly heftier frame telegraphed "ingenue's friend" rather than "romantic lead" so casting her as the object of any leading man's sexual interest was bold enough, including an aging leading man (James Mason, which made it seem even more sinister and Humbert Humbert-ish) created an aura of breakthrough subject-matter to this flick that marked it, at least in my mind and experience at the time (I had just spent four years in the service and hadn't gone back to school yet) as stunningly honest and fresh and another sign the times were changing.

I fell in love with the character she played and with the idea of overcoming old conventions by taking bold new actions, as was happening all around me, and I had been doing my part in for years. Now it was being confirmed in what I considered (and still do) a work of art like GEORGY GIRL. And the title song made it seem even more a part of contemporary changes in which "swinging London" played such a big part. A great double bill, just for comparison's sake in terms of these times vs. back then, would be to rent and watch in tandem GEORGY GIRL and the recent AN EDUCATION.

ALAN SILLITOE is one of those names I suspect has been mostly forgotten by even avid readers. Though some of his writing lasts in the form of movies like his most impactful novel SATURDAY NIGHT AND SUNDAY MORNING (trailer here) or THE LONELINESS OF THE LONG DISTANCE RUNNER (opening few minutes here). The latter is where I first discovered him, with the long story that put him on the literary map as one of the most powerful writers among the group known as "The Angry Young Men" of late 1950s England, who were often linked to and compared to The Beat phenomenon occurring over here contemporaneously. (I was totally into a paperback anthology back then that had selections from both groups and kept it around for decades before it disappeared.)

I remember reading THE LONELINESS OF THE LONG DISTANCE RUNNER as a teenager late at night in my attic room after my siblings had all grown up and moved out and feeling my own brand of loneliness and challenge. I identified with the runner and in retrospect think I was influenced by his ultimate decision in the central race/metaphor of the story to make similar choices after I first read it, to opt out of the race and into my own version of what life could be and mean. Which caused a lot of friction at home and in the world that Alan Sillitoe is partially responsible for!

LENA HORNE is the first celebrity I had any personal connection to, as distant as it was. I fell in love with her watching that almost surreal film clip of her 1943 film version of "Stormy Weather" (here's a link). This was in the early 1950s when I caught it on TV as a boy. But when I saw her on TV in real time singing on Ed Sullivan or wherever, I didn't dig her as much as I did in that old film clip.

There was always something off-putting in her presence, as if she were begrudgingly sharing her limited—but still obviously impressive—singing chops and extraordinary looks, which, it turns out, she was. Because of the racism she faced as a glamorous film beauty who wasn't allowed to even play the part of "the mulatto" in the '50's film version of SHOWBOAT (Ava Gardner got the role and listened to Lena Horne recordings to match her sound and phrasing etc.), let alone the lead in her own flicks. (As times went on that balance, the way I saw it at least, may have reversed, with her singing becoming more impactful and her beauty less so.)

But she was so fair skinned it seemed ludicrous in a way that fed my budding anger at the racial incongruities and stupidities, including the dumb classifications of "white" and "black" in a world that seemed so obviously to me an array of shades that incorporated almost every possibility in either category. I admired Horne, but as I became a working musician for a while myself and in the jazz world to some extent, her singing didn't live up to the best of those I later dug so much.

In high school I was best friends with a kid we called "Spanish Harry" though I don't think there was anything Hispanic in his ancestry. His father worked in an office in Manhattan, commuting from a neat little bungalow in a nearby working class town. But it turned out when Harry's father was young and living in Manhattan in the 1920s, he was hit by a subway train and got a settlement from the city that allowed him to live the high life for a few years until the money ran out.

During those years be became a regular at The Cotton Club, in Harlem, where he got to know the always chaperoned (as he told it) young singer Lena Horne. They became such good friends that even decades later, in the late 1950s, Horne still sent Harry's father a Christmas card every year. When Harry first showed the latest one to me one holiday season, I felt like I was in the presence of living history, and a part of the history I was most interested in: race relations and jazz music. I was touched by the possibilities this opened up to my mind and obviously never forgot it.

I think that's the thing that sometimes is missed in the personal revelations that have become so common nowadays but were so rare when I was coming up and that inspired me to make so much of my own writing personal in ways that at the time seemed new and fresh and trailblazing to me but now may seem old hat to the generations that followed. The connections I'm always trying to make—sometimes more successfully than others—to the ways in which one person's achievements or attempts to accomplish something significantly new or original or so personal it's uniqueness impacts someone else to spin off their own version of original personal truth.

If that makes sense. I just tried to simply do it, not theorize about it. But since the operation I think about these things in new and obviously theorizing ways.

[PS: If anyone cal help me figure out how to embed the youTube slips linked to in this post I'd sure appreciate it. Woops, obviously meant "can" and "clips"—just more of the post-brain-surgery ways I write, and this was after I already corrected several typos!]

Thursday, May 13, 2010


Today's six months post op and from the outside I think most folks would assume I'm "a hundred percent" back to "normal."

But inside, it's still new territory in some ways and I still find it fascinating. The ways my mind connects thoughts and thinks about some familiar stuff has changed. I've already cited too many times the loss of my compulsive list making and my change in taste when it comes to Meryl Streep (everyone finds that one weird, as do I).

I still have more trouble writing and playing the piano than I did for most of my life (U started havin—woops I'll leave that to show you what I still have to take time to correct it seems in almost every line I write, I meant of course: I started having trouble with both those skills months before the operation, as they turned out to be symptoms).

I had a funny thing happen the other day. I've been doing graffiti style writing for envelopes I put birthday and other occasional cards in, from the bubble lettering my sisters did on their book covers (anyone remember the days when kids used brown paper bags as covers for school books?) to the 1970s NYC subway car graffiti that's still around in this part of the country.

I always just winged it and ended up making it work, at least to my satisfaction. I never—NEVER—in all the years I've been doing that, over half a century now, had any trouble fitting the names on the envelopes, I just always had a good sense of space and proportion.

But last weekend my youngest asked me to "write Nana in graffiti letters like you do" on the envelope for a card he bought for his grandmother and I started writing these bubble letters and ran out of room. For a four letter word! Never happened before. All I got on in a row were the first three letters: NAN. I had to write the final "A" underneath it (and my little guy added a bubble hyphen after the "NAN").

No big deal. Understand I am not complaining or saying this doesn't happen to other people who haven't had brain surgery, I'm just reporting, because I find it so interesting, this obvious change in my ability in this one area since the operation.

Lots of little stuff like that. But the good news is my brain made all the right choices for me when I did that reading last night and it was like I wasn't thinking but just letting my brain direct me and realizing only afterwards what happened. If that makes sense. In other words, I was overwhelmed by my inability to organize my thoughts and what I should choose to read so I just let my brain tell me, as if it were being controlled remotely by some other force, which I guess in a sense it was, and then watched to see where it led me and was amazed as it edited pages I held in my hand and led me to the conclusion that seemed the perfect resolution without any premeditation or even simultaneous cognition, it felt like I was just along for the ride.

Good to know that a lifetime of doing readings, all that experience, found its own way to connect whatever brain cells and synapses it would jerryrig together to get me to do what experience had trained me for. If you get what I mean. Not easy to describe, but a total kick to experience. Anyway, happy spring everyone (except those down under) it seems to have finally arrived after yesterday's winter weather and last week's middle-of-summer spree.


Just got home from a lovely evening. Lots of good friends from old days and new, some I hadn't seen in decades, others just last night, but all attentive and welcoming.

My friend Ray DiPalma gave a wonderful presentation of some excerpts from a few books, starting out with his ANCIENT USE OF STONE and then a bunch of new work all of which was terrific and which he put over like the great actor he also is (he acted in a play of mine back around 1981 in NYC and brought such nuance and flavor to the part that I wish we'd filmed it for posterity).

He had me and the audience laughing and more importantly thinking deeply about language and meaning(s) and what we do with them, deep and light at the same time. One of his great laugh lines was something like: "Narssicism is just a case of mistaken identity" or maybe "usually" or "nothing more than" a case of mistaken identity (I'm sure if he reads this he'll help me get it right).

[He did, so here's the line and the context:

Narcissism is no more
than a case of mistaken identity

The unwise harmony brought
from infatuation and confused
self-disclosure to a shallow
contentment with individual imprint

Look again]

For the first time in the over fifty years now that I've been reading my poetry outloud in various venues, I couldn't rely on my usual speed thinking to make last minute calculations as to what I or the audience might be in the mood for this time and instead just let my brain pick what IT wanted without thinking, which seemed to work out well.

I'm grateful to everyone who showed up and felt the presence of those who wanted to be there but couldn't be. And I'm grateful that my mind seems to have slowed down since the brain surgery and that I was able to handle the whole event and enjoy it as if it had been a recital to a standing room only crowd at Carnegie Hall. It's all relative, and if the love is in the room, no matter how erudite (Ray) or raw (me) the language, the connection is made. Indeed it was.

[PS: Just added the photo of me & Ray after the reading. I call it soul patch & moustache! But you can call it two old guys who go way back. (And thanks to my good friend Phillipa for taking it)]

[PPS: I forgot to mention the insightful, generous and well thought out introductions for Ray and myself by the Poetry Project Artistic Director Stacy Szymaszek.]

Tuesday, May 11, 2010

WE'RE #1? HMM...

Here's an excerpt from an article in today's NY Times that's pretty provocative theorizing:

"Since biologists believe that 80 percent of height is determined by genetics and 20 percent by environmental conditions, height — and sometimes weight — can be an index of childhood nutrition, health care and exposure to disease. Thus smaller stature may be a sign of an impoverished upbringing.

Mr. Komlos, for example, wrote a 2007 paper with Benjamin E. Lauderdale that found that Americans were the 'tallest in the world between colonial times and the middle of the 20th century,' but have since 'become shorter (and fatter) than Western and Northern Europeans. In fact, the United States population is currently at the bottom end of the height distribution in advanced industrial countries.'

'We conjecture,' they concluded, 'that the United States health-care system, as well as the relatively weak welfare safety net, might be why human growth in the United States has not performed as well in relative terms as one would expect on the basis of income alone.'"

[PS: And I might add something I've observed just living through the last half of the 20th Century and noticing the spread between taller "Americans" and shorter immigrants in general reversing.]

Monday, May 10, 2010


Thanks to my old and dear friend Suzanne Greco for hipping me to this notice in The New Yorker for my reading with Ray DiPalma this Wednesday evening at the St. Mark's Church Poetry Project.

[PS: Just found this link to the Poetry Project on Ron Silliman's blog.]

Sunday, May 9, 2010


I spent yesterday afternoon in a playing field behind the local high school with my youngest son who wanted me to watch his friend play in a lacrosse game.

It was such a wildly unique experience on so many levels, touching so many aspects of my life, as so often happens, that it seemed like the very purpose of life itself.

First of all I grew up playing in this same field. The backyard of my boyhood home ends where part of the field begins. Back then there was a a row of bushes that separated them, through which the kids from the neighborhood had made an entryway so they could cut through my yard to the field and the high school beyond.

But you could see all that back then looking in either direction, my home from the field the field and high school from my home. Now you can't see anything because of these enormous trees that have grown up since to tower over the little houses that line my street.

Though at the bottom of the little hill I grew up on the field reaches all the way to the street on the other side of which I could see the house my Irish immigrant grandparents lived in with one of my father's brothers and his wife and daughters. The steps seemed so huge when I was a kid it felt like they could hold the entire neighborhood. Now they seemed so small. Maybe that's because they're new and rebuilt, the old porch and stairs falling down when I first moved back here before the real estate boom and bust.

My grandparent's house has recently been bought and sold and spruced up so it looks much better than when I was a kid but so much less authentic. As do all the houses on my street. Either they've had siding put up, or the stoops and porches have been enclosed to create another room or a vestibule, or they've had tiny driveways created where there's enough room. Changes, not for the better to my mind and memories.

The sidewalk itself is different. When I was a boy it was made of bluish-grey slate squares quarried locally and set in a row with a little patch of earth between. Slate that would flake and we'd use the smaller broken off pieces to write with or make sparks. Now they're colorless and characterless cement squares like everywhere else.

There's a "Bush-Cheney '04" sign on the glass of one enclosed front porch on the block that looks like it's almost etched in, permanent in some way. Where once Irish and Italian immigrants mostly lived, there are now immigrants from East Asia and the Caribbean and Africa, with a few Irish and Italians and African-Americans still left, including a cousin's ex-wife who lives in my old home with her police officer son, last I knew.

There was an old tennis court at the bottom of the street in the field when I was a boy, a sport we felt was for rich kids, the same way we felt about lacrosse, those of us who even knew what that was. The old court was grass, enclosed in a high wire fence made of those woven diamond shaped patterns of thick metal stretched onto metal poles stuck deep into the ground and topped with a little pyramidal shaped metal crown, the kind of ornamentation most things seemed to have when I was a boy.

There's only one side of the tennis court fence left, the court itself long gone, incorporated into the field with an asphalt path meandering around the perimeter. I went over to take a closer look at the fence, which it took me a while to even discern from where the lacrosse game was going on because the fence is embedded in a row of more enormous trees.

As I walked along the fence and saw how the thick trunks of the trees had actually grown up through the fence I realized first of all what a great job whoever planted that fence in the ground had done to resist such pressure and stand so firm in the ground that the trees had to actually grow THROUGH the metal!

But I also had visions of old movies when I was a boy that had scenes of servicemen wandering around on old overgrown airfields or among no longer needed planes or tanks and realized I was feeling now the way those movies made me feel then even though I was merely a boy with very few memories of how much time changes things, but many memories of movies.

All this while the sun was shining so bright I borrowed a little hooded sweater from my son's friend's mom's daughter to cover my bald spot, and every now and then the wind would whip up so fiercely it looked like the enormous trees on my street's side of the playing field would bend over and topple. And the dust in parts of the field being used for the lacrosse game would nearly blind us.

There was much more to the afternoon. The fact that my son's friend's team consisted of a mixed race bunch of kids that not only would never have been playing lacrosse when I was their age but wouldn't have even lived in the town I live in that's now known for it's racial mix and abundance of same gender couples with kids.

I looked at the high school where I played stick ball against the wall, a wall buried behind the extensions built onto the school since I was a kid, and the A&P that took over a row of tiny Mediterranean style bungalows that were there when I was little, and the place where the bowling alley/diner was that seemed so exotic and cool when I was a kid with the teenagers in gang jackets playing the juke box, it's now covered in the ugliest cement painted battleship gray and advertising "Vinnie's Nails" where the juke box joint was, the alleys having long been converted into apartments.

I could go on, as I'm sure if you've read this far you know quite well, but the mix of old and new, the missing of some of what has passed (a lot of it is well gone) made me think of my mother and running to that A&P to pick up some ingredients for supper and the men from the hobo camp that's no longer by the tracks behind the A&P who used to come to our home for a handout because they knew what a soft touch she was, and missed her in a way I hadn't for decades.

Then today I read my good friend poet Terene Winch's post on THE BEST AMERICAN POETRY BLOG and thought how lucky I am to have such great memories and to have had the chance to come back after over forty years to get close again to the ghosts of my boyhood and put them to rest. Perhaps.

[PS: The photo above may not be on my grandparent's steps and if so it's reversed (the steps would be on the right), but I'm pretty sure that's me in the upper right, the jowly toddler near my almost teenage brother Robert, who would grow up to be a Teamster and a cop while still at home when I was a boy, and two of my sisters are in the crowd, as well as some cousins. I'd guess my two oldest brothers were off in the service for WWII when this was taken.]

Saturday, May 8, 2010


So, the Wall Street "Masters of the Universe" didn't know what they were talking about, and knew it.

And the Mega Oil Companies were totally jiving when it came to their new improved deep water drilling technologies.

And among the industrialized nations, including all of Europe, South Korean, even Turkey, the gap between the rich and poor is widest in the USA.

Any connection?

Friday, May 7, 2010


"Real happiness consists in not what we actually accomplish, but what we think we accomplish." —Charles Green Shaw

(from a book on LISTS by Liza Kirwin, an early b-day gift from TP Winch for which I am mucho grateful)

Wednesday, May 5, 2010


Finally caught this movie on cable that so many have recommended and which won the Oscar for Best Foreign Picture for 2008.

Now I can see what friends were raving about. It has its flaws for sure (some over acting, some plot points obvious or overcooked despite the fact that it's a "true story") but it's a compelling story (as concentration camp stories usually are) and impossible for me not to watch despite the fact I was already tired when I turned it on and thought I'd just check it out and go to bed and catch it another day but I couldn't stop watching.

Mostly that's because if how impressive the actor Karl Markovics is in the lead role. Hypnotizing to watch, he gives such an extraordinary performance that it feels like a milestone in the long history of great movie performances.

If I ever get back to making lists much again, his role in this movie will be one any list of greatest movie performances.

Tuesday, May 4, 2010


I've been reading this slim novel (130 pages) translated from the Spanish by Chris Andrews (there's several translators for Bolano's growing list of books now in English) every night for weeks now and falling asleep the other night as I neared the end of it I thought:

"I love great literature!"

Now, that's not something I would ever say, let alone think. I don't think or speak that way, not just the cliche aspects of it but the language. "Literature" is not a word I use much, if at all. I'm usually more specific or less grand. Though I'm sure I've used it here and there. But never like that.

I ascribe that to the brain surgery and its aftermath. ("Ascribe" and "aftermath" being two other words I normally would never use.)

That generic statement of enthusiasm I was making to myself as I fell asleep so contented with my evening's reading (which included pages from one or two other books as well, not as many as I used to find it necessary to read from pre-op, most of my life I read a few pages from several books before falling asleep when by myself, or with someone who didn't mind the light on or my reading after whatever else the evening's activities might include) was still true to my feelings.

As I've posted before, I've come to adore Bolano's writing, even as translated by different people. His magnum opus(es)—SAVAGE DETECTIVE, which put him on the map here, and the posthumous 2666—are what hooked me (and I know his star has risen so high it is now becoming fashionable to dismiss the attention his work is getting globally as the result of publishing hype or misinformed trend followers etc.) but the smaller earlier novels like BY NIGHT IN CHILE are just as seductively satisfying as everything I've read to date of his, including his poetry which is where he, and I, came in.

BY NIGHT IN CHILE is as much of a tour de force as the monster books that made and make his reputation despite how slight it sits in the hand (lighter than an iPad). Made up of one long stream of first person ruminative narrative in one 130 page paragraph with no pause until the last line (and the only one disappointingly translated to my mind and taste). The story of a priest looking back on a lifetime of seeming compromise and capitulation to the dark side of political power (Pinochet and what he wrought) from the perspective of someone seemingly inconsequential but nonetheless crucial to the unfolding story of the evil wrought from those sad times for Chile.

A character a reader, or at least me, would normally find despicable or at least dismissible is brought to life with such clarity it cannot be denied, the character or his tale. Another knockout.

I love great literature.

Monday, May 3, 2010


1. The last few days it's been like July or August in Jersey and even up in The Berkshires. But then a few days before that it was like October or March here and it was snowing in The Berkshires! But, once again, no comment from the rightwing Global Warming Deniers as opposed to the overwhelming [I originally wrote "theor oberwhelming"] presence all over the media after the record snowfalls last winter in some parts of the East.

2. I wish you could have seen my daughter's little girl at her dance recital Saturday. Or even better afterwards when we got some ice cream and my daughter brought my granddaughter a pair of pink cowboy boots she wanted (with rhinestones [it took seven attempts to get that last word right, because it's late and the brain surgery still has an impact on my writing] if I observed correctly, to go with her blue tutu and the rhinestone tiara sunglasses she also got! Talk about a little princess.

3. There's a lot of evidence that it's not just BP that's to blame for the oil spill that's heading toward being one of the worst disasters of recent years for the U.S. But it also can be laid at the feet of the defanged environmental agency under the last administration that approved the deepwater well, noting that the environmental impact of an accident causing an oil spill wouldn't last long and would not impact environmentally sensitive areas like the Louisiana wetlands. And Haliburton seems to have been involved in the usual shortsighted profiteering way that leads to lax oversight etc. Same old rightwing influence problem, but why should the media pay attention to that when even in England many citizens believe that BP is more environmentally concerned than Greenpeace!

Sunday, May 2, 2010


Thanks to my older son Miles for turning me on to the Nobel winning economist Paul Krugman's blog: "The Conscience of a Liberal".

I read Krugman's columns in the NY Times on Sundays and sometimes during the week, and I found the New Yorker profile on him and his wife several issues back a revelation.

But this recent post on his blog, which Miles showed me this morning up in The Berkshires before my youngest son and I returned to Jersey a few minutes ago, made me chuckle and grown at the same time from the reality of these times.

(And add him to my list of favorite blogs and sites to the right.)

[PS: My good friend Kevin McCollister pointed out to me that I wrote "grown" above instead of "groan"—just another example of the way my mind makes connections post brain surgery!]