Tuesday, August 09, 2016

It-Drives-Me-Nuts Dept., revisited

Et tu, NPR?

On Morning Edition today, they were interviewing two economists (of different persuasions), to analyze Trump's recent 'economic policy (sic)' speech.  They played the quote where he said, basically, "and we're going to eliminate the Death Tax - no workers should have to pay this, after paying taxes all their lives."

And the crowd goes wild.

The economists then had a back-and-forth, treating this nonsense (intentional or ignorant?) as a serious proposition. "Well, the Estate Tax only kicks in on estates worth many millions of dollars."  "Yes, but even a small business person with two or three car dealerships would be subject to the tax."  Etc. etc. etc.

Missing the point entirely.

It would not have taken that long for someone to mention that, of course, the 'Death Tax' is another right-wing dog-whistle (see also 'partial-birth abortion') designed to inflame the uninformed. 

Considering that economists say that a major proportion of our fellow Americans couldn't find a way to cobble together a couple of thousand dollars in an emergency, I can pretty much guarantee that a major proportion of Trump's cheering crowds will never (well, maybe in their dreams) have an estate subject to the Estate Tax.

But, no, another opportunity was lost to insert Reality into what has become a non-Reality-based campaign.   Then again, maybe I'm confusing today's NPR with the NPR of Yesteryear.

But wait, there's more.

A few minutes later, in a recap of the news, they mentioned that 'two families who lost sons in (wait for it) Benghazi have filed a wrongful death lawsuit against Hillary Clinton', then moved on.

If only they could have taken 8 seconds to add, 'of course, the lawsuit was brought by Larry Klayman, the notorious right-wing hack who has been persecuting the Clintons with spurious lawsuits for decades.'

It drives me nuts.

At least, with the Romans, the masses got BOTH bread and circuses.  No bread for you!

Sunday, August 07, 2016

why do we feel bad when fictional characters die?

We are watching, on Amazon, a popular TV show that had multiple seasons.  We are currently many seasons in and 2 from the end (no more spoilers here!).

Last night, without warning, one of the main characters, who had been central to virtually every spisode from the beginning, was suddenly killed.  I found myself feeling sad, which is, on the face of it ridiculous.

There was a one-minute warning, because the camera focused briefly on a gun, and I am well aware of the theater rule that, if you show the audience a gun, it must, sooner or later, be fired.  There must be a few exceptions, but none come to mind.  Anyone?

What is it about human story-telling that makes Unexpected Death such a primary archetype?  I'm guessing that, in the days when we inhabited tree-tops above the savannah (or even among the fur-trappers of the 1820's), sudden Unexpected Death was not unusual, and feeds the human need for either catharsis (if we liked the character) or schadenfreude (otherwise).

I can only liken the stunned sensation I felt last night to reading about the hobbits trudging thru the Mines of Moria, and Gandalf suddenly disappearing into the abyss with the Balrog.  (Gandalf, if you don't know already, reappears later, so this feeds into the Resurrection archetype, which appears to have had a equally pervasive fascination, but don't get me started).

Downton Abbey had a bunch of these, too, but, aside from Sybil, I wasn't that deeply affected.

With the TV series we are following, we feel the shock and numbness that the other characters feel, and we wonder how we can go on.

Yet, we know we will go on.

The point of all this is that, in these days, Sudden Unexpected Death does NOT touch most of our lives (at least in my particular demographic - the mileage of other humans here on Earth varies considerably).  Encountering this in fiction is (Fate willing) probably the main way we will experience it.  Maybe fiction is a way of letting us know that these things happen, and gives us a model for how to continue to live.

Still, I can't help feeling that, when an author kills a character, she cannot avoid thinking, with satisfaction, "this'll make 'em squirm."

I am currently re-reading 'Hamlet' (eBook) for the first time since High School.  The author writes very well, but I sure hope nothing bad happens to ol' Hammie, since I am growing quite fond of him. 

Monday, May 23, 2016

where have all the Gepids gone?

If you're like me, you've thought a lot over the years about the barbarian invasions into Europe, in the early centuries of the Common Era.

I'm currently reading a recent book on the history of the Silk Road(s), and came across this sentence:

"As if this were not bad enough, in the middle of the fifth century, having flushed forward a hotch-potch of tribes—Terevingian Goths, Alans, Vandals, Suevi, Gepids, Neurians, Bastarnians and others besides—the Huns themselves appeared in Europe, led by the most famous figure of late antiquity: Attila."

This is not the first time that I've seen mention of the Gepids, in similar lists.  I always quickly moved on.

This time I headed over to Wikipedia, and, as always, there is just enough information there to sufficiently plug this knowledge gap. Here's the link, for those with nothing else to do:


For the rest of you, here's what you need to know today:

"The Gepids' participation in the Huns' campaigns against the Roman Empire brought them much booty, contributing to the development of a rich Gepid aristocracy."

So, they were a real deal at the time, and, apparently, Attila liked his Gepid allies.

After Attila died ("unexpectedly", which was probably to be expected), the traditional Civil War broke out and the Gepids chose the right side, which allowed them to establish a Gepid 'kingdom' (of modest size), near today's Belgrade.

Things were looking good for those Gepids, for about 100 years.  You can almost hear Gepid fathers telling their wide-eyed children, "don't ever forget that you are a Gepid, and you should be damn proud."

In 552, they suffered a 'disasterous' defeat by the Lombards (the Wikipedia page for the Battle of Asfeld is pretty spare, considering how momentous it was for Gepid history), and many moved into northern Italy.

Around 630, an invading force of Byzantines "attacked a Gepid feast, capturing 30,000 Gepids". I was at the Portland Bernie rally with 28,000 happy people, so I can begin to imagine how that day was a 'disappointment'. 

But I digress.

That, apparently, is one of the last reliable historical references.   Their 'kingdom' (which actually has a name: "Gepedia") lives on only in Wiki-pedia - kind of ironic, don't you think?  Today, http://www.gepedia.org/ seems curiously disassociated from Gepids.

What do we take from all this?  If the Gepids were assimilated into the Byzantine sphere, Gepid DNA must still be part of the European stew.  They are described as "white, tall and blond-haired," so obviously not in MY stew, but look around you.

Gepids walk among us, and frequently appear in commercials.

Thursday, April 28, 2016

the persistence of memory

For many years, I have been a volunteer, playing piano for the choir at a predominantly-Jewish assisted living facility.  We do a lot of songs from the Great American Songbook, but also throw in an occasional Beatle tune (which generally mystifies the Group).

A digression:  in our current program, we are doing 'With a Little Help From My Friends', but, in the interest of gentility, substituted 'eat some pie with a little help from my friends' for 'get high with a little help from my friends'.

Where was I?  Oh yes.

This experience has taught me a great deal about Old Folks, and I often get glimpses into the rich, vibrant, and varied lives that these now stooped, often-frail, mobility-or-speech-impaired singers have had.

There are several whose European accents reveal the reality of their having experienced horrors that, thankfully, I have not.

One guy in particular has made reference to the fact that he was in the Pacific, preparing for the invasion of Japan (and his statistically-likely demise), when the atomic bombs brought an end to the War.

But an entirely-new dimension of the power of memory happened last week, when one of the ladies in the group came up to me while I was warming up before the rehearsal.  I was playing a Gershwin tune and, with a quivering voice, she said quietly "I still can't believe he died." 

She was genuinely on the verge of tears, having been instantly transported back to July 11, 1937.

Think 'Prince'.

Wednesday, March 09, 2016

Known Unknowns

On November 22, 1963, I was sitting in Mrs. Peachy's 4th Grade class, at Hendy Avenue School, Elmira, New York.  It was a normal day until early afternoon, when The News broke.

That night, we watched, stunned, as live TV showed the casket being unloaded in DC, and I was, for some long-forgotten reason, alone in the house on Sunday, when I watched live as Jack Ruby stepped into the picture and chaos ensued.

The Kennedy assassination has been with us a long time.  I always expected that some deathbed confession would have cleared it all up by now, but, as they say, questions remain.

When we were in Vietnam last November, we visited a Buddhist monastery outside of Hue, whose head monk, in the summer of 1963, had driven his little blue car (still faithfully preserved there at the monastery) to Saigon, parked outside the US embassy, poured gas on himself, and struck a match. 

Our Vietnamese guide proceeded to explain to us the reason why Kennedy was  killed.  It went like this:

President Diem's persecution of the Buddhists (leading to many public self-immolations that summer), increased Kennedy's fear that the bad publicity over these deaths jeopardized his re-election prospects for 1964.  Kennedy directed the State Department and CIA to take out Diem and his brother, Nhu (who was involved in the international heroin trade), who were both assassinated November 1, 1963.  Three weeks later: Dallas. 

Bottom line on this theory:  Kennedy was killed by the American mafia, on behalf of the French heroin mafia, who had been partnered with Vice President Nhu.  Our guide recommended to us a book describing all this: "The Deaths of the Cold War Kings".  I read it, and it was pretty convincing.  Case closed.


Not so fast.

In another context a couple of weeks ago, another JFK assassination book came to my attention, and I just finished it: "JFK and the Unspeakable", complete with a jacket blurb from Robert Kennedy, Jr ("everyone should read this book").


Vietnam also played a key part in this book, but quite differently.  The subject of heroin is never mentioned and, instead of Kennedy approving the Diem/Nhu assassination, he is instead portrayed as having been absolutely opposed to it.  Instead, he was totally outflanked by the duplicitous hawks in the CIA and Joint Chiefs, who were fearful that Kennedy's plans to GET OUT of Vietnam (well-known but not to be released to the public until after his 1964 re-election), and find a peaceful accomodation with the Soviets (instead of escalating the Cold War), would lead to Communist world-domination.

Bottom line: Oswald was actually a patsy (as he claimed) and the CIA perpetrated a complex web of implications and impersonations that were focused on bolstering the Oswald-did-it line.  Also, a prior CIA assassination plan, in Chicago on November 2nd, was aborted at the last minute, although a patsy for that planned killing had likewise been cultivated.  Kennedy knew that he was a target and, throughout November, had the sense that his end was near.

Again, a totally convincing narrative - the CIA did it.

Finally, I remembered another massive JFK book that came out a couple of years ago and just got it at the library.  It's "Legacy of Secrecy", by Lamar Waldron and co-authored by the impecable Thom Hartmann.


This is an imposingly-hefty book (850 pages), that claims to be the definitive word.  Its conclusion: it was the Mafia.  I am NOT going to spend the next couple of weeks reading it - I am burned out.  However, I did consult its extensive index: not a single reference to Diem or Nhu.

What do we conclude about all this?  For an answer, I only had to look at my copy of the current "London Review of Books", which has a long review of a new book called "The Murder of James I".  That, for those keeping score, was in 1625.

Friday, January 29, 2016

Of interest to film geeks only (maybe)

I've been thinking about Orson Welles a lot lately.

I  recently finished the eBook version of this:


It covered the years between Welles' amazing pre-natal heritage (wealth and all the associated advantages) thru his early theater triumphs, culminating in the amazing creation of 'Citizen Kane' (despite what nay-sayers say, still, IMHO, the best American film of all time, as far as innovative camera movements, long takes, writing, and general film pleasure).

'Vertigo' is #2, but that's another story.

I watched my DVD of 'Kane'  the other day, with the astute Peter Bogdanovitch commentary, and, as always, found it filled with amazing technical camera wizardry, plus the complex, multi-layered make-up, acting and script (what was Mankiewicz and what was Welles? - the evidence is scattered). 

It really is a spectacular film.  Have you seen it recently?

At any rate...

Welles' 2nd film in 'the system' was 'The Magnificent Ambersons' and I found it at the library today and just watched it for the first time in many years.  What a curious film - so old-fashioned in its costumes, period, and setting.  I don't understand why Welles was so drawn to the story.

Of course, this was the butchered version that RKO released, after deciding that Welles's cut was 'unsatisfactory'.  The final scene is indeed laughable.  Still, there are flashes of amazing cleverness in the framing, composition, and especially lighting, not to mention the astonishing performance by Agnes Moorhead (who only had a couple of scenes in 'Kane').

The main character, George Miniver (Tim Holt) is the obvious villein, smug in his self-worth and entitlement.  The whole arc of the story is his 'comeuppance'.  Eugene Morgan (Joseph Cotton, in a fairly absurd mustache) has made his fortune in the early automobile business, and is the sympathetic father of George's love interest (who sees him as the shallow 'affluenza' youth he is).

In a key scene, George insults Morgan by characterizing the advent of the gasoline-powered automobile as a terrible event, that will destroy a way of life (i.e. horse-and-buggy world).

Here's the thing.

In the context of 1942, when 'Ambersons' was made, George's insistence that the gasoline-powered automobile is a curse upon us was ridiculous.

In the context of 2016, it is prophetic.

Weird, eh?

Monday, December 07, 2015

Thank you, taxpayers of Elmira, New York

I was born in Elmira (1951) and called it my home thru High School (go, Blue Devils!).

As part of the Elmira diaspora (I only get there now and then, for the periodic family funeral), I have often felt a noticeable degree of guilt about having benefited from that peaceful, comfortable world that our parents created in the 1950s and 60s, but left when I could and never gave back.

This is my effort to recognize one small aspect of that world, that made all the difference to me.

Her name was Crystal Ewing and findagrave.com tells me she died in 1989 and is buried in Woodlawn Cemetery.  She was employed by the Elmira Public Schools and her job, which was performed with enthusiasm and commitment, made all the difference in my life.

Miss Ewing (as we always called her) traveled around town to all the public Elementary schools, with a record player and a stack of records.  Believe it or not, taxpayers in those days had no problem with their money going to support a regular class for their children, that was simply called 'Music Appreciation'.

Her mission was to open up for us kids, in that pre-Vietnam world of Leave It to Beaver and Ozzie and Harriet, the world of Bach, Beethoven, Tchaikovsky (I still remember how to spell it, thanks to her), and others, for no other reason than that it was the common opinion of the School Board that it would be good for us.

For me, as a beginning piano player, the depth and complexity of Fugue in G Minor was a revelation.  She would play the recording and ask the class to signal each time they heard the theme.  Around Christmas time, of course, the Nutcracker would appear.  You get the idea.

I think we might have mocked her smiling cheerfulness a bit, but, to me, the weekly (?) hour with Miss Ewing was a great thing. I doubt many of today's kids know much about poor Franz Schubert.

She stuck with the Big Classics, which was fine - it wasn't until years later that I was ready for Mahler and Stravinsky, but I had CONTEXT when I was.

So, thank you, taxpayers of Elmira, New York, in that post-WWII world, who didn't object when someone thought it was a good idea to pay a single woman enough to enable her to have a career insuring that their kids could tell Bach from Brahms.

And thank you, Miss Ewing, for expanding my world, at exactly the right time.

Yes, this is too little, too late.