Friday, July 31, 2020

Movie Quote of the Day (‘Some Like It Hot,’ As a Millionaire Flirts With an Unusual ‘Girl’)

Osgood Fielding III [played by Joe E. Brown]: “You must be quite a girl.”

“Daphne”/Jerry [played by Jack Lemmon]: “Wanna bet?”— Some Like It Hot (1959), screenplay by Billy Wilder and I.A.L. Diamond, directed by Billy Wilder

Thursday, July 30, 2020

GOP Gives AOC Her Star Turn

In times of polarization like now, offering anything other than an all-or-nothing opinion on an event or person becomes fraught with difficulty. Nuance be damned, as well as any chance of accepting an inconvenient truth, seeing a contrary viewpoint as a difference of opinion rather than a friendship-breaker, finding a compromise, or collaborating on other issues that might benefit the country.

So it is with Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. Popular opinion on the Congresswoman from New York’s 14th District has divided neatly into two camps: she’s either a wonderful bit of fresh air hitting the stale halls of Capitol Hill or an ill wind that will blow down the free-enterprise system in the United States.

Don’t count me in either faction. I see her as an outlier among Congressional Democrats, with far less impact than one might think even on mainstream liberal leaders like Nancy Pelosi. She owes her celebrity less to her own talents than to hailing from New York, the de facto media capital of the nation; to upsetting Joe Crowley, the fourth-ranking Democrat in the House, whom she “primaried” because he paid insufficient attention to his district (covering parts of The Bronx and Queens) and its changing demographics; and to her Instagram-ready appearance.

Moreover, I worry about her eagerness to speak before she masters the workings of Congress or of Washington in general; her advocacy of positions with potential for increasing deficits to a dangerous degree; or her unwillingness to compromise, which will do few favors for Joe Biden as he appeals to independents or even to Trump voters who want a credible alternative to the President’s bullying, incompetent and chaotic governing style.

But give “AOC” this: she has star quality. You cannot help wondering what she will say or do next in the daily political melodrama that consumes Americans’ attention.

But—God help them—Congressional Republicans have just served notice that she has not only consumed their attention but also their brains. Because that’s the only way you can understand how they could serve up to this performer the only thing she lacked to date: in Congressman Ted Yoho, the most hissable villain since Basil Rathbone crossed swords with Errol Flynn in Captain Blood and The Adventures of Robin Hood.

AOC and Yoho had a fractious encounter a week ago, but the fallout lasted beyond the nine-minute verbal thrashing she subsequently administered to him in a speech before the House of Representatives. The repercussions extended into this past weekend, when Yoho was forced to resign from the board of directors of Bread for the World, a nonpartisan Christian organization that seeks to end hunger.

Could that move signal that even a natural constituency like this for Yoho—and Donald Trump—will no longer accept at least some behavior from someone with voting positions they favor?

In the meantime, let’s count all the ways—if that’s even possible—that Yoho and his enablers put themselves in the wrong in dealing with AOC:

*Yoho lengthened the controversy because he couldn’t admit he was at fault. Yoho’s statement to the House was filled with so many self-justifications (e.g., “I cannot apologize for my passion, or for loving my God, my family and my country”) that in no way, shape or form could it be termed an “apology.” Even calling this statement a “non-apology apology” does not remotely convey its lameness. For an explanation of errant conduct comparably fatuous, you have to go back 30 years, when Calif. Congressman Robert Dornan justified a bounced check in the House banking scandal by saying he meant to cover the cost of his backyard shrine to the Blessed Virgin Mary. Hilariously, Yoho referred to his wife in his address to the House. Countless husbands around the country have learned the two words that are the minimal first step toward smoothing over unacceptable words and behavior to their wives: “I’m sorry.” Why did Yoho find it so hard to muster them now, without negating qualifiers, to a colleague?

*Yoho showed not the slightest interest in discussing issues. Was Yoho interested in (his words) a “policy discussion”? That implies that he wanted to hear why AOC saw a connection between poverty and crime, and might offer counter-arguments why her claim didn’t hold water. The fact that their talk was (again, his language) “brief” suggests that nothing of the sort took place. What he really intended was something entirely different. AOC characterized his words as “rude.” Judging from the shortness of the “conversation,” Yoho’s refusal to man up when they discussed the incident in his office later, and his ridiculous House statement, I believe AOC is being imprecise, perhaps even charitable. “Unhinged harangue” comes closer to the tenor of Yoho’s remarks.

*Yoho interfered with AOC on her way to legislative business. As he was coming down the steps of the Capitol, she was ascending them on the way to a vote. This accentuated his height advantage over her. Only a couple of minutes before, he was photographed inside, without a mask, in close conversation with a colleague, and does not appear to have donned a mask as he stepped outside. All of this would have increased AOC’s physical discomfort with him.

*Yoho used a wingman in his exchange with AOC. That man was the colleague he had just spoken to inside, Rep. Roger Williams (R-Tex). Like any bully, Yoho wanted an audience to cheer him on, not to mention a collaborator in his misbehavior and folly.

*Williams, despite strenuous efforts, not only could not protect Yoho from the consequences of misconduct, but even ended up complicit in it. Perhaps taking a page from GOP colleagues who for the last three years have unconvincingly claimed they had not read one of the President’s more outrageous tweets, Williams said last week, “As I was walking down the stairs, I was thinking about some issues I've got in my district that need to get done. I don't know what their [Yoho and AOC’’s] topic was." So, let’s get this straight: Williams was walking down the steps with a colleague he’d been talking to inside only a minute or two before, and then he suddenly went deaf and/or absent-minded? Does this sound remotely true? Or does AOC sound closer to the truth when she says that Williams chimed in by yelling about “throwing urine”?

*What is an “abrupt manner” of a conversation, and who has ever apologized for it? What an interesting choice of words from Yoho! I haven’t heard anything so intentionally confusing since a theater owner yelled to me and a long line of moviegoers not that it was hot inside because of a broken air conditioner but that it was “close.” Yoho’s initial explanation of the encounter’s origins to a friendly Fox reporter begs for annotation: "I asked her, I said, 'Hey, do you have a minute?' She goes, 'Yes.' And we've never had a conversation before, and I wanted to ask her about this policy that she was telling people it was OK to shoplift if you're hungry. And it went backwards from there." If he can mischaracterize her view as it being “OK to shoplift if you’re hungry,” is it really that hard to wonder why “it went backwards from there”?

*Yoho and Williams turned this encounter into a Monty Python skit. Surely you remember the one: “The Argument Sketch,” in which a customer looking for an “argument” is misdirected to an office featuring “abuse.” Yoho and Williams subjected AOC to abuse, plain and simple.

*The incident occurred in front of a witness—a guy with a pen, ready to reveal it to the public. In short, a reporter. Once Yoho and Williams lost their heads, they could not rely on a “he said, she said” account of the affair. The reporter from the newspaper The Hill (not, let us stipulate, a publication that veers left) heard Yoho refer to AOC as a “f-----g b---h.” Instantly, the Florida Congressman’s credibility—not to mention his emotional equilibrium—was called into question. It didn't help when, on the floor of the House, he said the "offensive name-calling words attributed to me by the press were never spoken to my colleague." No, the two words were spoken when he was walking away. In other words, he denied nothing. 

*Yoho seems never to have learned that most people do not associate cursing with a “conversation.” Before he stood before the House to explain his misbehavior, Yoho’s office disputed the report that he walked away from the encounter referring to her as a “b---h.” No, it claimed, what he really said was what, in the 1960s, was referred to in newspapers as “a barnyard epithet.” Most people would not regard this as a significant improvement. But then again, perhaps a barnyard is where Yoho belongs in the first place. After all, one can only hope that he treated animals entrusted to his care in his pre-political days as a veterinarian better than he did a human colleague in Congress.

*Yoho's language has been, in other contexts, construed as sexual harassment. In a legal post that (mercifully) takes no account of the larger political background, Darrell Van Deusen, writing on the Web site for Kollman Law, cites a recent decision by National Labor Relations Board Chair John Ring that assails "obscene, racist, and sexually harassing speech not tolerated in almost any workplace today.” For years, Republicans have claimed that government should be "run like a business." But in any modern office environment, Yoho's hostile language would be enough to trigger a sweaty sitdown with a human resources head about the danger this posed to the corporation's liability and the employee's future employment.
*Yoho brought to the surface the problem so many conservative Republicans have with women. So, let’s see: he initiates what he calls “a brief policy discussion” with someone he’s never spoken to in her year and a half on Capitol Hill, on a subject (the relationship between poverty and crime) that other male Democrats have addressed in a similar manner. Why did he not ask them about this? Could it be that, as a woman, she raised his hackles more? Or could it be that, like the President they slavishly imitate, he watches Fox News so avidly that he's lucky he even knows any Democratic lawmaker besides the leadership and the network’s junior female bete noire, AOC?

*AOC exposed Yoho and Williams as juveniles rather than mature adults responsible for helping to decide America’s future. Since AOC first ran for office, the GOP has been fond of ridiculing her past as a bartender, but last week she showed she could use it as a cudgel against them. The language used by Yoho and Williams was “not new,” AOC remarked; indeed, she had encountered this previously as a waitress, as well as on the subways and streets of New York. The two men, she observed, were part of an entire “culture of lack of impunity” that accepts violence and violent language towards women. Many watching her speech may have felt that, in fact, Yoho and Williams were worse than the drunken louts that mouthed off to her previously. At least nobody ever expected such barroom boobs to be taken seriously.

*The House GOP did what it has been doing best since Jan. 20, 2017—defend the indefensible. House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy could wangle no more than a mealy-mouthed justification of the incident from Yoho. In the process, he put his entire party behind a politician whose moral capital was already minimal at best. (Yoho has voted against making lynching a federal hate crime.) The only problem is that Yoho can’t inspire the same level of fear as Donald Trump, so McCarthy gained little by his weary plea that Yoho “should be forgiven” and that the House cease dealing with this. Moreover, by countenancing rank incivility in his own ranks now, McCarthy will have no grounds for complaint later if House Democrats engage in similar disrespectful behavior.

The GOP had no sense of its stage or even its audience, so it lost control of the narrative. Unlike years past, it cannot blame this PR disaster on the news media—it’s the social media that made AOC a star with viral viewings of the collective Republican ignominy and her self-possessed, dignified response.

The party, unable to control a fringe candidate who used social media to win its nomination as President, now finds itself ill-equipped to deal with a younger, more appealing politician who has mercilessly revealed them as sexist, demeaning dinosaurs. If they regard a “b---h” as a difficult, demanding, unreasonable female, then what is the proper word for an equivalent male?

Guess what? I’ve got it: TRUMP. But in a pinch, YOHO will do.

Seizing Yoho’s hypocritical invocation of his wife and daughter, AOC summed up how badly he and GOP colleagues who refused to repudiate him had missed the moral meaning of this short but all-too-telling incident:

“Having a daughter does not make a man decent. Having a wife does not make a decent man. Treating people with dignity and respect makes a decent man. And when a decent man messes up, as we all are bound to do, he tries his best and does apologize. I am someone’s daughter, too.”

There hasn’t been such a thorough decapitation since the pilot episode of Game of Thrones. But how could Yoho, Williams and the rest of Washington’s GOP expect anything different when they abandoned even the slightest attempt at a coherent, issues-based conservative philosophy for Trump’s blustering, misogynistic cult of personality?

Quote of the Day (John Stuart Mill, on the Power of Public Opinion)

“To think that because those who wield power in society wield in the end that of government, therefore it is of no use to attempt to influence the constitution of the government by acting on opinion, is to forget that opinion is itself one of the greatest active social forces. One person with a belief is a social power equal to ninety-nine who have only interests.”— English political philosopher and economist John Stuart Mill (1806-1873), Considerations on Representative Government (1861)

Wednesday, July 29, 2020

Quote of the Day (Dan Jenkins, on How ‘The Devoted Golfer is an Anguished Soul’)

“The devoted golfer is an anguished soul who has learned a lot about putting just as an avalanche victim has learned a lot about snow. He knows he has used putters with straight shafts, dull shafts, glass shafts, oak shafts, and Great-uncle Clyde’s World War I saber, which he found in the attic. Attached to these shafts have been putter heads made of large lumps of lead (‘weight makes the ball roll true,’ salesmen explain) and slivers of aluminum (‘lightness makes the ball roll true,’ salesmen explain) as well as every other substance harder than a marshmallow. He knows he has tried 41 different stances, inspired by everyone from the club pro to Fred Astaire in Flying Down to Rio, and just as many different strokes. Still, he knows he is hopelessly trapped. He can’t putt, and he never will, and the only thing left for him to do is bury his head in the dirt and live the rest of his life like a radish.”—American sportswriter and novelist Dan Jenkins (1928-2019), “Lockwrists and Cage Cases,” Sports Illustrated, July 16, 1962, reprinted in The Dogged Victims of Inexorable Fate: A Love-Hate Celebration of Golfers and Their Game (1970)

Tuesday, July 28, 2020

Quote of the Day (Director John Singleton, on ‘Why Films Get Made’)

“This is not rocket science. The reason why films get made is that the filmmaker was persistent in their vision. I’ve seen many people second-guess themselves into nothingness. Your first impulse is usually your best impulse.”—American filmmaker John Singleton (1968-2019), quoted in Dave McNary, “Singleton to Filmmakers: Believe in Your Movie,” Variety, Oct. 20, 2012       

COVID-19 will test Mr. Singleton’s notion of a filmmaker’s persistence as perhaps no other trend or event in recent Hollywood history. Nobody knows what subject matter will interest audiences once a vaccine is developed and the state lockdowns are finally rolled back. Nobody even knows at this point to what extent audiences will come back.

It would be a shame if emerging filmmakers—not just African-Americans like the late Mr. Singleton, but also other minorities and women—are unable to find traction in the post-COVID Hollywood, just at the moment when some show signs of breaking through—and at the moment when America needs to hear these new perspectives.

(Photo of John Singleton taken during a USC football rally, Dec. 30, 2003, by Bobak Ha'Eri.)

Monday, July 27, 2020

Tweet of the Day (James Breakwell, on His Smartphone’s Autocorrect Function)

“I tried to say, ‘I'm a functional adult,’ but my phone changed it to ‘fictional adult,’ and I feel like that's more accurate.”—“Exploring Unicorn” (i.e., comedy writer James Breakwell), tweet of Dec. 9, 2017

Sunday, July 26, 2020

This Day in Southern History (Supreme Court Intervenes in Racial Cause Celebre)

July 26, 1950—Heeding an appeal two days earlier by future Congresswoman Bella Abzug, Supreme Court Associate Justice Harold Burton issued a stay of execution for a convicted rapist whose case raised the issue of the impact of race on the Southern criminal justice system.

The action by Burton, the only Republican among the four appointed to the high court by President Harry Truman, incensed locals gathered at the Laurel, Miss., courthouse where the death of Willie McGee had been eagerly anticipated for the past four years. In annoyed terms that would echo in reaction to the civil-rights era that would begin in a few years, they denounced “damn Communists” and “outside interference,” according to a contemporary report by Time Magazine.

The complainers were referring to Abzug and the group that had hired her, the Civil Rights Congress (CRC), which was affiliated with the Communist Party and which had, since its founding in 1946, spearheaded battles for civil rights for African-Americans, and civil liberties for white and black labor movement radicals. But the CRC victory in 1950 was short-lived, as the full Supreme Court refused to handle the appeal of the case and McGee died in the electric chair in May 1951.

I came across a brief description of the McGee case in Leandra Ruth Zarnow’s recent biography, Battling Bella. It highlighted Abzug’s courage, as a young New York Jewish woman, in venturing into the Deep South at a time when Northern white liberals were not only regarded suspiciously in the region but threatened.

But there was comparatively little in the book about the defendant. For that, readers may want to check out an NPR news segment from 10 years ago that followed the efforts of his granddaughter to ferret out the truth. (Two years later, a full-scale account of the case, Alex Heard’s The Eyes of Willie McGee, would be published.)  

The case began in the fall of 1945, when local police charged McGee with breaking into the home of Willette Hawkins, a 32-year-old white housewife, threatening her with a knife and raping her, with one of her three children, her ailing 20-month-old daughter, by her side. McGee’s lawyers at this point did not mount a vigorous defense, even urging him to plead insanity.

The most damning charge against the prosecution’s case was the composition of the jury: Not a single Black served on it. Not surprisingly, it took the 12 men and women only 2½ minutes to sentence McGee to death. It bears noting that no white man in the state had ever received a death sentence for rape.

A retrial the following year introduced a new element--a confession supposedly signed by McGee but not introduced at the first trial--but a similar result: conviction in only 12 minutes.

Matters changed dramatically once Abzug was hired by the CRC in 1948. They would press a much more hotly disputed claim: that what happened between Mrs. Hawkins and McGee was not an assault but a consensual affair. In one stroke, they had touched the proverbial third rail: interracial sexual relations.

At the time of his arrest, supporters would say, McGee did not dare to make such a claim because he feared for his life—and, indeed, threats of lynching were so numerous and credible that he had to be transported in a National Guard truck and dressed in fatigues to conceal his identity.

Still lingering in the atmosphere was the notorious Scottsboro case, in which nine African-American youths had been charged with raping two white women on a train in Alabama in 1931. The McGee case had now become a cause celebre in its own right, as:

*"Save Willie McGee" events and petition drives were held across America;

*International supporters including Jean Paul Sartre, Albert Camus, Jean Cocteau, and Richard Wright organized a rally in Paris, with similar demonstrations in Moscow and China; and

*William Faulkner, Paul Robeson, Josephine Baker, Lorraine Hansberry, and Albert Einstein supported McGee.

But, if the CRC attracted publicity to the case, its Communist affiliation also may have limited its ultimate success. By the time of Abzug’s dramatic Supreme Court appeal and Burton’s stay of execution, Sen. Joseph McCarthy had garnered headlines with his sensational claims about Communists in the State Department. 

With the nation in the grip of the Red Scare, the NAACP, President Truman, and Eleanor Roosevelt—all normally champions of civil rights—avoided involvement.

McGee’s last message to his wife Rosalie, written the night before his electrocution, continues to resonate, nearly 70 years later:

To wife Rosalie, the night before he died: “Tell the people the real reason they are going to take my life is to keep the Negro down….They can’t do this as long as you and the children keep on fighting. Never forget to tell them why they killed their daddy. I know you won’t fail me. Tell the people to keep on fighting.”

Spiritual Quote of the Day (Francois Mauriac, on ‘Idolatries of the State, of Race, and of Blood’)

“Today, to the extent that the world is de-Christianized and under new forms returns to the old idolatries of the state, of race, and of blood, the authentic Christian is scarcely less isolated than were the first Christians under the empire of the Caesars.  Many of the early Christians did not protect themselves any more than we do against the corruption which streamed in on them from all sides. Habit prevents us from being sensitive to the contradictions between the Cross and the world that is still so indomitable so many centuries after the first Christians began to measure their strength against paganism.” —French Nobel Literature laureate (and lifelong Catholic) Francois Mauriac (1885-1970), The Son of Man, translated by Bernard Murchland (1958)

Saturday, July 25, 2020

Photo of the Day: Quiet on the Water

Late this afternoon, I went to Overpeck County Park and the adjacent Overpeck Creek (shown in this photo I took). Neither was deserted, but on the other hand, for the time of year and the general weather conditions (sunny and very, very warm), it did not attract the crowds present in other years.

Some of this, I am sure, resulted from Bergen County not holding the events (often ethnic celebrations) that filled up the parking lot on past summer weekends. I was glad that, for a change, I could find a parking space in this season.

But I did miss not seeing more boats bobbing along on this stream. Their presence not only indicates enjoyment of nature, but of movement and activity—something that has slowed, and even at points come to a standstill, since COVID-19 made its presence felt late this winter.

Quote of the Day (Roger Kahn, on Ebbets Field, A Fan’s Paradise)

“Ebbets Field was a narrow cockpit, built of brick and iron and concrete, alongside a steep cobblestone slope of Bedford Avenue. Two tiers of grandstand pressed the playing area from three sides, and in thousands of seats fans could hear a ball player’s chatter, notice details of a ball player’s gait and, at a time when television had not yet assaulted illusion with the Zoomar lens, you could see, you could actually see, the actual expression on the actual face of an actual major leaguer as he played. You could know what he was like!”—Sportswriter Roger Kahn (1927-2020), The Boys of Summer (1972)

Sorry, folks, but what we’re seeing now, with a midyear opening, is fake baseball—meaningless games without fans, atmosphere and even a full schedule to compare team and individual results against those posted in other seasons. As far as I’m concerned, the cry of woebegone Brooklyn Dodger fans who once made Ebbets Field their psychic home makes a whole lot of sense: “Wait till next year!”

Yet one more reason to curse COVID-19 and the public leaders who, through inaction and/or wishful thinking, enabled it...

Friday, July 24, 2020

This Day in Literary History (Birth of Robert Graves, War Poet and Would-Be Nobelist)

July 24, 1895—Robert Graves, a soldier physically and psychologically wounded during WWI, who went on to a long career as a wide-ranging man of letters, was born in Wimbledon, near London, England.

Writing well in one genre is a major achievement in and of itself, but how many writers can you think of succeed as well at fiction as at poetry? As far as I’m concerned, though many have tried their hand at both, only a halfway have consistently equaled their achievement in each: Goethe, Pushkin, Hardy, and Graves.

During the 1970s, I became familiar with Graves’ work through the Masterpiece Theatre adaptation of his I, Claudius and its sequel, Claudius the God.  The miniseries revived interest in these two novels from the 1930s that had been inspired by a work he translated: Suetonius’ gossipy history The Twelve Caesars. As the 13 episodes featuring delicious imperial intrigues unfolded, the two Graves novels climbed to the top of the trade paperback bestseller list.

By this time, the octogenarian Graves, living for decades as an expatriate in Majorca, Spain, had come to resemble “a prototypical sea captain, a weathered oak of a man with a leonine face, ropy hair, and the brusque hauteur of a man used to exercising his command,” according to English journalist and longtime Masterpiece Theatre host Alistair Cooke.

It had taken the world quite a while to come around to Graves’ own high self-estimate, which had emerged continually in outspoken interviews over the years. In fact, he had become “such a professional surpriser that only a conventional opinion from him could still shock us,” wrote the English-born American novelist-essayist Wilfred Sheed in The Good Word and Other Words (1978):

“It has been a unique privilege of our time to watch the building of Graves, from shell-shocked schoolboy in World War I to Mediterranean warlock, encanting at the moon. As an expatriate in Majorca, Graves remains a bit of an Edwardian tease, as willful and unflaggingly facetious as a Sitwell; yet in another sense, he has grown more fully and richly than is given to most. His literary opinions are so quirky that they seem designed solely to start lengthy feuds in the London Times; yet in terms of his own art they are not quirky at all.”

The professional making of Graves could easily have been the personal unmaking of him, as implied by Sheed: his traumas in the trenches of France in the Great War. Breaking off his studies at Oxford to enlist at the outbreak of hostilities, he had fought in the Battle of Loos and again in the Somme offensive in 1916, when a shell fragment lodged in his lung was so severe that he was mistakenly reported dead on his 21st birthday. 

After convalescing, Graves returned to the trenches in 1918, suffering yet another injury. The Armistice announcement in November of that year only led him to wander “along the dyke above the marshes of Rhuddlan…cursing and sobbing and thinking of the dead.”

Forty years after his service, Graves was still counting the cost, as demonstrated in his poem “The Face in the Mirror”:

“Grey haunted eyes, absent-mindedly glaring
From wide, uneven orbits; one brow drooping
Somewhat over the eye
Because of a missile fragment still inhering,
Skin deep, as a foolish record of old-world fighting.”

In the decade after the Armistice, Graves’ reaction was even more visceral, as he found himself recoiling at strong smells (from fear of gas attacks) and loud noises. He was only finally able to confront his anguish head-on in his 1929 anti-war memoir, Goodbye to All That.

It is still regarded as one of the finest literary products of the Great War, even though, as critic Paul Fussell noted, it was really more like “fiction disguised as a memoir,” with so much deviation from literal fact that it pained fellow veterans Siegfried Sassoon, Edward Blunden and Doctor J. C. Dunn.

Proceeds from Goodbye to All That were substantial enough to enable Graves to reside most of the rest of his life in Majorca. It also meant that he could write and live much as he pleased.

His personal nonconformity manifested itself most vividly in his relationship with the American poet Laura Riding. Already a father of four by the mid-1920s, Graves brought her into his household to reside with him and wife Nancy, then decided to add to the proceedings Geoffrey Phibbs, an Anglo-Irish librarian. (At one point, Graves even threw himself from a third-story window in imitation of Riding, who had just thrown herself from the fourth floor.)

His poetry would eventually amount to 55 collected volumes, but Graves turned his hand to other genres, too, such as a biography of Lawrence of Arabia, translations, cultural criticism (The White Goddess, a meditation on myth-making), and historical novels that took in not only ancient Rome but also the misunderstood wife of poet John Milton, a British soldier’s view of the American Revolution, and even Christ (King Jesus).

One work that particularly appealed to me when I came across it in my college years was a collaboration with Alan Hodge, The Reader Over Your Shoulder. Grammarian Patricia T. O’Conner has termed it “the best book on writing ever published.”

Under normal circumstances, it would be hard to resist any volume that not only offers 41 principles for writing but also examples of how they were violated by luminaries such as T.S. Eliot, George Bernard Shaw, J.B. Priestley, H.G. Wells, and Bertrand Russell. (In one barb, British philosopher A.N. Whitehead is charged with "becoming as conventionally loose as any featherheaded undergraduate.") But the book is even more delicious when Graves and Hodge own up to mistakes of their own.

So prolific and versatile was Graves that in 1962, he ended up on the shortlist for the Nobel Prize in Literature. It was only revealed seven years ago that he missed out on this great honor not so much for the inferiority of his work to that year’s winner, John Steinbeck, but because of the frequent behind-the-scenes politicking associated with the award.

In 1962, a key Nobel Prize committee member was reluctant to award any Anglo-Saxon poet the prize before the death of Ezra Pound. Even though Graves wrote far more than just poetry, the heart of his achievement was seen as lying in that genre, so that members pressed colleagues to look for other candidates.

TV Quote of the Day (‘Barney Miller,’ In Which Harris Learns the Limits of Literary Fame)

Louise Austin [A librarian, played by Miriam Byrd-Nethery]: “We have your book.”

Det. Ron Harris [played by Ron Glass]: “Oh, do you?

Louise: "Blood on the Badge—364.12 in the crime section.”

Harris: “Well uh, look, I certainly hope people are bringing it back on time.”

Louise: “It's never left.”— Barney Miller, Season 7, Episode 13, “The Librarian,” original air date Feb. 19, 1981, teleplay by Frank Dungan, Jeff Stein, and Tony Sheehan, directed by Noam Pitlik

Thursday, July 23, 2020

Quote of the Day (Marin Alsop, on Music and ‘This World of Possibility and Sense of Joy’)

“Music enables me at particularly difficult moments to open up to this world of possibility and sense of joy. Nothing else gives me that feeling.”—Marin Alsop, music director of the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra and the Sao Paolo Symphony Orchestra, quoted in “Soapbox: The Columnists—This Month: WSJ Asks Six Luminaries to Weigh in on a Single Topic; This Month: Music,”, September 2019 issue

Wednesday, July 22, 2020

Quote of the Day (Barbara Kingsolver, on Tyrants and the Old Order)

“When men fear the loss of what they know, they will follow any tyrant who promises to restore the old order.” — American novelist, essayist and poet Barbara Kingsolver, Unsheltered (2018)

(This photo of Barbara Kingsolver was taken by Steven L. Hopp.)

Tuesday, July 21, 2020

Photo of the Day: Cherry Blossom Park, River Edge, NJ

I confess to taking this picture of this pocket park in suburban Bergen County, NJ, out of season.

But there was a reason for this. I was testing my new iPhone, an SE model—the first time I’ve taken a picture with a phone rather than a camera—and wanted to see the results.

Undoubtedly, I’ll be taking a good deal more photos in this manner—hopefully, better shots. But this is my beginning.

Quote of the Day (Anton Chekhov, on a ‘Sultry and Stifling’ Summer Day)

“A sultry and stifling day. Not a cloud in the sky…The sun-scorched grass looks bleak, hopeless: there may be rain, but it will never be green again…The forest stands silent, motionless, as if its treetops were looking off somewhere or waiting for something.” —Playwright/short-story writer Anton Chekhov (1860-1904), “The Huntsman” (originally published July 1885), in Selected Stories of Anton Chekhov, translated by Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky (2000)

“The Huntsman” is not part of The Undiscovered Chekhov, a collection of 43 previously untranslated short stories, but it falls within the same period of creation: 1880 to 1887. When Anton Chekhov came to write this tale, he was already aiming for something more ambitious than the quick pieces he dashed off for popular Moscow and St. Petersburg magazines when he was not tending to his medical studies and, later, his patients.

“Write as much as you can! Write, write, write till your fingers break!” the young author wrote in a letter a year after this short story. By the time he was done, Chekhov had learned how to quietly break the hearts of readers and playgoers around the world.

Monday, July 20, 2020

Quote of the Day (Brad Pitt, on How Charlie Sheen Influenced His Choice of a Profession)

“I did all sorts of odd jobs, like dressing up as a chicken and being a delivery boy [upon first arriving in L.A.]. I was driving strippers around on weekends to make extra money. I’d take them to bachelor parties. I did that for about two months and then I couldn’t hang with it. But then on the last night I drove, one of the new strippers told me about an acting class that her friend Charlie Sheen went to. I figured, If it’s good enough for Charlie, it’s good enough for me.”—Actor Brad Pitt quoted in Kathleen McCleary, “First Jobs: Even the Rich and Famous Had to Start Somewhere!”, Parade, July 12, 2020

Sunday, July 19, 2020

Tweet of the Day (Pope Francis, on ‘Humility, Service and Love’)

“The world tells us to seek success, power and money; God tells us to seek humility, service and love.”—Pope Francis I, tweet of June 2, 2013

Saturday, July 18, 2020

This Day in Rock History (James William Guercio, Producer of Chicago and Blood, Sweat and Tears, Born)

July 18, 1945— James William Guercio, an influential producer, manager, and songwriter who launched such acts as Chicago, Blood, Sweat and Tears and the Buckinghams, was born in Chicago.

In the 1960s and 1970s, in the wake of Phil Spector, the celebrity record producer became almost as big a force in rock ‘n’ roll as the artists themselves. Such figures as George Martin, Lou Adler, Phil Ramone, Arif Martin, Richard Perry, and Jimmy Ienner played decisive roles in shaping the sound of musicians such as The Beatles, the Mamas and the Papas, Billy Joel, Hall and Oates, Carly Simon, and Eric Carmen.

Among this group, Jim Guercio occupied a special niche: what might be called jazz rock, or, more precisely, “brass rock,” revolving around a driving horn section.

He got his start as a teenaged guitarist, sharing the stage with Mitch Ryder. After studying classical composition in college, he made his way to Los Angeles, taking on increasingly vital roles as session player and songwriter before becoming a staff producer in the L.A. division of Columbia Records, a division of CBS Records.

In 1967, Guercio foreshadowed his association with Chicago with his relationship with another band from the Windy City, the Buckinghams. After signing the band to a management agreement, the 22-year-old steered them to a string of hits, including “Don’t You Care,” “Mercy Mercy Mercy,” "Hey Baby (They're Playing Our Song)," and “Susan.” But the group, after objecting to a “psychedelic” section he added to “Susan,” parted ways with Guercio.

A college friend from Chicago, sax player Walt Parazaider, got Guercio to catch a performance by his band, The Big Thing. In short order, by the summer of 1968 he had convinced them to sign him on as producer and manager, relocate to Los Angeles, and change their name to Chicago Transit Authority, in honor of the line Guercio once took to ride to school. (The moniker was shortened to Chicago a couple of years later.)

Amid his work for Chicago, Guercio had a chance encounter that made him even busier. While helping to change the flat tire of Jim Morrison’s girlfriend at the time, he was asked by Blood, Sweat and Tears manager Bennett Glotzer to produce the band's next Columbia album.

Criss-crossing the country from Chicago in L.A. and BST in New York, Guercio brought in the latter group’s self-titled LP. The results were so successful--the monster singles "Spinning Wheel" and "You've Made Me So Very Happy"—that the disk took home the Grammy for Album of the Year for 1969, beating out the Beatles’ Abbey Road.  (Seven years later, Guercio would add another Grammy to his shelf for Best Instrumental Arrangement Accompanying Vocalist(s)/Best Background Arrangement for Chicago’s “If You Leave Me Now.”)

The association with Chicago proved just as successful but more enduring. In the first half of the Seventies, the group enjoyed five platinum and double-platinum albums, featuring hits that have since become staples of classic rock stations: "Does Anybody Really Know What Time It Is," "Beginnings,"  “Saturday in the Park,” “Searching So Long” and “Feeling Stronger Every Day.”

The band really took off in 1970, when Guercio overcame radio stations’ resistance to Chicago’s six-minute album cuts by editing them down to three minutes. “Make Me Smile” and “25 or 6 to 4” became major hits, but with a price: the band became regarded as sell-outs.

Fueling the criticism was the softer sound the band pursued—partly because of the success they enjoyed with ballads such as “If You Leave Me Now,” and partly because of the heavy-handed control Guercio increasingly exercised. 

In Colorado’s Rocky Mountains, he had purchased Caribou Ranch and built a studio there, free of the distractions of L.A. and New York. While the environment was pleasant and peaceful and the acoustics were excellent, Chicago began to chafe at the direction that Guercio imposed. He did not want them to learn production techniques, and several band members—notably guitarist Terry Kath—preferred their more freewheeling early work.

Matters came to a head after Chicago XI, when the band and its longtime producer split over its sound, its rigorous touring schedule and what they regarded as a disadvantageous agreement that deprived them of a fair share of their royalties. 

(Ironically, under subsequent producer David Foster—and minus Kath, who died of a self-inflicted gunshot wound not long after the breakup with Guercio--the band steered even further into the waters of adult-pop contemporary in the 1980s.)

Caribou Ranch continued to lure a string of artists (including Elton John, who christened one of his bestselling LPs after it, and The Beach Boys, whom Guercio also managed in the mid-1970s) until 1985, when a fire destroyed the recording studio.

Quote of the Day (Poet Alex Posey, on the Feverish July Air)

“The air without has taken fever;
Fast I feel the beating of its pulse.
The leaves are twisted on the maple,
In the corn the autumn's premature;
The weary butterfly hangs waiting
For a breath to waft him thither at
The touch, but falls, like truth unheeded,
into dust-blown grass and hollyhocks.”— Creek Indian poet Alexander L. Posey (1873-1908), “July,” reprinted in The Poems of Alexander Lawrence Posey (1910)

I came across these verses in as random a manner as possible.

When I picked up the Library of America anthology American Poetry: The Nineteenth Century, Vol. 2: Herman Melville to Stickney, American Indian Poetry, Folk Songs and Spirituals, literally the first page I opened contained the poem “July.” Right away, it appealed to me for several reasons:

*It was appropriate for this month;

*I could post this just as my area of the country, the Northeast, was about to embark on another heat wave; 

*The word “fever” in the first line struck me as a metaphor—not just for the hazy, hot and humid weather we get so much so much around here this time of year, but also for this overheated moment in America now with these three simultaneous crises: COVID-19, the recession, and the mass protests over racism and police brutality.

*But the American Poetry volume tipped me off to something more. In fact, Alex Posey—a poet I had never encountered before—deserves more attention now than he’s received in the century following the early death that tragically shortened his career.

Poet, journalist and political satirist, Posey aimed for a difficult balancing act: the integration of his concerns as a Creek Indian in Oklahoma with a traditional western education he received at the Bacone Indian University in Muskogee.

In the same month that the Supreme Court decided, in McGirt v. Oklahoma, that half of Oklahoma lies within a Native American reservation, Posey’s attempt to achieve recognition illustrates the dilemma of what aspects of tradition to draw upon in writing.  (It may have been especially difficult for Posey, the biracial son of a white man raised among the Native Americans and a Creek Indian mother.)

Posey died at age 34 in a boating accident, leaving a slender but promising body of work.

Friday, July 17, 2020

Quote of the Day (John Sayles, on the 1980 GOP National Convention)

“In 1980, I covered the Republican National Convention in Detroit for a magazine [The New Republic]. The Republicans put most of their delegates across the river in a hotel in Canada. They put cardboard over the windows of the buses so when they went through the funky Detroit neighborhoods they wouldn’t see them on the way to the Joe Louis Arena. These delegates from Kansas and other parts of the country did not even see these neighborhoods, so in effect they could never admit that these areas exist. They never saw them. This is what you’re asked to do for most American films, and it may be appropriate for certain movies, but it’s one of the reasons that Americans don’t know anything about their own history.” — Indie actor-screenwriter-director-novelist John Sayles interviewed by Antonio D’Ambrosio, “An Interview with John Sayles,” The Believer (Issue 61, March 2009)

Forty years ago today, in his third attempt, Ronald Reagan took the decisive step in his 12-year campaign to achieve the nation’s highest office when he accepted the Republican nomination for President. He would go on to move the GOP in a new, more conservative direction and solidify the support of the party faithful in a manner not seen until the rise of Donald Trump. 

The so-called "Rockefeller Republicans" of moderate liberals--named for the New York Governor who, 20 years before, had successfully pressed Richard Nixon to add a more pro-civil-rights stance to the party platform at that year's convention--were well on their way to dinosaur status.

With a genial smile and a wave of the hand, Reagan had also confirmed that the Republican commitment to civil rights that had been a part of its philosophy since Abraham Lincoln had considerably softened—or, at very least, had become secondary to its visceral dislike of government, the primary means for ensuring equality before the law.

In his acceptance speech at the convention, Reagan hailed "that American spirit which knows no ethnic, religious, social, political, regional, or economic boundaries." It is easy to miss from the sonorous tones that the word "racial" is missing from this list. From the perspective of 2020, it is much harder to miss a particularly piquant phrase: "a great national crusade to make America great again."

The role of racism in the GOP realignment that began with Richard Nixon’s election in 1968 is a fraught one. Arguing that race has been central to the swing toward the GOP over the last half-century is counter-productive, as it not only angers individuals who resent being labeled racist, but also fails to account for the concerns of particular elections, including prosperity and national security.

But the observation by filmmaker John Sayles offers another way of viewing this. After the postwar period of convulsions over race, much of the electorate preferred not to look at its continuing presence on the American scene. It was just too ugly and painful. Better to move away, even to block one’s view of this.

That tendency was embodied in Reagan. In a PBS “Newshour”roundtable discussion of "The Reagan Legacy" with Jim Lehrer following the President’s death in 2004, historian Richard Norton Smith noted that Reagan was “one of those classic examples of conservative Republicans who on the personal level would gift their shirt off their back to someone in need whoever it is but who on a cultural and philosophical level can often be accused of at least insensitivity.” He was personally kind to individual African-Americans.

In recent years, Reagan’s stock among historians has risen, with Siena College Research Institute poll results released last year showing that he had risen from 18th in the last time these scholars were surveyed to 12th. But I think that improvement will itself come in for revision, and that Reagan will slip back to something close to his prior ranking.

Although the U.S. economy recovered in the Reagan era, the results were not shared evenly. Inequality rose during his eight years in office, as shown by Capital and Main’s Abby Kingsley in an article for Fast Company Magazine. Numerous initiatives begun during his administration widened the gap between rich and poor, including:

* The Omnibus Reconciliation Act of 1981, which made hundreds of thousands of families ineligible for Aid to Families with Dependent Children;

* A 74% reduction in the budget allocation for the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development in the 1980s;

*Reagan’s 1981 breaking of a strike by the Professional Air Traffic Controllers Organization, which dramatically underscored the decline of American unions;

*The 1981 tax cut, which reduced the tax burden for the top bracket while redistributing it toward the middle; and

*Stock buybacks' legalization in 1981 by the Securities and Exchange Commission, which encouraged corporations to prioritize stock value over distributing earnings to employees through bonuses or salary raises.

African-Americans’ economic advances, only recently gained, were materially affected by all of this. Reagan’s tone and rhetoric likewise signaled that Blacks could not look to the federal government for help. 

Campaigning in Georgia in 1980, the candidate noted that Confederate President Jefferson Davis was “a hero of mine.” His continual invocation of “states’ rights” cut little ice with a group that had heard that concept used to undercut their rightful demand for their own rights at the ballot box and in the workplace.

Reagan's belief in laissez-faire government was matched only by his laissez-faire managerial style—a work practice that got him in trouble during the Iran-contra scandal. He simply did not notice things, much like the bus riders from outside Detroit who propelled him toward the Presidency in July 1980.

Whatever else happens this election year, there will be no more cardboard that can be used to obscure  problems experienced by African-Americans. It will be impossible to turn away from them again, and the burden will be all the heavier on Americans 40 years after the ascendancy of Ronald Reagan to find the solutions that he did not see as a priority.