Tuesday, 31 July 2012

Deflation of Technoshows

I’m sure I’ve just been to my last world’s fair. The Vancouver one is very good, as the genre goes. But I hope it’s went. Actually, you don’t need Expo to move you to visit Vancouver—give or take a little of its excessive precipitation—because it’s one of the most delectable cities of North America.

Its newly rehabbed museum, smack in the center of downtown, is a glory. And the University of British Columbia, a bus ride away, has one of the world’s great anthropological museums.

I’m sure that Canada maintains an identity, this media giant to the south notwithstanding. For one thing, the density of street people and ambient trash of the non-human kind in Seattle, a mere three-hour Greyhound trip away, is so much higher as to make you hold your nose when you return “home.” The Canadian tends to be a little Scots’ tight-assed, but the discipline sure appeals to the amenities-prone.

The world’s fair syndrome, which began in 1851 when Prince Albert was trying to raise esthetic standards in British industrial production, has long ago outlived its intellectual usefulness, having fallen prey to the futurama shtick of the General Motors pavilion at the “Dawn of a New Day” fair in New York, 1939-40 (World War II was its quick sunset).

I first became intrigued by its significance as a cultural index when I ran across a Piazza Tale by Melville in which he coolly mocks the technohubris of the fair with a parable about the first American expo in New York, in 1853. He invented a “benevolent chair,” sitting in which solved any problem the sitter might be fretting about. Velly Amellican.

I was preparing a syndicated TV documentary on the subject for WFIL-TV in 1963. The final budget meeting never met—I bumped into program manager Tom Jones, white as a sheet, running down the corridor shouting uncomprehendingly, “Kennedy has been shot.” But doing the research was illuminating: San Francisco (1915), Chicago (1893 / 1933), St. Louis (1904), New York (1939)—I cite them in the order I prowled out the relevant images in archives across the country. And then I visited in situ Seattle (1962), New York (1964), Knoxville (1982), New Orleans (1984), helplessly hooked. Until now.

I’m sure there has never been a worse documentary made about a world’s fair than the one I shot, wrote and edited about New York 1964, which I called “Moses’ Land of Promises” and which by droit de seigneur (I was then English Department chairman at Beaver College) I inflicted on an assembly full of students in 1965. My son keeps a print handy for whenever I need to be reminded how he has become a really eloquent filmmaker.

The Canadian hope that they were playing international pacificator by getting China, Russia and the United States to co-show in Vancouver was a delusion. The Chinese pavilion was full of crowds scrutinizing, with a care the artifacts didn’t deserve, the biggest collection of kitsch it’s been my misfortune to travel 3,000 miles to see. (Under every Maoist blue jacket there always burned the heart of a candy peddler, and the Chinese have reverted under Deng to the world’s best businessmen.)

If you want to buy Chinese, go to a street market in Shanghai, where you’ll get better things for pennies than they were selling for big bucks in Vancouver. Not that I’m against prosperity; it’s just different from cultural exchanging, and the differences ought to be kept clearer.

The Russians met the fair’s theme of transportation and communication with a paean to their subway system. Now I despise the menace and squalor of Philly’s subways (they have finally forced me to buy a Hyundai—I’m afraid of the only cheaper car, the Yugo.) And I have to admit that Moscow’s subways are clean and safe. But the Stalinesque Bozo Arts style is almost as depressing as being endangered physically. Their faux bons amount to cultural mugging.

The Russian display also touts their shipping expansion; if I were the Alfred T. Mahan of CINC-PAC today, I’d worry more about their blue-water commerce than their prowling subs. Those Russkis are really taking over the seven seas.

(Their Aeroflot is less of a threat. My first flight on that airline—Helsinki to Moscow—was a marginal experience: The weighty stewardess could barely squeeze down her middle aisle passing out sweets to compensate for the lousy decompression system, and there were a porthole and skylight in the toilet, a unique experience.

(In the middle of the night we flew to Tashkent, they detained us for hours in an amenities-bereft lounge, after which they commanded us to scramble across a tarmac in the dark to jostle with Azerbaijanis who had done it many times before and were better with their elbows.

(I got in a low-key hassle with the Intourist lady, telling her, with a little free and unasked for consumer research, why I overflew the Soviet Union last fall en route to the Osaka Design Festival—the USSR visa and hotel reservations, all designed to relieve me of rubles, were a Kafkaesque mockery—instead of taking the Trans-Siberian railroad.

(Ironically, I’ve discovered since that it’s relatively hassle-free to take the Trans-Sib from Beijing to Moscow, the Chinese being more interested in Yuan than in ideological purity. She countersneered that she had to get visas to take the train to Montreal. It was not a contribution to peace, but we understood each other.)

The best exhibit at the fair was also its sleeper, the United Nations pavilion, which significantly enough was financed by the Credit Unions of British Columbia as a celebration of their golden jubilee.

I’m sure one of the reasons that Canada remains an intellectual oasis compared to this behemoth to the south is its relative freedom from A. Mitchell Palmerism and McCarthyism. Dorothy Storck recently ruminated in the Inquirer on why Americans are so fearful of communist infiltration. My answer is a bad conscience.

Our ideals say we want to give everybody a fair shake, but our behavior says bucks talk and pennies piddle. Or the way Daily News columnist Don Williamson put it recently, the Reagan administration “preaches one thing and teaches another” by its bad example.

The loosely socialist, cooperative mentality which was nurtured in farming and fishing communities in Canada during the Depression is alive and well north of the border. And the “Speaking Your Peace” video studio at the fair ought to be picked up by Chicago’s Peace Museum. I watched several young people utter their sentiments for the video record, and it was moving.

I’m sure, alas, that more people came away from Expo with Studio 86 stars in their eyes than hatred in their hearts for rampant bellicosity between the two superpowers. Studio 86 is a brainchild of a Knoxville Fair executive. You can record yourself singing a tune. Up to four of your friends can join you. It’s kind of do-it-yourself celebrity, a home movie version of Entertainment Tonight. They supply the text of standard tunes, backup music and an engineer whose ears are patient and whose knob-twiddling fingers are generous.

Reprinted from Welcomat: After Dark, Hazard-at-Large, October 8, 1986

Monday, 30 July 2012

Head First Look at Latrobe

The Library Company of Philadelphia has fielded a beguiling winner in architect / engineer Benjamin Latrobe’s “Views of Jeffersonian America 1795-1820.”

There’s a tasty oil portrait of our immigrant hero—from the UK at age 31—by Rembrandt Peale: spit-curls garnishing a thoughtfully broad brow, a fluffy white choker accenting his stark black broadcloth, dinky glasses sliding off a boldly fleshy nose, eyes aglitter with the curiosity that made him a trustworthy and indefatigable natural historian as well as an elegant architect. (I consider Latrobe’s Baltimore Roman Catholic Cathedral one of the most enduring places of worship in our country, certainly the best by far of its era.)

But while I knew his buildings and love them (extant and, alas, demolished), his natural history was news to my eyes. I relish the ground squirrel (5/31/96), which the witty inside-dopester gives the fake scientific appellation of “phlebotomy gratis,” which is to say, “free bloodletting,” a poke at one his era’s grossest medical miscalculations.

I delight as well in the caption trivia which gives the etymology of “chipmunk,” which is Ojibway for “head first,” the way the critter descends trees. And his color sketch of a triplet of dolphins fully lives up to his astonished prose: “Nothing can exceed the beauty and gaiety of the color of the dolphins.”

More sociological but equally fascinating is “Preparation for the enjoyment of a fine Sunday among the blacks, Norfolk” (3/4/97), in which a trio of slaves are primping and getting ready to have a holiday.

His topographical scenes don’t turn me on as much, except when they have some human element, as in his observations about the rampant vulgarity of a provisioning hamlet in the Delta of the Mississippi below New Orleans.

But Philadelphians will be most intrigued by the light thrown on the early years of the region. He designed the first steam-powered waterworks in 1801 when the population was 50,000. Wells were not working well enough—you couldn’t fight fires or clean streets with their pathetically unpowered streams, and yellow-fever epidemics threatened to foul them up when they weren’t going entirely dry.

So one engine took in clean, clear water from the Schuylkill, ran it through a brick conduit under Chestnut Street to Centre Square (where City Hall now stands) where another steam engine dumped it into a cistern for distribution through wooden pipes to hydrants and houses. Annual water fee, $5!

The drawings and landscapes are delectably bucolic. In the days before trash, there was steam—and yellow fever to worry about. That’s why we have place names like Fair Mount and Mount Airy, the canny rich having discovered that there was an inverse correlation between height of housing and number of mosquitoes.

But Latrobe will always be in our civic debt for the first big commission he had after he moved here in 1798—the $4,000 fee (a lucrative payment in the day of $5 annual water fees) for the Bank of Pennsylvania, which he supervised the erection of between 1799-1801. (The Feds who hadn’t yet learned their preservationist manners, demolished it in a High Vic frenzy in 1897.) Its cool Federalist elegance set a high standard for civic architecture, and Latrobe regarded it as his masterpiece.

But you’ll have to come to the Library Company to see what it looked like. And don’t miss the teenagers’ discovery of their peers, 1870-1920, next door at the Historical Society of Pennsylvania. It’s a landmark.

Benjamin Latrobe exhibit: At the Library Company, 1314 Locust Street, through October 17. 546-3181. You may want to buy volume three of the Yale edition of Latrobe’s papers, a bargain at $30, on sale at their registration desk.

Reprinted from Welcomat: After Dark, Hazard-at-Large, October 15, 1986

Sunday, 29 July 2012

Beyond Whiteface: My Mime Ain’t Your Mime

In this era of ear pollution, silence—however temporary—is golden. And noise (which can be defined ecumenically as whatever annoys) is driving us all to the brink of bonkers. Forty years ago, my favorite noise—Stan Kenton—used to turn my gentle mother into an enraged freak—which is just what acid-rock does to me today.

So the benign invasion of silencers sponsored by Movement Theatre International is cause for general rejoicing. Their Mime and Clown Festival (June 13-July 11, at the Annenberg Center and the Painted Bride), with multiple performances, a conference and two sequences of master classes on “gestural theater” marks the Philadelphia debut of a husband and wife team who have tried their act out of town successfully for five years—at Davis and Elkins College in West Virginia.

They got too big for their leotards down in the mountains, and when the local airport shut down, making them nigh inaccessible to their international clientele of teachers and students, Mike and Judy Pedretti started shopping around for a venue more befitting their organization’s title and their outsize aspirations to channel the emerging energies of gestural theater.

That’s when Oliver Franklin, Philadelphia’s deputy city rep for culture, started wielding his magic—mainly, opening corporate doors. It’s taking $200,000 to field this world-class event, with its 50 performers and 100 students. Tuition for a master class is $300—and most of the festival’s earned revenue the first time around here will come from tuition.

In past summers, students have come from 48 states and 20 countries. When I interviewed him, Mike Pedretti had just finished taking a call from India from an enrolling student. His median mimer has been 29 years old, what Mike describes as “entry level pro,” with five years experience and eager to translate his or her studies with world masters back into performances.

The course agenda is deliciously eclectic—circus technique, masks, advice on how to take your act into the streets, puppetry (both creation and animation), “sociopolitical buffoonery” (a course that may not be needed in this town), mime, acting in contemporary movement theater, directing movement (by no less a teacher than Tom “Hair” O’Horgan), and courses in “corporeal mime” by two students of the genre’s originator, Parisian Etienne Decroux.

Because Eastern Europe is also big in this burgeoning movement—MTI has teachers from Romania and Poland—I asked Mike if the nonverbal aspect might develop as a way of circumventing political expression. “A possible factor,” he allowed, “but there is also a theory that gestural theater flourishes in times of decadence—imperial Rome, the late Middle Ages, our time.”

Mike also sees strong connections with the fitness boom, our growing understanding of the importance of non-verbal communication, a greater sensitivity to the joy of the body in motion, as in the dance revolution, as well as this generation’s heightened kinesthetic sense as movie and video buffs.

If it moves, mime is interested. And so seems the public: Mike estimates that the number of pros living from corporeal mime has jumped dramatically, from perhaps a dozen in 1970 to over a thousand today.

As befits a rapidly expanding cultural development, there’s a lot of controversy about what’s “in” and what’s “out” in gestural theater. Marcel Marceau has become a fashionable whipping boy for the partisans of Etienne Decroux (who was himself Marceau’s teacher). The public assumes Marceau is mime, but Mike argues that Marcel is simply a very powerful presence whose idiosyncratic style has been falsely construed by the uninformed as the art.

Hence, MTI types don’t mind the kind of mock laid on by wordy, wordy types like Woody Allen. You may remember his New Yorker put-down: “The mime now proceeded to spread a picnic blanket, and, instantly, my old confusion set in. He was either spreading a picnic basket or milking a small goat.”

The third ring MTI’s circus, beside public performances and courses, will address itself directly to these lively contested issues at a conference at Annenberg, June 26-29, followed by the National Mime Association Annual Meeting.

The conference kicks off with Jacques Lecoq’s internationally acclaimed performance, “Everything Moves.” And Daniel Stein (direct from a stellar performance at EXPO 86, not to forget a U.S.-Japan fellowship) will present “Inclined to Agree.”

Decroux disciple Tom Leabhart (who also edits The Mime Journal out of Pomona College) will dazzle with “How I Was Perplexed and What I Did About It.” His perplexity centers on the nature of the mime form itself, and his act is a working out, non-verbally, of where mime is headed. It’s part of what Mike Pedretti calls the “healthy ferment” in his field, in which “no one is secure enough that they can afford not to experiment.”

Don’t get the mistaken impression that these mimes are mute. I’ve been noodling through the transcript of the First National Mime Conference (1983), and these gesturers are hardly at a loss for words. Listen to Martha Coigney of New York’s International Theatre Institute on grooming your troupe for international tours:

“America’s artists are a corps of ambassadors that are not just unsung, but really viciously ignored by our government. A country’s quality of civilization is known through its artistic excellence—and that’s a fact of life that the United States has yet to confront and use. So, I would tell you to prepare carefully and modestly.”

The most contentious issue is “the garbage problem,” the upstaging of the well-trained professional by the hokey “Sunday mimer.”

Says Mike Pedretti: “There’s nothing we can do to stop bad mime, any more than we can stop bad poetry. Everybody writes poetry, everybody puts on whiteface or a red nose one time or another in their life.

“Mime is currently the most unsung, the least understood, the most innovative and exciting field in the performing arts today. If the ‘60s was the era of the regional theaters and the ‘70s was the era of dance, then the ‘80s is the era of mime.

“The range of styles is immense. The frontiers of exploration are mind-boggling. The integrity of the leading performers is unquestionable. The clarity, the innocence, the penetrating power of the best work is pure.”

For the next two weeks you can test for yourself this new frontier of movement theater. In these noisily noisome days, if silence is golden, then mime at its best is pure platinum. Try it. You’ll probably love it.

Mime and Clown Festival: June 13-July 11, at the Annenberg Center, 3680 Walnut Street, and at the Painted Bride Art Center, 230 Vine Street. Two sessions of master classes and conferences at Annenberg Center. Complete listings and phone numbers under “Events” in listings section of After Dark.

Reprinted from Welcomat: After Dark, Hazard-at-Large, June 11, 1986

Saturday, 28 July 2012

The Country and the City

On Raymond Williams:

The anti-intellectualism of the vox populi in America in the beginning was simply the slowness which the undereducated could learn to measure up to the demands of universal suffrage. But the proliferation of massive mediums in the twentieth century complicated the appropriate education of the underclasses. 

When the MLA decided to ignore the new complexities of mass education (the spinoff of the NCTE before the Depression) marks the defection of the humanistic elite from the Jeffersonian allegation that a democracy could be no better than its public schools.

My indictment of the alienated humanist stems from my perception of my peers as they deployed their careers as near the Ivy ideal as possible. Williams and Hoggart confirmed my perception.

Friday, 27 July 2012

Defending Israel (and Waiting for a Miracle)

Peter Beinart is on target. NetanYahoo wants to crowd out the A-rabs. ARabbery!

Thursday, 26 July 2012

Class Differences

On Art College:

I agree with your comment about class differences, and income disparity. I also think CEO's are generally overpaid by a multiple of about 40.

However, it is hard to argue with the success of SCAD. They created this college from nothing, and in 20 years they made it the largest art school in the country. Along the way, they were the major catalyst for the revival of Savannah, and have established an important presence in midtown Atlanta. The key to their success (as I understand it): they teach students how to be artists AND make a living at it.

Incidentally, Reagan set the psychological table for the class war that has ensued, but Bill Clinton opened the flood gates on outsourcing (mixed metaphor, I know).

Wednesday, 25 July 2012

Things don’t come cheep these days: Birds in print and exhibit

Bird-watching is not my idea of intellectual excitement. Its metabolism is too slow for my antsy nature. Still, memories triggered by a sudden efflorescence of bird-art expos and publications, I remember vividly my first bird-generated epiphany almost 50 years ago in Michigan.

I was taking the statutory 14-mile hike to qualify as a Boy Scout, First Class, when suddenly out of the cattail rushes bordering the approaches to Saginaw Bay, a red wing blackbird took flight, a smear of orange and red on the blackest of bodies.

Wowee! This was something much more visible than the dull as dishwater sparrows (I had yet to read William Blake) or the robin red breast, the harbinger of spring that was about the only bit of nature lore we Rin Tin Tin regulars at Holy Rosary Academy had in our mediated world. There’s a bird worth writing home about, I thought, blowing on my hands, which were slowly sinking into the permafrost of December in Bay City.

I can see, in retrospect, what turns these avian addicts on. The feathers they leave behind are as beguiling evidence of unique lives lived as whatever it is that inspires archaeologists to dig in. Thus I look forward with eagerness to the Feather Expo Penn anthropologist Reuben Reina is cooking up for the University Museum’s centennial.

It will be a fit culmination for the bird-art roll that has overtaken me since October when I looked into the Arion Press’s publication of the long hidden masterstrokes of Andrew Jackson Grayson’s Birds of the Pacific Slope. His contact at the then-new Smithsonian Institution dubbed him the Audubon of the West. (Next year, by the bye, is the centennial of the Society, whose social legacy began in the bird fancying of its eponym but has matured into one of the strongest and most enlightened voices for ecological sanity. Birds bring out the best in their unfeathered fanciers.)

Unlike Audubon, Grayson didn’t have enough luck in funding the publication of his bird paintings. Like Audubon, he grew up under the contumely of a businessman father and a pedantic schoolmaster who couldn’t see the usefulness of the boy’s wandering about in the bayous of his native Louisiana in search of fauna just for the fauna of it.

So he became a businessman manqué, earning just enough to eventually finance his forays onto the Pacific slopes. (His caravan to California took a last-minute turn to the North, thereby avoiding becoming part of that metabolic apocalypse we know as the Donner Party.) When he died in his early 50s, his wife waged a losing campaign to get his bird paintings published. They have lain fallow in the Bancroft Library of UC / Berkeley until this season to be jollied.

Andrew Hoyem, that paragon of fine painting, decided to make their publication the 20th volume in his internationally acclaimed series of fine books. Over 150 of the extant paintings, with finely marbled Victorian prose glosses by the painter, don’t come cheap: $4,500 for one of this edition of 400. Lean on your nearest philanthropist to get this gem into the Free Library of Philadelphia.

Hoyem’s flogging of his prospectus at the American Library Association convention in Manhattan in June moved me to track him down to this Bryant Street lair in San Francisco. I arrived the day the color proofs arrived in his office. I watched AJG’s flock of birds with growing astonishment. They are a national treasure, nobly saved from the amnesia of the nation after a century of hiding. Hooray for Hoyem!

Meanwhile, down in Dallas, at the Museum of Natural History in Fair Park, two Fort Worth twins, Scott and Stuart Gentling, were brandishing their brushes in honor of their state’s sesquicentennial for a book entitled Of Birds and Texas. Don’t ask me how these genetic birds of a feather do it together, but the 42-year-old twins do.

Like Grayson, they tend to place their objects of admiration against human backdrops. Robert Frost talks in his Kennedy inaugural poem, “The Gift Outright,” about how our country was given to us outright—“artless, unstoried, unenhanced.”

Well these two books enhance our national memory in two regional ways most memorably. Enhancements, thank you very much, very-much-alive Gentling twins; and than you very late, very-much-ignored genius Andrew Jackson Grayson (1818-1869).

The Gentlings’ opus is as pricey as the Grayson volume, but you can get one signed plate as poster from the Dallas Museum of Natural History for $25 and have the satisfaction of supporting that museum’s continuing commitment to Texas flora and fauna. Its dioramas are among the liveliest I’ve savoured anywhere.

While these thoughts fluttered through my newly energized head, my eye caught an ad in the November issue of Smithsonian Magazine. Bird Watcher’s Digest, a tiny ad trumpeted, with an 800 number for speed-of-light subscribing. I called to find out more about the mag with the unlikely dateline of Marietta, Ohio.

Unlikely or not, it is the cottage industry of ex-Marietta College administrator William H. Thompson and his once-upon-a-time high school English teaching wife Elsa Ekenstierna. First they published it in the kitchen, then in the parlor, until bit-by-bit it grew too big for their by-now mortgaged home. A small ad in the New Yorker, Christmas 1978, drew 200 subscribers.

Now they set their benign baits in Natural History, Family Circle, Yankee, and they get 50-60% renewals. In their blurbery sent to potential advertisers, they cite a New York Times estimate (March 22, 1986) that with 21 million birders, the sport they tout with a passion has become the second most popular passive sport (after gardening). The Digest’s paid circulation is now 55,000 with newsstand sales of 1,500 per issue.

It’s easy to see why. Its features tell you how to keep bird watching records simply, why swallows have “site tenacity” (they keep coming back, in non-birdese), what kind of binox are best for older eyes, how to teach children about birds, how to provide winter shelter for flighty ones, and the White House Christmas Bird Count.

There’s a bird watcher’s crossword (1-Across, a six-letter word for “diving motions by birds”). Swooping right along, there’s a golden jubilee recollection of a birder’s camp in Maine by the godfather of birding, Roger Tory Peterson. Books galore about birds. Gear for feeding the critters. “Birding Trivia,” a 500-card / six-category parlor game. A Cornell U. home course on ornithology.

Migod! There’s a whole subculture out there for humans with finely feathered friends. So you can’t afford $4,500 for A.J. Grayson? How about $15 for six issues (BWD, Box 110, Marietta, OH 45750). Oh, yes, they’ve paid off the second mortgage and never regret their loving decision to leave the stability of a 9-5 double salary for the fiscal roller coaster of getting a specialized magazine going and growing.

You don’t have to go to Ohio or Dallas or San Francisco to indulge in bird watching. The Academy of Natural Sciences here has two bird watcher bonanzas, but both fly away for good January 3.

“Photographs: Form and Flight in Birds” links art, bird science and engineering with images drawn from VIREO (Visual Resources for Ornithology), the Academy’s research archive of more than 100,000 photos of birds from all over the world. Each of the 30 images in this show depicts scientifically some aspect of the biology of birds—such as habitat, coloration, posture, plumage or shape of a particular species. But they have aesthetic as well as documentary value. Two “ahs!” for the price of one look.

The second is the greater display, if you will, “Shorebirds of North America: The Watercolors of Robert Verity Clem,” 32 original paintings of 47 species from all the North American coastlines. This is the first showing since they went into book publication in 1967. They are delightfully garnished with sketchbooks and preliminary drawings as well as correspondence with bigwig birders.

Meanwhile, back out in San Francisco, the California Academy of Sciences is fielding “Animals: The Best in ’86,” the annual juried exhibition of the Society of Animal Artists, through February 1. It’s not strictly for the birds, but it flies.

From Welcomat: After Dark, December 17, 1986

Tuesday, 24 July 2012

Jazz, and Apple Pie: Building an American Audience

Why don’t Americans go for jazz?

“Because 95% of the great jazz musicians have been black,” was Nels Nelson’s clutter-cutting reply at “The Philadelphia Jazz Legacy: Past, Present and Future,” held during the Mellon Jazz Festival.

Nelson, dean of local jazz journalism by virtue of criticizing the art form for the Philadelphia Daily News since 1959, is no sensationalist. And the question is no “pushpin is as good as poetry” issue, because jazz’s strange status as a cultural orphan in its own country cuts to the heart of Americans’ ambivalence toward fulfilling their cultural destiny as the Land of the Free.

The majority American flees from the pleasure of jazz because it too painfully reminds him of the unfinished business of freedom. Lawrence Welk is an acoustical cocoon; rock and roll is a hyped-up alternative to the more sober agenda of social justice; high culture is perceived as perennially more permanent than America’s only original contribution to the world’s musical culture.

The first time I got flack as a high school teacher, for example, was when a Michigan State English professor complained to the principal that I was wasting his children’s time playing Stan Kenton’s “This Is an Orchestra” in tenth-grade English, even though the LP was a brilliant metaphor for creative democracy—in jazz, the players pick a key and a tempo, then solo, each relishing the others’ differences as much as getting off on creating their own.

Judging from the insights of the Mellon panel gathered (it thrilled me to note) on Walt Whitman’s 167th birthday, the climate of belief has improved immeasurably from East Lansing in 1953. Still, the audiences for jazz are miniscule, though they are inching forward on radio.

Ted Eldredge, manager of jazz station WRTI at Temple University, revealed the startling statistic that among the biggest givers to their recent beg-athon were the Friday morning fusion fans—10% of the take. But the all-jazz format may be sailing into rough demographic weather: 70% of the fusion givers are between 25 and 49 years old.

When I told my black neighbor that, he moaned: “What are those kids going to listen to when they’re our age? The music of their youth simply won’t age.” I told him it wouldn’t matter, because they’d all be deaf by then anyway.

Eldredge has been a broadcaster for 33 years, 20 of them in commercial radio, and he brings a hard, pragmatic, even cynical attitude to his starry-eyed students at Temple: If it pays they’ll play it, alluding to the surprising news that commercial WMGK is testing the jazz waters for two hours every Sunday morning at 8 a.m.

When needled by the audience, afraid that the fusion contributors would take the purism out of WRTI’s jazz, he backed off, saying only two cuts out of ten or twelve an hour were by the likes of Jeff Beck, the guitarist the panel used as a whipping boy for the “crime” of fusion.

Put a Muse’s Nine of a panel together and the debates over purist versus “compromised” jazz tend to become semi-theological, sounding like medieval disquisitions over how many angel-haired hipsters can dance on the end of a diamond stylus. Luckily, the audience contained 66-year-old Cleo Robinson Anderson, who chided the more Utopian spielers: When she was three in 1923, her daddy gave her a crystal set and by the miracle of radio she heard her first swatch of Kansas City Blues.

She allowed as how even now she could hear the influence of guitarist Charlie Christian in the work of the Grateful Dead. This self-identified mental-health professional warned the deep thinkers not to get too far away from the people in their lucubrations.

Happily, there’s solid evidence that more and more Philadelphians will have access to jazz. Diana Klinkhardt of the Philadelphia Jazz Society described her group’s success in getting PRISM cable to air a half-hour program financed ($10,000) from National Endowment for the Arts and State Humanities Council funds. PJS is also investing in the future with its McCoy Tyner grants to promising young players such as Joey DeFrancesco, Jonathan Cesar and Antonio Parker.

Spencer Weston, the articulate programmer for the Afro-American Historical Museum, criticized the panel for concentrating so much on radio, to him, an antediluvian medium. Instead, go after TV (European jazz festivals run on prime time, sometimes live), videos (you miss too much of the gestural in jazz on a 1-D medium like radio) and, better, press coverage (though when the two dailies featured this symposium up front in their weekend leisure guides, fewer than 50 showed up to listen).

Weston also programs one of the two most consistently good live jazz series, with $45,000-a-year support from Kor-brands, the distributor of Beefeater’s gin. (I’ll drink to that!)

Ludwig van Trickt has $20,000 in arts grants to program the Painted Bride jazz series. He was the most irredentist of the black spokesmen, mocking mainline media for allowing “assorted minstrels” like TV’s “Mr. T” and “Webster” to flourish whilst Downbeat hasn’t given the nod to a black jazz star in five years.

That Ludwig van may be a trifle impossible to please devolved later in a soporific interlude on the need for more “role models” for young musicians. Whenever everyone else thought (and spoke) Wynton Marsalis, he described the two-track genius as “boring.”

Once again, Spencer Weston got the thinkers back to reality by reminding them that more people heard Louis Armstrong do “Hello Dolly!” than his legendary Hot 5 stuff: and that the greater world knows Duke Ellington more for “Satin Doll” than for his more highly regarded symphonic suites.

Such distinctions don’t interest the entertainment lawyer on the panel, one Lloyd Remick—who reps Grover Washington, Jr., so he can’t be as bad as the Apple Pie Theory of Life he says he lays on his students at Temple Law.

This “slice of living” paradigm rests on the incontrovertible truism that 90% of a thousand bucks is less than 40-50% of a million. It is not sinful. Remick insisted, to use your God-given talent to make a lot of money doing what you love to do. But it takes talent, luck and contacts (make that CONTACTS) to make a superstar.

So give a slice to a lawyer. Another slice to a PR person. Yet another to a manager (“to show you how to bob and weave your way through the jungle out there”). I couldn’t help imagining what the Duke or the Count or the other musical royalty of America would make of the conglomeration of their art.

I was mulling these immeasurables while walking down Chestnut Street when, yo and behold, I heard the sounds of jazz emanating from in front of the Beneficial Savings Bank. When the alto player finished, I asked him if he knew the Duke’s “Satin Doll.”

“That’s an easy one,” he countered easily and played two choruses, separated by his own baroque inventions. The best buck I spent that day I slipped into his instrument case.

How long had he been busking? Since 1977. After graduating from George Washington Carver High School in Birmingham, Alabama, in 1969, he came up to Philly. He plays his appointed round every weekday lunch hour, June through September. In October, he descends into the more salubrious clime of the subway, a kind of musical vent performer.

He is given $10 plus carfare a day by pleased listeners. Not much for Remick to slice up there. But 32-year-old Tommie Taylor struck me as a happy man.

From Welcomat: After Dark, July 9, 1986

Monday, 23 July 2012

Thing Theory

On Bill Brown:

The thing is, such palaver bores me to death: common sense is a better "philosophy". Structuralism is a false turn off the road to truth. Polysyllabic piffle.

Sunday, 22 July 2012

Saturday, 21 July 2012

A Centennial of Junk: Collecting Calories

Let us now praise infamous goodies. By a rare conjunction of the stars in our junk-food galaxy, we find ourselves co-celebrating the centennial of Coke and the diamond jubilee of the Oreo cookie.

Breathes there an American so puritanized that he cannot recall an Oreo cookie binge, a helpless surrender to the wiles of those succulent brown wafers whose role in life is to guard the sweetness of the crème that holds them apart?

And lives there a good-food fanatic so pure that he has never succumbed in the heat of August to a self-administered gusher of Coke? Alas, I have never been a healthy eater; I might not even remember under stress the four basic food types that allegedly promise longevity. No matter—life would be poorer without the options of Coke and Oreo to tide us over the rough spots.

I think my major epiphany on this matter of how trash non-foods can make the bleak seem tolerable took place in Algiers, on a blisteringly hot day. To keep my hanging-out tongue from creating a public nuisance, I fell by an open-air hangout near the main train station and started to administer crisis-level infusions of the ambrosia from Atlanta.

For every raised degree of Fahrenheit, I countered with a dose of Coke. I was soon joined by an earnest young Algerian who began to harangue me with taunts of Coca Colonialism. At first I match him, cliché for cliché, out of the then-hip bible of third-worldism, Frantz Fanon’s The Wretched of the Earth.

I tried to assure him that the plethora of belches for which I was responsible was not contempt for his harassment but simply animal spirits unleashed by the magical elixir from semi-tropical Georgia.

“Why do you rot the teeth of Third World children with that junk?” he pressed me contentiously. “Because,” punctuating my parry with the most humungous burp of a quite gaseous life, “they need pauses that refresh.”

There’s no way of countering such a psychological terrorist—except by temporarily neutralizing his mouth with infusions of Coke. I noted, with fiscal rue, that he swilled at will when invited. Anyone who thinks too hard on a hot day when he could be tossing off a glass of the miracle potion is hopeless by any civilized standards.

Remembering my Pyrrhic victory in Algiers, I’m ready to overgeneralize on the gut issue of healthy nutrition versus closet cholesterolaphilia. America is taking a bum rap on the junk-food development.

On a recent flight around the world, I began to “study” non-American variants of junk food. There is no quicker, cheaper way to quell the not-at-home lonelies than to shift without premeditation from savoring local gourmetry to sloshing around in indigenous junk.

Up in Trondheim, Norway, I was intrigued by what looked like a new shop selling Hagarburgers. My two words of Norski (“Oslo” and “Bergen”) proving inadequate to the task of grilling the local teeners manning the grill, I sat idly by, munching an inferior Wendy clone, until an Anglophone whirlwind breezed in with the answer.

“Why it’s from the American comic strip,” he said amiably, going on to explain that he had followed a Norwegian nurse home from her studies in his home town of Bournemouth and, having prepped at a Big Mac-ery in Oslo, was now fielding his own brand of fast food.

And soaking up rays in front of the Centre Pompidou in Paris a few weeks later, my eye caught a sign, FRANQUETTES, blinking from a local eatery. Its tricolor imagery made me suspect I was about to encounter some francofied Americana.

Almost. The suffix came from the very French bread mini-loafs called baguettes: the prefix, from the land of hate-anything-but-haute-cuisine. You choose your own filling—tuna, cheese, beef. The loaves were delectable; the fillings savory.

I chatted up the proprietor to listen to his story. For 20 years, a Swiss food technologist had fretted and frittered in his lab to find a way to keep the fillings from going bad. Until he mastered that, no FRANQUETTES would grace the open-air tables of the metropolis.

But he did it, par Dieu, he did it. Now his franchise operation was slowly reaching out benign tentacles to cover first France, and who knows when, the world. And a neat thing about this fast-foodery was its sale of wine and beer to complement the food.

Everywhere I went were local equivalents of American fast food. England. Belgium. Germany. Italy. Spain. Greece. Turkey. India. Taiwan. The Philippines. Japan. And what I brought back from such global heartburn was the incontrovertible first axiom of world junk: Americans do it better.

Don’t ask me why. A Big Mac in Tokyo doesn’t cut the mustard. Maybe they use the cooking oil too long. Maybe the meat is unbeefier to begin with. Whatever the reason, circumnavigational gnoshing makes you realize good junk food is no accident.

Mind you, I’m not even going to get into Japanese contributions like the Loveburger. I’m talking about the way locals botch American junk. This is no Kroc, no culinary jingoism. We know how to make junk food good. The Mr. Donut chain ought to be ashamed of itself for what it passes off to the gullible Japanese gullet as real American doughnuts.

And that brings me to axiom two. Properly prepared, American junk food is dependable. What you’re used to is what you get. In the tourist high-volume traps of Europe, especially, unless you go Michelin three to four star all the way, you never know at what altitude your high cuisine is going to land. I’ve never had a bad hot dog at the Frankfurt Hauptbahnhof, but I’ve had marginal haute cuisine at several first-class hotels adjacent to it.

So, in the aura of two great anniversaries—Coke’s 100th and Oreo’s 75th—let’s momentarily stop the self-flagellation over America as the worst eatin’ civilization in the history of cook stoves. Bless the druggist in Atlanta who has made a hundred summers passable. And bless those anonymous Nabisco chefs who went for our collective sweet tooth with an intuition that defies the nutritionists’ solemn philosophies.

I know our teenagers are slobbing themselves into early graves. I know the booming fast-food fueling station is a symptom of a disintegrating American hearth. I know some of our brightest and best are becoming anorexic wrecks because of their temporary incapacity to deal maturely with calories.

When pushup comes to shoveling it in, I’ll even grant that we ought to eat properly. But frankly, I’m sick of staying up late at night worrying about nitrites. So we don’t eat as healthily as our caveperson ancestors—but then we’re rarely grizzly bear food either these days.

For each era, the anguish that accrues to it. I refuse to swear off the occasional Oreo binge because it could clog up my aorta faster than necessary. And if “cavity emptor” means I have to stop guzzling Coke when my temperature rises, well then, dentistry has mercifully become less and less painful.

At least once every hundred years, let us toast those brilliant benefactors who have made pauses that refresh while they reflesh.

Freelancer Patrick Hazard lives hedonistically in Holmesburg.

From Welcomat: After Dark, September 3, 1986

Friday, 20 July 2012

Hoffman and the Greater Walt

The appearance of Penn poet Daniel Hoffman’s magisterial Hang Gliding From Helicon: New and Selected Poems, 1948-1988 (Louisiana State Press, Baton Rouge) is the good news. Especially since he will read from the collection at the YMHA on January 22nd.

The bad news is that I’m using the occasion to ruminate over the lifelong process by which the poetry lover chooses his muses. The polysyllabic jargon for this process in the Age of Deconstructivism is “Canon Formation.”

Oddly, for me, the first time this verbiage hit me like a ton of rain-sodden cardboard was about 1973, when I asked Hoffman why he wasn’t publishing his marvelous lyric, “Crossing Walt Whitman Bridge.”

“It isn’t canonical, Patrick,” Dan excused, not explained.

A poet picks and chooses—there are almost 200 poems which make the cut in his “new and selected,” sort of the beatification stage in a mature poet’s artistic life. When Dan parried that my favorite poem of his was not canonical, I considered it something of a chide of my judgment. “Geez, Hazard,” he seemed to imply, “don’t you know a real poem from a mere attempt?”

So vanity prodded me to turn first to the table of contents to see whether Hoffman had relented under the remorseless pressure of my high opinion. (He had already given me the grace of a splendid holograph of the poem, a private treasure.)

There is was, in the final section V, between “Essay on Style” and “Mark Twain, 1900.” But wait. Turning to it with joy, I found a poem many times longer and richer than the “original.” Gadzooks, it’s a veritable short and jazzy history of American poetry, centering on other poems written to Walt.

In my increasingly sadder model of American culture, Americans are divided into sheep who cherish Walt Whitman and the exponentially increasing mob who dig Walt Disney. I call it the losing battle between the Greater and Lesser Walts. Tell me what a man knows about Watershed Walt, and I’ll tell you where he stands on every critical moral and intellectual issue facing our beleaguered republic.

I pause to formulate Hazard’s Literary Law: A country that doesn’t read its great writers eventually loses its mind. Ergo, because American literature is the greatest under-read literature in the history of mankind, Americans are going and staying nuts in droves.

Ronald Reagan is a prime example. Bush is on the brink. Quayle remains unborn—in utero so to speak—intellectually. They and their idiot peers account for the terrible phenomenon of America having become a loose cannon on spaceship Earth. No Canon? Cannons unleashed.

To be specific, the gung-ho patriotics of Oliver North and his State Department de-mentor Elliot Abrams would lift as a passing fog were those gentlemen to intellectually metabolize Hoffman poems like “Power” (about the loner King-killer phenomenon in 20th Century America) or “The Center of Attention” (about the terrible ambivalence of an American noontime downtown crowd over a man threatening to jump to his death).

Ezra Pound once expostulated, in his apodictic way, that “Literature is news that stays news.” Dan goes Ezra one better: He turns the quotidian news story into lit that clarifies with clarity and eloquence the cruel and crude miasmas that pass for a moral landscape in post-imperial America.

Let me try to explain what I mean. I was excited by Dan’s Whitman poem, which explored wittily that paradox of paradoxes: South Jersey is full of business establishments named after our premier pioneering poet of Demos, but it’s utterly devoid of people who have read a single line of the man’s still luminous work.

His “uncanonical” first-version lyric hit me where I was livid at the time. I had just returned from Cape May, celebrating a dear girl friend’s 23rd birthday. As we whizzed through Camden (perfect emblem of what happens to a city whose owners don’t read Whitman), she asked me: If I loved Whitman so much, why had I never visited his mausoleum? A telling shot.

So as soon as I could conquer my fear of Camden and find directions to Harleigh Cemetery, there we were, two slightly hung-over Americans eager to pay homage to the old codger.

Horrors! The 1892 structure was a mess, slowly disintegrating from neglect. This was in 1973, the unremarked centennial of Walt’s having moved from D.C. to his brother’s house in Camden.

But wait. By what we Americanists call a remarkable providence, the National Council of Teachers of English was holding its annual convention in Philly that Thanksgiving. I asked permission to parade with sandwich boards garnished with appeals like “A Buck For The Bard’s Bones” or “Save Walt’s Vault.” In the Teachers’ imperial wisdom, they ruled that I could raise the money if I abandoned the meretricious rhetoric.

I did—in front of my luminous chenille bedspread emblazoned (by Beaver artist Ellen Maser) “Poetry to the People.” Ellen’s spread worked—to the tune of $738, fattened by Bucky Fuller’s gracious $100 check.

The 1984 Graveyard Party, celebrating the rededication, was a wonder. Carmen Gasperro and his quartet composed a jazz suite for the occasion. We passed out nine (for the muses) bottles of Great Western champagne to add Euro-Am elegance to the occasion. And National Public Radio carried our joy to the winds. It was a great day for poets.

Now comes the ugly part. That was also the year that Rutgers creative writing honcho Frank McQuilkin prevailed upon me to open Walt Whitman Day at the Camden Center with a $50 diatribe (for which I was stiffed! No thanks, Frank) as foreplay to Allen Ginsburg’s $1,500 apotheosis in the late afternoon.

So there were we two—Allen and me after the morning coffee. I offered to take him over to the Walt Whitman House. His reply? “Are you gay, Hazard?”

“No, Ginsberg,” I answered. “God hasn’t blessed me yet. Bad break. I guess.”

His next query really startled me. “So how come you’re interested in Whitman?” with the astonishing heterophobic assumption that being gay was sine qua non for affection for Walt.

“Oh, I guess it grows on you when you’ve taught him for 20 years,” I sneered.

The Great Howler was not making a good impression on this canon formulator. Frankly, over the years I have come to believe that AG is not a poet at all but a media hypester whom a corrupt press uses to disabuse itself of responsibility for real poetry, by using his titillation at the same time that it implies that he’s a phony.

At the Modern Languages Association convention in New Orleans, I was saddened to see that even Helen Vendler puts Ginsberg in her Harvard University Press interim pantheon, but excludes AG’s Columbia classmate, Daniel Hoffman. To detox MLA, I wandered form booth to booth reading Hoffman to whoever would listen. To a person, they were outraged that they had never even heard of Hoffman, whose work levitated them on the spot.

One final score. Ginsberg alleged at the height of his influence that the college poetry seminar was destroying American verse. (A classic case of projection: It was his bargain-basement howlers who were—and still are—diminishing the American muse.) he might have been thinking of his Columbia classmate, Hoffman, except that no one has ever accused Allen Ginsberg of thinking.

Hoffman’s career has been an exemplum for our time, alternating a book of criticism (his dissertation on the poetry of Stephen Crane) with a book of verse (his Yale Younger Poets prize-winning An Armada of Whales, 1954), over a teaching career spent at Swarthmore and Penn. Never in my experience has the dialectic between learning and love been so deep and fructifying.

Let me predict: By 1998, when we may expect DH’s culminating “collected” if fate smiles on us both, Ginsberg will already have been dispatched to the dustbin of footnotes, and Hoffman will give many more the pleasure of his muse, joining Harvard’s Cut List of the Apothesizers of the Quotidien—poets like Phillip Booth (whose “Wilding” started me on the road to poetic pleasure), Linda Pastan, William Stafford and (greatest love of all) Seamus Heaney.

They have retrieved the Muse from the labyrinth of modernism. No more multilingual bull. Just luminous images and graceful cadence. Catch up, you Lesser Walt-ers.

From Welcomat: After Dark, Hazard-at-Large, January 18, 1989

Thursday, 19 July 2012


This episode is especially interesting, with the anti-Semitism of  the Boston nabobs, and the sad abandonment of the Sermon, which in its own way is a sermon.

Wednesday, 18 July 2012

Call me Grandpa…and it’s about time

Pity us poor parents of the baby boom generations, whose offspring have so conspicuously ignored the Biblical injunction: “Go ye forth and multiply.” Of my three children, two appear to have settled for permanent singlehood. And my first-born took ten years of married life before deigning to beget with his mate.

What an emotional cliffhanger! I had to wait 59 years, five months and 17 days to make grandfather. Now it can be told: The waiting has been a semi-harrowing experience.

Toward the end, I took to wistfully stopping by playgrounds to watch the elderly blessed cavort with their offspring one generation removed. The longeurs of supermarket lines evanesced in a wisp of adjacent carts carried squirming children the right age to be my grandchildren.

Sometimes, when grandpaternal control failed, I imagined myself doing a much better job maintaining the discipline which is always at the mercy of wanting the little beasts to love you unqualifiedly.

One of my best professor friends already had two grandchildren, and though his conjugal life was not a very great improvement over my divorced state, I found myself drifting to Trenton more and more frequently to bask in the glow of his grandfatherliness. He had become slightly dotty over the admittedly quirky but beloved behavior of his first granddaughter. Oh, how I envied his indulgence of her.

I returned from trips abroad with absurdly disproportionate numbers of shots of local children. (This was especially true of China and Japan, but even chubby Russki kids, who do not generally rank high in my pantheon of childhoodry.) These shots were derisively referred to as my “grandpaw pix.” I knew indeed what they meant. I hungered for tiny animals of my own to fondle and spoil.

Toward the end, my malaise—grandchildlessness—took an ugly turn. I railed at the barren couple, uttering petty threats. “If you don’t assuage my grandfatherly feelings by such and such a year, I’ll disinherit you.”

They laughed uproariously at this pathetic sanction. Who in their right mind would give up birth control for $1.73?

Driven to desperation, I brandished my ultimate weapon: reproductiveness. “If you don’t pop a perky tot in my arms by such and such a date, I’ll have my vasectomy reversed and go into production again myself.” Perhaps the thought of me absurdly sperm banking at my age put some sense into their heads. They got down to business.

Christmas 1985: The best present I’ve ever received was their joint announcement that they had joined together, successfully, in holy, let-the-genes-fall-where-they-may copulation. July 15th was the magical date they gave me. Their mail began to assume a gynecological cast. They prenatalized. They ultrasounded. (My daughter-in-law apologized that the baby had modestly kept his or her legs crossed when they ultrasounded, so the progeny’s gender was still a mystery.)

Later, she told me confidentially that is would be a girl because its heart beat faster. Boy, did mine ever. But such pagan auguries. Such tealeaf readings. How did we ever manage to foal Michael, bereft of all such high-tech support?

The red-lettered ETA day found me biting my nails. I wanted so badly to call and reassure them about the delay, knowing full well such protestations would be too much, me-thought, only adding to their anxiety. ETA plus one, ETA plus two. I was going to be biting my knuckles from the fingernail side if the suspense lasted much longer.

Then the momentous call: “Hi Granpaw! It’s a girl, Sonia Marie, seven pounds eight ounces. Pat’s fine, and the baby’s an 8!”

What is this, a Bo Derek index? I was outraged. “No, 5 is normal and 10 is perfect.” What do they mean, I fumed, implying that my first-born-grandchild is less than perfect?

A few days later the first batch of images arrived (my son is a photo / movie maker). Sonia touches her mother a few seconds after being born. Sonia nurses. Sonia greets the neighbors. My lord. If I remember, the first photo we took of Michael was at a graduate school picnic when he had to be at least three months old. Media metabolism speeding up. This weekend I was told they were videotaping Sonia. Oh, what a mediated life that sweet child will live.

Son Michael with Granddaughter Sonia

The first person I called, needless to say, was Fred in Trenton. “You’ve lost your monopoly,” I gloated. He was very generous. Told me I’d love the experience, as if I needed to hear that, having watched him on a slow drool for four years.

As soon as I hung up, I sat down to figure out how I could communicate with Sonia in St. Paul. No problem. I’ll write the little blighter a letter, and let her doting parents translate it. I hurried so I’d be the first one to write her a letter.

“Dearest SMO,” I wrote—that’s acronym for Sonia Marie Olson Hazard. “I’m thrilled to hear you made it. Welcome to the world which has been waiting for you to grow in it. And while I watch you grow, you watch this college fund grow and grow so that you can learn a lot when the time comes. Love, Granpaw H.”

And I popped in a check, so her parents can concentrate on raising her. It’s really exciting. I haven’t felt this young in 35 years, since the time I helped conceive the father. Passing it on. Wowee!

From Welcomat, August 13, 1986

Tuesday, 17 July 2012

On the Origins of the Arts

What a Golden Oldie E.O.Wilson is! "The successful scientist thinks like a poet but works like a bookkeeper."

Monday, 16 July 2012

Scandinavian Scrimping: an Art

The perennial refrain among Eurail riders about Scandinavia is a variation of “Great, but is it ever expensive.” Four weeks of exploring it last summer makes me want to pass on some tips for cutting fiscal corners without diminishing your pleasure. It is expensive, but there are economy pockets that are fun to find.

Baggage: My first principle as a Eurail traveler is never leave a station with more than a tote. I travel in circles—or more precisely loops—of a few days at a time. In Scandinavia, the best entrepot is Copenhagen’s Central Station. For five Danish kronors (60 cents), you can lock your gear up and travel free as a bird—Copenhagen-Oslo, Oslo-Gotheberg, Gotheberg-Copenhagen—doing similar loops to all the capitals and principal cities of Scandinavia.

Theoretically, there’s a two-day limit to the lockers, but in practice I was away as long as a week, with all my gear awaiting me when I passed through for a new loop.

InterRail Student Center: One of the niftiest innovations Danish State Railways has introduced to Europe is a free drop-in center at Copenhagen Central, open from 7 a.m. to 1 a.m. daily. You qualify if you’re 26 or under and hold either an InterRail or Eurail pass.

Free showers, a place to store your backpack, snacks and drinks for sale, a notice board for synching your movements with friends coming in from elsewhere, and a very congenial atmosphere. Antiquated types like myself found their bulletin board a marvelous resource: Use It (a lively handout to traveler’s services); a bulletin about Danish classic films dubbed in English; directions to a nearby automatic laundry.

Breakfasts: Here’s my discovery of the summer. Near every train station in Europe is a first-class hotel serving buffet breakfasts to their guests—and to any one else willing to pay (Visa is usually acceptable) their exceedingly modest fees.

At Helsinki’s Hesperides, a four-star hotel, a humungous spread cost a piddling 15 Finnmarks ($2.50). Such a meal can last you half a day, and you eat amidst the most elegant surroundings, having washed up from the overnight train ride in their well-appointed washroom.

And the concierges in such hotels have a pack of free info for tourists—each major metropolis has a “This Week in . . .” type pocket guide, a walking map of the downtown—so you can plot your day as you munch away.

Sleeping Over: The Scandinavian trains, alas, are the least amenable to free overnight accommodations. They are mostly sit-up seats in Amtrak-like rows (not the scooch-together seats in six-place compartments on other European trains that form credible beds for free overnight journeys).

But there are some old ones still in use, and it behooves you to get to the station an hour early and check out the cars. There will be color-coded charts of the train you’re taking: green for second-class sit-up, yellow for first-class, blue for sleeping cars (for which you ordinarily need reservations but can often wangle on-the-spot berths if they are available).

Cheap Digs: By all means, get an American Youth Hostel pass ($20) and their handbook listing (with map) most of the hostels in Europe ($6.95). You not only save much money but the talk is worth more than the cheap price.

I stayed at Helsinki’s Olympic Stadium for 25 Finnmarks (a little over $4). It is a dormitory, but it’s clean and friendly, and the mix of fellow travelers is intellectually exhilarating—next to my bunk were an Australian, a New Zealander, a Japanese and a Korean. I not only got a line on what the rest of the world was thinking, but also priceless travel tips from folks hot off the road.

There are also hostels not on the official roster that you can find out about at the local train stations: for example, in Jyvaskyla, Alvar Aalto’s home town, we stayed in a lovely woodsy place a ten-minute walk from the great architect’s museum. Quite a deal for 40 Finnmarks, 15 of which went to the Save the Children Foundation.

Cheap Internal Travel: It behooves you to look into new travel bargains in Scandinavia. Each big city has a tourist card for local transport and museums.

In Stockholm, when I arrived from Finland on the Silja Ferry from Helsinki (free on the Eurail pass), I bought a one-day pass for 17 Swedish kronors so I could visit the Carl Milles sculpture garden just outside of town, then criss-cross inside the city visiting museums and notable works of architecture, such as Gunnar Asplund’s great Main Library.

Airfares are a steal as well: Braathens S.A.F.E. (the slightly disconcerting initials refer to its origins as a charter to South America and the Far East) and Finnair are offering real bargains for flights within Norway and Finland, respectively. Finnair’s 15 day, $250 pass is especially noteworthy. And there are Scandinavian variants of Eurail that might be your ticket if you’re only going to travel in those countries.

Money: I think I’m giving up on traveler’s checks, except for emergency backup money. The $1,200 I took along for my three months was losing me interest for most of my trip. I stumbled across the answer when I ran out of checks—use Visa for cash advance. You don’t pay the local bank anything and you get just as much local currency as you need.

(It’s changing and rechanging from one currency to another that is not only a pest but expensive—minimum commissions, no matter the amount changed). Then you mail a check each month to Visa covering your expenditures and you avoid their sometimes usurious interest charges.

Reprinted from Welcomat: After Dark August 6, 1986

Sunday, 15 July 2012

Twitter, Not

Niche to Mass:

The internet is mainly the back fence of the hypergossip.

Useful thinking as usual develops slowly in the minds of the nonhip.

Twitter, therefore it ain’t.

Saturday, 14 July 2012

Superbowl Blues

Each approaching superbowl throws me into an irredeemable funk. Yet as an Americanist I feel duty-bound to comprehend it as a cultural phenom. If I were Chuck Stone, I might intone: Nihil Americanum alienum mihi. But as it is, I simply must leave no stone unturned in search for a remedy to my superbowl-induced depression.

This year, I think I’ve found it. By God—or Pete Rozelle, whoever is greater—I think I’ve found it: In a dull-sounding but absolutely absorbing book, David Harris’ The League: The Rise and Decline of the NFL (Bantam Books, $21.95). For less than an unscalped ducat to the greatest American ritual, have I got a good read for you.

There must be a few males out there with football credentials as marginal as mine, as the gutless guard of the notoriously lousy Holy Rosary Academy teams of 1939 and 1940 in Bay City, Michigan. While the wider world revved up for total global war, we, unwittingly, were learning how to lose in a big way, gracelessly.

Don’t talk to me about uneven playing fields. When the economic going got tougher, our tough-as-nails Dominican nuns fantasized about selling off our gridiron as a ready-made gravel quarry. We hungered for the days when we’d play “away,” at the City Park off Center Avenue, to give us a post-scrimmage going over on our bone-crushed, bruise-heavy hike home.

“HRA pansies” was the crude refrain, based on the doubly faulty premises that because we came from big cities like Detroit, Lansing and Grand Rapids and were wealthy enough to live away from home, we were wimps. We continued as the favorite whipping objects until the Panos boys—Aristides, George and Andrew—arrived one sunny unsuper Sunday. Their immigrant widower father had just opened a grocery store in Detroit, and his boys, soccer-trained in the home country, had biceps and brawn to make our erstwhile tormentors quake.

My interest in, and contact with, football then entered a 40-year hiatus—until I found myself looking for something to share with my sailor son Tim in Corpus Christi, Texas over Christmas 1975. We met in Houston, where a frantic scanning of the Houston Post revealed a major event called the Bluebonnet Bowl at the Astrodome.

When the bell captain assured me that it was not a margarine promotion but a football game, Tim and I used very marginal NPR credentials (I had been taping pieces for their arts magazine, Voices in the Wind) to get a field pass.

Holy Rosary! This was hardly the game I had abandoned a generation before in Bay City, although the number of bad knees getting bounced off the Astroturf made me wonder if HRA gravel weren’t a softer touch. And then there was ABC-TV’s Jim Lamphier, who seemed more solicitous of the televisability of his own pompadour than of the movements of the competing elevens from Oklahoma and U.T. / Austin. (Yes, Virginia, the bluebonnet is the state flower of Texas.)

The most significant difference, of course, was the platoon system of mega-combat. I will also never forgive professionalized football for deleting the drop kick, the only marketable skill I developed from grade school gridiron daze. The plays were razzle and dazzle abracadabra, with the quarterback having become the field marshall of aerial warfare.

And the cheerleaders! High school cheerleaders in Michigan were aphrodisiac enough, but those Texas cuties were hornies of a different and selling dimension. And the paces their male ponces put them through would have made an X-rated video, with uncut outtakes. I retreated, over-stimulated, to the press box.

It was my first taste of Texize munificence. Talk about groaning boards. The tables were positively orgasmic with shrimps so huge you had to nibble around at them to masticate them for an ultimate swallow. And roast beef sliced in slabs that made your wrists bend as you slunk down the buffet tables, all manned by obsequious darkies who had never heard of the civil rights revolution.

The drinks must have been measured out in mega-doses, for after a few screwdrivers all the nuts and bolts in my never too tightly screwed head came unreeling loose. (Poor Tim, he hadn’t seen me that loaded since Finland’s leading publisher of porn magazines scared me away from his girlfriend at his sauna outside Tampere with uncut vodka.)

So you can see why Superbowl Sunday is not my favorite American rite and why I’m so happy to tell you how to chase your Superbowl blues. Read David Harris’ The League: Not the least of your pleasures will be the conviction that this NFL affliction too will pass.

Did you know that the NFL was founded in 1920 in a Hupmobile showroom in Canton, Ohio (that’s why their hall of fame is in that nonentity of a town)? And do you know why? Because the blue collars of Canton, Massillon, Akron and Green Bay had no college teams to root for.

That’s when college football was an elaborate excuse to move Smith and Mount Holyoke girls to Ivy parties during the bad weather of the fall. And fledgling radio made household words of Red Grange, while newspaper writers, fighting fiercely for readership, laid fancy metaphors on us out of South Bend, like the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse. The NFL gave steel, auto and rubber workers something to shout about.

But it was television and a flack named Pete Rozelle that turned pro football into the American Game. (Only George Will still thinks baseball is the National Pastime—and only then when the Chicago Cubs are winning.)

Rozelle was the darkest horse you could ever imagine. When Bert Bell (who ran the pre-professionalized NFL out of an office in a Bala Cynwyd bank building) dropped dead of a heart attack. The “boy czar” was then 33. The year before he was hired, the NFL staged 72 games in front of 3,140,000 paid spectators; by 1973, there were 182 games seen by 10,731,000; his first TV contract in 1962 was worth $326,000 for each franchise; in 1973, twice as many teams took $1.7 million apiece to the home office.

Rozelle says he believed that “the strong public view that professional football is more business than sport can only hurt the game.” His strategy of League Think meant keeping a precarious balance between the biggest markets and the smaller ones.

Had he not devised a strategy that spread the take around equitably, the game could have deteriorated into the kind of boring superiority of the New York Yankees in baseball, lethal to country-wide television. So the name of the game was expansion and getting rid of competitors for the TV dollar (first the AFL and WFL, and then USFL), but s-l-o-w-l-y.

It is instructive to read that New Orleans got its Saints because Russell Long and Dale Boggs were the congressional gatekeepers for legislation that kept the Sherman Act off the NFL’s backs for a while.

NBC didn’t want to stop Laugh-In’s roll, and CBS was too committed to the future of I Love Lucy to take Monday Night Football. ABC, then hardly more than half a network with a Disney anchor, got it by default. So much for TV conspiracy theories.

But talking about power struggles, the one between Pete and his nemesis Al Davis of the Raiders makes Dynasty look like a convention of Sunday school picnic caterers. In fact, name any NFL owner and I’ll show you a ready-made sitcom format. Super Sunday, where is thy sting?

From Welcomat: After Dark, Hazard-at-Large, 1987

Friday, 13 July 2012

Getting Even: The New American Nightmare

“Don’t get mad,” Mary Iacocca counseled Lee as Henry Ford II threw more and more of his dynastic weight around, “get even.” Lee learned this lesson from his late wife well. When Mafiosi contacted him to offer to break the auto tycoon’s bones, he politely refused the offer, adding he’d prefer to break those bones himself.

“It’s not that I believe in turning the other cheek,” Lee explains in his best-selling autobiography, “Henry Ford destroyed a lot of lives. But I got revenge without resorting to violence. Because of my pension, he still pays me a lot of money to go to work every morning to see if I can knock his block off. It must drive him crazy.”

Surprisingly, the reviews of the book almost never comment on the anomaly of the Roman Catholic immigrant’s son taking vengeance on his former boss. Mary’s espousal of American folk wisdom takes precedence over his otherwise pervasive Christian ethic.

And the “getting even” phenomenon is more than an aberration in our executive suites. It is fast becoming a major life style in an America trying to adjust to a two-tier system of rewards and remuneration. The Encyclopedia Britannica recently exposed “a mole” in its computer room—a disgruntled employee who had replaced the word “Allah” for the word “Jesus” in the 1988 edition of the prestigious reference book. Only the most sophisticated electronic countermeasures exposed this “getting even” tactic. “Tampering” indeed.

The tampering scare this is harrowing the boardrooms of every manufacturer and distributer of food and drugs in the United States is explainable only as part of the getting-even syndrome. Disgruntled employees, fuming over slights at work, scheme to bring Goliaths down by threatening to poison, or by actually poisoning, the firm’s customers. The conspirators care not who gets hurt in this form of corporate terrorism: they only want to “get even.”

A related getting-even syndrome is the mass killings that more and more often disfigure the American scene. Take the recent massacre in the Edmond, Oklahoma, post office. All of us feel outrage and frustration at the helplessness of “decent citizens” before the “unexplainable” outbursts of loners that cut down innocent people. But Rose Roney of Philadelphia recently disagreed with a typical outrage editorial in the Philadelphia Daily News (Sept. 8) in a letter that makes sense:

“Your editorial of August 22 is the most senseless, inhuman article I have read in some time. This man had a problem, so every one of his fellow employees said, probably as you did, he is a psycho. So what did they do to help him? He was given no encouragement and no help. His chances for future help were nil.

“It is fine for you—an editor on a newspaper, sure of his salary and evidently sure he’s right about a man he never even saw. Well, I think you’re a cruel, heartless person. How do you know if this man suffered from depression or some other kind of mental illness or even just loneliness? How unkind! As long as unfriendly and unkind people are in the world, there will be people who will go berserk.”

Not exactly, but true enough.

The world has been “unfair” from time immemorial, and the seven capital sins were not invented yesterday. But what gives the getting-even syndrome in America its special savagery is what I call the Expectations Gap. The American Dream is a kind of open-end promissory note assuring one and all that a rainbow awaits them around the next corner. And there have been so many rainbows around so many corners that the Dream retains its semi-official legitimacy. But the psychological burden the Dream exacts on the losers (and we seem to be at a point in our economic development when losers are rising exponentially) is frightening and fraught with anti-social dynamite.

Even more revealing in the Edmond affair is a letter written the same day by a postal employee in Philadelphia, a veteran of 13 years’ service, a former steward in the American Postal Workers Union: “I am surprised,” writes Frank J. Mori Jr., “that the incident that occurred in the Edmond, Oklahoma Post Office hasn’t happened sooner.

“The U.S.P.S. doesn’t understand that an employee’s personal life is a priority, and the job comes second. But postal standards, production comes first and your personal life comes second. As a former shop steward, I have witnessed that if any employee is not liked by management, they give him a history of disciplinary problems. I have seen many employees blackballed by U.S.P.S. managers.

“Management will not tolerate any employee who makes waves, right or wrong.

“It’s a tragedy that 15 postal workers were killed. My heart bleeds for all of them, including Patrick Henry Sherill. Maybe Sherill’s rage will wake up the U.S.P.S.

“It doesn’t have to beef up security, it must start improving working conditions.”

There are those who would pish-posh such humanitarianism. The wages are good, the hours are regular, and in America a worker can always move on to a new job if the going gets really tough. But that is an increasingly dated scenario. Blue collars put up with monumental guff, including racial harassment—black on white in some cases where power has shifted—because there are no well-paid openings elsewhere. But the real pinch in American remains psychological—the gap between what the system grandly promises and what it delivers to most people most of the time. The gap is growing—and at a faster and faster clip.

The final example comes to mind. Shortly after finishing Tim Cahill’s Buried Dreams (1986), about the Chicago building contractor who stuffed over 30 of his homosexual victims under his house (he was really only caught when he ran out of crawl space and started dumping them in a nearby river), I read a review of the book in the Wall Street Journal, the self-styled diary of the American Dream. It contended “the mystery of evil” was the only way of explaining that mini-holocaust. Nonsense.

The killer’s father was a Polish immigrant who took “dumb Polack” abuse at work every day; he came home and retired to the basement workshop where he tinkered and drank himself into daily intoxication. When he surfaced, it was to pass the stupidity charge to his son. Cahill diffidently passed on the psychiatric hypotheses that the crawl space murders were a symbolic acting out of the son’s utter frustration. I buy it. The ethnic counterpunching that defaces our workplaces is a monstrous boil that every so often is lanced by “random” compensatory acts of violence. We’re getting even all right, but as Pogo said, the enemy is us.

From Welcomat, October 14, 1986.