Thursday, 17 October 2013

Revisiting Tony Auth


 Reading “The Art of Tony Auth” (Camino Books Inc, P.O Box 52096, Philadelphia 19102, 2012) is a historic event for me, like meeting a favorite teacher, who turned you on to thinking as a profession. Tony turned me on to believing that the maturing of the editorial cartoon in America is a “sine qua non” if we are ever to mature as a civilized society.

Alas, it scared me at first to read here that 200 regular American newspaper cartoonists (when Tony began nationally in 1971) has shrunken to a piddling 80. As I bleakly thought the more, I remembered his sudden recent emergence as the digital cartoonist at WHYY-TV. Heh I suddenly realized it matters not what’s in the scabbard, as long as the blade is as sharp as Tony’s always is. “To Stir, Inform and Inflame” indeed.

I also enjoyed learning about his L.A. past. His passion for drawing seems to have been motivated by his having been bedridden young. And his UCLA education in medical illustration deepened this professionalism. He began as a teacher, period. And he sought cartoonish outlets in leftie and “alternative” media. (Shades of “Professor” Hazard peddling himself at the “Welcomat”.)

But Tony had to break into middle class newspapers like the Inky whose First Commandment was “Don’t meddle with the Muddle of our middle class readers”. To watch Tony maneuver with the Inky’s editor without compromising his leftish ideals is as salutary an episode of media courage as I have observed as an ornery leftie! It’s worth the price of the book itself.

But the memorable cartoons are the main course, especially his retelling the issues of the Presidencies between LBJ and Obama. I solemnly declare that any historians assessing those Leaders had better begin with Tony’s pen! I could list my faves, but why deny you a clean sheet to wallow in your own Auth.

I consider it historic that Tony’s gift of the catalog arrived the day The International Herald Tribune became the International New York Times! I started reading that paper daily as I entered graduate school in 1950. My fidelity to Tony began in 1971 and never wavered. 

Thanks for the Melodies, Tony. You gave eyes a life.

Another version of this essay is published by Broad Street Review.

Wednesday, 16 October 2013

Comical Seriousness from Sweden


Jonas Jonasson’s first novel, “The Hundred-Year-Old Man Who Climbed Out of the Window and Disappeared”(Hesperus Press, 2012) is “sui generis”, unlike any book I have ever read, with a biography unlike any other writer I have studied. Born in small town Sweden in 1961, he studied languages at the University of Gothenberg,and then he became a journalist, first for a local paper, Sm√§landsposten, and later for a national journal Expressen. 

Finally he became a media advisor and head of a TV production company. Burned out after twenty years in all that media, he sold his companies and moved with his small family in a Swiss village. Three years later he published this strange novel which became an international bestseller, accessible in 38 world languages, including a film version about to be released. 

Strangely, my wife gave me this German smash for Xmas and I picked it up a dozen times for a quick read, but immediately put it down! Eventually I agreed with the German critic who called it “a mixture of a road movie and a picaresque novel in modern packaging.”

The beguiling anti-hero is one Allan Karlsson whose specialty is using dynamite to enable mining. The book opens with the overbearing old persons home directress. And Allan is about to be the victim of a centennial birthday party. He escapes, to run into a pair of bandits who are stealing a suitcase full of cash they have in turn stolen from local crooks. 

The pair takes too long a break on the train escape they have started, so Allan is suddenly a very rich man. And a local incompetent chief of police so confuses his local prosecutor that their stupidities are a regular feature as the old man goes his own ways. Eventually he joins a small group of excons who unwittingly amuse the reader as they stumble their way ahead of the cops.

But the central line of action that introduces you to the hundred years of his marvelous life is his skill as a designer of bombs that involves him in all the great military crises of the twentieth centura. And he revels in helping the incompetent leaders of the twentieth century: Spain’s Franco, Harry Truman who sends him to Las Alamos, New Mexico to aid the builders of the atomic bomb, Stalin invites him to Moscow to create an atom bomb for the Soviets, and he blows up bridges as Chiang Kai Chek chases Mao on the Long March. 

His interpersonal confrontations of celebrities like Lyndon Johnson are hilarious as our hero’s skills as a blower upper are exaggerated for comic affect. He is as skillful in humbling these twentieth century Big Wigs as he is in designing explosions. 
 
There is a charming interview with the author to ease you out of his crazy story.

Are you just as funny in everyday life?”

His reply: I think it was Mark Twain who said something like this: ”To read an interesting book and then to meet the author in question, is like first having a great goose liver pate´ only afterwards to meet the goose. (I am sorry, Mr. Twain, if I remembered this quote incorrectly." (p.393).

This is followed by two pages of Discussion Questions. Man, I would give a hundred Euros to be set loose with those hints in a college classroom.

The author now lives with his kids, cats, and chickens on the Swedish island of Gotland. Where has been writing another idiosyncratic novel. I can hardly wait!

Monday, 14 October 2013

Count Harry Graf Kessler, Global Diarist


James Fenton wrote in “The Atlantic” in a review of Laird M. Easton’s “Journey to the Abyss :The Diaries of Count Harry Kessler 1880-1918” (Vintage edition,2013) “Count Harry Kessler became, through his experiences and through the anguished searching of his spirit, something close to a representative man. He seeks out great artists and gives us memorable portraits of Verlaine in old age, of Degas and Renoir, of Rodin and Maillol, of Rilke and Hofmannsthal, of Cosima Wagner, of Richard Strauss, of Diaghilev and Nijinsky, and of other great dancers and theatrical figures of the age. The cast list alone makes this an amazing diary.” 
 
Kessler started his diaries at age twelve and wrote them religiously until his death at 69. But to me he is important because he enticed Henry van der Velde to come to Weimar. And I tasted his enthusiastic globe-trotting by seeing how he reacted to the America I know best! Here goes:

San Francisco, March 25, 1892. (He was 24.) To the Leland Stanford University in Menlo.It was built by Senator Stanford in the memory of his son, who died young and he bequeathed it 20 million dollars…This is one of the most beautiful and most original architectural monuments that I have seened in the United States, a completely unique, American architecture,with a glimmer of romantic antiquity, without the all-too-obvious intention of being romantically antique.” P.75. I agree with his canny analysis of an architect being simultaneously original and rooted in history.”( I gave my first university lecture there on Newer Media and Humanism in 1962, aged 35!)

New York City, January 16, 1892.”In the evening dined at the Degeners’ with young people, almost all from German fathers and mothers. They all speak German, with an accent, and among themselves they speak English. Before and after Degeners’attended a political dinner of the Reform Club at the Sherrys’. Met Springer, Williams, and other leaders of the Democratic Party. When I returned, an “Honorable So-and-so” from Georgia was speaking about the tariff issue with so much passion that the champagne glasses were shaking. When someone says something that hits a chord, they all stand up and shout for minutes, shaking their napkins. Certainly the Americans are,of all the people I know, the ones with the best lungs. I brought up the deficient street cleaning, repair of the pavement, etc. Why aren’t the people responsible thrown out? Everyone is too busy to bother about something like that, that’s why they let it happen, and the same thing is true of politics. That’s why politics in the hands of crooks who turn it into a business and bums and idlers who have nothing better to do.” P.53. Heh, could be a Tea Party blast last night. Kessler is canny.

New York. February 15, 1892. Monday. To Bedloe’s Island to climb the Statue of Liberty.One of those fresh warm spring days that race through your blood like champagne. The sight of the vast sea of houses and the blue hills of New Jersey, encircling the wide glittering bay, was inexpressibly beautiful, and again the ships, the ferries, the sails ,all life, all activity, all force. Why are there so few such moments in life in which you feel as if you must shout and laugh due to the joy of existence.”P.59. Heh, Count Kessler, been there, done that, again and again on the Staten Island ferry to Manhattan, only twice on the bow of the Queen Mary and S.S. France, returning me and my family from teaching in London! But I recognize the thrills. They never fall. And I’m reminded that my mother was about to be born in Ausable, Michigan while the Count was counting his happy experiences.

Washington, January 30, 1892. Saturday. “Bad weather. In the morning to the Osborns. Then to the “shaking hands” with the president. Everyone who wants can come to the White House at one o’clock and shake the hands of the president. This ceremony takes place in a large hall in the west wing of the building. Today due to the bad weather whole families with the small children came in with wet raincoats and dripping umbrellas, forming long zig zag lines on the bright yellow Smyrna carpet. Men from the West, with large cowboy hats; fat store owners, their fleshy fingers covered in rings; little middle-class girls giggling in the corners of the large hall; an assembly such as one generally sees at a bus station. As the president entered, they all rushed in his direction and surrounded him. (Benjamin Harrison, (1833-1901), the twenty-third president of the United States.) Then everyone passed and gave him their hand.The president, a short, inconspicuous man with a full gray beard, returned the handshake with an indifferent demeanor. Frequently he said, "I am very glad to see you.” In a half hour the celebration is over. You sense here what it means, in a demagogic sense, to be the first servant of one’s people.” P.57. Egalitarianism at its lowest expression!

After dinner went to Arlington Heights. You pass through Georgetown: countless Negro shanties out of which a black child’s face with large white eyes stare. On the streez´ts were more blacks than whites, an indescribably a ragged, dirty pack.” Once a Count, always a count. You can count on it. The Civil War had not really happened. And so it goes, the kind of irresistible book suited for bed table or klo. Kessler makes diaries a major genre. And you have 830 more pages to relish. Around the globe with the perceptive Kessler. And when you exhaust the diaries (1880-1918) read Laird M. Easton, The Red Count: The Life and Letters of Harry Kessler, Amazon.de $41.94. And the rest of the diaries (1918-1937) under way!


Wednesday, 9 October 2013

(Temporarily) Invisible Humanity


If you asked me what was the greatest thrill of getting my Ph.D. in 1957, it was not the two year Carnegie Postdoctoral Grant and it wasn’t becoming an assistant professor instantly at Penn, an Ivy League university. It was having the great jazz critic/Hunter College English professor Marshall Stearns’ inviting me and Nat Hentoff to his Greenwich Village apartment to plan the first Jazz Critics Symposium at George Wein’s innovative Newport Jazz Festival in 1958. 

I drove from Philly to Rhode Island, arriving around supper time at the Viking HQ Hotel. I was hungry as can be after a long summer drive—so I ordered a chicken dinner and scanned the program while I waited to eat. Who should appear almost immediately? The great jazz singer Mahalia Jackson! One look at my served chicken and she asked the waiter for “the same”! Alas, I had the last chicken! A Boy Scout with a merit badge in friendliness, I passed it over to Mahalia, who found it good to the last feather. I settled for a steak.
 
The next morning I took a hike around the fancy summer villas around the Bay,ending up in the press room to find who at the typewriter. None other than Ralph Ellison, whose prizewinning novel, “, a book that Invisible Man” ( 1952) had knocked me out in my American Lit course at the University of Detroit (1949). We gabbled friendly until he had to give a talk. I was in Seventh Heaven because I had decided if Marshall could be a Jazz critic and English professor simultaneously, so could I! These happy recollections brought me to a high psychic pitch. I was off to the races.

I was reminded of this joy as I read last week about the school board decision in Randolph, North Carolina to ban high school seniors from reading Ralph Ellison’s “Invisible Man”! The book was banned in all the county’s libraries. North Carolina used to be the most racially civilized sector of the Old South. Tea Party tactics? As one critic speculated, “There’s something sad and unsurprising about a Southern city, one where 90% of the residents identify as whites, banning “Invisible Man”, a book that actively explores the alienation of African Americans in white society. ‘I’m invisible, understand, simply because people refuse to see me.’” And even though the novel won the National Book Award in 1953, and the Library of Congress has praised it as one of the books that shaped America, a brilliant “critic” on the banning committee declared, "I can’t find any literary value.”

This whole scandal infuriated a N.C. migrant to New York City, one Evan Smith Rakoff, “Poets and Writers” magazine editor. Said he was a “deeply ashamed” to hear about the ban. "I follow news really closely and I often encounter these kinds of stories.” He told the Atlantic. But he found this story on the Facebook of a classmate who reported the news from the local "Courier-Tribune." Rakoff tweeted: “This saddens beyond measure. All should be ashamed.” The next day Salon critic Laura Miller suggested organizing a giveaway at an indie bookstore. Miller said Vintage Books was eager to help. High school students can pick it up free, and are!

It reminded me of an episode in my first year as a tenth grade teacher in E.Lansing High. I played for them Stan Kenton’s tribute to Jazz as an American art form. Parents of twins in my class grumbled to the principal! Whydya let my twins waste time with jazz when they could be reading. The students knew better. They understood that the concert was a metaphor for a democracy in which the performers agree on a key and tempo and then create together. They were preparing themselves for their weekly MSU TV program, "Everyman is a Critic”, where they dealt with one teenage leisure a week. I’m sad to say the father was a MSU professor. Specialty? An agricultural dictionary!

By the way, the Festival was great that year. At the last critic’s palaver, the semanticist running the show insisted that every person should comment. He saw Mahalia Jackson at the rear of the Aud, and shouted: “What do you make of our conference, Mahalia?” Silent pause. “I don’t knows what youse been talkin’ about.” Another pause. “But I sure do love jazz.” And so it goes.

Tuesday, 8 October 2013

The Duke Visits the World


Did you know that Duke Ellington visited Afghanistan fifty years ago this week? I didn’t, and I’m angry that I have to learn about his visit on BBC radio! Later the Duke was saying that his concert in Kabul, Afghanistan was the most memorable of his life. For the Afghan organizer, Faiz Khairzada, and the 5000 Kabul citizens who attended the concert free, it was a never forgettable experience. Dave Brubeck had pioneered jazz there in 1953.

He met Ellington at the plane and drove him across Kabul, which was not yet much of a city, to the stage he’d built at the Ghazi stadium. They chatted about Louis Armstrong and Khairzada told him about wanting to make Afghan films. Ellington promised: “You make the movie, kid, and I’ll do the music for it.” 

Ellington opened the concert with “Caravan”, followed by “Don’t Get Around Much anymore”! Between pieces, Ellington chatted with the Afghans that surrounded the stage. At the beginning of the trip that would take his orchestra to Egypt, Iraq, Jordan, Iran, and Lebanon. When they arrived in Turkey 22 November 1963 they learned the sad news that JFK had just been assassinated. The tour folded. 
 
Khairzada and many other young intellectuals shared a vision of an Afghanistan with open cultural borders. He set up an ambitious youth drama group that staged Tennessee Williams’ “A Streetcar Named Desire” which he had translated into Dari, the local language. He also booked the Joffrey Ballet, then based in New York whose leader Robert Joffrey was born Abdullah Jaffa Bey Khan. Joffrey gave a masterclass for kids in Kabul as well as a command performance. “We had perhaps the worst theatre in the world. It was winter and I collected all the heaters and stoves I could find to keep the dancers warm. But the performance was dazzling.”

But Soviet politics was catchimg up with Khairzada. On 28 April 1978, the Communist party Khaiq party staged a coup that led to Soviet invasion and a generation of war. He and his wife rushed to pick up their children from school and buy as much bread as they could. He managed to get his family out of Afghanistan, but he was under house detention. Disguised as a nomad and guided by a smuggler he walked for three days along the passes and over the Afghan border. The Khairzada family sought refuge in the United States. The whole house was looted including all his Duke Ellington LPs.

I can’t resist retelling my last contact with the Duke. I had taken my daughter to Trenton to catch her train back to college. Museums didn’t open until the early afternoon so I killed time by taking the elevator to the top of Trenton’s newest hotel to see if it was just as ugly on top. It was. But who popped in at the seventh floor? Duke Ellington. 

Amazed, I asked “Whatever are you doing in Trenton, noon of a Sunday?” “Honorary doctorate! Princeton this time!”, meaning you can stuff the zillions such from black college!” I reminded him how we had spent an evening in Dakar, Senegal, where I was filming the first World Negro Arts Festival in 1964.” He smiled softly in recollection. “And on Easter Sunday when you opened the concert with “Take the A Train”, I could hardly hold my camera steady”. 

He broke into a grand smile. “Where can I see that footage? And what is your name, again”. The elevator door opened, and he followed me to the registration desk, where I wrote my first(and last, it turns out) anti-autograph.” Dr.Patrick D. Hazard, Beaver College, Glenside, PA.” He thanked me sweetly and caught a taxi for Princeton. A Serendipitous Encounter, No?

Sunday, 6 October 2013

Surreal Estates: the Building Scandals of East India



The disasters get worse and more frequent. A factory collapses in Bangladesh! An “apartment” crumbles in Mumbai, India. 

The only thing these unacceptable human abuses have in common is their cheap solutions of manufacturing for mass markets in the “developed” world! 

A parallel moral disaster is the buildings of Qatar: “buying” a job to escape an underdeveloped home country followed by yielding passports to bosses, thereby incarcerating thousands of “builders”. 

Surely there must be legal ways to dis-incarcerate these new slaves. 

High rises in Dubai derive from the lowest illegal blows in history of the metropolitan “blooming” of these Middle East oilocracies. 

Who in the so-called “civilized” democracies are responsible for these inhumane abuses?

Friday, 4 October 2013

To Bee or Not to Bee: A Consternation

Accustomed as I’ve become to expect “Time” magazine covers devoted to some currently popular Personage,  the current issue (August 19, 2013) puzzled me: a tiny honeybee buzzing it on a deathly black background, boldly asserting A world without BEES: The Price We’ll Pay IF We Don’t Figure Out What’s Killing the Honeybee.”

Bryan Walsh began his fascinating six page cover story with this lead: 
You can thank the Apis Mellifera, better known as the Western honeybee, for 1 in every 3 mouthfuls of food you’ll eat today.” (p. 32.) Citing California almonds and Maine blueberries, he lauds the “unsung, unpaid laborers of the American agricultural system “for pollinating more than $15 billions to U.S. farming wealth” each year! 

A Whole Food store in Rhode Island asserted that of its 453 items, 237 vanished without the honeybee. As Hannah Nordhaus asserts in her book “The Beekeeper’s Lament” those tiny beasts “are the glue that holds our agricultural system together”.

Alas, in 2006,  commercial beekeepers started getting disturbing experience. Open a hive and find it full of honeycomb, wax, even honey, but NO BEES! Ag specialist devised an apocalyptic name forthis experience CCD (colony collapse disorder!)  Seven years later, the mystery persists. One third of U.S. honeybee colonies last winter died or disappeared, an increase of 42 over the year before. (In normal winters it had been losses of 10-15%.) There were just enough to service the almond $4 billion harvest. (Worth twice as much as California’s wine grapes!) Jeff Pettis the research leader at the U.S Department of Agriculture’s Bee Research Laboratory reported: “The take-home message is that we are very close to the edge,”

What was bugging these bugs? Agricultural pesticides was the first suspect. Especially the new chemicals in neo-necotinoids . Other researchers stressed bee-killing pests like the Varroa destructor,a parasitic mite accidentally introduced into the U.S. in the 1980’s. Others suspected bacterial diseases. So many possibilities seemed to some greens to suggest a second “silent spring”, to allude to Rachel Carson’s 1962 classic “The Silent Spring”. Others feared that an agricultural apocalypse.

It helps to remember that the guilty bee was imported animal didn’t afflict America until the 17th century. Then and there were plenty of flowers and bushes for the bee to be contented. Not the overbuilt of contemporary America .It was such a newly mysterious a business that the commercial beekeepers dropped three quarters in the past 15 years. Walsh writes a fascinating narrative of one Jim Doan who started keeping bees when he was 5! And why and how he quit in 2006.

He explains how different methods  used in controlling 140 different crops complicate the problem of protecting the honey bees. Doan showed Walsh many pollen samples that shows how many chemicals are complicating this battle for bees. He believes the neo-nicotinois are the problem and is in a lawsuit with other beekeepers who want the Environmental Protection Agency to suspend a pair of pesticides in the neo-nicotinoid class.

Those chemicals are known as systematics, i.e. the seeds are soaked in them before they are planted. Traces of those chemicals are passed on to the mature plant, including the pollen and nectar the bee is pursuing. They also interfere with bees flying and navigation skills. But all these chemicals are ubiquitous, a fancy word for “everywhere”! Recently a researcher discovered that bees’ pollen was contaminated on average with 9 different pesticides and fungicides.

The “evil” Varroa first noticed in 1987 has a sharp two-pronged tongue that can pierce a bee’s exoskeleton and suck its hemolymph, that is the bee’s “blood”.  And the Varroa in effect has a dirty hypodermic needle, spreading other diseases as he sucks. The possible sources of infection are so multiple that some beekeepers blame CCd on what they amusingly dub PPB, as in “piss-poor” beekeeping. Still since 2006,  10 million beehives have been lost ($2 billions worth!) If we loose the honeybee asset, don’t panic: “The backbone of the world’s diet, grains like corn,wheat and rice—is self-pollinating.”( p.36.)

Heh, things could be worse In June a Oregon landscaping team sprayed insecticide on trees killing 50,000 wild bumble bees. Indeed as many as 100,000 animal species die off each year! (No fanfare or funerals!)
This,” Walsh concludes,”is what happens when one species—that would be us—becomes so widespread that it crowds out almost and so dominant that it crowds out almost everything else” (p.37).

By all means don’t slide by the two pages of visual explanations (pp.34-35). For an underscienced humanist like me, it was a revelation! And the many ways our beekeepers are trying to protect their heritage are inspiring. A successful industrial civilization must remain a thoughtful one. Hail the “Time” cover that caught my eye.

Tuesday, 1 October 2013

Garrison Keillor, that Homey Prairie Companion


I’ve been a fan of the Wit of Saint Paul ever since my first son Michael moved there and was moved to marry a local. The marriage didn’t last long enough for me, even though that coupling gave me--after a nerve breaking wait--the loveliest granddaughter, Sonia, that could enchant--now finishing her doctorate in Christian Studies at Duke University. 

But I am distracted: Today on NPR’s “Weekend Edition”, Scott Simon let Keillor give us a taste of his muse! His amusing wit I was very aware of. But poems? How did I ever miss his piss. Like the following:

O What a Luxury
O what a luxury it is
How exquisite, what perfect bliss
So ordinary and yet chic
To pee to piss to take a leak

To feel your bladder just go free
And open up the Mighty Miss
And all your cares float down the creek
To pee to piss to take a leak

For gentlemen of great physique
Who can hold water for one week
For ladies with one quarter cup
Of tea can fill completely up
For folks in urinalysis
For Viennese and Greeks and Swiss
For little kids just learning this
For everyone it’s pretty great
To urinate

Of course for men it’s much more grand
Women sit or squat
We stand
And hold the fellow in our hand
And proudly watch the mighty arc
Adjust the range and make our mark
On stones or post for rival men
To smell and not come back again

Women are so circumspect
But men can piss to great effect
With terrible hydraulic force
And make a stream or change its course
Can put out fires or cigarettes
And sometimes
Laying down our bets
Late at night outside the
Bars
We like to aim up at the stars
©1999 by Garrison Keillor

Now I’m not going to let GK get pissed off by repeating the new poems he read to Scott Simon today on “Weekend Edition.” Let me just say that this one was piss poor compared with those he read today on September 28, 2013. Yes, I think they’re better. 

But yur analysis may be better than mine. Nevertheless, you’ll have to go to Amazon.com to buy “O, What a Luxury: Verses Lyrical, Vulgar, Pathetic & Proud”. Kindle $14.62 (Please don’t pee on the Kindle, you might begin to burn!), Hardcover ($13.74, Masturbation not implied?) Used (14 from $9.02, ahem!), ( 31 New, from $9.75, 73c for a fresh encounter?) Free (for all) on the “Prairie Home Companion” weekly romp.