Monday, June 9, 2014

Panem et Circenses part I.

Most of our ex-patriot friends in Umbria will disagree, and some will be appalled, but what I missed most during our six-week foray into the Homeland was our bread. Terni bread! Many Americans and other foreigners hate it, finding it too bland. It contains no salt and it becomes stale after about two days. Nevertheless, it goes well with many things already salty enough on their own, from prosciutto to stews to cheese, and it gets delivered to our village square every morning. We also have casareccio or Genzano bread, two varieties with salt and a heavy crust, for an occasional change of pace.

Our daughter Francesca, who lives in New Jersey, is an excellent cook and is not indifferent to anything related to food. She shops regularly at Whole Foods and Trader Joe's and she uses mostly organic foods. So far, so good. There is a vast variety of breads available in the US, with every imaginable type and combination of grains I've heard of, and some I never knew existed. Nevertheless, all those healthy Whole Foods breads we were exposed to had the taste and consistency of marshmallows blended with oatmeal.

My Luddite tendencies came to full full fruition with the introduction of the cellular telephone, a device I've learned to carry around unused, uncharged and, more often than not, turned off. On this trip I discovered that these tendencies run deeper than I'd imagined. My aversion to cell phones has now been matched by my disdain for sliced bread. Part of the pleasure of eating bread comes with the joy of cutting a slice or a chunk to the specifications of your immediate needs or desires. I've come to view bread slicers with almost the same contempt, although not the cold white hatred, I've always had for cars with automatic transmissions. Our entire family shuns pre-grated parmigiano but our American daughter goes one step beyond her parents by not owning a post-industrial revolution style cheese grater. She uses the finger grater variety, which takes about twenty minutes to grate a day's supply. You know you can't grate much more from a given piece of cheese when the grated stuff turns pink from the blood of your fingers.

The American relationship to food appears to be becoming schizophrenic. The corporate-owned Congress refuses to require or even permit the labeling of foods containing GMOs or most anything else. Something like 84% of food sold in American supermarkets is banned from sale in many other countries, notably Japan and the European Union. The FDA, originally established to protect American consumers, now mostly shills for the big Agro businesses in their quest for bigger profits, no matter the costs to the environment or human health. Secret trade agreements threaten to undo our last shreds of food safety. Given this climate, a large part of the public simply gives up, eating whatever is cheap and refusing to question what they're eating. The ever smaller part of the American public that can afford to be selective in its food purchases has grown more paranoid about what it eats. For companies, such as Whole Foods, which live off this anxiety, profits are up, as are prices, and they provide more and more choices for their increasingly nervous and demanding clientele.

On several visits to Whole Foods, I noted the availability of such essentials as: sweet potato corn tortilla chips; organic mild green Mojo green chilis with cheese and a hint of lime; organic lightly salted blue corn tortilla chips; three seed non-GMO savory dipping chips with Himalayan pink salt and Tellicherry cracked pepper- gluten free; vitamin water ZERO naturally sweetened fruit punch; organic anti-allergenic laundry detergent; soy or rice WHIP vegan dairy free no cholesterol; Vitality beverage at $3.79 for 10 oz in two flavors, pomegranate mint or blackberry hibiscus; organic energy shots in either chocolate raspberry or wildberry relish. You may have noticed that most of these items were in the “junk food” section. I was desperately searching for fried pork rinds, one of the diminishing number of typically American things that I still crave. Whole Foods failed me here but, thank the Lord, they were found at a more traditional supermarket. I suspect they're banned in Europe, although I'm not sure why. Perhaps they're fried in some popular variety of carcinogenic oil, or perhaps there's no pork in them at all and they're fabricated from processed GMO corn with petroleum based flavorings. Sometimes one just feels the need to live dangerously. Fried pork rinds satisfy that need in me. Fortunately, we have a contact in Naples who can feed my habit through the American PX.

While in the US, we got to see the movie, Food, Inc. It's well done, albeit chilling. Go see this film if you've decided to embark on a strict diet. You'll have an easier time renouncing most of the foods you may have been overindulging in. It definitely made us grateful that we'd be returning to Italy sooner rather than later.

It's all too easy to joke about what's going on in America with regard to food. In fairness, I should also take note of the changes that have occurred in the forty years since we left. Olive oil, parmigiano, decent coffee and fresh herbs were hard to find in most of the US in those days, and fresh vegetables were very limited. Now, everything grown or produced in the world is flown in from a place where it is currently picked, packed and processed, ideally by very low cost labor. Seasons have been abolished. This conforms to the venerated American tradition of extreme pendulum swings.

Tobacco use was almost obligatory until it became the nation's biggest killer. Now we try to confine sales to the third world. A concern with alcohol abuse led to the advent of prohibition in 1920, which in turn generated speakeasies and organized crime until the need for respite from the Great Depression, along with the weight of centuries of human tradition, led to repeal in 1933 and the restoration of alcohol as a legal tax paying growth industry. Marijuana, for which hundreds of thousands of people remain incarcerated, is in the process of becoming legal in the midst of the Great Recession. Weed may become a significant source of tax revenues but, given the privatization of our prisons and contracts with states to insure that they must be kept filled, most of those folks, especially the darker complexioned among them, won't be getting out anytime soon.   Asbestos was correctly regarded as a miracle product in the 40's and it was effectively used in nearly all building materials, until it was revealed as deadly to human health. The costs of its removal in renovation projects now threaten to exceed construction costs.

We would love to imagine that lessons were learned and that GMO foods could be limited, labeled or eliminated before millions ingest huge doses of GMO related pesticides and die as a result, just as other millions did before action was taken on tobacco and asbestos. Living in Europe, one is tempted to say that food corruption is just an American problem; let them stew in their own canola oil and eat their own pink slime, but this is a battle that won't respect national borders.

To those war lovers who advocate bombing Iran or closing in on Russia to make the world safer, I would suggest that you could more effectively turn your attention to the far more deadly sociopaths hanging out in St. Louis, in K Street lobby shops, and on Wall Street. War is hell. It shouldn't be wasted on the wrong targets.

Thursday, May 15, 2014

Panem et Circenses part 2 (part 1 wil follow)

We penetrated the Homeland frontier just a week before the Super Bowl was played in East Rutherford, NJ, in the new $1.2 billion MetLife stadium. Due to frequent
snow and what used to be known as polar weather before the poles melted, we didn't get out very much, except for a day or two in the metastasizing malls of Paramus. The Garden State Plaza was the largest shopping center in the East, perhaps in the world, when it was built, and since then it's only gotten bigger. It now has sections of valet parking for those intimidated by the vast parking areas or too infirm to walk from their outer reaches. While I've always disliked malls, I must admit that the vastness of the GSP, plus the rather tasteful paving used throughout, makes it one of the few places in northern New Jersey where you can go for a long and pleasant walk when the frozen snow covers everything outside. You only have to learn to ignore the shops.

I had hoped that the blizzard conditions would intensify, making the first cold weather Super Bowl an epic catastrophe with thousands of drunken fans overrunning local emergency rooms for frostbite relief but alas, the weather eased off for twenty-four hours and the blizzard conditions only returned after the game when disheartened Denver fans found themselves stranded by inadequate public transit and canceled flights. The game, even if not played in conditions banned by the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, was indeed a catastrophe. A friend of my son-in-law showed up to watch the game with us, bearing large quantities of pizza. Everyone but me was in the kitchen as the game got underway and after the first play from scrimmage, the score was already 2-0 Seattle.

This trip was full of nostalgia for me and this first play reminded me of my own aborted football career. As a fourteen year old true sophomore third string junior varsity quarterback aspirant I was inserted into the lineup for the final series of a hopelessly compromised late season game. Under pressure, on my first and only play, I threw the ball up in the direction I thought someone would catch it, just before being smothered by the entire defensive line. Indeed, someone did catch the ball and ran it back for a pick 6. The following season, just like one of my NFL favorites, Kurt Warner, I was stocking shelves at a supermarket after school, as well as becoming something of a beer expert. Unlike Kurt, I never got another chance at football, which was probably all to the good since even in college, beer connoisseur or not, my weight never surged beyond 160 lbs,(73 KG.).

Back at the Super Bowl, by the time the pizza was sliced, Denver was down 8-0 and the game continued its long downhill spiral. Peyton Manning won't be working in a supermarket next season. He'll be back, promoting nearly every product sold in the supermarket on TV, in addition to his day job of QB for the Denver Broncos for a cool $20 million. He's better than the game outcome suggested and I wish him well in his comeback from well remunerated humiliation.

The one positive from the game was that Mike Ditka, the Hall of Fame player and coach, and never known as a shrinking violet, agreed with me that playing a championship game on a February night in NJ was stupid and unfair to players and fans alike. I'm afraid Mike won't be back as an NFL TV commentator next season.

No sooner was the pizza consumed than the hype for the Winter Olympics grew to a crescendo. That's not unusual for a major TV sports extravaganza but the strange thing here was that the vast amount of promotion seemed to be about politics rather than sports. President Obama was apparently embarrassed by having had Vladimir Putin bail out Uncle Sam's ass by negotiating settlements with Iran and Syria to avoid yet more disastrous wars. Rather than showing some gratitude, the US Congress, the media and the administration launched a non-stop campaign of hate and ridicule against Russia. But then, Putin had also given asylum to Edward Snowden, the whistle-blower who had done the unforgivable by exposing crimes of the US Government against its people and its Constitution, and a crackdown on whistle blowers has been the one area where Obama has displayed a steely resolve. Putin may like to be photographed bare-chested but from all the
pictures in the news, you would think he never wore a shirt. Congressmen talked of boycotting the Olympics because Putin had announced policies nearly as hostile to gay people as those of Arizona Governor Jan Brewer. Obama made a point of neither attending the games himself nor sending anyone from his family or Administration, though he stopped short of an official boycott. He did appoint Martina Navratilova and Billie Jean King as official US emissaries to the Olympics in a “so there!” gesture.

During the anti-Russian campaign, the rock group Pussy Riot was also in the news. They were getting out of jail in Russia, where they had been for some months after convictions on charges of “hooliganism motivated by anti-religious hatred”. Meanwhile, back in the USA, three anti-nuclear peace activists, an 82 year-old nun and two men, 57 and 63 respectively, were up for sentencing. They had cut through security fences at an Oak Ridge, Tennessee nuclear weapon production and storage facility, hung banners and painted Biblical slogans on walls in blood. They were originally charged with misdemeanor offenses of trespassing and vandalism, for which they could have faced one year prison terms, but the Obama Administration, not to be outdone by Putin in cracking down on dissidents, upped the ante to multiple felony charges with potential sentences up to thirty-five years. By the way, these three terrorists breached the largest nuclear weapons facility without encountering any security personnel. To date we've heard of no prosecution for criminal negligence of any of the functionaries entrusted with security.

Vast media attention was given to the inadequacies of the Olympic planning and the quality and color of the drinking water in Sochi. This may have all been a smokescreen because while Putin was concentrating on keeping his games safe from Chechen terrorists, an alphabet soup of American agencies, including the CIA, FBI, NSA, NED, IMF and the State Department, was fomenting coups in Venezuela and Ukraine.. It didn't go as planned in Venezuela but with the help of Andriy
Parubiy and his neo-Nazi militia, they successfully staged a coup in Ukraine reminiscent of the earlier glory days in Iran and Chile. With the elected president chased out of the country, our man Yats was hastily installed to run the disfunctional country and see if IMF austerity will work better there than in Greece or Spain.

The opening ceremonies were splendid and temporarily muted the anti-Russian campaign. The Americans narrowly won the opening competition for most tasteless ceremonial outfits by wearing the American flag as seen by someone on LSD. The Germans took silver by flaunting a well-intentioned multi-colored homage to the rainbow coalition, which simply came off as garish and ugly.
The Irish olive drab military outfits with splotches of orange and green took the bronze. They were simply ugly.

We've enjoyed the Olympics and while we tend to appreciate great athletic achievement regardless of the nationality of the athletes, we were pleased to see the Russians do so well on their home turf in the face of so much hostility. Some Russian Olympians courageously offered up symbolic support for the beleaguered Pussy Riot. We waited in vain for some American athletes to indicate their displeasure with the brutal treatment of American political prisoners, but there are, after all, those Wheaties endorsements to think about. Seeing little Norway lead the medals chase in the early days was a cheerful surprise. As an American, I was happy with the remarkable successes of skiers Bode Miller, Mikaela Schiffren and Ted Ligedy but given the jingoistic mood in America, the failure of the US hockey team to reach the final brought more a sense of relief than disappointment.

The star of the Olympics for our family, in part due her strong physical resemblance to our five-year old grandson Willie, was the sixteen-year-old Russian figure skater, Yulia Lipnitsaya. 
She blew her chance for the gold in the women's finals, but her earlier routines simply lit up the games. The US gold medalists in ice dancing, Meryl Davis and Charlie White, were brilliant and dominated their event, but if ice dancing is a legitimate winter games sport, I see no reason why ballet performances should not be entered into competition at the summer games.

The biggest surprise of the games to this observer was the failure of the US team to succeed in those strange games which combine cross country skiing and shooting. Our skiers excel in the Alpine events as well as in the trick skiing and snow boarding events, and the US is the most heavily armed, gun-crazy nation on earth. Where was the NRA? How could they allow peace-loving countries like Norway and Germany to outdo us in gun-toting events?

The closing ceremonies were as impressive as the opening ceremonies, although they were spoiled somewhat toward the end by the appearance of cloyingly cute, enormous inflated bear, seemingly on loan from Disney studios. Nevertheless, the games did their job, entertaining the public and distracting it from the more serious competitions played out in the worlds of politics, economics and the military.

Wednesday, March 26, 2014

Return to the Homeland

In late January my wife and I were summoned to the Homeland to await the arrival of our seventh grandchild. Our function was to help feed, clothe and transport the pre-existing grandsons, Benjamin 6, and William 4, during the difficult period of adjustment to the arrival of a new competitor for the family's attention.

Given the ever more truculent attitudes of the Department of Homeland Security and its sister agencies, we weren't thrilled by the prospects of the trip. However, to be fair, most of the inconveniences we experienced were administered by the private sector, i.e. the airlines, and the airline manufacturers, but I'll save those details for another time. If you travel much these days, you already know that story.

By a strange twist of fate, our daughter Francesca and her husband Jim live in Glen Rock, New Jersey, the same little suburban town that I grew up in. They went out of their way to make us comfortable, even giving up their master bedroom for six weeks so that we could have more quiet and privacy. We certainly ate well and if my lack of exercise got me a bit out of shape, that was my own doing. We were greeted by lots of snow on the ground and a great deal more fell over the next couple of weeks. Temperatures remained mostly between 10 and 25°F so the snow never went away; it just turned into a brittle crust with rock hard mounds of ice where the snow had been plowed along the edges of the roads. I prefer to use metric units but these are temperatures I can't relate to in Celsius because we just don't experience them. We didn't get out much in these conditions but besides being a visit to our young family, this trip was a nostalgic and possibly ultimate return to my hometown. I enjoyed wandering around those old familiar streets. Toward the end, my brother came up from NC for a few days, until seeing us off at the airport, and we had a very pleasant visit with the Crolands, our parents' next door neighbors from forty years ago. Ironically, they had just visited Umbria, not far from us. They still live next to “my” old house. We also got to see my cousin Bev, up from Florida with her daughter Linda to clear out her mother's house. Aunt Ruth died a few weeks before our arrival, just a week short of her 104th birthday and only a few months after the demise of our stepmother, just short of her 99th birthday. Most people in Glen Rock go to Florida when the children leave but the ones who remain seem to thrive.
the six week norm

Our wonderful daughter Francesca has a few quirks. How could she be our daughter otherwise? We adapted easily to the idea of not wearing shoes in the house. It's not like Umbria, where we're in and out of the house all the time and doors and windows are open as much as they're closed. Alternating slippers with boots works just fine in the New Jersey winter. The idea of absolute silence in the house, except for child generated sounds, was a little more difficult to adjust to. Once I resorted to my ipod to get a little refreshing jolt of music but when told that the music leaking out of my earplugs was audible, I gave up further attempts. I alleviated my radio withdrawal symptoms by staying in the car a little longer after my school and shopping runs, and new hearing aids allowed me to hear the occasional TV feature at a volume acceptable to everyone else. At the other end of the aural spectrum, I warned the boys that they might never be able to to get a job as a spy for the CIA or NSA (the only sources of job growth on the horizon) if they couldn't learn to move around without anyone hearing them. For a moment it worked as Benjamin showed that he could tiptoe as quietly as a mouse. They do learn well, and their mother teaches them well. Both boys are not only bilingual but they have the skill and sense of humor enough to mimic and ridicule Americans saying spag├Ędy for spaghetti. When his grandmother suggested to Benjamin that some of his preferred foods were not the best, he replied “but Nonna, de gustibus non disputandus est”. Another time, hearing something described as “awesome”, his little brother Willie calmly said “but that word is overused”. Good boys!

Francesca also went on a fanatical cleaning spree in the two days before the birth of the baby, but I'm told that's perfectly normal. He was born more or less on schedule. My wife and I have always wanted a Tiberio. Our three children were all girls but decades later we pleaded in vain with them all for one of our grandchildren to be named Tiberio. Alas, the new baby is Alexander Tiberius! That was an even kinder and more generous gesture by Jim and Francesca than giving up their bedroom. The baby will hereafter be known by three names: (maybe four after he gets to school) He'll be Alexander to his father, Alessandro to his mother, and Tiberio to his grandfather. To resist the depredations of his lively siblings, who see him as a new toy, he'll need some of the qualities of his famous namesake, a victorious Roman general, who later became emperor following the early deaths of Augustus Caesar's intended successors, and then had the good sense to leave the power struggles of Rome to settle in Capri, where he reigned until his death at 77.


The rock which gave Glen Rock its name still sits in the glen, although it was called “Pamachapura” or “stone from heaven” by the local Lenape tribes long before white flight from Paterson and Brooklyn established Glen Rock as a suburban community a century ago. The other rock of stability in town is the Glen Rock Inn, not really an inn but a restaurant and bar. It's almost as old as I am and as a kid I remember going there for their sliced steak sandwiches. The menu has been embellished but they still serve them. The Quinn family is doing a fine job of keeping tradition alive. They even have an occasional jazz concert, a clear upgrade from the old days. Our second meal back in the US was a Sunday brunch there. Several weeks into our visit, when the sidewalks had been cleared sufficiently for me to brave the typical 20°F temperatures for the mile walk past the rock into midtown, upon entering, I was greeted by a lovely young woman behind the bar who introduced herself as Kimberly. Beyond serving the beer she helped me select, Kimberly saw to it that the closest of the many TVs was turned to an event I was interested in watching, and later brought out very good complimentary pizza to make my drinking experience more rewarding. Soon I was engaged in conversation with Pat Quinn, one of the senior members of the Quinn family. After I mentioned that I live in Italy, Pat revealed that while the Quinn side of the family is Irish, the maternal side is Italian, with Ligurian roots. Irish/Italian! What better combination could you ask for to run a drinking/eating institution?

The back room, mostly devoted to family dining, has several murals on the walls depicting local scenes. One is of the rock, which hasn't changed much over the past century. Another is of the Municipal Building, which sadly, hasn't fared as well as the rock. The surge in population from the 7000 of my youth to the current 11,000 necessitated a vast expansion of the police and fire department facilities. Funds were found for the construction but apparently not for design. The only other imaginable explanation for its appearance is that Glen Rock wanted to symbolically reflect the status of the US as the world's leading incarcerator of its own citizens.

The Municipal Building

Ackerman & Maple Avenues
Elsewhere in town I noted that despite Glen Rock being a pocket of affluence in the richest per capita state in the union (although some claim that it's second to Connecticut), its main streets, such as Maple Avenue, now sport monster phone poles to carry all the new telecommunications stuff. If Glen Rock can't bury its utility lines, who in the world can? The intersection of Maple and Ackerman Avenues, shown in the photo above, is where many years ago, when we were in the sixth grade, my old friend Bobby Alther and I donned our white shoulder stripes four times a day and served as crossing guards. We couldn't stop traffic but just made sure that the little kids crossed only when the traffic light was green. The present day crossing guards are roughly my age. I don't know if they're volunteers or are paid. Of course, we were volunteers, but I suppose that our not being paid would constitute child exploitation today, or worse, taking jobs away from old people in need. More importantly, there really is no need for crossing guards now. The kids are are driven to and from school.

Learning to drive the family school bus did take a bit of time. There's nothing to the actual driving, but to avoid confusion, I made a little chart of all the controls for opening windows and doors, locking mechanisms, HVAC and sound systems, about thirty in all. The front seat alone has four beverage holders, possibly useful for mobile wine tastings. Sequence is important. Neither windows nor doors can be opened until the transmission is put into park and an unlock button is pushed prior to the doors being opened. Nevertheless, despite all the fail/safe procedures I was startled on several occasions by my young charges reminding me with a tone of
child pick-up/delivery at Byrd School
mild rebuke that I'd driven off without closing the big rear doors. These ubiquitous vehicles are officially called mini-vans, although as a former owner of a European Mini, the significance of “mini” is lost on me. They are useful however, given today's requirements for children's car seats. We did see one man in the neighborhood, a former Marine and throwback to an earliertime, who actually walked his kids to school.

We met several old friends from New York who braved the traffic to come out to the Glen Rock Inn, and we talked to many, many more on the phone but sadly, we missed seeing most of the people we'd hoped to see. We'll await their visits to Italy. I did manage to spend one pleasant afternoon at Minerva's drawing studio in Soho and on the way back stopped to see the restaurant of the son of the Widmanns, our Umbrian neighbors. Their son, Sebastian, wasn't there and among my other organizational failings, I never managed to get together with friends for a meal there, although the place is appealing and seems to be staffed by young Italians. If you happen to be in New York, try it, Malaparte on Washington St and Bethune in the West Village.

Since the Constitution was rescinded, my enthusiasm for life in the United States has waned but my two great American passions, football and jazz, remain. I'll get to football in a future post on bread and circuses. The motive for this trip was simply grandchildren, but jazz did furnish a secondary theme.

I've known Bruce Lundvall since I was about 14 years old. He hung out with my friend, Don Dewar who lived just across the street. They were both a year older so I wasn't among their tight circle of friends. Despite a few ill-considered trips with my own high school classmates to hear the likes of Henry Red Allen and Peanuts Hucko and drink too much beer at the Central Plaza, my enthusiasm for jazz didn't really take off until we were all away in college, so I didn't realize what an obsessive jazz nut Bruce was until I ran into him a few times at jazz clubs in New York, and even once in Stuttgart after a 1959 JATP concert. I kept up with Bruce's progress through Don (as well as reading LP liner notes) and when I returned to NY in 1997 to work for a few years, I was determined to reconnect with him. It turns out we worked in the same building. Bruce's passion for music had served him well. He had risen to become president of Columbia Records, then founder and president of the Electra Musician label, and finally in 1984, was brought in to preside over the resurrection of the legendary Blue Note label as its president. He spent his career working with people I thought of as gods.

Shortly before our arrival, Bruce's biography, Bruce Lundvall, Playing By Ear, came out. Fast delivery of merchandise is one other good thing about the US so I got a copy and arranged to visit Bruce. I failed to coordinate that with his wife Kay so when I got there, cleaning ladies were cleaning and Bruce was about to be whisked away for a doctor visit. Bruce has some health problems and gets around in a wheelchair these days. We just had time to exchange a few words and for him to sign my book but it was good to see him again, however briefly. The book is a fascinating study of the musicians Bruce worked with and the Byzantine workings of the music business.

A few days later I went to New York for some jazz. The PATH station at the World Trade Center was closed for the weekend to allow construction so I missed my chance to see what had become of the area where I had worked until September 11th 2001. Having plenty of time, I stopped at another old haunt, the White Horse Tavern, just around the corner from where I once lived on West 11Th Street. The White Horse hasn't changed much since Dylan Thomas drank himself to death there but it's now surrounded by boutique bars filled with yuppies drinking exotic, overpriced cocktails. I decided to walk uptown, taking the opportunity to walk the length of the Highline, the new park created on the abandoned, elevated railway line running up the west side through Chelsea. It's scenic and pleasant, an interesting idea well executed.

Around New Years I spoke with vibraphonist Joe Locke in Orvieto where he was playing at Umbria Jazz Winter. When I mentioned that I'd be in the New York area soon, he said he'd be playing at Dizzy's Club Coca Cola and I could come as his guest. I took him at his word. He was playing for three nights with the Dexter Gordon Legacy Band, organized by pianist George Cables, who played with Dexter during his return to the US from Europe in the 80's. Dizzy's Club is a splendid jazz room in the sleek Time Warner Center on Columbus Circle, spacious but not too big, with the musicians performing in front of a two story glass wall overlooking Central Park. The staff is pleasant and efficient and the patrons friendly and appreciative. Doors open 90 minutes before the first set so there's time to eat and drink before the music starts. Maxine Gordon, who had been Dexter's wife and agent, was in the audience, as were Angela Davis and the French director or producer of Round Midnight, the film for which Dexter won an Oscar nomination as best actor. The music was wonderful, with Joe Locke as brilliant as ever in a context a bit different from his own groups. Jimmy Heath appeared for that one night as guest artist. Among the tunes they played was Ginger Bread Boy, which I'd
Jimmy Heath & George Cables
forgotten was one of his many great compositions, since I mostly associate it with the Miles Davis rendition. After the set I spoke briefly with Joe Locke who told me that Bruce had been in the Club a couple of nights before. That surprised me at first but it shouldn't have. Dexter Gordon was probably the musician that Bruce had been closest to. I shared the ride back to NJ with a trainful of sad-faced NY Rangers fans. The conductor and I were the only ones on the train not wearing Rangers shirts. I've always been a Rangers fan myself but it just heightened my sense of pleasure that I was coming from Dizzy's and not the Garden on this particular night.

The third round of my jazz adventures came on a visit to my radio station in Newark, WBGO. I say my station because it's a Public Radio Station and I've been a member for years. WBGO, while operating in Newark, is effectively the 24 hour jazz station for the New York metropolitan area, and through its webcasting, the entire world. I got to the station just after 10:00 AM and Gary Walker, who had just finished his stint on the air, was walking out the door. I stopped him and told him that while he didn't know me, I felt like he was one of my best friends since I've listened to him nearly every day for many years. We had a nice talk. I had a longer talk with Dorthaan Kirk, who does know me. She's in charge of various community events at the station, including the exhibits in the station's art gallery. I'd talked to her ten years ago about having a show there but before it could happen, I was back in Italy. The current show is by an artist from LA named Ramsess. He works in various media but his ink drawings of musicians are particularly beautiful. I believe Dorthaan has been at the station since its start thirty-five years ago. Besides her work there, she organizes concerts at Dorthaan's Place in the NJPAC down the street, and other monthly concerts at her church. She's the widow of Rahsaan Roland Kirk and was about to leave for Austin, Texas where a documentary film on Rahsaan, The Case of the Three-Sided Dream was going to have its premier at the SXSW festival. It will then go to various major cities. It may be difficult to find in Umbria, but one way or another I will get to see that film.

WBGO runs a Kids Jazz Spring Concert Series in various venues in Newark. They're free for whoever brings a kid. Joe Locke will appear with his quartet, Force of Four, at one of these concerts on Saturday April 12 at 12:30 (be there at 12:00!) in the Victoria Theater at NJPAC. I've always been grateful that I've had the opportunity to hear nearly all of the jazz greats of the second half of the twentieth century. Most of them are no longer with us. Fortunately, we do have many great musicians in the twenty-first century. Joe Locke is one of them. If you're in the area, take your kid to this concert. S/he'll always be able to look back and say “I saw Joe Locke perform in 2014”.

Monday, February 3, 2014

Sub-cultures and Polarization

We all identify with an array of sub-cultures, some of which we're born into and some which we enter by choice.  Those based on race, ethnicity and sexual predilections are hard to change, but to some degree even that can be done.  For example, Barack Obama was born in Hawaii, an unusually multi-racial state and raised by his white grandparents.  As a young adult, curious about his missing African father and probably baffled about being regarded as something other than a regular American, he decided to move to Chicago and become black.  It's been a useful political ploy.  It's unlikely that the Hawaiian vote would have carried Illinois and Michigan for him.  Ted Cruz has undergone a similar transformation.  Born a wealthy Cuban-Canadian, he moved to Texas and has spent his life transforming himself into a prototypical radical right wing redneck.  He no doubt hopes that his move will have similar political benefits and that operating from Tom DeLay's state will give him immunity from inconvenient laws, such as the constitutional requirement that US presidents be native born. 

Religious and political affiliations can be modified a little more easily but often trace elements remain. Lapsed Catholics tend to retain some of the qualities of charity and empathy they grew up with, although many also display a ferocious anti-clerical bias.  Most Jews that I know have little or no religious faith but their sense of Jewish identity remains strong.  We lapsed Protestants have little of that continuing tradition but underneath the skin, some instilled traits remain.  Growing up in the Dutch Reformed Church, which reformed itself into merger with the  Presbyterians, I've considered myself to be totally reformed.  The central tenets of Calvinist Protestantism are that people are predestined by God to be saved or not.  You can recognize the chosen people by their good works, a dogma which has stimulated a lot of good works as well as promoting a tendency to examine other people and try to determine if they're worthy of  Heaven or Hell.  I can recognize the persistence of the latter trait in myself.  People born into no religious affiliation whatsoever usually just settle into the large secular humanist subculture but having a relative lack of group identity, they may have a stronger tendency to be attracted to more esoteric or exotic subcultures such as such as  Objectivism, Scientology  or Buddhism.

As we grow up, we acquire tastes and preferences and we enter a field of work.  All of these choices place us in other  sub-cultures.  Identification with such groups simplifies our lives, lending us pre-fabricated values, customs and opinions, along with a sense of solidarity and comfort.  I've made a chart showing a few of the most visible sub-cultures and some of the most common links between them.  Just add a hyphen and the word culture to any of the names on the chart.  Many people may object  to the links I've shown, but they're not intended to be absolute, just trends.  Thus, while not all basketball players are black, not all opera buffs are gay, and not all people who listen to AM radio are rednecks, the convergence in each case defies statistical probability.  I've listed some groups we routinely belong to, based on race, religion, political affiliation, sexual predilection, professions, and preferences in sports, music, media and pets.  I haven't bothered with class, which may be the most important but is the least discussed.

Some sub-cultures have strong links to others but, more commonly, the groups we identify with tend to form clusters.  Sometimes the clusters derive from physical proximity, such as is found in segregated communities, ranging from inner city ghettos to gated communities for wealthy white retirees, but that's not always the case.  I've lived for many years in New York City at different stages of my life and I don't recall ever meeting, or having anything to do with, a Republican there, and New York City has had Republican mayors for the past twenty years.  Clearly, there are a lot of NY Republicans who haven't come out of the closet, or just never allow themselves to be seen among the normal people.  Similarly, I have a surprising number of friends in Texas and, as Democrats, all seem to embody the original spirit of the Alamo, i.e. an outgunned, outnumbered, but defiant, endangered species.

Most sub-cultures develop secondary characteristics which often have little real connection to their essence.  For example, in the golf culture, men often wear yellow plaid trousers, something that would be frowned upon elsewhere in polite society.  Such secondary characteristics often generate prejudice in people outside the group.  The sight of those yellow trousers can induce a strong reaction in people who have absolutely nothing against the game of golf.  Our society is polarized as never before.  We may have  issues with golf; it does use up a lot of scarce water resources and so forth, but it's a healthy game that promotes walking.  We shouldn't let ourselves get over-agitated by those yellow pants.  Likewise, lots of people enjoy guns and often belong to the NRA.  Most of the members are fine folks and just because some of their spokesmen have a habit of saying things that make them appear to be genetically modified monsters, we shouldn't assume that the members are all potential mass murderers, just waiting their chance.

The intensity of our identification with the many sub-cultures we belong to can vary considerably.  Thus a Jewish golfer may feel strongly about his Jewish heritage, while having only a casual approach to the game, or it could be the exact reverse.  He may wear the yellow pants but never a yarmulke.  It's hard to say if living comfortably nested within communities of like-minded people makes one more or less intense in one's group identities.  I tend to think it makes one more relaxed and comfortable in them, while promoting the presumption that, more or less, everybody is just like them.  My personal experience is unusual, though hardly unique, in its immersion in a number of rather dissimilar sub-cultures.  I live in a tiny Italian village, populated almost equally by wild boar hunting villagers and ex-patriots from all over the world.  Secondary characteristics of the hunters include wearing the illogical combination of camouflage fatigues and fluorescent vests, maltreatment of hunting dogs, and the almost universal tendency to drive small Suzuki jeeps.  The women  go to church (there is only the Catholic Church) while mostly the men do not, except for holidays and funerals.  Their political views range across a wide spectrum from left to right but they remain unified in a debilitating cynicism and passivity with regard to politics and politicians of every stripe. The ex-pat community used to consist mainly of artists, writers, journalists, etc. and many were Americans.  In recent years there are more retirees from a greater variety of countries and professions but the group is still mostly made up of liberal, secular humanists whose politics hue to the orthodox progressive center left.  Many are ex-smokers.  None are ex-drinkers.  A defining element of faith is that Silvio Berlusconi is the worst thing to happen to Italy since the papacy was established in Rome.  Being married to an Italian, whose only acknowledged sub-culture affiliations are with the pro-life culture and with the legion of cat lovers, helps me to bridge some of the cultural divides, although the pro-life stance has led to a number of awkward silences within the circle of progressive friends.  The cat-culture instead, is a uniter, as I am a veteran member, along with countless friends and neighbors from both factions of the community.  While Calvinist origins might seem to be in conflict with Catholic origins, we've managed to produce a reasonably large and growing Catholic family and found some common ground.  On the rare occasions that I'm dragged to a mass, I share the preferences for Latin masses and Gregorian music of the (discredited) LeFebvre  wing of the Church,  favored in the family.

Contact with other sub-cultures, which I might only hear about in the news, comes through members of the family living in the US in a tight cocoon of the radical right, linked to everything from the Tea Party to the military industrial complex, to the alternate reality of Fox News.  If my own Calvinist roots show through in a judgmental temperament, here the idea of a God's chosen people is taken to lengths that might even make Calvin blush.  Strangely, while promoting ideological doctrines of intolerance, greed and exclusivity, most of the family appears to be friendly, generous and helpful.  I'm not sure that anyone in the family even owns a gun.  However, sometimes that generosity extends to forwarding emailed items from friends who are apparently card carrying remnants of the Klan and the NRA.

Most of the polarization of the American public is generated by the class war, a sort of stealth war, in that it's rarely mentioned in the media.  Other social issues are openly polarizing the public.  Most are sex related, with about half the public advocating for freer sex and half working to constrict it.  The 60's saw the sexual revolution, with the arrival of places such as Plato's Retreat, where swinging couples or singles could connect with strangers for anonymous sex.  Gay bath houses sprung up to provide a similar function for the gay community.  Most of these establishments were shut down in the wake of  the AIDS epidemic of the 80's but it seemed that the institution of marriage was on the rocks.  More children were born out of wedlock than in it, and that situation has persisted.  One supposes that aging swingers were reabsorbed into the mainstream but, with the failure of American social policies to provide adequate health care and pensions independent of continuous employment, the gay subculture has embraced the formerly moribund institution of marriage to soften the adversities of old age.

Before coming to be known as a coalition, the LGBT coalition just seemed to be another group of people discriminated against because they didn't conform to the “norm”.  Since attaining a strong group identity and Hollywood support, the coalition's major tangible success has been gaining full acceptance in the military.  How this will work out long term is anybody's guess.  Will the military become more sensitive and nuanced or will legions of particularly aggressive lesbians be recruited to administer our on-going enhanced interrogations of “terrists” and whistle blowers?  Will veteran Marines organize into secret militia groups to overthrow the government or will barracks become the new century's equivalent of the bathhouses of SF and the Village?

Another traditional macho sub-culture is also facing some tensions.  Professional sports. Lesbians have emerged in tennis and basketball to the point where they're old news.  The occasional gay basketball or football player is trickling out into the sports pages but that will soon not be an issue.  However, in a society of rapidly accelerating divides between the rich and the poor, people of color remain disproportionately plagued by poverty, unemployment and the highest rate of incarceration in the world.  With a few exceptions, such as auto racing and hockey, in most professional sports the majority of the athletes are black, or from other minorities.  It wasn't always so.  In my youth an absurdly disproportionate number of football players were Polish kids from the steel mill and coal mining areas of Western Pennsylvania.  Today's players of all colors have adopted secondary traits of the prison culture, from music to speech to appearance, perhaps out of a sense of solidarity with their less fortunate brothers, or perhaps just reflecting their origins.  We've all learned to revere celebrity and while our reverence for money knows no limits, the trappings of the prison culture flaunted by the sports lottery winners does create a bit of tension in the remnants of the more traditional sub-cultures.  Seriously folks, if  one of two men, either Dennis Rodman or Jamie Dimon, showed up at your door one night,  which one would you be more likely to open the door to?  Both have been big winners in the lottery economy; one blessed by size and talent, the other with supernatural greed and cunning.  My guess is that in most homes the amiable but grotesque ex-basketball star would receive a less enthusiastic welcome than the slick bankster who contributed to the collapse of the economy, unless of course, Dimon was wearing yellow plaid pants.  

As players grasp their status as winners in the big lottery, whatever solidarity they display in their demeanor seems to fade when it comes to addressing the bizarre social conditions of the country from which they've emerged.  I haven't noticed a Sean Penn, a Matt Damon or a Robert Redford in their midst, but that may be because the players work for a large and powerful organization, rapidly growing into a major actor in the military industrial complex, that can terminate their services, and their careers, at will.  To be fair, many players do a lot of community service work and most high NFL draft choices buy houses for their mothers with their signing bonuses.  Indeed, the more successful retired stars do prop up another fading industry by donning bespoke suits, otherwise worn these days by only wizened oligarchs, to promote their sport on TV.  (The young silicone valley tycoons continue to favor gym suits.)  Still, one wonders when the legions of fans who spend long hours on the internet complaining that team owners aren't paying their favorite players the $10 million or so that "they're worth" discover that their own food stamps are being cut off, along with their mothers' unemployment checks, how long will it take before a backlash sets in.

The Roman Catholic Church has been a defender of the status quo and its ruling institutions for centuries.  It's hard to determine whether the Church or the CIA has been more instrumental in keeping all those Fascist regimes in power in Latin America and elsewhere for so long.   A monkey wrench has just been thrown into the gears of the Church.  A new Pope has scandalized the world by repeating the words of Jesus Christ in public.  Catholic bankers and corporate executives are growing apoplectic and congressmen are calling for investigations into our relations with the Vatican.  Some "progressives", who have never had anything do do with the Church other than to oppose it, continue to unself-consciously demand that the Pope become more progressive, more feminist, and generally more attuned to their personal anti-Catholic agendas.

We haven't noticed much of a similar shift among Protestant leaders.  There are exceptions such as Jim Wallis of the peace movement and the former right wing evangelical spokesman Frank Schaeffer, who switched to become a socially progressive Greek Orthodox writer and lecturer.  For every one like them, there seem to be ten Texas fundamentalists aligning themselves with Israeli hawks in hopes of speeding up the arrival of the Rapture by bombing Iran.

Libertarians, a sub-species of the right, are questioning frivolous and expensive military adventures and protesting the surveillance state, a position that seemingly would drive them into the arms of the Democratic Party, if it were not for the new-found love of so many Democratic leaders for Fascist values and corporate money.  At times it appears we're on the brink of a new civil war.  With luck, it may be confined to the libertarian and corporate wings  of the of the Republican Party, with the battlefields limited to Kentucky and the respective militias commanded by Generals Paul and McConnell.

Our perceptions are altered to some degree by our identification with sub-cultures and their shared values, but lately, in our polarized, stratified and segregated clusters, we've attained a disturbing flight from reality.  President Obama is regarded by hard core Republicans as a black Muslim Fascist-Marxist bent on establishing Sharia law.  Women on Fox News, the pre-eminent Republican sounding board, urge President Obama's impeachment over "Benghazi", a "scandal" manufactured by the network, and for his enactment of Obamacare, the health care plan devised by the conservative Heritage Foundation to enrich the medical insurance industry and road tested by Governor Mitt Romney in Massachusetts.

Progressives are appalled by these heresies.  Many of us were eager to see Bush impeached for war crimes and a long list of crimes against humanity far worse than promoting universal health care.  Objectively, Bush was every bit as bad as we thought but our liberal circle is convinced that Obama, being a well-spoken black Democrat, is better, despite his continuation, and sometimes extension of of Bush's unconstitutional policies.  He has outdone Bush in domestic spying and in the persecution of whistle blowers (while refusing to heed the whistles).  If the Supreme Court has set the stage for a Fascist takeover of the US with its Orwellian Citizens United landmark decision, Obama's TPP negotiations are working in secrecy to put the nails in the coffin of American democracy.  Nevertheless, it's mostly all quiet on the liberal front.

In the artsy, secular Democratic sub-culture I most closely identify with, everyone takes it as a matter of faith that George W. Bush was an arrogant moron who did unspeakable damage to the country and the world.  However, our knee-jerk revulsion at his mangling of the English language, challenged but never topped by Sarah Palin, has led us to undervalue his skills and his achievement.  W was a more successful con artist than even the great Bernie Madoff.  Look at their outcomes.  Bernie lost everything and is due to spend the rest of his days in prison while George paints self-portraits in his Dallas studio, only mindful to avoid speaking engagements in countries where he might be arrested.

Born into a family of privilege, the son of a future CIA director and American president, and grandson of an early Nazi sympathizer who made a smooth transition into venerable Senator from Connecticut, Bush followed his noteworthy ancestors through prep school to the stately halls of Yale, and then beyond to Harvard.  In the interests of bi-partisan fairness it must be noted that the elite group of people attracted to the harnessing of the power of monopolistic corporations to the military industrial state in the 30's included the Duke of Windsor and Democrats Averill Harriman and Joe Kennedy.   Somewhere along the way, perhaps under the heretofore unrecognized influence of Lee Strasberg, Little George took up method acting, assuming a role he would inhabit for the rest of his life, a dim-witted character, seemingly born in Dogpatch, that polar opposite of Lake Wobegon, where all the children are above average.  George was more convincing in this role than Bill Clinton, who was actually born in Dogpatch.

Half of the US population believes that both evolution and climate change are hoaxes perpetrated by Marxists or other of the devil's workers.  Convincing the entire nation that he was just an innocuous good ole boy red neck who anybody could enjoy going out for a beer with, W gained undying support from the damaged half of the populace, even after his policies resulted in the loss of their jobs, their savings and sometimes their homes.  Despite his public persona, George never took his eye off the ball, furthering his grandfather's agenda with every decision he took, raising the dominance of the 1% to levels unknown since the onset of the Great Depression.  He fooled the rational half as well, convincing them that everything bad that happened was Cheney's doing.

None of our greatest actors, from Marlon Brando, Robert De Niro and Rod Steiger to Laurence Olivier or Alec Guinness has ever played a role so convincingly for so long.  Let's put aside our sub-culture pre-conceptions for a moment and join together to give George W. Bush an award for lifetime achievement in the field of acting, at the up-coming Oscar ceremonies.

Saturday, January 4, 2014

Play-Off Time

an evening's entertainment in Green Bay
The NFL play-offs are about to get under way. Weather forecasts call for 25°F (-4°C) in Philadelphia Saturday night while on Sunday night in Cincinnati the temperature should remain around 32°F (0°C) but with some precipitation, either snow or freezing rain. Slightly earlier, but still mostly in the dark, the SF 49ers will come from the balmy Bay Area to play Green Bay in 0°F (-18°C) weather with a wind chill factor making it feel like 18° below zero (-27°C)

Many of you may not care about the play-offs, or may not even notice, but I imagine that among you a few others, like myself, will be glued to the TV for the next few weekends. I've been a football junkie for a long, long time. For the non-addicted, football may be confusing and hard to follow, but for those who get into it, the subtleties and the complexity of the game continue to enchant. Football (i.e. American football) resembles a giant chess game with opposing players (coaches) directing their forces just as chess players move their pieces, each of which has a different function, size, speed, and movement. It's also reminiscent of how the Army was described back when I was there in the days of the draft: an organization, designed by geniuses to function effectively when run by idiots. Football players are not idiots but they don't need to be intellectuals either. The coaches, if they're to be successful, need to be considerably more clever than their post-game interviews would ever lead you to believe they are.

Pro football players have survived what may be the most selective, competitive process in the world, far more selective than any Olympic trials. They've had to stand out on their high school teams to get into college programs where they've competed with thousands of other college players just to get a chance to compete for one of about 70 places (54 on game day) on one of the 32 pro teams. 224 players are selected in the annual NFL draft and a few dozen undrafted players manage to get tryouts. After being signed, when they don't perform up to the level expected of them, they're unceremoniously cut. If our presidents, senators, congressmen and bank presidents had to survive a similar screening, the country would probably be in better shape. Still, football is as much of a lottery economy as the general economy has become. For every NFL star making millions of dollars, there are thousands of players, almost but not quite as good, who give their all to their alma mater, working full time at the sport for three to five years and often often not even getting a degree to show for it. The players' sense of entitlement is far more reasonable than that of typical lottery winners and most express gratitude for their opportunity to compete. A few, whose ego/intellect quotient exceeds the norm, find ways to get themselves in trouble with the law or with the league's substance abuse regulations. While there have been many occasions of DUI arrests of players, it's hard to recall instances of players using their celebrity status to speak out on issues that might offend their team owners.

In recent years the packaging and promotion of the game have grown. More people watch pro football and ever more money is involved. The growing industry has spawned a legion of pseudo employees who work on the periphery, from the assistant coaches (about one for every two or three players) to the ever larger number of ex-players who cover the games on TV, to the “journalists” who report on the teams. The “journalists” are little more than press agents who inflate the importance of every game and the unique skills of the players, all of whom, as in Lake Wobegon, are far better than average. Their interviews invariably consist of questions such as “How does it feel to have scored that touchdown?” or “What does it mean to you to be playing your former team?” The players and coaches, some of the country's youngest millionaires, do their best in enduring these interviews, which may be the most tedious parts of their jobs.

Team owners mostly fall into two categories. Some have been born into it, i.e. they've inherited their teams from fathers or grandfathers who got in at the beginning. Others are self-made billionaires whose trophy wives just aren't enough to boost their already gargantuan egos so they had to go out and buy themselves a team. The oligarch owners, never content with the vast cash flow they receive from TV revenues and ticket sales, extort public funds for lavish new stadiums by threatening to move their teams to other cities willing to give them even more money and tax breaks. The new stadiums tend to feature lavish boxes for those who can afford their stratospheric prices or write them off as business tax deductions. Stadiums built for the Dallas and New York teams recently have each cost more than $1 billion.

the Super Bowl site
The NFL, and now the NCAA too, gets its vast revenues from TV. Since more people watch TV in the evening than in the afternoon, more and more games are scheduled at night, even in December, and January. Works OK in Miami and and in San Diego, but for every Tampa Bay in the league, there are several Cincinnatis and Chicagos. Screw the fans! If they're dumb enough to pay to sit in those conditions, they're morons, and most likely drunken morons, anyway. The “journalists” keep brainwashing the public with stories about how it's definitive football when the weather turns really nasty, and sure enough, thousands of the sheep-like fans appear to be numb enough to go along. Inevitably, numbers of them show up at sub-freezing game sites exposing their painted faces and bare beer bellies to the gaze of the TV cameras.

What about the players, don't they complain? Not much. Few want to bite the hand that feeds them so well after all the effort they've made to get there. It's hard to generate much sympathy for young men who can get a million dollars or more to play a game lasting about three hours, even if the conditions are barbaric. The actual action in these games takes about 40-45 minutes, and the defensive and offensive squads split that time. TV, being the paymaster, requires frequent commercial breaks so every few minutes, sweating 300 pound men must stand around on the frozen field in sub-zero nighttime temperatures for two and a half minutes until the whistle signals the end of the commercials. The chilled public gets to be entertained and/or numbed in these intervals by high volume non-musical music. This year's Super Bowl will be played in the new Giants-Jets stadium in East Rutherford, New Jersey, where the temperature is about 17°F as I write and there is something like 7 inches of snow on the ground. What a treat for the players to make it to the biggest game in football, the apex of their athletic careers! These players are competitors by definition and I suppose the competitive fires burn brightly in some, but who could blame a veteran making five or eight million dollars a year if he's just as content to end his season without having to go through the agony of the play-offs.
the original Ice Bowl

As I've said, football is a great sport and the players are splendid athletes. Shouldn't they be able to compete in in an environment that allows them to play at their highest level? No?  Then how about rescheduling Wimbledon to January and letting Roger Federer and Raf Nadal battle for the title on a snow covered court, or running a Nascar race in a tornado? I'm sure that these and other similar maneuvers could really give ratings a boost!

A backlash is coming. Tickets are not selling out for play-off games in Green Bay, Cincinnati and Indianapolis, with the attendant threat of TV blackouts for the home audience. Some people have apparently come to the conclusion that watching the game at home beats paying $100 to $300 (or much more on the black market for sold out games) to sit outside in a nighttime blizzard for three and a half hours. It is not all that remarkable in this time of deep recession and high unemployment, that there are not 70,000 cheeseheads both willing and able to afford to be out there.

We wish you a happy new year and that your area will not be subject to blackout.