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.

Wednesday, November 20, 2013

Drawing People

I've been drawing people all my life. Why do we draw people? I don't know, any more than I know why we make music, play games, or have pets. It seems to just be a part of human nature. Prehistoric men drew on the walls of caves, although from what's been left, they were apparently more interested in other animals than their own kind.

One of the better things about the school system here in Italy is that in elementary schools kids learn to draw, just as they learn to read and write and count. Drawing is perceived as another basic skill and means of communication. I don't recall much of that emphasis on drawing in the USA. As a kid, I went to church with my father every Sunday and spent the hour, or at least the parts where we weren't supposed to pray or sing hymns, drawing on the borders of the church bulletins. I tended to favor images of football players in action over Biblical figures.

After quietly accepting her abject failure in trying to teach me to play the piano, my mother went with the flow and sent me to an art school in my early teens. Although I was eager to paint, the school insisted that first we learn to draw, so I spent many afternoons learning how to render geometric shapes, from fruit to vases to classic busts. The discipline was good and there was even some satisfaction in it. However, drawing people (and other animals) is both more challenging and more fun. The subjects move, which creates much of the challenge, and they also change expression, which has a lot to do with the added satisfaction.

Many drawings of people are simply made up, based on observation and some acquired knowledge of anatomy, while others are remembered images. Both approaches can be enhanced by drawing people live. Shown here is the frontispiece of the book 90 Secondi all'inferno, with images drawn by Francesco Chiacchio, one of the best, among people I've met, at spontaneous drawings of remembered images.

Over a lifetime I've found a few ways to indulge my predilection for drawing people. Many years ago I visited my friend Ed Wallace in Germany, where he was studying in Tuebingen on a post-graduate fellowship. As I was assisting his research into the remarkable diversity of German beers, I occasionally pulled out my sketchbook to capture the likenesses of fellow researchers. Seeing the results, some on-lookers asked if they could have their images immortalized too. Presaging his triumphal career in the law, Ed jumped up and said of course they could but they would each have to buy a round of beers for our table. Thus, my unfortunately short-lived career as a semi-professional portraitist got started. Ed was the closest thing to an agent that I've ever had. Sadly, that ended when we both returned to our studies back in the US. Nevertheless, for a short time our research was accelerated, our spirits lifted, and my artistic self-confidence boosted.

It's not easy to find a way to carefully draw people, other than by asking them to pose for you, and you don't know most of the people you would really like to draw. Except for remarkable people like Francesco Chiacchio, drawing takes time. If you start to draw people you don't know, they will probably wonder why you're staring at them. They might be offended; they may go away; but in any case they will rarely stay in one position for long. When by-standers notice that you're drawing someone, they tend to gather around you, sometimes even offering compliments, but the anonymity and immediacy vanish and self-consciousness grows, making the drawing ever more difficult. Photography has largely replaced drawing and painting in the capture of human images and photographers, especially if unburdened by inhibitions, have few such problems. They can just poke a camera in a subject's face, click and be off., leaving the subject to wonder if that was a new incursion by the NSA or something else.

Snarling Dick
The trick is to find a captive subject.   Television is one place where the subject can't object or leave, but good TV directors work hard to see that camera angles keep changing, just to make the imagery less monotonous. Drawing faces quickly can lead to caricature and I've ventured into cartooning after years of drawing faces. Some faces lend themselves to caricature more readily than others. Dick Cheney's asymmetrical snarl was perfect. He seemed to be designed by a caricaturist and he inspired me to devote more time to that aspect of drawing. C-Span is the cartoonists dream. It features talking heads with little moving other than the mouths. Unfortunately , it's not available in Italy but I will be visiting the Rogue Nation this winter and C-Span should help to pass the time.

The most obvious chance to draw people live is in life drawing classes. I've done a good deal of this at times but living in a small rural community severely limits the opportunities, since such classes tend to be located in big cities and college towns. Years ago, professors in the collegiate centers seemed to be always spouting the obligatory apology that life drawing had nothing to do with sexiness or eroticism. It's true that when one is busy trying to understand the nuances of anatomy, perspective and foreshortening, and trying to capture all that on paper, the process is about as erotic as rendering the effect of light on a peach. Nevertheless, I still think the professors exaggerated a bit. After all, people have been paying to look at nude women through the ages, from Las Vegas to Timbuktu. While many drawings from life could just as well be of stones or of fruit, there are artists, such as Milo Manara, whose sketches are as sensuous and erotic as any images can be. If it's true “that beauty is in the eye of the beholder”, then Manara's eyes are a divine gift.

In drawing the nude, one tries to objectively capture the essence of the figure but I find myself either trying to idealize the form or else tending to emphasize the divergence from the ideal, depending on whether the model conjures images by Renoir or instead puts one in mind of Francis Bacon. The world being what it is today, I'm seeing people more and more resembling the images of George Grosz, from another very similar era.
Grosz nudes
Renoir nude
Francis Bacon nude

Drawing nudes is something like painting flowers. You try to capture the beauty of the bloom but if the flowers are too wilted, the emphasis shifts to pathos and decline. Portraiture tends to focus on how character and life experiences have molded the face, with clothes, backgrounds and other props filling out the narrative. Bodies tell their own stories too, from the dancers who often model at life classes, recognizable by their muscular legs, to others, too desperate for the modeling fee to even care that people see them in their current sad state.

Archie Shepp in SF 1966
I've probably spent as much time listening to jazz as I have drawing so it's unsurprising that at some point I would start sketching musicians as I watched them perform. You can't get better subjects to draw. You've paid to see and hear them and you can watch them as they work, sometimes up close. While they may object to photographers popping off flashes in their face, they can't object to someone looking at them too intensely, and they're too busy to notice. Better yet, they're not just sitting there; they are at work creating music and the effort, intensity and joy of making music can be seen as well as heard. There are problems in drawing at live music venues. Usually, performances are at night, and while the musicians are well lit, the audiences are not. Drawing in the dark is difficult. Maybe Ray Charles could have done it (he could do everything else in the dark) but for most of us, it's not worth the effort. Sitting up close to the stage sometimes resolves the problem but intimate outdoor afternoon concerts are as good as it gets. People often ask if I miss New York. In truth, not very much, but I do miss Caramoor, and the Charlie Parker Jazz Festival in Tompkins Square Park almost as much as Minerva's drawing studio in Soho, all great places to draw.
Amina Myers at Caramoor

Roy Haynes at Charlie Parker Festival
Musicians have become technically more proficient over the years I've been drawing them but there has been a significant decline in the visual appeal of their performances. Dizzy Gillespie's ceiling- aimed trumpet may have had acoustic motivations but I suspect it was as much a stylistic affectation as his beret and goatee. Miles Davis paid almost as much attention to his appearance (perhaps more in his late rock star years) as he did to his music. Thelonious Monk, whose spiritual home was light years away from Madison Avenue, was always impeccably turned out in a suit and tie. This served to heighten the contrast between his attire and his unconventional music and demeanor. The extreme exemplar of theatricality in jazz was the Modern Jazz Quartet, whose musical director, John Lewis, insisted that they perform in dinner jackets. Jazz musicians, especially black jazz musicians, had not been taken seriously by the (white) public and their dress code was a highly successful stratagem to change that. They created an unforgettable visual impression to go along with their splendid music.

Marsalis brothers
In subsequent decades musicians came to regard themselves as artists rather than entertainers and many felt that people should simply come to hear the important art that they were creating. That worked for a John Coltrane, whose intensity was riveting, but there was only one John Coltrane. In keeping with romantic and popular notions of eccentric artists, many musicians showed up looking like they'd they'd just crawled out of the cellar they were sleeping in. Sometimes they created fine music but more often than not, audiences at live music venues want to be entertained as well as being privileged to be in the presence of art. Times are changing again and many musicians, following the lead of the Marsalis brothers, seem to be rediscovering the importance of the visual aspect of their performances.


Raphael Madonna
Raphael woman
Italian 1400's
Fashions come and go. When I first came to Italy I was astounded by how good people looked. Young men seemed to resemble the images of their Tuscan ancestors painted in the 1400's and the women often replicated the sensual beauty found in the Rafael's madonnas. Italians like to be trendy. With the arrival of Yul Brynner on the big screen and Telly Savalas on the TV, they got accustomed to totally bald men, but when Michael Jordan came along, instantly all Italian men wanted to look like him. This led to a dubious experiment in baldness. If shaving one's head could make you look like Michael Jordan, why would it not also turn you into a world class athlete? (The butterfly tattooed on Serena Grande's thigh has stimulated a comparable effect among Italian women.) Among jazz musicians, Tony Scott was 
Tony Scott (hairless) at Mississippi Jazz Club
Tony Scott (with hair) at Iridium
ahead of the curve, both in the bald look and in the return to hair. (as well as in pioneering modern jazz on the clarinet) In recent years many more people have gone through chemotherapy than in the past, and I wish them all the best outcomes, including that their hair grows back more luxuriant than before, but if all the people in Italy who look like they're in the midst of chemotherapy actually have cancer, there's an epidemic that the press just isn't reporting.

Among the many impressions I've taken away from this year's inaugural Jazzit Fest is a sense that hair seems to be coming back. (I have nothing against drawing bald musicians but hair is one of the distinguishing traits of people, even if long hair and untrimmed beards can create an anonymity not so different from bald heads.)
Given the dismal economy that we're experiencing, it's understandable that a certain amount of scruffiness is also in evidence, but at least it's a more virile sort of scruffiness. I've even detected in a number of musicians (among the more than 400 in attendance) an increased self-awareness about how they appear. Whether the subjects are bald or hairy, well groomed, elegant or scruffy, I'll continue to seek opportunities to sketch musicians as they perform. UJ in Perugia, with most of its concerts located in the huge stadium, no longer offers many opportunities, but UJW in Orvieto at New Years, still features musicians up close. I'm especially hopeful about drawing while listening at the Jazzit Fest in Collescipoli next year. See you there. I might even draw you.