Wednesday, December 15, 2010

The Long and Winding Road

Amidst a few months of significant John Lennon anniversaries, there's this melancholy one for the Beatles as a whole: it was forty years ago this month that the band officially broke up. Dan Charness has a piece on this at the Atlantic in which he says that the breakup was well on the way to happening as early as the recording of the White Album:

"With more time and experience in the studio, each of the Beatles had developed a stronger opinion of how a certain song should be produced. Quarreling became so commonplace—and heated—that at one point drummer Ringo Starr abruptly left the studio during the recording of "Back in the U.S.S.R." Paul McCartney is credited for the drumming on that track. At another point, George Harrison brought guitarist Eric Clapton into the studio, in part to record the solo for "While My Guitar Gently Weeps," but also to help temper the band's intense fighting. Many of EMI's engineers and studio workers, professionals who had worked alongside the Beatles since the earliest days in the studio, began to resign, stating that they could no longer tolerate the band's infighting. Can you imagine what it would take to make you walk out of a Beatles recording session?"

I haven't read elsewhere of that kind of conflict in these sessions, although these songs were written soon after Brian Epstein died, which some (including John I think) dated as the point the band fell apart. If memory serves, Paul dated it even earlier, at when they stopped touring. Certainly the conflict was evident in the Let It Be sessions (captured in that seldom seen movie,) but as Lennon pointed out (and Charness does not), their actual last days together in the studio were making arguably their greatest album: Abbey Road.

But Charness certainly has a point here: "As we commemorate the 40th anniversary of the Beatles' breakup, don't dwell too long on its cause. Rather, consider the simple miracle that a band like this, with two-and arguably three-of the greatest and most unique songwriters of the 20th century, could have co-existed as long as they did."

And I'm not even sure it's arguable: George Harrison belongs in the conversation as one of the greatest and unique songwriters of the 20th century. (Frank Sinatra thought that "Something" was the greatest song of the century.) That the Beatles broke up--that there was a period of anger and hostility, followed by a period of silence--makes human sense.

The tragedy of course is John Lennon's death in 1980. When I crossposted my piece here on Lennon at 70, a commenter at Daily Kos questioned why I would say, "Undoubtedly we would have more Beatles music"if Lennon had lived. It's because there were plenty of signs that they would get back together to at least record. John and Paul were hanging out with each other again. Everyone was speaking. And it was only a few years later that the Beatles Anthology project prompted the then three remaining members to collaborate on songs that Lennon had written but left unfinished. It would have been as natural for them to get back together in their 40s as it was for them to separate in 1970.

For the boomers who grew up with them, they charted our young lives with their music. We miss the companionship of the music that might have expressed more of the later lives we would have shared.

Monday, November 01, 2010

Ted Sorensen

Ted Sorensen died last week. He was the primary speechwriter for John F. Kennedy before and after he became President, and a White House advisor. His words and rhythms are in the best Inaugural Address of the 20th century. When I was a starry-eyed teenager watching every detail of the Kennedy administration, Sorensen was an exceptional example of what writing could bring to shaping the destiny of the country and the world. But his words came from conviction, as he showed in his first solo book, Decision-Making in the White House. I was in college when probably the first book review I published was of his book called simply Kennedy. There it was scholarship and succinct writing that impressed, rather than rhetoric eloquence.

He probably did not get enough credit while in the White House, but those who later maintained that JFK's eloquence was all his were equally mistaken. It wasn't just loyalty that led Sorensen himself to point this out. Though Sorensen wrote more books, he did not achieve the heights of expression or influence that he had as a partner to JFK.

Sorensen reemerged in 2008 as an early advocate for Barack Obama, and was instrumental in convincing Caroline Kennedy to endorse him. The support of much of the Kennedy clan was crucial to Obama's standing. The Obama campaign took advantage of Sorensen's own identification with the Kennedy era as well as his eloquence and speaking ability, when it sent him out campaigning.

The circle was closed when the college student he recruited to help him complete his last big book (Adam Frankel) became Barack Obama's speechwriter. Through the remaining decades of the 20th century and into the 21st, Sorensen appeared all but ageless. But in recent years he was beset by a bewildering number of illnesses--visual agnosia leading to near-blindness, a mini-stroke, prostate cancer, melanoma, a leaky heart valve and Lyme disease. Yet through all that he worked to complete his magnum opus, Counselor: A Life at the Edge of History.

Monday, October 18, 2010


I was surprised at all the play the death of Barbara Billingsley got, because she had played June Cleaver in the 1950s sitcom Leave It To Beaver. But apparently she became the symbol for the 50s TV mom, judging not only from the media response to her passing, but to websites which name her in the negative--June Cleaver, the symbol of all that was wrong with the 50s ideal woman, the ideal 50s mother.

Although rebelling against the 50s stereotype seems so 60s or even 70s to me, I respond to the topic differently anyway. I grew up in the 50s, I watched all those shows when I was roughly the age of the kids on them, and my mother was roughly the age of theirs. I never confused them, first of all. And looking back, if I responded to any of them as some sort of model mother, it wasn't June Cleaver. The Leave It To Beaver family was always just entertainment to me, like the Life of Riley family (pictured above) or Ozzie and Harriet. But if I had to pick one who I saw in some maternal way, it was Jane Wyatt on Father Knows Best (even before she was Spock's mom.)

But I never measured my mother against the ones on TV--while I might long for a family like the Andersons, I didn't want to be the child of those specific parents. If anything, it was probably Robert Young who suggested to me what I might want to be like as a father. I'm not sure why else I gravitated more towards that show, except there were girls in it (I had two sisters and no brothers) and the Andersons showed up a few years earlier than the Cleavers. But it was all fantasy as well. The way they lived was as familiar and as alien as life on Roy Roger's ranch or Captain Midnight's Secret Squadron headquarters. The kids weren't much like me either, although I could identify with some things, like how Bud Anderson felt when he pretty helplessly got in trouble.

My responses at the time were further complicated when I got a bit of a crush on Donna Reed, even as the mother in the Donna Reed Show. It was like being dazzled by the pretty mother of one of your friends. Now that I've seen her in earlier movies, I know why. She was also a 1940s pinup. So was Jane Wyatt--the last two photos are of them in the 40s. Though I can't find photos of her on the net, I've seen footage of Barbara Billingsley as a smart, glamorous blond, the kind that might be in a Noel Coward play.

But that's something I've learned about my mother's generation in the years since: they were young women once. Maybe not as glamorous as these actresses (whose 40s photos were probably among the ones my mother pasted into her scrapbooks), but wearing their hair the same way, wearing the same style of clothes. I wonder how they saw the transition of these actresses into TV motherhood.

As for June Cleaver, wasn't she an early model for the women who wanted to Have It All? Maybe she didn't have an executive position in the city, but she could bake cookies in high heels and pearls.

Thursday, October 14, 2010

In Pittsburgh, 1960 is Now

How important is the seventh game of the 1960 World Series in Pittsburgh, fifty years later? When Forbes Field was torn down, two elements of it remained--home plate was set in cement and marked, but a portion of the left field wall was simply left there--because it's where Bill Mazeroski's home run left the park.

Still, time passes, the Pirates won two more championships at Three Rivers Stadium across the river and miles away. But in 1985, on the October 13 anniversary of the home run, a fan came all alone and sat down at the wall, and played a recording of the 7th game.

Eventually media reported it and others came to join him, and soon there were hundreds gathered there every October 13. Until this year, when there were thousands, sitting in the sunshine on a day very much like Oct. 13, 1960, listening to a recording of the play by play of that game, 50 years before.

A plaque commemorating that game was finally installed and dedicated this year. That's Bill Mazeroski taking a look at it. But he wasn't there alone--ten of his teammates also attended the dedication, and they stuck around to listen to the broadcast of the game they played in, 50 years ago, with the fans--some of whom were there or remembered it from their childhoods, and some who had only heard about it.

For the record, the 1960 Pirates who were there were second baseman Bill Mazeroski, shortstop Dick Groat (winner of the 1960 batting crown and National League MVP), center fielder Bill Virdon, ace right hand pitcher Bob Friend, ace left hand pitcher Vernon Law (winner of the 1960 Cy Young Award), catcher Hal Smith (whose home run in the 8th turned a defeat into a possible victory), ace relief pitcher (who still holds the record for best winning percentage with his 18-1 season in 1959), ElRoy Face, as well as Joe Christopher, George Witt, Joe Gibbon, and Bob Oldis. But perhaps the greatest tribute was the attendance of Vera Clemente, Roberto Clemente's widow, and their son Luis.

Wednesday, October 13, 2010

The Best Game Ever

Today is the 50th anniversary of what some experts call the best baseball game ever (and not all of them are from Pittsburgh)--the seventh game of the 1960 World Series, won by the Pittsburgh Pirates over the New York Yankees with what is still the only home run in the bottom of the ninth to decide a Series in the 7th game, hit by the Hall of Famer Bill Mazeroski. That's the sequence in the above pictures--the middle photo of Maz floating from second to third is the basis of the statue of him that will be unveiled outside the new Pirates ballpark.

It was a vastly different baseball world. It was the last year there were just eight teams in each of the National and American leagues, as there had been for most of the previous history of major league baseball. Though baseball was the biggest sport in America, most Major League players didn't even earn a living from baseball--many if not most had other jobs in the offseason, and went back to work full time when they retired. Though there were fewer games in a season (154 instead of 162), they were worked harder. The Pirates two top starting pitchers each had 16 complete games in 1960. Today a complete game is a rarity.

The game was played at Forbes Field, in the neighborhood of Oakland. It was a storied ball park even before this Series. Babe Ruth hit his last two home runs there. The old baseball movie, Angels in the Outfield, was shot there. It was torn down as the University of Pittsburgh expanded, and the Pirates went to play at the larger Three Rivers Stadium on the North Side, where the Steelers and other local teams played. Now Three Rivers is gone, and the new Pirates park goes a long way to recreating the experience of seeing a game at Forbes Field--where I saw my first games, including this 1960 team--but it doesn't quite get it all.

I was very fortunate to be a boy so into baseball when the Pirates were putting together this team, from 1958 to 1960. I met some of them then, including Roberto Clemente and Bill Virdon, and others later. Oddly, even though Bill Mazeroski became a member of my childhood church and to this day lives in my hometown of Greensburg, I never met him. (He was also the Pirate whose name was closest to mine, so that was what my next-door neighbor called me--hey! it's Billy Mazeroski!--even though Maz was a right-handed second baseman and I was a lefthanded pitcher, and my model was Harvey Haddix.)

That 7th game was full of odd events and improbable heroes, none more than Mazeroski and his home run. Maz is considered among the best fielding second basemen ever--if not the best-- but he wasn't among the Pirates best hitters or power hitters. No one expected him to hit a home run, especially since he'd already hit one in the Series (in the first game.) Fans just wanted him to get on base, and that's what he was trying to do. He took the first pitch for a ball, so maybe he could work a walk. Instead he hit the next pitch into deep left field and over or near the highest place, the scoreboard clock.

Pittsburgh hadn't had a sports champion since 1925, the last time the Pirates won the Series. But in that one moment, the already magical 1960 season became one that people will be talking about today, and Pittsburgh will celebrate again.

Photos above: from high atop the University of Pittsburgh's Cathedral of Learning, two classic photos that capture the moment of Maz's homer--and the beginning of the most pervasive and joyful celebrations in western Pennsylvania history.

It's been called the greatest baseball game ever played, and it was one of the few games the Pirates played in 1960 that I didn't see or hear. All summer I went to games at Forbes Field, watched the away games broadcast on TV and especially listened to them on radio, with play-by-play and commentary by Bob Prince and Jim Woods, providing a wealth of memories so specific to that time and place. A bloop and a blast, Arriba Arriba!, Benny Benack & the Iron City Six, beat 'em Bucs, alabaster blast, you can kiss it goodbye, how sweet it is! We had 'em all the way! The words may mean nothing unless you were there. And they were widely shared--most weekend afternoons you could follow the game just walking around the neighborhood from the radios playing on back porches and through open garage doors.

But now it was October, the World Series was played in the daytime then, and I was a freshman at Greensburg Central Catholic High School. Apart from the two games over the weekend (the Yankees walloped the Bucs again on Saturday, but the Pirates tied the series on Sunday), I did see the 6th game. In person, at Forbes Field. It was the luck of the draw. So many people wanted tickets that the Pirates set up a lottery: you sent in your money and if your request was picked, you got two tickets, and if not, you got your money back. My request was picked--good luck.

But the Pirates picked the game you got tickets to, which looked like great luck at first, because the Pirates were ahead 3 games to 2 and they could have won the series by winning that game. But they sure didn't. The Yankees won 12-0, and it was slow torture--they scored in 5 separate innings without a single home run. It got so bad that out in the left field bleachers where I sat with my father feeling like I was in a dark tunnel, the Pirates left fielder that day, Gino Cimoli, was chatting with fans. In later years I comforted myself with the thought that I had seen my favorite non-Pirates pitcher, Whitey Ford (a lefthander like me), as well as the fabled Yankees Mickey Mantle, Rodger Maris, Yogi Berra... But it was nothing but pain that day.

So I was back in school for the seventh game. The prevailing ethic apparently was that you could play hooky if you had tickets to the game--one of our companions on the special bus that took us directly to Forbes Field was a priest who taught at my school. But you couldn't stay home just to watch it on TV. In school that afternoon, some teachers allowed their class to listen to the game on radio, but others didn't. They were nuns mostly, and apart from their usual motivations, I suppose some of them were from elsewhere, and didn't quite get what all the fuss was about.

But I was never far from the game--the score, which went back and forth radically--was passed along in the halls between classes. The entire school was a radio. Especially in the crucial eighth inning, as our school day was winding down, virtual play-by-play was passed across the aisles of desks, starting from the kids nearest the open windows, straining to hear the radio broadcast drifting down from the classroom on the floor above. I remember getting the word on Roberto Clemente's crucial infield single as we stood for final prayers.

By the time we were dismissed, the game was tied. My classmates streamed to their buses, but I was one of the few students to walk my short distance home. But as I was leaving someone told me that there was a television set up in one of the large classrooms on the third floor, where the football team was watching before practice. I had just found a seat near the back when It Happened--I saw the Mazeroski homer on TV, pretty much the only part of the game I saw.

The room erupted, western Pennsylvania erupted. People driving home from work in Pittsburgh had pulled over on the side of the Parkway before going into the Squirrel Hill Tunnel, where they would lose radio reception. When they pulled back into traffic after the homer, it was to join the blaring horns echoing through the tunnel. I've imagined that scene many times. The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette has posted stories from the next day's paper about what happened in the city, and it was something that playwright August Wilson and I talked about--he recalled the people running into the streets, all up and down Forbes Avenue and Fifth Avenue. And of course, I heard later about the pandemonium among my classmates on the school buses.

Since then I've seen the highlights of the game many times, and I have a video narrated by Bob Prince that has a lot of footage from the Series. Since you had to use your imagination even to see the games you heard on radio, the fact that I hadn't ever actually seen that game didn't occur to me--until several weeks ago, when I read this story.

The story said something I didn't know--that for 49 years and change, no complete copy of the TV broadcast of that 7th game of the 1960 World Series was known to exist. The Best Game Ever! And then it said something that nobody knew--there was such a recording, a pristine kinescope (the pre-video tape form) that hadn't been watched in nearly a half century. It was found in a wine cellar. Belonging to...Bing Crosby.

Singer Bing Crosby was a minority owner of the Pittsburgh Pirates, but he was in Paris when that game was played. The story said that he went to Paris intentionally so he couldn't watch it, he was so nervous. But he hired a company to record the game--something not everyone could afford to do--so he could watch it at home...if the Pirates won. He kept it with mounds of other film and tape reels. A researcher pawing through it all to prepare a DVD on Crosby's career found it this year.

So it's only a matter of time before that game is on DVD or online, and more than 50 years later I may actually see it. Even if it is Mel Allen doing the play by play in the late innings. But I can hear Bob Prince saying it anyway---How sweet it is! We had 'em all the way!

Saturday, October 09, 2010

John Lennon at 70

"How terribly strange to be seventy," sang Simon and Garfunkel in 1968, when they were 27 (Paul will turn 69 on the 13th of this month, and Art on the fifth of November) and John Lennon was 28. It's hard to imagine John Lennon at 70. But that's what he would be today--October 9-- had he not been shot and killed in 1980, a couple of months past his 40th birthday.

But maybe it's not so hard to imagine the writer of "Imagine" at 70. If he continued to master his demons as he seemed to be in the last years of his life, the decades since might have been quite different. Apart from the flash of the 60s and the tumult of the 70s, John Lennon was that rare combination of an inspiring idealist and an inspired ironist, who wrote lines like this: "sitting in an English garden waiting for the sun/If the sun don't come you get a tan from standing in the English rain." In the middle of the surreal "I Am the Walrus," those are lines they could be teaching in poetry courses.

It's tempting to think of him as the spokesperson and lightning rod for causes, the role he sought at times, and which got him shadowed and harassed by the Nixon police. That's a role that's difficult if not nearly impossible to sustain, especially with the increasingly low boredom threshold and the ageist attitudes that survive virtually unchallenged. But he was able to break so many rules, so who knows? He might have been the champion for Climate Crisis awareness say, and Lennon Saves would be a legacy instead of a fondly recalled button from the 60s. Although Lennon, first among equals, saved many a rainy day, English and otherwise in those years.

We would undoubtedly have more Beatles music, and now that we know that you can still rock when you're supposed to be in your rocking chair, we might still be hearing from Lennon. His absence did create room for his former band mates to shine in their own light--Paul McCartney is a global figure, Ringo Starr has found peace on the road, and it took George Harrison's death to reveal so clearly that his talent and accomplishments were major and lasting, and that at his best his song-writing was equal to Lennon and McCartney.

But I have to say that in the last Paul McCartney tour video I saw, the lack of any reference to the other Beatles, particularly Lennon, began to stand out ever more prominently as it went on. And the lack of any Lennon representative at the wonderful memorial concert for George Harrison (which featured McCartney and Starr) was eerie and sad.

It would have been very interesting to observe Lennon as he aged. The anger that seemed to have fueled that incredible energy--and together with his wit and high spirits, made him the model of charming insolence-- seemed almost to destroy him, but in his late 30s he seemed to have come to a different place. The energy was different, but it was there in those last songs. What would have come next? There's only 30 empty years to contemplate.

But in those 40 years he left us music to express almost everything, from the vision of "Imagine" and "All You Need is Love," and the social vision of "Working Class Hero," to the bitter ironies of his version of "Nobody Loves You"; the involvement of "Give Peace a Chance," and the detachment of "Watching the Wheels"; the surrealism of "Lucy in the Sky With Diamonds" to the raw pain of "I'm So Tired." He wrote and sang about being a son and a father, and all the emotions of relationship from young passions to Starting Over.

For those of us who were just a few years behind him, our aging was unaccompanied by new tunes and insights from him, and this absence, this void, was felt, though as one among others. But we always had what we still have, the songs, the images, the words he produced in what amounts to less than 20 years. That's more than most get, but it's a lot less than we wanted, or that we could have used.

Happy Birthday, John

click collage to enlarge. John Lennon would have been 70 today.

Friday, August 13, 2010

60's Now News: Kids, Brains and Rock & Roll

It's a common experience: memory changes with age. But how those changes manifest is an individual thing. What's more or less healthy, and what's a sign of real trouble to come? The spectre of Alzheimer's and other neurological diseases haunts the 60s.

There's news in the science of it all, but taken as a whole it's unclear what it means. Promising research may turn out to be a "breakthrough," and then again... Gina Kolata of the NY Times reported research of a test that purports to be able to predict Alzheimer's with 100% accuracy--but so far not exactly what you would call very early. She follows up with a report on the research process in the field generally focused on early diagnosis. But an AP report seems more cautionary.

It's interesting that the Times covers the field so closely, probably reflecting the concerns of the most loyal newspaper readers. They highlight the success of Ringo Starr and other 60s rockers still on the road. Which is great if you were already a star decades ago, but maybe not if you weren't: a judge has allowed an age discrimination suit against Google to go forward.

NPR chimes in on how the aging brain can be sharper than previously believed, and research suggests what grandparents probably know--tutoring kids can keep you sharp.

Wednesday, July 28, 2010

A Legacy of Words

Tony Judt is a distinguished historian and author of my generation, who is writing heroically. He has ALS, which is an awful degenerative disease I've seen in too much detail. It's a mysterious and varied disease. Some who get it young, like Stephen Hawking, live with it for a long time. Others deteriorate rapidly, and according to this article, that's the case with Tony Judt.

He's been published a lot recently in the New York Review of Books, another reason to revere that publication. He giving us his beautifully expressed wisdom while he can. He's apparently lost his ability to speak clearly as a result of the disease, but he has been writing with great clarity.

What follows are excerpts from his essay in the July 15 issues, simply titled Words. The first part sets a personal context, and warns of the misuse of rhetorical skill. But---

"All the same, inarticulacy surely suggests a shortcoming of thought. This idea will sound odd to a generation praised for what they are trying to say rather than the thing said. Articulacy itself became an object of suspicion in the 1970s: the retreat from “form” favored uncritical approbation of mere “self-expression,” above all in the classroom. But it is one thing to encourage students to express their opinions freely and to take care not to crush these under the weight of prematurely imposed authority. It is quite another for teachers to retreat from formal criticism in the hope that the freedom thereby accorded will favor independent thought: “Don’t worry how you say it, it’s the ideas that count.”

"Forty years on from the 1960s, there are not many instructors left with the self-confidence (or the training) to pounce on infelicitous expression and explain clearly just why it inhibits intelligent reflection." Judt acknowledges that it was our generation that"played an important role in this unraveling" but that the reaction to artificiality has led to the demeaning of clarity and precision.

"For many centuries in the Western tradition, how well you expressed a position corresponded closely to the credibility of your argument. Rhetorical styles might vary from the spartan to the baroque, but style itself was never a matter of indifference. And “style” was not just a well-turned sentence: poor expression belied poor thought. Confused words suggested confused ideas at best, dissimulation at worst."

The lack of precision in vocabulary and expression generally devalues the responsibility--the courtesy--to communicate, and is reflected not only in the purportedly "natural" modes but in the most deliberately artificial:

The “professionalization” of academic writing—and the self-conscious grasping of humanists for the security of “theory” and “methodology”—favors obscurantism. This has encouraged the rise of a counterfeit currency of glib “popular” articulacy: in the discipline of history this is exemplified by the ascent of the “television don,” whose appeal lies precisely in his claim to attract a mass audience in an age when fellow scholars have lost interest in communication. But whereas an earlier generation of popular scholarship distilled authorial authority into plain text, today’s “accessible” writers protrude uncomfortably into the audience’s consciousness. It is the performer, rather than the subject, to whom the audience’s attention is drawn."

That eloquently expresses my own objections to the hegemony (to use one of their pet words) of the shill-masters of semiotics, deconstructionism and related fads that have largely driven out articulate criticism and analysis. Judt turns next to the Internet and the culture it is so rapidly transforming:

In a world of Facebook, MySpace, and Twitter (not to mention texting), pithy allusion substitutes for exposition. Where once the Internet seemed an opportunity for unrestricted communication, the increasingly commercial bias of the medium—”I am what I buy”—brings impoverishment of its own. My children observe of their own generation that the communicative shorthand of their hardware has begun to seep into communication itself: “people talk like texts.”

This ought to worry us. When words lose their integrity so do the ideas they express. If we privilege personal expression over formal convention, then we are privatizing language no less than we have privatized so much else. “When I use a word,” Humpty Dumpty said, in rather a scornful tone, “it means just what I choose it to mean—neither more nor less.” “The question is,” said Alice, “whether you can make words mean so many different things.” Alice was right: the outcome is anarchy."

Judt ends his essay with a final cultural reference, and a very personal observation:

In “Politics and the English Language,” Orwell castigated contemporaries for using language to mystify rather than inform. His critique was directed at bad faith: people wrote poorly because they were trying to say something unclear or else deliberately prevaricating. Our problem, it seems to me, is different. Shoddy prose today bespeaks intellectual insecurity: we speak and write badly because we don’t feel confident in what we think and are reluctant to assert it unambiguously (“It’s only my opinion…”). Rather than suffering from the onset of “newspeak,” we risk the rise of “nospeak.”

I am more conscious of these considerations now than at any time in the past. In the grip of a neurological disorder, I am fast losing control of words even as my relationship with the world has been reduced to them. They still form with impeccable discipline and unreduced range in the silence of my thoughts—the view from inside is as rich as ever—but I can no longer convey them with ease. Vowel sounds and sibilant consonants slide out of my mouth, shapeless and inchoate even to my close collaborator. The vocal muscle, for sixty years my reliable alter ego, is failing. Communication, performance, assertion: these are now my weakest assets. Translating being into thought, thought into words, and words into communication will soon be beyond me and I shall be confined to the rhetorical landscape of my interior reflections.

Though I am now more sympathetic to those constrained to silence I remain contemptuous of garbled language. No longer free to exercise it myself, I appreciate more than ever how vital communication is to the republic: not just the means by which we live together but part of what living together means. The wealth of words in which I was raised were a public space in their own right—and properly preserved public spaces are what we so lack today. If words fall into disrepair, what will substitute? They are all we have."

We in our generation now fear and face degenerations of one kind or another. So it is fitting that we raise our voices while we can against the cultural degenerations that threaten the future.

And now you know why I began by saying that Tony Judt is writing heroically.

[Above photo of Judt in better days from here.]

Update: Tony Judt died on August 6, 2010. His New York Times obituary; his most recent article in the New York Review of Books; and the NYRB web site home page which currently links to all his recent articles for that publication. May he rest in peace, this hero of words.

Monday, July 12, 2010

Anniversary of Empathy

Sunday was the official 50th anniversary of To Kill A Mockingbird's publication in 1960, and its powerful introduction of empathy as a necessary quality in confronting issues of racial justice. Much more on the book, the film it inspired and their continuing influence here at Dreaming Up Daily.

Thursday, July 08, 2010

Generations of the Future

The irony is inescapable--the generation that didn't trust anyone over 30 and trademarked the Generation Gap, is now the dread enemy of the young. But how real--or contrived--is this conflict, and for what sinister purpose? See the post below.
Now that jobs are scarily scarce, the fortunes of one generation is pitted against that of another: the young, whose plight is described in the New York Times, and the older (which apparently in Silicon Valley--let alone Hollywood--means 40), in this Daily Kos post, and the hundreds of comments.

This situation, plus the ongoing attention to the future of Social Security, again resurrects baby boomers as generational villains. Just look at the comments to this pedestrian Talking Points Memo story.

But there was this interesting exchange there, in response to the usual diatribe: "Raise payroll taxes or cut benefits for anyone who was of voting age during the Reagan Administration. Why do we have to pay for the excess of the Baby Boomers?"

The response in part:

They raised taxes for everyone of voting age DURING the Reagan Administration. Which is why there is a $2.5 trillion Trust Fund largely extracted from that 'Me Generation'. We got stuck with higher FICA AND an increase in Full Retirement Age.

Boomers currently range in age from 46 to 64 years old. In 1980 we ranged in age from 16 to 34. Anyone who thinks that political policy in the 1980s was shaped by people under the age of 35 needs to think again. Hell Boomers are not even in control of Congress NOW, most of the power positions still be in the hands of the Depression/War babies.

The whole 'Blame the Boomers' narrative was a cynical construct and a central part of the 'Leninist Strategy' to undermine Social Security put forth in a Cato sponsored paper of that same name published in 1983 and authored by Stuart Butler and Peter Germanis"

The centerpiece of the Leninist Strategy was to convince younger workers that Social Security was doomed, that the Trust Fund was a fraud, and that Boomers were at fault. The strategy on the whole worked to perfection with the results seen here."

This refers to the Cato Institute, a right wing so-called think tank. It makes perfect sense that this is a deliberate campaign, and that it seeks to foster generational war.

Other comments repeat the cliches: the Boomers were all radical dopers in their youth, and Me Generation conservatives ever after. The truth is less dramatic. Most of the boomer generation was always relatively conservative, or apolitical. It was just a very large generation, and even a minority could look impressive. And while statistically speaking, people tend to become more conservative in their political views as they age, there are still a significant number of Boomers who remain basically progressive, or at least open-minded on significant issues.

But it is to the interests of the very few who have most of the money and power to divide the many who don't. Boomers may be better off in some ways, but they are also victims of age discrimination (the most prevalent form of discrimination statistically), retirement funds destroyed by Wall Street and corporations cruelly ditching their retirement obligations, soon to be joined by state governments.

Feeding resentment is a time-tested way of creating conflict among those whose common interests are better served by recognizing who is pulling the strings, and who benefits from generations blaming each other.

But as for what is happening to the young and old alike, it is also evident that the American Dream, at least as fostered by commercials, is over. The energy-wasting, waste-creating, slaving for expensive symbols--that American Dream--is done. It is already a nightmare for millions of the formerly middle class. The future does not include a return to that Dream, but at best to a conscious participation in the creation of a better one. That minority of Boomers may find this a familiar future, though on the horizon a lot later than we thought.

Sunday, June 06, 2010

RFK: Ripples of Hope

Robert Kennedy died 42 years ago today, which means that we've been without him for as many years as he lived. I honor him today by remembering another June 6, two years before his death, and the immortal words he said on that day, over at Dreaming Up Daily here.

Friday, June 04, 2010

Fantasy Fulfilled

The presidency comes with more horrors than perks, but there are a few: like joining in when Paul McCartney sings "Michelle" to your wife, and getting up on stage to sing along on "Hey Jude." Boomer fantasies fulfilled.

Tuesday, May 25, 2010

Not So Over

A New York Times article points out that two current politicians are in trouble for statements they've made concerning two of the dominant issues of the 1960s, a half century later. The Times offers some opinions on why, but the short and obvious answer would be that these issues are unresolved.

Rand Paul tried to dodge from his previously stated position that, contrary to the Civil Rights Act, private businesses should have the right to discriminate because of race-- such as a restaurant refusing service to blacks, one of the flashpoints of the Civil Rights movement. Breaking legal segregation was the purpose of the lunch counter sit-ins, in the photo above.

Paul's view not only reflects a current nostalgia for libertarian ideals and simplicities, it plays to the resurgent racism brought to the surface by, among other things, the daily sight of a black U.S. President. Rand Paul may not be an overt racist himself, but his Tea Party supporters undoubtedly include racists, who would perhaps also deny the charge. Their rhetoric is about liberty, which they seem happy to reserve for themselves and for their businesses, but not for minorities. The true meaning of freedom and a democratic society must be learned and relearned.

Richard Blumenthal in Connecticut at the very least allowed others to retain the impression that he was a soldier in Vietnam, when he was in the Marine reserves, and may have been an opponent of the war. Whether it is political opportunism or the kind of emotional identification that led Hillary Clinton to believe she'd been under fire in Eastern Europe, it speaks in part to a new alignment of the honored veteran versus the protestors. Blumenthal apparently even repeated the discredited lie that returning veterans were routinely spit upon as they returned, when in fact it was protestors who literally were spit upon and worse, with documentary footage to prove it.

Without odious comparison of the injuries, those of us who were young men then were all victims of that war, and while I have come to appreciate more the positive aspects of character that soldiering requires, I am not revising my moral judgment of the Vietnam war itself. During media discussions of the Blumenthal story I also heard a Vietnam veteran say that vets didn't bear grudges against protestors, but that isn't what Maxine Hong Kingston found in her Bay Area group, where men who served as U.S. soldiers in Vietnam met and reconciled with their Vietnamese adversaries, but would not reconcile with American protestors. It seems that particular aspect of the war will never be over until we're all dead.

Thursday, April 22, 2010

The Quiet Crisis

Between last Earth Day and today--in fact, in March, during the final healthcare votes--Stewart Udall died. He was appointed by President Kennedy to serve as Secretary of Interior in 1961, and stayed under President Johnson until 1969, just before the first Earth Day. He was an environmental pioneer, part of the transition from conservation to environmental activism. The first environmental laws were passed, or were proposed (and passed soon after the first Earth Day, in the Nixon administration) on his watch.

Udall also wrote one of the pioneer books on the environment, though The Quiet Crisis is not much remembered. It followed by a year the first environmental classic and best-seller, Rachel Carson's Silent Spring. Udall's book took a more historical view, chronicling American conservation efforts. But crucially it also took a wider view, beyond chemical pollution to the total environmental effects of the growth-at-any-cost economy: "In a great surge toward 'progress,' our congestion increasingly has befouled water and air and growth has created new problems on every hand. Schools, housing, and roads are inadequate and ill-planned; noise and confusion have mounted with the rising tempo of technology; and as our cities have sprawled outward, new forms of abundance and new forms of blight have oftentimes marched hand in hand."

Although it preserves sign of hasty writing, The Quiet Crisis remains remarkable in the appropriate breadth of its content. He dealt not only with facts but the underlying and overarching philosophy. He elevated the work of Aldo Leopold and his "land ethic", now acknowledged as a central figure in even contemporary environmentalism, into public policy discussion. He went after examples of air, water and soil pollution--and assembled the first official endangered species list--but he also looked to the historical and spiritual sources that support and sustain attention to the natural world. He could be eloquent on this topic. "To pursue his vision more intently, Emerson steeped himself in Plato, Goethe, and fresh air. The easiest wayh to develop Olympian insights was to turn the mind into an aeolian harp and attune it to the winds and sounds and rhythms of nature."

In this book, he also dealt with urban environments as well as wilderness, with needed legislation and individual action. That the book has an introduction by President Kennedy shows that the environment was on the agenda almost a decade before Earth Day.

Stewart Udall was also one of the voices heard throughout this year's American Experience documentary, Earth Days. He was part of the mass movement before and just after Earth Day in 1970 that led to the laws that saved the United States--from erasing more wilderness, from poisoning more water, earth and air and therefore poisoning itself. But as this documentary notes, expanding effective environmental change to the world, and applying it to the most deadly threat human civilization has ever faced, climate change (which, the documentary documents, was talked about in a national news broadcast on the first Earth Day) has failed.

Udall called it the Quiet Crisis in 1963. It became pretty noisy on Earth Day 1970, when 2 million Americans participated, and soon after, when the fledgling movement targeted and defeated anti-environment legislators. But on its 40th anniversary, it has gone quiet again. There is still is no collective, focused action by environmentalists. Too much separate noise can also add up to a quiet crisis.

Thursday, March 25, 2010


The photo is of Senator Ted Kennedy's grave, where his son, Rep. Patrick Kennedy, left a note after the health insurance reform bill passed, saying that the "unfinished business" was now finished. Ted Kennedy used those words, unfinished business, in his last letter to President Obama, and those words were used often by President Kennedy to describe what needed to be done--the unfinished business of America.

The health insurance reform law does cap the long struggle for reform that provides a fairer health care system for most Americans, that Ted Kennedy called his life's work. So President Obama made sure that his widow and his niece Caroline as well as his son Patrick were present when he signed the bill into law. Others also recognized his long championing of this cause. Today the Senate honored Ted Kennedy's contribution with a moment of silence.

This was the most significant step in health care since Medicare was passed in 1965. This had been proposed and advocated by President Kennedy. I was in high school during the Kennedy administration, and "medical care for the aged" (as it was called) was a debate topic one year. So I spent months researching it, and became familiar with the arguments, including many similar to those heard this year, although "socialized medicine" was as far as the right would go--"socialism" would have been scandalous, or laughed away. So much about the debate hasn't changed, including the blinders worn by the opposition. (One significant change, though: a major opponent of Medicare was the American Medical Association, the largest doctors group. The AMA announced its support of the Obama plan days before the House vote.)

That we've progressed so little in our politics is discouraging. But there is always unfinished business, in a country trying to be better. This new law may well do more than anything since the 60s to reverse trends that damage a lot of non-rich Americans, and not only their health. But there is still so much left to finish.

Monday, February 22, 2010

Then and Now: Kumbaya

Demonstrators singing in Cambridge, MD in 1963; Joan Baez at the Obama White House concert of Civil Rights music. Why that didn't include holding hands and singing "Kumbaya"--in the post below.


A version of this was on the Rescued List at Daily Kos.

About ten days ago, the White House held a celebration of music integral to the Civil Rights struggles of the 60s. I recorded the PBS broadcast but haven't gotten around to watching it yet. But I'm pretty sure that among the songs by Joan Baez, Bob Dylan, etc., those assembled did not sit around holding hands and singing "Kumbaya."

But they could have. Because we did that, sitting-in, marching, demonstrating for Civil Rights. That was one of the songs that held us together. Now it's a common cliche of scorn and disdain, on the left these days even more than the right. It deserves better.

Not that it's such a great song (although Pete Seeger did try to add some African-style low harmonies--check him out on YouTube.) It was far from my favorite, but after Joan Baez recorded it in 1962, it did become part of the rituals that expressed the hopes, yearnings and commitments of a generation.

Not later, apparently. And certainly, not anymore.

I remember the first time I read what is now the common usage of "Kumbaya." And I remember how I felt.

It was a magazine article purporting to witness a group of young conservative Republicans drinking and talking in a posh Washington hotel, at the height of the GW Bush Youth takeover. They were disparaging the liberal idealists who didn't understand the real world, whose idealism was proven to be futile and naive. They made fun of them by proposing to light some candles, hold hands and sing Kumbaya.

As soon as I read that I felt strange. I saw us in the 60s, not just at the March on Washington (and though I don't remember specifically, it wouldn't surprise me if we had sung "Kumbaya" on the march to the reflecting pool) but marching through the streets of a midwestern town that had never seen anything like a black-and-white together demonstration, or later huddling with a much smaller group in the town square with our candles lit in protest of the Vietnam war, amidst angry shouts from passing cars.

In some circumstances especially, I'm sure we did look silly. And looking back, I realized the delicacy of what we were doing, and how weird it might look now. Non-violent resistance was at the heart of the Civil Rights movement, thanks to Martin Luther King, Jr. And so it wasn't surprising that he opposed the Vietnam war, and that a significant part of the anti-war movement adopted non-violence. If you were going to oppose a violent war, it made sense to do so without violence.

In this space I can only hint at what it felt like to light candles and sing together: We Shall Overcome, We Shall Not Be Moved, If I Had A Hammer, Michael Row the Boat Ashore, and Kumbaya. Some songs that had literal meaning for what we were doing, others that were more symbolic, and frankly, easy for a large group to sing.

And our singing together was the point. We were singing, not fighting. Though we sometimes did this in an innocuous "hootenanny" kind of settings, we were usually where we weren't supposed to be, doing what we weren't supposed to do. We were making a statement, and we weren't always safe.

There were proximate threats of violence around us at times. But we knew we were standing against a violent society, that reverted to trying to solve problems with violence. We were standing for Civil Rights, racial justice and equality, an end to an unjust war. But we were also enacting an alternative to violence, emnity, mistrust and cynicism.

We knew and we made the principled and factual arguments. We knew and sometimes had to face the rage and hate of the opposition. So the singing was to express our emotions, to affirm ourselves and to connect, not only with each other, but some of those who might hear us.

All political change eventually depends on cultural and social change. That change is not entirely based on rational arguments, or to appeals to self-interest. Such change involves shifts in perception and commitment, matters not entirely of the mind but also the heart.

While conflict and barely bounded violence in politics may be part of change, social change depends eventually on consent, and change of heart. While this kind of change is ultimately in the hearts of individuals, what prepares for it and precipitates it is often social: relationships, the possibilities seen and felt when observing others behaving in a way, and for a reason, that surprises them. That causes them to consider an alternative, emotionally as well as conceptually and then politically. So maybe it wasn't so bad that people saw us, young faces lit by candle light, daring to look ridiculous by sitting on the floor and singing Kumbaya.

I realize that the Kumbaya cliche is deployed today to criticize a naive idealism detached from practical politics, a wishful thinking or an excuse to fall back from a political struggle. But for all the need to practice politics with courage, we should also be mindful of the resurgence of violence in political life. As recently as Friday, Rachel Maddow documented the increasingly violent threats made not just by a right wing fringe, but by established Republican politicians and officeholders.

It has not escaped notice that this loose talk of hanging, loading guns and violent overthrow has a racist tinge, which relates it back to the Civil Rights movement. Such reversion to violence at any level is dangerous to all. We should not be contributing to that mood. However it is meant, the Kumbaya cliche suggest to me that even on the Left, the need in our present and certainly our future for the skills of peace is out of fashion and perhaps out of consciousness.

"Kumbaya" is just a simple song with roots in an American minority. Apparently it got picked on because kids later learned it in camp. Some people value it as a religious song. I don't particularly, but it's a target for precisely the reason I do value it: they could have chosen We Shall Overcome but that might look overtly racist, and besides the lyrics are militant. They could have picked If I Had A Hammer, but its symbolism is simple and connected to militancy, and besides, it doesn't sound quite as funny, as easy to mock, as the one word: Kumbaya.

Whatever it has come to mean, the point is scorn. And scorn is not going to get us very far. Cliches communicate quickly, but they are reductive, and often careless. Cliches of scorn tend to discourage openness to alternatives. Cynicism is self-limiting. The future will probably be hard, but it can be full of meaning. It's going to require compassion, cooperation, empathy and altruism, and a lot of lives are going to depend on face-to-face community, including very small ones. Enough people, say, to renew their commitment to each other and to what they believe in and how they live their lives, by sitting together, holding hands and singing something like Kumbaya.

Monday, February 15, 2010

Can I interest you in a Beatles-theme retirement home? Not on your fat budgie? Well, maybe news on age discrimination in the workplace will interest you, in the post below.

Age Discrimation

For boomers not quite ready for Beatles-themed retirement homes--or more relevantly, who will never be able to afford to retire--there's some news about the job market: about age-based discrimination and how the discriminations gained by age can prove value even in a "new media" job.

The statistics on age-based discrimination (up nearly a third in 2008, and double the claims for all other reasons, including race and gender) won't be too surprising to boomers. I spent almost ten years wondering why I didn't get jobs or assignments for which I was more than fully qualified, before I caught on. Then the Supreme Court made winning age discrimination suits harder, and then Congress tried to make it easier.

Maybe some successful suits will help, but it's hard to fight cultural bias. I was sure employers would see that I had the optimum blend of experience and skill in my fifties, but turning 50 turned out to be the effective end for anything but jobs that don't pay enough to tempt any but entry level youngsters.

In publishing it's worse, and apparently in television it's even worse than that. This weekend I got a notice of a class action suit against television companies for discrimination against writers older than 40.

But some boomers who manage to get reasonably good positions are proving the worth of the particular contributions they can make. Jim Gaines was much more of a big muckedy muck than I ever was in print media, and he got a chance to work for a new media company with much younger writers and editors. They had to teach him the technology, and I'm sure there are new habits of mind that he'll never learn. The experience he brings comes into play in perhaps unexpected ways. Since he's gone through highs and lows, triumphs and the agony of defeat, he keeps his head. He comforts the afflicted.

He also has a clear idea of the mission. He can discriminate between the wheat and the chaff, and cut to the essential: "Media will change as radically as technology allows, and right now the Internet is moving over the media landscape like a tsunami. But the job I learned to love when young was to tell stories, and the story has lost nothing in this transition."

Although anyone who has that kind of focus from the beginning and can keep it will likely be pretty successful, that's the kind of discrimination that can come with experience. It's worth having around, if that's what the people in charge care about. Most places don't. Most places are caught up in other agendas. The kind of place--the company, industry, agency, office, etc.--where those in charge really value diversity, and the insurance that different perspectives, points of view, experiences provide, will see the value of boomer participation. And maybe even pay them decently.

Otherwise we'll get the assignments we get now: stuff that for one reason or another nobody else can or will do, at least not at what it pays.

Monday, January 18, 2010

Martin Luther King: Faith in the Future

"Sooner or later all the people of the world will have to discover a way to live together in peace, and thereby transform this pending cosmic elegy into a creative psalm of brotherhood. If this is to be achieved, man must evolve for all human conflict a method which rejects revenge, aggression and retaliation. The foundation of such a method is love.
I refuse to accept despair as the final response to the ambiguities of history. I refuse to accept the idea that the "isness" of man's present nature makes him morally incapable of reaching up for the eternal "oughtness" that forever confronts him. I refuse to accept the idea that man is mere flotsom and jetsom in the river of life, unable to influence the unfolding events which surround him. I refuse to accept the view that mankind is so tragically bound to the starless midnight of racism and war that the bright daybreak of peace and brotherhood can never become a reality.
I refuse to accept the cynical notion that nation after nation must spiral down a militaristic stairway into the hell of thermonuclear destruction. I believe that unarmed truth and unconditional love will have the final word in reality. This is why right temporarily defeated is stronger than evil triumphant. I believe that even amid today's mortar bursts and whining bullets, there is still hope for a brighter tomorrow."
--from Martin Luther King, Jr.'s Acceptance Speech for the Nobel Peace Prize, December 10, 1964.

Tuesday, January 05, 2010


An article on potentials of the brain as it gets older suggests valuable roles for boomer neurons, explained in the post below.
The New York Times recently ran a piece by Barbara Strauch on "How to Train the Aging Brain," which was top rated on its web site--testimony I suppose to boomer interest in the subject, as well as in newspapers, even on the Internet.

The advice--the "how to" part--was unsurprising: learn new things. But there was also some reassurance, both in terms of common memory changes (less retention of recent information, forgetting names, etc.) and in the latest brain science, which shows much less actual brain deterioration due to aging than previously believed.

But one paragraph in particular stood out:

"Recently, researchers have found even more positive news. The brain, as it traverses middle age, gets better at recognizing the central idea, the big picture. If kept in good shape, the brain can continue to build pathways that help its owner recognize patterns and, as a consequence, see significance and even solutions much faster than a young person can. "

Just as some of the problems ring a bell, so does this assertion. Maybe this is what they used to mean by the wisdom of years: perspective, the main idea, the big picture.

It's especially important now. Life is being reshaped so rapidly and extensively by pervasive new technologies that experienced perspective is correspondingly more valuable. It may not be as important to keep up as to keep an experienced eye on what's going on. Outside the main flow, you aren't swept up in it so completely as the young tend to be.

Information is still important, but different information (gathered from a span of time) and a different way of seeing it, makes different connections. It isn't the whole answer, of course. The blizzard can be as bewildering outside it as inside. But seeing significance and even solutions constitute useful contributions, that it seems we can more naturally make.