Saturday, December 31, 2011

A New Year’s Reverie: When Memoirs Meet (Smith, Wolcott, Kael)

The streets are cold, it’s hard to get a cab, and your jacket isn’t warm enough--Metropolitan captures that chill discomfort and how the conversations that string between two people walking from one bleak stretch of the block to the corner are part of the invisible wiring of the city, the connective tissue through which memories, memoirs, novels, and, yes, movies are eventually made.

James Wolcott offered a Christmas Nocturne that pointed out why Metropolitan is a great Christmas movie.

For me, this part of his passage envisions the other holiday bookend, New Year’s Eve: wherever go you, you have to get back. However engaging the festivities are inside, they are so often connected by those cold, bleak, deserted streets in the middle of the night. And that connective tissue that spools out far beyond the chatter in the street is, as Wolcott says, the thing of memories and memoirs, which seems an appropriate subject for a December 31 post.

I read Patti Smith’s memoir Just Kids in September of this year, and segued into Wolcott’s memoir, Lucking Out. The two together captured the art and soul of the 70s and pinged points in my own timeline. Reading the first-person tales of these cultural players I felt like a little ripple in the water from their radiating splashes, if I may be allowed such an aquatic metaphor.  My timeline would put me in college, in New Brunswick, NJ, in two of its vibrant scenes—indie/punk music, and poetry.

The Court and the Melody

Patti’s description of the beginning of her performing life and Jim’s description of the CBGB scene from its birth rippled into my later memories of the Court Tavern and the Melody Bar circa 1981, a nexus for new bands finding their voice in reaction to the revolution of Horses, Talking Heads 77, the Dead Kennedys, the B-52s, to name some of the standouts. When live bands weren't playing, the speakers thumped the new sounds, new rhythms (Ce que j'ai fait ce soir-là, Ce qu'elle a dit ce soir-là . . . . .Ay Ay Ay Ay Ay Ay Ay Ay). It was a good time to be young and dancing, dancing, dancing, with the thoughts of those papers that needed writing sliding away in waves of sweat.

Even some frats, Fiji in particular, had the vibe in the early eighties, at least for their parties. “Pulled me up” shook the house following Donna Summer, and jocks and denizens of the artistic dorm, Demarest, jumped “up, up, up” together, rubbing elbows and other body parts for the duration of the song, replacing the antipathy the clicks had when the same people passed each other on College Ave.

Wolcott from the epicenter:
“If I can pinpoint the moment the Heads burst through the attic and pointed north, it was the night when they introduced a new number, “Pulled Up,” where the joy whoop of “you pulled me up, up, up, up, up, up!” expressed a giddy, salvational energy that left Warholishm behind like a toy-model village as Astronaut Byrne shed gravity and saw angels knocking around. Not Blakean angels, like Patti’s, but Japanese toys.”

Patti in the epicenter:
In 2010 Patti played a benefit for the Court Tavern, along with The Smithereens and Slaves of New Brunswick, at the State Theater. She had never played there herself, but knew of its historical importance and current need for young bands.

“Smith had two raps for the night, one being about not just saving the Court, not just saving New Jersey, but saving “the whole fucking world!,” her arms often outstretched to hold, or pumped in fists over her head in triumph. The other was about simple perseverance being the key to almost any undertaking in life. Be it music, art, or owning a bar, she hammered home, passionately, that it was the people who kept going that matter, despite being thrown down and fucked over again and again, the people who get back up and keep going, despite the odds, despite what others may care or think, are the ones who triumph.” Mike Black, The Aquarian

William Blake & Allen Ginsberg

 I lived off campus for 2 years, for a short time in Kevin Hayes's apartment on Plum Street that was party central for the academic set. 

He had a tradition of an annual blow-out party for the vibrant poetry scene in NB. One party from 1981 or ‘82 stands out: Alicia Ostriker, a poet who taught at Douglas, edited an edition of complete Blake poems for Penguin, which Allen Ginsberg liked and used for his own work. I think Kevin had arranged for Ginsberg to come for a reading, and then there they were in my old living room, along with the editors of the newly launched lit journal Long Shot, Eliot Katz and Danny Shot, and 100 others on couches, under couches, virtually hanging from the chandeliers. It was the scene from the film Breakfast at Tiffany’s, minus the suits (but with several B-52's inspired bouffants).

At one point I was in the kitchen talking to someone about my Milton class with the delectable William Keach when Gregory Corso walked in looking for a bottle opener for his beer, and saying, “Milton. So here’s where all the intelligent people are.” What a great opening line. I’m sorry to report I was too unsure of myself to engage him in conversation. The graduate students, however, pounced.

Somewhere long after midnight I was standing on the 4 or 5 step down from the top of the stairs to the apartment, having a conversation with someone sitting on the landing. The door opened and Allen Ginsberg and some of his entourage were leaving. As he walked down the stairs behind me, he turned and kissed the back of my head. A literary benediction of the highest order. A little of just what an English major hopes to find at college.

Patti from the epicenter:

“...I went through our belongings and found exactly fifty-five cents, slipped on my grey trench-coat and Mayakovsky cap, and headed to the Automat. I got my tray and slipped in my coins but the window wouldn’t open. I tried again without luck and then I noticed that the price had gone up to sixty-five cents. I was disappointed, to say the least, when I heard a voice say, “Can I help?”I turned around and it was Allen Ginsberg.

We had never met but there was no mistaking the face of one of our great poets and activists. I looked into those intense dark eyes punctuated by his dark curly beard and just nodded. Allen added the extra dime and also stood me to a cup of coffee. I wordlessly followed him to his table, and then plowed into the sandwich. Allen introduced himself. He was talking about Walt Whitman and I mentioned that I was raised near Camden, where Whitman was buried, when he leaned forward and looked at me intently.

“Are you a girl?” he asked
“Yeah, I said, Is that a problem?”.
He just laughed. “I’m sorry. I took you for a very pretty boy.”
I got the picture immediately.
"Well, does this mean I return the sandwich?"
"No, enjoy it. It was my mistake."

He told me he was writing a long elegy for Jack Kerouac, who had recently passed away. “Three days after Rimbaud’s birthday”, I said. I shook his hand and we parted company.
Sometime later Allen became my good friend and teacher. We often reminisced about our first encounter and he once asked how I would describe how we met. “I would say you fed me when I was hungry”, I told him. And he did.”

Circles and Squares
 I took one film theory class in college, where we worked our way through the big Gerald Mast/Marshall Cohen compendium, which put Pauline Kael’s "Circles and Squares" right after Andrew Sarris’s "Notes on the Auteur Theory in 1962" so you can easily read the two together.

That’s a treat everyone should enjoy once in their lives.

Kael eviscerates Sarris with the simplest of tools: a close reading of the text, with her passion for what she sees as the idiocy of the approach—-and particularly his use of “internal meaning” and “élan” which she hammers on repeatedly-—making the pages almost too hot to turn.

One example, but there are so many:

"Sarris believes that what makes an auteur is 'an élan of the soul.'(This critical language is barbarous. Where else should élan come from? It’s like saying “a digestion of the stomach.” A film critic need not be a theoretician, but it is necessary that he know how to use words. This might, indeed, be a first premise for a theory.)"

Later she cries, “I am angry, but am I unjust?”

Wolcott from the epicenter:

"She couldn’t stand 'stiffs,' whose tastes were fully formed, rigidified, and stuck in the petrified forest of the past, and those of us sitting in the Algonquin were on the upswing of our careers, just starting our scouting missions. These were the years of encouragement. Some would stray off target, disappear into the reeds, defect from criticism under the pressure of unfulfilled expectations and career frustrations, or simply find something more frolicking to do, Pauline being more ambitious for them than they were for themselves. In a sense we would all fail Pauline because none of us would surpass her defiant nerve, her resounding impact.”

I happened to be walking through a nighttime Times Square on September 3, 2001, with The Talented Mr. Ripley and Cadfael, when I looked up to see Pauline Kael dead at 83 making its way along the zipper. Crossroads of the world, a crossroad of my life (although I didn’t know it then) and now the end of era, which was just a week away from the end of life as we knew it. Not what Kael had in mind when she opposed Sarris's Circles with Squares, but a cinematic moment I hope she would appreciate.

Happy New Years everyone! All the best in 2012, the Mayans notwithstanding.

Patti Smith at State Theater Court Tavern Benefit, cover of Jim Carroll's "People Who Died"

Wednesday, December 28, 2011

Occupying My Thoughts: I Was at Some of the OWS Predecessors

Councilman: When was the last time you cut your hair?
Drama Teacher: When was the time you brushed your teeth, sir?

Billy Jack, 1971

Protester Chris Johnson, 32: Occupy "has opened up a dialogue that hasn’t
existed since I've been alive." #OWS

Brian Stelter tweet, 11/15/2011

That exchange from Billy Jack is one of the first TV movie trailer lines that I remember. Commercials for Billy Jack were on all the time, and I heard this line 100 times along with its theme song, “One Tin Soldier.” (I still have never seen the movie.)

It was the time of the Generation Gap: there were hippies and the establishment and something about not trusting anyone over 30. The VietNam War was on. I didn’t understand all this at 9, but I definitely felt a general sense of turmoil “out there” in the world as it seeped into TV shows, commercials, music.

Since then, and before the OWS phenomenon emerged, I had occasionally wondered, what had happened to all the protesting? Where were all the mass gatherings to shout “No” to something, a question that the picture of the OWS protestor answers: we've been asleep.

Before we close out the year of 2011, the birth year of the extraordinary Occupy Wall Street Movement, I offer some historical precedents that I witnessed. It seems I wandered into two historic demonstrations when I was in college.

Solidarity March in Washington for PATCO Strike

I marched in the Sept. 19, 1981, AFL-CIO's Solidarity March on Washington with my Rutgers activists friends. The Air Traffic Controllers went on strike organized by the its union PATCO (Professional Air Traffic Controllers Organization) on August 3. Ronald Reagan fired anyone who didn't return to work 48 hours later, under the Taft-Hartly act that prohibits federal employees from striking. Nearly 12,000 controllers were fired when they didn't return to their jobs. This march in Washington organized by the AFL-CIO was in solidarity with then. A descript from Wiki:

The solidarity march, with 250,000, was even bigger than the great 1968 march. In other ways the march was a new experience in post-war Washington. Because, though many groups and parties supported the demonstration, it was overwhelmingly a demonstration of organised labour. It was the first major demonstration to have been organised for decades by the AFL-CIO.

The protest was well organized and well financed by the unions. Buses brought us to Washington, we were given maps to navigate the metro to get to the mall and box lunches. At 19, the whole thing was fun. But there was also an undeniable sense of helping, of standing up to the establishment, or being part of something bigger than yourself. The thing was, I was with Reagan on this one. But it didn't matter. I was supportng with my physical presence, and that's all the organizers cared about to raise their rally numbers.

I was curious about what impact this rally had on the strike. Here’s an assessment from, written for the 30 anniversary of the strike which was this year:

The most significant factor in the defeat of the PATCO strike was the refusal of the AFL-CIO to come out in support of the strikers. It was imperative that the unions counter the attack with a national shutdown of air travel and organizing mass demonstrations across the country against Reagan and the bosses.

Instead the AFL/CIO leadership hid behind their lawyers and continued to try to placate the employers with concessions and “partnerships” which only led to new attacks. The massive, half-million strong Solidarity Day rally in Washington DC in 1981 was largely symbolic, and despite pressure from below, there was no further action against the union-busting offensive that continues to this day.

Another assessment from a culture of the eighties site:

To the chagrin of the PATCO strikers, and the surprise of nearly everyone else, the FAA's contingency plan functioned smoothly, minimizing the strike's effects.

There wasn’t much support for the PATCO strikers. The public sided with the government and exhibited little sympathy for individuals whose earnings were already well above the national average. AFL-CIO president Lane Kirkland accused Reagan of "brutal overkill" in firing the strikers, and another union leader complained that the president was engaged in "union-busting," but pilots and machinists continued to do their jobs in spite of the PATCO picket lines, while labor strategists criticized [Robert] Poli [PATCO leader] for calling an ill-advised strike that damaged Labor's image.

In October the Federal Labor Relations Authority decertified PATCO.

Well, that was all surprising to learn. The march was for show, and not a display of power. The only real solidarity would have been a complete general strike, like they have in England, but no labor leader was willing to go that far.

Protesting in Britain: The Greenham Common Women’s Peace Camp

When I went to Southampton, England, for a semester in 1983, I was one of 70,000 who linked arms in April to form a human chain from Greenham Common to Aldermaston to the ordnance factory of Burghfield as part of the No Nukes movement to protest nuclear weapons being sited at the old World War ll RAF base at Greenham Common.

This movement was more similar to OWS in that it wasn’t a one-day action. A Welsh group, Women for Life, arrived at Greenham in Sept. 1981 to protest the British government allowing cruise missiles on the base. The first blockade was in May 1982, and the first Embrace the Base event in Dec. 1982. The April 1 human link-up received a lot of media attention and put the movement on the world map, which "prompted the creation of other peace camps at more than a dozen sites in Britain and elsewhere in Europe."

As a participant, this was different from the Solidarity experience because of the women’s leadership. Of course men participated, but it was decidedly a “women’s action” and that added a layer of a specific kind of camaraderie and “sisterhood is powerful, ” decidedly feminist vibe to the action. I was only there for the April 1 link-up, but some of the Southampton students stayed at the camp for longer periods between studies.

From International Museum of Women

The U.S. missiles left the Berkshire common in 1991. After they were removed, the women stayed to ensure the land would be handed back to the community. In 1997, the land was finally sold to the Greenham Common Trust, whereupon it was passed back to the local council for just £1. The perimeter fences of the old base were taken down in early 2000 and after nineteen years of continuous presence at the site, the women peace campaigners closed down the camp, packed their belongings, and left.

No one credits the Greenham Women’s Peace Camp for the U.S. decision to leave that old RAF base, the end of the Cold War had a little something to do with that. The USAF returned the Greenham Common airbase to the Ministry of Defense, and they decided to close the base. But 19 years of continuous presence to advance an idea is impressive,inspiring.

And now, OWS

Physical activism isn’t in my blood. I think it’s a propensity, like anything else, that I don’t have, so I didn’t continue to participate in organized protests after college. I have not gone down to Zucotti Park to witness or join in. I only know what I experience in social media.

Certainly there hasn’t been anything in the last 30 years that has captured the imagination the way Occupy Wall Street is doing. It’s the energy of the 60s and 70s resurfaced: for the young of the protestors it’s the first blossoming. For the middle aged, it’s a touchstone back.

For me, its best accomplishment is to give some corporeal form to the disgust, hatred, outrage that we 99% feel for the greed, swindling, fiduciary abuse of Enron, Halberton, AIG, and on and on and on. The bonuses on Wall Street are still obscene, the “too big to fail” mentality still dangerously prevalent.

But beyond this service, I don’t understand what the OWS is hoping to accomplish. Here’s a video they produced to thank their supporters. They are looking forward to 2012, and I’m certainly interested in what they do next.

Saturday, December 24, 2011

O, Holy Night!

Christmas Eve is the most distinctive night of the year. As an adult the frisson comes from the commemoration of Verbum caro factum est: And the Word was made flesh. In simplest terms, the creator of life sent his son to help people cope with the painful difficulties of being human. Which is why it’s so horrific that the Church that Jesus founded on St. Peter suffers from all the greatest of the human difficulties: arrogance, ignorance, sexual perversion, aggression.

G. K. Chesterton’s quip— “Christianity has not been tried and found wanting; it has been found difficult, and not tried”— sadly refers to the Church in many was as well as to individuals.

But on Christmas Eve, the sense of hope and optimism blinds all the darkness. And one hymn captures all the beauty and life we are celebrating, the exquisite O Holy Night: a poem by a French wine merchant/poet, set to music by a French composer, translated for the English-speaking world for the ages by a Unitarian minister.

The entire poem is lovely, but these lines particularly are what I hold on to. The wine merchant really understood what it’s all about..
It is the night of our death Savior’s birth.

Long lay the world in sin and error pining,
'Til He appear'd and the soul felt its worth

In all our trials born to be our friend.

Truly He taught us to love one another;
 His law is love and His gospel is peace.

Chains shall He break for the slave is our brother;
And in His name all oppression shall cease.

Celine Dion has a very beautiful performance.

Merry Christmas to all, and to all a good night!

Saturday, December 17, 2011

A Visit from a Friend of Dudley's from The Bishop's Wife

I’m not particularly fond of angel pictures, neither tv nor features. I never got into Touched by an Angel, or Highway to Heaven, and even Holly Hunter’s grittier Saving Grace doesn’t draw me in.

But there was an angel named Dudley who made an impression. I saw The Bishop’s Wife as a child, and I was entranced by Cary Grant, the most suave, engaging messenger of God there could ever be. A God who can make Cary Grant surely can do anything.

The Catholic Church recognizes these divine agents (angels that is, not actors). They are not people who have died--as Hollywood often depicts--but heavenly beings in a celestial hierarchy: seraphim, cherubim, thrones, dominions, principalities, powers, archangels, and angels.

“St. Thomas teaches us (Summa Theologica I:113:4) that only the lowest orders of angels are sent to men, and consequently that they alone are our guardians, though Scotus and Durandus would rather say that any of the members of the angelic host may be sent to execute the Divine commands.” New Advent Catholic Encyclopedia

In The Bishop’s Wife, Bishop Henry Brougham (David Niven) prays for help in building a new cathedral. Dudley arrives in answer to that prayer, and becomes a part of the Bishop’s life, which includes his wife, Julia (Loretta Young) and daughter Debbie.

What the film captures so well is that moment of Henry in prayer, with Dudley entering in response, and then, his work done and guidance given, his leaving, with no trace of his being there. Except for Henry, who has a dull feeling about something he can’t quite remember. And yes, I had faith that this kind of story was theoretically possible and not a fairy tale.

An Angel at Her Elbow
The film was always a favorite of mine, but it took on more resonance about 15 years ago. My mother was trying to quit smoking, again. My niece had just been born, and my brother didn’t want any smoking near her. But my mother had been smoking for forty years, and they say that for some, the addiction to nicotine is harder to break than heroine.

One day my mother was shopping in the mall when she stopped to light up a cigarette outside of a fabric store. Out of nowhere there was a woman at her side, coming from her blind spot whom she only saw out of the corner of her eye. The woman touched her elbow, and said, “Please don’t smoke." My mother was completely startled. She turned to say something to her, and there was no one there—only a bunch of young mothers tending to children in strollers.

It’s such a cinematic moment, it would be so easy for me to film this story.

That was the last cigarette my mother smoked. She simply hasn’t had another since.

A little Divine intervention?

It could have been a woman who had lost someone to lung cancer, and was compelled to ask total strangers to stop smoking, and then was really good at running away, so as not to have a confrontation.

Yup. That’s possible.

It could have just been a coincidence that after that encounter, my mother was finally able to not light up again. Coincidences happen all the time.

Then again . . . it could have been an angel, visible for a moment, when that moment was most needed.

Friday, December 16, 2011

Christopher Hitchens: So Women Aren't Funny, but We Can Appreciate You & Kipling

Words are, of course, the most powerful drug used by mankind.
Rudyard Kipling

I was a fan of Christopher Hitchens's literary side, not his political or theological pursuits. I love that one his last articles was a reflection on Rudyard Kipling for Slate. I enjoyed many of his literary essays for The Atlantic through the years, and am so happy that they are online to read again.

But it was his hilarious, outrageous, insane 2007 article for Vanity Fair, "Why Women Aren't Funny" that I remember most, for its great writing, real-life observations, and strange vulnerability. The day I first read it in 2007 it completely related to something I had been thinking about, and so this post about my schooner days. What I didn't remember is that Hitchens works Kipling into that piece too, quoting his poem "The Female of the Species."

The world has lost a distinct voice, and one that genuinely spoke for the great British literary tradition. I admire how Hitchens wrote his way through his dying, verily proving Kipling's quip about the power of words.

My Post from 2007: Schooner Girl
I was rearranging my library to accommodate new titles that had stacked up, when a large leather-bound old compendium toppled from the high shelf and whacked me on the head. That got my attention, and I sat on the sofa, poured a scotch, and flipped through its stories by Maugham, Wallace, Huxley, and decided to stop at Joseph Conrad’s Youth.

The unnamed narrator introduces us to Marlow (who will later lead us into the heart of darkness), but here he tells the tale of his first command of a ship at age twenty in “Eastern waters,” a ship that sinks after an explosion, and puts him and his crew into lifeboats for 12 days.

I was enjoying the tension in Conrad’s world between the exuberance of the young, “There was a touch of romance in it, something that made me love the old thing-- something that appealed to my youth!” and the burdens of the seasoned, “youth, strength, genius, thoughts, achievements, simple hearts--all die . . . . No matter.” when I was startled by this sentence: “The deck being blown up, it had fall down into the lazarette of course.”

Lazarette. Oh my gosh. My own considerable sailing adventures came flooding back with that unique word in a way the tale hadn’t conjured. It’s often left out of my bio, but I crewed on a schooner for summers during college out of Sag Harbor, New York. The Appledore was the last schooner custom built by the Harvey Gamage Shipyard in South Bristol, Maine. After Herbert Smith sailed it around the world, he sold it to Cornelius Donovan and Ed Orr, two dreamers who were making a business of day sails in Gardiner’s Bay, and overnights from Montauk to Block Island. That’s when I entered their story.

The lazarette is a storage area in the bowels of the stern. In a schooner it is large enough to crawl into. It is an exotic spot—you see the hull, you are in the skeleton of the ship. You can’t get closer to the mythos of sailing than this.

There are many schooner stories to tell—there were some rough days and some funny ones--but one thought is in the fore. I had two main mates—George and Bobby. Schoonermen: a type of alpha male. They need to be highly skilled and brutishly strong. I was the first woman brought into the franchise, to help the passengers feel more comfortable. George and Bobby were skeptical at first, but I pulled my own weight, never complained, and soon my presence on the ship was welcomed. We fell into a rhythm of drinking Mount Gay & OJ together in port at the end of a sail, sitting and watching the sun set and laughing at the day’s events, before they went off and did their real drinking.

George had popped into my head earlier today (before Conrad landed on it) when I read Hitchens’s provocation fancy in Vanity Fair. “For men, it is a tragedy that the two things they prize the most—women and humor—should be so antithetical.” He’s all over the place with this, which I’m sure will result in much blogbabble. “Filth. That's what the customers want, as we occasional stand-up performers all know. Filth, and plenty of it. Filth in lavish, heaping quantities.” But George taught me that, sometimes, men want the civilizing influence of women, apart from as the price they pay for desire. No one swears like a sailor, and a schooner sailor is top dog. I didn’t impinge on George and Bobby’s natural order, but I offered an alternate to some of its excesses. At the end of the summer I was walking away from the Appledore when George caught up with me to say I was the truest lady he had ever met, and he was glad to sail with me.

Men, they will surprise you.