Thursday, May 30, 2013

Union Atlantic--Book Review

Is it possible to think of ourselves, individually, as a composite--like some large organization?   Can we consider who we are as a multi-unit entity that has become because of our history, something so complex that we don't quite have an ability to manage ourselves without, inevitably, messing up.

Are we at once like some of the companies for which we've worked, quirky and conventional; intelligent and clueless; rational and how-could-we-have done-that illogical, ethical and immoral,---with a voracious need to fill the voids that are the result of loss.

And if we cannot imagine ourselves this way, can we at least see our society/communities/cities as such a multifaceted amalgam ostensibly trying to succeed but hobbled by damaged components.

I live in a blue collar town that borders several affluent communities.  My town and a neighboring one regularly hold used book sales out of their libraries.  In the blue collar library the space for the book sale is as large as a nice sized classroom.  When I have been there for the sales, the place has few customers.  In the adjacent white-collar library, the sale is in a basement the size of a double wide.  Go there on the day of the book sale and it is a mob scene.

There seem to me to be four types of critters who go to the basement sales.  The first are used book dealers who see bargains galore, books selling for 2 dollars that they can sell for ten in their establishments. They cart cartons of books out of the place within the first hour of the sale.  Then you have parents with little kids who hover around the children section.  The third group are serious readers. People who gobble books like others eat bananas and read 2 or 3 a week.  These folks will cart bags of books out of the basement. Then there are people like me; folks who read a book, maybe two or three a month.  I typically go the second day of the sale when the crowds have thinned. Last time I went I was looking through the novels section and began conversing with another of my ilk.  She picked up a book, and I told her that I thought it wasn't worth it. And then another which I strongly endorsed.  She pulled Union Atlantic from the stacks and told me I would like it.

I finished it yesterday and it is too bad that the woman with whom I was conversing is someone I am unlikely to ever see again and don't know her coordinates, because I would like to ask her why she liked the book.  I've been trying to make sense out of it since last night and the jury is leaning toward dismissal.

What is the book about?  Tough to answer. By title, it is about a large bank called Union Atlantic.  The book starts and ends in the Persian Gulf,  but most of it takes place in suburban Boston.  A successful banker who came from poverty buys a house in an affluent suburb where his mother used to go to clean.  The banker's neighbor is an eccentric woman who talks and listens to her dogs and, we find out, lost her true love to an early death.  There is a young man who hangs out getting high with his rich kid cohorts, who goes to the eccentric dog whisperer for tutoring and then meets up, inexplicably and incredibly, with the banker.  And there is the brother of the quirky woman who it appears is grounded by a sense of responsibility and a moral compass.  And everybody has suffered some significant loss.

Usually, in a book with several characters, a story coalesces around these characters. Here, the stories while connected to some extent, do not meaningfully coalesce.  And it is from this that I have thought that one might extract from the novel the notion that we are composites of events and histories that might not connect and nevertheless mark out our paths.  And what is common to us all, is some real or symbolic death.

One other point.  I have read many books where the sex in the book is gratuitous.  It is as if the publisher says to editors, "Look, I need 120,000 words, a romance, a compelling plot, and three steamy scenes.  Don't bring me a manuscript without the steam."  The sex in this book--while gratuitous and unconvincing as is the case in many other books--I think is also political.   To explain this would be to reveal somethings that would give too much of the book away. So, if you are interested, write to me and I will explain.

I can't quite recommend the book. It is too disjointed.  The kids and Doug and Nate and Charlotte and Henry and Holland and the Persian Gulf. I don't believe Nate and Doug.  Can't fathom the import of the opening scene in the Persian Gulf.

The author writes well and there are lines that resonate.  My favorite refers to a retired educator, "Toward the end of her years at the school, even her better students had become mere harvesters of fact, unwilling to be transformed by what they might learn."

I like reading books because they often help me think and I might be transformed in some way, by what I might learn.  The idea that we are all disjointed composites like some Union Atlantic multifaceted bank, and our directions, unless we act to intervene, are fueled by loss and flawed connections of our own making is interesting to contemplate and, if it compels us to intervene, then the notion can be edifying, valuable and--who knows--maybe transformative.

Monday, May 27, 2013


Today is Memorial Day.  A day set aside to honor those who fought for our country and perished. As a high school classmate wrote yesterday, veterans have their day, this is not it.  This is the day to honor those who lost their lives to protect our country.

It is a day that has lost its meaning in many quarters.  To many, today is a day off and that is all. Occasionally one will remember why we have the day off.  Sometimes that occurs when we are trying to get somewhere and find our route obstructed because of a parade.  Memorial Day, in New England at least, is when families gather for barbecues. Very big barbecue day around here.  When I was a kid, Memorial Day, meant double headers--a day when my dad, a veteran, would often buy us tickets to see the Giants, and later the Mets, play in the Polo Grounds.   For years my buddies Kenny and Fran would rendezvous somewhere on the holiday weekend and cavort using the extra day for ease with travelling.  Now I typically use Memorial Day to unwind, and "cavort" by doing next to nothing.  I recall the former football coach, Bum Phillips's quip when he was asked what he was going to do with his days during retirement. "Not a damn thing" he said "and I won't get started until noon."

 I can remember a very hot Memorial Day weekend, 1979.  Kenny and Fran had been up.  I was living by Lake Erie at the time.  After they left I met a fellow in town who had a flag, but seemed sour.  We got to talking and he said that there was supposed to be a gathering but few showed up and he said he was thinking about fellow soldiers he had lost in Vietnam.

I blogged here a few years ago about a book I read called, A Bright Shining Lie.  It was about the war and traced the military life of a John Paul Vann, a soldier who went to Vietnam committed to fighting for our country and determined to help us win the war.  The more time he spent there, the more he realized that the purported reason for the war was an illusion.  There is so much that has been written about the war and its origins.  One of the more startling events to the naive, and at the time I could count myself in that category, was the Tonkin Gulf Resolution.  A careful reading of what took place during the alleged "Tonkin Gulf Incident" makes it clear that President Johnson embellished if not fabricated the "event" to justify gaining support for the war.  Vann was not referring to the incident specifically when he commented:  

"We had also, to all the visitors who came over there, been one of the bright shining lies."

One of the more disturbing references in the book was a discussion of what was called "The Kill Ratio."  This referred to the number of "their guys" killed to the number of "our guys."  Holding aside a discussion of whether in our world there is really such a thing as "their guys" as opposed to "our guys" the idea that the "Kill ratio" was used as a meter for success is disturbing. If there is a kill "ratio" that means that one of the numbers refers to our soldiers that will die.  We are putting our soldiers out there to die in the hope that more of their soldiers will die.  In Vietnam the soldiers who died, died for no reason. The Civil War and World War II and other military conflicts were necessary, but my contemporaries who were killed in Vietnam were sent to the slaughter.  And today is a day to remember them and, at the same time, commit to a vigilance that will reduce the chances that we will ever be concerned with such a horrific concept as the kill ratio for a dubious cause.

Saturday, May 25, 2013

Your tax dollars well spent

I went to workout tonight.  When I passed by the check-in counter I overheard a conversation between the clerk and someone who had to be a guest.  He wanted to know where the locker room was.

When the visitor passed through the turnstiles I told him to follow me and I would show him where the locker room was.  I'd heard him also ask the clerk where the pool was, so I told him I would show him that as well.

We begin to converse in route to the locker room and he tells me he is visiting his parents in Boston this weekend. He lives in Maryland, he says, northeast from the capitol near College Park. We shmooze a bit in this very short journey from the turnstiles to the locker room.  When we arrive, I tell him how to access the pool.

He tells me a story which, in retrospect I believe, was intended to relay how glad he was to have a pool in which to swim. At the time, what struck me about the story was what will strike you as significant.

As you know there is this phenomenon going on called sequestration.  I have not been able to understand why the term is used but to be fair I haven't been exploring how/why they have selected the label.  To sequester someone is to put them someplace away from others. Juries are sequestered when the judge feels that contact with those outside the jury could contaminate the deliberation process.  The current fiscal "sequestration" relates to funding cutbacks so I am not real sure why the term applies.

The fellow tells me a sequestration story.  Apparently, the government decided to drain the public pools in Maryland. Why?  The chlorine necessary for the pool was  a cost that someone determined could be eliminated.  So, the pools were drained to save money on the chlorine. However, the  fiscally responsible people whose salaries we pay as taxpayers, made no cutbacks to the staff who work for the pools. The lifeguards, for example, maintenance personnel, administrators of the pools were not cut back. The lifeguards  arrive at work daily. There is no water in the pools, therefore no swimmers to protect. Still they are paid to stare at an empty pool. Maintenance workers have no pools to clean because there is no water in the pool.

Makes you feel good about sequestration, No?

Friday, May 24, 2013

Stern Men and Girl Friends: Book Reviews

Liz Gilbert's book, Committed, is one of the better non fiction books I've read.  I enjoyed Eat, Pray, and Love the more popular predecessor which was made into a very good movie that, for reasons I can't quite understand, did not receive great reviews.  So, when I saw the book Stern Men, by Liz Gilbert at my local library's used book sale for the grand price of one dollar, I scooped it up considering the purchase a grand bargain with the promise of reading joy on the horizon.

The other two books I'd read were non fiction. Stern Men is a novel written before either of the others. It is her first novel though she had published a book of short stories previously. I'd not read any of her fiction before picking up Stern Men.

Stern Men is about a woman. She does live on an island and on the island are fishermen, several of home are, I guess, stern.  I would characterize them more as quirky.  There is one older affluent woman who is more mean and selfish than stern.  There is an older affluent man, more enigmatic, than stern.  Not so sure about the title.

Not so sure about the novel or story either.  (Don't read this paragraph if you want to read the book).  Young woman lives with a sad sourpus of a father on an island. She is friends with a quirky neighbor and spends time with the neighbor and the neighbor's quirkier sisters and the neighbor's large brood.  Most people on the island fish. They, the islanders, are a poor cousin to the denizens of another island.  The young woman goes to boarding school because of the largesse of an affluent relative of sorts. She comes home after boarding school, hangs out does nothing, meets a fellow who does it for her. Has one very steamy scene with this fellow.  And then zip zip resolves several issues the islanders have and she has.

I looked at the amazon reviews for the book and many were quite positive. So, what the hell do I know. And I would love to love a book by Liz Gilbert.  But this one did not do it for me and I wondered as I was reading it, if even she knew where this was going as she started with the writing.

Girl Friends by Diane Schwartz is an epistolary novel that begins in 1944 and continues into the early 1960s.  It consists of letters written between, well, girlfriends, some fellows, and one enemy.  I enjoyed reading the book. It touches on issues related to world war II, relationships of course, McCarthyism, the emergence of women's freedoms to escape traditional and restrictive norms, homophobia, and how a childhood folly can haunt one throughout life--regardless of whether it should or actually has proven to derail us on our life journey. Easy, pleasurable, read.

Go Left

Somehow, I have gotten on a Facebook list for a group that is called Go Left.  Because of this I receive multiple posts daily that advocate for a liberal agenda.  They are the kind of posts that will make a liberal Democrat smile and say amen, and infuriate a conservative Republican.

I am glad that I am on this list but not glad that I got on this list.  How did this happen?  It happened because someone somewhere who has a level of sophistication with computers that renders my knowledge infinitesimal connected me to this group.  Since I enjoy seeing these entries- in this instance--the connection is not a problem.  But we all can understand the potential for problems.

I can, as could anyone I believe who writes a blog, identify how many people visit the blog.  I can tell if they are from North American or other continents.  The analytics does not break it down to people who live, say, in Louisiana as opposed to say, Montreal or Kansas--but I know if someone in Great Britain or Spain or Australia or North America etc has been reading what passes for my wisdom.   Another thing the blog analytics tab provides is the link that a reader uses to access the blog.  90 per cent of the visitors access my blog via my website.  Among the other ten percent I notice various alien looking links.  Yesterday I noticed one such link that was unfamiliar.  I clicked on it and up popped an image so pornographic that it offended even my difficult-to-offend sensibilities.   How did this happen that somehow this link became associated with my blog?    I clicked on another such link once and was witness to Nazi propaganda. 

We are still in the Wild West in terms of new technology. The outlaws are out there.  And the methods for identifying and apprehending the miscreants are primitive. In the meantime, don't kid yourself.  We are vulnerable.

Wednesday, May 22, 2013


I took the train in today.  One of our cars needs a new clutch and so I was dropped by the commuter rail to make the 8:23.

My buddy Kenny and I once kidded each other and said we'd never take "the 8:23" meaning we'd never be one of those guys who has to make a train to get to work.  We lived on Long Island growing up and there was a train line, the Long Island Rail Road, which had as its slogan: "The flight of the dashing commuter."  These words were painted on the side of train cars with a picture of a man in a suit dashing to make "the 8:23".  We laughed at such proletarian folly.  "Not for us." we said.  He has stayed true to the promise and drives two easy miles to toil.  Typically, I drive into traffic, today I was a dashing commuter.

Not so bad.  Walked down the steps to the Auburndale stop. Waited with other dashing commuters who were reading papers or staring at their hand helds.  And once on board, sat silently next to another dashing commuter and interacted with a conductor who could have been right out of 1956. He took my dough, detached half of a ticket, and stuck it in a notch at my seat.

I got off at Back Bay 22 minutes later-- on time-- and began the walk to school.  The route I selected took me through the Copley Place mall and Prudential Center mall.  I am not a mall guy.  Don't like going to them to shop and, even as a kid, never enjoyed hanging out there.  But the Copley Place and "Pru" mall are different; elegant in a non pretentious way.  So sauntering through there is not a bad path to take in the a.m.

As I got to the junction of where the Copley mall ends and the bridge to the Pru mall begins, I saw a very long line. It was so long that initially I could not see what the commuters were lining up for.  Then I saw what I should have predicted: Starbucks.  Had to be thirty people in that line, easy.  I pass those queuing for their morning fix, proceed through the pedestrian bridge and am in the Pru mall.  I walk the width, am nearly to the Sheraton that anchors the west side, and again see an enormous line.  Again, I can't readily see why.  I get closer and it is a Dunkin Doughnuts.

Once in the early 80s I was in a fender bender in New Jersey. I called my insurance company and answered a bunch of questions.  One was whether I had been taking any drugs before the accident. I said, "just coffee."  She laughed.

When I was in college there was a big to-do about the perils of drugs.  Then in the 80s, Nancy Reagan did her "Just Say No" bit.

Folks, coffee is a drug.  The folks lining up for Starbucks need a fix.  It's not for the overpriced muffins that they wait twenty minutes on a queue.  When I return tonight, Starbucks will not be as well populated.  However, there is, near Starbucks, a bar which will be buzzing.

Similarly, this evening folks will be lining up at pharmacies to get their legal drugs to reduce anxiety, depression, and other maladies brought about by living.

I never did much in the way of drugs in college.  Never "dropped acid' or "did a line of coke."  Thought it was too risky.  But I contend for many of those who did, they are no worse off than those who wait for twenty minutes for a cup of pick-me-up, or pay 6 bucks for a beer draft, or drop a xanax at night to deal with the aggravations that accrue.  I am not unaware of horror stories of those who did  become addicted to illegal drugs and I am not minimizing the risk with this or condoning it.  Rather, I think there are legal drugs that get a pass and when we talk about the perils of drugs we might want to look at our own legal consumptions as well.

Tuesday, May 21, 2013


You have probably been there.  Thoughts surface to your consciousness which may not have been suppressed but had been just lurking.  Then they surface.  As if some storm has entered your head, some confluence of this and that has disrupted the terrain and now, cerebral junk impedes your daily activity.  Our physical and psychological maneuverings are infected.   And the result is that in your head, at least, there is chaos such that it is tough to do what you do effortlessly during a normal period.

It occurs when someone you love tells you, explicitly or otherwise, that you are no longer in the picture.  It happens at work, when you are told you have failed or sense it yourself and you wonder why in the world anyone would hire you.  It happens when someone dies or becomes incapacitated, someone who was a part of your foundation, and you realize how important was that floorboard of your life.  There is chaos.

Extrapolating from chaos theory one can assume that such periods are predictable in that they are inevitable, and that the result of chaos can actually be something positive or at least something that provides a new opportunity.  Yet when you are swamped by chaos the wisdom of chaos theory cannot gain entrance to the miserable conditions within your head.

Poe's Raven muttering Nevermore was incorrect even if it was perched on a bust of Pallas the goddess of wisdom.  Chaos does not persist unless one chooses to perseverate. Chaos evanesces if, when you are able, you open the door and allow the foul air to escape.  Consciousness without chaos is something that one can retrieve.  "Quaff oh quaff that sweet nepenthe and forget the lost Lenore."
There may be no true nepenthe, but there is time and time can be considered such.

The wonder of sport and its value as metaphor is that there is always another game, another opportunity for a clean slate with which to demonstrate your capabilities and value.  The New York Rangers down 2-0 to the Bruins have a shot tonight to win and make the series competitive.  The Memphis Grizzlies pummeled by San Antonio on Sunday can come out tonight and play like champions.

And we can, however heavy our hearts, no matter how heartbroken or bereft, have a shot at another day.  We the living can escape chaos.  Not by artifically revising our world with booze or illusions, but by opening the doors to allow sadness to leave the premises and recognizing that it may take time for it to go.

Thursday, May 9, 2013

truth and history

At my high school reunion last summer several people brought and then pulled out the year book.  A buddy of mine was perusing the pages, when he commented and congratulated me on being a regent's scholarship recipient.  In the yearbook under the mugs of the valedictorian and salutatorian were two lists. One was headed with the words Regent's Scholarship Recipients.  And the other Regent's Scholarship Alternates.  There, under the list of scholarship recipients was my name.  What would be curious to anyone who studied the page was that the salutatorian and valedictorian whose pictures dominated the page, were not on the recipients list, but on the alternates list.

For those of you who are putting someone through college now or are paying off your own loans, the following information might be painful.  My college tuition to attend a newly constructed university, with a new library, gym, theatre complex, dormitories, classroom, fountains, new everything (so new in fact that much of it was not completed when I arrived), the college tuition was a grand total of 400 dollars a year. I have not left off a zero.  That is four hundred dollars a year.

To offset this financial burden on the children of the citizens of the great state of New York, the regent of the state university of New York, gave high school students a test each fall. This test was called the Regents Scholarship Exam.  There were 300 questions. If you got 100 out of 300 right, ( a score of 33 per cent for those arithmetically challenged) you earned what was called an Incentive award.  The Incentive was a one hundred dollar a year or fifty dollar a semester reduction in your tuition bill should you choose to study in New York State.  Now, you don't need to be a wizard to get a 33 on a test, so anyone who was even thinking of going to college was going to get an incentive rendering annual tuition 300 dollars a year.

To further reduce the financial burden, the regent provided a nearly total tuition scholarship for those who scored competitively higher on the test.  The score you needed to get to earn a scholarship depended on where you lived. So, if you lived in an area where there were hundreds of bright students you might need to get a higher score than in an area where you had a graduating class of 40 dullards.  

The yearbook plainly indicates that I was one of the smartypants at my school because I earned one of these scholarships.

However I didn't earn a scholarship--at least not at first.  I was what was called an Alternate. This meant that if enough scholarship recipients decided not to go to school in New York, I might get the money.  This is what happened, but I did not initially get the scholarship--I was an alternate..

I can't imagine that historians are going to select regents scholarship winners as a subject for their investigations and monographs.  If they did, however, they might create a narrative about who did and who did not get awards based on the fact that whoever was in charge of that page of the yearbook, made a mistake and switched the lists.  All the true smartypants in the school were listed as the Alternates, and all the smartypants-lite folks like me were listed as recipients.

Who are the winners in history?  Are they the winners, or are they the ones who have been recorded as winners either in error or by design.  What we are told is history is the narrative that, we'd like to think, is based on fact but is just as likely based on error or subjectivity.

Who are the heroes in politics, religion, education, diplomacy, and social change?  We'd like to think we learn about this in school and in large part we do.  But what if the narrative is wrong and perpetuated as such because the examination of artifacts is prejudiced by an historian's agenda, or the integrity of the artifact itself.  Nobody will care much that the valedictorian of my class appears not to have qualified for a scholarship.  But decisions will be and have been made on the basis of other "facts" which have been perpetuated in our history and cultural narratives.

This concern for truth in history has surfaced this week because of the anniversary of the Kent State killings. The four students who were murdered that day posed no threat whatsoever to the National Guardsmen who shot them.  Two of the students were walking to class with their backs to the shooters when they were slain. The other two were similarly unarmed and even with a rock (had they been inclined to hurl them and neither were) could not have hit a Guardsman since they were the length of a football field away.  And no apologist for the shooters should ever be allowed to have any bogus retelling of the events gain traction.

Sunday, May 5, 2013

all the flowers

It was coincidental, but still eerie, to go to the movies last night and see "The Company You Keep"--a  movie about 60s activists now in their late 60s.  I had decided to see a movie since it had been a while, saw that this one had gotten good reviews, and went--on the anniversary of the Kent State murders.

The audience was composed of people of my vintage.  Many in the theater could identify very clearly with the characters in the film.  At one point the silence in the auditorium was so evident that I did not want to eat my popcorn because I knew that the sound would be audible throughout. Not an exaggeration.

Yesterday I posted something on Facebook about the Kent State murders.  A number of contemporaries commented that the victims of this incident could easily have been themselves.  If you are about to collect social security, you very likely marched or otherwise protested the war in Viet Nam.  It could have been you at Kent State or Jackson State.

I saw another posting this morning from a high school classmate about the killings.  He wrote simply, "What has changed? Tell me." and then subsequently, "Where have all the flowers gone?"

The power of the film last night was enhanced by seeing aged film stars in the various roles. We don't know Robert Redford and Julie Christie personally, but we do through their acting and we have seen these two as youngsters in The Sting and Shampoo and others. In this movie they have aged (and it seemed to me made up to make sure they looked older).  Redford, Christie, Nick Nolte, Susan Sarandon, and other familiar faces show up. And it is as if we can see ourselves aged.  How they reacted to time is akin to how those we knew from that era also reacted.

I think my classmate with his "what has changed" question was saying, in essence, that nothing has.  When he asked "Where have all the flowers gone?" I'm thinking he was asking what happened to the ends we desired and what has happened to all of those/us who once advocated for a world where flowers would not go to young girls, girls to soldiers, soldiers to graveyards, and graveyards to flowers.

The day and movie made me wonder how much off course I have gone since those heady days.  It is important, I think, to do this self analysis now and again and get back on track.  I never was a militant protestor and I found that some of my contemporaries were less interested in political reform than political power.   Some characters in the film reminded me of those whom I could never consider in my camp.  But others seemed to have stayed true to principles even after they went mainstream and I hope I can say that of myself when the dust settles.

The film had some gaps in the plot, but if you are from the sixties and in your sixties, I think you will find portions of the script spot-on, you will recognize the characters, and maybe you'll see yourself in the movie.  "Where have all the flowers gone?" is a good question.  After seeing the film you might feel like I did, that you need to look into the mirror and see if you're on track to contribute to what you claimed you desired for us all in the 60s.

Saturday, May 4, 2013

May 4

Tin Soldiers and Nixon coming
We're finally on our own
This summer I heard the drumming
Four dead in Ohio.