Some people are discomforted by the spectacle of an obviously stroke-disabled Dick Clark continuing on as host of ABC’s New Year’s Eve countdown show.
I’d like to offer an alternative point of view.
I think it’s swell that one network, on one night of the year, allows a space for a disabled person to host a show as if there were nothing about being disabled that required shame. The other 364.9 days of the year television can revert to showing us only shiny perfect hosts.
I give credit to ABC for this despite the possibility that they have no choice in the matter–i.e., it may be that Dick Clark has a contract with them and is holding them to it. Either way, I think it’s great, and I can handle having reality in my living room for one hour a year.
Poor Lou. Whom will we utterly destroy next?
As friends of Harvey Pekar and his wife and frequent writing partner Joyce Brabner, my wife and I have been gratified to see the attention Harvey’s death has received in the printed press and all over the web. But in addition to being gratified, we’ve been surprised. The attention is deserved. But she and I agree that Harvey would have been stunned by the amount of it. Make no mistake, Harvey was no shrinking violet; he wasn’t one of those writers who was “only about the work,” to the exclusion of caring how his work was received and by how many. He derived pleasure from the attention his work brought him; he thrived on the crowds that showed up for his lectures, readings and book signings; he enjoyed that the movie American Splendor opened up new audiences to him. But I don’t think he dreamt that as many people cared about him as actually did, or that his impact on the culture was as large as the sheer number of obituaries and other commentaries about his passing testify to.
When Harvey appeared on David Letterman’s show several times twenty-some years ago, he and Joyce would ask us to call them in their New York hotel room that night to give them the view from out there in televisionland. I confess that on the night he confronted Letterman with the war-making sins of General Electric (parent of NBC, Letterman’s network at the time), I cringed. I knew he had burned his bridges, and that most of the viewing audience along with the studio audience and Letterman had turned on him. I suppose I said something fairly anodyne to him that night, along the lines of “wow, that was gutsy,” but I thought Harvey hadn’t been wise. Now, watching the video of that appearance on YouTube in the light of Harvey’s passing, I see it differently. I see it as an amazing act of courage. The fact that that sort of thing still doesn’t happen on television only makes it more heroic in retrospect. It stands out as a singular moment of bravery in broadcast history.
The New York Times has a good obituary on Harvey. It’s sort of ironic, because he was always trying to get pieces into that paper. He succeeded once or twice, but I remember lots of conversations with him telling me how they were jerking him around, delaying publication on something of his or canceling it altogether, not paying him on time, not returning his phone calls, etc. I don’t think he would find any particular revenge-gratification in how they’re honoring him now, I think he would simply be pleased. “Hey man, The New York Times. Not bad, huh?,” I can hear him say. He knew he was somewhat famous, he knew he had fans, but I don’t think he knew just how much he meant to people and to the culture. I would like to believe that wherever he is, he knows it now.
When a story appears in the news about the death of a toddler from hyperthermia, due to the child’s having been left strapped into a car seat in a parked vehicle by a forgetful parent, people react with outrage.
“That parent deserves the death penalty.”
“Subconsciously he must have never wanted that child.”
“Any parent who could do that is a monster.”
“She should be sterilized so she can never bear children again.”
Read this article from The Washington Post, written in March of last year, and you won’t feel that way.
We construct narratives to reassure ourselves that we could never commit such a deadly, tragic error. These narratives demonize those who do. The narratives have the purpose of making us believe we don’t live in a universe in which anybody can make any mistake, because the idea of living in a universe in which anybody can make any mistake is too terrifying for us to live with. But those narratives are wrong.
We all make mistakes we live to regret. Usually these don’t involve responsibility for someone else’s death, but they can produce guilt nonetheless. For example, as the first anniversary of my mother’s passing approaches, I am tormented by feelings that I should have flown to Baltimore to hold her hand in her last days. It was a Friday that I learned she had only a week or so to live, after years of declining health due to congestive heart failure. I would have flown to her side that day or the next, but I teach Sunday School, and I felt it important to honor that obligation. So on Friday I reserved the first flight to Baltimore on Monday morning.
At my temple on Sunday, just before Sunday School was to begin, I received a call from my wife that my mother had not lived several more days as expected, but had died in the night. I flew out to Baltimore as planned the next day, but now the purpose was to arrange for my mother’s funeral, rather than to comfort her in her last days of life.
I had reasons to choose the way I did. I was told by her doctor when I called him on that Friday that my mother’s death was likely not imminent within 72 hours. I had a responsibility to my Sunday School children. I felt my mother would approve and be proud of my taking care of that responsibility. My mother was in a morphine state in which she probably would not have been aware of my presence had I been with her. All these things are true. Yet I am still having a hard time forgiving myself for the choice I made. I’m haunted by images of her passing into death frightened and without either of her children by her side, even as I know, or at least hope, that the morphine made her journey a peaceful one.
If the article in The Washington Post can make us understand and forgive even the terrible mistake a parent can make by leaving an infant in a locked car — and if you read it, I think you’ll agree that it can — maybe there’s hope that we can forgive ourselves for the choices we make. I hope there is.
Today, a rare “guest column,” written by Jim Dyer after his return from visiting the site where The Battle of the Bulge in World War 2 took place — a battle in which his father was an infantryman.
“J.J. Bittenbinder is a recognized authority on assault prevention.”
In Chicago, there’s an ex-cop by the name of J.J. Bittenbinder. He lectures on personal safety on the mean streets of the city. One of his talks is about not getting shot if somebody holds a gun on you and wants something you have.
His first rule is “run”.
Before you even think about getting in the car (absolutely do not get in a car) or before you think about struggling (you’ll get shot at close range — count on it), or pulling your own gun (your assailant will take it from you and kill you with it), run. Put distance between yourself and the person who has the gun. Bittenbinder presents a calculus of survival that goes something like this: at close range thugs have about a ten percent chance of hitting one of your vital organs on the first shot. For every X feet (ten? twenty? I don’t really remember) that you put between the thug and you, your thug’s chance of hitting you at all decreases by a factor of ten. If you get in a car with a thug with a gun, you’re about 90 percent certain of being dead within minutes.
Run. Run like crazy. That’s the deal. Do not look back. If you run, you will almost certainly survive.
In Diekirch, Luxembourg is the National Military Museum. In it is some of the detritus of the Battle of the Bulge. Bits left over from one of the most bloody battles in history. Somewhere in this museum, or maybe in the Patton Museum in Ettlebruck, or maybe in both, is a glass fronted case about seven feet tall and two and a half feet or so wide. In it is a mannequin dressed in the typical field gear of the American foot soldier who fought in the Battle of the Bulge. He’s got on wool uniform pants, shirt, a wool scarf, or balaclava over his head, a helmet, a wool trenchcoat, leather boots. He wears a web belt with a strap over the shoulder, on which is hung his canteen, ammunition pouches, and I can’t rememember what else.
Not a rig made to run in.
This is the gear my dad wore in the Battle of the Bulge. In the woods of the Ardennes. In the neighborhood of Diekirch. In the worst winter in Europe in a hundred years. Also carrying a bazooka, a rocket launcher about four feet long.
I remember one story my dad told about how after firing a bazooka you run like hell because the flash and the smoke trail tells whoever you’re shooting at exactly where you are. He was in a town, or on a farm, and he had fired his weapon, and he was running along a wooden fence about six feet high, or so, chin strap unbuckled, rifle over his shoulder, bazooka in one hand and the other hand on his helmet, holding it on and he came to the corner where this fence turned, and his head banged into something. He looked up and his head had banged into the helmet of a German soldier. They looked at each other for a split second, turned around and ran like hell. I can see J.J. Bittenbinder nodding his head and saying, “Exactly.”
“Much of the Ardennes is covered in dense forests, with the old mountains averaging around 350-500 m (1,148-1,640 ft) in height”
Running as a solution to being shot is not an option in the Ardennes. There’s a trail in Bettendorf, between Diekirch and Echternach maintained in memory of my dad, and the 85,000 American casualties inflicted during the few months of the Battle. Along this trail are stations showing details of what it was like. Foxholes. Tank Tracks. Graffiti carved in the trees. Small bunkers with tin roofing stolen from farmers’ barns. Most impressive, though, at least to me, was the forest itself. ‘Dense’ as Wiki describes it. A tree every four or five feet. Connected by underbrush.
I imagine trying to run in these woods. Getting my canteen, or my web belt, or my rifle, or my bazooka caught on the branches and undergrowth. Tripping over roots. Not going to happen. My dad’s not running in these woods, that’s for sure. I imagine my dad sitting still, not running, and the scratchy wool of his uniform rubbing his neck raw. His wrists. His ankles inside leather boots. Wet leather boots. And later his feet blistering and bleeding from being in water up to his knees for days on end. Freezing water. Until he finally has to face the fact that he’s got trenchfoot. Frozen feet. And he can’t even walk, much less run to keep from getting shot. And being my dad, somebody has to tell him he can’t walk. And tell him his Battle is over. And carry him to where he can get transported out. Maybe he’s glad. Maybe not. Probably he’s glad to be out of there. I would be. For sure.
“Some vehicles, like the M4 18-ton High Speed Tractor, gained popularity back in the 1950s when Revell put out a model of the 155mm M2 “Long Tom” gun with the tractor and a crew of figures, and this neat looking vehicle first became known to modelers.”
Some time in grade school I went through the plastic model phase, and actually built a model of the M4 with its long gun in tow. I know my dad watched as I put it together. What I now know is that there’s a beautifully restored M4, or one of its close relatives in the National Military Museum in Diekirch. Out front, in reasonable shape is a 155mm artillery piece just like the one I assembled. I was struck by the fact that across the aisle in the main hall of the museum was a very similar artillery tractor left by the German army. The American tractor was sharp. efficient. well built. On the German one, the windshield frame was wood. Rough wood.
I asked the museum docent about the wood windshield frames. He nodded and confirmed that the Germans were pretty much on their last resources at that time. Then he mentioned that he had been called out by a farmer and the police the day before to help investigate a skeleton that had been found on the battlefield. It was a German artillery horse. Horse drawn artillery. Child soldiers commanded by officers hardened on the Russian Front. Brutal. Now, as I write this, I wonder what my dad thought about this model I made of the M4 with its long gun. I can’t even begin to speculate. Dad never said a word.
I tried to engage him about a year before he died. Showed him some pictures, gave him copies of a military history of the battle in the Diekirch region. Tried to talk to him about it. Truthfully, I was looking for closure. I was looking for some explanation of issues and attitudes, hurts real or imagined, a fuller picture of why he was the way he was, why I am the way I am. He never rose to the bait. With few exceptions, like the story I related earlier, he kept his mouth shut.
“There are known knowns. These are things we know that we know. There are known unknowns. That is to say, there are things that we know we don’t know. But there are also unknown unknowns. There are things we don’t know we don’t know.”
I know there’s a better quote somewhere to sum up what I learned when Mooneen and I spent two days chasing dad’s combat service this summer. From a better literary mind than Donald Rumsfeld. I can’t think of one at this moment. As I journaled about what we found in Luxembourg, I knew I hadn’t found the explanations, the causes and conditions, the closure I was looking for. I did learn two things:
It’s not the war. It’s the man.
And, It’s not the father. It’s the son.
I learned it’s me.
And part of me is from the region of Diekirch. In Luxembourg.
Okay, stay with me now.
The other night I saw a silent movie on TCM, a terrific comedy called The Patsy from 1928 starring the talented (and unfairly maligned*) Marion Davies. What struck me was not how different everything is 81 years later, but how much is not different. The world portrayed in the movie is recognizably a modern one. People get around in cars. They talk on the phone. The attitudes and motivations of the characters are clear to a 2009 audience. The jokes are funny. Quite a lot of the freshness of the film is due to the performance of Davies; her gestures and gesticulations and body language seem to break through time altogether. No translation, no “making allowances,” is necessary.
One was left feeling that despite all that was different on the surface — the fashions, the decor, the absence of computers, etc. — the world of 1928 was the same, in any way that mattered, as the world of 2009. This surprised me.
Now for something completely different. Let’s take my birth year of 1950, and go back 81 years from that. The year? 1869. The Civil War is barely over. People traverse long distances by stage coach, or train if they’re lucky (the first transcontinental rail line is completed in that year). The Wild West is at its wildest. Nothing is the same as in 1950. It is a completely different world.
The difference between 1869 and 1950 is Mt. Everest compared to the molehill of difference between 1928 and 2009. Yet what separates each pair of years is exactly the same time span — 81 years.
This leads me to think the tremendous changes that occurred in the first decades of the 20th century — widespread automobile use, the birth of air travel, the coming of mass communications like movies and radio — made a much bigger impact on life than anything we’ve seen since, even in this computer age. We complain about change; we don’t know the meaning of the word change. 1890-1920: That’s when everything changed, in a way we’re still living with today. Even though the pace of life is faster today, when it comes to change, we’re pikers.
Everything we have now is a version of something that existed in 1928. Nothing, really, is qualitatively different. Take music downloads. Sure, it’s a whole new delivery system. We might think it’s revolutionary. But essentially, it’s recorded music, just coming at us a new way; it’s today’s version of the 78. Compare that to before Edison, when there was no recorded music. If you wanted to hear music, you had to go hear somebody play music — or make it yourself. The invention of the phonograph around the turn of 20th century — that’s when change happened. We’re still living in that world.
We think time is passing faster and faster. But in reality, time has slowed down. To an absolute crawl.
*Marion Davies was the mistress of William Randolph Hearst, and when Orson Welles’ Citizen Kane came out (a movie loosely based on the life of Hearst), people assumed the Susan Alexander character — an untalented singer who becomes Kane’s mistress, and whom Kane uses his millions to push into the limelight — was based on Davies. But although in real life Hearst used his influence and money to promote Davies’ career, a key difference is that Davies was marvelously talented. Welles himself recognized this difference, admired Davies, and later regretted that his movie had damaged her reputation.
Several forces lately have focused my attention on the challenge of staying true to our passions in an unsupportive world.
How do we stay true to our passions in an unsupportive world? Several forces lately have conspired to focus my attention on this question.
An internet mailing list, of which I am a member, is devoted to the discussion of original cast musical theater recordings. Recently a discussion began concerning the members’ experiences as children and teens. When young, did we find friends who shared our love of the great Broadway musicals, the works of sublime genius created by Rodgers, Hammerstein, Lerner, Loewe, Loesser, Sondheim, Styne, and their ilk? (Small ilk.) Or did we not? This discussion forced me to examine a truth I hadn’t ever quite acknowledged: that I did not have a single friend, growing up, who listened to this music. How did I keep doing it? Why didn’t I succumb to “peer pressure” and change my tastes to conform with theirs? How did I sustain my love for great Broadway music in the complete absence of positive reinforcement?
I would say that the music itself gave me no choice. Once you listen to it, if you are susceptible to its charms, you discover just how much is going on in it, and most other music seems thin gruel from then on. And that’s part of the answer. But not all of it.
Something has to give you the strength to go on being alone, being interested in the things you’re interested in even if no one else is. In some sense you are like a character in The Twilight Zone who discovers he is the sole inhabitant on earth, or like the astronaut at the end of Kubrick’s 2001 who lives out his days in the absence of a fellow creature. Sure, you derive sustenance from the knowledge that someone out there likes the art you like, because someone is putting out recordings and other people are buying them. You just don’t know any of those people. So you have to be comfortable with being lonely. And the more comfortable you get with it, the more you start, in some sense, to prefer your loneliness. You begin to feel that loneliness is the only way for you to survive, because to join the crowd would be for you to relinquish the essence of who you are. We are what we love.
Now, did I lack for friends who appreciated my interest in musical comedy? No, I had those. When a song parody was needed “to the tune of” some Broadway standard that everyone could sing to, they knew I had a talent to amuse. And I felt they respected my peculiar interest in the musical, in the manner that people often respect someone who sticks to his guns against all odds. And that was certainly a whole lot better than being made a pariah for it. But how different it would have been for me, had I found even one or two boys or girls who actually shared my passion, instead of just acknowledging it. Some of the correspondents on the mailing list reported having been lucky enough to find others like them as children and teens, and it made me wonder how different it would have felt to have lived that alternative adolescence — and how much less used to being alone, and comfortable with it, I might have become.
Mind you, this was in the fifties and sixties, when the Broadway musical was much more a part of the mainstream culture than it is now.
Even more amazing than that I didn’t know a single other child or teen who was into the same music I was? It’s that once into adulthood and a creative advertising career that involved the production of music, some of it in a theater-influenced style, I encountered very few people who shared my passion for the music even then. In my three decades of adult life before the internet, I think I accumulated a grand total of four friends with whom I can have a conversation listing the ways in which Stephen Sondheim is a deity walking among us or how Carousel makes us cry from the first notes coming from the pit in act one.
A lifetime of accretion of knowledge on a subject that very few people know or care anything about can make one seem like a sufferer of Asperger syndrome when the knowledge comes pouring out, observes my friend Jim Dyer. On the other hand, when the specialized knowledge is interesting to people, when they can count on you to know the answer to a question they actually want to know the answer to, the line between “Asperger sufferer” and “fascinating expert” is a thin one.
Here are some words about Asperger syndrome found at Wikipedia:
…restricted and repetitive interests and behavior…intense preoccupation with a narrow subject, one-sided verbosity…a person with AS may engage in a one-sided, long-winded speech about a favorite topic, while misunderstanding or not recognizing the listener’s feelings or reactions, such as a need for privacy or haste to leave.
So yeah, maybe that’s what I’ve got.
All this is by way of preface to my recommending a new book by Steven Suskin on the great Broadway orchestrators. It’s one of those books on such an obviously important subject that one can’t believe it hasn’t been written yet, but nobody did it before Suskin. The sound of Broadway was at least as much the work of orchestrators like Robert Russell Bennett, Don Walker, Robert Ginzler, Sid Ramin and Irv Kostal as it was the work of composers, and now the orchestrators get their due. Suskin writes in satisfying detail not only about what they did and how they did it, but the stylistic traits that distinguished one orchestrator from another. Throughout the book, Suskin acknowledges, in asides, how very few people will be interested in his subject, and also, how very interested those few who are interested will be. And he’s right. For anyone who loves Broadway, being immersed in the book is like being in paradise. As thorough and complete as it is at 565 pages, when one is reading it one wishes it were twice as long as it is. If you are one of the small number of Americans who are into musicals, and you know who you are, you will find it fascinating, even if you have little or no knowledge of technique. (Suskin wrote the book for the non-technical reader; all you need is ears.)
But this whole isolated, socially-awkward, narrowly-shared passion, Asperger thing…it’s a much bigger subject than Broadway musicals. With me, it was that. With you, it’s something else. Something you’ve always been into that, unless you’re very lucky, practically no one else in your “real life” has ever been. Thank goodness for the internet, where we can find more people who share our interests than we may ever have found without it. But what about all those years before the internet? Somehow, and I don’t mean this lightly, we found a way to survive without surrendering what made us special, found a way to remain who we were. Let’s all give ourselves a pat on the back for that, let’s all give ourselves a hug. And hug, virtually, each other.
Boys must have something in them that prevents them from seeing their mothers as pretty, or, God forbid, sexy. The incest taboo that lives not only in our heads but in our cellular structure works to make sure that Mom is not pretty in our eyes, or ugly either, but just, well, Mom. The rare moment breaks through this wall of denial — the smell of Chanel No. 5 when you are seven and she is about to go out to a Saturday dance, an aroma that awakens a glimmer in you that your mother has an existence outside the role you need her to play exclusively — but by and large we sons are blind to our mothers as women.
My mother, widowed by my father two years ago, died a week ago today, at the age of 88. While we sat shiva in her apartment this past week, my eye kept going to the wedding picture of her that my sister had placed on the credenza in the living room. The photograph put me in a trance. She was beautiful. The picture of the girl-woman in 1940, just shy of her twentieth birthday, conjured up the spirit of the Selma who must have been living inside my mother all these years.
I had always loved my mother, and she seldom had cause to doubt that. But now I was in love with her. I could sense the qualities, physical, mental, and spiritual, that made my father adore her, made him happily dedicate his life to her. It was safe, now, for me to see that. The feeling now pervades my memories of her, and I am not ashamed of it. I am under her spell now in a way I could not be when she was alive. I think that’s the way she wants it.
I turned 59 yesterday.
In the new economy, 59 is the new 84.
The comedian Louis CK shares some truth.