Monday, October 16, 2017

Tango Anyone? by Constantine Gochis

One of the passions of my youth is the Argentine Tango.  I become an aficionado, particularly of the strict, precisely rhythmic stylings of Edmundo Ros and his "compadres" from that mythical "Cafetin de Buenos Aires" where Tango is a religion rather than a dance.

I never do get to learn the dance itself. Life has a way of interposing so much of inconsequence, interrupting some of the really valuable things in our brief journey. Now, in the autumnal days of my life there is a resurgence of the rhythm and the dance.  Night clubs of flourishing that provide "Tango Nights".  Several movies have the Tango as a theme and more are in process.  For me, the interest is still there, but in retrospect, in old memories.

I hear that a senior center is offering classes of instruction--though here let me protest as an aside. There is an anomaly about ancient bodies with creaking joints attempting what might be termed a viable alternative to sex, metaphorically speaking.

Tango is a required dance in annual competitions.  It is part of the Latin phase of trials.  Sadly, the dancers today have none of the flavor of the originals.  The couples have adopted soe jerky staccato head movements, which to me seem like robotic gyrations, overly stylized and inanimate as opposed to pulsing humanity.

In my teen years I frequent a night club in the New York area that is heavily Germanic in population.  It is called the "Corso". It has a Continental ambience, with two orchestras, one given exclusively to the Latin, the Rhumba, Conga and most importantly, the Tango, with one exception, the Viennese Waltz, which could not be trusted to an American orchestra.  One thing about the Germans. They have precise rhythm.

In those pre-war days, both sides of the street, on Eighty-Sixth Street between Second and First Avenues, are occupied by Teutonic bistros similar to the "Corso".  One, in particular, hosts the weekly meetings of uniformed Nazi Bundists.  We are not angry at this time at Hitler, and war is still far away from New York City.  The clubs are where boy meets girl.  They are universally successful.  The ladies come in pairs or groups and occupy the tables.  The guys cluster at the bar hovering over their beer Steins until the music starts at which point they able in full masculine plumage, towards a target of opportunity to solicit a dance.  The boys and girls become very friendly indeed, through this very popular rite of Spring.

But I digress.  I started this discourse on the subject of the Tango.

I do not learn to do the dace well enough to meet the epicurean standards of the elites who frequent the "Corso", so I decide to get some instruction on the subject.  I am usually slow to follow my resolutions.  In this case, a war interposes itself, I marry, making the acquisition of this skill of less urgency.  It is some ten years later that I catch a television interview with Arthur Murray and his wife, Catherine, in which they extol the virtues of their national dance studios.  I decide to take a few lessons.  My wife looks at me quizzically but I assure her that I will share my newly acquired expertise with her alone.

I find an Arthur Murray studio on 43rd Street, on the East side of Manhattan.  The hostess interviews me in a large, mirrored room.

"Do you dance?" she queries me. I answer with modesty.

"Some," I reply.

She arises, places a record on a phonograph, and invites me to the dance.  The record is of special construct, taking us through a variety of rhythms--waltz, rumba, fox trot, even a paso doble, then a popular Latin dance.

We return to our interview locale.  She reaches into the desk and withdraws a form.  In size, it appears to be 8 and 1/2 by 11 in size, but it unfolds downward until it is almost as tall as I am.  I only see such a form when I am still in the Military and have to fill out the traditional Army application for security clearance.

She begins to check boxes, mouthing, as if to herself phrases like, "Needs instruction in leadership, balance, has sense of rhythm. . . "

I wait patiently as she makes other check marks without comment.  Finally, she addresses me.

"We have just the course for you," she says.  "It is a lifetime course, which allows you twelve social events in our ballroom.  On sale now, just eight thousand. . . ."

I interrupt.

"I would like just five lessons in the Tango."

She ignores me.

"Well, perhaps that's a little steep," she agrees.  She then makes a precipitous descent from eight to four, to three, all in the thousands.

I stop the free fall.

"I would like just five lessons in the Argentine Tango."

She does manage a few more offers, the last one in the area of eight hundred, and then retreats to a mo re defensible position.

"Ok," she says.  "If you change your mind you can apply the payments for your lessons to the new contract."

I am led to a private room, also mirrored, and introduced to a very short sturdy looking girl.  I was sure that if one too her waist as to the point of demarcation, she was divided into two equidistant parts by the Maker of all things.

The first lesson is a disaster.  My instructor is an addict of the new dance craze, the Mambo.  I end up holding he hand as she gyrates around the room to the drums of the currently ubiquitous Mambo Number Five by Perez Prado.

I receive five lessons, some of which deal with the Tango.  I learn several patterns.  During each session the hostess appears and they hold whispering conferences.  The hostess is checking on the progress in selling me a more advanced course.

The last remark reaches my ears.  "Ya wanna sell him? You try.  Good luck."  She stomps one of her sturdy short legs for emphasis. 

I use the three patterns I learn to good advantage.  No one really knows what a real Tango looks like, so I fake it on the occasions where the need arises.

About Arthur Murray and his studios?

A New York Post reporter enrolls in a "Lifetime Course" with Arthur.  She discovers that you can use up a lifetime very quickly.  She talks to many elderly ladies some of whom are on their second and third "Lifetime Courses."  You see, the young and charming dance instructors also lend their skills at the social get togethers.  They become as necessary to the clients as psychotherapists are to modern needs.  Extras received diminish the longevity of the "Lifetime" courses.  The reporter writes about this higher education of the dance. 

I wonder if Arthur returns the money laid out for her "Lifetime Course", when she goes undercover.

It is my guess she does not get her money back.  The newspaper gets its expose but I meet a charming senior lady who reads all the articles and signs up for her third "Lifetime Course."

Sunday, October 15, 2017

Prophecy by Constantine Gochis

It was a dark and stormy night. Uzama trembled as the slanting rain vented its wrath against his fragile enclosure.  He shuddered at the resounding claps of thunder that were followed by blinding flashes of lightning. It seemed to him that the gods were especially angry.  He clasped his palms before the idol in the sacred apse of his rustic room and prayed.

But it was not the elemental storm that created his fear.  It was the prophecy.  And thruly there had been the predicted signs.  Three, there would be, the Holy Man had said.  He could hear his strident voice, though when he heard them first, he was only a boy.

Last night, when a dark cloud slowly withdrew its obscuring shadow from the sky for a brief respite, there was an orange ring around the moon.  This was the first predicted sign.  He watched from his window as another relentless darkness overspread the pendant sky-lantern.

As if in response to the luminosity of the orb, the wolves began to howl.  True, they did this every night, but it was many hours too early before their prey, the caribou, were wont to thunder across their ambush for the hunt and their nightly feast.

Worst of all, he braced himself for the third sign.  It did not come.  He held his hands against his ears, to no avail.  The voice of his memory persisted; he could hear it though it had not come. The old seer had long ago implanted the unheard sound of doom into his brain.

"You will hear the shrill cry of a child through the maelstrom, and though you hide your head beneath the pillows of your bed, the sound will assail your soul."  Thus, the Holy Man foretold the coming though he did not say what was it that was coming--or who.

Uzama felt the rushing of blood to his face.  He was suddenly ashamed.  The villagers all knew of his obsessive concern about the coming apocalypse. They mocked him playfully though carefully.  It is not that they thought him a coward.  He was known for his courage.  He was, in fact, sitting on the enormous white fur that had once enclosed a polar bear he had vanquished single handed.  The bards of the village celebrated the epic struggle in song.

Over the years he had witnessed the first two signs many times but the third, the compelling cry of the child had not manifested itself; thus, the obsession which always began at the first sign of a dark and stormy night.

But he could not still his fear.  This storm seemed the worst he had ever witnessed.  There was a violence of the sheet like waves of rain as if it was competing with the lightning and thunder for preeminence in the conflict of nature.

Then it came. It pierced his brain.  He could not define it. It was at once animal and human--perhaps a newly born child.  Uzama braced himself for the "Coming". 

What evil was about to take him into darkness. Where? There came the rushing of the wind that seemed to threaten the foundation of his sturdy hut, the earth below trembled and the sacred idol fell to the floor and shattered.  Uzama's consciousness left him. Then suddenly. . . .

He awoke.  He looked about him in terror.  There was no rain, no lightning, no thunder.  He gazed out of the window at a cloudless sky and the huge round moon that hung like a friendly lantern illuminating the emptiness, the soundlessness, of the limitless whiteness outside.

He turned and made obeisance to the Idol in its sacred repository.  Was it his imagination? Was that a smile on the inert face of the figure of the Maker of all things?

Friday, October 13, 2017

Public School 55

Image result for ps 55 the Bronx

Rummaging through some of my dad's writings once again, and found the one that follows about his time at PS 55. I wondered if the school still exists all these years later--if dad were alive, he'd be 99. So it is, perhaps a little worse for wear looking at the picture, but definitely the same building in which my father, when he was in elementary school, wandered the halls in his prepubescent days. I offer his memories of a time gone by.


I cannot claim some epiphany to account for my change of demeanor from the incorrigible delinquent of my Greek parochial school days to a model of decorum in my new Public School environment.

Perhaps it was the shock of entry into what seemed to me an institution of such profligate opulence when contrasted to the poverty stricken Greek American Institute, a school that could not even provide paper for our examination, where we purchased this necessity, a sheet of lined yellow pad paper for two cents, from the nearby candy store on Eagle Avenue of the Bronx.

I marveled at the orderly desks whose tops one could lift in order to deposit personal property; the Gymnasium with mats to guard against injury in physical activity; ropes that hung from the ceiling where one was encouraged rather than forbidden to clamber up; different classrooms and different teachers for different subjects and, a very undemanding curriculum. It was a veritable paradise. 

I wore my glasses and brought all my books to class.  I sat at attention, my arms held folded below my desk in the manner prescribed by my previous indoctrination. It was an attitude so uncharacteristic of the students that Miss Mantell, my first teacher, came to my seat, ostensibly to welcome me but paying curious attention to what my hands might have been doing under the desk.  She was young and beautiful. I was immediately stricken with love.

The class was unruly. I marveled again that authority was so easily confronted.  My sympathy was for this trim, soft-spoken teacher and I longed to destroy Benny Kendler, the class comedian and ringleader in her defense, but she quickly aborted the insurrection by announcing that the class would be kept after school. Then she made the cardinal error of releasing me from opprobrium and allowing me to go home.

I remember three faces turning around, with aspects of disdain, even contempt for this new teacher's pet.  They were, of course, Benny Kendler, as well as Oscar Schaeffer and Alex Kuntsevich, the seventh brother of the gigantic "Seven Brothers" furniture movers whose ubiquitous trucks traversed the Bronx streets. Alex was included in the logo of the family business though as a pre-high school student his working days were yet to come.  He was still a truncated version of his massive elder brothers, no one less than six and a half feet tall.

Oscar Schaeffer was the organizer of athletic activities during class recesses.  He was slim, balding prematurely from a condition he announced to be "Alopecia Areata".  He spat out of the side of his mouth, possessed an encyclopedic knowledge of baseball statistics and was a Yankee fan who would brook no criticism of his team.

Whatever competition was in contemplation I was never chosen as a team member.

My sudden devotion to learning did nothing to enhance my image. My notebooks were orderly, printed with meticulous effort, the subject titles underlined in red ink, illustrations added from newspapers and magazines.  I passed all the examinations of the grade to which I was assigned, including the French class, with no previous knowledge of the language.  I asked several classmates if it were possible to skip a class. Oscar took advantage of my innocence of public school matters.  He advised me "sotto voce", out of the side of his mouth, "Just go up to Mr. Leng, the home room teacher, and ask him."

"Is that all there is to it?" I asked.

"Sure," said Oscar. "Lots of guys do it." A blatant lie.

Mr. Leng, my home room instructor skipped me two grades to begin at the end of the current semester, sealing forever my fate as a social leper among the other boys, and further antagonizing Oscar, who suggestion was intended to embarrass me.

Estelle Abrams asked me if I would help her with her Biology notebook.  Harriet Strauss, who lived a short block from me, invited me to study French with her at her home.  Mr. Leng assigned me to stair monitor duty thus introducing me to my first contact with the black student of the thirties.

I knew no black people.  Georgia, my sister now at Morris High School, brought a black girl to our house, a teenager named Rowena.  She was very uncomfortable.  Our early efforts at social integration were clumsy, the ethnic gaffes legion.  She did not come again.  My only other encounter was when I was captured, while crossing Third Avenue, taken behind a billboard, tied hand and foot and thrown to the ground.  It was a pre-teen gang, invading the area on the occasion of Halloween, armed with stockings, some filled with colored chalk, others with the more convincing sand or rocks.  I was covered with the multi-colored chalk.

They stood in a ring around me silent for a while, pondering the next step in this early melodrama of the streets. "Let's we piss on his face," offered one of the more venturesome captors.  There was universal assent.

"Not a good idea," said a policeman who entered the secluded domain, alerted by I know not who.

The job of stair monitor required that students adhere to a single file during class changes, using the banister on the left side, for order and safety.

On my first day, three or four black students came thundering down on the right side of the stair.  When I interposed my fragile body against this manifest flaunting of school decorum, they stopped long enough to advise me that they would see me after school.  The power vested in me by school authority seemed very fragile.  I quit my job.

Back in Miss Mantel's class, where in a few weeks I would be released into the eighth grade, Alex Kuntsevich was becoming restive and hostile.  He would step into line in front of me, bump into me in the hallways, knock  books off the desk.  I ignored every provocation.  Finally, he confronted me in the schoolyard, after class.

"Take off your glasses," he ordered.

I ignored him and he swung a right hand at me anyway

I blocked the blow and hit him a good right hand, flush in his left eye.  It was the only blow struck.  Alex was in full retreat.  Oscar and his athletes were following, offering pugilistic advice.  Alex was saved from further humiliation by Miss Mantel, who ended the fight.

I must interpose, here, a little aside.  Many years later, I passed a huge truck bearing "The Seven Brothers" legend.  A huge young man who had just descended from the driver's seat called to me.

"Connie," came the unfamiliar baritone, "don't you remember me? P.S. 55 where you kicked the shit out of me?"  A huge ham-like hand grasped mine.  "Alex, Alex Kuntsevich, remember? We sat together in Mantell's class.  Think you could do it again?" he smiled.

Indeed we did sit together. There were twin seats in the center of the room.  She vacated one pair and arranged that we sit together as a gesture of class harmony and love of the fellow man.

Oscar was now my friend.  Though he seemed an anomaly to me, slight and unathletic, he was generally accepted on matters of sports.  I accorded to the overtures in that they repaired, somewhat, the damage Miss Mantell had instigated.  I was installed as the catcher on the softball team.  Benny Kendler and I became challengers for the handball championship.

I do not remember how Benny and I fared, that I did not know until one afternoon, as I sat, many years later, in my office in a City New York agency.  An elderly messenger entered, handed me some mail, stared and exclaimed, "Connie, don't you remember me?  Benny, Benny Kendler. We won the handball championship in PS 55."

There were some memorable teachers that deserve recording in this little reminiscence. There was, for example, the perpetually hysterical, Miss Hurley.  Her class was always in a state of disruption.

I have a theory that every class has several students, who, while not identical in appearance, perform identical roles.  I was now two semesters beyond Benny Kendler, but there was always a Benny Kendler clone in the class.  That student would usually begin the insurrections and the rest followed enthusiastically.

One day I was astounded to hear Miss Hurley say, "Go on, go on, show your bad manners to Mr. Gochis.  At the time I pondered her raising me to a "Mister" status.  

On another occasion I relapsed into my "delinquent" status of yesteryear. I rolled bits of paper into tight little arrows, and with the use of a rubberband, pelted several students in the forward rows.s  Harold Steckel, who received one of the missiles on the back of his neck, turned round, pointed at me, and shouted, "He did it, Miss Hurley. He did it."

"Nonsense," she replied, "Mr. Gochis would never do a thing like that."

Harold Steckel was short and oval shaped.  He was also smart and aggressive in promoting his talent.  He would volunteer for any proposed extra assignment, erased the board, and was well behaved.  I saw him as an enemy and volunteered every time he did.

As a consequence, we entered into an oratory contest before a full auditorium.  I gave an insipid talk on the evils of alcohol; he chose a soliloquy fro Macbeth, to wit:

                "Is this a dagger which I see before me, the handle towards my hand. . ." 

What better instrument could he have chosen?  

I was totally demolished.  

Tuesday, September 26, 2017

My Bleu

I think I was fortunate to be out most of today, because now that I am back in my apartment, I can't stop crying.  It happens every time I pass some spot in this little oasis where there is some memory of Bleu, who died today, very early this morning. Here he is in 2013, still healthy, in his favorite spot on my kitchen counter waiting for me to turn on the faucet so he can get the freshest water. I know. Those of you who aren't big pet people probably are cringing at the thought, a cat on a kitchen counter. I suppose one positive about living alone, when you are an inveterate animal/cat lover, is that you feel no concern in allowing them these liberties.

As I write, I have on the other fountain he loved, my little solar one on the terrace. He liked to jump on the table nearby and stretch himself to get that water. In the last year or so, another favorite was to wait for me to turn on the shower and have me open the door a crack so he could lick water from the little ledge on the shower door. When I was about to take a shower, he'd follow me into the bathroom for the ritual he invented.

He always drank a lot of water, probably an early sign of the trouble to come, but who knows? There is no place that I sat, the couch, my television chair, the rocker on the terrace that he didn't come and jump up and sit on my lap. He was more like a dog in this personality feature. He really liked being near me, far more than my other two, now remaining cats. I go into the bedroom just a few minutes ago to change the sheets and I see him on the right side, where he would place himself very close to my face, and carefully, using one paw, brush my face for attention, this time, of course, it was to remind me of breakfast. If that didn't get me going, he'd drop to the floor and look for a wire to chew. That was sure to get me up, even if I was screaming, "NOOOOO!, Bleu, NO!"  He looked at me triumphantly and waddled (he always had a little waddle though he was never heavy, though he was a big cat) ahead of me into the kitchen accompanied by several look backs and serious "feed me" meows. I bought many a replacement wire and marveled that he never got a shock. He could be very frustrating in that he ALWAYS wanted to eat.  My father, who had him nearly two years before his death in 2008, used to get really angry because Bleu always wanted extra treats even when his dish was full. I always thought he enjoyed the process of our getting the bag or the cannister, hearing the crunchies fall into the dish and taking a fresh bite.

Even until last Thursday, even Friday, he was always on the lookout for food, and our latest treats were these very expensive full mackerel and tuna pieces as well as baby food, the meat kind that is now put on the bottom shelves in favor of healthier choices for the human little ones.

But I suppose he had been on borrowed time for the last three and a half years, though for all of that he was happy and active and as he'd always been with me, close and loving. In April 2014, I thought something was off and brought him to the vet. After tests, the diagnosis was either inflammatory bowel disease or small cell cancer. I have had variable experiences with vets, as I have had with human doctors, and too often they prescribe "from the book" without really considering the consequences to the pet. I was recommended to give him a liquid cancer drug and some other meds as well. I went to the pharmacy and got the meds, read the instructions, looked at Bleu and considered what to do. Either way had risks and either way, if the cat died quickly, I had made the choice that led to the death. The vet specialist said that with the meds, he'd live maybe two years. I decided against them, and worried that I was a horrible pet owner.  But I knew what invariably happens when these chemicals go into their bodies. I couldn't do that unless he seemed far worse than he was. At the time he was 12. The biggest symptom was diarrhea, which with three cats using the same box, was a challenge, but the symptom was not all the time (I gave him a pro-biotic which seemed to help) and though it was often annoying to do it, I changed the box frequently, when he was afflicted. The only other symptom was a bit more throwing up of his food, but all my cats have had hair balls over the years and that didn't add too much to the clean up routine. Besides that for about two years, he was fine, his usual self, though in 2014 he began to lose his heft. But he was eating, jumping high, playful and happy. I had already had about the two years I was "promised" if I gave him the meds. About six months ago, I noticed he was losing more weight around his ribs though he was acting as if without a problem or a care in the world. Nothing I gave him, no matter how much, and I let him eat all the time, day and night, was putting on weight. And so, reluctantly, nearly two weeks ago, I took him to see the one specialist I had liked and who was not arrogant nor did she pontificate. She was amazed he was alive three and a half years after the diagnosis, a year and a half more than he was speculated to have had if he had been given treatment. He jumped on the vet table and sat next to her, asking her to turn on their faucet so he could drink, or inspect. She gave me options. Tests, to the tune of 1300 were done (I will have a separate blog on the cost of veterinary medicine, I anticipate, in the next few days). Because he WAS eating, she wasn't sure it was the original condition that was causing it, though I would be scheduling more tests. His thyroid seemed to have a problem, he had long standing kidney issues though he was not in extremis there, and though I was not willing still to give him cancer drugs per se, I was willing to put him on a steroid for the original condition at this stage, and see what happened, perhaps to stem the weight loss. The meds were not ready till the next week, this past Wednesday. I picked them up on Thursday, and gave Bleu his first doses. He seemed to tolerate things. Still eating. Still getting onto the counter mostly in one leap, though over the last couple of weeks there had been some misses. And then Friday and Saturday, each day he seemed weak and lethargic and he did not want to eat quite so much. On Sunday, he was lying around and not eating at all. I decided to stop the meds. I contacted the vet early on Monday. She wouldn't be in until Wednesday, and suggested her colleague. He was one of those with whom I found myself terribly dissatisfied in a prior encounter. I told her I had stopped the meds, that we'd see where he was on Wednesday. But it was a cascade. I went out for a bit on Monday, and when I came back he couldn't stand, so unsteady on his feet, and it almost seemed as if in just a couple of days, if it were possible, he had lost MORE weight. I suppose it was possible. He hadn't eaten during the weekend and he had no spare fat. He stopped meowing, and even seemed disoriented. I could see from the way he was breathing. He was simply dying. Decision. Do I take him to the vet where they would do only more tests and stick a needle or two in him? I will go over it all in my head for three and a half years ago and now. Did I make the wrong decision? If I hadn't given him the meds he'd continue to lose weight. Having given him the meds he got horribly sick. No win. The vet wrote to me that either he had a bad reaction to the drugs or it was a combination of his condition and the drugs. We have to figure that out, if we could. If there was time. I told her I thought we were at the end of the road.  Either way, I tried to get Bleu to lay on my lap, but he was uncomfortable and would lay in a spot, try to get up and lay down again, sort of sleeping. Groggy for sure. I distracted myself with television checking on him, quite truthfully praying to God, while feeling foolish I was praying for a cat in a world where humans are suffering so much without relief, that He would let Bleu go, that night. I brought him out from my bedroom to see if I could again get him to rest on my lap, but my lifting him seemed to hurt, so I put him on a towel on the floor and lay next to him for a couple of hours. I petted him. I talked to him. I told him it was all right to go, that he'd be at the Rainbow Bridge and I'd see him one day. Occasionally, he would let out a little squeak of a meow. I had my hand on his chest, and could feel both our breathing and heart beats. Every so often he'd exhale firmly and I thought that was it. It wasn't. His breathing was more shallow each time. And then he was limp. I couldn't leave him here with two other cats and I didn't want to put him out on the terrace, so I wrapped his body in two towels and brought him to the vet. I noticed some what I thought to be involuntary movement, but it turned out that he had the tiniest spark of life when I got there. I hope he wasn't afraid, as he seemed to extend his legs a little--that is another little torment of speculation for me-- but the tech took him to the back to look at him, but came out shortly after, to say "He's gone." His blue eyes were open and though he was dead, they were still beautiful blue.

My other two cats assiduously avoided both of us last night and today, they are still rather aloof. Maybe they always have been that way. Maybe Bleu's intense connection to me made it seem that they were less aloof than they really are.  I admit, I need the animals to comfort me, but I have no right to expect that. They are living the existence that God created them to have as they are. But we will see what not having Bleu around, the dominant Bleu, even when he was thin and less powerful, brings in terms of their interactions with me.

I have cried over my other cats, and one dog, way way back, when I was little, but this pet death has hit me harder than the others, I think. I know.  All that lives must die. But I am a little resentful just now. I have also thanked God, with admitted mental reservation and a smidge of anguish, that He did permit it all to be quick.

This apartment is very empty without Bleu. My Bleu. It's only been less than a day, and I miss you more than I imagined. No, I knew you were special.

Monday, September 18, 2017

"Brad's Status", And Mine

I haven't been much to the movies. I acknowledge that I sound like my parents when I say, "There's nothing to see".  Unless you like murderous clowns or Satan like mothers while wolfing down your popcorn--and according to the audience attendance, the clowns have it. So, while I had read nothing about it, I pinned a hope or two on the Ben Stiller pic, "Brad's Status". Not only did I like it, but, shivers, it made me think, and there was nary an explosion.
Image result for Michael Sheen and Ben Stiller in Brad's status

"Brad" is a man circling age 50 with a sunny wife, and a kid interviewing for colleges with music programs in the Boston area. He has been the head of a non-profit for most of his adult life. He has a good upper middle class existence, but Brad is dissatisfied and restless. Mostly, he's quietly jealous of three of his former Tufts classmates, all of whom have apparently succeeded financially--they are decidedly more than middle class--and publicly. Brad is a nice guy. He'd generally not voice his dissatisfaction and he tries to tell himself that he has done sufficiently well. After all, he has a son who is good enough to go to Harvard. He's happy about that. Or not. For even there, there is a little jealousy. Tufts was a great school, but it wasn't Harvard, and just maybe, he wasn't good enough to get into Harvard like his son. His friends passed him by; his kid is passing him by. "Doing good" in so far as raising a decent kid and having a non-profit begins to feel like plain old failure.

He takes more of a self-esteem hit when his son gets the day of his Harvard interview wrong, and now Brad must swallow his pride and call one of the three friends (played by Michael Sheen) who has the juice that Brad doesn't have to get the interview rescheduled. The proper person to person "thank you" requires a dinner with the intercessor. Brad is early to the restaurant, the reservation under his name, and the hostess places him at that nadir of tables, the one by the kitchen. There is another table nearby, but Brad, being a nobody as the world reckons, is rebuffed with "That table is reserved." But the arrival of Brad's famous friend, Craig, generates the relocation that Brad alone couldn't accomplish. Craig dishes on the other two friends, and their personal woes, the existence of which Brad has never accounted in his ego-laced reveries about their lives compared to his own. If the lives were objectively compared--if that were truly possible--it is Brad who has the best, most consistently comfortable, and meaningful one. Brad is a Generation X self-inflicted psychological victim. Only we, the relatively comfortable, have the time to worry about how successful we are in relation to other friends and professionals. The rest of the world is busy just getting food and finding a place to live.

Only once does Brad let his "I'm a nice guy" guard down and that is when he meets one of his son's friends, a musician herself, whom he sees as idealistic and energetic as once he had been. But he tells her too much about his bitterness and rather than sympathize with him, she reflects back his unappealing "poor me" inner world.

But in the end, Brad had done a good thing by swallowing his ego. His son, Troy, got the replacement interview with the critical people and is accepted into Harvard. Brad watches his son sleep, the boy, once like he was, who has his life ahead of him, and he embraces, perhaps still a little reluctantly, his life, as it is.

I have probably had more than one moment that could be titled, "Djinn's Status".  Beneath a public smile over the thirty five years between these photos, the first in 1982 when my dad first came to California and I had my first job here, and the second after a twenty five year stint in a government agency, there were many Brad like internal conversational laments.

I have compared myself, more than I'd like to admit, to endless others, over the years, the smarter others, the one's who have houses in the hills, or on the water, who were successful television writers (which I once wanted to be), the few, and they have been only a few, who have wonderful spouses, who made more money than I ever did as attorneys (like Brad, I have worked in public interest mostly), the ones who merely appear someplace and are ushered in, accompanied by endless flattery. And actually, perhaps I should be more ashamed than Brad that I have felt, on those occasions, shorted. In "Brad's Status" there is no mention of a transcendent faith. I am not saying there should have been. There is no critique here of the movie.  The critique is of myself. I know that all things are passing, and I purportedly believe that my journey isn't about what benefits and lauds I get in this life for my efforts, but one which leads to the Eternal, to that which was lost by the very act of making a comparison and envying God.

Too often, instead of being grateful--let me be brutally honest about myself--more often than not as I have tended toward a pessimism that is probably the result of that nuanced combination of nature and nuture--I have most often NOT been grateful. I can tick off the real and perceived slights from grammar school  to date, the lack of "connections" that meant, to me, I had to work harder than others to achieve a middling success. And then a moment of sanity. None of this is about me. My life was a gift (Brad and I have a commonality in that realization, too often an impermanent one); it remains a gift. I have been given much. And I have no right to compare myself to others--who, by the way, whatever I see, may have crosses far heavier than anything I have ever experienced to date--my internal whining (or more vocal ones, which like Brad, I try to keep to myself, with general, but not perfect success) notwithstanding. Of course, I will again compare and whine. And I guess I am in good company. It is part of the human condition. Brad conquered it in the movie, at least for the time being. I pray for the Grace to conquer it in real life, and for good.

Postscript:  I am happy to report that "Brad's Status" appears to have sufficient word of mouth that it is doing well. It's nice to have a movie that leaves something substantial with you. Kudos to Ben Stiller for making a fictional Brad come to life. And providing a thoughtful script.

Tuesday, September 12, 2017

This Dystopian Life

I want to preface, or disclaim, before I go on with this entry. As a Catholic I believe that God has made and does make good out of evil. By His Word, who is Jesus Christ, His co-equal Son, Second Person of the Trinity, death became life through the Cross once for all.  Despite what I see around me, if I persevere in the faith and seek His holiness all will be well, "on earth as it is in heaven".  There's the rub--perseverance in the face of the profoundly ugly and the profoundly distorted, the deep disorder of sin (dare I say the word!). I'd like to say that the "disorder" doesn't include me, but of course, it does as for all human beings. I am not asking for agreement. I am just noting from whence I start this. . . .lament on sometimes feeling as if I stepped into one of the dystopian tales told in books and movie.

I had that feeling as I was driving along some major Boulevard in Los Angeles, Santa Monica, or Sunset, I can't remember which it was. What came to my mind at that moment as I passed a bevy of outdoor billboards, some of them flashing repetitively, was "Blade Runner".  I know. It is a cherished film. A masterpiece. I saw it when it first came out, in 1982? And it so depressed me that I walked out. I have seen it since, as it re-runs endlessly on our handy dandy digital screens.  Yeah. It's a great bit of film-making. But it's still depressing and more so, because I felt like I was IN the movie as I drove along that Los Angeles Street. Oh, there isn't (as far as I know) a clone of me out there. But there is Artificial Intelligence closing in on me, and all of us, via our phones, our tablets, and a few actual robots, like Han and Sophia, Erica (Japan) or Bina 48 (Bina is the robot version of Martine Rothblatt's, wife; Ms. Rothblatt was formerly a man and was the creator, I understand, of Sirius Radio). Take a look at the "awakening" of Sophia at the address below on You Tube.  Fascinating. But as usual, human beings are grasping at being the Creator. This one reminds me of the scene where "Robocop" gets "awakened" by Miguel Ferrer.

One could, I suppose, call all this AI stuff, an extreme. I don't. But one could. I just don't think we are going to end up with nice, human loving "Data's" like in Star Trek.  I think it is more likely they, too, will eat from the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil and will become "as gods". 

Daily life is hard enough. Just looking at those billboards makes me feel like I am living on the outskirts of a bacchanal to which I will be forced invited shortly down the road. I keep hearing that the society of the past, the one I grew up in, was somehow horrible. I can think of only one clear failing, that of not readily living up to the ideals under which the very American society was created, by the bondage of other human beings. We did live up to it, but it took a Civil War and a Civil Rights movement. That's human beings, imperfect, often not living up to the goals in which we believe. But we came to it. I know. Lots of people out there, in the media, and on Facebook and the like, will disagree with me. Vehemently. I have the right to disagree with them. Do I not? I fear that this is part of my point. I think each of us is losing that right. 

For example. I believe abortion is an abomination. I am told I have no right to "enforce" that opinion on anyone. But here's the thing, I am not enforcing an opinion. It is, to me, no different than my saying, "I believe that I should not go through a red light when a pedestrian is in front of me." Why? I will kill the pedestrian.  I believe that is wrong. Why? Because it is a moral imperative. His is a life that deserves protection. It is the objective reality that is being enforced, not my opinion. You say, "Abortion is different".  How is it different? There is a life, that much has been scientifically established--although years ago the argument was that the thing inside the uterus was merely a blob of tissue. That used to be the prevailing pro-choice opinion. Oops. Now, the opinion is that whatever that life is inside the womb, it doesn't have the status of "person-hood" by which it might well, be allowed to live. And, after all, better it should be terminated (we still avoid the word kill) because it might not have a good life. After all, how does any of us know in advance what kind of life someone will have and how useless it will be.  Steve Jobs was adopted. Nick Cannon was nearly aborted. You can find their names on the net. Abraham Lincoln didn't have much of a future when he was born, at least as far as anyone with the ability to prognosticate would have said. But being pro-life, that is now lumped with other "hate-filled" ideas. In fact, I am not even allowed to articulate that this evil, like slavery before it where person-hood became the issue, might be appropriately stemmed.  It cannot be reversed. Millions have died whose unique being was deemed problematic. I guess the "Dogma lives loudly within me". I suspect a dogma lived loudly within those (and far more than me) who created the Underground Railroad, who decried slavery, who said that Dred Scott or Brown v. Board of Education, or Plessy v. Ferguson, should be reversed. These were settled law. Was it hate they spewed when they decried it? 

Whatever happened to that once golden idea, "I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it"? We have come to a new idea. "I disapprove of what you say; it is, therefore, hate speech." 

Now, one philosophical "stick" after another is being "picked up" and discarded until there will be nothing left of these United States. This is posited as a good in the dystopian monologue. Tell me. What will replace it? Have human beings developed such a consistent standard of behavior on their own such that the nation will be stable and coherent? I am thinking of another movie (and book), "Farenheit 451", where the job of the hero is to burn the books that are not approved of, thus restricting the thoughts which are forbidden and sending to prison those who think wrongly. The purveyors of Progressivism note these books and movies as well, but they do not see that they are the ones who are sending us all to secular and spiritual (should one identify as "spiritual" and not religious, whatever that means) perdition on earth. How now will we define the good? As always, whoever has the power. Man creates god in his own various images. Caligula was a god. Nero was a god.  It worked so well for Rome. But better for Edward Gibbon. 

I wonder if we'll destroy ourselves before the AIs do it? I'd say, "Be afraid, be very afraid." But then, I hear Saint John Paul II say, "Be not afraid."  Let us pray. If you believe in that sort of silly God thing.

"Lord, I believe, help my unbelief."  

Wednesday, September 6, 2017

"News from Nowhere": Some Thoughts from Forty Years into the Communications Vortex

  I read this book when I was a sophomore in college, when there were still only three major networks, no internet, and even the VCR was in its infancy. In summary of his review of this 1973 book, by Edward Jay Epstein, David Ernest Haight concluded:

In summary, News from Nowhere portrays television journalism as virtually compelled to present a distorted picture of America, to manufacture out of the raw material of daily events a view of society which is biased toward certain geographic areas, certain types of people and behavior, and certain types of (usually superficial) commentary—all in all, no setting for the Intrepid Reporter.

If the American news media was troubling back then, actually I realize, with a gulp, 44 years ago, it generates a positively apocalyptic feeling within me, now when "news" comes at us from every possible source and is distorted beyond recognition. Add to that the opinion of the informed, uninformed and psychotic on Facebook and we have utter intellectual, psychological and moral destruction. Yes, I really think it's that bad.

Forty something years ago, I was disappointed as a desk assistant at a local New York station, when I went out on a couple of "stories". One was about a potential strike of hospital workers and another was a student "protest" at Bronx Community College. In the first case, when we arrived, there was a manageable group, not even a crowd, of people, purportedly potential patients, outside. There was one mother with a child. The camera focused on them. When the tale of woe was edited together, you'd swear that children were on the edge of complete health deprivation. As to the student protest, when we arrived, pretty much nothing was going on; in fact, pizza had been ordered and there seemedlittle of interest to observe let alone film. But upon the arrival of "a camera" signs were picked up and voices were raised. The editing process, once again, provided the substance of a tale which had none. News was what whoever cut it together wanted it to be. 

Added to the creation of news, and its distortion, there is also the suppression of what doesn't fit the cultural narrative.  It is no longer merely "News from Nowhere"--it is truly what has been called "fake news". It is barreling toward "Imposed News from Nowhere".  Opinions are no longer confined to editorial sections of the news. They are the news. Commentary about disfavored politicians is worked into the story as if the commentary has itself been delivered from "on high".  It is "Who, What, When, Why and How", the how morphed from a nuanced dispassionate explanation to how the reporter and his/her company feels about it and how he or she expects the rest of us "right thinking"  properly to respond to it.  It is going beyond "propaganda" which, for all its hard sell, is geared to influence by making us feel part of something bigger than ourselves. Propaganda properly presented doesn't feel like coercion. It may even make us feel good and dedicated to a cause. That cause may even be a good one. No, the "news" is becoming true "brainwashing" because whether it seems right or not, and without an underpinning in anything philosophically, practically or theologically objective, you find yourself in forced agreement because there are real consequences to dissent and some of them include losing your job, or your reputation, or, when it gets really bad, your sanity and your life.  Right now, there are some outlets to counter it. There is a concerted effort by the "right-thinkers" who always project their totalitarianism on its victims to dismiss, mock and demonize the "unmutual and disharmonious" (Tip of the hat to "The Prisoner" a favorite television series from the 1960s) questioners of what has been denominated the progressive good--although when it comes to the visceral measures of the powers that be--good is a moving target. 

There are some voices I do trust, but they are diminishing rapidly. I find myself more than a little scared because for all of the prophetic fiction and non-fiction, about the dangers of tinkering with the delicate brilliance of the structure of the United States, as one of my favorite commentator's, Dennis Prager, denominates "Liberty, E Pluribus Unum and In God We Trust", that very essence is being deliberately eviscerated by the frenzied fictions of American media. 

The thing that is really frightening is how many people I truly love and respect, and who are much smarter than I am, don't see it. But then, that's what always happens in the demise of civilizations. Most people don't see it until the civilization has died, and they along with it. History warns again and again. And people, who craft themselves as all knowing gods, continue to build their Towers of Babel.