Time of Wonder: The Robert McCloskey and Noah Barnes versions

In 1957 Robert McCloskey, by then a Maine resident for more than a decade, wrote his second Caldecott winning book, Time of Wonder. The stories therein visit the McCloskey family’s exploits on their little island, Outer Scott Island, just off Little Deer Isle. Mary loved the book as a child and used it in her Kindergarten classes in California, though her thoughts of it from the expanding, freeway-laced suburbs of Poway were that such a life must surely no longer exist anywhere in the States.

 

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Now, some sixty years later and a decade and a half since McCloskey died on Deer Isle, we had our own outing of Time of Wonder this past week. In the 1957 text and paintings, there is mention and images of sailboats that traverse the waters of the Penobscot Bay, with one prominent one the Stephen Taber catching our eyes. McCloskey2At that time it was already nearly eighty years old and was in the company of many such late 19th century working sailboats, roughly kept, hard used and often discarded in favor of searching for the seemingly bottomless bounty of other old sailboats. Well, in 2017 they are now quite rare. The diminishing of the time of wonder is also at hand with some of its elements, to be sure.

The Taber was purchased in the 50s to begin its life as a pleasure schooner. Cars and roads brought new visitors to Maine and the growing middle class allowed for pleasure to be pursued in a variety of new ways. Taking a boat out of a Maine harbor for a few hours, or a day or more was a new way for the Maine seafarers to make a living, at least for the summer. In the 60s the Taber was purchased by a couple, the Barnes, starting their lives in the south of New England, but, having fallen in love with the Maine coast on their first visit, like McCloskey on his first visit, decided to make Maine home for the rest of their lives. They made the Taber a well-respected culinary outing, worthy of being featured on the CBS Sunday Morning Show, The Rachel Ray Show and others. They had four children, the youngest Noah, who graduated nearly three decades ago with our good friend, Bill O’Brien, from the Camden High School.

Now Noah is Captain of the Stephen Taber. In growing up he spent summers living his own time of wonder on the Penobscot Bay. He loved the sailing life accompanying his parents on their trips during his summer vacation, but pursued another career after college until his parents decided to retire and offered him the life of passion he had always wondered about. He chose wonder over the other possibilities of a Manhattan livelihood he had initially chosen.

In his youth, there was another boat on the Rockland wharf that caught his eye and occasionally allowed him on its deck planks. It was the Ladona, or at least the more recent iteration it had assumed at that time. Its name was other than Ladona, which was its given name in 1922 when it was built as a racing yacht. Thirty years of poor maintenance and limp efforts in the competition with the other schooners on the Midcoast left the boat ailing, even dying. As it was near death, under the auction block, Noah was convinced he could bring it back to life. What he thought it would take to restore it, though, was sadly underestimated, as was the time it would take to complete the task. He has finished the task, though, and now has two boats to his name….

ladona Now the rechristened Ladona is a superb boat sporting warm showers with Carrara marble walls and elegant appointments in each cabin and throughout. It is its own wonder.

For Mary and me, though, we chose the Taber. Perhaps it’s the historian in me. Here is a boat with no motor, no electric wenches, a turn of the 20th century wood stove and oven, and all the trappings of a true ship of the sail. Yet, with Noah Barnes in control, the adventures he offers are full to the brim with the life that McCloskey described years ago. Even today the Maine coast has the wonders of nature that have survived decades and even centuries: we passed a rock outside the harbor on North Haven that European explorers first commented upon in the 16th century stating an osprey’s nest rested on its pinnacle. There is still an osprey nest there today, though when we passed it the ospreys had already departed for the south. A lone eagle perused its nestled branches to take advantage of its viewpoint.

In McCloskey’s Time of Wonder, there are adventures in nature, with the playground his home turf of Deer and Outer Scott Isles and Eggemoggin Reach. As our own adventure began last Monday, little did we know ours would greatly parallel that 1957 story and that Mary could take solace in the thought that that earlier life still resides still to a great degree within those waters and within the people who ply their trades upon them. Noah’s course took us out past Islesboro and to Stonington, a quaint working town on the southern tip of Deer Isle. It was upon this isle that McCloskey lived and died in his later life. It seems that Robert McCloskey was quite a loner and enjoyed the quiet and solitude of the bay with his family more than anywhere else he visited. He was not happy, though,  with the fame his books brought him and the romantic view of life he treasured and captured was not mirrored in his personal reality. Yet, it led to those wonderful stories and the romantic vision we have of this region. This dichotomy is something one always needs to keep in mind with life.

This section of the bay is filled with large and small islands, summer vacation homes and working lobster villages and much of it is uninhabited heritage-protected sites dotting the bay. We stopped at two, the Barred Islandsehh and Babson Island. On the latter we anchored off the eastern beach IMG_2364and motored on Babe, the Taber’s launch, to partake of a lobster feast with a special, Noah version of Somores for desert. Instead of Graham crackers, chocolate and marshmallows, Noah brought along pizzelle irons to make shells to wrap the melted mallows and chocolate stick inside its crusty tastiness.

ferns

 

After a beautiful foggy morning rise the next day, we motored to Brooklin, where a wooden boat building school is located. Throughout this region one finds individuals who work with wood, brass, paint, fine tools; vanishing skills that complete a profession associated with the sea. We also found a baker using a wood-fired oven seeking the perfect European crust, farms that commit to the earth and old methods of cultivation, fiddle makers and such. Lobstermen should count among the unique professions in this group.

Lobstermen (and women) are fishermen by definition, but in reality they are into animal husbandry, cultivating their ‘bugs’ as they like to call them by feeding them in the traps, hauling up and keeping only those that pass size inspection. Much of their day is spent tossing back the rest to perhaps be caught again later when they can pass inspection. Through a strange constellation of geology, overfishing of cod (the lobsters’ main predator), regulation, appreciation of conservation and love of a vanishing lifestyle, these individuals work the Penobscot Bay in a way few other fishermen on earth do. One of the individuals we chatted with who is a longtime resident claimed that nearly all fishermen would fish the last fish out of the waters. If it came down to two fishermen in a boat seeking the last cod on earth, they would hunt it down, snag it, sell it for $5000 dollars and give it other a high five for accomplishing the feat. Lobstermen can’t get at the little buggers so easily and the state and federal government, as well as their libertarian appreciation of the lifestyle they have allows them to squeeze a living out of sea at a meager enough rate that it has been sustainable to this point. It may be that warming of the bay’s waters will eventually kill this option, too, though.

As to the romanticized life McCloskey envisioned, it is not all that is captured by a brush on paper. The lobstermen lament the rising price of diesel and the dropping price of lobsters as the season progresses. They have competition from Canada, the weather, tides, environmental changes, each other and the looming power of mother nature. I recommend Linda Greenlaw’s book, The Lobster Chronicles, to get a nice glimpse into the life of a person who hopes to pull lobsters out of the sea. It is one that defines libertarianism in the best sense. These people pull for each other, grumble at what each does to their boats, each other and their catches, but work as a unit to make the whole of their environment accommodate the lifestyle they love. It is a constant struggle and not so romantic as one might suppose. But, it is one they can’t leave alone.

The libertarian Mainer is a good person to study. He/she asks little of the world other than to be left alone. Those special libertarians who live on the islands rely on little from the mainland and prefer it that way. They have a small economic and environmental footprint and treat each other with respect, and often like the distance between them to remain aloof and opaque. I can get behind that. Yet, the circumstances outside of their world keep seeping in. It could be the warming of the bay, the restrictions in the number of traps they can manage, the legal expectation to check such traps at least every third day, the requirement to toss back the too small, the laying female or the huge stud, or the vagaries of the market. They cannot control these factors and it grates on them. Their humor, their good will, the evidence of how they work within a strong community was on view each day as we wondered the bay, still, and we treasured the opportunity to experience it close up.

 

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Now it’s back to life on Mountain Street and preparing for the coming fall colors and following winter storms. There will be good books, some fine meals prepared in our kitchen, visits with old friends, work on some painting projects and short outings on foot and in the car. Life is good.

 

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All Political Actions take place with Local Considerations: The Disarray of American Politics Goes Back A Ways

In a democracy, a politician needs to get elected to have power. With power he/she can gain some authority and/or the capability to influence the direction of the government body to which he/she has been elected. How significant this person is will be determined by the effectiveness and dominance with which they command an audience, both outside of the political arena and within the elected group of colleagues also elected to serve their public constituents.

America is a unique entity, though. We are the United States of America. The country is unlike any other country in the world in the way it has divided itself regarding the use of power. One can argue that this is not a very practical arrangement and one that needs altering, though that is not the tenor of this blog. Where this discussion leads from here is to examine the process of political power in the States given the premise the all political actions take place with local considerations. As anyone engaging in the discussion of an issue must know, the premise of the argument, the ingredients and factors with which the presenter introduces his theme, the foundations of the argument in other words, are the most critical elements that need to be unraveled and examined. What is local?

Local means the line drawn around the territory where the vote takes place. In the USA, there are myriad localities, all involved in the ultimate locality, the boundaries of the United States itself. These largest boundaries are also ephemeral to a large degree, as territories such as Guam, Puerto Rica, the Virgin Islands, the Northern Mariana Islands and American Samoa attest. And even these territories have a unique distinction of having a different definition of local, with even Samoa being the exception within this group. Then there are the places like Guantanamo, Okinawa and the Panama Canal to confuse the matter further.

And, even though we can claim, based on our history going back to the Spanish American War, dominion over many peoples in the world, we also have economic strengths in many other places, which leads our companies and therefore our political leaders to seek to influence other political entities and countries to do our bidding. In fact, we have successfully managed regime change several times since the Second World War.  Other countries are also in this global game, using their economic pressure that often overlaps with the diplomatic missions of these countries in symbiosis. The USA enters into this global game in many ways. There is the option of exerting military dominion, which we’ve often used in a variety of ways.  We’ve also sought to align our interests and those of an ally through treaty arrangements or simply using the ally as a proxy figure for asserting our country’s dominion, either militarily, politically or economically to obtain the necessary outcome. These complex arrangements run the gambit of influence with the examples of Amazon, Walmart, Toyota, Apple, South Korea, Okinawa, NAFTA, NATO, the UN and all the many other arrangements, either bilaterally or within complex multinational involvements, that attempt to assert various modi vivendi.

Returning to the United States and its unique arrangement for local political wills, every one of us living within some local political district feels the influence of the local entity, then a larger one within which the smallest is located, with a still larger state boundary asserting its dominion on some level and then up to the federal level where the power does not stop. We, as individuals assert our dominion over the Bangladeshi laborer who makes our clothes or shoes by our purchasing choices, the Pacific Islander who lives in a nation that may be only several feet above sea level by our environmental choices, the South Korean who depends on us and the UN to oversee and secure the DMZ through our presidential choices or the illegal alien who has somehow been influenced by the 14th Amendment of our Constitution.

How does the average citizen engage in this unique structure of the United States and what tools must she/he have to be adept at this practice? Keep in mind that in this democracy, there are elections on the town level, district level, state level and national level. It is possible that in some of these only 25% or less of the possible electorate will turn out and that in the best circumstances, a presidential election, only about 60% of the eligible voters will participate in an election. Also, we deny felons the right to vote in many states, which many claim is another way to disenfranchise minorities after Jim Crow laws were dismantled. So, in the best-case scenario of a presidential election that could be and often is decided by just a few percentage points or through the unique and some say bizarre Electoral College process, only 30% of the country is deciding for the rest of us.

Within this arrangement, some of the more powerful political leaders can fall to the political decisions of a very local constituency. Think of Eric Cantor in Virginia. His district was the one around Richmond. This was the capitol of the Confederacy. It is primarily white and fairly well off and mostly well-educated. There are approximately 400,000 eligible voters in this district, with probably 60% aligning with the Republican Party, though what that party is today after the demise of Cantor is anyone’s guess. Cantor was ousted by David Brat n 2014 when about 65,000 Republicans participated in the primary and Cantor lost by about 8000 votes. Brat won his 2016 re-election with 316,000 votes and 57.5% of the overall vote. What does that tell you about the nature of local politics and power and the numbers who can determine profound change? Keep in mind, too, that Cantor spent more than a million dollars and Brat barely $100,000 and yet it appears they only got about 20% of the Republicans to come out to vote on Cantor’s removal from office and that 20% was split 11 to 9, with 80% of Republicans not interested.

This past weekend Ken Burns aired his first installment of the background and prosecution of the Vietnam War and within the program the importance of local politics is raised often. He covers the period from the beginning of French colonial control up until today, with reactions recorded from individuals on all sides from this present perspective looking back at their younger selves. The world missed a golden opportunity during the Versailles Treaty if contemporary values could be applied back then, which they can’t. Though the young Ho Chi Minh (with one of his myriad other aliases at that time) believed Wilson’s promises of equality and democracy. Local politics, which returned the power of the Congress to the Republicans, determined that outcome. They voted for isolationism and non-involvement in Wilson’s League of Nations. With the administrations of Truman, Eisenhower, Kennedy, Johnson and Nixon, though, it could easily be argued that each one was more interested in the Eric Cantor level of politics than the national security and well-being of each of our nation’s citizens, let alone the legacy of the country in world opinion and with the citizens of the Vietnam. Indeed, Burns exposes each ones private doubts and knowledge that the war was unwindable. Today Trump is voicing what he thinks is best for his limited base, though most reasonable diplomats argue a military solution in Korea is not possible. Of course Trump is ignoring the fates of South Koreans and the Japanese, and is demonstrating a lack of perspective on the fates of many American servicemen, the thousands who are presently there and those who will asked to go in a clean up whatever mess occurs if Trump keeps preaching and governing to his limited base of about 12 to 15% of the potential voting public.

Anytime our country endeavors to assert itself into another country’s sovereignty, the motivation of US national security should be paramount. But, careful examination has shown that not to be the case and the diminishment of our confidence in the leadership of this country has been the price. But, did those leaders earn this distrust. The Vietnam program points out through the disclosure of lies by each president, his cabinet and the military leadership that these lies destroyed our confidence in them. In some cases the lies were exposed immediately, in others through prosecution and others through the lens of history. The presidency has never been the same. That so many can excuse the constant prevaricating of Trump is emblematic of how low we’ve sunk.

If you look at the comments that each of those presidents made privately about Vietnam, you have to accept that domestic politics were more important that national goals regarding Vietnam. The program does not flinch from these truths, that each president knew his survival meant not buckling to the apparent communist threat, regardless of the futility of the reality facing them. Truman chose DeGaulle and France’s need for reestablishing a dying and now dead empire over ideals and the better choice of recognizing Vietnamese dominion over their own lives, one that had the support of FDR in the early stages of the war. The specter of communism and the rising global power of the communist giants China and the Soviet Union dictated Truman’s choices and one only has to look at the arguments offered by the Republicans in 1948 against him in that election to see how it influenced his own rhetoric and the electorate. This election, though, may be a harbinger of what could happen in 2020. Truman’s stance on civil rights started the defection of the Southern states, with Strom Thurman mounting a Dixiecrat opposition to him. Dewey was put forward to once again go against the Democrat standard bearer, entering the contest with a strong lead. The outcome of the election was an historic victory for Truman, and even though he won the electoral college and many Southern states, there were more votes against him than for him when all the opposition votes are added together. It could be that there are three parties running in the 2020 election, too.

The next president after Truman, whose tenure from 1948 to 1952 was dominated by the end of the Chinese Civil War in 1949 with Mao winning, the crystallization of the Iron Curtain, the initiation of the Truman Doctrine of Containment and with the House Committee on UnAmerican Activities, most often  referred to as HUAC, was Eisenhower. The constant attacks by the Republicans about the Democrats either being soft on communism or actually communists themselves was all orchestrated to gain votes in local, state and national elections and these attacks seriously weakened Truman’s popularity and effectiveness in governing. Though eligible to run in ’52, Truman suffered from those dismal popularity ratings and fell out early. Eisenhower will fall prey to the communist threat in many of his decisions and the need for maintaining Republican political dominion influenced these decisions, many counter to his most basic gut ideals. As the French grew desperate and eager to leave Vietnam, the US first paid for them to stay and fight and then assumed their place once they left. Eisenhower’s outgoing speech to the nation describes how much he felt he had submitted to policies that would end up being detrimental to the country’s well-being. Yet, it was his domino metaphor regarding the communist threat that defended the decision to prevent the first domino, Vietnam, falling which many argued would lead ultimately to the last one, American sovereignty, falling prey to communism.

JFK learned foreign policy the hard way, through mistakes. He managed to avoid war in Cuba, but his awareness of the communist menace and the bullseye on his electoral back was always on his mind. He knew that if he did not devote sufficient efforts towards continuing the containment of communism and keeping it out of South Vietnam, he would suffer in the elections. This was true even though the idea of a north and south Vietnam was a fabricated sham and our propping up the corrupt and non-Vietnamese regimes in the South was ill-advised from the beginning. Kennedy bloodied his hands in the coup and murder of the two Dinh brothers  once his frustration peeked and he knew it. His comments just after the change reveal this, though what he would have done going further is still open to interpretation. Dallas followed soon after the coup in Vietnam.

Johnson’s public and private comments on Vietnam reveal that “All politics is local” and pushed him in directions he knew were wrong. In the end, even though his decisions regarding Vietnam were made to make his electability viable, he ended up with his famous denial of candidacy for the 1968 election after his disappointing results in New Hampshire.His misreading damaged his political reputation for all time. Nixon won that election, similarly to the Trump’s victory, with a strong electoral showing and barely, barely winning the popular vote (we know Trump was beaten solidly in the popular vote!). Yet, more to the point, the beginning of duplicitous, dangerous and deadly decisions by the Republicans continued with him. He also resorted to treason to contribute to his being elected and there again the comparison to Trump could also apply if the Mueller investigation uncovers what it seems to be uncovering.

So, here we are in 2017 and few politicians are taking the long view or acting in a way most beneficial to the entire country. The head of the IMF, Christine Lagarde and her colleagues have downgraded the growth expectations explicitly because no progress has been made on infrastructure, health care or tax reform. Two of these were possible within the moderate factions of the Democrat and Republican parties that represent a majority in both chambers. Yet, Trump seems to still be campaigning and all of his decisions seem to be against whatever Obama was for. McConnell, from the moment Obama was elected, demonstrated how local politics are by his announcement the only goal of the Republicans was to make Obama a one term president. That Obama was elected for a second term did not sway McConnell, as evidenced by his actions with the Supreme Court. While some Congressmen and women are crossing the aisles, most are still in their tribes. To claim governing for the good of all Americans is dissembling in the highest order. Our politicians continue to act for the short term with their electability the prime motivating factor. Each party needs to define its mission clearly and get down to the business of selling their programs to everyone if they have worthwhile elements.

Perhaps the most illustrative quote from David Simon to introduce this blog: “It’s astonishing how universal it is whether you’re 14 or 70, if you’re a woman and you have an opinion, what is directed at you right now.”

In my last blog there was praise for the writing and philosophy of David Simon. His paradigm is one that supports collective bargaining, the value of human dignity and the need to direct the instruments of capitalism to do the greatest good for the most members of society. He is a proponent of redistribution. What this means, how it could be accomplished and why it is necessary are contained within the work he has done over the past thirty years.

Usually he constructs his series beforehand. He likens his projects to building a house: there are plans to cover all the infrastructure needs, the plumbing, electricity, windows, etc. Then a crew of talented workers are needed to follow through on the building process. The final product, length of time to complete it, its costs and how many people are needed are all known beforehand. He knew The Wire was going to run five seasons and that each season was unique, though part of the whole, with characters’ backstory continually added to for clarification of the program’s goals. Yet, with the new series, he has thrown this method over. Now he has collaborators, there are multiple issues and options for each series, it could be that something comes along as an episode is being planned, or written, or even filmed that alters the direction and therefore ever so slightly changing the nature of the whole enterprise. Maggie Gyllenhaal has even signed on as a producer of the show in order to have control of her character’s arc.

ep-1-pilot-full-stitched-139775_PRO35_10-1280The Deuce is local slang for 42nd Street, which has evolved through many lives in Manhattan, with its use as a transportation hub, the seat of the Public Library, the theater district and, for a time, the Red Light District. The Deuce is set in this time, when pornography was just about to become very big business. Films, video tapes and the need for much human flesh, both literally and metaphorically, is what the series is all about. Simon and his writing and producing partner, George Pelecanos, agree that misogyny is central to the series, though raw capitalism and the life in the fast-pasted center of Time Square in the 70s is also appealing. Yet, it is a mirror or perhaps the genetic DNA the birthed our own world of 2017. There is speculation, if the show survives long enough, that those connections will become more explicit.

Each man is horrified by the way women are objectified now. They lament the status of gender in the States, even though much progress has occurred in the past fifty years for many civil rights. But, according to Pelecanos, he believes there is a through line to Trump’s stunning victory in last year’s presidential election. “There’s no doubt if Hillary Clinton had been a man, she would be president now. The code words that were used against not just her but female journalists and everybody that was involved peripherally in the campaign was awful. Never seen anything like it.”

Simon has very few things positive to describe Trump, the male, as this is all that is of interest to Trump, the chauvinist lout, in Simon’s opinion. This linked article covers much of this opinion. In The Deuce, the two men are committed to presenting the world of Manhattan in the 70s as closely as possible. They hope you think the films were made then, only to be placed in a vault for more than forty years and then uncovered miraculously for us to view today. To quote a recent Guardian article about the show…Mad Men set the bar for period detail with its evocation of 60s New York interiors. The Deuce is as fastidious about haircuts and fashions and, with some help from CGI, transformed the New York neighbourhood of Washington Heights into the tawdry Times Square of the 1970s when it was caught partway between the early 20th-century glamour of Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue and the Disneyfied tourist plaza of today.

To quote Simon, he feels that both The Wire and The Deuce allow a construct in society to examine what happens to the human condition when such horrific circumstances dictate individuals’ actions. He feels you need to follow the power and money to understand their ultimate impact on us. At the end of Obama’s second term, he felt there was some progress on the high incarceration rates and that perhaps his administration was giving some thought about altering or ending the war on drugs. Certainly marijuana has gained a new place in much of society and Obama did not go after the states that legalized weed, even though federal law is still very clearly prohibitive. But, with Trump’s election and Sessions’ control as AG, those hopes are relinquished.

The Wire followed money and power. Simon says, “The same logic applies in The Deuce, which is much less interested in having a discussion about whether pornography is good or bad or prostitution is good or bad. I accept these things as the given in the human condition. Now, if they’re going to exist, where does the money go? What happens to labour? Who profits? How does the society as a whole array itself to acquire that profit or to participate in it or to acquire the product? These things were way more interesting to me.

“Once you allow the moral question to dominate the narrative then I think you end up with a stunted argument and there’s only so much that can be said. On the other hand, if you follow the money and power and you see who’s attrited and who’s exalted, then you have a much more interesting story.”

Recent interviews with critics have generally elicited positive reactions to the show, though a few are not so excited about the subject-matter. Charlie Rose had a great interview with the two main stars and the two writer/producers. I highly recommend this interview to gain a fuller understanding of all four individuals’ goals and reasons for involvement. They hope to run the knife’s edge between being preachy or titillating, expanding the protagonists lives through the jungle of 1970s Times Square and offering you some mental munchies along the way. At first I, too, was put off by the topic, but I am now interested in what they all will put on the screen.

 

“Judah”  To Praise: David Judah Simon and the works of a man with a mission who thinks he’s only joining an already lit campfire

David Simon has spent the past three decades getting things off his chest. As a writer for the Baltimore Sun he dealt with that city’s social issues with the aim of reporting them. Over time, the collector of news became the analyzer of news who could not stand by when he figured out, in his opinion, that the system was rigged. From there, he took on writing about it with the aim of taking what he had learned on the streets back to those streets to see if he could make a difference.

My own introduction here to Mr. Simon is through some work that he has done recently that defines his mission, but in doing so I also get to open up that door to his body of earlier work and to the life he led that brought the world to his feet in the way it did in order for him to digest it and report on it. As of now, he is worried, but he is using his pen to warn us, hoping that we can avoid that stage that comes in history when enough of a society’s members get frustrated with what is going on that they pick up a brick. I’m not sure myself that we haven’t gone past the tipping point. Remember that Willful Wall of Ignorance. At the end of this blog is an interview he gave in 2013. He hopes we do not continue on the downward slide.

Over the nearly three decades that Simon has written about his American world as he sees it, he has attracted some attention. Yet, for all the critical acclaim that he has received, comparing him to the American Dickens, he is not a widely known figure and his shows have not been successful from that most important of all American measuring tools, money. They are not endless veins from which someone can make money. For Simon, this is by design. To quote him from an interview in Slate in 2006 by Meghan O’Rourke: I don’t consider myself to be a crusader of any sort. I was bystander to a certain number of newspaper crusades. They end badly, in terms of being either fraudulent or by inspiring legislations that makes things worse. So, I regard myself as someone coming to the campfire with the truest possible narrative he can acquire. That’s it. What people do with that narrative afterward is up to them. I am someone who’s very angry with the political structure. The show is written in a 21st-century city-state that is incredibly bureaucratic, and in which a legal pursuit of an unenforceable prohibition has created great absurdity.  

The interview is a worthwhile look at his philosophy and is useful in understanding why he is now writing about the rise of pornography in the time of the video camera, leading to the digital world that has now made the stuff ubiquitous. For instance, a portion of the interview looks at the approach he and his central collaborators took for presenting The Wire. He used the metaphor of a house. Everyone and everything involved in putting the show together is part of the construction of a house, a story with a very clear plan with the purpose to use five years to construct and complete it. Beyond that, there are no distractions and he decided from the start that the show would be only five seasons long. I will come back to this process and how very different it is with his new show, The Deuce, later. While writing The Wire, he almost altered plans when it was suggested that they could also look at another Baltimore problem/issue, the huge influx of Latinos into its society. From an original population base of 2 to 4%, the city has changed dramatically as many more Latinos have arrived to call it home. It was a big pull, but all the creators of the show knew it was untenable. They did not speak Spanish, did not have the inside understanding and felt the research needed to do a good job would take them far beyond the five seasons they had committed to. Perhaps some day that story will be tackled…it is surely one of the more important ones to bring to the campfire.

His most persistent rant is that capitalism as now practiced has made the human being worthless. Simon warns that continuing on this path for America is suicidal. He dates the apogee of our former American life to 1980, a date with which I personally can wholly agree. Since then it has been very much downhill. In the interest of brevity, my weakest suit, I am going to post an article in the Guardian by Simon to complete this first salvo on this crusader without a match. He seems to think he is joining the campfire after it is lit. In reading him and watching his product on screen, I very much think he is bringing both kindling and gasoline to the campfire. I look forward to working with his words and interviews to better articulate my own thoughts. Blogs will follow……

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Photo of Simon standing near his office in Baltimore in that portion of his world. He is 20 blocks from the other world he writes about in The Wire.

The Guardian article (note, even though this is written by Simon, his audience is English and therefore the spelling is for that group): America is a country that is now utterly divided when it comes to its society, its economy, its politics. There are definitely two Americas. I live in one, on one block in Baltimore that is part of the viable America, the America that is connected to its own economy, where there is a plausible future for the people born into it. About 20 blocks away is another America entirely. It’s astonishing how little we have to do with each other, and yet we are living in such proximity.

There’s no barbed wire around West Baltimore or around East Baltimore, around Pimlico, the areas in my city that have been utterly divorced from the American experience that I know. But there might as well be. We’ve somehow managed to march on to two separate futures and I think you’re seeing this more and more in the west. I don’t think it’s unique to America.

I think we’ve perfected a lot of the tragedy and we’re getting there faster than a lot of other places that may be a little more reasoned, but my dangerous idea kind of involves this fellow who got left by the wayside in the 20th century and seemed to be almost the butt end of the joke of the 20th century; a fellow named Karl Marx.

I’m not a Marxist in the sense that I don’t think Marxism has a very specific clinical answer to what ails us economically. I think Marx was a much better diagnostician than he was a clinician. He was good at figuring out what was wrong or what could be wrong with capitalism if it wasn’t attended to and much less credible when it comes to how you might solve that.

You know if you’ve read Capital or if you’ve got the Cliff Notes, you know that his imaginings of how classical Marxism – of how his logic would work when applied – kind of devolve into such nonsense as the withering away of the state and platitudes like that. But he was really sharp about what goes wrong when capital wins unequivocally, when it gets everything it asks for.

That may be the ultimate tragedy of capitalism in our time, that it has achieved its dominance without regard to a social compact, without being connected to any other metric for human progress.

We understand profit. In my country we measure things by profit. We listen to the Wall Street analysts. They tell us what we’re supposed to do every quarter. The quarterly report is God. Turn to face God. Turn to face Mecca, you know. Did you make your number? Did you not make your number? Do you want your bonus? Do you not want your bonus?

And that notion that capital is the metric, that profit is the metric by which we’re going to measure the health of our society is one of the fundamental mistakes of the last 30 years. I would date it in my country to about 1980 exactly, and it has triumphed.

Capitalism stomped the hell out of Marxism by the end of the 20th century and was predominant in all respects, but the great irony of it is that the only thing that actually works is not ideological, it is impure, has elements of both arguments and never actually achieves any kind of partisan or philosophical perfection.

It’s pragmatic, it includes the best aspects of socialistic thought and of free-market capitalism and it works because we don’t let it work entirely. And that’s a hard idea to think – that there isn’t one single silver bullet that gets us out of the mess we’ve dug for ourselves. But man, we’ve dug a mess.

After the second world war, the west emerged with the American economy coming out of its wartime extravagance, emerging as the best product. It was the best product. It worked the best. It was demonstrating its might not only in terms of what it did during the war but in terms of just how facile it was in creating mass wealth.

Plus, it provided a lot more freedom and was doing the one thing that guaranteed that the 20th century was going to be – and forgive the jingoistic sound of this – the American century.

It took a working class that had no discretionary income at the beginning of the century, which was working on subsistence wages. It turned it into a consumer class that not only had money to buy all the stuff that they needed to live but enough to buy a bunch of shit that they wanted but didn’t need, and that was the engine that drove us.

It wasn’t just that we could supply stuff, or that we had the factories or know-how or capital, it was that we created our own demand and started exporting that demand throughout the west. And the standard of living made it possible to manufacture stuff at an incredible rate and sell it.

And how did we do that? We did that by not giving in to either side. That was the new deal. That was the great society. That was all of that argument about collective bargaining and union wages and it was an argument that meant neither side gets to win.

Labour doesn’t get to win all its arguments, capital doesn’t get to. But it’s in the tension, it’s in the actual fight between the two, that capitalism actually becomes functional, that it becomes something that every stratum in society has a stake in, that they all share.

The unions actually mattered. The unions were part of the equation. It didn’t matter that they won all the time, it didn’t matter that they lost all the time, it just mattered that they had to win some of the time and they had to put up a fight and they had to argue for the demand and the equation and for the idea that workers were not worth less, they were worth more.

Ultimately we abandoned that and believed in the idea of trickle-down and the idea of the market economy and the market knows best, to the point where now libertarianism in my country is actually being taken seriously as an intelligent mode of political thought. It’s astonishing to me. But it is. People are saying I don’t need anything but my own ability to earn a profit. I’m not connected to society. I don’t care how the road got built, I don’t care where the firefighter comes from, I don’t care who educates the kids other than my kids. I am me. It’s the triumph of the self. I am me, hear me roar.

That we’ve gotten to this point is astonishing to me because basically in winning its victory, in seeing that Wall come down and seeing the former Stalinist state’s journey towards our way of thinking in terms of markets or being vulnerable, you would have thought that we would have learned what works. Instead we’ve descended into what can only be described as greed. This is just greed. This is an inability to see that we’re all connected, that the idea of two Americas is implausible, or two Australias, or two Spains or two Frances.

Societies are exactly what they sound like. If everybody is invested and if everyone just believes that they have “some”, it doesn’t mean that everybody’s going to get the same amount. It doesn’t mean there aren’t going to be people who are the venture capitalists who stand to make the most. It’s not each according to their needs or anything that is purely Marxist, but it is that everybody feels as if, if the society succeeds, I succeed, I don’t get left behind. And there isn’t a society in the west now, right now, that is able to sustain that for all of its population.

And so in my country you’re seeing a horror show. You’re seeing a retrenchment in terms of family income, you’re seeing the abandonment of basic services, such as public education, functional public education. You’re seeing the underclass hunted through an alleged war on dangerous drugs that is in fact merely a war on the poor and has turned us into the most incarcerative state in the history of mankind, in terms of the sheer numbers of people we’ve put in American prisons and the percentage of Americans we put into prisons. No other country on the face of the Earth jails people at the number and rate that we are.

We have become something other than what we claim for the American dream and all because of our inability to basically share, to even contemplate a socialist impulse.

Socialism is a dirty word in my country. I have to give that disclaimer at the beginning of every speech, “Oh by the way I’m not a Marxist you know”. I lived through the 20th century. I don’t believe that a state-run economy can be as viable as market capitalism in producing mass wealth. I don’t.

I’m utterly committed to the idea that capitalism has to be the way we generate mass wealth in the coming century. That argument’s over. But the idea that it’s not going to be married to a social compact, that how you distribute the benefits of capitalism isn’t going to include everyone in the society to a reasonable extent, that’s astonishing to me.

And so capitalism is about to seize defeat from the jaws of victory all by its own hand. That’s the astonishing end of this story, unless we reverse course. Unless we take into consideration, if not the remedies of Marx then the diagnosis, because he saw what would happen if capital triumphed unequivocally, if it got everything it wanted.

And one of the things that capital would want unequivocally and for certain is the diminishment of labour. They would want labour to be diminished because labour’s a cost. And if labour is diminished, let’s translate that: in human terms, it means human beings are worth less.

From this moment forward unless we reverse course, the average human being is worth less on planet Earth. Unless we take stock of the fact that maybe socialism and the socialist impulse has to be addressed again; it has to be married as it was married in the 1930s, the 1940s and even into the 1950s, to the engine that is capitalism.

Mistaking capitalism for a blueprint as to how to build a society strikes me as a really dangerous idea in a bad way. Capitalism is a remarkable engine again for producing wealth. It’s a great tool to have in your toolbox if you’re trying to build a society and have that society advance. You wouldn’t want to go forward at this point without it. But it’s not a blueprint for how to build the just society. There are other metrics besides that quarterly profit report.

The idea that the market will solve such things as environmental concerns, as our racial divides, as our class distinctions, our problems with educating and incorporating one generation of workers into the economy after the other when that economy is changing; the idea that the market is going to heed all of the human concerns and still maximise profit is juvenile. It’s a juvenile notion and it’s still being argued in my country passionately and we’re going down the tubes. And it terrifies me because I’m astonished at how comfortable we are in absolving ourselves of what is basically a moral choice. Are we all in this together or are we all not?

If you watched the debacle that was, and is, the fight over something as basic as public health policy in my country over the last couple of years, imagine the ineffectiveness that Americans are going to offer the world when it comes to something really complicated like global warming. We can’t even get healthcare for our citizens on a basic level. And the argument comes down to: “Goddamn this socialist president. Does he think I’m going to pay to keep other people healthy? It’s socialism, motherfucker.”

What do you think group health insurance is? You know you ask these guys, “Do you have group health insurance where you …?” “Oh yeah, I get …” you know, “my law firm …” So when you get sick you’re able to afford the treatment.

The treatment comes because you have enough people in your law firm so you’re able to get health insurance enough for them to stay healthy. So the actuarial tables work and all of you, when you do get sick, are able to have the resources there to get better because you’re relying on the idea of the group. Yeah. And they nod their heads, and you go “Brother, that’s socialism. You know it is.”

And … you know when you say, OK, we’re going to do what we’re doing for your law firm but we’re going to do it for 300 million Americans and we’re going to make it affordable for everybody that way. And yes, it means that you’re going to be paying for the other guys in the society, the same way you pay for the other guys in the law firm … Their eyes glaze. You know they don’t want to hear it. It’s too much. Too much to contemplate the idea that the whole country might be actually connected.

So I’m astonished that at this late date I’m standing here and saying we might want to go back for this guy Marx that we were laughing at, if not for his prescriptions, then at least for his depiction of what is possible if you don’t mitigate the authority of capitalism, if you don’t embrace some other values for human endeavour.

And that’s what The Wire was about basically, it was about people who were worth less and who were no longer necessary, as maybe 10 or 15% of my country is no longer necessary to the operation of the economy. It was about them trying to solve, for lack of a better term, an existential crisis. In their irrelevance, their economic irrelevance, they were nonetheless still on the ground occupying this place called Baltimore and they were going to have to endure somehow.

That’s the great horror show. What are we going to do with all these people that we’ve managed to marginalise? It was kind of interesting when it was only race, when you could do this on the basis of people’s racial fears and it was just the black and brown people in American cities who had the higher rates of unemployment and the higher rates of addiction and were marginalised and had the shitty school systems and the lack of opportunity.

And kind of interesting in this last recession to see the economy shrug and start to throw white middle-class people into the same boat, so that they became vulnerable to the drug war, say from methamphetamine, or they became unable to qualify for college loans. And all of a sudden a certain faith in the economic engine and the economic authority of Wall Street and market logic started to fall away from people. And they realised it’s not just about race, it’s about something even more terrifying. It’s about class. Are you at the top of the wave or are you at the bottom?

So how does it get better? In 1932, it got better because they dealt the cards again and there was a communal logic that said nobody’s going to get left behind. We’re going to figure this out. We’re going to get the banks open. From the depths of that depression a social compact was made between worker, between labour and capital that actually allowed people to have some hope.

We’re either going to do that in some practical way when things get bad enough or we’re going to keep going the way we’re going, at which point there’s going to be enough people standing on the outside of this mess that somebody’s going to pick up a brick, because you know when people get to the end there’s always the brick. I hope we go for the first option but I’m losing faith.

The other thing that was there in 1932 that isn’t there now is that some element of the popular will could be expressed through the electoral process in my country.

The last job of capitalism – having won all the battles against labour, having acquired the ultimate authority, almost the ultimate moral authority over what’s a good idea or what’s not, or what’s valued and what’s not – the last journey for capital in my country has been to buy the electoral process, the one venue for reform that remained to Americans.

Right now capital has effectively purchased the government, and you witnessed it again with the healthcare debacle in terms of the $450m that was heaved into Congress, the most broken part of my government, in order that the popular will never actually emerged in any of that legislative process.

So I don’t know what we do if we can’t actually control the representative government that we claim will manifest the popular will. Even if we all start having the same sentiments that I’m arguing for now, I’m not sure we can effect them any more in the same way that we could at the rise of the Great Depression, so maybe it will be the brick. But I hope not.

Shibboleths: Jesus, the Plague, the Renaissance, Adam Smith, Marx and Lenin and the Fall of the Wall…are they related? Then, there’s David Judah Simon

Wealth and Regulation: What is their historical relationship?

All religions counsel economic issues in their doctrine. In the West, Christianity and Judaism dominated culture for centuries, though the younger religion has taken on a more capitalist veneer in the last five hundred or more years, with the US now its most prominent proponent. What occurred in Europe in the Medieval and later eras altered our view of Christ’s emphases as to values and we now champion capitalism in much of the West. This was not always the case. Christ’s own teachings according to the Gospels warns of the dangers of desiring money and possessions. Some have even equated his tenets with communal economic philosophies.

With much of Western Europe under the control of Rome, Catholicism’s view of usury, wealth and business in general was one of suspicion towards them or that greed was a sin. This view persisted up through the Middle Ages and beyond in many places. Too, the transition from Roman law to Medieval secular control involved serfdom, which was servitude or slavery by any other name. Wages were not monetized. Products were under the quality control of masters and an apprenticeship, with the sizes of important daily measurements posted on church entrances to guarantee uniformity and compliance. The hierarchy was controlled by the aristocracy, but accepted and supported by the Church. Most lived an agrarian life with the manor and the noble the overload of all and some distant king hoping to influence local decisions. Authority was a partnership between the Church and the nobility.

Within this society there sporadically were found Jews who were the bankers, as no prohibition such as usury was described in their religious texts. Merchants existed in the Christian community, but the vast majority of the population, approaching 90% in many areas, lived off the land, whose ownership was primarily with those nobles. The agrarian lifestyle required a feudal existence, where work was an exchange of labor for rent and products, and for permission to live on a lord’s land and utilize his mills. The lord also granted his protection and voice in legal matters over a large area. Things changed with the arrival of the Plague, which altered all factors controlling society. plagueOver the next four hundred years the intermittent return of the Black Death altered the regions it visited.

The result was a diminishment and/or questioning of church authority and a growth in importance of the individual laborer.  Historians claim the change led to humanism, acceptance of new cultural appreciations of the Renaissance and a more worldly approach to the European paradigm. With the growth of opposition to the power of the Catholic Church, some of the Protestant religions expressed God’s will as supporting a work ethic that reinforced capital gain and accomplishment as a worthwhile goal. Wealth was a good sign that one was favored in God’s eye. To quote from the linked article, “In other words, Protestantism may not make you rich, but it sure makes you unhappy when you’re not rich.” protestantethic00webeThis was most strongly articulated by the sociologist, Max Weber, in his early 20th century work.

From then on speculation was the curse that accompanied capitalism. Specie was an end in itself, usury was no longer a sin. Instead, accepting interest ‘earned’ as a manner of work itself was the result. In the early 17th century, speculation on the value of rare tulip bulbs sent prices skyrocketing. One could purchase a large home with a single bulb, with some bulbs being traded ten times in a single day. t maniaThis led to the first capitalist economic bubble and crash.

In the late 18th century Adam Smith described his Wealth of Nations’ perspective of capitalism, believing, as a Christian, that the invisible hand of the market was each Christian’s best interests in his own life applied collectively. Therefore, ultimately, the market was guided by God’s principles and desires. Greed was not applicable.

Almost immediately the modern contradictory position of socialism was offered in Rousseau’s view of society. This would logically lead Marx to his rant against capitalism as industrialism transitioned work as a duty to the manor into pay by the hour or by the piece. Human labor was now a commodity of wages rather than slavery or indentured expectations. Our own Civil War and the later issues of imperialism and the globalism in the century, along with the dominance of capitalism, will continue their Western expansion throughout the 19th century contributing to war and revolution in the early 20th century. Contrary to this option, the Christian Socialist movement, The Paris Commune, Bakunin and other socialist groups and philosophers NDP-Socialist-Caucus-Bannerdefined their Utopian worlds through communal economics, hoping to influence a different societal approach to governance and economic philosophy.

At the end of the century Nietzsche reacts to communal expectations and begins the march towards libertarianism and individual rights (and the concept of keeping government’s hands out of one’s personal property) over everything. Capitalism will also strengthen this tenet in its belief structure, forgetting the divine angel of the invisible hand. The 20th century will divide the world between the extremes of Leninist Communism and American Capitalism. We know who is ahead in that battle at present.

Yet, in the process Jarre, Mao, Stalin, Ho Chi Minh, the Zionist Kibbutz movement, Spanish Socialists, Trotsky, Pol Pot, the British Socialists, the Nordic model and others offered various options to use the government to regulate, control and tax the capitalist model, either with the goal of killing capitalist thoughts and methods or working out an arrangement to accommodate some factors that were compatible within their communal goals and capitalism’s tenets. We are still trying to figure out what these are and how compatible the overlapping is.

The United States, during this time, has lurched from left to right and back again. Within its boundaries, we also have the difficulty of accommodating the many aliens that entered the country over the past one hundred and fifty years and now inhabit much of the land and carry various paradigms to the polls. Much of this emigration to this country was from European roots, often because of persecution at the hands of an official state religion or perhaps because of some desperate economic status forcing them to leave home. These white Europeans who have two, three, maybe four generations to claim their birthrights, now claim sovereignty over all other alien aspirants.

By the time this country reached the 1980s, it had made its economic and foreign policy decisions regarding Cuba, Vietnam, Korea, the Middle East and especially the Soviet Union, with historians picking apart those decisions as they will continue to do for the next couple of centuries. Who and how the Wall was torn down is open for argument. There is even this argument that God ended it.

In those 80s, the Reagan revolution occurred concurrently as communism in Europe was shriveling. Many feel that its American principles were/are a shibboleth, painting a picture of self-reliance and small government, with limited taxation and freedom to do as you want as the prime goals. Unfortunately, since that time the working class families who bought into the argument have been left in the economic stagnation and the Republican Party is now at a crossroads in the Trump administration. There are several factions fighting it out over economic doctrine: There are the Christian Conservatives whose goals are societal, the Old Guard who want strong defense and control over the global economy, the Bannon economic nationalists, the Tea Party starve the government adherents, the libertarian Rands who want to withdraw from global overreach, the Log Cabin Republicans, claims that many are RINOs. the Chicago School von Mises Republicans and a bunch who are behind a Willful Wall of Ignorance.

No developed country has witnessed a greater divide between the haves and have nots since measuring the economic status of countries since 1945. The government’s recent attack on regulation by the Republican Party, with its push for more big business, more exploitation of resources, deregulation of environment oversight and less interference in the end goal, profit, has made great strides, and along the way has convinced the poor to work hard and that their wealth will trickle down to them and perhaps they can rise up if they continue to work hard.…or perhaps just keep buying Powerball tickets.

The country in 2017 is horribly divided, with its constituencies believing all manner of ‘truths’, most not founded in reality for a significant portion of the populace. Education has failed many, with the rest of those who have invested in knowledge with the hopes of finding wisdom finding instead their own epistemology under attack. Free speech is even a divisive issue now. Each of us seem to be stating our position, from which we are unwilling to bend to another option. That said, I firmly believe between a low of 18% and perhaps as many as 35% of the population occupies a mental territory in a fragmented and geographically amorphous world I call the Willful Wall of Ignorance. Out of this we get the denial of climate change, attacks on the reality of nature’s construction in the human genealogy and hormones of LGBT individuals to accompany the mathematical average options, and all manner of poorly confirmed believers in individuals’ rights that, when espoused, only point towards a selfish demeanor that steps over bodies.

In this penultimate paragraph, let me leave you with these thoughts. Religions deal with the possessions man uses or can accumulate. Usury, greed, envy and other deadly sins deal with property. Capitalism plays off these human characteristics. In a recent New Yorker article about the nature of life in a hunter-gatherer community, the concepts of greed and envy are carefully managed as a communal attitude. Sharing, as Christ preached, is central. What drew Rousseau to his “noble savage” is contained in their lifestyles. When recently speaking with Jud Hartmann, who has made his career as the only sculpture of Native Americans of the East, he described the nature of these hunter-gatherers of our own continent, who were viewed by many Europeans as the Romans of this world. They had so much dignity, beauty, power and wisdom. We should be studying their gifts and philosophy.

Into this discussion, I offer the persona of David Judah Simon. He started his career in david simonBaltimore working as a journalist for the Baltimore Sun. After some years, he took his talents to fiction, though his writing was hardly fiction as it mirrored our own world and told us lessons and captured society’s issues’ systemic failings so well. We have enjoyed his ventures for the past decade or more in Homicide: Life on the Streets, The Wire, Treme and the upcoming The Deuce. His views of society address the economic divide we’ve created. A blog from me to his work and ideas will follow soon, as they dovetail nicely as a modern expression of frustration he finds with the capitalist experiment in this country.

 

Not quite another of “Mary’s Customers”: Aliya Bet and the Diamond Story

Saturday I was in Camden on errands related to things we needed to get done in preparation for the rest of the month’s issues, but most importantly doing the last flip of the season and readying everything for our return home next weekend. I returned to Acadia in the late afternoon and, as usual, Mary had had an interesting day. Old friends stopped by the shop and Terry and Janie Walker, who are visiting on their summer northeast swing, also were in. Also, there was another couple Mary met that day who verged on the border of becoming one of her customers. That they were only in town this year and may not return in the future, I can’t quite put them on the list of “Mary’s customers”. Yet, their story was an interesting one and worthy of repeating.

The couple was from Israel, the husband’s paternal side originating from Romania and the wife’s from Germany. The NAZI’s obviously influenced their stories. Mary reported that each spoke English, though the man’s was heavily accented and he was not completely in command of proper grammar. Mary’s retelling of the story at dinner with the Walkers, with the mimicking of this accent as Mary told it, is difficult to relay in print and therefore will not be attempted. Consider these issues, though, as you read on: The time period of the story starts after the war began and Romania had started persecuting and incarcerating Jews; and when in this time period the gentleman’s story occurred.

Being a Romanian Jew, like other areas of Europe, was never an easy life. But, until late 1940 there were no official government regulations against you. Yet, at that time there were many sympathetic to the Hitler regime in the country and the government was torn between policies of restriction and trying to dampen the growing right wing opposition. After WW1 Romania tried to ally with France for protection from the latent powers of the German and Austrian Reichs as they reformed into the various countries after the Treaty of Versailles. The weakness of the French and English in curtailing Hitler in his desires for Czechoslovakia and Poland doomed the government of Romania, though. The Romanians had the right-wing Iron Guard, who eventually prevailed.

Dates to consider: full occupation of Czechoslovakia in spring of 1939, Soviet/German nonaggression pact of August, 1939, invasion of Poland Sept, 1939. Battle of Britain 1940,  Soviet annexation of eastern Romania in 1940, NAZI invasion of Romania in late 1940, by late 1941 Jews in Romania were sent to Transnistria

Somewhere in there the Israeli customer’s father was living in Romania. He had been picked up and sent to a concentration camp, probably in Germany, but perhaps in newly occupied Poland. Romanian Jews suffered enough in the years 1939 to 1941 when the government was pummeled by the right and the right eventually won, setting in place laws and restrictions similar to the Nuremberg Laws established in Germany in 1935. It would seem to place him in the time period of late 1940, as the Germans would have been involved in Romania by then, but not later then that, as the Germans would not have allowed easy escape from a camp after 1941. I was not present to query him, though, and I am not sure how much he knew of his father’s journey across Europe and then across the Mediterranean to Palestine as far as time period.

But, that he did get out and make his way to Marseilles is fact. Marseilles and timing is another question. France after June of 1940 was Vichy France. The southern portion was ruled by a pro-NAZI fascist leadership, whose own Jews were sent to camps. The Resistance hid Jews and helped them escape. Marseilles became a major port of departure for Palestine, though for much of this era those departures were illegal in the eyes of the West. This time period in Jewish history is called the Aliyah Bet. During the period of 1934 and throughout the Second World War, Jews who could made every attempt to flee Europe, with many choosing Palestine as their destination. There were restrictions in most of the world’s countries limiting or forbidding entry of Jews into their country at this time. Mary’s customer was part of the Aliyah Bet.

His father, upon boarding a very full ship aliyah bet 1939 paritathat had few supplies had only the clothes on his back. He had no money and was hungry. In finding a secluded quarter of the ship, he found a bag under a bench inside of which there was the remains of a loaf of old bread. It was consumed, and while devouring it munched on a hard object inserted within it. It turned out to be a diamond. Overwhelmed at his good fortune, he tucked it safely and securely in his vest pocket.

Upon arriving in Palestine (here I would have had a dozen questions if I was there) arrest from patriya 1939he got on with looking towards his new life. After a couple of weeks he found himself in a small restaurant where he befriended an elderly couple who had also recently arrived to start a new life. They were despondent, though, as their plans had been dashed and they felt hopeless as to what to do. It turned out that before they had left their home in Europe they had liquidated all they owned. Traveling at that time for a Jew was harsh. Some countries forced confiscation in “official” ways. The Germans encouraged Jews to leave until 1939, but only with a few possessions and almost no money. Jews would carry what was of the highest value, small and light and that which could be hidden easily…..diamonds.

As the conversation unfolded, it was revealed that the couple, too, had left from Marseilles on the same ship as his father. They exchanged pleasantries and found a new bond as the stories were swapped. But, as the old couple got to the part where they were unsure of their future now, that they had sold everything to invest in a diamond and had hidden it in a partial loaf of bread and had inadvertently left it alone on the ship, Mary’s customer’s father smiled and pulled out the diamond and asked it this might be it. It seems he always had an angel guiding his life. Other stories about his good nature and good fortune followed, which were echoed by his son. The customer’s husband mentioned his wife was from German Jewish heritage, with a nod and a directed eye acknowledgement to her, meaning she was from a special, educated place and that he had to keep up with her.

http://mfa.gov.il/MFA/MFA-Archive/2001/Pages/Aliya.aspx

https://www.ushmm.org/wlc/en/article.php?ModuleId=10005776

https://www.ushmm.org/wlc/en/article.php?ModuleId=10005472

“Mary’s Customers Two”: Heinz Lazek and Jews Smuggled in Coffins in Austria

So, one gets up on a foggy morning after a couple of days of pelting rain. We hoped to run an errand locally, but that business was closed and we decide to go for a ride and breakfast at our new favorite, Sylvia’s Cafe in Ellsworth. This alone would have made our day, but, on the way we stopped at the new bakery along  Oak Point Road, The Sugar Bakery. There we met a new acquaintance who may be useful in populating the space next to us on Sea Street, but that is another story for later. The regions best brewed coffee is found there, though. At Sylvia’s we visited with the cook and waitress, watched the locals interact (it is truly a local diner) and appreciated that one of these locals noticed an elderly couple finishing their breakfast (the wife finishing off a fresh-made pumpkin pie slice) and that her husband was wearing his veteran’s cap. When the elderly couple asked to pay, the waitress said the younger gentleman had already picked up their tab. The three were then introduced, upon when gratitude to the country’s veterans was expressed and questions about where and when he had served were discussed. A warm and eventful morning to start us off. American generosity is amply in evidence of late in spite of the swamp elsewhere.

Mary remembered, though, that Margo Milliken was due at the shop and we figured we needed to get back presently. It was a poke to Ellsworth, yet we were lucky when driving up to the shop to find Margo and a new friend looking through the shop window forlornly. Mary popped out with the keys before I parked and by the time I got into the shop laughter was already on the menu. Mary  introduced me to Margo and her friend, Janice. As usual, I headed to the back to do a bit of work until summoned out to discuss Janice’s Vienna connection. Another of “Mary’s Customers” was about to join the list.

Janice’s history regarding Vienna involved 1938-40, the NAZIs, Heinz Lazek and the rest of her family’s history, which began in the States in the early 40s and continued here in Eastport, Maine and then on to Long Island. We only had a bit of time, as the ladies were doing business and much about fashion, a new contact in New Orleans, Janice’s business in something called the Alexander Method and Margo’s connection to Maine, which is in the town of Tremont, on the island, but on the quiet southwestern side. Stories of Vienna,  Lazek and the Holocaust were spoken of in intermittent bursts from then on.

Janice is of Jewish heritage, though not practicing one any longer in spite of the deep spirituality of her life and profession. Her son, though, is Orthodox, probably, she thinks, as homage to the Holocaust. His family, with a wife and Janice’s grandson, now lives in northern Israel after being raised in the States. We spoke of several other Jewish stories from the Ukraine and pre-Israel Jewish Palestine, Violins of Hope and other connections that needed further development.

Janice’s father was living in the Ottakringer section of Vienna in the 16th Bezirk when the Anschluss occurred. After that he was picked up (he was in his late 20s), probably as a consequence of his religious persuasion and his politics, and sent to both Buchenwald and Dachau over the next year. These were concentration camps at the time and people died then, but they were not yet killing camps as they would be after the Final Solution was implemented in 1941. Somehow he was released and made his way back to Vienna, but, after his earlier experiences with the NAZIs, stayed hidden from view. His mother had stayed in Vienna after his arrest and was already in hiding, being kept in seclusion by Heinz Lazek, who had a relationship with a Jew that ended with him having a daughter, Dorli. She would be crowned Miss Austria in 1961.

 

Lazek’s advantage was that he was a European Champion boxer for a time and was respected by Heavyweight Champion, Max Schemling, Max-schmelingwho fought Joe Louis and Schemling, it was later learned, had his own exploits saving Jewish children. Lazek’s compassion was exemplary, as were his actions. Over the next bit of time, while the various Jews were being hidden in Lazek’s home, it was arranged for Janice’s father to get a false death certificate. He was smuggled out of the country in a coffin, afterwards making it to the States and freedom. He was able to gain entry because it was early enough in the war that the Final Solution had not been decided and the numbers of deaths and the resulting exodus and the shameful restrictions employed by the USA that would follow had not yet begun. The family ended up in Maine packing sardines in Eastport, staying there until Janice was born and until the plant closed in the mid-50s. From there their lives went to Long Island, where her roots have been deeply planted.

In spite of the American life, her father kept up with Lazek, with the family traveling back to Vienna to visit the family home and the Lazeks: Upon seeing old neighbors who exclaimed, “Otto, isn’t it nice that we were the ones to take your family’s furniture and not those hated NAZIs?” One has to have lived in Vienna to understand the multiple levels of that comment. The two families remained close, exchanging gifts and salutations until both men died. This was in the late 20th century.

Heinz had a son, also named Heinz, who became a cameraman and later film director. He still lives in Vienna and some one of our friends there need to get more details about the wartime stories and the Third Man era afterwards…I bet there are many stories for him to share. Janice has promised contact information to follow.

The days in Northeast seem so much more filled with interesting bits. We have just over a week left in town before heading to our real home in Camden where friends will come to visit over the next month or so. The rolodex of crimped corners will be utilized again and new notes added to their pages.

“Like licorice cut from a spool”: Life is like a bowl of similes and metaphors…or the passing of John Ashbery and my own ignorance again revealed.

As I sit and muse, the days collect so many tidbits. Some are frustrating, some reflective, others allow for connections to be tied together, then the new friends who bring a smile and the anticipation of adding more to the rolodex of thoughts about this relationship, or the wonderful opportunity to engage with an old ami, when the rolodex is accessed and its crimped corners pull the mind’s fingers to one of its unique Boolean relationships that puts the quotation marks to encompass its string and we both start adding to our own unique rolodex of relationships. Sometimes music and a car ride. I love the time sitting on a rock. It is usual nowadays to find fun in the fantasies of the digital world, where our flat screen permits visits between the moving pixels and our own collective consciousness. Today, early in the AM as I awoke to savor that coffee I longed for at 9 the last evening, not so long ago, I am moving through these pixels.

Currently they are aligned to offer up the New Yorker. This is always a fun visit, as it tests me continually. That wonderful, maddening city, whose history has provided for and attracted to, produces some fantastic writers and many of them occasionally work for the magazine or are written about in its pages. I wish I was better armed for these occasions. It’s like driving into the key as a basketball player knowing there is a great chance that your meager attempt is going to be swatted away: the terms, backgrounds, mental capabilities and depth of understanding, the perfect Gestalt and Salonfähig combination that emanates from each page can be intimidating.

My recent venture hoping to drive for that layup, left me wondering if I, yet again, had wandered onto the wrong court. We all take measurements each day as to whether we have made the right decision, offered the proper alms, achieved the desired grade. In finding a eulogy to the recently deceased poet, John Ashbery (I will admit I first typed this out as Ashbury, so meager is my knowledge of this great man),McFarquhar-John-Ashberythis has led me through a completely unanticipated journey of the mind and fingers. As is often the case, the sustenance of the journey reveals itself to me only gradually, I fear. Let’s start with this quote from an interview in The Paris Review of Ashbury back in the early 80s, “I began by writing a few little verses, but I never thought any of them would be published or that I would go on to publish books.”

At that interview, Ashbery was already famous; he had resolved one of life’s significant questions, “what will I do when I grow up” and that quote about this high school self was far into the rear view mirror. Yet, he had made his living as a critic before that. I am now relishing the views he described through his mind and pen and his profound love of words. His life evoked so many grand thoughts of admiration and adulation offered at the time of his passing. It seems he was a prism that collected, diffracted and radiated all at the same time, giving us unique spectra in the lines he penned. Would that I had known him them and benefitted from his world before now. Another surprise in the mosaic of my own experience. I add yet another glass tile to the picture of what it all means and am awed by what it becomes. On the shoulders of giants.

In an earlier article about this life as an art critic in Paris after the war, the descriptions by Ashbery about the experience are very much worthwhile. His was a life of struggle and questioning, but we should all be so glad he went through the gauntlet as he did, as what he’s left us is fabulous. From that article..Often, after summing up the subject he is reviewing, he steps back and argues eloquently for both the difficult and the impossible. He ends his review of Gertrude Stein’s Stanzas in Meditation (1956) for Poetry with the following observation:

     Stanzas in Meditation is no doubt the most successful of her attempts to do what can’t be done, to create a counterfeit reality more real than reality. And if, on laying the book aside, we feel that it is still impossible to accomplish the impossible, we are also left with the conviction that it is the only thing worth trying to do.[4]     He moved the pendulum of poetry as no other force in the twentieth century did, it appears, from my introduction to him found in this research. I highly recommend the article linked above, as the excerpted words of Ashbery used therein are often and give such a great view into this mind in a different way than his poetry does. He was truly loved by those who knew him. Here are more treats from that article…in an essay on Pierre Reverdy, Ashbery wrote:

The lines drift across the page as overheard human speech drifts across our hearing: fragments of conversation, dismembered advertising slogans or warning signs in the Metro appear and remain the rock crystal of the poem. And far from banishing poetry to the unconscious, he lets it move freely in and out of the conscious and unconscious. Since we do not inhabit either world exclusively, the result is moving and lifelike.[5]

Elsewhere in this review, while comparing Reverdy to the film director Robert Bresson, who “created an ascetically transparent world,”[6] Ashbery wrote:

Like Reverdy he has a keen ear for le langage de la tribu and a deep feeling for nature. Trees, clouds, lakes, automobiles, the texture of a woman’s skin and of her dress are shown for what they are and are also undetachable from the story being told; they are like electrodes in the limpid bath of a precise context.[7]

As he enjoyed the myriad interpretations of his work, his tolerance did not extend to idiots. One critic must have been a constant viewer of FOXNews and the likes of Hannity, as he would not take facts and history into account and relied on his own hubris and what “feels” correct that some in the Trump administration call “common sense”. No such animal exists in Ashbury’s world. To quote him, “There was this one guy, Stephen Paul Miller, who wrote an essay on ‘Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror’ in which he said it was based entirely on Watergate. I said to him, It has nothing to do with Watergate, and more importantly, it was written before Watergate happened. But this made absolutely no difference to him.” Love it. Here is another reviewer’s analysis of this very poem….Ashbery would write his widely acclaimed poem, “Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror.” The poem is ostensibly about Parmigianino’s trompe l’oeil painting, a counterfeit reality that depicts the artist as if he is looking into a convex mirror. By being a “mirror” of the absent painter, the self-portrait displaces the viewer who is standing where the artist once stood. We see his imprisoned reflection looking back at us. On both the visceral level and in a larger sense, the artist’s absence reminds us of our immediate and impending departure. At the same time, the painter stares at us, locked inside the wooden sphere, his hand in the foreground, as if protecting him from us and from time. This is one of the ways Ashbery describes the portrait.

More words from Ashbery:

The soul has to stay where it is,

 Even though restless, hearing raindrops at the

 pane,

 The sighing of autumn leaves thrashed by the

 wind,

 Longing to be free, outside, but it must stay

 Posing in this place

 

Again, about “Self-Portrait”….Don’t poetry and art share the paradox of embodying a frozen time, while outside its domain, time (“autumn leaves”) keeps surging ahead? In the NYTimes tribute written after his death last Sunday, an excerpt is offered here about the importance of “Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror” Mr. Ashbery’s early work was mostly known in avant-garde circles, but his arrival as a major figure in American literature was signaled in 1976, when he became the only writer to win the Pulitzer Prize, the National Book Award and the National Book Critics Circle Award in the same year, for his collection “Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror.” The title poem of the volume is a 15-page meditation on the painting of the same name by Parmigianino, the Italian Renaissance artist.

One of the eulogies written to Mr. Ashbery, the very one in the New Yorker this week that celebrated his genius, written by Larissa MacFarquhar, said this about him, the writing process and his attitude towards the finished product, “When he set out to write a new poem, he would get things started by seeking out chance encounters. He might pick up a book and read passages at random, or take a walk around the city, or root about in junk shops, allowing things and thoughts to bump gently against him, like floating plastic bottles against a boat. He wrote one of his three plays after seeing a film—“a Rin Tin Tin silent movie that I saw at Film Society. “I used the plot but omitted the dog, so there really wasn’t much left.”

He tried not to think about how he wrote, because it made him self-conscious. He preferred to imagine his poetry being made by his unconscious bumping up against the world, with his conscious self not much involved, except as an editor.” I loved her devotion and knowledge of him the best. She knew him like he knew Proust. And, her use of language is fitting for a tribute to a poet who changed the rules of American poetry. Another sampling from her article……There was a piece of music by Erik Satie that he loved, called “Musique d’ameublement”—furniture music, which was written to be played between the acts of another work while people in the audience were milling around and talking to one another, so that they were only indirectly aware of the music. “It sometimes seems to me that my poetry is like that,” he said. “You don’t really have to pay that much attention to it—it’ll be doing its job if you are just intermittently aware of it, and thinking about other things at the same time. I was probably thinking of environmental art, where you’re surrounded by different elements of a work, and it doesn’t really matter whether you’re focusing on one of them or none of them at any particular moment, but you’re getting a kind of indirect refraction from the environment that you’re in.”  

Samples of Ashbery’s poems follow…john_ashbery_obama_medal

And glad not to have invented

Such comeliness, we are surrounded:

A silence already filled with noises

or

Antique mud wrestlers shape up

for the last time, no scuttling of vain things

left undone. When you get back I’ll just

hit another menu, safe as a can of soup in a mini-mart.

Saw you first on Masterpiece Theater.

I used to climb right in. That was funny yet unbidden.

When you were alive they called him a stooge.

My voice to young adolescents is like, whom d’ya know,

hiding their accomplishments in bread?

or

We were arguing about whether NBC

was better than CBS. I said CBS

because it’s smaller and had to work

harder to please viewers. You didn’t

like either that much but preferred

smaller independent companies.

Just then an avalanche flew

overhead, light blue against the

sky’s determined violet. We

started to grab our stuff but

it was too late. We segued . . .

To quote one of his admirers, “Ashbery’s poems anticipate but hold off death by transfiguring it into comic forms.”

Since I wrote this, Terry Zlabinger sent me a link to an evening created by the station WNYC/FM. It is a stunning opportunity to listen to Ashbery read his poem, as well as a tribute done to this poem in music by three contemporary composers. They are Laurie Anderson, Milton Babbitt and Philip Glass. The poem is “No Longer Very Clear”.

To borrow, again, from an earlier article….This is what Ashbery says about artists and the critic’s relationship to them: “To create a work of art that the critic cannot even begin to talk about ought to be the artist’s chief concern.”[10] He is championing art that exists outside of language, particularly when it is academic discourse. It might make his job tougher, but he is against any kind of art that can be explained by a preexisting discourse. Thus, in this same review of Brice Marden’s monochromatic paintings, he writes: “it is not an abstraction but an object made by and for the senses.”[11] This observation is in line with his statements about art and poetry that is “lifelike,” and that moves between the conscious and unconscious.

Ashbery is an heir to Walter Pater, who proposed that all art “aspires to the condition of the music.” The difference is that Pater is seen as paving the way for abstraction, while Ashbery began publishing poetry and criticism after abstraction’s triumph. Thus, he wants an abstract art that is an object made by and for the senses. In other words, he isn’t interested in abstraction as an idealized state, but in something messier and closer to life. He believes in art and writing that are autonomous but not removed from reality. This is why many find it nearly impossible to write about his poetry; it keeps slipping through one’s fingers and reconstituting itself just beyond one’s grasp.

While Ashbery isn’t particularly interested in criticizing an artist’s work, one should not deduce that he wasn’t critical of artists, because he was, but in a way that can only be described as creative.

“Leland Bell is a painter and a polemicist. Seeing him in his studio, vigorously at work on a number of canvases and meanwhile sounding off on his various pet peeves and enthusiasms, one has the feeling of coming upon an almost extinct variety of a whooping crane, alive and well in its environment, happily honking around the pond and causing quite a commotion. For polemics, and by extension commitment — to art, that is — is all but extinct in the art world. Where polemics seem to flourish, it often turns out to be the wishful thinking of artists dedicated to the hopeless task of doing away with the art of the past, and must therefore be construed as a romantic metaphor rather than a practical exercise in persuasion.[12]”

continuing the excerpt here….What is striking about Ashbery’s irreducible view of Bell is that it is simultaneously comical, critical, cold, entertaining, and even sympathetic. After all, none of us wants to see any animal, particularly a whooping crane, become extinct. Clearly, the tonal shifts and multiple voices that are an integral part of Ashbery’s poetry are also found mainly in his essays. Even though many of his essays are assignments and commissions that appear in art magazines and weekly journals, he has an original prose voice. He isn’t afraid of using a rich complex metaphor or citing a popular term. He isn’t a miser who feels compelled to hoard his metaphors for his poems.

My apologies for the hefty length of this musing…though mine usually lean long, this is extraordinary. I felt it fitting for such an individual. There are other links to extend this reading if you are so inclined…

http://www.vulture.com/2015/05/when-john-ashbery-was-new-yorks-art-critic.html

http://www.english.illinois.edu/maps/poets/a_f/ashbery/general.htm

http://www.slate.com/articles/news_and_politics/the_highbrow/2005/03/the_instruction_manual.html

https://www.poetryfoundation.org/poets/john-ashbery

https://jacket2.org/feature/traveling-furiously-toward-you 

http://www.latimes.com/local/obituaries/la-me-john-ashbery-20170903-story.html

http://www.artnews.com/2017/09/03/john-ashbery-visionary-poet-and-critic-dies-at-90/

https://jacket2.org/article/excerpts-poet-art-critic

https://www.theparisreview.org/interviews/3014/john-ashbery-the-art-of-poetry-no-33-john-ashbery

“Mary’s Customers”: Northeast Harbor in the summer

As we come to the end of another season in Northeast Harbor, it is nice to look back and collect our thoughts on what were our favorite moments. There are many: seeing old friends we’ve made in the nearly two decades here (as I type Mary and Patty are catching up on their summers in the shop and someone else whose voice I have not yet sorted are all visiting and catching up), getting together for dinner or/and a drink with friends from other regions of the country and making new friends, ones that I like to call “Mary’s customers.”

A new one just came in a couple of days ago. Jeannine has claimed the status of one of “Mary’s customers” in a very unassuming way. Upon her entrance through the shop’s doors, there was another customer Mary was already assisting in the shoe section when she arrived and they were having an enjoyable time with stories about shoes and life and their overlapping nature. Jeannine settled into the clothing section and became an anonymous shopper. Mary often starts off with sales in mind, but soon, after assessing the situation, leans the conversation to a broader purpose. This is what was happening with the initial customer. Often, too, she plays the role of retail therapist. But, this time, the dialogue was warm and humorous.

I sometimes linger in the background, or just pass through on my way to the office in the back, or listen from there when distracted by the laughter. On this occasion, it was the laughter that caught my attention. I had passed through the scene some minutes earlier, returning from some errand out on the street. I noticed the Jeannine, on her own and, judging from her demeanor, didn’t think much would come of her visit. I headed on to the back to resume whatever needed to be done there.

Settling into my world and getting on with the day, I heard the conversation between Mary and the first woman get interrupted by this third, unassuming one, whom I later was introduced as Jeannine by Mary. Overhearing her, I didn’t know it was Jeannine speaking, as her voice was similar to someone else Mary knew from town and I was wondering if that was the source of this third voice in the other room. It was a voice of a slower almost drawling countenance, one that confirmed unassuming as the proper adjective. This person had just made a comment that you felt was supportive of the demeanor of the two initial individuals, but she just wanted to interject and then step back into her world. Almost, here you go and now I’m going to turn back to my anonymous shopping.

But, she made the mistake of interjecting and catching Mary’s attention with her comment. The comment was about the aesthetic quality of the shoes being discussed and the new, third individual, this Jeannine, couldn’t resist supporting her fellow shopper’s choice. She said, “Those are like the Paul Green shoes I wore to the Oscars, they’re very nice looking”. Mary turned and requested a repetition of that comment to make sure she had heard it correctly the first time. Jeannine said that the shoes in question were similar to the brand Paul Green. Mary said, no, not Paul Green, what was that about the Oscars? Jeannine almost sheepishly said she sometimes needed to dress up when attending the Oscars ceremonies, something that I would not have associated with her on my first pass through, as she seemed to be from somewhere inland at first glance, dressed in jeans and what one might think was LL Bean attire, with her hair pulled back and rubber banded…very limited or absent of make up. Someone who it seemed was never within the vicinity of the Red Carpet.

After some extended time the three women expanded their conversation to involve all of them, the first woman eventually made her purchase and departed and Jeannine continued shopping while Mary plied more information from this unassuming lady who was almost reticent to offer glimpses into her life. Somewhere in that I came out and was introduced to Jeannine, who was not the book I first judged by her cover. It turned out that she had great stories and only allowed them out of her possession reluctantly. Of course, she was now double-teamed by the two of us and she possessed stories of Hollywood and movies, knowledge that Mary and I always desire in great quantities.

With mild prodding Jeannine relinquished bits and pieces, that prompted us to react with glee, but also with pieces of knowledge that indicated that we had some acceptable knowledge of the game Jeannine had made her living from for the past fifty years. As the conversation unfolded, we became more than a casual interval in her day, she became one of “Mary’s customers”.

There have been many such customers in the better half of two decades that we have been in the retail business. From our hesitant beginnings with Chinese antiques, to the shift into White Ginger women’s silk apparel, to the widening of our offerings into ladies’ shoes, the list of “Mary’s customers” has grown and the regions in which they live widened. Other than hoping to make a buck here and there, the continuation of the business is determined much by the nature of these relationships. For many years it was also the opportunity to continue in the summer our relationship with Kathy and Leon and to play at the mercantile game with them and wander about Asia with our new ideas and deals. That fun ran its course because of either markets drying up or changing attitudes, peoples’ lives changing and the four of us moving on to new careers and directions or any number of reasons that bring change to one’s personal stories.

But, through all of this “Mary’s customers” are still there. Several years ago we had made the decision to let White Ginger die for a combination of the reasons listed above. We were living in the South and sporting a life that looked at the long run with a business in Tennessee. It was problematic to run both Maine’s and Sweetwater’s stores and we chose the year round option. That changed last November when a combination of factors made it clear to us we needed to be in Camden from now on. Also, after one year’s absence, many of “Mary’s customers” who summer in Northeast Harbor clambered for her return. Many of those people we’ve visited with for over fifteen years, have seen their kids go from strollers to college, have had meals in their wonderful homes, gone out on their boats for outings along the Maine coast and up Somes Sound, and are fully invested in the welfare of their stories and lives, wrote in texts, emails or on Facebook that we should return. Here we are.

These newfound friends who came to us through the front door of our business now live in Charlottesville, Philadelphia, Baltimore, Davidson, Charlotte, eastern Tennessee, Alabama, New York and even a few other countries. Some customers return year after year and Mary, as is her gift, remembers their names and stories. I see it almost every day. Now we have added another “friend” from Hollywood.

By the time of Jeannine’s visit ending, she had returned a second time yesterday to purchase something else. I recognized her voice from the back. As I am currently engaged in a book about the filming of High Noon and the nature of politics in the States and the world at that time, with the Cold War intruding into everyone’s lives and the personal perspectives of the writer, producer, director and actors involved in its filming, I came out with the book to introduce into the continuing discussion about the Hollywood Jeannine inhabits. She of course knew it and approved.

My favorite story yesterday was about her recent visit to Cuba. As you know one cannot yet travel there without an acceptable purpose, and she was invited there to teach a class at their film school. She told of her booking on a special flight on an American carrier that is like a phantom flight, unlisted and packed each day for its flight to Havana. Such a strange accommodation between Cuba and the States in this present political thawing. Jeanine loved this trip there, as Cuban film has its own unique history, some of it overlapping with our Mary and my appreciation, as well. We mentioned “Strawberries and Chocolate”, the proper moniker being Fresa y chocolate , because of its original language. It is a metaphor for the whole of Cuban history since 1959 and Jeanine also loved it… and, it confirmed our chops as worthy of another of her tidbits about Hollywood.

She chose to use the film, The Good Shepherd, which was made in 2006 and tells the story of the early CIA. Of course, it does not portray the CIA in a very favorable tone. She realized this may have been an iffy choice, but the Cubans who viewed and discussed it came to call her compañera for her efforts. We weren’t able to get into stories of the filming of Good Shepherd, or stories about DeNiro, or Damon, or Jolie, as we went on to other stories and tidbits. But, we hope her return next year will expand that opportunity.

She does not effuse about her life. One almost has to tee her up, putting the ball high on the tee to make the shot appealing. Once we opened a door, though, she gladly went through and offered a glimpse at what was on the other side. Her chateau, though, is filled with hundreds upon hundreds of rooms and we only ventured into the foyer in this first sampling. As she left, smiling and now a new friend, one of “Mary’s customers”, she said, “see you next year” with a wave and a smile. There are links at the end to some YouTube offerings involving Jeannine Oppenwall, who was the production designer on films like Catch Me If You Can, LA Confidential, Primal Fear, Pleasantville and Seabiscuit.

 

http://www.lamag.com/culturefiles/how-production-designers-reimagine-la/

http://hero-magazine.com/article/11045/the-craft-catch-me-if-you-can/

http://leonardmaltin.com/warren-beatty-proves-that-rules-dont-apply/

https://www.charitybuzz.com/catalog_items/lunch-meeting-with-jeannine-oppewall-film-designer-564710

http://www.calvin.edu/chimes/2015/10/09/celebrated-filmmaker-jeannine-oppewall-first-speaker-in-loeks-lectures-in-film-and-media/

http://www.nytimes.com/2003/07/31/garden/at-home-with-jeannine-oppewall-thoroughbred-modern.html

https://www.productiondesignerscollective.org/jeannine-oppewall

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=PBnQfWTkewA

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ddIyQ8N1utQ

S.E.X.: Serious Exposition of Xenophobia, or something else?

Endeavour: To work with a purpose, to exert towards a desired end,….. or a show on Masterpiece that usually ends with its exposition being resolved with psychological references taking center stage. It is now into season 4, and episode 2, Canticle, brings out a few thoughts from the Midcoast of Maine.

Canticle: noun

1. a hymn or chant, typically with a biblical text, forming a regular part of a church service.

2. another name for Song of Songs (especially in the Vulgate Bible)

 

If you are a fan of PBS Masterpiece, as many in the States have been for decades, but even more so of late in their attempts at escapism, you love its period pieces that hearken backwards when the times were really great in literature. In those sentiments lay feelings for history, utilizing fine literature, music, architecture and art from England or Europe, and metaphorical narrative references to Greek antique culture, with Shakespearian and 19th century English elements also infused aplenty.

In the recent revival of the Inspector Morse series, which was so popular in the latter part of the 20th century, or with its sequel series, Lewis, early this century, we have fallen in love with Mr. Morse. The newest and prequel story about Mr. Morse as his younger self, Endeavour, has been tickling our fancies for four seasons. The author of all these characters was Colin Dexter, an old history teacher made good. He owed his good fortune to a love of history and English literature, Wagner, cask ale, cryptic crossword puzzles and vintage Jaguars….and a rainy holiday in Wales.

The name Endeavour’s genesis comes from his parents’ love of Captain Cook, the name of whose ship was Endeavour. Colin was sent to a good school and mastered the Classics, leading to a good teaching job. After some years, Colin started to lose his hearing and also realized that his Fifth Form students were playing rock music during his lessons for which he was unaware. It was decided he could not continue in this vein, which led him to a job in Oxford as an exams marker. In this role his hearing was not an issue. But, it was on holiday in Wales on a typical rainy outing that he found his more famous calling, even though he felt himself a better teacher to the end. He wrote the beginning of a crime novel in that rain.

This new career seems to have work out well. Though, with his millions from the success of books and television contracts, and with Hitchockesque-cameo appearances throughout their productions right up to the Endeavour series, he never moved out of his original Oxford home and drove his old Jaguar with relish down its lanes. I suspect he also enjoyed his cask ale along the way. Dexter later claimed his politics and religious views equated with Endeavour Morse’s.

Yet, in all the episodes airing today, we need to keep two very important factors in mind. First, Dexter has passed away and his words, thoughts and understanding of his characters’ motivations are no longer viable. That leaves the present series in the hands of whomever is forwarding the story to us now. How well he/she/they calibrate the stories in line with the earlier books is open to discussion and analysis. I personally feel there is too much psychological dimension to the twists of the present plot lines. Then, there is the reality that we are delving into a prequel, the life of Endeavour in his twenties, when we know the conclusion after the long run of the Inspector Morse success. What the actors, writers and directors of the show as it now goes into its fourth season must balance is that story and character who is so well known with the possibilities of exploring who Morse was as a young man and why he carried on with the police work when he had so many skills and obviously other opportunities.  If you wish, listen to this podcast by Shaun Evans discuss these issues as Season Three came to an end and Season Four was just about to air.

Which leads me to the recent episode, which occurred outside of Dexter’s direct influence save for his deep and continuing impact on the nature of the series since his death. In all of those we’ve enjoyed they typically introduce several red herrings in the plot to put the viewer off the scent. Often there are references to good music, class differences in England, proper grammar usage as the expectation, deference to understatement, and heavy reliance on psychological failings or quirks that have driven the suspect to his/her critical flawed actions.

Within the recent episode, Canticle, you are treated to the usual Dexter features and issues, though, to me, this one was special in that the writer used the fulcrum of the 1960s to convey, and perhaps judge, what was happening to society at this time. Of course, this being the 60s, specifically 1967, endeavour-the-wildwoodsex is one of the driving issues. As much of the 20th century was driven by sexual mores, gender issues, the status of homosexuality, and these issues were brought to focus within the decade of the 60s, the question as to their impact is still an open question in this century and the divisions caused in the answer are still very much apparent in 2017.

As the episode begins with its establishing shots of the Oxford skyline from a distance as viewed through the shady-leaved branches of a tree, it is a sunny day. As the camera pans in the grounds of the University of Oxford are the backdrop as is often the case in this series. But, most assuredly not normal, is the appearance of figures dressed in loud primary and pastel colors and singing music that is distinctly part of the new age of the 60s. The affront to the sentiments of the typical Colin Dexter 1950s England, one that has relied on an appreciation of the Classics and Classical music, not to mention the slow pace of the counties outside of the Home Counties of England, is what is on display.

While the song establishes the opening, there are cutaways to an elderly lady in a bus shotchartered bus praying, not a figure from the new age, for sure. Then, a worker on an estate disapprovingly views his employers, the members of the band, Wildwood, and their groupies. A car filled with the band members drives in the sunshine. A cutaway to the group, Keep Britain Decent, follows with chants to hear their speaker, the lady in the bus, Mrs. Pettybon, whose prim and proper daughter looks on approvingly as the misses gives her royal salutation. But, all is not well….we know. Now, someone is being administered a drug. Claims of filth are made by Mrs. Pettybon. A body is found in an alley. We’re off….

Into this comes DC Endeavour Morse and WPC Trewlove, a perky blond who speaks French and is a very accomplished at chess….in other words, don’t judge a book by its cover. DI Fred Thursday has been grumpy in the intervening two weeks since his freddaughter packed and left without a word, leaving him and his wife, and Endeavour, perplexed. It is Morse’s reactions we should follow in my opinion in the episode, though. Reviews of the episode analyze the scene more fully with the typical descriptions of the narrative and failings of the script. I had a different reaction to it.

Endeavour is introduced to the episode by interrupting a filming of the song we have been witnessing and is not aware of the gravity and import of the performers, though Trewlove surely is. It is her job to catch him up on the modern world, information he will later connect to solving the crime. endeavour-402Endeavour, though, is also amazed at what he sees, perhaps puzzled and definitely not sure he is in command of this situation. Contrary to all the episodes that precede this one, when he is always contemplative, engaged and observant of the necessary signs, for the better part of the first half of the episode he has his brow furrowed, quizzical expressions his reaction and inability his marker for dealing with the social context in which he finds himself. For once he is out of his element. The modern age has arrived in the Oxford of Inspector Morse and he’s not sure he’s up to it.

Discussions now center on drugs, with a comparison offered by Fred to Morse between pot and alcohol. Endeavour champions ale as “brain food” and dismisses pot as illegal and that is that. What was and is acceptable in British society related to the consumption of alcohol that can and has been devastating to so many individuals and families is now being called out. But the writer also wonders what shifts will take place in society with the new pot, LSD and mushroom-laced opportunities found in the late 60s. To preserve the ‘decency’ of the past, the show uses the caricatures of Joy Pettybon and her sidekick, Reverend Golightly. That they are unidimensional and cartoonish is true. But, in the atmosphere of 2017, are we not also presented with caricature individuals in power who cannot appreciate nuance, empathy and context in a wider sense.

So, as we go forward with the series, one which has always celebrated appreciation for Classics, tradition, proper dress, fine music, causal relationships and the troubling interference of psychological motivations, the future is upon us. Sex, drugs and rock and roll are to be dealt with. Human relationships, whether they are gay, threesomes, platonic friendship, filial love or the seemingly simple one between a man and woman that has given Endeavour such difficulty, are really the root of it all. What is one’s place in it this world? Is the song sung at intervals in the episode written for the female character who is at the bottom of the plot? Should Endeavour loosen up? How should he respond to the challenge by the singer in the Wildwood, who opines that the world is shifting and searching. To quote him as he challenges Endeavour, “I can’t figure you out”. “You know that there’s something happening, right? Here, in the world, …everywhere. People our age looking for answers. But you……are in a suit”  It’s true, Endeavour would even chop wood in a suit. Is it time for him to consider the new world and a new wardrobe?

As we enter into another season, it seems the world is quaking a bit. The same thing that happened to the Downton Abbey and Grantchester themes is happening here: society is either pushing forward towards a different, more individualized and insular world that leaves behind Wagner, chess, crossword puzzles and the pub, or it is catching up to the opportunities presented by the Enlightenment on a level that is as yet incomplete. The human mind is possibly being freed to pursue its own goals, desires and hopes. Or, is it capable of resisting the age-old psychological pulls, of warding off the huckster who is trying to sell you something or the leader who says he can do it better than anyone else ever has and, in the end, each of us risks become a victim? I sort of like that Endeavour life of the parlor, the chateau of the mind: controlled, a good piece of Classical music in the background, a cut-crystal glass filled with a distilled liquid and a book with a marker somewhere towards the middle that tells a story with metaphorical references to the Greeks, the Shakespearians or the Dickensian worlds. Education anyone?