Monday, July 30, 2012

'Imagine there's no countries'

Like most of us, I am a fan of the Olympic Games, where stories of world class athletic competition are allowed to play out against a backdrop of guileless patriotic enthusiasm.

This year, after the "Isles of Wonder" opening hodge-podge from Oscar-winning director Danny Boyle (whatevs and whoevs), I settled in to watch with enthusiasm the real show, that is, the parade of athletes and the lighting of the torch. Who needs anything more? But we got it when Sir Paul led a feel-the-love "Hey Jude" sing-along. Very cool.

Of course our old axis of evil buds, the North Koreans, marched in early alphabetically because, as it was explained, the official name of their ghetto gulag starts with the words Democratic Republic. That's the old cold war trick of naming your dictatorship a democracy. Just gimme a break. Personally, I say put them at the back of the line and give 'em brooms to sweep up those billions of pieces of confetti it was someone's brilliant idea to blizzard on the stadium. Well, maybe making them sweep up is a little harsh. I dont want to make those North Korean athletes scapegoats for the totalitarian Kim family regime. Still, I would have felt better about them if they had marched instead into a Western embassy and demanded political asylum.
Don't forget, The Beatles released "Hey Jude" with "Revolution" on the B side.

NBC commentators also noted a small group of so-called independent athletes, that is, jock-ters without borders, or in other words, athletes without a country. Although it is not without precedent it was a new one on me. What happens if one of them wins gold, I wondered? Do they get to pick their "anthem" like an MLBer coming to the plate? Would an independent winner perhaps choose a certain song by McCartney's erstwhile bandmate John Lennon "...Imagine there's no countries / It isn't hard to do / Nothing to kill or die for..." Alas, there is a default anthem already in place for such a situation, the Olympic anthem.
Still, maybe Paul will be back at Olympic Stadium with Yoko to sing "Imagine" at the closing ceremonies. "...You may say I'm a dreamer..."

Sunday, July 29, 2012

On a Summer Night

For two hours since midnight
I have walked
barefoot and shirt unbuttoned.
I am weary from this walk,
and have just washed my feet.
They are blistered. It is in no way contrary.
They are naturally blistered.
Sleep will be pleasant now.
Tomorrow I will shower and shave.
I will put on a clean pair of pants,
and be disposed to broad smiles.

Saturday, July 28, 2012

Facing off against El Supremo

The U.S. President has taken some flak from opponents and concerned citizens alike for his willingness to dialog with Iran. And for good reason. America is at a significant disadvantage here. Let's face it, all we have is a prez while Iran boasts a "Supreme Leader." How you gonna convince a Supreme Leader of anything? You might as well argue with the Pope in Latin, or in this case Bavarian.

And if facing off against the Supreme Leader were not daunting enough, consider this: Washington relies on Congress to get things done, but Tehran's parliament is christened — if the ayatollahs will pardon that term — none other than the "Assembly of Experts." You must admit, whatever your opinion of Congress, no one has ever accused it of being an assembly of experts. That kind of lineup, Supreme Leader and Assembly of Experts, is the political equivalent of having an amp that goes all the way up to 11.

Nor is the problem peculiar to Persia. There are still quite a number of El Supremo types in various corners of the world running their horror shows to the detriment of humankind.

Look at North Korea. It is ruled by Kim Jong-un, the grandson of that nation's first and only president, the so-called Eternal President. Basically, Kim's claim to fame is that like his own father before him, he is his father's son. In North Korea, running the country into the ground apparently is a family business. So while the citizens starve and long to be free, their rulers fire missiles into the sea.

Or take Zimbabwe (please). You may argue that nation is ruled only by a president. But Robert Mugabe is no lowly, openly-elected, term-limited head of state. Hundreds of people die when Mugabe campaigns for office. Even though he has been forced into a power-sharing situation, Mugabe is not a proponent of democratic rule or preoccupied in the least with the legitimate concerns of his constituents. As a matter of fact, Mugabe, 88, has already lived twice as long as the average Zimbabwean, whose life expectancy is only 44 years. Nice job, Bobbo.

The head of state in Sudan is also called president, but this guy, Omar al-Bashir, seems pretty darn ruthless. He and some members of his administration have been indicted by the International Criminal Court for crimes against humanity.
However, no arrests have been made. And it's unlikely a genocidal strongman is going to turn himself in.

Some of these tin-pot tyrants even exhibit a creative flair, while they're destroying their own nations. Saparmurat Niyazov, the former president of Turkmenistan, renamed the months of the calendar after his mother. He called himself Father of the Turkmen and was made president for life in 1999 by his own hand-picked assembly of experts. Sadly for him, that arrangement was abrogated in 2006 by the Grim Reaper. Niyazov was succeeded by his dentist.

Despite the risks, it is necessary to talk to those power-wielding nutjobs, if only to expose their crackpot lunacy, their crimes against humankind and their personal shortcomings. Remember, we are powerful, too, and we care. Besides, our presidents are cooler than any El Supremo can ever hope to be.

Thursday, July 26, 2012

You say amazing...

Thank you for reading this post. As a token of my appreciation, I promise not to repeat the adjective in the title.

Indeed, I intend to give it a much-needed break, since arguably, it is the single hardest working vocable in today's standard American idiom. The standard American idiom I refer to is of course the yet vibrant vulgate we standard American idiots speak. And for some time now within that ever-morphing lingo we have been putting the three-syllable qualifier in question to work for us whenever we seek to express our, well, amazement at how amazing something is. Sorry. Eschewing the word is harder than I thought.

That word is repeatedly exclaimed, gushed, squealed with delight, confided with assurance and just plain uttered all around us at every turn due to, I suppose, either a dearth of imagination — a widely observed phenomenon in the pop culture — or a surfeit of mimesis, likewise evident in our everyday passion play.

The word has proved incredibly versatile, fitting in everywhere from celebrity interviews to middle school classrooms and every place in between. Once merely an ironic qualifier for a chronically swooning New York major league baseball team, that "logos" has mushroomed to contaminate almost every tile in the mosaic of Americana. An expression so beloved, it has effectively squeezed out other perfectly adequate qualifiers, including that Hippy era coinage in mid-renaissance, "far out," as well as a more recent flavor of the month "awesome." Nor had the overuse of either ever reached such epic proportions.

Why can't we leave that word to a certain web-slinging superhero and move on to the next cool slang? Whatever it may be. The problem must be that no one is sure what to replace it with, while being stuck on that trite adjective prevents any ad hoc beta testing of the next best thing. Meanwhile, the Internet contributes an website and we are bombarded acoustically by any number of so-titled songs recorded by everyone from Aerosmith to LL Cool J and Kanye West, and that's not to mention the Christian hymn that has often brought tears to the eyes of a wretch like me. How much more of this can we as a voluble nation take?

I can only implore my fellow speakers of Americanese to abandon amazing (oops) with astonishing alacrity, especially the particularly annoying usage where the word's second syllable is awarded undue stress.

It is possible that by expunging that tedious term from our active vocabulary we shall do nothing less than herald a new era of communication among English talkers.

... I say "Excelsior."

Wednesday, July 25, 2012

Poem for a Friend

Would you love me
if I dug up the killer
instinct, your instinct?

Would you smile
if I flashed the yellow
eye of the wolf,
like sunshine in winter
melting snow,
baring brown leaves
and wood dead?

Leaving Key West

From usa2

You are listening to the President
from a TV in a Cuban Laundromat
in the world famous southernmost,
thinking about a 40something divorcee,
says she’s an artiste,
really knows how to sketch.
But you take the rain check,
and stroll back to Hemingstein’s.
Can you really stomach the tour guide’s euphemisms?
Hem would’ve had rude words for that carnival.
Instead you look for a locals only bar.
Can you really deal with the conchs and queers?
So you repair to your ill-repaired poor man’s Benz,
glove-compartmentalize the parking ticket
and point it north, please.

Before McDonald’s opens,
on a 7-Eleven-less stretch of road,
driving a dinged up VW,
you hum an old blues tune never put on CD,
on your way to a Long Island cottage with no TV.

Look at the Jersey barriers,
like groins they collect detritus:
metal rusting, re-treads, plastic soda bottles,
the shatterings of windshields, butts, litter, road kill,
everything an element of something larger,
being ground and vibrated,
oxidized and biodegraded
into smaller particles like poisoned sand,
survivable at 70 mph in the AC with the FM,
or even at 50 mph with your window open
to the stale breeze and
your CB undersquelched
to the microphone etiquette of a long-haul trucker,
“Y'all have a nice day now.”

Tuesday, July 24, 2012

Buckeye chic

Recently I visited family in northwest Ohio and southern Michigan. While the latter is rightly celebrated in rock 'n' roll music, the subtle charms of the former may be less familiar to those who live in other parts of the country.

The weather this summer has once again been brutally hot. The key to survival outside the AC is simply to move slow. One unintended consequence of all that 100-degree heat is that no one dares to look at you askance if you are drinking a cold beer.

The landscape is flat, dotted with quarries and lakes. Don't be surprised to see the green stalks of an Ohio cornfield stretch for miles in each direction. Often, if a road or lake appears on the horizon, it proves to be but a thin caesura to Ohio's cash crop. On the far shoulder or shore, the corn rows resume their emerald monotony.

In order for people to pass by those miles of cornstalks and get where they're going, the speed limit on Ohio's highways is set at 65 mph or 70 mph. And if you're on a motorcycle you can let your hair fly in the breeze: there is no helmet law in the Buckeye State. That nickname by the way is taken from the state tree, which is characterized by inedible fruits similar in appearance to chestnuts. The buckeye also lends its name as a slang term for a resident of the 17th state. And just so you know, at least according to a trucker traveling along I-80 near Youngstown, and known by the CB handle Paper Bag, the definition of a buckeye is "a worthless nut."

As for angling, that hobby is just as popular on the shores of the Great Lakes as elsewhere around the country. And while freshwater fishing means smaller catches than saltwater angles may be accustomed to, the dietary rewards are not necessarily less toothsome. Lake Erie yellow perch, priced at $10.99/lb. by Toledo-area fishmongers this summer, make the sweetest filets you'll ever taste.

Some may claim Toledo is but a shadow of its former self. While it is still home to Jeep, one of the world's most distinct automobile brands, Toledo was once a more bustling Great Lakes port, often called Hood City — a reference to the impact of organized crime from nearby Detroit. Now the primary nickname that has stuck is The Glass City, after the bottle and glassware manufacturers that were based there. Toledo used to be home to an array of international companies that have since moved away — even Toledo Scale is now based in Columbus. Toledo was also known around the region for its hometown Buckeye beer. "When you're dry," the slogan went, "Drink Buckeye." Perhaps not quite catchy enough--the brewery closed in the 1970s. In recent years, however, the Buckeye label has been reborn by a local craft brewer.

Back in the day, T-town also boasted memorable entertainment venues like the Town Hall, a burlesque palace where Irma the Body was queen, and the Agora nightclub in West Toledo, where a young Bob Seeger gigged on summer weekends before hitting it big. Of course there is still plenty to do in Toledo today. The city has more summer festivals than Klinger had dresses. (He was from the east side.) The university offers sports programs and cultural performances. The world-class art museum has Van Goghs and mummies in its permanent collection.

The famous Toledo Mud Hens baseball team plays its home games at a beautiful stadium downtown. I paid $9 to sit three rows off the field behind first base. The price of admission included dogs catching frisbees in the outfield between innings.

Then there is the Toledo Zoo with a large array of exotic animals, including a juvenile giraffe, yearling tigers, some very buddha-esque ourangs, and a killer elephant. A pair of bald eagles, the very symbol of our free country, provide an incongruous and sad site in their cage.

Hood City even has is own brand new casino, built along the Maumee River. And if all that's not enough for you, in Ohio you can buy wine and booze at the grocery store. Talk about civilized.

Did I ever tell you about the time I hitchhiked to Hamburg with one dollar in my pocket?

After a summer of camping in Spain, I said farewell to my friends who were returning to graduate school in the States, and I began the 1,000-mile hitchhike up to Hamburg in northern Germany. I had lived there a couple of years earlier and had a newly-married friend who would let me crash on his couch until I could line up a job.

It was the 1970s. I was in my 20s and I trusted to luck. Along the way, a young German couple gave me a ride into Germany. They were returning from one month's vacation in Africa. He was a long-haired jazz musician. She was a brown-haired beauty who turned around from the front seat to talk to me while her man drove us to Wuppertal, a destination that advanced me quite a ways toward my goal. They talked about Africa and I told them about America. We arrived that evening in Wuppertal and I was invited to stay over. The next morning they would bring me to the Autobahn so I could continue my northward trek.

We had dinner in their kitchen and remained at the table for hours talking about our travels and hometowns. When it came time to retire, the jazz man showed me to a guest room with a small bed against the wall. He would be up early to pick up the couple's two house cats before going to work and would wake me. The cats had been boarded at a friend's.

It had been a long road up from Spain. I killed the light and was quickly falling asleep when I felt a tiny pinprick on my arm. Then another. Then two or three on both arms. What was happening? I sat up and stretched to turn on the bedside lamp. In uncomprehending surprise I saw dozens of tiny black dots appearing and disappearing on the bare skin of my arms.

Now I was wide awake and could make sense of what I was seeing. Fleas! I was being attacked by dozens of tiny black cat fleas. I soon realized I could only kill the fleas by smashing them between my fingernails. Thus began a battle. The fleas jumping on me en masse, and I going after them one at a time, a faint click confirming each kill. Attrition was slow, their ranks seemed to be reinforced endlessly. Soon I was too tired to care. I killed one last flea and surrendered my forearms outside the blanket after turning out the light. The biting faded gradually the deeper I sank into exhausted slumber.

The next morning, fueled by a hearty German breakfast and strong java, I was ready to complete my hitchhike. I said goodbye to the brown-haired beauty and rode with the musician to an Autobahn rest area where, with any luck, I would be able to find a driver headed for Hamburg. I had told my host about the cat fleas and he had apologized. They don't bite humans normally, he said. Of course after fasting for a month they certainly couldn't afford to be picky eaters.

At the rest area I approached a Mercedes with Hamburg plates. A fit-looking middle-aged man in dress slacks and a short-sleeved shirt and tie was stopped at the gas pumps. He saw me coming at him in my jeans, with my worn knapsack, long hair and beard and a cardboard sign that read "HH" for Hamburg. He shook his head and waved me off with a sideways wagging finger. "I never take hitchers," he said.

"Aw look man, I'm a college student from America."

"Did you say you're American?"

The German businessman relented and I installed myself in the passenger seat with my knapsack at my feet. We spent most of the trip in congenial conversation.

At one point, during a lull in the talk, as the Mercedes tracked northward at 140 kilometers an hour, my driver become distracted. He shot a glance at his left forearm. His expression turned sour and I looked at the bare forearm and saw a tiny black speck. In that instant he slapped at the black dot — too late. He looked around a bit, avoiding my eyes. We didn't talk much after that but we made great time and the city looked grand as we sped over the Elbe River bridge.

I was grateful to the man for the ride. And I was sorry about the flea. I knew as I got out of the Mercedes in downtown Hamburg I was absolutely the last hitchhiker that guy would ever stop for. I can imagine him telling the tale: "Hitchhikers are all so dirty! Even this American college kid had fleas!" Most of all I was glad the tiny black flea had the sense to upgrade from a broke hitchhiker to a businessman.

Monday, July 23, 2012

Cinema 2005: Cultures collide and the powerful survive

There is a point in "Syriana" when Bryan Woodman (Matt Damon) clearly abandons “family values” in favor of striking a Faustian bargain with an Arab prince consumed by ideas of nation building. In this far-ranging movie, inspired by Robert Baer’s novel “See No Evil: The True Story of a Ground Soldier in the CIA’s War On Terrorism,” men and women sell out for a variety of passions and causes. Some men pray to Allah, others to the Almighty Dollar. Idealists, on the other hand, become grease for the wheels of a progress built on crimes. The message is bleak, but the film doesn’t want us to give up.

Despite a high-level corporate investigation, CIA dirty tricks, a jihadist training camp, bombs, missiles, guns and torture, “Syriana” is more of a studied exposition than a suspenseful thriller. It may be hard at first to connect the dots, as director/screenwriter Stephen Gaghan (“Traffic”) interweaves the stories of a handful of disparate characters who jet around the globe to seal deals or spy. But in fact, the movie is carefully bringing its provincial American audience up to speed. We are reminded of old truths, such as our robber baron past, and shown changing paradigms we might have overlooked in the myopic pursuit of the American dream, e.g., the modernity and wealth of the Muslim world, symbolized by skyscrapers in the desert. We are shown some of the beauty of Southwest Asia: a traditional meal—family-style, the rooftops of Tehran, and seaside Beirut, once known as “the Paris of the Mideast.”

We can easily identify with the urban lifestyle, but may be put off by the languages spoken. As a rule, American movie-goers are not used to hearing foreign languages in Hollywood films, but the insistence in this film of so much spoken Arabic makes an important point, namely, that the convergence of cultures is inevitable. Subtitles keep us in the loop during scenes where Arabic is spoken extensively, but even the most monolingual American will be pleased to recognize certain words: kabob, Koran and remote.

Among others, the film tracks Pakistani guest workers in an Arab emirate who suddenly lose their jobs due to a corporate takeover by an American oil company. One young Pakistani is advised to learn Arabic if he wants to stay and work in the emirate. Many join a Muslim camp, where the men play soccer and discuss Spiderman when they are not at prayer together. The most vulnerable among them are recruited by Islamist terrorists. While the film humanizes the terrorist’s apprentices, it also attempts to depict their wrongheaded sincerity and the complexity of their situation.

Much has been made about Clooney gaining 35 pounds for his role as Bob, a bewhiskered, over-the-hill CIA agent. Clooney himself has been quoted as saying he regrets it. However, given the otherwise dashing persona he brings with him to the screen, the beard and extra pounds figure as important reminders that Clooney is playing a man past his prime. At one point, as Bob is digging for answers regarding an assignment, he remarks that there was a time when he “wouldn't have needed to know why?" The young people depicted in this film are much more willing to do the bidding of others. But Bob is a veteran agent, who epitomizes an earlier era when there was still “honor among thieves.”

His current handlers sadly neglect human intelligence, in the broadest sense, in favor of high technology, for the very reason that technology can’t think for itself. In one scene, men in suits administer assassination from halfway around the world, watching their handiwork via satellite. You sense they would high five each other if lower pay-grades, the subordinates who actually push the buttons that launch the missiles, weren’t watching. Are these suits any less sociopathic than a tong-wielding torturer in Lebanon? This is the type of question “Syriana” raises, and is why the movie is worth seeing.

While the Woodmans relax at the emir's palatial resort in the south of Spain, they wonder briefly if it's racist to generalize about Arabs being family-oriented. In the midst of the opulence of extreme wealth, this cosmopolitan American couple fails to consider the real question: What happens at some future crunch-time if those Arabs put the welfare of their families ahead of ours in the West?

The movie’s take on government, big business and the venal men who walk in the halls of power is cynical. Big business bends nations to its will. A wounded American family (symbolic of our nation) that might have played a positive role in a multicultural world, has returned by film’s end to seek refuge within fortress U.S.A. An Arab rising star, whose progressive thinking may threaten the Mideastern status quo, has been eclipsed by the powerful in the name of self-preservation. "New king, same as the old king." أربع نجوم (Four stars)

The Spider in the Artichoke Jar

That is important.
A man can sit in his kitchen,
unemployed, hung over, broke.
No prospects.
In his kitchen, too,
he fears the sweeping paw of the cataclysm.

What is important is he can
from memory recite for the spider in the artichoke jar
poetry in three languages, four,
if you distinguish Shakespeare from Snodgrass.
The spider does not distinguish.
It knows man’s noise simply as shouldering at a broken web.
The spider can’t die muttering poetry
like Goethe, Caesar, or Jesus.
No famous last words.

Saturday, July 21, 2012

Team sport with yellow hammer

Besides the silent speak of baseball, those signs for, among other things, taking, stealing, hitting and running, pitching out and, yes, even throwing at a hitter — signs which often give the manager the look of a Jack Benny clone on speed — baseball boasts a nonpareil arcanum of oral expression. Its voluminous vernacular has evolved to reflect the myriad complexities of the game, and has doubtlessly been helped along the way by more than a few colorful players, coaches and announcers. As major leaguers enter the second half of sports' longest season, let us consider for a moment the patois of America's pastime.

The pitcher brushes back the batter, gives him chin music, buckles his knees or jams him inside. He blows gas, throws cheese in the hitter's kitchen or comes upstairs. The hurler can paint the black with heat or the yellow hammer. His friend is Lord Charles, aka Uncle Charlie. He may come at the batter from over the top or from the stretch. He might be a sidewinder, submariner or knuckleballer. He'll disguise his delivery, intimidate and back the hitter off the plate.

Meanwhile the batter attempts to hit, bunt or bunt for a hit. In order to get to first base, he can single, walk, be walked, get hit by a pitch or hit the pitcher with a comebacker that the hurler can't handle. The hitter can even reach on a strikeout, if the ball is dropped and the batter beats the throw down the line. A batter might pop up, line out, hit a frozen rope, a seeing-eye single, or a dying quail. The batter's effort might be categorized as a Texas leaguer, Baltimore chop, or simply dismissed as a can o' corn.

A pitcher could give up half a dozen runs and yet strike out the side in the same inning. Three players can combine for a single put out, or a single player can make a triple play. A player may miss signs, steal signs, or run through a stop sign. A batter can be given the green light and sit dead red. He can be in a hole at the dish, protect the plate or the runner. He can pull the ball or go the other way. The pitcher's ultimate effort is called a no-no, while the batter dreams of smacking a grand salami or going yard with a walk-off, extra-innings jack.

As the richness of the lingo used to describe it evinces, baseball counts as much more than a conventional sport. Sure, it is often denigrated for an apparent languid tempo by those who don't share the love of the game. But like Mark Twain's horse, baseball's "strong suit is grace and personal comeliness, rather than velocity."